Monika Clearwaters woke to the trill of her phone. She groaned, her eyes still squeezed shut, as she tried to recall what that bell could possibly mean. She gained consciousness and realized this was not the first time she’d been notified of the outside world. Even as she lay there trying to ignore the first noise, another came in, then another.
When she did finally roll over to look at the bright screen beside her head, her eyes widened. There was the little camera icon she’d been waiting for. It was instagram notifying her of a follower. Except, she hadn’t expected so many of the same little symbols all at once. When she opened the app, she realized that she now had more than 2000 new followers.
She sat up in bed. 2000 new followers? That was a 2% increase in less than 12 hours. This could be it. The break she was waiting for. After blogging, photo blogging and vlogging her journey into healthy living and mindfulness for over a year, maybe she’d managed to crack the algorithm.
She tapped her latest post. It was a shot taken in her swimsuit on the beach. Monika squinted down at the image of herself. There was nothing remarkable at all except it was a new Louisa Ballou two piece with tropical flowers across it.
She looked great. Her body had the shapely curves she’d been working twelve months towards, her hair was a blonde to auburn ombre. She was only wearing a mid-priced, $330 bikini (though that had cost her a month in tips at the café). What was it people were so attracted to?
She looked down at the tagline: <3 Living life to the fullest <3. That wasn’t anything special either, except she’d added about a dozen hashtags. It was hard to discern, but maybe one of those had increased her visibility. Was it #goals? Or #beachbody? Probably a bit of both. Then again, it could have been #bestlife.
That was the name of her Instagram afterall. She was Babebestlife. She knew it was cheesy. She didn’t care. It was catchy too.
Lots of people were commenting with the same tag. Most of the comments were positive. Some people added fire emojis and hearts and biceps. Some people were dissing her, but that was expected. One troll had written, Its a fake she editd
Monika had no clue what they meant. She had digitally slimmed her waist for this photo, but just barely. There were no warped edges of the sea to tell. Plus, the shot was taken far enough away that no one could tell she’d touched up the cellulite on her legs too.
To Monika, living her best life did not include the last five pounds, nor the unruly divots and rolls on her thighs that she could do nothing about. She checked the second shot in the post, it was a close up of an intimate kiss between Monika and her boyfriend, Aaron.
Aaron was the sweetest man she’d ever known. He helped her with a lot of her photoshoots. He was definitely a major part in her best life. That’s why she added #couplegoals.
She’d posted those photos 6 hours ago and she needed to make another post now if she wanted to engage her new audience. With another groan, she hauled herself out of bed and padded into the adjacent bathroom. It was 5am.
The perfect time for a workout, Monika rolled her bloodshot eyes at herself in the bathroom mirror. She’d forgotten to take out her contacts and now they were burning. First she dropped some Visine onto them, then she bunched her hair up into a messy bun.
Turning her head side to side and nodding up and down, she imagined taking a selfie right then and there. That would scare the people away for sure. Her skin was dry, so she slathered on some moisturizer. There were heavy purple rings under her eyes too. She’d been reviewing her YouTube comments till 3 in the morning.
Two hours of sleep, it’s no wonder I look like a zombie, she thought, applying first concealer, then bronzer, then mascara. Then she tackled her eyebrows into some semblance of order. She added a hint of lipstick, just to hide the purple in her lips too.
She was dehydrated. She hadn’t been drinking enough water for the last few days, so when she finished finicking with her makeup, she wandered over to the kitchen and filled a glass. As she downed it, a thought occurred to her and she rummaged around in the fridge for a lemon.
The only one she found was dried and shrivelled. It smelled like a cleaner. Monika cut it up anyway. It was just for a photo. She chose two of her favorite cups, the ones with the stained-glass flowers along their bottom half, filled them with water, before adding ice cubes and the lemon wedge.
There was no one to share the drink. Aaron had his own place. His kitchen had better lighting than hers. She moved her reading lamp out of the bedroom and used it to highlight the yellows in the lemon. She still had to tweak the levels on her phone. It took way longer than she thought to snap a good photo of the set up.
It was 6am when she finally had the first shot for her next post. She decided it would be in three parts. She could already picture her next tagline: How to start the perfect day.
She would use the same hashtags she always did, plus #morningroutine and #workoutwithme. Monika realized she didn’t actually have enough time for a real workout, but she could snap some pictures before heading off. Her makeup was done anyway.
At least the lighting on her apartment balcony was better, so she wouldn’t need to waste time fiddling with it. She would need to find the perfect outfit though. Her best life didn’t include her favorite band T-shirt with holes in the armpits.
