THE ALICE ORIGIN STORY, 2nd chapter

The plot thickens, while remaining quite thin.

(First read CHAPTER ONE: THE WHY)

AMONG THE SOCIAL MEDIA DETECTIVES chasing clues to my real identity, many seem interested in why I chose the name Alice. If you’re not interested in this recondite question—and why should you be?—you should skip the next six paragraphs, in which I address it.

We’ll start with the least common theory, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a 1974 Scorsese film I hadn’t seen, and that anyway makes no sense as an inspiration for a Twitter account. I have no idea why people guess that, anymore than “Alice’s Restaurant,” the late-’60s ballad whose lyrics annoyed me even before I learned its real name: “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” (Stet!)

This is when a stage door opens, and Alice Kramden steps out to applause. The Honeymooners is a classic sitcom, yes. It’s also so old it’s in black and white.

“Go ask Alice”? No. I’d known the phrase only from “White Rabbit,” the shroomy bolero by the Jefferson Space Shuttle or whatever, now playing on Sirius XM. I didn’t know back then how much more interesting the phrase became in 1971, after an anonymous writer conned her way to the top of the NYT bestseller list with Go Ask Alice, a book intended for young adults. The book took the form of a diary, and the introduction from its “editor” claimed it was “based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user.” Millions bought it in every sense, and a half-century later, Go Ask Alice remains in print. I only wish it had inspired my name.

Alice James, Alice Eve, Alice Stokes Paul, Alice Roosevelt Longworth: the detectives never connect me with majestic women. They prefer a struggling waitress, a mordant housewife, a teen drug addict, or worse: the most irritating seven-year-old in world lit.

A lot of other online-only Alices were surely inspired by Lewis Carrol’s paedophilic protection. But I never liked Alice in Wonderland, nor Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as my schoolteaching grandmother insisted on calling it. Grandma was so fond of the girl’s creepy adventures she could never just read them to me. She gave readings, in a fake-English accent, italicizing jests.

So no. All that happened on January 11, 2019, was that “Alice” popped to mind, and I typed it into the Twitter form without thinking. I didn't see any reason to fret over a handle meant to last two weeks. Why “from Queens”? I was living in Queens. The story of the name is really that boring.

NEXT I WENT LOOKING FOR A PLAUSIBLE FACE. This, in retrospect, is where the madness began. I clicked open the Getty and Alamy websites to browse their royalty-free stock photos (RFPs). At this point in my moral descent, borrowing a real woman’s face without permission still seemed very wrong to me. I set out to find a model contractually obliged not to mind if I borrowed hers.

Then it was like I blacked out for an hour and woke to three-hundred open tabs, each with a slightly different face that seemed wrong in a slightly different way. Lack of any sense of proportion, a fixation on the perfect result of a farcically insignificant task: just your basic OCD enhanced by dysmorphia.

The face I finally found adequate was more an Alyssa or Alessia than an Alice. Long, salon-blond hair falling from a middle part, brown eyes so large they seemed incapable of closing. She had the even, full-body Kardashi-tan that ruled the mid-2010s with their “just a little ethnic” ideal.

She was too hot to be royalty-free. But the corporate watermark on her neck looked surgically removable by any novice. So I went to work cutting, blurring, toning, and in twenty minutes I’d done it: her neck was a puddle of sploodge. I thought, “No worries,” and removed her neck. Then it was like I blacked out again, and when I came to, Alyssa was on life support. None of the necks from other models had taken. My next thirty months might’ve been quite different—I might not be here today—if one had.

I ATE A BOWL OF OATMEAL FOR DINNER. Sobered and tired and over it all, I resolved to go with the next face that had vitality and no watermark. It was a total coincidence that the woman who met the new lax criteria looked like she’d arrived in New York City, as I had, from my home state of Vermont.

This was an Alice. Her skin toggled between norovirus-pale and fetchingly translucent. She had a full set of bird-bones and short hair that bounced in ugly clumps. I could see her in the 29th hour of an Adderall binge sawing chunks of it off with a bread knife.

What said Vermont? Real wholesomeness but not the natural kind. Wholesomeness maintained by force of will, in deliberate accord with an ideal. The kind of wholesomeness that protects you from New York City and can also deprive you of it. She seemed like the kind of young woman who would reject a perfectly nice older men with thirty million dollars because of his taste in books.

Her dorky glasses and subdued makeup were echt-Vermont, too; less obviously so, her overbite. Orthodontal perfectionism requires a critical suburban mass my home state never had.

