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Heaven Spelled Backwards

Heaven Spelled Backwards

Rabbit girl in a white dress standing in the middle of a lavender field on a sunny day

This is the sixth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel parodying Caroline Calloway’s memoir of the same name. New chapters every Sunday until March 14, 2021.

How do you make a new friend? Woo them as though they’re a potential lover.

Take things slowly at first. You don’t want to scare the other person away with your Pomeranian-like enthusiasm. Try to hide that particular shine in your eyes that you get whenever you start talking about something you’re passionate about. Don’t tell them about the time you accidentally killed a baby squirrel in your sleep when you were eight, or how relieved you were in the sixth grade when Claire O. decorated your locker for your birthday, per school tradition. Maybe wait until you know them a little bit better, a few weeks at least, before you invite them to your home that is over an hour away by train.

Or say “fuck it” to all of those stupid social rules, and literally run after this potential new friend as she leaves your Advanced Nonfiction seminar, scaring the shit out of her when you suddenly appear out of nowhere, blocking her path like a deranged stalker! The world is full of surprises, after all. You never know what may happen.

“Hey! Excuse me, I have a weird question to ask you —”

The Eve Babitz-loving girl jumped; then, recognizing me from class, visibly relaxed as she took one of her headphones out of her ears. “Oh, hey. I didn’t see you there. What’s up?”

“I have a totally weird and maybe intrusive question to ask you,” I repeated. “How do you know about Eve Babitz’s work?”

Eve Babitz, darling of 1960s Hollywood, would experience a cultural resurrection of sorts in 2019, when the New York Review of Books started to republish her fictionalized memoirs about cavorting and flirting and shit-stirring in the City of Angels during its golden era. At the time of this conversation, almost all of her work was out of print. I only knew of Eve Babitz because I’d stumbled upon a box of her books in a thrift store one day.

“Oh!” exclaimed the girl, letting out a little laugh. “I was expecting way worse. Maybe I’m still a little scarred from orientation.”

“What happened?”

She rolled her eyes. “The RAs at Quill and Ink — that’s my dorm — made all of us sit around in a circle and talk about our problems or past traumas on the second day. Everyone started opening up about how they were, like, abused by their relatives, or questioning their gender identity, or cancelled on Twitter.” The girl made a face. “There were also some real … I mean, someone literally told a bunch of random strangers that she was traumatized because she was ‘born into material wealth and emotional poverty.’ Verbatim.” 

I winced. “Holy shit. I’m so glad that I live off-campus.”

“Dude, I was like, what the fuck? I have no idea who any of you are. But they were all ‘OMG vulnerability’ and ‘authenticity matters.’ People started to cry and hug one another, and I guess I was kind of afraid that everybody here was like that.” The girl smiled. “So yeah, your question was way more normal.”

I could tell that she and I were going to be great friends. She sucked at small talk just as much as I did. “Yeah, no. I just wanted to know about Eve Babitz.”

“Right, Eve! I love Eve. It’s a shame that she didn’t become more famous, honestly.” The girl pouted. “My mom grew up in Los Angeles in the seventies. She passed all of Eve’s books down to me.” 

“Which one’s your favorite?”

Slow Days, Fast Company. I loved her short stories most of all.”

“No way!” I squealed. “That one’s my favorites, too. We should be best friends.” I was aware that I sounded like an overexcited twelve-year-old, but I didn’t care. I’d never met anyone who shared my exact literary tastes before.

“Yeah?” She laughed and kicked a stone that had rolled into the courtyard. “Do you smoke weed?”

“Mm-hmm.” The one or two times I’d tried it counted, right? “Actually, I have the perfect room for that. Want to come over?”

I know, it’s extreme to invite someone to your house right after meeting them. But we vibed, okay? It felt totally normal in the moment.

“Sure. You said you lived off-campus, right? Is it a long walk from here?”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “No, I, uh, actually live in San Francisco.”

“Bro, what the fuck? How?”

I smiled mysteriously. “I have my ways.”

“Teach me!” She widened her eyes. “I want to get out of Quill and Ink. I’m trying to spend as little time there as possible.”

I winked. “If we’re gonna be best friends, you’ll find out soon enough. But I don’t even know your name! What is it?”

