Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Lauren Oyler about her writing process.
Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media. People looked sad on the subway, in the bars; decisions were questioned, opinions rearranged. The same grave epiphany was dragged around everywhere: We were transitioning from an only retrospectively easy past to an inarguably more difficult future; we were, it could no longer be denied, unstoppably bad. Although the death of any hope for humanity had surely been decades in the making, the result of many intersecting systems described forbiddingly well, it was only that short period—between the election of a new president and his holding up a hand to swear to serve the people—that made clear what had happened, and showed that we were too late.
I didn’t believe all this necessarily, though as the news got worse and more bizarre, I wavered. I’ve always been drawn to pragmatism, just not exactly a natural at it; as my brain says Calm down, my heart says, also weirdly calmly, A paradoxical comfort can be found in drama. My official position, if you were to ask me at a party or something, is that the popular turn to fatalism could be attributed to self-aggrandizement and an ignorance of history, history being characterized by the population’s quickness to declare apocalypse imminent despite its permanently delayed arrival. We don’t want to die, but we also don’t want to do anything challenging, such as what living requires, so the volubility with which certain doom was discussed made a tedious kind of sense. The end of the world would let us have our cake and eat it, too; we would have no choice but to die, our potential conveniently unrealizable due to our collapse. Until such time, the idea that everything was totally pointless now was seductive, particularly as a mantra you could take advantage of when it suited you and abandon when life started to feel alarming. I myself was soon using it to indulge some of my naughtier impulses, by which I mean that in the first hours of a morning in early January, when the sky was still dark and the government still hurtling, I decided to snoop through my boyfriend’s phone while he was asleep.
I’d never really had the urge to go through another person’s things before. After a few disappointing experiences with high-school boyfriends’ instant-message histories, I’d learned that poking around the by-products of other people’s thoughts usually yielded the mundane, the predictable, and the unattractive. Even with men I respected intellectually, I never found myself caring enough to breach their trust; before Felix, my boyfriends exuded the wholesome, loving, deep-down reliability of hot dads on television shows, despite being, as far as I knew, not hot, nor dads, nor on television. Simply put: Before Felix, I had good taste. (With the exception of a water-polo player I once showered with in college, a handful of celebrities, and anyone else I may find myself dazzled by in the future, I avoid obvious physical attractiveness because I believe it presages suffering.) But over the year and a half we’d been together, Felix had revealed himself to be completely unrevealing, insisting over and over as I baited and nagged and implored him to tell me his innermost hopes, fears, and childhood-formed biases either that there was nothing to tell or, conflictingly, that he’d told me everything already and it wasn’t his fault if I didn’t remember. It was humiliating, and I assumed he was hiding something, probably other women.
He almost always slept with his cellphone under his pillow. At first I’d thought this was arbitrary, or that it was related to some concern about emergencies transpiring in the night or a previous lack of nightstand, but after he started acting different—not strange, but different—I became certain he did it because he feared I would read his emails and text messages. That his bedtime cellphone habit predated his transformation from funny, somewhat reserved guy to slightly less funny, somewhat more reserved guy didn’t matter: Regardless of motive, sleeping with your phone under your pillow is weird, and I’d failed to think about that until his subtle shift in comportment cast a new light on everything he did. There wasn’t much to go on, but that didn’t matter either. Sometimes, lately, when we were texting each other, little ellipses would appear in the chat to indicate that Felix was typing to me for an extended period of time, perhaps an entire minute, but then the message would never arrive. He would type whatever it was and delete it, and instead of sending something less delicate or elaborate in its place, he would just stop texting me, as if we were fighting. This seems like a relatively small thing until it happens to you 12 or 13 times.
His numerical password was long, and random as far as I could tell, and I was able to decipher it only after weeks of surreptitiously watching him tap it out. He frequently bragged about not being addicted to his phone, so this took longer than it might have otherwise, especially because we didn’t see each other as often as I gathered other couples of our status did (once a week when it should have been at least twice). I was resentful—my sense that I was being wronged was more powerful than my growing ambivalence about the relationship, which was partly related to the distance he’d created between us, but not entirely—so the snooping was also about revenge. I considered trying to place his thumb on the circular fingerprint sensor (which is, as I write this, already becoming obsolete, replaced by facial recognition, which is of course even worse) while he was asleep, but I’m not a reckless person—my risks are calculated, my dishonesty dignified.