Class-wise, I decided, she came from the upper-middle, which in Vermont doesn’t take much. Your household only needs one physician’s assistant, teacher, or MSW. The others can be townies or gamers, or one of the Green Mountain stereotypes that have declined without disappearing. A bluegrass mandolinist who regrets dropping out of college. A documentarian who didn’t want anyone to know she went to college until owning white privilege became a thing. A licensed arborist, a self-proclaimed ecologist, an uptight carpenter who was earning so much at age 18 that college seemed pointless, and was.

Was her family new to bourgeois comforts? Doubtful. They had some modest legacy wealth from an ancestor with a business. They’d squander the wealth on her four years at Swarthlebury, but not on frivolities. No lovely clothes, no deluxe vacations, no Forester less than eight years old. She’d reach Brooklyn from college never having seen the inside of a private gym. She’d stay nonetheless thin into her 50s from a miracle diet of OCD, yoga, and losing herself in books until the only acceptable veg place had closed.

It was after midnight. My brain was empty, my trackpad hand sore. I was reliving my early 20s so hard I’d forgotten to tweet.

THE FOLLOWING DAY, SATURDAY, JANUARY 12th, it seems, I also didn’t tweet, and my iCal reminds me why. I had an invite to a glammish Manhattan party. Cocktails at 7pm before guests moved on to dinner. That’s the kind of true but implausible detail you cut from a novel.

Not that I’d been invited, exactly. I’d scored a plus-one from the college friend I’ve called “Sarah.” For those new around here, Sarah is a daylight creature of the tech-finance woods, an unambivalent Type A. This isn’t my main problem with Sarah, though it makes our small-talking around our periodic hostilities difficult. She’s short, blonde, and works out enough to be fit without becoming slender, a frustration she’ll only reference in passing because direct conversations about it would cast her as the wrong sort of woman. She lives on the Williamsburg waterfront in one of those glassy towers that are easy to despise until you’re inside a high-floor apartment. The East River Ferry cuts its engine and glides into the dock below… a glass-muted helicopter beats by at eye-level. Inside her apartment I question my life choices, decide it’s too late, then think, Is it, though?

Not having Sarah in my life was unthinkable, and also we were overdue for a breakup. Both things had always been true. I never broke things off because a really break would be awkward for mutual friends. I assumed she’d done the same math. For girls we’re both good at math.

There was another thing keeping us together I’m not sure she noticed: her epic drive to avenge her sub-Alice status in college by proving that I was sub-Sarah, now. Which I was! Definitely on her scale, and sometimes on mine. The plus-one was another demonstration. I had nothing glamorous to offer.

Instead of tweeting that Saturday, I spent time in front of the long mirror negging various boring black dresses and shoes, working up the courage to piss Sarah off by putting on an outer-borough slut show. Meanwhile I was preparing answers for Sarah’s colleagues, who think it’s only polite to ask even someone like me,“What do you do?”

“FBI…. FBI in training…FBI Influencer… I’m too rich to do anything… *Russian accent* I am model.”

(I’d done the Russian model bit with Sarah in earshot once and she bombed in with “Alice is an amazing writer,” which flattered me until I realized she just didn’t want her colleagues to think she had a dunce friend.)

On the subway into Manhattan, I remember thinking that the root trouble with Sarah is that we’d each scripted ourselves into a different kind of buddy comedy. Mine was absurdist: two women, neither of whom understand a word the other says, pretending they do so the other won’t think she’s off the up and up.

Sarah’s buddy comedy was the hack Hollywood kind, with a moral. In hers, I’m the amusing flighty spontaneous superficial one, whose job is to teach my sober hard-working friend to take it easy, have a drink, worry less about her boss’s true opinion of her, and think about having sex with him.

In return, Sarah schools me in the deeper happiness that comes from hard work, adult restraint, and not caring so much about looks.

Sarah, as she’ll tell you, is “buttony” cute. I admire how clearly she sees herself, with no neurosis. Men are very into her breasts, and she deploys them without any of uncertainty, shame, and excitement I feel about displaying my best features. She’s never used them just to hook up. Her chest helps keep men talking long enough for her to decide if they’re serious and smart. Smart gets settled in the first three minutes. Serious takes a bit longer.

The party was not my worst. As a reward for dressing with cowardly “taste,” I harvested a bushel of corporate male regard, including the older-male regard I sometimes crave because Dad blah blah. Wise Sarah would have told me the good news: the harvest meant I could be choosy! I could choose the most promising one and say yes to a proper date. But I don’t know. Somewhere along the line, my dialectic of desire got busted. It’s waiting for a spare part that never arrives. When men at a party don’t pay full attention, I become indignant and drive them off. When I’m more in demand, I relax and become less choosy, likely to run off somewhere to disinhibit with the room’s most persistent Regarder. Sarah loves to reminisce about the times my unchoosiness persisted even after said Regarder showed his hand as a player, mild psycho, or (not defending it) married.