Running back into her room, she quickly changed into the new maroon prAna yoga set she bought the day before. She hadn’t had a chance to wear it yet, and she was excited to see it on.
The bralet looked like a dream. It had padding which pumped up her voluptuous breasts while trimming her ribs. She looked amazing except for her soft stomach which rolled over the top of the low-cut shorts. What was worse, her stretch marks were clearly visible.
She’d been self-conscious about the look of her tummy ever since she’d started cutting weight. That was the point of most of her posts: Monika was on a mission to look better and feel great.
She tried all sorts of classes and treatments. She’d been to hydrotherapy, hypnotherapy, facials, fasting, massage and meditation. There weren’t many clinics or new-age schools of thought she hadn’t visited and vlogged about.
“You look amazing,” Aaron always told her. Except, he always followed it up with, “You don’t need to buy-in to all that stuff.”
She knew he was being honest, but she had to keep her viewers’ interest. They wanted to see her absolute best life. To Monika, that did not include stretch marks.
She replaced the maroon shorts with her favorite bright pink ones before remembering that she’d worn those in a post last week. She wasn’t about to be seen in them again. At the bottom of her dresser was a pair of loose, brightly patterned harem pants. Perfect.
Monika set up her phone on a tripod facing out the window to the quiet LA skyline. The distant horizon was highlighted by the rising sun. She stood silhouetted against the amber light.
At first, she tried standing in tree pose. The result was too basic though, so she brought her left foot up and out to the side just to add an element of balance and risk. It was difficult to hold the pose, but she managed to stay steady just in time for the camera to catch it.
She was happy after the tenth try, and just in time too; she was officially late. Before she got ready for work, Monika chose an ancient photo of herself in workout gear for comparison. She’d taken dozens back in the day, for just such an occasion.
She put up the two photos along with the best shot of the lemon water and wrote: Start your day off right and watch the difference it can make.
Monika wanted to take her own advice, but now there wasn’t even time for breakfast. She was scrambling just to get out the door. She checked her post once on the bus. 100 likes in the first 45 minutes, not bad. Aaron sent her a sweet little message, Have a great day sweetie. She responded with a smiley face snuggled between two hearts.
As she walked through the doors of the Giraffe’s Carafe, she thought she saw her two coworkers turn quickly away from her. It was busy in the joint and both of them were hustling to make coffee.
“Morning, Kate. Morning, Izzy,” she tried to sound relaxed, but the frowns on their faces made her pause. She clocked in and set to work. The morning rush lasted two full hours, so there wasn’t much time to talk. Monika knew that wasn’t why the other two weren’t speaking though.
By about eleven, she’d had enough of the silent treatment.
She asked, “What’s going on with you two?”
Izzy rolled her eyes and went back to foaming the milk for a latte.
Kate looked at Monika for the first time and said, “We just think it’s funny.”
“Yeah. You always have time to post new content, but you can’t manage to be here on time?”
Monika wanted to blurt out, do you know how hard I’ve been working, how much sleep I’ve missed? but there was a crowd coming in. She spent the rest of the day wondering how being a few minutes late was such a crime.
Neither of the other girls seemed like they wanted to say more, or hear her excuses. So, the day passed mainly in silence as they rushed around filling orders and giving Monika the cold shoulder.
Monika didn’t bother making amends. She figured they were just jealous. On her break, she escaped the chilly café and took a minute to check out her photos once again. It turned out she’d missed a call from Aaron. He’d left a message.
Why can’t he just text? She wasn’t in the mood to listen to it. Her mood only improved once she saw her post had reached 4000 likes.
By the end of her shift, she was up to 10 000. Not only that, but she was at an all time high of 150 000 followers. Just like that, a 50% increase in one day. This was it. Suddenly she didn’t even care enough to say goodbye to the girls at work. They were glued to a news story on their phones anyway. Something about a construction accident in the city.
Monika left the café feeling drained, but excited. Her boyfriend called again while she was riding the bus, but she let it go to voicemail again. She was busy editing another shot from the beach yesterday. She thought she could get away with posting it tonight since she had switched to another swimsuit.
She got to her building and was surprised to see Aaron waiting at the front door. He stood there with a stunning bouquet of pink roses in hand.
“Hi, Sweety,” he called softly when she was in earshot.
“Hello! What a nice surprise!”
He opened his arms for an embrace, but she whipped out her camera. “Hang on, I’ve got to record this.”
