The Follow-Back

Matt

Summer’s barely started, but it’s so hot here in L.A. already, even this late at night, that I go straight to the rooftop patio when I get home. My parents are in bed, and when I crack open the Dr. Pepper I brought up, I almost down the entire thing on the first swig. It was a long day of rehearsing with the guys to prep for next week’s festival, so my brain is fried.

All I can do is sit back in the lounge chair and start scrolling through my Instagram notifications. I can’t respond to everyone’s comments, but sometimes I like to take a look at who my new followers are. Generally, I only follow people I actually know or other artists I look up to.

But when I see her username—emmielovestoread—it just strikes me as, I don’t know, cute? So without even thinking, I tap on the Follow Back button. It’s like an instinct I have no control over.

“Shoot,” I say aloud to myself, setting the can of soda down. I cringe at my phone. Now what? I didn’t really mean to follow her back. She’s just some random girl I don’t know. But I don’t want to click to unfollow now. I don’t want to look like a jerk or anything. Should I send her a message and explain it first? I can’t decide.

I click on her profile. It’s like, basically all books. Even her profile photo only shows half her face because the other half is covered up by an open book. Her bio says she’s eighteen just like me, and it also mentions the word enneagram and the number four (which, who knows, sounds like some kind of math club?). It lists the hashtag #Bookstagram, so apparently this is a thing; it’s like a whole sub-community. I keep scrolling through her pics—you know how Instagram just sucks you in, right?—and she’s actually really funny, and really… real.

She must be kind of a big deal in this strange Bookstagram world because this Emmie girl has like five thousand followers. Finally, I see her face when I click to view her stories. I don’t know how to explain it but there’s just something about her that makes me want to keep watching her. She’s talking about a book she just read in the videos and she keeps adjusting her glasses and tucking her wavy brown hair behind her ear and doing this shy, look-away-from-the-camera thing. I have a sudden urge to pick up a book, which I haven’t done by choice in years.

The only thing besides books I notice in her feed is that her location tags are almost all in L.A. Apparently, we’re neighbors. I basically fall asleep insta-stalking her. I wake up when my mom comes up the stairs to find me sacked out on the lounge chair and kicks me awake.

#

Emmie

I wake up on Saturday morning to the most surreal notification on my phone screen.

Matt Hardesty (matthardestymusic) has started following you.

What?

I replay last night. I had been casually scrolling through Bookstagram, the affectionate name for the best corner of Instagram where I (and other bookish people) post all about books and reading. I follow some celebrities who are readers so I inevitably started rabbit-trailing from one of them, as one does. I spiraled my way from one profile to the next, and eventually, I made my way to Matt Hardesty’s profile. In his bio, he had a quote from The Outsiders, which piqued my interest.

Like every other teenager in the country, I’d heard his songs on the radio, but I didn’t really know much about him. I spent who-knows-how-long looking through his photos, especially when I saw all the local shots of restaurants and beaches that I know. Los Angeles is a big place and I definitely don’t run in the same circles as a teenage YouTube sensation-turned famous singer-songwriter, but I’d had my fair share of celebrity sightings around town. Had we walked right by each other without knowing it? I tapped Follow. Because, why not? He seemed like an interesting person with interesting photos.

The whole thing still seems silly this morning. I shake my head and walk downstairs, scrolling through a few more of Matt Hardesty’s pictures. They’re artistic shots, and well, if I’m being honest, he is really good-looking. He’s got these dreamy eyes and a smile that goes straight to the heart. I pour a cup of coffee while thumbing my way through his feed, stopping at a video of him singing a familiar song. I reflect on his lyrics—the ones that come to mind are pretty poetic.

I force myself to refocus; back to me following him… and him following me back. There are two options here: one, he is the kind of celebrity who follows back every person, just to look kind and benevolent, but then either doesn’t ever check his feed or has some other private account where he follows the people he actually wants to see. Or, two, he followed me back completely by accident. I check his numbers and nope, he has a legit thousand times more followers than those he actually follows.

