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Authors: Phil Stamper

The Gravity of Us

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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For Jonathan.

You keep me grounded, and you help me soar.



At home, I’m invisible. At school, I’m bizarre. But to the rest of the world, I’m a journalist.

I get this specific feeling—a tug in my gut, a hitch in my breath—every time I craft a news story, open the FlashFame app, and broadcast live to my 435,000 followers.

When I step off the Q train at the Times Square stop and shoulder my way to the exit, I take a moment to collect my thoughts. I pull in a hearty breath and smile. Holding the phone in front of my face, I go over the plan in my head for my weekly New York City update. What to cover, where to walk.

“Hiya!” I shout into the phone and smirk as the commuters behind me dash out of view. “I’m Cal, and welcome to my weekend update. New York’s been slow on the news front—murders and Amber Alerts, all normal stuff—but in national news, one thing is a standout: the search for the twentieth and final astronaut to be added to the Orpheus project.”

In the front-facing camera, I see the city scroll by in a mass of billboards, shops, cabs, and bikes. I try not to show the strain in my smile, and remind myself that even the most seasoned reporters have to report on what their viewers want to hear most. And according to my comments, there’s no contest: people want to know the latest. It’s not like I’m surprised—it’s all anyone can talk about right now. Six humans will be setting foot on Mars, and it’s ignited an interest the space program hasn’t seen in decades.

“The astronaut in question will be chosen in the coming weeks, after which they will relocate to Houston to vie for a spot on the Orpheus V spacecraft, the first crewed mission to Mars.”

If this performance doesn’t win me an Emmy, I will throw a fit. You ever tell someone you’re overjoyed by something, when secretly you’d rather vomit in a bucket than talk about it anymore? That’s me with the Mars missions. I hate the hype.

However, people are so wrapped up in the drama around this Mars mission, you’d think it was the latest
Real Housewives
installment. Therein lies my dilemma: Do I want to report on things people care about? Yes. Do I want more followers and viewers? Also yes.

“A representative of StarWatch spoke about the search today,” I continue, “but the cable gossip network didn’t offer any new information about the candidates.”

After my brief, obligatory NASA report, I bring the stream back to New York City by offering recommendations for the
biggest events of the weekend: parties, farmers’ markets, and everything in between. All while watching the live viewer count climb.

I’ve done local stories, national stories, worldwide stories before. I covered a full midterm election year, attending rallies for Senate and House candidates in the tristate area, even the severely inept ones who thought microwaves gave you cancer.

I used to feel helpless every time I opened up my news aggregating app, but reporting gave me a platform for my voice, and that resonated with people.

While cable news angled stories to fit their followers and pushed sensational bullshit—
Is Trump homophobic? We interviewed this homophobic Trump voter to get his thoughts!—
my reports covered the
news. Raw and unbiased.

Like when the Republican candidate for New York senator fell off the grid and refused to debate or see the press until election night … but had no problem attacking his opponents on Twitter. One day, it slipped that he’d been seen in the city, so
slipped out of school and waited outside the restaurant where he was.

I started incognito with my phone in my chest pocket and asked him some light questions. He obliged, until I brought up his pending embezzlement investigation, charges of sexual harassment, and the recent staffing shakeup that could have been related to either.

In the end, I chased his limo up Fifth Avenue, where he cursed me—and the fifty thousand viewers—out, live.

Needless to say, he did not win the election.

Nowadays, I carefully plan my videos for the week. National news updates one day, a focus on teen issues another, with a few personal stories sprinkled in. Then, there are my NYC updates. Even if they don’t get the most views, these streams are my favorites. It’s me, the city, and quadrillions of New Yorkers and tourists in the background.

The front-facing camera starts to show just how much the humidity is taking a toll on my once perfectly coiffed hair, and if I don’t sign off soon, I’ll look like a frazzled maniac.

“Wow, I guess there was a lot to talk about, because”—I flip away from the front-facing camera and give my viewers a panoramic shot of my surroundings, and the tall buildings on all sides blend into a mix of brick and concrete—“we’re already at Thirty-Eighth and Broadway.”

These updates always start at the northern tip of Times Square, and I usually just walk down Broadway until I run out of things to say, or until my voice starts to crack. And even in the latter case, I’ve been known to subject my viewers to the true New York experience: buying a seltzer on the street—after haggling the price down to a reasonable amount, of course.

“And that’s all I’ve got. Keep an eye on my FlashFame story to see why I’ll be scouring the streets of the Lower East Side.” I flash a smirk as I end the transmission, and release a deep sigh as I shed my journalistic brand.

I catch the F train at 34th toward Brooklyn, which is about the only way to get to the Lower East Side from where I’m at. The flair of the city dims as tourists block the subway doors, as
the train stops between stations for three minutes at a time, as the air-conditioning breathes lukewarm air down my neck.

The notifications roll in from my video, which was watched live by around eighty thousand people. But somehow, FlashFame knows which comments to highlight, specifically the one that will slash deepest into my heart.

JRod64 (Jeremy Rodriguez): Love this!

How long does it take to get over someone you barely even dated? The irony of him “loving” my posts when he couldn’t even commit to “liking” me is at the forefront of my mind, and a rage burns inside me.

The anger ebbs as I walk the streets of the Lower East Side, where the tall buildings of midtown have disappeared, replaced with short brick apartments with fire escapes, towering over everything from abandoned bodegas to artisan vegan bakeries. I double-check the address and take the stairs down into a dark, windowless shop.

