Where does one even start with Geoff?
Athena and I weren’t close when they started dating. I was still in NYC, struggling through my underpaid, understimulating Teach for America year, but I know as well as anyone the story of their disastrous implosion, a messy affair that played out on Twitter and Instagram for the entire world to see. From what I understand, Geoff and Athena met at a writers’ residency in Oregon, back when both were young, up-and-coming hotshots. She was months away from the launch of her first novel; he was fresh off signing his first deal with a small but prestigious genre publishing house. Their coupling was foreordained; they were both hot and for the most part straight, both prodigies on the verge of taking the publishing world by storm. I suppose Geoff’s study-abroad year in Beijing was part of the attraction (though after they broke up, Athena would complain to me how “Geoff’s Chinese name was Jie Fu, and he wanted me to call him that when we were alone, and isn’t that just so fucking weird? Like, his name is fucking Geoff”).
After the residency, Athena moved into Geoff’s parents’ second house in Fairfax. I know this because for the next six months, both their Instagram feeds constantly churned out sickeningly cute photos of the two of them: close-ups with their bright smiles pressed side to side, skin clear and freckles radiant; black-and-white shots taken at coffee shops, captioned with things like writer at work; and full body pics of them hiking up and down the East Coast, their tall, lithe forms dripping with sweat. There was a time it seemed that they would join the ranks of famous literary couples like Jean
Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald if Zelda had published more.
But Geoff . . . How does one put this kindly? Geoff simply isn’t that talented. We might even compare Geoff’s publication history to mine. He started out strong with dozens of award-winning publications in prestigious short-story magazines. But his first novel, a self-proclaimed “genre-bending thriller” about “race-hopping” androids in a near-future society, failed to make the expected splash. A reviewer at Locus called it “a confused and ultimately misguided, possibly malicious, exploration of postraciality and racial fluidity.” My debut novel didn’t sell very well, but at least no reviewers ever said that I should “keep the ill-considered and shallow philosophizing to undergraduate bars and off the page where grown adults can see.”
Geoff was very miffed by this particular review, and he wrote up some long and embarrassing blog post about how he’d been misread, and how the Locus reviewer didn’t have the “intellectual range” to appreciate the complexity and radicalness of his racial critique. Twitter, predictably, dunked hard on this. Athena broke up with him shortly after (this we plebeians inferred from the fact that all of her “working from home” Instagram posts were suddenly shot from a new location).
The breakup might sound sudden, but we all saw it coming. One should also mention that before his debut flopped, Geoff published a series of short stories about an android girl named Xiao Li who puts up with a number of abuses from lecherous human clients before self-destructing in a blast that destroys over half of New Beijing. The stories, Geoff argued, were a scorching interrogation of colonial misogyny, AI rights, and Chinese patriarchy. Someone on Twitter asked him how he had researched all the Chinese phrases he’d littered through the text; Geoff blithely responded that he was dating a “long-haired dictionary.” (That made the Twitter rounds for days.) There were also allegations of drunk groping at bars and an account that looks suspiciously like Geoff’s on a well-known porn site with “got that yellow FEVER!” in the bio, but we’re all too polite to bring that up in company.
So Geoff’s book flopped. Athena did what everyone expected and distanced herself from that mess, and publishing’s most attractive young couple was reduced to publishing’s most attractive young author and a white boy whose career was over before it started.
At that point, Geoff should have licked his wounds and moved on. He still had a powerhouse literary agent, a second book under contract, and a chance to salvage his career. But then his Twitter presence took a savage turn. He started positing long screeds about how he’d been unjustly made a villain, how in fact it was Athena who had encouraged him to write that original post about Locus but had failed to stand up for him.
I got secondhand embarrassment from watching it all go down. Athena did the smart thing, which was to deactivate her Twitter and say nothing until the internet found something else in which to invest their prurient fascination disguised as care. Geoff kept pointlessly responding to scathing replies until his follower count dwindled to the double digits, at which point he, too, deactivated his account. His agent dropped him for “personal and private reasons.” The sequel to his first book remains under contract, but it’s unclear whether that will ever see the light of day, assuming Geoff is still trying to finish it.