So the answer is clear. There is literally no way he has any interest in nerdy little Emmie Carino and all the books she reads and all the coffee she drinks. I laugh it off. It was an accidental follow-back for sure. I open up my DMs, and, incredulously, I tap out a quick message to Matt Hardesty.

#

Matt

The notification pops up while I’m pouring my second cup of coffee. My parents are FaceTiming with Julia about her trip home next month but at the moment, I’m more interested in the message in my DM folder from emmielovestoread.

Hi Matt, you don’t know me, but I’m Emmie, the girl you accidentally followed back last night. We both know that’s what happened, so I just wanted to say hey– no hard feelings if you want to unfollow me. Or, you know, we could just be friends now. Ball’s in your court. I do like your music by the way.

A smile sneaks its way out, and I laugh to myself. This girl has balls. I mean, not literally, but she just put it all out there… and I kind of like it. I figure I might as well reply.

Nice to meet you, Emmie. It turns out you are correct in your assumptions. I did indeed follow you back by accident. But I guess the question is, was it actually an accident? Maybe I was subconsciously drawn in by your bookish persona. I’ve been needing some reading recommendations anyway, so I’ll probably just stick around, but thanks for the offer to let me off the hook.

I go back to my notifications and see fifteen new followers and all of them have one of the following words in their usernames: books, pages, reading, reads, or bookshelves. Not even joking.

I jump over to Emmie’s profile and watch a story where she explains that I followed her by accident. She’s actually blushing in the video as she says that I must be a nice guy because I haven’t unfollowed her yet despite her “boring, bookish feed” (her words, not mine).  And then in her last story, she tells all her reader friends to follow me and listen to my music because she and I are pretty much new besties. Ten more new followers pop up in my notifications.

This girl is something else.

#

Emmie

“Hey, bookish friends, a few of you have asked for updates, so I thought I’d pop on and tell you that yes, it’s been about a month, and Matt Hardesty and I are still Instagram friends. I know, what the heck, right? He even sometimes likes my photos.”

I laugh, looking off-screen, and then the story cuts to a screenshot where I circled the notification that says matthardestymusic liked your post, and then on to the next video clip.

“We’ve chatted a bit here and there, and he really is a nice guy, with decent taste in books, it turns out, so do yourself a favor and follow the guy if you haven’t already.”

There, now that I’ve given a vague update, I can highlight this little story and leave it there on my profile for anyone who asks. I probably never should have mentioned it to begin with, but it was just too funny, too random, not to.

The truth is, we’ve chatted more than just “a bit here and there,” but I decide not to tell that to all of Bookstagram. On one hand, I keep wondering if we’ll ever meet up in real life—whether by accident or intentionally—but on the other hand, that thought makes me a little ill with nerves, so I tell myself I’m totally fine with just the Instagram DMs and the occasional photo comments.

My best friend Sophie is the only person who knows that I’ve developed a full-on crush on the world-famous singer Matt Hardesty. The whole thing is, of course, completely ridiculous.

#

Matt

“So what, you’re just like insta-stalking her?”

“Seriously, J? I have like 1.8 million followers. Why is it okay for all of them to know that I’m eating acaí bowls with you—smile, by the way, I’ll post this later after we leave—but I can’t quietly admire a normal girl from afar?”

My sister shrugs, because she knows I’m right. I pull my hat a little lower down so the bill bumps my sunglasses. We’re in the back corner of the restaurant patio, but I still find myself constantly readjusting so that Julia blocks me with her sun hat. If I can get through an entire breakfast conversation without being spotted by fans, it will be a successful morning out. It’s not that I can’t handle the recognition. I prepared myself for this when I got my first record deal. And I mostly make the best of it, squeezing as much as I can out of this life I stumbled into. But if I’m honest—three years into this adventure—it does wear on me. Forcing a little anonymity into my daily life feels good.

“Anyway, it’s not insta-stalking… anymore, that is. We DM, and I’ve gotten to know her pretty well.”

