The Golden Rule

I remember it so sharp, like when a fog clears, the first time Jed Stokes entered our classroom. The teacher was giving some lesson on poetry:—‘What does Moore mean by imaginary gardens with real toads in them?’—when Jed appeared at the door—standing there NF, hair mussed and skin with dots and pores and everything —and the whole class went silent.  

I looked over at Brie, who wore a gold halo that day, while Kyla, beside her, trying not to seem like she was imitating—which she was—was ringed with pink stars. We all looked at Brie because we all knew she was the one who’d decide the fate of this new boy who’d showed up in the fall of senior year, looking so shockingly real that Brie’s first reaction was to cringe. Her second reaction, and the one that worried me more, was to cover her own face.

After class, a bunch of us clustered in the hall. Just Jake and Haines from the boys, since the others didn’t seem that freaked, but man, all the girls were shook. I should probably introduce you to the squad, starting with me: my name’s Jean, after Baudrillard, some French hater my mom wrote her thesis on. Then there were Jake and Haines—the hot guys – though who even remembered how they looked NF?  Kyla I did remember—as a sweet dorky girl with brown braids and freckles—before 6th grade when she turned herself into cosplay Lindsey Lohan.  Kyla and I used to be best friends, and we still acted like we were when Brie wasn’t around for her to suck up to. Which brings me to Queen Brie. Brie pretty much ran the school and, to be fair, she mostly wasn’t even a bitch about it, would be nice to everyone who followed the rules.

But the new boy wasn’t following the rules.

“Someone needs to tell him how it is here,” Kyla offered first, looking to Brie to make sure she’d got Brie’s thoughts right. “He’s breaking the pact, the golden rule.” 

And the golden rule was this: I see you the way you want, you see me the way I want. That’s how live lenses work, see—you can only see the other person’s filter if you have them on.  Otherwise, you just see all their faults, and everyone looks shit.

“Breaking the golden halo rule,” Kyla added, trying to be funny, but Brie just rolled her eyes, feeling salty, gold halo or not.

“Kyla’s right, it’s way hostile. Period,” said Becky Grimes. I forgot to mention Becky, probably because I wish I could forget her. Becky was always giving some prissy speech on how wrong someone else was, like I could take seriously the opinion of a girl wearing the stupid kitten filter we’d all outgrown in the eighth grade.

“Maybe he’s got good reasons,” I ventured, though I knew I shouldn’t bother, that I’d only get shot down.

“So do pedophiles,” Becky clapped back.

“Do they, though?” I asked.

Kyla giggled – she always did that around Jake. Becky looked pissed. I always liked getting her riled up – sometimes her whiskers twitched. “What are the really good reasons pedos have?”

“You’re changing the subject,” Brie went at me, not even hard, but I knew that was the end of the discussion.  Time to fall into line.

“No filter, no friends,” Becky concluded, reviving an old taunt from the 6th grade, one that had fucking haunted me that whole shitty year.

Truth was, part of why I felt for sorry for Jed was I’d been in his shoes not long ago, back when my family had been what felt like the only family in Misty Vista still going NF. My dad wasn’t the hold out—he never seems to have an opinion on anything—but my mom, she’s a sociology prof and, like all the sociology profs, fucking hates society.  “Now even your very body is socially constructed? Technology controls what you see? What would Baudrillard say?   Is there to be anything left of “the Real”?

So, going NF, I had a fuck-ton of “the Real”.  Real loneliness. Real misery. Real sitting on my own at the chipped, sticky edge of the cafeteria table, watching the others playing alongside me, caught up in a game that was invisible to me. Someone would suggest a theme—Let’s all be goths! Let’s all be Friends characters!—and then everyone would reset their filters on their phones and there would be all this laughter and amazement. “Oh my god, Kyla, you gotta get the Rachel.” “Shit, Tyrone, remind me to fuck you in chains.”

Meanwhile, I’d eat quickly and head back to class where the teacher would say; “Standard filters please, for those who have them,” and I’d just stare into my notebook, feeling so excluded from this magical world right beside me that I could only look forward to the time when everybody’s fun would end and they’d be half as sad and bored as me.

It took six months for me to put an end to it, six months of coming home crying to my parents that I was miserable and had no friends thanks to them.

“No one even talks to me!”

 “Sweetie, someone who won’t love you as you are can’t love you at all. You’ll never make a real connection hiding behind a screen.”

“Gimme a fake connection then!” I’d yell at her, which would just make her sigh and then lecture me even more in that rational voice which maybe served her as a professor, but made her completely fucking useless as a mom to me.

