This is the fourth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Have you seen the houses in San Francisco?
Life-sized dollhouses! Pink, purple, and blue visions of wonder! Resplendent wedding cakes, but make it architecture. They looked as though they’d been plucked straight out of my imagination and placed just so around the seven-by-seven-mile city. I was going to live in one of them, no matter what. Stanford may have been over an hour away by train, but I was willing to endure minor inconveniences for the sake of the aesthetic. Palo Alto wasn’t glamorous, but San Francisco certainly could be.
— Me standing in front of the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square in a pink-and-white floral dress, an inquisitive look on my face: If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair … or on your dress! We are officially moved in, and we start school on Monday. Time to start killing it. 😎
First-year students were required to live on campus, but I applied for a housing exemption, telling the nice lady on the phone that I had serious mental health issues only Dr. Phillip Martinez, a San Francisco-based therapist, could help me with. I needed to see him three times a week at noon, I explained. It would be better if I stayed in the city.
I was lying out of my ass, of course — “Phillip Martinez” had been selected from a random name generator — but I was committed. I created a fake email address for my fake shrink and forged his signature on official school documents. This little effort got me both a housing exemption and an excuse to skip early afternoon classes as much as I wanted.
I still can’t believe that it worked … but then again, I also managed to eventually gain millions of fans and a book deal, so maybe my bullshitting skills weren’t so bad after all.
Finding a room that fit my needs was the actual hard part. Back in the Hamptons, I’d spent each night messaging potential roommates on Craigslist or in Facebook housing groups. I became familiar with the scramble that was finding a place to live in San Francisco the hard way. I’d message someone and set a date for a virtual tour, only to have them cancel on me half an hour before our call because the last person they’d shown the room to decided to take it. All the pretty places, I learned, got snatched up within the same day. I kept at it regardless. I was not willing to settle for anything less than the place of my dreams.
Finally, a week before I was supposed to show up on campus, I found a room that surpassed even my own greatest expectations. It was a circular tower room at the topmost floor of a Victorian in the Haight-Ashbury district, with a colonial roof, large curved windows looking out into the street, a decorative fireplace, and walls painted a pale robin’s egg blue.
The moment I saw that listing, I was sold. I wanted to live in that little room for the rest of my life.
It was $2,300 a month — $2,400 if you factored in the cost of a monthly Caltrain pass to get me to school and back — but it wasn’t hard to get my parents on board when I showed strong conviction. College was a hard endeavor, after all. It was only fair that I should have all possible comforts afforded me.
I curated a refined, elegant aesthetic in my new home, filling the closet with dresses and lining up my notebooks just so along the fireplace mantle. I ordered white lace curtains for the windows and a circular memory-foam bed for the center of the room. I collected art, framing paintings of boobs and rip-offs of Matisse’s Blue Nude IV from the roving hippies on Haight Street. And I made the executive decision to have no desk. I’d always worked best in my bed or on the floor, and my parents would no longer be around to nag me about straining my back.
— Me sitting in bed with my legs folded under me, a single white orchid tucked behind my left ear, looking out the window as the bluish early-evening light hits my face at just the right angles: Home, sweet home! First time on our own, and I’m living for it. I know that it’s a long ride from here to the South Bay, but beauty is pain. This room makes it all worth it. What do you think of the decor?
My newly furnished turquoise room in the Haight made it look like I was a girl who had friends, a girl who didn’t spend every waking hour trying to piece together the next part of her narrative. My newly furnished turquoise room in the Haight was a lie! I was so busy decorating and keeping up my Instagram presence that I couldn’t bring myself to bother with anything else.
I didn’t even practice making the commute down to Palo Alto, which ended up biting me in the ass when I was finally expected on campus for orientation. Getting to Stanford campus involved several transfers on different systems of public transportation, and it was easy to get lost or go the wrong way. On the first day of orientation, I didn’t get on the correct train and ended up in the outskirts of San Francisco. By the time I realized my mistake, I was already an hour late.
