SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Jemimah Wei (Read author interview) August 17, 2020

Art by Sebastien Gesell

People have been trying to take down the Influencers for some time now but I have my eyes fixed on just the one. I’ve been watching her for a long time. I have her notifications turned on. I know she’s just returned from Seminyak, Bali; I know the Jetstar flight she was on got delayed twice. I know she had trouble at the airport, that she slipped through just before Indonesia closed its borders, I know she resents having to cut her yoga teacher training short and come back to a city that will put her straight into quarantine. I followed her as she wept in the Ngurah Rai International Airport toilet, left hand held up to the mirror, iPhone on record, admitting that there are bigger problems in the world, but still. I felt for her when she started her month-long home quarantine. If you break quarantine in Singapore it is six months jail and a SGD10,000 fine. Anyone can make a citizen arrest. You just need to upload photographic proof to this government app. It’s a terrifying thing to have hanging over your head, even if you aren’t going to break the law. It’s the idea of it, she says, the idea of it. I know what she means. I might even have sent her a message. A cute little you can do it! She likes the message but does not reply. I know she’s thinking: Shut up, bitch, I know I can.

The Influencer I have it out for pretends to take her coffee black but really, it’s saturated with sugar, stirred invisible and melted in. I know this because of the countless times we’ve pulled all-nighters at the 24-hour McDonald’s near our secondary school, with its shitty black coffee and unlimited supply of white sugar straws. She doesn’t even like the taste of coffee. I know, I know, I know. She peppers her speech with obscure references designed to imply a longstanding love affair with Wong Kar Wai films she’s never watched. Films I introduced to her. The Influencer is a plagiariser of personalities. She’s always been like this. And I’ve always let her. All the times she’s winked at me and mouthed: don’t snitch. All the times I was charmed silent. All the times I played moon to her sun, reflecting light back at her. Waning slowly as her orbit spread. Then being gently detached with a hug, a squeeze of the hand. A babe, where’s this coming from? It’s still you and me.

It’s fine. I’ve been watching her, her daily updates, her content. When she says, good morning lovelies, I whisper back, good morning Arissa. I press my index and middle finger to my lips and tap twice, the way she does, like blowing out a kiss or a cigarette. She’s holding the phone to her giant gold gilded wall-leaning mirror, talking to us, how’re you guys doing, but also to herself, my thoughts and prayers with you all. I see her eyes in the mirror, they’re running over her bronzed skin, her cheeks, her lifted lashes, tinted; I feel a flash of anger when I reply, swell, Arissa, swell. It was the same when we were children. She would ask me a question, cock her head to one side, and listen, taking pleasure in the deep rumble of her own voice. Back then I listened, too. Back then I didn’t mind. Back then when watching me watching her gave Arissa enough pleasure for two. Don’t be ashamed, she says, and I flush. It’s okay to feel anxious. These are crazy times. Obsession with productivity is a product of toxic work culture. Take a moment to just breathe. I inhale. There are seven thousand of us inhaling at once. We exhale. Arissa has been leading us in her morning breathing cycles. They happen every day at 6:30AM on Instagram Live: Arissa, sitting cross-legged and yoga-straight in her sports bra and tights, breathing in for eight counts, holding for five, then letting the air hiss out slowly to the tempo of fluttering heart-shaped reactions. So many hearts. At the end of each cycle she pulls herself close to the mirror, locks eyes with us, raises her index and middle finger to her lips, and taps twice.

Every morning at 6:34AM I take a screenshot. If I put all my screenshots in order I would have a GIF of her body changing, her rose gold hair growing unruly, her unsightly black roots inching out, her cheeks puffing and swelling with water retention. I know all of these changes put pressure on her in very specific ways. Arissa is addicted to sodium; her favorite snacks are these Godiva-covered chips that she’s hoarded since young, she gnaws on them constantly and tries to stop but cannot. There are mirrors all over her 8×10 room and no way to escape her shame. I know that when she turns the camera off she examines herself and weeps. I know she thinks of the distance between her front door and the neighborhood salon, I know she fixates. I’ve seen the comments on her videos. This quarantine will not be kind to Arissa. She has no self control, no capacity to resist or change. I’ve been watching her for a long time. I know it’s coming. One day, she will appear at 6:30AM and greet me as always. She will say good morning lovelies, how are you today. One day, soon, she will have cracked, succumbed to the siren call of the salon, and she will be perfect again. An angel restored, a gleaming halo of rose gold from roots to tip. She will still be in quarantine. When that day comes I will be ready.

About the Author

Jemimah Wei is a writer and host, based in Singapore and New York. She’s a 2019 National Arts Council Scholarship recipient, a Columbia Writing Scholarship recipient, and was recently named a 2020 De Alba Fellow. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, No Contact Magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Math Paper Press anthology From the Belly of the Cat, amongst others. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Columbia University, and is working on her first novel.

About the Artist

Sebastien Gesell is a Paris-based photographer who also spends extended periods of time living and traveling with his family in east Asia and other regions around the world. He works primarily with a 35 mm lens, investigating the fine-grained detail of that world with macro photography, but also surveying landscape, architecture, and even the night sky as he searches for new vistas to share with others.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020

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