Short Story Big Fan
Of course Tinsley knew Mia’s book launch was on Thursday. No one could talk about anything else online all weekend, but she hadn’t dared to picture herself actually there.
Judging by her feed, no one else did anything interesting last night, either. Tinsley rolled over in bed and held her phone inches from her face. She peered at a video of her coworkers, the strategists (or whatever title they’d been christened after the last restructuring) from the tenth floor who sometimes invited her and the other twentysomethings along on their prowls. Unimpressed, she scrolled on, flicking through a few baby photos and someone’s phlegmy oyster brunch, before seeing it at the top of the screen: a new video from Mia St. Clair, posted only hours ago. Tinsley sat up, clawed a crumb of morning crust from one eye, and pressed play.
At a bar somewhere (SoHo maybe?), Mia laughed and posed, her arm around the founder of that skincare startup everyone was always talking about, and was that the new Vanity Fair editor in the background? Tinsley watched the six-second video three more times to confirm her suspicions, then again to admire Mia’s bangs. Only then, thrilling from the contact high that a peek into Mia St. Clair’s world always offered, did she finally get out of bed.
Neither roommate was up yet. Tinsley tiptoed across their apartment and into the bathroom with her phone. She got through half a podcast episode in the shower, then finished it as she smeared on some drugstore serum and a little of that nice moisturizer from one roommate’s stash (an inarguable perk of living with someone who wrote about lotion all day). She studied the effect in the mirror, feeling dutiful, but not quite pleased. Then, after pulling on a sweater and her least shabby yoga pants, she slung her backpack on and headed out. Sundays were her writing days.
Though the subway ride to Cobble Hill took an hour (great podcast time), it was worth it. The coffee shops here were reproachfully high-end. The baristas didn’t care if she held an hours-long lease on a table, especially if it was in the back by the garbage. What really mattered, of course, was the chic tableau Tinsley imagined she made, perching on a stool and sipping from an imperious mug in a place like this. Today, she selected a cafe on Smith Street to make camp and unpack her laptop and notebooks.
She started writing in these notebooks ever since finding out that Mia St. Clair did too, according to Mia’s profile in the Sunday Times . Between the breathless review of her upcoming novel (“ her third in three years, a widely-anticipated victory lap from the uncontested voice of her generation ”), the interview also revealed that Mia always wrote her drafts out by hand. She especially preferred this Swedish notebook brand that supposedly hand-stitched each page with mindfully-sourced flax.
Tinsley had immediately ordered three. They were astonishingly expensive. Their leather binding and creamy pages made her feel as if she were a beautiful and beloved best-selling author too. One notebook was almost full, packed with diary entries that held the most potential for future essays. Pumping those out for the student mag back in college used to be easy. It was so much harder now, without blinders to keep her on track—no syllabus, no textbook, no one around being paid to be encouraging. Before, her class of peers could have fit into a single subway car. Now, Tinsley was competing with all of New York City. That idea was so depressing that lately, it didn’t take long for her writing days to devolve into her preferred pastime: reading other people’s work.
She first came across Mia St. Clair’s writing back when Mia wrote for the meanest, coolest blog that the whole industry regularly devoured. That was where Mia first came to prominence, most memorably when she wrote a takedown of a veteran columnist whose gender politics had become as unfashionable as their taste in patterned tights.
It wasn’t just Mia’s biting sense of humor, or her tightly-fitted arguments, or her near-scholarly command of feminist theory. It was the sum total of it all, sharpened to a lethal point with relatable cool-girl speak and flecks of references to the kinds of books most people never read but pretended they had. The personal essays that came after (all about Mia’s wilder party years) and the novels (always starring smart, headstrong rebels testing boundaries) were more of the same: mind-bendingly brilliant and universally adored. Who wouldn’t want to be like Mia?
