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Beliebe in Yourself

Big Time

When viral stardom strikes, your entire future is suddenly within reach—would you capture it or just let it slip?

Justin Bower, Moment of Collision, 2013. Courtesy the artist and UNIX Gallery. Via Artsy.

Two in the afternoon Eastern Daylight Time, holding a selfie stick with live video streaming to his fans around the globe, Jake Wagmeister showed up at the manager’s office at ShopRite in Jersey City and made it known that he was entering the “after” category of life. Not everyone on this earth will live through an “after,” Jake told his fans. Many people go through life sideways, as if on cross-country skis through a passage of days that blend into the scenery.

“I’m quitting,” Jake told his manager, angling his head a quarter-tilt outward. “This is my moment. I’m ready to make it mine.”

Sobs erupted throughout the land, Jake knew. He saw his fans in his mind, open-mouthed and hugging themselves, liking and tweeting and crying. This was their choice. They had chosen him, he told his manager, Mr. Piaskowski, who was known as Mr. P. Jake moved to Mr. P’s desk and held the selfie stick out so it would film the two of them and capture this moment. “What’s your response?” Jake asked Mr. P. “Look right there and say it.”

Mr. P didn’t say anything at first. Then he asked Jake to turn the camera off so they could talk. He said he had been trying to reach Jake all morning. He said the onions and potatoes needed to be restocked and Jake should get out there and put his phone away before he got fired. Jake kept filming. “Speak up a little louder,” Jake said. “This is me quitting,” he told his fans.

It was only nine days earlier that Jake Wagmeister, an unknown 16-year-old shelf stocker, the only son of a regional bank executive and a homemaker, had been in the “before” category. That’s not a bad place to be, Jake knew now. Many people on this earth don’t get a “before.” For many people, what seems like a “before” is just a “now,” and then another “now,” giving way to a string of “nows” forming an eternal present tense without reference to a point when everything changes.

Jake Wagmeister never met the girl who took the picture and posted it on Twitter, propelling him to viral stardom.

That point for Jake was Saturday, July 18, 2015. He had been stocking the produce section, contemplating what to text to Nicole, who was probably the third-hottest girl in his class. He was wearing his blue polo with his ShopRite nametag. He had black Levis on and New Balance sneakers. His hair wasn’t great. He was having a bad hair day. And he was hung over after a night of vodka Red Bulls with that guy Dylan who wasn’t even his friend anyway. He also hadn’t taken a poop in two days.

Jake Wagmeister never met the girl who took the picture and posted it on Twitter, propelling him to viral stardom and appearances on Ellen and Good Morning America. It’s possible she was an angel. Her post said “Jake from ShopRite” above the picture, which showed him with a slight smile, his lips parted, his blue eyes burning, somewhat confused, maybe, or else all-knowing, his cowlick just visible, his hands holding a pair of onions that looked almost like a pair of ghostly white testicles, shorn and gleaming.

He shut off the video as he left Mr. P’s office and went out to the parking lot. He was using his parents’ Hyundai sedan, just until he made enough to get a Mercedes S-Class. For now, he would wow his fans in other ways. Jake hopped in the car and reached for an old plastic lunchbox. Inside the lunchbox was a recently acquired Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Jake had bought the gun from Dylan, who had his own place and access to this kind of thing. Still, Jake wasn’t a gun guy. All he knew was it looked fucking bad.

The master plan had already coalesced for Jake. He would become a famous rapper, extremely dirty and bad, with lyrics about making love to women. He was almost 100 percent sure his fans would love it. Actually, he was 1,000 percent sure. He would use the Glock in the video that would launch his career.

Jake checked Twitter as he pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto Metro Plaza Drive. He didn’t have as many mentions as yesterday. When he tapped the little bell icon, the blur of the page zipping upward didn’t last quite as long. It lasted roughly 1.2 seconds, he estimated. Maybe 1.3. But that didn’t mean anything. He still had over 600,000 followers. Plus it was a Wednesday. His social media analytics adviser, Stephen, whom he had recently hired, always said Wednesdays were slow.