Who really knows what happened? Twitter makes unqualified yet eager judges of us all. Depending on who you talk to, Geoff is either a manipulative, abusive, gaslighting, insecure leech, or a victim himself. Athena came out pretty clean, but mostly because no one could believe that dating the beautiful and talented Athena Liu was as awful as Geoff made it sound, and because it’s always easier to make the cishet white guy the punching bag.
As far as I know, Athena and Geoff hadn’t spoken for months. So what on earth is he targeting me for?
After some more sleuthing, I’m certain he’s the one behind all this. His account has faithfully retweeted everything that the @AthenaLiusGhost account has ever tweeted. Sometimes he adds his own quote tweets: Can’t believe no one is talking about this. Eden, and Juniper Song, should be ashamed.
Before that, the only thing he’s tweeted was from over a month ago:
Does anyone get weird looks when they ask for “real spicy, not just white people spicy” at Indian restaurants? (This got three likes, and the following response from one RichardBurns08: Me too. Been with my Thai wife for three years now, and they still think this gaijin can’t handle it. Love to prove them wrong!) The timing is too convenient.
I have to act fast. Geoff is an idiot, but he’s an unstable, unpredictable idiot. Best to nip this in the bud. I think I can hold my own against him, but I’d like to know exactly what he has up his sleeve.
I still have Geoff’s number from back when Athena invited us and several others on a writers’ retreat by the Potomac. The retreat never happened; we started bickering about the cost of the cabins, and whether it was heteronormative and regressive to insist on gender-separated cabins or if the people who weren’t in relationships would have to awkwardly share, and then suddenly everyone had scheduling errors and had to cancel at the last minute. But I meticulously saved everyone’s contact information, if only to differentiate from all the 202 and 401 area codes.
I send Geoff a screenshot of @AthenaLiusGhost’s first tweet, and then add: I know.
He’s one of those assholes who leaves read receipts on. He sees it right away. He doesn’t answer.
My heart’s pounding so hard I can feel it in my boobs. I type: Tomorrow, outside Coco’s in Tyson’s Corner, 3:30. Only chance. Show up or I’ll tell everyone it’s you.
Then I turn off my phone, hurl it across my bed, and scream.
I SHOW UP EARLY TO COCO’S COFFEE. I GET AN ICED LATTE, BUT I ONLY allow
myself tiny sips; I don’t want to have to pee in the middle of this. It’s unseasonably hot, so I have the outdoor seating area to myself. I pick a two-seater table near the corner, which gives me a full view of the patio and easy escape routes in all directions. I don’t know why I’m scanning for possible exits like I’m a KGB agent in enemy territory, but that’s not a bad description of our situation: two people who’ve been trading lies on the internet, trying to decide how to ruin the other’s reputation.
I’m shocked when Geoff shows up. I see him coming from across the square, head down like he’s afraid of being recognized. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a massive pair of sunglasses. He looks ridiculous.
“Hi, Junie.” He yanks out the chair across from me, sits down, and removes his sunglasses. “Nice to see you again.”
I can see why Athena once adored him. Geoff is, superficially, very handsome. I know from his author photos how sharp his jawline is, how intensely green his eyes are. In person, these features are all so pronounced it’s a bit overwhelming. He looks like the love interest from some dark and steamy YA novel come to life, all mussed dark hair and rough stubble.
Only I’ve read his tweets, so I find him too pathetic to be sexy.
I take another sip of my latte. I’ve decided not to give him control of the agenda—I don’t want to let him think for a moment that he has the
upper hand. I’m coming out the gate as aggressively as I can. “So what’s this nonsense about stealing Athena’s manuscript?”