Arriving at her party hungry, I got tipsy too fast. Noticing the signs, Sarah kept me under surveillance. If I wasn’t in the mood to pursue a proper date, that was fine—a pity, but fine. Still I’d need to submit any potential hookup to the Sarah Test: is this a dude I could remotely imagine dating sometime in the near future, when we were done with our sordid business? The answers that night were nooooooo. Also, the leading contestants were her work friends, which is gross, somehow. I was pretty sure I said no.

The next morning I woke hungover, confused by a strange bed, and thought, Uh oh. But it was too comfortable to be a man’s. I found Sarah in her apartment’s kitchen district, looking flushed, in sweaty sports spandex. She’d woken at her usual insane hour and gotten in a workout at her building’s huge gym, or at the micro gym she belonged to as well because it had the better whatever and her employer paid half. One of her little hands dawdled on the kitchen island’s marble top, enjoying some downtime, while she thumb-scrolled her phone with the other. Laying down the phone she made a gesture of “finishing up.”

“She wakes! She rises!”

Something like that. I’m not going to pretend I remember exact words in this scene. The point is that my preference for sleeping late had to be emphasized because it fit with the caricature of me in her buddy movie.

Picking up her script, I said, “I smell Venture Capital coffee.”

She poured me a mug’s worth, and I told her truth: it was fucken amazing. She said, “Did we like the bed?”

“Your sheets are intense.”

“Pillow-wise?”

“I’m not just saying this. You run like the best boutique hotel.”

“I’m putting the customer first,” she said.

“It’s true.”

It was Sarah’s turn to rejoin but she put on a transitional smile instead. “Remember when you said that to me?”

Yeah, yeah. As I explained at the time, which was college, I was being self-deprecating, not condescending to her business aspirations when I said, “I could never be good at business. To me, the customer’s always wrong.”

Her memory had done light renovations, updating the quip from a play on the classically servile “customer’s always right” to the equally servile but more proactive, Obama-era “putting the customer first.” When I pointed out her update, she said, “I can’t believe you remember that.”

Classic! Suggesting I was obsessed with an ancient unpleasant incident I never would have thought about if Sarah hadn’t, two seconds ago, brought it up.

A tentative cease-fire held as we walked our coffees over to her living room district. Both of us shared an instinct to grab all the winter sun we could from her wall of noise-cancelling glass. But we grabbed for different reasons, from different places. I was dry-mouthed and skull-achey in undies and a v-neck, scrounging for January sunshine the way I overflirt and raise my Lexapro dose each winter. Whereas Sarah arrived at her windows caffeinated and high on exercise, her spandex with the sour damp smell of achievement. She merely took the sun, checking it off her daily list, for Vitamin D.

She wasn’t done needling me about the past. She reminded me that (in college!) after she’d expressed her hurt at my condescension toward business careers, I’d been defensive. I’d accused her of paranoia before retreating to like, “I totally get how you’d hear it as condescending. But honestly

It seemed my college apology had expired. Was I aware that my old tone of condescension persisted? Toward her and, yes, others? She brought a lightly embellished example from the party I couldn’t believe she’d overheard. It was with one of the Regarders and she was misunderstanding our light banter. We’d had that conversation before, too: I’d explained to her that anything I say in an old-movie-star voice, as a rule, isn’t serious. But no one hears anything. I re-apologized for asking one of her colleagues if his SUV came with a hot tub.

“I’m not saying you need to be a different person inside,” Sarah said, by the windows, in her wise-woman conclusion-voice. “It would be weird if you weren’t arrogant. Seriously, you’d be unrecognizable. [laugh laugh laugh] But you’re getting too old to just, radiate this arrogance.”

“While living in Queens, you mean.”

“I mean anywhere.”

“Arrogance is not a great look for a nobody like me, is what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying for anyone.”

Yeah, right.

Having lost my will to exist outside Sarah’s judgments, I apologized again and showed my sincere contrition by spending the rest of that Sunday with her and her parents. They showed up at her place exactly at noon, which led me to picture them inside their car in her building’s parking garage, killing time listening to WNYC. Her mother, Jill, greeted me with what began as normal hug that stuck around and grew ominously long. Was she sniffing for alcohol? I’m afraid she was not. She was infusing me with the “support” she apparently felt I needed.