“I think people will look back on live filters and think how a whole generation of young people were destroyed.”

“That’s not what’s destroying me! You’re destroying me! You are!”

Nothing I said ever affected her, though, and she only started to waffle after I told the guidance counselor I was thinking of slitting my wrists in the tub.

I still don’t know what changed her mind—if it was the fear of mopping up my unfiltered blood or the arrival of Gunter, the Eurotrash post-post-modernist-techno-optimist who joined the sociology department that Fall.  Gunter came over for dinner one night, informing my mom how revolutionary my generation would be, finally able to hide from the Authoritarian Gaze, whatever the fuck that meant. All I knew was my mom changed her tune the exact instant Gunter flashed her the fuck-me green eyes that made her giggle just like Kyla round Jake.

The next week my mom went to the Apple Store to get us all fitted out, and I was presented with my first pair of Shine Live Lenses.

From then on, for days, all I did was run between my computer and the mirror, trying out all the options: hair and eye coloring, feature enhancements. Everyone in school was thrilled to welcome the new me, and help me find my way.  There was a method to building your filters right, a kind of code around how much you could mess with. After all, since really anything was possible—we could’ve all come in looking like Brie if we wanted (Kyla would have, for sure)—there had to be limits. Like you couldn’t give yourself lustrous long hair if there weren’t much for a guy to run his hands through, couldn’t make yourself hard-bodied and feel like a pile of dough. You could smooth things out and play around, but not outright lie, which was cool because I wanted to stay me—just the best me I could be.

Very soon it was like I’d never been any other way. I’d forgotten how I looked before, though here and there I’d take out the lenses and sneak a peek, out of a perverse curiosity, I guess.  Feeling a bump on my face and knowing there was a pimple there I couldn’t see, I’d perch by the mirror in the bathroom under the hard bright light and stare at my flawed, crooked face until I wanted to cry at all that ugliness. It never was too long before I’d pop back in my lenses and experience such a huge wave of relief, it was like a high. All I felt then was sorry for the kids who’d come before me and had to live out their teenage years all zitty and scrawny and hunched over in shame.

Looking back, it’s hard to see my happiness in the simple way I did then, but I really do think we all felt happy then. Life was the same with live filters, only prettier and more within our control, and it really did seem like the people in my grade got nicer for a while. I mean, how much of kids’ teasing comes from insecurity? This way, fixed up, we just liked ourselves better, and also felt grateful to each other for seeing us the way we asked. Wearing filters was like respect, like not laughing when someone tripped, or pointing out food in someone’s teeth before they talked to a guy or girl they liked. We were united, and maybe we’d have stayed that way if Jed Stokes had never existed.

So back to Jed. He still kept showing up NF, by the way, even after Brie sent the message around that this was uncool. Soon enough, everyone was acting lowkey freaked out. There were rumors Jed was a spy, telling the guys how the girls really looked, either to gain power or just out of spite. I tried to make clear I didn’t see Jed as the type. Jed’s family home wasn’t far from mine and there were days when I’d bike by and catch him out in his yard with his dad or little sister. Jed’s father had a fat belly and pale, knobby legs; his sister’s head was a mound of frizz and half her teeth were missing, but I never saw Jed looking at either of them meanly, in the way my classmates seemed to think he looked at them. Plus, the few times Jed had caught my eye, what I’d felt wasn’t judgment, but something warm that made me bike by faster, so he wouldn’t see me flush.

Not that anyone gave a shit what I said if Brie was set against him, which she was. Whenever Jed was near, Brie’s hands would flutter, nervous, around her gold or pearl or whatever-glowing hair, pulling it to cover her face. I started to wonder: just what she was so scared Jed might see?

“It’s like he’s spying on us naked,” Becky said, one day at lunch, her dumb cat face frowning.

“You wish,” I said.

“No you wish,” Becky spat back. “I see how you look at him.”

“Oops, snatched,” Kyla chimed in.

I was gonna defend myself, but then Brie turned to me, accusing.

“Vibe check! Who’s side are you on, anyway?”

I was on their side, wasn’t I?  I mean, I’d fought to have live filters and I’d debated with my mom a hundred times. What was good or fair about reality, or how we happened to look?  Why should we be bound by nature, when nature killed the weak and tormented the acne-scarred and saggy-assed?

“I’m with you guys,” I said.

Brie looked pleased. “Then we agree. Jed’s seeing things about us without our consent.”

“Totally,” chimed in Kyla, “My body, my choice.”

“We should go to the principal,” Becky concluded. “Stand up for our rights.”

