Her students and some of her friends—the ones who hadn’t known her since puberty, or even college—saw her as a warrior of optimism, a peddler of internal tranquility and external compassion. A woman radiant not because of her beauty— “Every body is beautiful,” she intoned softly during each of her videos—but the ease with which she moved through the world. Thoughtful, measured, calm. A benefactor whose gifts were self-love and flexibility, whose impossibly adorable child occasionally danced through the frame while she was recording. On those days, the comment section was twice as long as usual, the Thumbs-Ups thrice.
“I believe that everyone has the capacity to heal and to learn to love themselves,” she told her students. She’d decided to share her cheer with the people–mostly women; some men, even a few whose comments weren’t creepy–who subscribed to her channel. “And when you love yourself, you will be a better citizen of the world.” As she inhaled and exhaled onscreen, her chest rising and falling conspicuously, something metallic clanged from the kitchen, followed by her boyfriend’s colorful swearing. She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her jaw. She would splice out both the sounds and her reaction to it when she edited the video later that night, after the baby was in bed.
“I love you so much Elena! You’re so beautiful and you’re helping me be just like you!” someone she had never met—would never meet—would comment at three the next morning, an hour after the video was scheduled to post.
She hadn’t always been a guru, of course. She’d started her career at a tech start-up that specialized in making household cleaners out of organic farm byproducts, and she’d liked that enough. But what she’d really gotten out of that, aside from her first employer-sponsored 401k plan, was a handle on social media. She’d been responsible for creating the company’s “content,” that ridiculous word that meant both nothing and everything in internetese. She wrote blog posts about the miraculous properties of orange peel, recorded videos of the head of HR happily scrubbing down a kitchen floor on his hands and knees. She encouraged the company to redesign their labels to a simple ivory square with the brand name in forest green block letters layered over a silhouette of a lemon. She began making weekly video blogs from the studio apartment she shared with her boyfriend, showing the brand’s followers what a little all-purpose cleaner and a microfiber cloth could do to transform not only a small space, but one’s outlook on life. “I used to be a mess,” she told them all. “You should have seen the dust bunnies, the clothes on the floor, the bags under my eyes. But now—” she flipped her phone away to show the tidy bed; she didn’t need to finish the sentence. There was her boyfriend sitting atop the duvet—shoes off, of course–with a book, looking impossibly sexy in that “Ohmygod can you believe he’s hot and he reads?!” way. Someone actually did say that, in the comments; Elena had felt proud and territorial, a lioness luring in her prey. The start-up’s followers began to increase in number as she got more and more likes, people finding the brand—finding her—through other influencers who began tagging the hand soap in their subway-tiled kitchens, the candle by their composed nightstand.
“Where are those pants from?” someone would ask in the comments. “What line of skincare do you use?” and “did u get a haircut whos ur stylist.” They knew her. They wanted her. They wanted to be her.
She started her own account on the sly, uploading pictures of perfectly poached eggs and toast points from the bakery across town that milled their own grains (a forty-five minute drive each way plus half an hour waiting in line, but it was worth it for the tag); sipping detoxifying tea from her reusable thermos on her morning commute (okay, so it was actually coffee, but no one had to know that); a photo, again, of her boyfriend, this time from behind, the sunset above him, captioned, “The couple that strolls together…” (Never mind that they’d been fighting when she’d snapped the shot, another argument about her—as he put it— “unhealthy compulsion to document the minutiae of our life.”) She began to tag herself, in addition to the brand’s name, in the photos she posted for the company; no one at work seemed to notice, or to care if they had. And it took surprisingly little time for her own account to take off. It was only one picture, really, that changed the trajectory of her life forever.
“Namaste,” it was captioned. Above the text, a photo of her in pastel spandex, sitting in what looked like an enormous private yoga studio. (Really, she’d just pushed the couch out of the way and taped the curtains to the wall, making the windows look larger, the floorspace more palatial.) Behind her, a fiddle-leaf fig tree, which her boyfriend had grumped about–their leaves were toxic to pets, and wasn’t that part of their five-year plan? –but she knew her audience, and she had her own five-year plan.