I’d had a few other opportunities to act before, when he went to the store to buy beer and forgot his phone on the table, or the rare occasion when he stayed long enough at my apartment to want to shower there. His phone was always calling to me, like my own phone did, only in a more sinister way. He was private but never thorough, a manner that might have convinced me he wasn’t hiding anything if I hadn’t been so sure he was. Instead I considered these lapses either evidence of his incompetence or, more likely, a misdirection strategy. But until that night I’d been hesitant to pick up the phone and confirm my suspicions. I tried to avoid, as much out of elementary-school habit as out of genuine belief in the importance of collective reciprocity, doing things to others that I wouldn’t want done to me. More to the point, I dreaded getting caught and enduring a confrontation in which I’d have to pretend to feel remorse and ask for forgiveness I didn’t really have any use for—the relationship being in my mind already essentially over—which is almost certainly what I’d do. I’m not given to screaming fights, in particular those that require me to dig in and defend my own questionable honor; I can never come up with any memorable insults, and I tend to come out looking like a shamed child instead of a passionate, self-possessed woman. The righteousness Felix could wield over me if it turned out he wasn’t sleeping with other women—the vindication I’d need for my sneaky actions—was also discouraging. It would hasten the inevitable breakup, which would be a relief, but I would seem totally pathetic.
Serendipity arrived on the wings of the Grey Goose. Felix and I had gotten a little drunk at a bar down the street from my apartment, and he came over afterward. “I’m tired; I’m tired; I’m very, very tired,” he sang on the way home. “I’m not even going to brush my teeth!” Such goofiness was uncharacteristic; it put me on edge. When I’d nod my head along with the music in a café or perform some impromptu joy, he’d often look distraught or even ask me, glancing around as if truly uncomfortable, to stop. He did brush his teeth, in the end, and then proceeded to my bedroom, humming the “I’m tired” song and doing a cute, contained dance. Where was this coming from? I felt I was being manipulated, but I couldn’t say how. On my way to the bathroom, I saw that he’d left his phone on the bookshelf, where it lay all-knowingly next to his keys, wallet, and a stray stick of gum. I felt a nervous jolt; in the bathroom mirror my face was flushed.
My skin-care regimen is more extensive than I’m proud of. I’d recently learned the importance of letting each product “fully” absorb before applying the next, and while I did not spend 45 minutes each night sitting in the bathroom awaiting transcendence, the layering approach I couldn’t completely abandon left me plenty of time to consider my options. After a swipe of special water supposedly popular in France I thought, I won’t do it. After I cleansed a second time, with a cleanser beloved in Korea, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t. After I used a scientific-looking dropper to apply serum to my nose to decrease redness and “purify” I thought, Great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. After a pat of stinging, expensive foam, the effects of which were unconvincing, I thought, Ha, that’s funny. By the stroke of moisturizer, I was dewy and resolved: I had nothing to lose but my chains.
Immediately I began to worry that my chance had slipped away—that, though Felix was not on social media through which he could mindlessly scroll in the dark before bed, he might have been overcome with an urge to check tomorrow’s weather or his email or the definition of a word (I don’t know what people without social media use their phones for) and retrieved the phone from the shelf. No. Still there. When I got to the bedroom, quietly passing my roommate’s door, he was breathing evenly, his blocky elbow jutting onto my side of the bed. I took off my glasses, got under the blanket, and lay on my back with my arms uncomfortably close to my body to avoid his aggressive joint. Felix shifted. I stared into the darkness and waited, the possessed radiator occasionally scaring me with a shaming clang.