Jill was a short, plump-but-fit upper-suburbanite from Westchester who daringly dyed her CNN-style hair black instead of blonde. Jill used to act testy and competitive toward me, in sympathy with her daughter. But since our post-college status-reversal I was a poor thing having a rough time who needed five-dollar cookies and hugs. I wondered exactly what Sarah had been telling her, and how much came from Sarah’s refusal to detect hyperbole and artistic license in the stories of professional humiliation I told to make people laugh. I could see the two of them on the phone—her mother insisted on voice calls—lamenting that someone so smart and talented or whatever was throwing her life away writing fiction, which she was obviously not meant to write or she would have a large book deal by now, at age twenty-six.

At some point, Sarah’s kindly, invisible father entered the apartment with WNYC still in his ears like the perfume of a celibate woman, and told us to sit, sit, while Jill took over the kitchen and began to poison us with bagels and cake.

“I’ll need an update,” Jill warned me, as if she were giving me time to prepare. “What’s the grad school story?”

“I’mmmm still deciding,” I said. “Pretty sure I’ll apply.”

“Great!” She pointed a cake knife at me. “But do it this time. Really do it. Yeah?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Great.”

I thought: no one in this family remembers anything. Four and a half years earlier, during our college graduation week, Sarah’s parents had thrown an expensive rent-the-back-room dinner for Sarah and ten of her friends. At the time, I was sure I’d be applying to grad school fresh out of college, and told Jill my plans. She’d said, “NO. Don’t waste any more time in the Ivory Tower. It’s much ado about nothing.”

I could never forget throwing so much cold water on anyone younger than I am. A suspicion Jill was right was one reason I didn’t apply that year. The other reason was shyness about asking the big-shot history professor who loved me for a recommendation until it was—not too late, but late in the game. I feared the request to hurry would seem rude and I entered the kind of shame cycle I never get out of until the deadline has passed. Instead I went to Europe for a year, which was pretty great (until I had a breakdown), so whatever.

Jill handed me a plate with a terrifying sandwich. I never understand the Jewish Sunday habit of crushing delicious cured salmon inside a bland double-bolus of white carbs and indigestible cream cheese. No one does this with sushi. Lox is basically sushi. Russians know lox belongs in much smaller pouches. Over breakfast at their summer place in Quogue, once, after staying overnight, I force-fed myself one of the bagel halves and dropped the other into my tote. This time I extracted the lox and left the gross parts plated in full view. This way Jill could whisper to Sarah when I stepped into the bathroom, “Does she eat anything? She doesn’t look great.” Sure enough Sarah told me later that Jill had asked if I were eating “enough.” Sarah said she told her it was none of her business. “Between us,” Sarah ended with. “I do hope you’re eating.”

I didn’t get back to Queens until after dark. It was 9pm before I logged onto Twitter, and made it happen. I felt I had literally nothing else in my life.

NONE OF THE LIKES ON THAT POST came the first day. The tweet hung out there all night without a speck of engagement. Dealing with winter and a flopping novel and letting Sarah shame me out of a hookup, and Jill driving the cake knife in: this was real pain in my real life. Now I was suffering fake pain as Alice.

Same deal: no likes at the time.

Not that I had any reason to expect engagement. The account so far had three bottish followers. But Alice’s total invisibility, a common experience on social media, was a new one for me.

In the past I had always been a late joiner of any new platform. I told myself I was holding out held out “on principle,” resisting as long as I could. Really, I was just waiting for enough friends to get there first that I wouldn’t feel desperate when I finally joined. So I’d never experienced the classic new-to-a-platform ordeal, like that of the new girl in a high school cafeteria caring her tray invisibly past a dozen chattering cliques.

Unable to generate engagement with a few tweets, I tried a second, more embarrassing approach, jumping into the mentions of writers with large followings, whose work I read in magazines. My inaugural targets included Corey Robin and, to my enduring shame, Jeet Heer. I adopted the awful manner of a precocious little sister trying to prove herself to her big sister’s friends.

My #actuallys were bound to be annoying, not that I knew it. I thought they were good points, and would impress anyone impressive who bothered to look.

Their primary targets ignored them. All my engagement came another obscure lonely nag, who’s since deleted his hostile contributions.

One of those. And nobody saw that I’d owned him! My finely weighted replies were ignored by the big accounts, while sloppier, witless rivals got answers and the occasional “good point.”

I got into bed that Sunday night with a new kind of depression. To my sorest injury in the real world (my obscurity, irrelevance, failure), I’d added the petty insult of online nothingness. The whole was nearly as annoying as Alice, with her #actuallys. Just reliving this makes me have myself. Why am I so annoying?



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