“Trust me,” she’d told him firmly, plunking down her credit card for the five-foot tall plant and its coordinating hand-thrown ivory planter. The exercise clothes were the most expensive things she’d ever sweat in, but even her boyfriend had to admit that she looked good.
“I like this packaging,” he’d told her with heavy eyes, running his hand up the length of her thigh.
“Thank you,” she’d said politely as she gently moved his hand aside and pulled out her phone. “I need you to take this while we still have the light.”
She sat in the center of her midnight blue yoga mat, her posture erect as a ballerina, hair smoothed back into a sleek ponytail. Her boyfriend grumbled as he took shot after shot of her in various states of serenity, lids closed and lips upturned in a Mona Lisa smile.
“I’m doing this for us,” she told him, irritated, before rearranging her face once more.
The comments came first, followed by the sponsorships.
“We love your look and think you would be the perfect face for our brand,” wrote a talent acquisition intern at a beauty company that catered to humans and their pets. No one minded that she didn’t have a dog.
Linen bedding was next, followed by a fancy workout apparel. And then–oh!– came the plants. Monsteras and pileas, anthuriums and orchids. In every corner, on every tabletop, was a flower or a green leaf. A rubber tree sat wedged between the oven and the refrigerator, and when they ran out of space, her boyfriend hung planters from the ceiling.
“I feel like I’m living in the jungle,” he said as he parted a curtain of ivy to climb into bed one night.
“It’s almost as good as traveling!” she bubbled, wincing as the words came out; they were both so mired in student debt that they hadn’t gone anywhere for longer than a weekend in several years.
He didn’t respond, his eyes closed in feigned sleep. She snapped a photo of his face on the pillow, green tendrils hanging over him, tagging the plant company and captioning it, “My sleeping Tarzan.”
“omg tarzan + jane 4eva” a repeat commenter wrote. “When I move out of my parents’ place I’m going to have a plant house just like you do!” and, as always, “I love you Elena!!!”
They awoke one morning to a sticky white webbing covering the cat palm they kept in the two-foot space between the bed and the bathroom door. Spider mites, the internet confirmed.
“I’m throwing this out,” her boyfriend said as he bent down to pick up the rose-colored pot. “It’s infested.”
She put a hand on his chest. “We can clean it with alcohol, I checked,” she said. “But… maybe there are too many plants in here.” She looked around the small room.
“Yes, thank you. Can we please get rid of some of them?” He smiled for the first time in months.
“Oh no, baby, we can’t do that,” she scolded, brow furrowed, before adopting a casual tone. “But I think we need a bigger apartment.”
Her boyfriend blew a stream of air out of his mouth. “We need something,” he said as he went into the bathroom, closing the apartment’s only interior door.
They moved to a two-bedroom that was more than twice the price of the studio. They both knew they couldn’t afford it–while the brand sponsorships provided small stipends for a posted photo, they mostly paid in merchandise–but she insisted she needed the second bedroom as her studio. “A real studio,” she clarified. “For my work.”
Her new work as an influencer took up more time than her previous job with the start-up; everything was work now, and it was all for sale. Their matching pajamas (her boyfriend slept in the nude, but she coaxed him into wearing the bamboo silk for the photo) and the superfood powders and that glass “intimacy ring” they’d never actually used (and it had been quite some time since they’d been intimate, which was something they only talked about as they finally set their phones down, after midnight, brains protesting and too fried to manage physical exertion, however perfunctory). He was unhappy, and she was… fine, but the likes and the followers kept increasing in numbers, the pile of–in her boyfriend’s words–“random shit we’ll never use” packed into the basement storage unit they rented for ninety-five dollars a month.
Then there was a missed period, and while they hadn’t planned to have children for the near future (the precise words her boyfriend had used just weeks before were, while gazing disdainfully at the accumulation of candles and pillows and plantlife, “I don’t like things that tie me down”), they decided they would give it a try. His parents, who lived an hour away, would help! And as she pointed out, Hilaria Baldwin had four children, and she and Alec looked as happy as ever! This would be great for them! It would be an adventure! And just think of all the brands that would be salivating to sponsor her pregnancy, to set up the nursery….