I dozed and woke, dozed and woke, until the familiar font said 03:12 and I was tapping out his passcode as if in a trance. (Bedroom door: I closed it slowly to avoid any creaking and did not let the latch click). Hunched forward on the couch, elbows on knees, the glow of it around me, I noted that it had opened to the home screen, so I should make sure to return to the home screen before going back to bed. At first there was too much information to take anything in; I felt frantic, like I had just entered a Walmart with the whimsical idea that I might get some socks, maybe a magazine, maybe a new kind of frozen burrito, and instead was confronted by the overwhelming vagueness of my desires. I looked to my bedroom door, trusting that I would hear him if he got up. I was so nervous that, though I do not believe bad people exist (with the exception of the water-polo player I once showered with in college and a handful of celebrities), I felt a strain—the sense that I must be a bad person, to be willing to feel so awful in order to commit the pretty minor offense I was committing. I suppose my definition of a bad person might be more self-centered than others’, though, really, worrying about being a bad person is entirely self-centered. Good people do not think in such categorical terms.
It was a normal iPhone, with the pleasantly rounded corners whose design had recently been at the center of a (punted) Supreme Court ruling. Lined up according to his inscrutable personal preferences were the little square icons, also with pleasantly rounded corners, each featuring a nice illustration that someone had been paid a lot of money to develop. All were different colors yet of equal brightness, and the effect was to prevent the eye from focusing without exactly exhausting it either, making you feel that you were seeing too much and nothing at all. The manual camera, the color wheel, the maps, the better version of maps, the clock that displayed a real ticking digital timepiece, two ways to call a car, the weather partly cloudy yet always bright blue, the internet browser that was a compass but also a safari. His battery was half charged; he was automatically connected to the internet in my apartment. I tapped the messages icon and it opened to his conversation with me, trying to arrange a time and place to meet. Seeing our conversation in reverse, the one in which I remembered participating hours before, was jarring. The flair I thought I’d infused into my punctuation was gone; I was identifiable only by the facts of the exchange—my suggestion to Felix that we meet at 8:30 at the dark bar with the fireplace so I would have time to get a slice of pizza beforehand. My name at the top of the message history did not seem like my name; whatever I’d said or not said was no different from what anyone else might have.
The rest of his conversations were unremarkable. Over the past few days, Felix had texted his mother, a co-worker, a friend I hated, his building superintendent, and a pair of artists he kept up a group chat with. There were girls I knew broadly; their exchanges wilted attempts at flirting, consisting of inert hahas and cools. I tapped back to our conversation so that it would show up first when he opened the messaging app, as before, and then returned, less nervous and less excited, to the home screen. I went to his email to search for his ex-girlfriend’s name and look through the Sent and Trash folders. I was about to abandon the project, disappointed at how boring he was and now very tired, when I saw the single icon containing images of tinier icons, situated in the bottom right-hand corner of his screen, labeled no.
The little box expanded into a bigger box containing two messaging apps I’d never heard of and a social-media app on which I’d been led to believe Felix maintained no account. He’d deleted them soon after we got together, he’d said, in a display of resolve that impressed me at the time, even though he’d never been particularly obsessive about the internet. I hadn’t understood why he was bothering. I thought of the obvious things he’d want to hide: expressions of yearning, photos cut off at the neck or the belly button, meetups arranged in areas of the city I’d never known him to visit. I could imagine him fucking stupid women, young women, women he could easily leave behind, and assumed he was pursuing them here, possibly even with a pseudonym. I smiled in the glow of the phone, disturbed by the instant onset of joy.
I tapped one of the icons, Instagram, and its familiar layout filled the screen. A row of circular user photos along the top indicated accounts that had posted Stories, photos and videos that would disappear in 24 hours, images that I thought, out of an abundance of caution, I shouldn’t view; if I looked, they would later reappear at the end of the row without an ombré ring around them, suggesting they had already been viewed. A new-message tab read 68. Beneath these was his feed, populated by people he followed. Because Instagram was not for reading, my instinct was always to skip over words—captions, usernames, tallies of likes, and comments—but as I scrolled down, careful not to tap twice and add Felix’s heart to someone’s post, I found that all the accounts he followed posted images that were dark, fuzzy, and uncultivated, or else they were crude cartoons, their meaning unclear and their purpose more so. When I ran into a notice from the app—“You’re all caught up! You’ve seen all new posts from the last two days”—I didn’t experience the shame I felt whenever I received the message in my own feed. Instead, I was surprised: Felix must have looked at Instagram all the time. At the bottom of the screen was a row of understated line drawings, a house, a magnifying glass, a plus sign, a heart. The rudimentary silhouette of a figure took me to his profile, where I realized I would need to consult the text.