She raises her eyebrows at me, and I know she wants all the details like she always has.

“Just start at the beginning. You’ve told me bits and pieces of the story, but I want to hear the whole thing.”

I take a giant bite of slushy acaí and fruit-filled goodness.

“Fine,” I say, my mouth full. “You flew all the way out here for some quality time. I suppose I can humor you with a story. I mean there’s not much to it, but whatever.”

She takes a long drink from her iced coffee and folds her hands under her chin.

#

Emmie

“Oh my goodness, that’s him,” I whisper to Sophie from the line at Bliss Bowls. “Matt Hardesty. He’s back in the corner.”

She turns and looks as I place our order.

“One regular açaí bowl and one pitaya bowl, please.”

“Snap!” Sophie says as I pay.

We find a table as far away from Matt as possible, where he has his back to us. She bugs me about it after we sit.

“Go say hi and introduce yourself.”

“Are you crazy? He’s on a date anyway.”

“I thought you followed his every move.” Sophie cocks her head to the side. “That’s his sister. I recognize her from his stories. He picked her up at the airport last night.”

I squint my eyes and peer through the crowded cafe. She’s right. I recognize her, too, even with the big hat.

“Fine, you’re right, but I’m still not going over there.”

I pull my book out of my purse and position it just right next to my colorful bowl of fruit so I can snap a quick photo from above. It looks great. I toss one more look over at Matt. It’s a good thing he has those dark sunglasses on. If I caught a glimpse of those deep green eyes in person, I’d be a goner.

#

Matt

I’ve finished my story and J’s laughing at me like only a big sister can.

“You’ve totally got a thing for her, Matty,” she says.

I try to deny it at first but then figure, why bother? There’s no fooling Julia.

“Yeah, I guess I do. It’s weird, we’ve never even met in person, but we have this connection. And she’s so smart. She’s going to UCLA in the fall to study creative writing. Last week she got all dressed up for an author event she was going to, and wow, she looked amaz—”

I stop mid-word because Julia’s hand suddenly goes to her mouth. She stifles a curse word and another laugh like she can’t believe her luck. “That’s her! OMG! That’s emmielovestoread right over there taking a picture of a book.”

I shush her and whip my head around. My eyes widen. It’s definitely her. She’s with her best friend, the one she went out with the other night when she wore that flowery dress. I turn back to Julia quickly, nerves making my heart suddenly beat faster and my palms start to sweat.

“All this time, we’ve never run into each other. I’ve thought about trying to meet her in real life, but now that we’re here at the same time…” I trail off, feeling at a loss for words, and adjusting my hat again.

“Now that you’re here at the same time, you better go over there.”

“You don’t think I’ll freak her out?”

“Says the guy who has 1.8 million Instagram followers and has people approach him for an autograph or a selfie almost daily.”

She puts her hands on her hips and puts on her best attempt at a Mom Face. (She’s pretty good at that actually.) I shake my head. She’s right, of course. The more I think about it—think about all the messages I’ve now sent to emmielovestoread—the more I know. I sneak another look at Emmie. It feels like no accident that she’s here this morning.

Her friend gets up like she’s going to the restroom, and now’s my chance. I nod at my sister.

My heart’s beating like crazy, but, determined, I get up and walk across the restaurant and slip into her friend’s chair. Her eyes widen as I sit.

“Hi,” she says. She’s smiling, but not the shy smile she wears on her Instagram stories. She tucks her hair behind her ear.

My nerves are suddenly gone. The whole restaurant is gone, and it’s just us at this little table.

“Hey,” I say. I hold out my hand and she shakes it, her eyes glued to mine, her smile solid. “I feel like we’ve maybe met somewhere before. I’m Matt.”

“I’m Emmie,” she says, her hand still in mine. Her eyes have a glimmer about them and it’s not from the morning L.A. sun. “I think we met by accident?”

“Maybe,” I say, shrugging. “Maybe it was by something else.”

#

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