Fuck it, I thought as I pulled out my phone to call an Uber. I felt a little bad about dropping another $70 of my parents’ money after the Hamptons trip — and the cross-country plane ticket, and the rent for my new room, and the tuition payments — but necessities were necessities. Avoiding further lateness on the first day of school definitely counted as an emergency.
Welcome to Stanford! read the large crimson banner that hung between the two sand-colored towers at the entrance to campus. Below it, hundreds of wide-eyed students and their parents milled around, hauling bags and carts full of dorm-room paraphernalia. I felt a sudden twinge of FOMO as I watched the scene from the car window. My parents had offered to help me move in, but I’d insisted on flying to California and doing everything myself.
Everybody looked so fresh-faced, so eager to be there. I almost wished that I were moving into one of those dorky, themed first-year dorms too. Then I remembered that I was Internet famous and had a gorgeous room all to myself back in San Francisco, and promptly felt like myself again.
The Uber dropped me off in front of the Main Quad, a stone plaza surrounded by dignified arched corridors on all sides. Along one end of the square stood check-in tables, ordered based on the first letters of last names: A-D, E-H, and so forth. Older students in bright red T-shirts sat behind the tables, handing out name tags to the incoming first-years.
“Name?” asked the girl at the table marked E-H, her head bent over her clipboard in concentration. Then she looked up and her eyes widened in recognition. “Oh, wait! I know you! You’re the one with the Instagram, right? You were just in the Hamptons?”
A wide grin slid across my face as I nodded. Was this how famous people felt when they were recognized in public? It was the first time I’d encountered someone in real life who knew of my online presence, the first concrete proof I had that my efforts were actually getting me somewhere.
“Oh my gosh, I’m such a fan,” she gushed. “My friends and I are, like, all obsessed with your Instagram. Darryl!” she called to a fellow red shirt two tables down, gesturing excitedly to me. “It’s her! The girl from Instagram!”
Darryl’s head perked up. “What? Where?!”
When he spotted me, he promptly crawled under the table to the other side, running up to me to shake my hand.
“Your Instagram is ah-ma-zing,” he crowed, completely ignoring the students lined up in front of his station, who were now shooting murderous glances in his direction. “They make me want to live on the East Coast. It almost feels like we’re going on all of these adventures together, you know? Is that weird? Like you’re my guide or something. God, I feel like I know you so well.”
Which, of course, was the point.
We were attracting a small crowd. People started to whisper amongst themselves. I caught a delighted glance or two being thrown my way. I felt a bit like I was on stage during a recital, but the spontaneity of the moment kept me from freezing up.
“Oh, right. Here!” The girl behind the table handed me a name tag with my name printed on it in bold Times New Roman font. “Welcome to Stanford, Helena Holloway.”
Similar things continued to happen all throughout orientation. I was recognized everywhere I went. When I walked into the auditorium for the mandatory Diversity and Inclusion on Campus meeting, people came up to me and asked for selfies. At the Know Your Rights presentation, they asked me how I managed to take such good pictures, and what I was planning to do, post-wise, now that I was at Stanford.
The handshakes, hugs, and compliments were never-ending. It was like experiencing the comments section in real time. The attention was nice in theory, but in reality it felt weird to respond to all of that love. Thanking people over and over again started to feel fake, but I wasn’t sure how else to react.
On that first day of orientation, I waited until everybody retreated to their dorms for the night before heading to the Stanford Oval with my tripod. The Oval was the quintessential “Stanford University” spot, with a circular flower display in the middle of green lawns that rolled out before the iconic sandstone buildings. As I clicked away, my phone my only company, I felt at peace for the first time all day.
— Me, sitting by the Stanford Oval in a red dress that matches the red-and-white flowers in the display: Made it to Stanford! It was so great to meet some of you in person. I’m sad that the first day was over. Wish I could spend all day talking to you.
My Advanced Nonfiction freshman seminar was located in the Main Quad, in a small second-floor classroom that had been designed to facilitate intimate discussions. A circular table took up the majority of the room. The early morning light filled the space; cream-colored walls made it seem airy, welcoming.
