Art by Pia Mileaf-Patel

“To see her is a picture—

To hear her is a tune—

To know her an Intemperance

As innocent as June—

To know her not—Affliction—

To own her for a Friend

A warmth as near as if the Sun

Were shining in your Hand.” 

― Emily Dickinson

I came across Gold Earring Girl innocently enough. Or perhaps if we’re being honest, I came across her not innocently at all, but lucky for me, our first official introduction seemed completely natural.

Hello Anna! Spencer gave me your name. I posted on my story looking for women in Los Angeles to photograph. Would this be something you would be interested in?

It was an oddly formal message, oddly humble or Midwestern or something. Like a teleprompter. My wires were spinning.

I’d known who she was but I’d had no knowledge Spencer would drop her my name. Spencer was always doing me more favors than I deserved.

I said yes, albeit self consciously, and we agreed to circle back in a few weeks. I pressed follow. Gold Earring Girl followed back. I hated the internet. People like me shouldn’t be allowed on there, but we are, and we are allowed to follow Gold Earring Girls and make ourselves crazy.

In the months that followed, extraordinary things happened. I quit my job of four years. I went to a wedding in Europe and lay around in Czech skateparks with my sister. My grandfather died.

And yet, all I could think of was her.

She was always in my feed, always smiling on film, always posting women’s bodies in black and white or clothed in carefully chosen neutrals. She was always there in self portraits or in collaborations with friends, her body reclining or straining or stretching. Whether her own photo or her inspiration, it was always her vision, her careful eye and endless devotion to the feminine. There was a certain sensual quality to her work, a certain degree of curvature and flesh that was always present. Sometimes she would post a Renaissance sculpture and write ‘Saturday night’ as the caption. I was obsessed. 

I wanted to like every photo she posted but I didn’t touch any of them. I’d had elaborate crushes before but Gold Earring Girl was different. She was an obsession born from an obsession, an exponential yearning for something. 

Gold Earring Girl was best friends with a boy I had a crush on. This was how I’d found her. This was how I knew her not innocently. She was a part of a larger picture but had suddenly become the most interesting object in frame. I was like a reporter who investigated one story and became fascinated with another. I had lost sight of my target.

One day, while creeping Gold Earring Girl, I noted a photo in which her leg looked unflattering, her skin looked mottled, and her face looked unrelaxed. There was a certain awkwardness to the picture and in it the sensuality I had come to know as her trademark emerged. My crush had liked it, the way he had liked all her photos and liked all my photos too. 

Being a photographer, it seemed Gold Earring Girl had embraced the sacrifice of vanity for a more redeeming truth. Or maybe she just knew what life looked like. 

I meanwhile continued not to post online, but continued to watch, like a sad animal. I watched as Gold Earring Girl moved into a new apartment and posted a cheeky story of her roommate with a price tag pinned on her back. ‘Roomate for sale,’ she wrote and surreptitiously tagged her handle. The roommate was a Gold Earring Girl too, but in a way I liked less. She was less unabashed and desperate. She was less small town.

I liked Gold Earring Girl because I could see her striving. I could see her drinking green smoothies and taking new digis. I could see her followers increasing from 853 to 1021. I could see how much she wanted and how much she didn’t have and her formula to get it. I admired her dedication. And I was jealous of her. Of her absolute faith. 

Summer turned to fall, or at least pretended to in the way only Los Angeles can. Gold Earring Girl did not contact me and I did not expect her to. My return to the city had been a slow descent into madness that could best be described by a Washington Post carousel entitled Hope Fatigue.  My friend returning from a month in the Pacific Northwest referred to it as: “trying to hold onto that warmth.” 

We had somehow forgotten it would only get hotter. 

One scorching weekend, after screening multiple calls from my parents and spending three days in self-mandated solitude, I took a trip to Aritzia at Westfield Century City mall to buy a bodysuit which was to supply me with the last burst of dopamine my brain seemed able to offer. As I walked through the sensored gates, a New World materialized before me. Gold Earring Girls everywhere. Milling about by the thousands, sporting gold of all sizes, carats and qualities. Bleached hair, eyebrows and probably assholes. Eating disorders, recovery and body positivity. Skin that looked like jello. The postmodern joy of being a girl. There was something devastating about it so I had to stay. 

