Recently there was some commotion over James Franco allegedly using his Instagram account to arrange an assignation with an under-aged fan. Whether or not this incident was authentic or a publicity stunt I don’t feel qualified to say (on the one hand, Franco, while on the other, people are weird), but in any case I sent a link to an article about it to my friend Brandy who I thought would appreciate it. (Brandy is not her real name. Assuming her real name is her real name.)
BRANDY: uggggggggh. I want some franco haha
he is a bit creepy though. how many underaged girls do you scam on?
ME: honestly, you are my only catfish
BRANDY: I am not a catfish! I’m really me lol
I told her to send me a picture. She said she couldn’t do that because she has a boyfriend now, but after some negotiating a compromise was reached: she texted me a picture from her boyfriend’s Instagram account that was on the slutty side, but not all that revealing. I requested something racier, preferably from behind.
BRANDY: I’m not a ho, yo
come visit me
Brandy found me on Facebook about a year ago following the release of my show. I wrote a novel called Hemlock Grove that was adapted into a Netflix series of the same name. Both feature liberal amounts of sexual perversity and violence, and the show has a Skarsgard, so it is not uncommon for a certain species of cult enthusiast to try to LARP their way into my social media network. Going in, I had a vaguely egalitarian notion that I would accept any friend request that was sent to me. However, this model was impractical (as a writer Facebook is ultimately too integral to my procrastination to disrupt the ecosystem), and before long I was only accepting friend requests from strangers if they were cute girls.
From what I could gather from cursory stalking, Brandy was from a middle class background in the suburbs of a major city on the northeast corridor, and while her age was at first ambiguous – her photos revealed multiple piercings and tattoos, and a recent graduation could just as plausibly been undergrad. But prom was the tip-off. This piqued my interest.
I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade, so those teen rites of passage have always been mysterious and charged with a sort of symbolic Sliding Doors energy for me. And she was the exact kind of type I would have had a helpless crush on during my own adolescence in the Pennsylvania rust belt: the girls who shopped at Hot Topic and talked brazenly about their sex lives with Fred Durst-alike boyfriends who generally kept a few bookish, introspective guys like me occupying a role somewhere between gay best friend and service animal. And thirdly, while checking both of those boxes, she was of legal age.
Assuming, that is, that she was who she said she was.
For the first few weeks our correspondence was innocuous: we commiserated over our hometowns while I tried to play up my life in New York as urbane and casually baller, like a Bushmills ad. Then she sent me a message she was in the city. I had suggested she make a trip, but in a pro forma sort of way — it’s the kind of thing you say without expecting the other person to follow through (assuming they can get parental permission in the first place). I gave her my phone number, but by the time she got back to me she was already on a train heading home. I suspected the timing was intentional, and it was a relief. Our correspondence was a fun diversion that pushed a few psychosexual buttons for me, but my actual romantic history consisted mainly of partners my own age or older; what would a girl that age and I possibly have to say to each other?
Nevertheless, as our communication transitioned from Facebook to iMessage, so did subtext become text – I started bugging Brandy for naked pictures. It’s funny how that happens. I would say that the default mode of conversation between even platonic female friends and myself is as flirtatious and provocative over text as it would take five drinks to reach in person. I consulted New York magazine’s resident sexting expert Maureen O’Connor on the phenomenon. She pointed out that the immateriality of texting creates a “self-delusion free-for-all” in which both parties are free to tap into latent and atavistic desires.
Sometimes I would ask Brandy about her blowjob skills or share explicit details from my own sex life, but in the end I’d typically turn things back to a request for pictures. Whether it’s flattery over your persistence or attrition or simply that if you keep asking, then eventually you’ll catch her when she’s bored enough to say yes, having a spectacularly one-track mind is an asset in this endeavor. Nudity was not even the objective necessarily; I was just as happy with panty shots – if only for the lewd frisson from writing the word “panties” to a girl – or really anything that was a little weird.
At first her position was unwavering.
BRANDY: I don’t know you and if I do that I’m just another groupie
ME: that’s awesome you think I have groupies
But after a few cycles of me perving past the boundaries of her comfort zone, then sitting back and waiting for her to get sufficiently annoyed at her ordinary life to start messaging me again, she caved, and caved magnificently. In the picture she is lying on her stomach on purple carpeting. One arm is outstretched holding the camera, and the other arm is crooked, her chin resting in the palm. Past her shoulder her ass is arched upward and tilted to the side for maximum visibility. The view of a girl’s ass from this perspective is especially poignant — recalling a heart, winsome and primally comforting, and also what you see during oral sex. She is wearing a black G-string but no shirt or bra, with black pants bunched around her thighs and white socks. White socks! The only light source is coming from an overhead fixture (her body so unblemished that softening the light apparently wasn’t a consideration), and the walls are faux-wood paneling with one window that is too high and too small. I’m pretty sure it was taken in her parents’ basement. I’m sure no sexual encounter imaginable could please me as completely as this picture does.