“Nevaeh,” she replied, pronouncing it nuh-VAY-yuh. “It’s ‘heaven’ spelled backwards. My parents aren’t even religious; they just thought that the name was funny. I kind of hate it. It sounds so basic.”

“It’s so pretty,” I said sincerely. “My name is Helena, like ‘hell’ spelled forwards.”

Nevaeh would later quote me in her essay, turning that line into a clever literary device that foreshadowed the relationship we’d have over the next six years. Helena was the most confident girl I’d ever known. It seems obvious now, the way the story would end, but when I first met [her], all I saw was the beginning of something extraordinary.

I swear, I wasn’t being consciously calculating at all! I was just trying to be funny when I said that. I was naive when I made friends, then. I have since learned my lesson many times over.

Back in my tower, I struggled all five of the windows open as Nevaeh sat on my bed, rolling a joint on a hardcover copy of Lorrie Moore’s Like Life that she’d pulled out of her backpack. She’d recently gotten a medical marijuana card, she told me; if I ever needed any of the good stuff, I was free to hit her up. She worked with nimble precision, delicate fingers knowing just how to squeeze and pat and slide.

“Anyway, a big reason why I love Eve Babitz is because she literally didn’t give a fuck,” Nevaeh explained. “She wasn’t trying to be like ‘oh, I had fun, but I was secretly so sad and my life was falling apart,’ you know? She had fun and that was it.”

“She’s unapologetic,” I agreed. “I love her because she blurs the lines between work and play. Her partying lifestyle was part of her process. She had all of these experiences and made art out of them.” I looked down at my fluffy white bedspread. “I want to be just like her. She burned bright.”

“And burned out.” Nevaeh took a lighter from her pocket and carefully held the joint’s tip to the flame. “Sorry, that sounded insensitive because of, you know, what happened to her.” She frowned. “I don’t know if I’d want to write about myself that way, but I’d definitely want to be a part of that crowd and do a bunch of, like, dispatches from the inside. Some behind-the-scenes stuff.”

“You don’t want to be a writer-artist-ingenue?” I teased. “Think about it! It’d be fun — picking up cute, semi-famous guys at the Troubadour, going on week-long benders with models at the Chateau Marmont …”

“I don’t really want to be the subject of my stories. I’d rather write about other people.” She brought the joint to her lips and inhaled, holding her breath for four whole seconds before releasing it through her nose. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to live a crazy, wild life, though.”

I considered this for a second. “I’d be okay with that too, I guess,” I conceded, “but it would totally suck to have someone twist me all out of proportion, and have that version be the one that lives on, you know?”

“You want to be your own muse.”

“Exactly! That’s exactly it.” I carefully took the joint, positioned it between my index and middle fingers like a New York City cool girl, and took a tiny puff. “Speaking of which, do you have an Instagram?”

“Nah, I’m not really into social media. I prefer books.”

No wonder Nevaeh hadn’t made a big deal when I’d invited her back to my place. The lack of fawning attention was kind of refreshing, though. It didn’t bother me that she had no idea who I was.

“Okay, so I’m about to show you something on social media, but you’ll find it cool. I promise.” I pulled up my Instagram page — which immediately told me that I’d gotten 375 likes and 60 followers since I’d checked it on the train — and set it on her right thigh.

“Is this … you?”

I nodded and took another hit. This time, the smoke went straight to my throat, and I held my breath, willing the cough to die down. I could feel my breath quickening as Nevaeh began to scroll through the pictures. Was this weed really that potent, or was I actually … nervous?

Nevaeh tapped on a picture of me floating in the Hamptons pool at night, nodding slowly as she read the caption to herself. “The pools are heated, but they’re hardly ever guarded …” She raised an eyebrow. “You wrote this?”

“Yup. I took a trip to the Hamptons right before I came here, and …” I shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. “I’m writing stories on Instagram. I just think it’s a cool new medium to try out …”

“We’re going to get day-drunk the classy way, with bottomless mimosas at Rosie’s on Main Street,” Nevaeh read, laughing. “You’re so bougie.”

I blushed. “I do like the aesthetic.”

“Aw, I’m just fucking with you. This is really cool.” Nevaeh’s eyes sparkled as she handed my phone back to me. “I mean, really cool. You’re a goddamn visionary.”

“You mean it?” I felt like I could sprint around the perimeter of San Francisco ten times and not run out of breath.