Tinsley’s was an admiration that started innocently enough. She was twenty-four and forever following up on pitches sent over lunch at her algorithm-tending desk job. Mia was technically a peer, except she wasn’t. Everyone important knew Mia St. Clair and discussed her genius with the kind of reverence usually saved for literal laureates or dead pop stars, never mind an author who’d just turned thirty. (For her birthday, Mia had posted a photo of herself—probably taken by her sturdy neurologist boyfriend on their vacation in Ibiza—lounging on a private balcony, looking tanned and glamorous and like she was about to sell you something.)
They’d met in person once, briefly. Last spring, Mia was on a literary panel hosted by the Williamsburg intelligentsia and Tinsley went alone. The attendees were the usual intimidating types who tossed around words like “semiotics” and “ouroboros.” Tinsley sat in the back and spent the whole time watching Mia’s hands pick at her manicure under the panelist table. She left a small scattering of electric blue flakes on the carpet.
Afterward, Tinsley hovered by the exit until Mia walked by to leave. In the flush of such a titanic opportunity, she reached out and clamped a hand down onto Mia’s shoulder.
“Hi,” Tinsley said quickly when Mia whirled around. “I love your work.”
It felt eerie to stand next to her. Mia was practically miniature (like those cheerleader types from high school); her living, breathing, lemony-perfumed body barely came up to Tinsley’s chin.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Mia said pleasantly enough. “Who are you?”
Tinsley stuck out her hand and shook Mia’s (grip: firm; skin: satiny-soft). Mia smiled, then excused herself, rubbing her shoulder as she walked out.
By the afternoon, the coffee shop began serving wine and filling up with flannel-lined parents passing glasses of pinot and toddlers between themselves. It was time to call it a day. Tinsley had added a whole page to her latest essay/diary entry, which was supposed to be about what it was like dating an older guy. The guy in question, a reporter named Jonathan, was really only five years older. But he was coming over for dinner and there was a chance their date would make for good material (maybe even a whole scene), depending on how things went.
The nice grocery store was just across the street, where someone’s sheepdog was tied up near the entrance. After texting Jonathan a photo of the dog, Tinsley ducked in to pick up kale and pasta for their dinner. When he replied and said he’d be late, she killed time by wandering through the length of the store, picturing what it could be like to be a local, a regular here, somewhere with a whole aisle just for olive oil. On the train, as she handled her paper bag so that the store’s name faced outward, she tried not to get nervous about seeing Jonathan.
Technically, Tinsley and Jonathan had known of each other for a few years. They followed each other online and maintained the kind of spatial awareness of two strangers circling at a cramped party. They’d only really met a couple of months ago, over vague cups of coffee that could have been either a networking meet-cute or prelude to romance. Jonathan was a moderately internet-popular city hall reporter with an email address basically in the public domain. Tinsley had first reached out, as they say, after reading his latest article bemoaning the close of some firetrap dive that she particularly liked. When they met, she took in the ratio of his authoritative height to that smugly boyish face and was a total goner.
They followed each other online and maintained the kind of spatial awareness of two strangers circling at a cramped party.
Jonathan seemed interested in her too, or at least enjoyed her rabbity ambition and appreciation for his work. They’d had a handful of dates since then, though his schedule was at the mercy of both the day’s news cycle and the storied benders he took on with fellow journo boys from the trenches. There was never a clear line between work and everything else for a guy like that. It was all just a never-ending quest in pursuit of sources and the city’s best Gibsons.
He was sleeping over more, at least. The sex was unremarkable—sometimes Jonathan did like to grip Tinsley’s neck with one hand during the act (it wasn’t like it hurt or that he ever squeezed)—but it seemed promising that they had a routine going, as well as these nice Sunday dinners. More importantly, there was that one morning when Jonathan stopped to look through Tinsley’s bookshelf while he was getting dressed. He’d picked up her copy of Mia St. Clair’s first novel and then casually informed her that he and Mia were related. Step-siblings since their college days, it turned out, and close friends for years.
Jonathan flipped through the book and read Tinsley’s notes in the margins. A photo from Mia’s old Paris Review interview, cut out with kitchen scissors, fluttered from the pages.