The topics there ranged from science to politics to business to national security, and were illustrated by images heavy-handed and amateur: doctored group photos of Barack Obama with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jacob Rothschild, one of their arms stuck out at an unnatural angle to point a gun at the viewer; frowning women next to cellphones emitting harmful energies; the blurry Twin Towers in the moments before and after they were struck—all inscribed with warnings in large, artless fonts. The government at fault somehow. The Jews at fault somehow. Incredible, unbelievable facts. I noted the username, tapped out of the app, swiped the app out of the phone’s open queue, locked the phone using the button on its side—luckily the sound was off—and placed the device back on the bookshelf at precisely the nonchalant angle at which I’d found it. I was overtaken by a sense of purpose unlike anything I could re-create in a workplace. My boyfriend was a conspiracy theorist. I could have laughed, but I would have woken him up.
Searching @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_ from my own phone, I got a sense of how popular he was: tens of thousands of followers, hundreds of comments on each post, immense gratitude for his being one of the rare few to not only admit the truth but also strive to expose it for others. Instead of outrage or betrayal, I felt suddenly, magically free. Yes—I definitely wanted the relationship to end. I didn’t want things with Felix to be significantly different, as in better, than they had been for some time, or for the uneasy not-niceness of our relationship to transform into copacetic peace; I wanted riddance and finality, a cessation of concern. I may have hoped, gruesomely, that he had been cheating on me, but this was more conclusive: That he was operating a popular Instagram account promoting (and maybe devising) conspiracy theories meant he was no mere betrayer of trust or casual manipulator, but rather a person of impossible complexity whose motivations I was now liberated from untangling. He might make sense, by some twisted logic, but I would not be the one to determine how. Felix wasn’t a wayward soul down on his luck, uneducated and left behind, who had turned to conspiracy as a way to explain his pain; he did not believe the world was governed by a small group of highly influential Zionist conspirators, or that ambient Wi-Fi eroded cells that affect sleep and cognitive functioning and immune response. He did not believe that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were carried out by covert U.S.-government missions aimed at justifying the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I knew these things about Felix as well as I knew anything about Felix, which in retrospect I suppose was not that well. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure he was Jewish, so for him to be genuinely propagating anti-Semitic conspiracies would have been strange—possible, but strange. He was annoyingly logical, always asking for sources and proof, even when shooting the shit over drinks in the early hours of the morning. BUGGED was also not a word true internet conspiracy theorists used—it was a knowing appropriation of the past, a wink, a clue. One of his photos, posted 19 weeks earlier, was a triptych zooming in on a fuzzy form latched onto the side of an ashy World Trade Center building that, in each of the three images, became hazier; in the last photo the indistinct thing was circled and exposed as a DEMOLITION SQUID. An inside joke masquerading as a typo. He usually slept with his cellphone, as you know, under his pillow.
Many options appealed: I could stomp into the bedroom and throw him out, with or without explanation. I could get back on his phone and cause mischief, through the account itself or through his email, text messages, etc. I could do nothing except begin to insert provocative phrasing into our conversations, suggesting but never confirming that I knew something he didn’t want me to know. Or I could procrastinate—put off leaving him until I could approach the endeavor with the calm dignity befitting the partner of a person who needs help. I don’t think I cared whether he got help, really; this was the final straw in a relationship that had always been porous and insecure, and I wanted to enjoy my righteousness, a secret of my own, and one that was far more original than “When I say ‘I love you’ I no longer mean it.” I imagined the satisfaction of saying, “I went through your phone and discovered you were operating a popular conspiracy-theory account on Instagram, and I just wanted to know … why?” But I wasn’t sure that was the absolute best way to play my hand, and I wanted to play my hand in the absolute best way. I had dumped my last boyfriend cruelly, clumsily, and nakedly (literally), blurting out that I had something to tell him as he wiped semen off my stomach with his underwear. I wanted there to be no question this time of any mishandling or callousness on my part; this was my chance to be purely and entirely the good one. I checked my Twitter account and decided to wait.