“Yeah, man! If you think about it, what you’re doing is real-time memoir. It’s memoir without the act of remembering. You’re collapsing the distance between writer and reader and critic.” She looked at me, eyes shining. “You’re Eve Babitz for the modern times.”

“I —” For a moment, I felt the warmth of sharing the jagged edges of my soul with someone who didn’t judge me for my desires, who saw me as something other than a mess of self-absorption. Because, even with all of the approving likes from others, I still felt a little shame for creating such a narrative around myself.

“I love you,” I declared.

She laughed. “You’re high.”

Sometimes, I liked to think that I’d had such a friendless childhood because the Universe was saving my personality for the kinds of friendships that would set the world on fire. That afternoon, in my turquoise tower with Nevaeh, the chilly air making the lace curtains billow like clouds, I felt for the first time what it was like to meet a soulmate.

❦ 

Nevaeh began coming over after class regularly, medical-grade marijuana in tow. I started “dating” Oliver a few weeks into the semester, but I didn’t disclose to Nevaeh at first the true nature of our relationship and made excuses for them to not meet.

They were both my actual friends, Nevaeh and Oliver, but they represented the two most polarizing parts of my personality. Oliver brought out my competitive side. With him, I was unabashedly sharp, strategic, and witty — an alpha bitch making alpha moves. Nevaeh, on the other hand, made me feel totally at ease. With her, I could be dreamy, sensitive, soft — like my old self. I had the feeling that introducing her to Oliver would corrupt her.

I see now that Nevaeh was just as hungry for money and power as Oliver and I were, that her ambition was what drew me to her in the first place. But back then, all I saw was someone who was extremely sincere, who, despite her easygoing attitude, had an innocence about her, almost as though she didn’t want to expose herself to the dirty world.

So I kept Nevaeh to myself. She’d come over, and we’d smoke up, then talk about our thoughts, our dreams, our life goals. I got quite proficient at smoking marijuana this way.

Nevaeh had a huge crush on Lia Townsend, and I loved indulging her with fantasies, watching her pale green eyes light up as I described Sapphic scenarios between her and our admittedly hot instructor. “It’s like a movie,” I’d say in between hits. “This is just the first act. Soon, she’ll invite you over for drinks, take you on the roof, kiss you, and begin a sordid literary affair behind her boyfriend’s back. She’ll take you to her literary parties and you’ll do coke and angel dust all night.”

Nevaeh would make herself come off as detached and wise in her essay, but really, she was just as romantic as I was. 

“Go on,” she said one time, leaning back so that her head was on one of my fluffy pillows. She blew a thin line of smoke up toward the ceiling, a faraway look in her eyes. “What happens to me next?”

“She’ll invite you to go to Carmel for the weekend,” I said, “just the two of you. You’ll rent a little fairytale cottage by the shore, with a blooming dogwood tree by the front gate.” I laid down next to her so that our faces were only inches apart. “You’ll spend the whole day intermittently fucking and talking about politics and culture. And then, in the evening of the last day, you’ll be lying, just like this, and —” 

Feeling bold from the weed, I reached out and lightly ran my finger down the side of her cheek. “She’ll say ‘man, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I love you way more than I love that shitty non-writer boyfriend of mine …’”

“Fuck off,” Nevaeh cackled. “So cliché.”

“And then, of course, it’ll all fall apart. Real life will get in the way, and she’ll leave to go back to New York, and realize how her life is there. You’ll write about the whole thing in a wistful novel — fictionalized, so that it wouldn’t be about you, necessarily — and publish it before you turn twenty-one, and be known as the next Françoise Sagan.”

Nevaeh was quiet, and when I looked at her again, I saw that her eyes were shiny.

“That’ll never happen to me,” she sighed. “I’m ugly and weird. Did you see the face Lia made when I read my last essay aloud?”

The essay in question was called The In-Between Girl, in which Nevaeh talked about her experiences growing up both bisexual and biracial, how she’d never been able to fit in anywhere. It was somber and beautifully written. As I’d sat there listening, it had occurred to me for the first time that Nevaeh was just as good — or maybe even better — than I was at writing. Her work had a solemn, intellectual quality to it that made my captions read like bad fanfiction of bad fanfiction. 

“I thought Lia loved it. And you’re weird” — I nudged her playfully — “but definitely not ugly.”