“Looks like you’re a big fan,” he laughed. He examined the clipping for a moment and put it back in the book. “Mia’s great. She let me crash with her when I first moved to the city.”
“She used to live in Greenpoint, right?” An interior design blog had once done a feature on Mia’s old place—which was dubbed strikingly bohemian— before she moved into the townhouse that Tinsley sometimes looked for in Cobble Hill. “Was it really nice?”
“It was basically a messy studio.” Jonathan sighed. “And her bed took up like half the place.”
“Was it huge?”
“Get this.” He lowered his voice, as if he were letting her in on an unspeakable secret. “It was a California King .”
Tinsley glanced around her room and realized having an apartment that big, furnished with that kind of extravagance, had never even occurred to her. What other things were out there—things to deeply want that she didn’t even know about?
Later, while Jonathan sat on the edge of her mattress and tied his shoes, she felt the urge to memorize the way he looked to her right then, with the scrape of his chin still raw on her skin and the unearthly feeling of something possibly clicking into place in her life.
For dinner tonight, Jonathan was indeed late, but he’d brought wine. At the door, he bent down to ruffle Tinsley’s bangs and kiss her on the cheek. It reminded her to straighten up, tug her shoulders back, as if she were receiving an award. While she made the salad and he tended to the pasta, they talked about their weekends and the Atlantic article that upset everyone online. It didn’t take much to set Jonathan off on a tangent about these kinds of things and Tinsley liked listening to him do the talking. She’d pepper in an observation or two, usually lines remembered from podcasts, in the gaps he left for her.
Even on her mismatching plates, her salad ended up looking good enough for a photo (just like that bestselling cookbook had promised), so she took two, just to be safe. Jonathan always averted his eyes when she did stuff like this. It was embarrassing—posting these kinds of things was another thing that he loved to chalk up as performative —but only for a second.
After dinner, Jonathan gallantly handled the dishes and Tinsley sat on the counter next to him, deleting more voicemails from her parents about when she’d finally move home , go to grad school , make a real living , and also counting the likes her salad picture got. Inevitably, they ended up on the subject of Mia’s new novel. The book was supposed to be dark, Jonathan had heard. Heavier than anything Mia had written before.
“She’s been through a lot of fucked up stuff,” he told her. “I’m surprised it’s taken her this long to work it into her writing.”
Tinsley felt a wave of sympathy as she imagined Mia helpless against whatever tragic forces Jonathan was alluding to. Somehow, it made Mia seem even cooler—tougher, really, and it did explain why Mia had such a bottomless supply of subject matter.
“The launch party is Thursday night,” Jonathan said. Her chin jerked up from her phone. “I got an invite. Do you want to go?”
Of course Tinsley knew Mia’s book launch was on Thursday. No one had been able to talk about anything else online all weekend, but she hadn’t dared to picture herself actually there.
“Sure,” she said slowly, hoping she sounded casual. “That could be cool.”
“No big deal if you’re not into it.”
“No, no, I’d love to.” A smile surfaced, extra big, so he knew she meant it.
“Okay then.” Jonathan grinned and turned back to the dishes. “It gets going around eight, I think. I’ll text you the details.”
Back on her feed, a new video from Mia appeared. Tinsley went to the bathroom to watch and felt a flush of recognition: There was that same sheepdog from outside the grocery store. The timestamp made it hard to tell if she’d posted this before or after Tinsley had been there, but a frantic regret about leaving the grocer so quickly boiled up anyway.
Upon a second rewatch, Mia’s crystalline laugh was plainly audible in the background. Tinsley practiced laughing out loud like that in the mirror. Maybe it didn’t matter that she missed running into Mia today, not when she was going to be at her party and finally be around her. Not as just a fan, but as a real peer. A friend .
When she came out of the bathroom, Jonathan looked up from the sink at her. If he heard anything, he said nothing.