“Here is my life partner, Aaron, showing up with the most romantic surprise. Thank you, Honey!” She gave a little squeal as she finished the video. Then she wrapped herself around him.
His arms went up instinctively, making the flowers visible over her shoulder. Monika liked the way they looked, so she snapped a few selfies before Aaron had a chance to protest.
When she finally let him go, he gave her an odd look. “What do you mean, surprise? Yesterday at the beach, I told you I wanted to catch the meteor shower with you tonight. I left it in my…in my message too. You didn’t listen to my message?”
“Oh right! No sorry.” Monika heard herself saying, “That’s perfect though.” and it was. Now, not only would she get to spend a romantic night out with her man, but she’d also have some easy material for her next post. Her next few posts if she was smart about it.
She could already picture the two of them on top of his classic Chevy Nova, legs entwined, feeding each other with chopsticks. People would eat that up.
“Can we get Chinese?”
Maybe she’d find another yoga outfit to wear and she could pose on the roof. She could even splice in some meteors if she needed.
“How was your day?” Aaron asked, following Monika up the stairs.
Monika had her head in her phone and she didn’t answer at first.
“Huh? Oh it was a day. The girls at work were as rude as ever.”
“Sorry to hear that.” They reached the apartment.
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.” Monika forgot to ask how Aaron’s day went. Instead she asked, “Can you cut those roses and throw them into some water?”
Meanwhile, she ran around the house, packing her Canon camera and lenses, along with two studio lights and their battery packs. She touched up her hair and makeup and then changed out of her café attire and into a chic flowy alo crop-top with black, high-waisted bike shorts.
“How do I look?” she asked, hoping the ensemble screamed relaxed but adventurous.
“You look amazing. Can we go now?” Monika rolled her eyes at him, then she spotted the vase of flowers.
“Those look amazing.” She pulled out her phone before she could stop herself and caught a dozen shots of the roses. The lighting was wrong though. “Can you hand me that lamp, real quick, Hon?”
She didn’t see Aaron’s expression drop as he brought it over.
He said, “We’re going to miss the sunset.”
“I’ll only be a minute.”
Five minutes later, Aaron said, “I’ll be in the car.”
“Sorry,” said Monika, grabbing her pack and following him out. She was sorry too. Not a single shot of the roses was any good. She really needed an apartment with a skylight.
She really really needed the sunset for some silhouette photos. They would match her morning post perfectly.
At least the drive out of town was calming. They’d missed the gridlock and had a clear path away from the lights and the smog. Aaron didn’t feel like talking and Monika was exhausted at this point, so she fell right to sleep before they even left the city limits.
Aaron let her rest. He was tired too, after all that had happened at work, but he knew it wasn’t worth it to ruin a good night by bringing up a tragedy. Truth be told, he was still shaken up by it all.
All he knew was that he really needed to be with someone tonight. He absently laid his hand on Monika’s thigh. She woke up groggily, but smiled at him.
“How long was I out?”
“‘Bout a half hour.”
“The scenery is nice.” There were more trees along the highway and the sky was lop-sided with fluffy clouds to the east.
“Wait til we get to the park.”
Monika squeezed his hand and then a tinkling sound made her automatically reach for her phone. Aaron removed his touch.
Monica didn’t even notice. She was busy witnessing her youtube channel experience the same influx as her insta.
She didn’t notice the choked look on her partner’s face, or the way his hand fell limp in his own lap. He needed comfort and she wasn’t even in the same dimension as him.
She turned right around in her seat and used her phone to record the empty highway behind them, then she swept to the rolling hills on her right, straight ahead to the northern forest, then to the sunset on Aaron’s side. Finally she caught sight of his furrowed brow and down-turned mouth.
She went on rolling without thinking.
“What’s wrong, Babe?”
Aaron sniffed. “What? No, I’m okay.”
Monika caught him glancing at the camera. She switched it off.
“Sorry about that. No, really, what’s up?”
It was hard for Aaron to form the words, but he cleared his throat and began, “Don’t you ever worry that your life is passing you by?”
“Passing me by? I’m capturing every moment. I’m living life to the fullest.”
It took a moment for Aaron to find a response. “It’s just. We could crash tonight and―”
“―Aaron, don’t say that.”
“No, I don’t mean it. I just mean, we try to find happiness, but maybe we’re just chasing a mirage, you know?”
He gave her a pleading look, but Monika just looked scared.
“Hey, Mon, look. I’m sorry. It’s just that…I was almost killed at work today. It really knocked the wind out of me.”