He leans back and folds his arms across his barrel chest. (So this, I realize, is what people mean when they write “barrel chest.”) “I think we both know what I’m talking about.”
“I don’t,” I say angrily. It’s not hard to conjure outrage. His relaxed superiority makes me want to hit him. “It’s ludicrous.”
“Then why’d you call this meeting?”
“Because what you’re doing is vile,” I snap. “It’s sickening, disrespectful—not only to me but to Athena. And if you were anyone else, I’d tell you to fuck right off, but given you—your history with my best friend, I thought I might as well do that in person.”
He rolls his eyes. “Really, Junie? We’re going to pretend?”
I smack my hand against the metal table. It’s dramatic, but I like that it makes him flinch. “The only one pretending is you. And I’m going to give you one chance to explain yourself before I sue you for defamation.”
His confidence slips, just for a moment. Did that work? Did I scare him off?
“We spoke about the manuscript,” he blurts. “Athena and I.” My gut twists.
“She told me about it while we were dating. I saw her researching it. The migrant laborers, the forgotten voices at the front. I saw those Wikipedia pages.” He leans forward and holds my gaze with narrowed eyes. “And it strikes me as very convenient that shortly after her death, you come out with a book about the very same subject.”
“More than one person can write a World War One story,” I say drily. “There’s no copyright on history, Geoffrey.”
“Don’t bullshit me.”
“I suppose you’re going to whip out all your folders of evidence now?” My strategy is to make him show his cards from the start. If he does have proof, I’m finished anyways, and I’d like to at least see it coming. But if he doesn’t, there’s room to maneuver.
His face tightens. “I know what you did. We all do. You can’t lie your way out of this one.”
Could I have guessed right? Is it possible he has nothing at all?
I decide to push him a bit further, just to see how he reacts. “I see you’re still delusional.”
“I’m delusional?” He snorts. “At least I’m not running around parading a friendship that never was. I know you two weren’t close. Best friends since college? Please. Athena never even mentioned you the entire time we were dating. I saw you at a convention once before, you know. I saw your bio in the program—it said where you’d gone to school, and I asked Athena if she knew you. You know what she said?”
I don’t want to hear it. There’s no reason why this should bother me so much, but it does, and clearly Geoff notices, because he grins, bares his fangs like a hound that’s sniffed blood. “She called you some loser from school. Said she didn’t know why you were still hacking at it, that your debut was thoroughly mediocre, and that you’d be better off calling it quits before this industry chewed you up entirely.” He chuckles. “You know how Athena did that over-the-top fake sympathy, when she was trying to convince us she had human emotions? Boohoo. Poor thing. Come on, let’s go before she sees us.”
My eyes feel wet. I blink in irritation. “Clearly you didn’t know her as well as you think you did.”
“Sweetheart, I’ve seen the stains on her G-strings. She’s an open book.
And so are you.”
I’m tempted then to storm off, or even to reach over the table and smack him across his smug, cruel face. But then I’d have accomplished none of what I came for.
Focus. I’m so close to the finish. I just need to make this all go away. “Suppose . . .” I tap my fingernails on the table and blink nervously for
effect. “Suppose I did take it.”
His eyes widen. “I fucking knew it, you fucking liar—”
“Okay, stop, please.” I feign terror, lifting my hands up as if to show him I have no claws. I let my voice tremble. “What do you want, Geoff?”
His face settles back into a smug grin. He’s getting cocky; he knows he’s in control. “So you really thought you could get away with it.”
“Can we just make this go away?” I plead. It’s not hard to sound scared. All I have to do is imagine I’m walking home alone at night, and Geoff is on the other side of the road, and that there are none of the usual social mores against violence separating his fists from my face. He’s huge and jacked; he could crush me, and I bat my eyelids frantically to remind him of that. I want him to feel like he’s got me in a corner. “Please, if you leak this, I’ll—I’ll lose everything . . .”
“Or maybe you won’t.” He leans forward, palms flat against the table. “Maybe we can come to some sort of agreement.”