Mia’s party was in the deliberately edgy part of the Lower East Side, at a shuttered boutique that kept with the setting of her novel. The half-gutted shop still had mannequins beckoning from the windows, copies of Mia’s book in their plastic hands—the work of some enterprising publicist. In the main room, a trembling pink chandelier cast everything in a suggestive haze. Beyond the DJ booth and the handful of Bushwick kids vaping by the doorway, the rest of the room congealed near the bar and milked the champagne supply.
When Tinsley and Jonathan walked in around nine, a woman with an undercut gleefully told them that the store’s fitting rooms were still in place and, from the looks of some attendees wobbling off in that direction, were being put to good use.
“Looks like we’ve got some catching up to do.” Jonathan winked at Tinsley and took her hand. As they wove through the crowd, she couldn’t help but tug at the tangerine jumpsuit (borrowed from her roommate, two sizes too small) and wish she wore something black instead.
Jonathan ordered them two flutes of champagne each at the bar. They promptly ran into his work friends, a matching set of reedy white guys sporting various philosophies of beard maintenance. After being summarily introduced, Tinsley concentrated on smiling a lot, asking smart-sounding questions, and not spilling her drinks. She gave up and downed one straight (the guys hooted and applauded), then perched at the edge of their conversation. Not bad for a sheltered wallflower from the ’burbs, to be hanging out with these impressive published men as they talked about their work. Not that she had anything to add while they swapped their latest tales, but at least she was here and she knew who they were.
What other things were out there—things to deeply want that Tinsley didn’t even know about?
As Jonathan joined whatever mayor-related gossip they were dissecting, she used it as an opportunity to wade over to the bathroom to check her breath and examine her makeup. By the sinks, two girls wearing illogically slitted dresses were furiously estimating the cost of the party and thumbing through the contents of the gift bag.
The bags looked nice and, outside, Tinsley drifted around to see where she could get one. Eventually, she set her coat down somewhere and wound up back at the bar. She ordered a vodka soda and sucked it down in a corner where she kept getting bumped into—once by a sweaty NYU student, who pressed his personal business card in her hand, then by a handful of recognizable writers who were making fun of someone’s ex-girlfriend’s documentary. It annoyed her, to see how self-serving everyone lucky enough to be at this party was, when the evening should have only focused on one person in question.
“There you are.” Jonathan’s voice was in her ear. It took the slightest effort to focus her gaze on his face. “I got us a few real drinks.” He held a martini in each hand and gave one to her.
“This is fun,” she said loudly over the music. Maybe fun wasn’t the right word, but there was a dizzy beginning-ness to all of it. She still couldn’t believe that Jonathan was here with her, that he’d brought her here , to his famous step-sister’s party, and then also to be with her .
Jonathan gestured across the room, where Mia was shaking hands and taking pictures with fans. “Should we go say hi?”
Tinsley followed him, expecting to get in the unofficial line and feeling dazzled when Jonathan strode straight to the front. Mia (dress: a dark slip; her hair: rumpled and lovely) immediately hugged him. While they murmured in each other’s ears, Mia held a bottle of seltzer in one hand and rubbed Jonathan’s back with the other, as though they were alone somewhere private. Then Jonathan remembered Tinsley and beckoned her over.
“Thank you for coming to this ridiculous little fete of mine,” Mia said huskily, pulling her into a one-armed squeeze. Her perfume was different this time, warm and heady.
“It’s a great party. Really.” Absurdly, Tinsley couldn’t think of anything else to say, even though she’d stayed up all night rereading her favorite Mia essays, the ones about Mia’s own early twenties and those years spent on an experimental commune. It seemed out of place to bring up any of it now, not with Mia’s publicist supervising from the corner and the event photographer lingering nearby.
“You know, um, we’ve actually met before,” Tinsley said instead. “At that panel?”
Mia shrugged. “I’m sure we did. I’m so obscenely terrible with names.” She glanced at Jonathan, as if referencing an inside joke. “Faces too. Please don’t hate me?”