There were a couple things Jake knew for sure. One was the secret of life, which could be summarized as No Risk, No Reward. The other was the title of his debut hip-hop album: Occupied. It was about having sex with women in airplane bathrooms, something Jake had almost done for the first time over spring break. He was on a jetliner, on a class trip to Washington, DC, sitting next to Nicole. She looked hot in a crop top that exposed her belly button. Now, he knew, now that he was living in the “after” category, now that he was in the process of hitting the big time, now she wouldn’t turn him down again.

Jake pulled up to TKO Studios on Christopher Columbus Drive at 2:26, four minutes before he was supposed to meet his manager, Nathan Saperstein, who was known as Sappy. Sappy, a tall guy with salt-and-pepper stubble and hair slicked back over his balding scalp, was already there waiting. “My fuckin’ man!” Sappy said. “My man Jake Wagmeister, Justin Bieber 2.0!” Jake got out of the car and slapped a high five with Sappy. “Whatcha got in the lunchbox?” Sappy said.

When Jake started hitting the big time, with his Twitter mentions filling up with literally tens of thousands of hysterical females, and with old friends texting him, Nicole hadn’t been among them.

Sappy didn’t have a very long resume, but there was a nastiness about him that appealed to Jake. He understood the art of combat and the combat of art, he told Jake at their first meeting several days earlier. They were getting mini croissants at the Au Bon Pain by the river. Jake was worn out after a red-eye from Los Angeles. He had other things on his mind, like tearing his croissant into tinier and tinier fragments. “Let me ask you something, Jake,” Sappy said. Then he pointed his finger and asked something.

It was clear to anyone with a brain that Jake was having deep thoughts. He had spent the red-eye devising lyrics for the debut single of Occupied, climbing over the sleeping person in the aisle seat to run to the bathroom whenever inspiration struck, taking long looks at himself in the mirror. He pictured Nicole hearing the song on SoundCloud and watching the video on YouTube. He considered including a coded message in the lyrics. Would a dedication be too much?

There was a time when it took Nicole 15 minutes or so to respond to his texts. Then she stopped responding altogether. When Jake started hitting the big time, with his Twitter mentions filling up with literally tens of thousands, if not millions, of hysterical females, and with old friends from middle school texting him and snapping him, making jokes or asking to hang out, Nicole hadn’t been among them. Jake would scroll through his mentions with an eye peeled. He didn’t dare tap over to her profile.

Now he checked his phone again as he rode the elevator up with Sappy. He had a note from Stephen, reporting robust traffic for a Wednesday. And he had a text from his mom saying the signed baby pictures she had been selling online were running low, and could Jake maybe sign a couple hundred more that evening?

Jake surveyed the recording studio and deemed it legit, with extension cords and microphones sprouting among the clusters of sound-mixing consoles. Sappy seemed to be friends with all the audio engineers. “Sap-py!” one of them said. “What up, fuckface!” Sappy shouted.

Jake and Sappy took a seat at a round table and Sappy handed him a piece of paper. It was lyrics. The song was called “Sweetie.” Jake took a quick read. “I don’t know,” Jake said.

“Talk to me, Jake,” Sappy said.

“It’s kind of dumb,” Jake said. He added, “I don’t think I can rap this.”

“You’re not a rapper,” Sappy said. “You’re Justin Bieber 2.0. Or, you know, 1.0. The cuddly version. Before the cars and tattoos.”

“What about Occupied? My hip-hop album?” Jake said.

“That’s a fuckin’ joke,” Sappy said.

Jake realized then that he and Sappy didn’t quite see eye to eye. That was OK. He could take care of Sappy. A guy like Jake, living in the “after” category, destined for greatness, with a Twitter follower count rising by the second, had levers he could pull.

Jake opened the lunchbox and showed Sappy the gun. “I’m no one’s cuddly version,” Jake said, though he didn’t mean that as a slight against Justin Bieber; Jake had enormous respect for what the man had accomplished. Sappy didn’t say anything.

Jake held the gun and placed it against his temple. Then he put it in his mouth. Then he put it back against his temple and stuck out his tongue. There we go. Money. Jake held out his phone and took a selfie.

Within seconds the photo was going viral.

Within minutes, Jake was in the studio, headphones on, the pistol snug under his waistband. “All right,” Jake said. “This one’s called ‘Nicole,’” he added, before telling his fans to buckle their seatbelts low and tight across their laps, put their seatbacks and tray tables in the upright position, and prepare for takeoff.