And so we did, and I hung silently in back hearing Brie tell principal Wallace how we all felt visually violated by Jed.  Wallace nodded with great concern, never one to disagree with a pretty girl, plus everyone knew he was fucking Haines’ mom, probably with her in some school-girl filter while he was doing it.

“I’ll speak with him,” Wallace promised.

 But whatever he said, Jed clearly didn’t give a shit because nothing changed.

“I don’t know why you keep doing this,” Brie finally confronted Jed in the hall one afternoon.  Quickly everyone grew quiet and gathered round where Jed stood to face her. “You’re just making everyone feel judged and shitty.”

“Do you feel shitty, Brie? About what? The double chin? Because those were, like, high fashion in the 18th century.”

“I do not have a double chin!” Brie shouted. Everyone nodded, but of course no one actually knew what was behind that glitter-glazed angel face. “I do not!” Brie shouted again, more desperate.

 “Shout all you want,” said Jed, “I’m just saying how it is. The empress has no clothes.”

 And for a moment everyone looked at Brie as if she really were standing there with no clothes—double chin and all.

Jed had taken Brie down a peg and I’d guess, secretly, a bunch of kids liked seeing it.  In the end though, Brie was able to work everyone around to her side. After all, whatever Jed was saying about her, he could be saying about them too.

Soon a bunch of rumors circulated—whether Brie started them or Jed did, I never knew, but almost no one was spared: Haine’s muscles were bullshit, someone said, and Kyla’s whole face and body were marked with freckles and dots.  Jake was pigeon-toed and scrawny-jawed, and, behind the cute cat-face, Becky had a nose more like a rat. I don’t think anything bad was said about me and I did worry if people would start to wonder why, would start to think it was ‘cause Jed liked me.  I had to admit I was wondering too.  Though I shared this with no one, I’d begun to find him, if not hot, more interesting to look at than the other faces that passed by, smooth and generic, all the same day to day fluff.

About a week later, Kyla dragged me to the mall, all excited that Haines had said I looked cute in the sun-kissed filter, the one he used to death, and this meant he liked me. Personally, I thought Haines was a tool, but Kyla wanted to ship me with him, because, as is probably obvious, she had a massive thing for Jake. Like, once Jake said something about redheads being crazy, and instantly Kyla, being a total simp, went blonde on her filter, which all just went to prove that Jake had no brains and Kyla had no self-esteem because, all along, her true hair color was brown.

Anyway, so there we were in search of clothes for me that Kyla imagined Haines would like. That’s when I saw Jed at the entrance with his parents and little sister, the girl up on his shoulders. He was smiling and laughing, and I was hoping Kyla would see he was a far nicer person than she and the rest thought him to be. 

But when Kyla spotted him, she only scowled. “What’s he doing at the mall? He wears the same ratty shit each day and doesn’t care.”

“He’s with his family.”

Kyla didn’t respond. Jed’s mere presence, his mere existence, was a threat to her so she wanted to follow him—for no good reason, I said and refused to go along. Instead I hid out by some cheap earrings at a pop-up store until she came back, announcing that Jed had been looking at cameras—the older manual models that didn’t pick up on filters.

“He’s going to expose all of us. Show around pictures of us as we really are.”

“Oh come on. You don’t know that.”

“And you don’t know he won’t.”

The prospect filled me with dread—not only thinking of everyone seeing that disgusting bathroom mirror face of mine—but also for how ugly things at school were bound to get.

I told Kyla I needed to leave early and got on my bike, riding a mile before circling back again.  About twenty minutes passed before I saw Jed leaving with his family, then I ran up to him. He seemed both surprised and glad to see me.

“Talk a sec?”

His parents loaded up the car while we stepped off a few yards, the sun picking up the texture of his skin, a small dimple on his cheek I hadn’t noticed before.

“Don’t do what you’re planning,” I told Jed.

“What am I planning?”

“You bought an old camera. Kyla thinks you plan to take pictures of everyone to prove how they really look.”

“Actually, hadn’t thought of that,” he paused, considering.  “It’s not the worst idea though, to at least have people think I could. Maybe they’d back off some.”

I warned Jed that a threat, even unspoken, would only make people hate him more.

“What do I care what a bunch of cartoon people think of me?”

I wondered then if he thought of me as like them, another cartoon, or if he imagined I was different. “They’re no worse than anyone else,” I said, with a twinge of shame. “We’ve all gotten used to being helped a little, you know, with how we look.”

