Nina reads the message at work a few weeks before she and Seth move to New York so she can go back to school and, as Seth puts it, “get serious about herself.” To save up extra money, she’s gotten a short-term side gig repairing clothing for a vintage boutique. She lied to get the job; she is not an experienced seamstress, merely a hobbyist; she mostly fools around with the fabric until it seems as if the dress fits. Her charm was what got her hired, and her seeming trustworthiness. She has one of those faces. She is figuring out how to hide her mistakes. So far, the shop owner hasn’t said anything.
She works in a tiny room with a sewing machine on the second floor of a converted craftsman house in St. Petersburg; the shop is downstairs. She’s alone all day, no one watching. The hours drag.
You’re a pervert like me, Brian says. Nina’s been texting with Brian for the better part of an hour. She feels a thrill through her tummy. Cradling her phone, she leans against the sewing table and tells Brian to bend her over and fuck her from behind. Pull her hair. Shove his dick down her throat. She takes a picture up her skirt and sends it to him. He responds with a picture of his dick, snapped in the mirror of an employee bathroom.
I’ll see you tonight, Nina says, but you have to come to me. You have to show me how much you want it.
Brian has a reputation for being a player and is on-again, off-again with Katie, a girl Nina knows peripherally from a cluster of semi-cool St. Pete townies. They’re twentysomethings with pretty faces and Spotify playlists. Slightly jaded, slightly grunge. They identify as artists but whose skill sets lean towards DIY/craft. Bikinis under their upcycled outfits. Incestuous dating habits. An inability not to gossip about shit that is none of their business. Katie stands out from the group in being slightly preppier than the rest, and being already divorced: Her first marriage started just after high school and ended less than a year ago with a restraining order. Nina knows this because everyone’s business is everyone’s business around here. She is ready to leave again, and wipe her own slate clean.
She first heard Brian’s name nine months ago in the context of a story about him crawling through Katie’s bedroom window in a cowboy costume. It was Halloween and Nina’s friend Claudette was babysitting Katie’s daughters, two and four, while Katie and Brian were out at Steve’s Tavern, aka “Steve’s Tave on the Ave,” where much of the downtown drama happens. Katie and Brian got into an argument—though he was usually the one cheating, it was she who had cheated this time, which brought Brian to blows with the guy, who was there. Many witnesses. Brian left. When he got to Katie’s house, he discovered he had lost her keys, so he made a judgment. Claudette happened to be at that moment walking across the room in her underwear.
Soon after, Nina met Brian through the local alt-weekly newspaper. He was the web editor; she was the novice blogger. Their first emails were professional—contracts, directions for posting articles, bio and author photo. Then he went off-script: he likes her glasses. He’s spent the last thirty minutes lurking her Instagram, and she should know that he blames her entirely. She should come to the contributors’ meeting on Wednesday. She should come to the Christmas party. What’s her number, so he can text her directions?
Given that bloggers were only paid for those stories selected for print, Nina was grateful when Brian began forwarding her pitch after pitch—she covered an art opening, a t-shirt designer, the opening of the new Sephora in International Mall. Eventually, she was making enough freelancing to be able to leave her job at the coffee shop. When people ask her what she does now, she says she’s a writer, though this feels like a lie.
Even in light of this preferential treatment, Nina had a hunch that Brian’s favorites of her posts were not the ones he assigned to her, but rather the ones that concerned her more personal tastes. Free to curate her own channel on the alt-weekly site, she posted simple sewing tutorials, her personal reflections on seasonal trends, Q&A’s with small business owner friends. Somehow, each of her posts found its way to the homepage.
Cute, Brian texted moments after she posted about best, worst, and craziest street style bags of the month.
You like? she responded.
I really like, he said.
She heard the words in his voice. Her fingers hovered above the screen. What else do you like? She hit send.
Brian is cute. He plays soccer and guitar. He’s in a band named after a bestselling novel. He used to work at a bookstore and keeps his hair long and has intensely blue eyes. He’s a horrible narcissist, which is his greatest charm. It’s an open secret that he fishes in the barrel of young female bloggers—all of his closest friends are pretty young women. Nina and Brian love to torture each other with sexts sent mid-afternoon. She shaved her pussy for him before they ever made plans to fuck. When they finally did, Nina knew instantly upon waking that the day had come: She could smell it.