In line, I watched a platinum Gold Earring Girl in pippi braids smooth clothes on the waiting rack. She was small, with delicate features and a matte face. Her makeup was visible, but inoffensive. I had come to realize, after careful observation, that when you reached a certain level of Gold Earring, certain things could be forgiven. You were tenured for life.

Inside the fitting room, a calm man with an exquisite demeanor provided feedback on each girl’s try ons. I yearned for his approval, but was three coffees deep into a burgeoning paranoia by the time it came my turn. He asked what I had come for gently, as if not to spook me. As soon as the words left my mouth I realized I did not know. My items fit poorly. I changed quickly and apologized as I handed them back to an employee and left the store. 

Driving home, I thought of some of my contemporaries, bohemians with tastes so singular they could not be replicated. Often they were geniuses, personalities informed by years of art, culture, and literature, whose trust in their own blue streak of rebellion seemed to summit at an ultimate one-of-a-kind-ness I could only gawk at. I had long since stopped feeding my mind, but it was the blue streak that troubled me most. Sometimes I would glimpse it, shimmering at the periphery of my reach, tempting me, but I refused to take hold. From this angle, there was something appealing about Gold Earring Girl. She was a trustable formula, reliable yet daunting. It was the same old promise of classical capitalism. If you worked hard enough, you too could be her. 

Some hours later I sat alone at a bar near my house. The air was sticky and my drink and I sweat liberally yet inoffensively in the unventilated space. I wondered if I was the only one who liked sitting in dingy places alone, who still thought drinking glamorous in some sort of jejune fantasy way.

From my vantage point, I could see most of the room, a position I had chosen deliberately. Refusing to be alone with myself required that I transition from coffee to alcohol as seamlessly as possible come late afternoon, and I was already behind schedule. I took a small sip of icy liquid and removed my phone from my purse, refreshed my feed. Gold Earring Girl had posted. I clicked on it and felt my heart stop.

It was a classic image of a photobooth strip; I had taken several of my own over the years. Gold Earring Girl was smiling in the photo, and didn’t look the way she usually did. Instead she looked drunk with her best friend, undone. She looked beautiful. I looked at the curtain falling behind them in the photo. She had chosen to post it in black and white. The correct choice, surely, given the curtain’s garish red color and it’s clash with her dress. There was no need to check location. 

I looked up across the bar and watched her. She was smaller in real life of course, rounder and more tan. She looked less friendly and more vulnerable. She moved easily. She was laughing. And for a second, for a fraction of a second, I thought I saw her look at me.

I wondered if I should walk over. Oh yeah, I live around the corner – wait a second, you’re the one who Spencer referred me to, aren’t you?  I pictured myself in the photo, my arms thrown around hers, my hair blonder than it was now, my eyes brighter than the lifeless ones staring into my screen. 

I decided to walk home. 

As I reached the gate to my house, I watched the tree beside my window sway solemnly in the wind. They had removed a branch that day, a precautionary measure to prevent any possibility of accident. Looking at it, my mind searched for the phantom limb, the nothingness barren and unnatural in its place. When I had asked my landlord about it, he had reassured me: it’ll grow back.

Alone in bed, I wondered why Gold Earring Girl had never contacted me. I thought of the dog I had walked by earlier that night. Rushing by it quickly in my eagerness to avoid an interaction with its owner, I had confused it sufficiently to make it sniff after me, causing a larger scene. By the time I offered remarks of admiration, it was too late. I was cooing at a dog from a block away. 

Taking out my phone, I scrolled back to my conversation with Gold Earring Girl and reread it. My self-effacing reply did not show interest or camaraderie. I closed my eyes. 

I remembered being 24. I remembered all the people I had tried to be. I didn’t post face pics anymore. I pulled up a photo of a forlorn green cushion I had taken in an abandoned house. I wrote out a caption: When I was a child, I spoke as a child.

I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

I closed the app and threw four t-shirts in a duffel bag. 

I go camping with Spencer and we don’t talk about Gold Earring Girl or my crush. We lay on cracked pavement under the stars and in the morning he says I didn’t know you had that ear pierced. He is pointing to the tiny stud on my left cartilage.

Oh, yeah, I say. Everyone always says that. I got it with my best friend when we were 18 and never took it out.

Lying there, I realize the earring has been in my ear for almost 10 years untouched. I think about Gold Earring Girl’s women, about their bodies and their wants and their freedom and pain. 

I take a breath of fresh morning air. I look up at the sky. I let it all go.