“Forget it,” she said, covering her eyes. “I’m just stoned and sad right now.”

“You’re beautiful,” I told her, meaning it. Nevaeh had one of those striking faces that may not have been much to look at with her weird new hairstyle and lack of proper eyebrow makeup, but she could be a model. I would’ve killed for her pale green eyes and naturally full lips; in fact, it was she who I thought of when I got fillers a few years later.

“You’re just … you’re a fucking visionary,” she told me. “It’s not just your looks. You’re just out there doing it, publishing, this thing that all of us want to do but we’re too cowardly to do it, and …”

She sniffed. I pretended not to notice as she wiped her eyes. 

“… I may not be able to count on you to remember my birthday, but you’d be the first one I’d call if I needed a pick-me-up story or a black-market kidney,” she finished.

I took this as a compliment. She was accepting me, my ambition, my real personality, I thought. I may not have been the right friend to meet some of her needs, but I would do anything to hyper her up or to help her in a pinch. 

Six years later, Nevaeh would explain in her essay that she meant I was someone she could write about. She didn’t want to be a character in my story, but she made sure that I’d be the lead in hers. 

So much for being my best friend.

So much for letting me be my own muse.

In late September, Nevaeh and I went to Sonoma Valley to see the last of the lavender blooms. We technically weren’t old enough to go wine tasting yet, but nothing stopped us from taking pictures on the premises. The last of the lavender was still there. Bees droned lazily around me as I stood in the middle of the blooms, a lone girl in a sea of purple and green. Nevaeh looked beautiful that day, with her hair up in a bun, wearing a purple tank top that matched the scenery. There was nothing more I wanted to do than to take a picture of her, but she refused, insisting that she be the one to take pictures of me instead.

— Me, in a white dress, holding a hat, standing in the lavender fields: There is a phenomena called “nesting” that happens at school. Two people start dating and lose all sense of independence. They move in together, go everywhere together, and generally make themselves out to be one unit rather than two independent people. Oliver and I have been in the honeymoon phase, and I realized that it was starting to become a lot. Sure, I now had this boy to wake up next to and have adventures with, but I sort of missed being with just Helena. So, this weekend, I took a trip by myself to Sonoma Valley’s lavender fields just to hang out with myself. I shot this photo with my tripod. I don’t want to lose myself just because I’m in a relationship now. I don’t want to let my feelings about myself, my life, and my successes be defined entirely by the milestones of BOYS. As much as I love him, I am not “Oliver’s girlfriend.” I am Helena, a person first and foremost. I hope that you can make the same conscious effort that I did to define the milestones of your life in a metric that is all about YOU. I am learning how to build a long-term partnership while keeping my sense of self intact. I hope that you are, too.

Note the “with my tripod” part. That’s a lie, of course — Nevaeh took the picture, but I cut her out of my narrative with scalpel-like precision because she didn’t want to be a character in the Helena Holloway story. She was a private person, she told me. So I made it seem like I was on my own for all of this. At no point did it occur to me that Nevaeh’s story would be more valuable to sell to a major publication someday if it looked like I had always hidden her.

In her tell-all essay for The Cut, Nevaeh loves to use the fact that she took all of my pictures on our mini-vacations to subtly imply that I’m that shallow, annoying stereotype of an Instagram girl that everybody loves to hate. But it really was her idea in the first place. I “deputized” her as the photographer and “instructed” her to “find [my] best angles and keep [her] shadow out of the frame” because she wanted me to.

“I’m so sorry for asking you to take all these pictures,” I would say, and she’d brush off my self-loathing with a pep talk. “Does a fratty investment banker apologize when he checks his email on vacation? No! This is your work. You’re working. Stop apologizing.”

Words like “good” and “bad” and “authentic” and “fake” are all relative. It depends on who is telling the story, and what they have to gain in who they paint the hero. Nevaeh fooled me just as well as she did everyone else. I used to think that her insistence on being a private person meant that she didn’t want fame as much as I did. In reality, she was just biding her time, collecting her stories about me so that she could cash them all in at the right moment. On the large scale of history, she wanted the most famous fame there is: glory. I only have myself to blame for being so willfully blind.

Next chapter

Chapter 7: Life of the Party

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  • Oh my God I actually love???? Helena??? You captured the melancholy of a broken friendship and the pain of betrayal so well in this chapter and I just 🙁

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