The idea of a face-to-face meeting never dropped off, however.
BRANDY: when the hell can I come visit you
ME: i’m not sure you’re old enough to come visit me
BRANDY: how old am i
ME: my best guess is somewhere on the continuum of what would be morally questionable for me to have as a guest
BRANDY: write me a poem and I’ll make love to you
ME: that would make me a prostitute. and I’m too old for you to have sex with
BRANDY: dude my cousin just saw these texts HE WAS LIKE EWWWW
A few days later.
BRANDY: here’s the deal. you’re coming to visit me in [REDACTED]
ME: the chances of that happening are literally negative one billion per cent
BRANDY: but I’m the girl. the man’s supposed to go out of his way for the female
ME: except when the man is in danger of ending up on an episode of to catch a predator
BRANDY: i’m legal so it’s fine
ME: ‘you’re honor she totally said she was legal, c’mon bro’
BRANDY: haha shut up
ME: or you could be a 300 pound albino dude in a basement
BRANDY: but I sent you a pic of myself
of my butt lol
For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to take at face value she is what she says she is: a fairly normal college freshman studying film at a respectable university who likes The Misfits, has an out-of-state boyfriend, and every once in awhile gets drunk and has dirty text exchanges with a strange older man. What I don’t believe is that she has any real desire for us to meet whatsoever, that me showing up at her door appeals to her more than what O’Connor refers to as the “interactive human pornography” of sexting. Seeking a second opinion on Brandy’s motivation, I reached out to Lauren Bans, the eponymous real live lady of GQ’s Ask a Real Live Lady advice column. Her succinct response: “BOREDOM + SAFETY.”
Even talking on the phone seemed to cross some obscure line: after a lengthy text exchange, I drunk-dialed her once over Christmas. She laughed nervously the whole time and repeatedly said, “I can’t believe that’s what you sound like.” We have not spoken since. To her, the sound of my voice becoming a physical reality was alien and uncomfortable. To me, she just sounded young — and not young in the transgressive, sexy baby way, but in the instinctive “oh sweetie did you pack a warm enough coat” sort of way. Boner repellant. This is not the kind of daddy I have any interest in being.
A few months ago a think piece popped up on a friend’s feed examining the historical attraction of artists to underage girls. Before going further I would submit there is a world of distinction between the Salinger model where the girl is sexually mature, and child molestation. One is icky, but also sort of hot, the other is monstrous. Regarding the former, the attraction is in no way mysterious: look at them. Teenage girls are both feminine and inchoate; they emit a siren’s pulse of fertility along with the appearance of infinite corruptibility that is a satyr’s fucking field day. The operative term being “fantasy”: where I align with the moral majority is the line between erotic fascination with youth and actually doing anything about it. While it is simply nonsensical to deny the fuckability of teenage bodies, their minds are too sensitive and labile to risk the damage an asymmetric power relationship can inflict.
Thus the beautiful post-modern equilibrium of the Brandy situation. From an information theory perspective, it is pure erotic signal without the panting, sweating, simian noise of flesh. I provide her the opportunity to express her sexuality with an older, higher status male with no actual stakes, she provides me with an avatar on which my taboo perversions can be projected, with the added intrigue of there being a real person on the other side. Sort of. Probably.
And if the whole thing is a scam? The morbidly ornate construction of some reclusive lonelyheart? In the immortal words of Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye: It’s okay with me. Ultimately I disagree with the common criticism of the information age – that the simulacrum of connection decreases the factuality of it. Spare me, nerds: people don’t dance and drink and screw any less than they ever did. Let’s say the goal of this era is to organize the deluge of information surrounding us into meaning; then as long as getting our rocks off is part of the equation there will be an intersection of technology and spirit. For me and my catfish it provides a metaphysical sanctuary from the demands of our real lives; a space for playfulness and mystery and titillation that brightens our day. The truth, so it is said, is what works.
BRANDY: did you really put me in an article (angry face emoji)
ME: why do you want some quotes in it?
BRANDY: yes I want quotes!
I just have nothing to say lol
ME: in your own words what would you say you get from this relationship?
BRANDY: the joy of fucking with you without knowing you or caring about you
and you know bill skarsgard and he’s hot
ME: /what are you wearing?
BRANDY: go away you weirdo!
can we please go on the catfish show
Brian McGreevy is a novelist and screenwriter. Follow him at @diegomcgreevy
Image by Dianna McDougall