The baby was born six weeks early and suffered from a pneumothorax. She’d given birth via C-section and had a complicated recovery that kept her in the hospital for an extra week after the birth. She hadn’t known when she was hired at the start-up that she would need to pay into short-term disability to receive the benefit most of her colleagues maddeningly referred to as “maternity leave,” so she quit her job.
The new parents visited their son in the NICU every day, holding hands as they watched his tiny lungs heal and his body adjust to waking life. She agreed with her boyfriend to post updates only once a day, and was always instantly rewarded with adulations from her fans: “ur such an amazing mother i’m crying” and “He looks just like you. He needs his own Insta account!” and “Sucks he’s in the hospital but at least you lost the baby weight!”
The baby came home, and he was healthy. She took shot after shot of him curled up in his (sponsored) pima cotton animal-print onesies, sleeping in the (sponsored) baby bouncer, curled up naked on her boyfriend’s bare chest under a (sponsored) swaddle blanket for skin-to-skin. Likes after likes after likes. “Omg do they make those clothes in grown-up sizes??” and “Don’t you know that bouncer was recalled, your baby could die!” and “ur bf is such a dilf.”
She posted pictures of herself breastfeeding at three in the morning, smiling serenely as she cradled the baby’s head. She didn’t mention the insomnia that kept her awake once her son went back to sleep or that she screamed at her boyfriend most mornings for his snoring. She didn’t mention the inflamed nipples, hot and stinging, or the scar across her abdomen that itched as it scabbed over. And no one, across any and all of her social platforms, asked.
The photos of her boyfriend, with or without the baby, garnered the most likes and “flame” emoji-laced comments. Once, a commenter stated bluntly, “im gonna eff ur bf one day.” She was annoyed at first; she was the influencer, after all, and the baby and boyfriend were simply supporting cast members. Not props, exactly, but there was no denying they boosted her brand. The problem was her boyfriend wanted none of it, and he just barely allowed her to upload one post with his image on it per week. Tuesdays. They did not have sex on Tuesdays, or even Wednesdays as the performance, engagement, and growth statistics poured in. Although by this point–the baby was almost twelve months old by now–they still weren’t having much sex at all.
She’d rebranded as a guru three months before; she hadn’t used the word “guru,” of course, as fans–subscribers–were sensitive to that sort of thing and could turn on a dime if they thought they were being manipulated, used. She’d gone back to that first big photo–the peaceful yogi with hands clutched earnestly in prayer at her heart–and remembered the energy (the power, if she’s being honest) she felt as she saw herself through their eyes: calm, capable, trustworthy. She prepared a simple vinyasa flow: a few lunges and twists, with five minutes of meditation on each end. The whole thing was less than fifteen minutes. She wasn’t a certified yoga instructor, she assured them with a laugh. She hadn’t gone on a silent meditation retreat or studied in India or the Berkshires. All she knew how to do, she wrote, was speak from her heart and hope it found just one person to connect with, one person whom she might help to feel less alone.
And she did: they ate that shit up.
There was a whole subset of commenters who pointed out signs of the baby or boyfriend, like they were parts of a puzzle or one of those “hidden pictures” features that was part of the free educational magazine each member of her fourth-grade class had received each month. “I see his foot in the kitchen! I bet he makes the best breakfast in bed, sighhhhhh” and “looks like baby’s toy box overflowed!”
She was making good money, now, through advertising videos and sponsors that paid in dollars and not just spandex. In fact, she was bringing in slightly more than her boyfriend, which she’d brought up only to introduce the topic of whether they could find a more equitable child care situation. She was working when the baby was home with her, didn’t he know that? It was hard to pay attention to your child’s first steps when you had lighting to adjust and sound to edit. She was doing it all herself, and was it so much to ask that he take the baby when he got home from his job at the call center? At times, she felt lit from within with white hot rage. She could blow it all up and shut it all down, and what would he say then?
On this day–a Sunday, late morning–following their weekly brunch spread that was, as usual, cold by the time she’d taken the perfect photo and allowed them to eat, the poached eggs stiff and rubbery–she was in her studio (which had initially been meant for the baby, but could they really justify giving him his own bedroom when she needed it for her work?) setting up for her latest workout. Her boyfriend was in the living room watching a sitcom, and it was difficult to discern which was more grating: the laugh track, or the fact that he was watching television while it was his turn to tend to their child.