Maybe you find it damning that I would go back to bed with someone who could do such a thing, that I would not be repulsed enough to immediately purge him from my house and my life. If he were spreading misinformation in a more usual, deceitfully earnest way—in an editorial published online, say—he would be condemned, and anyone who didn’t condemn him would be questioned, if not condemned themselves. The more ethical alternative—engaging the to-be-condemned person in a frank conversation about his behavior and motives—was also unappealing to me. This was a time when I was feeling nihilistic and base. That said, I understand that the reasoning I provided above isn’t quite good enough. I don’t know why I put the phone back, opened the door slowly so as not to wake him, lay down on my side of the bed, and pretended to forget everything I’d seen.
I didn’t have trouble falling asleep. The next day I woke up calm. Now I occasionally fantasize about what might have happened if I’d raged into the bedroom, shaken him awake—he hated being startled during sleep, always acting as if he were personally offended by sudden noises—and demanded he tell me what the fuck was going on. In the fantasies, whatever he has to say for himself—half-asleep, worried, mad—doesn’t suffice, and, holding his phone in my hand like a love letter from a secret girlfriend, I kick him out into the night. Sometimes in the fantasies I throw the phone down the stairs after him; other times I just keep it. I believe the latter would be a more empowering outcome.
Or maybe I’m being misleading. Maybe I had lingering feelings of tenderness toward Felix that I’d like in retrospect to obscure, given what my association with him must say about me, and I’d rather say I was strategizing than admit I was conflicted about what to do. I’m sure that’s true, though it doesn’t feel true. And I’m sure some of you might say strategy is immoral. Regardless, a few days later, we went on what would end up being our last date, to a restaurant on the Lower East Side popular among people in the art world, and the serenity of my upper hand turned me into a gracious interlocutor. Everyone was going to Japan right now, I agreed, looking over the menu. That was too bad, I added, because it meant that now you couldn’t go there without looking like a trend-following dabbler, and I also wanted to go. Felix had a thick beard, trimmed neatly, that he pulled at with one of his meaty hands as he spoke, claiming to prefer South America, which to him was “grittier.” Mmm, I said, in agreement, though I hated grit and objected to the appropriation of it. The music was ambient; the plants were bountiful; the menu was a mix of Spanish, Italian, and French influences; and though the cocktails were egregious, the wine was reasonably priced.
I still recommend this restaurant to people; I harbor no complicated feelings about this restaurant. Soon after we sat down, Felix told the waiter, a smooth and beautiful gay man, that we were there to celebrate my acceptance to a Ph.D. program; when he heard where I would be studying, he raised his eyebrows and congratulated me. Felix smiled. This is another reason I knew Felix wasn’t, at his core, a paranoid misspeller known on the internet as @THIS_ACCOUNT_ IS_BUGGED_: I had not been accepted to any Ph.D. program, much less one at Harvard, but Felix liked to tell strangers inconsequential lies and build slightly alternate realities out of them, a game with no objective beyond his own delight. We had once been in on it together, or at least I’d thought so, and it had felt good-natured and fun, but now it just seemed like a way to assert intellectual authority over un- and never-to-be-witting strangers.
Would I have even found out about a Ph.D. acceptance in early January? The timeline seemed ill-considered, though I had no idea. I practiced being alone by flirting with the waiter, whose name I learned was Dean, about burrata, such a great cheese. Felix one-upped me by saying we would have champagne, “to celebrate the genius.” When Dean whisked back with the bottle, I downed the bubbly dramatically, as soon as he poured my glass, the kind of social display I knew Felix hated, and smiled a smile I imagined imbued with smug superiority. Dean, shaking his head as if we were old friends and I were simply always adorably like this, declared me “an inspiration!” He refilled my glass as I wiped some liquid from the sides of my mouth. Later he brought us dessert on the house and Felix did not eat any of it.
This story has been excerpted from Lauren Oyler’s forthcoming novel, Fake Accounts.
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