I had been looking forward to this class all week. Only ten students had been admitted, handpicked based on our application materials.
The instructor, contemporary writer Lia Townsend, sat criss-cross applesauce in the middle of the table, observing us as we filed in. She had a good ten years on us, but she looked just like a student in her red T-shirt and light-wash blue jeans, her bleach-blonde hair falling in chic waves around her face. Lia was a former staff writer for The New Yorker who had recently released a best-selling essay collection. The collection covered everything from capitalist feminism to drug-fueled festivals to the wedding-industrial complex. It had been hailed as one of the best books of the year, and Lia as the “voice of the millennial generation” — but, between you and me, I didn’t think that her work was all that great. She didn’t get very personal in her writing, nor did she use enough adjectives.
I was still excited to take her class, though. Lia had been quite the lit-world party girl back in the day. Maybe she could introduce me to some agents she knew.
“So,” she said once we’d all sat down, filling every chair around the table as though we were an extended family sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. She had a low, raspy voice and full lips that twitched as she spoke. “I hate to make you guys do these corny icebreaker exercises, but I’m genuinely curious. Who are your favorite nonfiction authors?”
We went around the room. “I have a love-hate relationship with DFW,” said a guy with freckles and pale brown eyes, smirking with only one side of his mouth as the rest of the class chuckled.
“bell hooks,” whispered a shy-looking softboy with piercing blue eyes and two arms full of line tattoos.
“I like the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and the autobiographical nugae of Catullus,” simpered a blonde girl who wore a — I kid you not — crop top in the shape of a giant orchid, along with old gray sweatpants rolled down at the waist.
I decided to come up with someone exciting, avant-garde. Barbara Ehrenreich? Ta-Nehisi Coates? Leslie Jamison?
“Eve Babitz,” said a girl with dark skin and braids down to the small of her back. My ears perked up at the familiar name. Eve Babitz was a personal obsession of mine — did this girl like her work as much as I did? Clearly she did, since we were talking about our favorite nonfiction authors. Maybe she and I had similar literary ambitions. I made a note to talk to her after class.
“John Gregory Dunne.”
“Zadie Smith,” answered the person sitting next to me. They had stringy green hair and a gold ring in their septum. It was impossible to determine which gender they were. “I especially loved Take It or Leave It.”
And then it was my turn. As everyone’s eyes turned to focus on me, I felt all the names I’d been deliberating slip clean out of my head.
“Um, J-Joan Didion,” I stammered, kicking myself as soon as the name was out of my mouth. So much for exciting and avant-garde! Joan Didion was so well-known that basic white girls carried her books around and put we tell stories in order to live as their Facebook profile picture captions.
Lia nodded, satisfied, but I could feel the judgment emanating from my classmates’ stares. Damn stage fright. I’d prepared myself for one-on-one situations, but still froze right up when talking in front of a group.
Whatever, I thought, face burning. It was a bad start, sure. But I was also the only one in the room who was regularly published, and I was already more famous than any of these kids would ever be. Given the opportunity, most of them probably couldn’t even break five hundred followers.
My seat neighbor elbowed me, startling me out of my thoughts.
Lia cleared her throat. “Do you have an opinion about whether critiques should be submitted on Tuesdays or Thursdays?” she asked.
My face grew hotter as I realized that she was talking to me.
“Uh, Tuesday sounds good,” I said quickly, looking down at the table in front of me.
I heard one or two snickers and wished that I were back in my turquoise bedroom, writing captions without all of these eyes on me. Why had I even bothered to take this class? Wasn’t I already living the life of a nonfiction writer?
“Okay, so that’s six votes for Thursday and four for Tuesday. Our weekly due date will be Thursday, then. Please come in next week with a personal essay of your choice. It will be peer-reviewed, so make sure it’s your best work.”
I felt a little better after I heard that. Fuck speaking. Fuck being called out for no reason. Personal essays were my shit — I wrote and published shorter versions of them online every day. Once the actual writing began, I’d show everyone how good I was. Once the actual writing began, I would rise to the top.