Jonathan said something else in her ear and Mia laughed again (so weird, to hear it without the shield of her phone in between them). While the two of them talked for a few more minutes, Tinsley finished her martini off to the side. Jonathan gave Mia another hug and excused himself to use the restroom. Mia’s attention was quickly commandeered by her publicist waving a phone—the neurologist boyfriend was on the line, calling before a late shift to wish Mia well. The crowd closed in.
Tinsley looked for a place to set down her empty glass and then glanced at her phone to check how much calling a car home would cost. She went back to the bar and drained another vodka soda, watery as it was, as she filmed shots of the party to post online. It was foolish not to have asked Mia for a picture, to miss the chance to tell a joke she’d practiced last night too. Their whole exchange made her want to yank out the tapes rolling in her head and delete the footage forever.
The car home would cost her, but it would have been easy to leave. The idea of slipping under her covers and maybe eating some leftover spaghetti sounded like a comforting ending to such a dismaying night. While she looked for her coat, Jonathan reappeared, back from the bathroom. He was wiping his nose on the back of his hand and looked so happy to see Tinsley that he pulled her into a kiss, right in the middle of the room.
Tinsley knew she was drunk, but decided it felt intimate, to kiss Jonathan like this in a crowd full of important people, where she didn’t know who was watching. (Maybe even Mia.) The drinks on Jonathan’s breath tasted awful, but she leaned in closer when the event photographer approached and snapped pictures. Sure, her head was killing her, but at least she was here, making out with a hot reporter at the most exclusive party in lower Manhattan, probably. To think, she almost went home for leftovers.
“Come on,” Jonathan said. His boyish grin glinted in the chandelier’s glow. So Tinsley let him lead her into the back where the fitting rooms were. Inside one of the stalls, they began pawing at each other in earnest. The animal feel of Jonathan’s tongue blunted any fleeting wonder if this was romantic at all.
That crystalline laugh erupted next to them, from the next fitting room over. It was dark, but three pairs of feet were definitely visible under the hem of the curtained partition. Jonathan didn’t seem to notice. Maybe Tinsley was just wasted and imagining things. But then there was that laugh again, now turning seamlessly into a moan . The rustle of fabric, something unzipping, someone kicking their heels off. The unmistakable sound of flesh moving wetly in rhythm.
Jonathan, who had been fumbling with Tinsley’s jumpsuit, finally noticed the look on her face. He didn’t have to ask. Mia’s voice, breathily murmuring ohmygod cut unmistakably through the air. He laughed. “Should we join them?”
“It’s Mia, ” Tinsley whispered. Her face was on fire.
At this, Tinsley struggled to form the words. “Aren’t you guys like, related?”
“Not really. Barely.”
A wave of nausea burrowed up from the stem of her skull. She tried to picture her bed again, or cool running water, anything to keep her steady.
“Come on.” Jonathan snickered. “Now you can really get to know her.”
From the other side of the wall, someone and Mia moaned together. Tinsley thought for a second that she was going to either throw up or die right then and there in that stupid jumpsuit. She clumsily pushed Jonathan off, staggered out through the party and out the door.
No one came after her. She flagged down a cab and curled up in the back, keeping herself as still as possible. At home, she went to the bathroom and tore everything off to sit on the toilet. The contents of her stomach emptied in a sputtery, disgusting mess. She flushed and knew she needed to throw up, too, but because she couldn’t stand to put her face near the toilet bowl, where her own pile of shit had just been, Tinsley vomited in the sink instead.
She sat down on the tiled floor, wishing she could peel her skin off and flush that away, too, along with whatever brain cells were still encoding the sound of Mia’s unblushing pleasure in her memory.
It wasn’t just that she’d overheard Mia St. Clair on the other side of the curtain, sharing her most intimate self (and with total strangers, probably). It was also, Tinsley thought drunkenly, that Mia either didn’t know or wouldn’t have even cared that the one person who knew everything about her, who craved everything about her, had been right there.