She shut the door to the studio–somewhere north of gently but south of a slam–and centered herself on the yoga mat. She leaned forward and hit “record” on the video program she had open on the computer. She inhaled deeply, allowing her viewers to watch her face transform into one that inspired inner peace, or at the very least give them the urge to purchase the cream and ivy colored two-piece outfit she had squeezed herself into, the evening primrose oil she’d spread across her cheekbones. She allowed herself to feel, too, the serenity that washed over her whenever she recorded, the rush she got from the admiration and validation she would soon receive increasing exponentially until it culminated in the seconds after she clicked “post” and her voice and image went live. She had no alcohol or drugs in her system but felt as if she were in that ephemeral sweet-spot between one-and-a-half drinks and two, the buzz that sharpened her wit and inflated her confidence. She was powerful, sitting there on her mat, one quarter of an inch separating the backs of her legs from the hardwood floors that her fans coveted and that she paid for, each month, with money she’d earned.
“Namaste,” she purred, hands at her heart as she crinkled the corners of her eyes at the camera: pure delight to be here, now.
A crash, a bang.
“Mama!” Pounding on the door.
She closed her eyes, her half-smile imperceptibly tighter. “You have a choice,” she said to the camera, “whenever you come to your mat. You can be here for someone else, or you can be here for you.”
The pounding grew louder. “Mama mama MAMA!”
“I choose to be present for myself,” she said, her voice rising slightly over the sound. “Let’s say that together: I choose myself. I choose myself.”
The door flew open. “Mama!”
“Let’s all take a deep breath together and count to four…”
Her son toddled over and flung himself into her lap. The undeniable yeasty scent of baby poop wafted into her nostrils.
“Now exhale through your nose for four…”
She felt something damp on her leg, and finally looked down at the wriggling child in her lap. A greenish-brown stain was spreading on the right leg of her leggings, adding a third color to her ensemble.
“Joey!” she called over her shoulder, before turning back to the camera.
She gave it an eye-roll and what she hoped was a look-at-this-adorably-messy-life-I-have! smile but was more of a grimace. The laugh track sounded again, noticeably louder than it had been just a few minutes before.
“Unbelievable,” she muttered, roughly placing the baby on the mat before standing up.
His face crumpled instantly, his cheeks and forehead folding inwards to subsume his eyes. He let out a long wail before breaking into choking sobs, then rolled onto his back. Streaks of feces embellished the wooden slats of the floor where it met the yoga mat, and his soft sweatpants, like hers, were stained greenish brown.
She stood over him, hands on her hips as she surveyed the damage. She could switch out these pants for another pair, but nothing else she had matched the top so well. And she really should shower first; the wet spot stretched from her knee to her groin. She sighed loudly, shaking her head back and forth repeatedly.
“JOEY!” she bellowed again. “What the fuck are you doing? I’m fucking working in here!”
The baby screamed louder as he pulled both of his thumbs into his mouth, tears and snot streaming down his face and joining the mess on the yoga mat. She inhaled sharply, a loud sniff! that seemed to startle the baby, temporarily quieting him before he stretched his mouth wide and started again. She began to laugh, the kind of high-pitched, demented sound that existed in movies with full moons and bogeymen.
Her boyfriend chose now to enter the studio, the sitcom still blaring from the other room. His nose wrinkled as he registered the stink, then looked to her in disgust as he scooped the baby into his arms.
“What’s going on?” he accused. “Why is he screaming his head off and rolling around in his own poop?” Her boyfriend hugged the baby to his body before readjusting to maintain as little contact as possible with the soiled clothing.
She stopped laughing and the headshaking resumed. “Nuh-uh, dude,” she snarled, taking a step towards him, her index finger sharp as a dagger. “I am working. And you are sitting on your ass watching some shitty show that is, hello? Syndicated and on every fucking day, twice a day. You are in charge of parenting right now. You. You may not respect my work, but it pays for most of the shit in this apartment, not to mention most of the rent for this apartment.” It was sort of true.
She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes; she counted to ten before exhaling for six. He was staring at her in confusion. She smiled.
“Thank you for listening to me,” she said sweetly. “Now please, take your child, turn off the TV, and parent him.”