I fight to keep my face still. “What . . . what do you mean?”
“You must be making bank from that book, right?” His eyes dart around, checking for eavesdroppers. “Don’t lie. I saw that advance announcement. Mid–six figures, wasn’t it? And I know you’ve already earned out.”
My throat bobs. “You . . . you’re blackmailing me?”
“I just think it could be a profitable arrangement for the both of us,” he says. “You keep selling your books. I keep your secret. Win-win, no? Shall we discuss my rates?”
Jesus Christ. How stupid is he? Does he hear the words coming out of his mouth? I imagine leaking this sound bite all over Twitter, and the rage that would follow. Geoff would never make a cent from writing again. He’d have to go into hiding. He’d never be able to exist again, publicly, as himself.
But such an implosion would be messy, and I’d likely be caught in the blast radius. What I need is to make this all quietly disappear.
“Hmm . . . no.” I make a big show of tapping my lip, and then pouting. “No, I don’t think I’ll do that.”
Geoff’s eyes narrow. “You don’t really get a choice here.” “Don’t I?”
“What do you think will happen when everyone finds out?”
“They’re not going to find out.” I shrug. “Because it’s not true. You’re full of shit, Geoffrey, and we both know it.”
“I know you stole the book—”
“But you don’t know. You don’t have a shred of proof; you’re just making things up to get a reaction.” I tap my side pocket, where my iPhone sits secure behind a zipper, recording this whole conversation. “What I do have, though, is a record of you trying to blackmail me for a cut of the royalties on a book you claim was stolen. You’re not doing this for Athena. You’re trying to leech off her legacy. And when this leaks, Geoff, do you think you’re ever going to get another publishing deal in your life?”
Geoff looks like he wants to strangle me. His eyes have gone so wide I can see the whites around his pupils. His lips curl back, revealing canines. For a moment I’m nervous I’ve overplayed my hand, that I’ve pushed him off the edge. I think of all those films about nice-seeming young white men
who snap. Chris Evans in Knives Out. That rapist in Promising Young Woman. Maybe Geoff will jump across the table and stab me in the collarbone. Maybe he’ll tamp down his anger now, watch me walk away, and then hit me with his car on the way home.
But this isn’t a movie, it’s real life, and Geoffrey Carlino isn’t an alpha male whose fury can’t be tamed. He’s a pathetic, insecure little boy who’s all bluster, who has no more cards up his sleeve.
He doesn’t have the drive to take this any further. Rage shrinks to defeat. I watch his shoulders deflate.
“You’re a horrible person,” he spits.
“I am a brilliant writer and a good friend,” I say. “You, on the other hand, are on record trying to mooch off the supposedly stolen words of your ex.”
“Go to hell, bitch.”
“Oh, fuck off.” I stand up. I once saw a video of a hunter who shot a lion between the eyes right as it sprang. I wonder if the hunter felt like I do now: breathless, victorious, just this side of safe. I wonder if he, too, looked at his victim and marveled at all that power, that potential, wasted. “Don’t contact me again.”
ONCE I KNOW GEOFF HAS NOTHING UP HIS SLEEVE, I HAVE NO TROUBLE crafting
my response narrative. After running some drafts by Jen and Marnie, I post my official statement about the whole fiasco on my author website, which I link to on Twitter. (I thought about posting a phone screenshot of my statement drafted in the Notes app, but Notes app apologies have become a genre in and of themselves, and not a very respectable one.)
I’ve of course been aware of the recent allegations circulating about the authorship of The Last Front. I apologize for not speaking up sooner. Please understand that this has been a difficult time for me, and that I am still struggling to cope with my best friend’s tragic death.
In short, the allegations are completely false. The Last Front is my original creation. I was inspired by Athena to look into this forgotten chapter of global history, and it’s no surprise that her voice shines through in my work.