“You don’t need help.  Not with the fuzz on your cheek or the freckles on your face or that sweet gap in your lower front teeth. Just now, looking at me all self-conscious and doubtful, you look fucking perfect.”

Jed smiled at me and walked off to rejoin his family, leaving me pretty shook. I was flattered, I guess, but what I felt more was like a hole had opened up—one filled with sadness and loneliness.  I’d almost forgotten those features he’d described were mine.  It was like he was introducing me to myself again. If Jed had stuck around there with me, if he’d touched me then, I felt like I’d have cried.

By Monday, Kyla had let the whole grade know about the camera and Jed’s plans to use it, and everyone was in a state. Becky wanted to go to the principal, and Haines and Jake were threatening to break into Jed’s house to steal the camera themselves. They were mostly full of shit, those two, but I was still concerned enough to try to do something. The only person who could calm the others down was Brie, so I followed her into the bathroom where we could have some privacy.

“Just tell everyone to chillax. They’re all shook thinking Jed bought the camera to use on us and he didn’t. I’m sure.”

Brie studied me, wondering, I imagined, how I could know this, how close I’d come to this boy who’d done so much to upset the order she’d established. “All right, spill the tea. What’dya know?”

“I talked to him at the mall and he said he had no plans to take our pics, no cap. If it would help, I could ask him to give the camera over to me.”

I could see that Brie wanted what I was saying to be true. “Find out if he’ll do that. If he agrees, we’ll be cool.”

“You really mean it? Like totally cool?”

“If he stops messing with us, we stop messing with him. TBH, I just want us all feeling safe again, right?”

“Right. Mood.”

I nodded, recalling the version of Brie I had liked once, even admired.  To be fair, Brie had put an end to the teasing and cliquishness that went on before her. She’d tried to include everyone—even fucking Becky—so long as everyone went along.  She had no more interest in prolonging this war with Jed than I did and, through all that glossy haze and glowing skin, I saw someone who I believed that I could trust.

Brie sent the message through some of the boys to Jed: we were to meet at 8:30 in front of his garage and he’d hand off the camera to me.   By then the sun had set and the streetlights were low—enough for me to feel at ease being seen up close—so, even once I had the camera, I sat with Jed on the grass, sharing my hopeful thoughts on how much better things would be.

“Brie’s cool with you and that means the rest will be too. No more dragging you. Things will turn around.”

“I don’t need them to turn around, but if you do.”

It might have been a put-down, but Jed smiled when he said it.  I looked at him and saw the tiny lines when he smiled, the shiny places on his lips. 

He reached out and touched my hand and we just sat like that a moment, staring ahead.

In the darkness I heard them coming before I could see them. Young voices carry—the high tones jump through the air in that eager way. There were ten of them at least, girls and boys. As they got closer I saw Haines and Jake and Kyla and Becky and a bunch of others, mostly boys. I looked for Brie but she wasn’t there. Later I discovered they’d come against her will.

I stepped up to meet them, addressing Kyla, who was my friend, so I’d thought.

“What’s this about?”

“We’re taking the camera.”

“You don’t need to take something he’s already given up.” I held up the device and Becky tore it from my hands. Even then, she didn’t seem remotely satisfied.

“This still doesn’t fix what he sees,” Becky growled.

“We don’t control what people see,” I replied, growing nervous. “This is trash. C’mon.” But Becky didn’t move.  “Fuck off or I’ll tell PETA you’re making kittens seem like cunts.”

“Slut,” Becky replied. “I hope he gives you HPV.”

“I hope you get raped by a bobcat,” I said, feeling like punching her in her dumbass snout.

I don’t feel violent often, but it was in the air. Everyone was standing still, but jumpy, rocking on their heels, stretching their arms—an uneasy energy moved through the group. I tried to say something to Kyla but she just told me to shut up, that I was cute without filters so my opinion didn’t count. I caught Haines watching me and started to approach him, but he just turned away and headed straight for Jed.

Then the hitting started. Instantly, there were five guys on Jed and they just kept punching and punching him. Becky and Kyla held me back. I kicked Becky and she started crying, but only gripped me tighter. Eventually, I was crying too from the shock of what was happening.

The punches just kept landing—more lightly from the tentative boys, full force from Jake and Haines.  Soon blood was running down Jed’s cheeks. He was screaming and, when he could free his arms, swinging blindly or trying to cover up his face, until someone managed to pull his hands away again.

At some point, I grasped where the worst punches kept landing.

“Monsters!” I shouted, sobbing. “Ugly, fucking monsters!”

They were going for his eyes.

image: Venice carnival masks, Hippopx Creative Commons Zero CCO

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