“Jesus, Calvin, there you are,” Deb says. She always uses my full name. She full-names everyone but herself, really—but that’s because she says Deborah is a grandma name. “I’ve been in this store since you signed off, and the owners of this cassette shop
like to talk about cassettes, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was only here to be your cassette wingwoman. I think they know I’m a fraud.”

“I would pay to see you pretending to be a cassette fangirl.” The thought makes me laugh.

“It’s not hard. I just repeated the bullshit you say—‘the sound is much smoother’ or whatever. It was going fine until he asked me the model and year of my boom box.”

I browse the collection while Deb impatiently waits behind me. I promised her a vegan doughnut—or twelve—from the bakery across the street in exchange for making the trip to browse cassettes with me. Unfortunately, nothing here catches my eye.

I raid a few tapes from the dollar bin based on their covers alone—guys with beautiful, flowing eighties hair, movie soundtracks with old VHS-style covers—and unironically pay for my retro tapes using my iPhone.

“Finally,” Deb says as she busts out of the record store. “That place was weird. You’re weird.”

“I’m well aware of both, thanks.”

We meander through the Lower East Side, which isn’t all that different from our neighborhood in Brooklyn. Okay, it’s a little bit dirtier, and there are fewer toddlers getting in my way, but otherwise, I see the similarities.

“I love this area,” Deb says.

“Yeah, it’s okay for things like that random pop-up cassette shop,” I say with a shrug. “I hear they’re putting in a Trader Joe’s here.”

“Jesus,” she swears. “Of course they are.”

We duck into a tiny bakery with no more than five stools of seating. The two bakers are cramped behind the counter, and I start to get claustrophobic on their behalf. But as I look around, I see glimpses of the neighborhood in notices plastered
on the walls. Yoga classes, babysitting offers, piano lessons, writers’ groups. Panning out, I see protest signs, queer pride flags of all varieties, old campaign stickers from the past couple of elections.

New York has a way of making you feel at home, no matter where you’re at. You just have to step off the street, and some neighborhood will claim you as one of their own.

“Exactly how do you make a vegan lemon curd?” Deb asks, fascinated, and I realize I’m missing her in
element. Before the baker can even answer, she rambles on. “This place is amazing. I’m going to get a dozen, but I think I want literally one of each flavor. Is that too much?” she asks no one in particular.

I’m a vegetarian, but she’s a full-on vegan, and she’s in heaven. Vegans get a bad rap, but Deb’s always been down-to-earth about it. She embraces it, but not to the extent where she’s treating it like a cult.

This also means we
to go to every new vegan restaurant, bakery, pop-up, and festival the moment it opens, and I am not complaining about that.

“You’re sharing these with me, right?” I ask.

“Oh dear sweet Jesus in heaven,” she says after biting into a doughnut. “Not if they’re all as good as this lemon curd.”

We take our time walking toward Brooklyn, with no real destination in mind. It’s too far to walk all the way, but it’s a surprisingly nice day, and I’m not in a rush. I
Deb’s not.

“You shouldn’t have paid for these,” Deb says. “I have a job, dude. You don’t need to jump in and save me anymore.”

I blush. “I know, it wasn’t that. But I left you alone in that
cassette pop-up, so defenseless you had to pretend you were one of us to fit in. The horrors you must have overcome. This is the least I can do.”

What I don’t say is, I know she’s saving every penny from her job. Deb works harder than anyone I know. If I could fix her home life, I would. But until we can flee our respective coops, all I can do is pay for her sugar high.

“One World Trade. We’re approaching tourist central,” I say. “I’ll take a few pics for my Flash story, then we’ve got to get a train.”

The sun’s nowhere to be seen, but a series of low clouds pass by, getting split in two by the shining tower. It’s a perfect New York afternoon, but I feel the tug in my chest that reminds me what’s waiting for me at home. As we hop on a train and make half smiles at each other, I can tell we’re thinking the same thing. There’s a pretty high chance that one or both of our nights are about to be ruined by our parents.

We make it back to Brooklyn in record time. Anxiety grips my chest as I take the stairs up our stoop, and I know Deb usually feels the same. To be quite honest, I would have been fine spending a few more minutes delaying the inevitable awkward conversations and heated fights that wait for me at home. Not like the arguments are ever directed at me, but they’re still all around me. Lingering.

Wearing our family down.

I part ways with Deb at the third floor of our apartment
building, and a tightness balls up in my shoulders—clenching, constricting—when I launch up the stairs to my apartment, taking them two at a time. Before I even reach my door with the shiny 11 on it, I hear the shouts.

It wasn’t always like this.

I put the key in the lock, and with a heavy sigh, I turn it.

A frown falls over my face almost instantly. I slam the door to make my presence known, but it doesn’t fix things, it doesn’t stop them. I want my being home to
something. I want … I don’t know what I want—to not feel helpless when they’re like this. I try to escape into my phone, but my notifications are once again flooded with questions about … the astronauts.

I sigh as I scroll through.

kindil0o (Chelsea Kim): Hi, big fan. Um, is it just me or have you stopped profiling the astronauts? I used to love your streams, and I still do, but I’d like to see more of your old stuff. Are we getting to Mars or not? You only spent like 30 secs on the new astronaut search??

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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