I understand this whole situation is racially fraught. It upsets me to see arguments that only Athena could have written The Last Front, because Athena’s work was so concerned with Asian diaspora issues. This pigeonholes both of us, and flattens our identities as writers.
I don’t know the motives of the people behind this rumor, but I can only take it as a hurtful, malicious attack on my relationship with someone I miss very much, and whose death was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
My agent and editor have conducted their own independent investigations and have found no wrongdoing. I won’t be speaking on this again.
Thank you, Juniper
THE INITIAL RESPONSES AND QUOTE TWEETS ARE, OF COURSE, VICIOUS.
So you just happened to write a book that your dead friend would have been working on? Seems convenient to me.
LOL she’s not even good at writing apologies.
Ugh, so June Song came out with her non-apology, and I bet white people will be jumping over themselves to defend her. I hate this industry.
Don’t believe a word from your mouth, racist bitch.
If that’s the truth, why did it take you so long to say anything?
Though once I get through the initial flurry of fuck-yous, it’s apparent that my statement has gone over quite well. I can actually see the needle of public opinion shifting from skepticism to sympathy overnight.
This has been one of the most vicious and malicious campaigns I’ve ever seen, tweets a prominent blogger who’s been neutral on the debacle so far. Shame on you all for the damage done to Juniper Song, and to Athena Liu’s legacy.
Twitter, this is why we can’t have nice things, says a BookTuber with fifty thousand subscribers. When will we learn not to dog pile on situations we know nothing about?
There’s also this statement from Xiao Chen, which, honestly, I’ll take:
This book is so racist that it’s obvious only a white person could have written it.
By the next morning, the @AthenaLiusGhost account has disappeared. There’s nothing to point back to now; no original claim to bolster. The citation links are broken; the quote tweets lead to nothing. Some people are still making a stink, lambasting the publishing industry’s haste to believe young white women over everyone else, but elsewhere it seems people
would like to pretend this all never happened. I’m sure there are still angry detractors out there who believe I did it, but there’s not a shred of concrete proof—they don’t have enough to escalate this to legal action. Besides, the only one who could act on behalf of Athena’s literary estate is Mrs. Liu, and she hasn’t made a statement or reached out to me. There is nothing solid to this smoke monster; only the fleeting memory of lots of people yelling over nothing.
BRETT EMAILS ME WITH SOME GOOD NEWS THE FOLLOWING MONDAY.
Greenhouse Productions made an offer of fifteen thousand for the option. Eighteen months, with the option to renew, and more money for you if they do. I’m going to try to talk them up to eighteen thousand, which I think I can get. We’ll have our film agent look over the contract and make sure everything’s up front, and then we’ll send it to you to sign. Sound good?
Fifteen thousand is a bit lower than what I’d hoped for given all the hype, but I guess the fact that Greenhouse is making any offer at all signals their continued faith in me.
Just like that? I write back. What was the holdup?
Oh, Hollywood moves slow, Brett replies. Trust me, this counts as quick. I’ll get the paperwork to you by the end of the week.
Everything goes back to normal. Deadline runs a nice press release on
the option deal, and lots of people congratulate it for me online (they all seem to be under the impression that it’s Jasmine Zhang directing, but I don’t correct them). The publishing news cycle moves on to the next juicy scandal, which involves a YA writer who sent anonymous death threats to a rival for months before slipping up and sending one from her own email address. (She’s trying to pass it off as a joke, but no one believes her, and the affected writer has started a GoFundMe to raise money to sue for emotional damages.)
The death threats dwindle to only one or two a day, and then none at all. I feel safe opening my DMs again. Within a week, all I get in my notifications are the normal slew of “congratulations” posts, tags in book stacks and reviews, and the occasional creep asking if I’ll personally review their five-hundred-page manuscript. All the mean tweets about me are lost to the black hole of Twitter’s memory. I start sleeping through the night again. I can eat without dry heaving again.
I am innocent in the court of public opinion. And at least for now, Athena’s ghost has been banished.