This wasn’t how her grand entrée into Mia’s private circle was supposed to happen at all. To have only been another face in line, or at most, another pair of feet under the curtain? Was that it ? Was that how all of this actually worked? To conjoin yourself to other important bodies—start-up founders, glossy mag editors, esteemed panelists, barely-grown boys with big audiences—by any means possible. To do whatever it took to break in and hope for uptake into the greater ouroboros as it teemed and roared and spun blindly forward.
To have only been another face in line, or at most, another pair of feet under the curtain? Was that it? Was that how all of this actually worked?
The way Tinsley’s whole body hurt made clear she’d be sick again soon, so Tinsley used this small window of relief to swish sink water in her mouth and fumbled around her purse for her phone.
There was a text from Jonathan, a singular question mark.
Tinsley ignored it. Her thumb opened up the feed before she could think. A new video from Mia St. Clair appeared. Tinsley brought it closer to watch.
For weeks afterward, as the memory of that night replayed during the dead air between work and writing days and all the normal routines that now seemed unbearable, Tinsley comforted herself with the thinking that she had, at least, been right. Going to Mia St. Clair’s party was a beginning, in a way.
The day after the party, by the time she got out of bed, it was almost dark out. Downstairs, where the building’s trash was set out, her writing notebooks were still in the same bin where she’d stuffed them in a miserable rage after retching into the sink for hours. They smelled too awful to use. It was fine, anyway. As it turned out, recounting the most unforgettable night in your life worked out just as well on a laptop.
When the deputy editor of her second-favorite blog emailed back, Tinsley read the response four times before exhaling at last. The editor had seen her pitch and wanted it immediately.
god it sounds delicious, the editor said. and i think it’s tasteful that you want to make it like a blind item. the right people will know who it’s about. After receiving the draft, she fixed a single comma error before publishing it the next morning.
For twenty-four maniacal hours, Tinsley’s essay reverberated across the internet. Some people said it had to be made up; others dubbed it an accurate sendup of “the problematic nature of encountering your heroes,” and “a modern Cinderella story gone wrong.” Everyone wondered (incorrectly, mostly) who the unnamed author so mercilessly vilified in the article really was. Tinsley let herself gorge on every word, as though hoarding them for evidence.
That afternoon at work, when an unfamiliar number appeared on her phone, the thought of Jonathan (whose number she’d deleted and now regretted) made Tinsley pick up instantly. But it was just the editor calling her about the pageview number, and how yes, her writing had gone viral. She forgot all about Jonathan and went to the office bathroom, looked at herself in the mirror, and mouthed a silent, vindicated scream.
A few Sunday nights later, when Tinsley checked her email (not as a regular twenty-four-year-old, but as a published writer , someone who checked her inbox with a sense of purpose) it felt like a defining moment. To send an email to the editor— her editor—and follow up on a real, live invoice! It felt so grown up, never mind the fact that the one hundred and fifty dollars promised by the blog last month would be going straight to her roommates for Tinsley’s share of the latest exterminator bill.
She sat on her bed and refreshed her inbox once more, just to check, and saw that the editor finally responded. will check on the invoice for you. sorry!!
Then, a second email, which gave her a pinprick of satisfaction: would love to work with you again, though. you seem scrappy! we like that here.
And then, under that: send me your more pitches! what else do you have?
Tinsley stared at the last line and started typing a response back, then stopped. It suddenly felt too warm in her room to think. Maybe her sweater was too much and needed to come off. And a glass of water would be good, too, to drink down and clear the mind before coming back to it.
Her second and third tries to type something out still came out all wrong. She deleted everything. Elsewhere online, everyone was jabbering about some op-ed she hadn’t read, hadn’t even heard about, so that was no use. The longer the email window remained empty, the faster that panic unbottled inside her. Eventually, the glimmering pixels of what else do you have blurred and merged until they looked like ciphers from a buried language, and still she sat and looked at them for so long that the laptop screen faded.
Then it darkened completely, ushering Tinsley’s reflection into view. It leered at her from under a thick film of grime that had long since fossilized to the glass surface of her screen, made plainly visible only now. She got up and looked for her phone.