“Oh my god. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Physically yes, but a crane dropped a one tonne i-beam and it missed me by a few feet, except…”
Monika felt shell shocked. “What?”
“I don’t want to scare you.”
“Did someone else…?”
Aaron couldn’t bring himself to say it, so he just nodded his head. That’s when the first tear fell. It was another framer who was crushed.
“Kevin.” A friend.
Their eyes met in the dimly lit car. The radio was off and only the car’s heavy engine split the silence.
“I didn’t mean for it all to come out like that,” Aaron continued, wiping his eyes, “but man, today was one of the hardest days of my life and it feels like you’re on another planet.”
Monika’s breath caught.
She tried to say, “I’m right here,” but it came out in a whisper.
“You’re always right there.” He pointed to her phone and Monika felt like he’d jabbed her in the heart. He was right, wasn’t he? Wasn’t she worried even now about sharing what he’d just told her? She wanted to know how she could spin that story into a message about living without regrets.
While she summoned up a response, Aaron kept one eye on the road and one eye on the sky above them. They were well outside the glow of LA. Finally he caught a glimpse of a shooting star. It felt like a message.
Monika looked down at her phone. She wanted to turn the damn thing off, but she couldn’t waste this opportunity to live her dream lifestyle. It had taken a year, but it was within her grasp.
As she deliberated, Aaron put his hand on hers.
Monika smiled. “Sometimes, I wish I could throw this thing out the window.”
Aaron rolled down her window.
She dropped the phone on the floor in compromise and found his hand again. When she wrapped her fingers around his, she remembered, “But you know, this is my ticket out of that café. You should have seen the number of likes I got today.”
Aaron frowned and looked back to the road.
Monika squeezed his hand to let him know she really was there with him. Then she took her first real look at the night sky.
This was the first time in a long time that she’d been able to see the stars. When she took in just how many there were and how brightly they shone, Monika let out an involuntary gasp.
Out Aaron’s window, the sun was no more than a halo of pale fire dipping into the distant horizon as if it were being extinguished by the ocean. On the east, the clouds were alight with pinks and magentas. They looked like peonies, their fragile petals unfurling to the dark sky above with its distant twinkling lights.
If she lost Aaron today, none of her stats would matter. She knew this to her core. If he had died, instead of Kevin, this moment would never have come to pass. This moment and so many like them.
The world had a glow to it, like a dream, and it seemed to Monika that she could live her whole life following that sunset and never catch it, and never grow weary of the chase. She looked down at her phone on the floor. She was already sick and tired of chasing that stardom.
“This is incredible,” she was enthralled by the magnitude of it all. His story and this place. Before long, she blurted out, “I just want to share it with people.”
Aaron said, “I’m not saying you can’t. You just can’t spend more time taking pictures than you do enjoying the view.”
“That’s what you said at the beach yesterday!”
“Exactly. It’s still true. You don’t want to try so hard to live your best life, that you end up always feeling like it’s out of reach. If I died today, I know I’d have regrets. Wouldn’t you?”
“Of course. That’s why I try so hard.”
“But would you honestly regret not making it to a million followers? Or would you regret not showing up to your real life?”
He was right. She knew he was right, but she wanted to say something, anything to make it okay to keep killing herself to get to the next threshold.
“I’m so close to going viral, Aaron. Today I broke 150 000 followers. That’s huge compared to six months ago.”
“And I don’t think you’ve slept in six months.” That wasn’t true, but it wasn’t far off either.
A shooting star leapt across the windshield and they both turned to look. Monika squeezed Aaron’s hand again, she felt like electricity had just jumped from his point of view to hers.
“I’m glad you took me out here,” she said after some time had passed. “You didn’t have to, after the day you’ve had.”
“I wanted to, after the day I’ve had.”
“I’m so sorry about Kevin.”
After a moment of silence, he said, “Thank you.”
They landed safely at the southern entrance to Los Padres National Forest. Monika stepped out of the car and stretched. Above, the sun was finished setting and the sky had transformed once again.
It was not jet black; it was a swirl of violets and blues. The stars were not just white; they were shimmers of silver and gold. The milky way was a blur of strawberry cream that stretched nearly from one horizon to the other, as if it had been poured down from above. Below, the rolling hills bowed to the splendor.
When the meteor shower began, it was like witnessing a great race. Monika couldn’t see the finish line, she could only guess where those colossal comets were heading as they skated across the sky. She knew one thing though,
“Hey listen,” she said, kissing Aaron’s shoulder. “I still feel kind of guilty.”
“I should’ve been the one to buy you flowers.”