“Do you, uh,” her boyfriend started. “Did you have something planned for us to do?”
She screamed. A full-throated wail that began deep in her belly, swirled around her internal organs and exploded out of her, flashing around the room, spreading itself into each of the corners and the cracks in the wall, licking the moldings along the ceiling. Once the scream started, she didn’t know how to stop it, and even if she had, it was so deliciously feral and foreign that she would have done anything to keep it going.
After a minute of this, a persistent pounding began near the front of the apartment, followed by a loud male voice. Her boyfriend’s confusion had morphed into disbelief as she kept on screaming, and he trotted off with the baby to assuage the neighbors.
She closed the door behind him, and as she did so, surveying the nearly empty room that modeled her followers’ ascetic ideals, she was overwhelmed with that feeling again. The tension in her chest had dissipated and left a lightness in its wake, a crocus stretching its neck after a long winter’s sleep below the ground. Her laughter remained, but it had lost its mania and instead filled the room with something more pleasant…could it be gaiety?
She approached the computer–perched precariously on the plant stand that had once proudly displayed her succulent garden, which she’d overwatered and had killed within weeks of its arrival–and clicked on the red square on her screen, stopping the recording. She knelt in front of it, gazing into the harsh blue light. Her own face stared back at her, frozen mid-smile, eyes half-closed. She looked high, or what “high” looked like on someone who found smoking marijuana not the makings of paranoia and self-loathing that she did but an opportunity for quietude and peace. This feeling–contentedness and satisfaction–was already starting to wane. She breathed in and shook her head slightly. No. Not yet.
She looked around the room: all of it had to go. Perhaps yoga and pastels and plants were soothing to some, but they had become a manacle for her, tying her to this room, this apartment, this life. She began to peel off the soiled pants, hardly noticing as a glob of brown waste dropped onto the hardwood floor. The top came next, and she put it, along with the pants, in the center of her yoga mat, rolling it up into one lumpy log. She surveyed the room, hands on her naked hips (visible panty lines were a no-no online). There wasn’t much else in the room; she would deal with the plants tomorrow.
One thing was left, which took up both no space and more than anything else in her life.
Bending down, she moved the cursor, dragging it over to a small black rectangle. “Upload” it said, in white capital letters. Without hesitating she clicked, watching in fascination as the spinning wheel circled once, twice, and dissolved into what was now a blank page. It was done.
She’d find a job–a desk job–that had nothing to do with social media and would take her out of the house every day. She and her boyfriend would find their equal footing again (her working at home had not served their idea of egalitarian parenting well) and they would remember why they liked each other. There was no need to make a farewell video; this would speak for itself. Sure, she’d be the talk of her corner of the wellness space for a few days, a week at most. But new influencers popped up constantly; people would forget her in no time. The sponsors would worry about their contracts, but she’d work that out somehow.
She closed the computer and walked towards the door, sidestepping the yoga mat that had unrolled once again. She turned out the light and walked out, closing the door behind her. Her boyfriend and the baby were in the kitchen poking around in the refrigerator; she would apologize for her outburst and explain the new plan.
She reached for her waistband, where she typically kept her phone, but she hadn’t put her clothes back on.
The phone was in the bathroom, on the back of the toilet. She picked it up with trepidation; had something happened to her grandmother, her father?
“omg you are a BADASS” was splashed across the top of the screen. “your man is a babe but he needs to learn how to change a diaper!” and “I love you more than ever!” and “that was fucking awesome!!!” and “SCREAM THERAPY i luv it!”
An email popped up, interrupting the stream of comments, with an unfamiliar address belonging to a user named “Clear Eyed.” She tapped it and began to read:
“Elena, the team and I just saw your video and we have to say: wow. That could not be faked! We love the authenticity of your brand and think you would be the perfect face for Clear Eyed, our teletherapy and meditation app….”
As she was reading, another email came in from “Brave Souls,” followed by a direct message from “Vulnerable Vixens Group Text Therapy.”
She slumped down against the bathroom’s door frame, the phone dropping onto the tile and cracking the top of the screen, across the small circle of the camera. The floor was cool against her legs and buttocks, and goose bumps prickled along her body. She opened her mouth, but the howl she needed never came.