The comments poured in steadily, and though she never responded to them right away, sometimes taking up to a week so as not to look too eager, Raina always read them almost as quickly as her viewers posted. She ignored the inevitable N-word, monkey, and black-fetish cracks, some of the main reasons for her mother’s opposition to Raina’s “hobby,” and blocked those users. But the eighteenth comment, “Can u where ur Dorsey uniform in the next 1?” made her close her laptop for a moment before she could bring herself to reopen it. No avatar accompanied the screen name, Sir_Pix_Alot, but she knew it must be Kevin or one of the other guys in her class again. No matter how many times she blocked them, they always reappeared with new names and the same line of trolling. “We know it’s you, Raina. How come you never talk like that to us at school?”
She closed the laptop again and carried it from her bedroom to the bright kitchen where her mother had left two notes on the oversized refrigerator: “At the salon. Heat the leftovers around 6:30,” and, “Finish your algebra 2 before you get on Youtube.” Raina crumpled both notes into the trashcan and reset the magnets—one advertising her father’s car dealerships and one for the family dentist—that had held the notes to the fridge. The scrunched paper made a satisfying sound that her viewers would enjoy. Her mother had hidden or thrown out the good bread again. “Fiber will help you with some of that belly,” Carmen said the week before on her way out to some event with the other ex-wives, focusing her eyes on Raina’s midsection for longer than necessary.
Over her snack of baked corn chips with hummus and dried cranberries, Raina replayed the video. “Hi everyone,” her video self-whispered from the kitchen table, as her hands stroked alternately a feather and a children’s anthology. “Today, I thought I’d”—she ran her fingernails over the cover of the book—“start with some scratching sounds and then tell you a story.” She had carefully edited out the two-second frame in which she cleared her throat, fearing it too jarring a sound, despite the six or so requests she’d gotten for “more rasp.” She had briefly considered deleting the three-second accidental shot during which she adjusted her breasts into her top, but she kept it for her mother’s sake, and for Dom’s, deliberating only as long as it took to hit “finalize.” She liked leaving Carmen little surprises here and there, sometimes to keep her on her toes, sometimes to force her hand. Last week it was a pendant necklace that grazed her cleavage. The week before, she decided on the hint of a lacy bra under a v-neck shirt.
She guesstimated that Carmen was responsible for seven of the 300+ views the video gained in its first hour after publication, because just as her mother could check Raina’s browser history—which Raina always cleared, along with her cache—Raina could check the age and gender stats on her viewers, a detail that Carmen did not seem to understand. Her mother must have watched the video from the salon and was probably preparing her lecture. Dom hadn’t seen it yet, or he would have called; though, at 4:30, it was still a little early.
A year ago, when Raina started making ASMR videos, she assumed that keeping her head out the frame would preserve her anonymity at some level, prevent the sorts of dramas that resulted from the makeup and hair videos she started in eighth grade. With only her voice and torso as markers, she believed her classmates would not be able to identify her, but someone always did. It wasn’t as though she could start over with a new online identity every time they caught up with her; her viewers wouldn’t know how to find her, and if she gave them clues, Kevin or the other guys would find them, too. Why should she lose her growing number of subscribers or the stats on her videos because of a few jerks with too much time on their hands?
“Because it isn’t right, the whole thing,” her mother said barely a week ago. “You don’t want people to see you as one of those nasty girls, do you.” Carmen phrased it as more of a statement than a question.
“What’s nasty about helping people sleep or calming them down?” Raina had said, regretting it almost immediately.
Her mother adjusted her freshly straightened hair—it was always freshly straightened, because Carmen didn’t allow it to become un-fresh, kinky, even wilted—and continued, “We both know that’s not what most of the people are using the videos for. It would be different if you weren’t whispering and trying to make your voice like that,” Carmen said, emphasizing the last word, “or if your whole head were in the video.”
Raina had tuned out the rest of the lecture, which involved one iteration or another of the same. Why don’t you reconsider plus-size modeling if you want to be in videos and make money? You could try my agency again. Or at least go back to doing hair and makeup tutorials so people can see how pretty your face is, instead of just looking at your chest jiggle while you talk? You said yourself you don’t feel safe with those perverts and racist folks on there.
Safe was the word that Raina actually heard each time the lecture ended. It bothered her that her mother felt more concern over anonymous perverts or racists typing lewd comments from remote places than she felt for the bullies down the block, the ones at school. Raina did not feel safe, not with Kevin still tracking her online or near the school lockers. She had never felt completely safe at Dorsey since fifth grade, when Kylie S. said that first through fourth grade, sleepovers, and years of after-school ice-skating lessons didn’t matter anymore. She could no longer hang out with the only black girl because her dad said it was, “Kind of like the fox and the hound, how they had to go their own ways eventually.” Even with her handful of friends, Raina felt exposed at Dorsey. Her chest protruded past theirs; she stood out in the lineup.
At 4:45, she put on her headset with the 3D microphone and called Dom.
“Hey, sorry, I was finishing something up,” his torso said.
“Hey,” Raina said, too loudly before correcting herself. “Hey, she half-whispered, half-spoke.” Dom preferred her onscreen persona—no head—and she tolerated his requests for faceless chatting, though she occasionally got a glimpse of his neck or the faint dark scruff on his pale, almost translucent, chin. “What did you think?”
“Hmm, it was good,” Dom said after a hesitation. “The story part was. Rapunzel was a good choice, but if you’re gonna do something like that, I think you should show more of your hair next time.”
Raina was trying to transition her hair from relaxed to natural, though she kept it flat-ironed in her most of her videos. She had tried scrunching the burned-straight ends to blend them with the three to four inches of ingrowing coils and kinks at her hairline. But that made her hair only chin-length instead of shoulder length, and Dom speculated that that her views decreased when her hair was not in the frame or the thumbnail preview for the video.
They had met, really started chatting, first through text and then on camera—after he commented on a few of her videos. She only had 57 subscribers then, but with Dom’s suggestions, little things, like telling stories on camera or changing the video tags, she had grown her own brand to over 20,000 subscribers in a little over five months, even making some advertising revenue.
“Ok, more hair,” Raina whispered. “Anything else?”
“Meh, I like the whole fairy-tale theme. I think more videos like that, especially if you dressed up.”
“Like a corset?”
“Yeah, something like that.” She thought she heard Dom chewing something.
“I’ll think about it,” Raina said, her mind already working out the details of her mother’s reproof. Costumes were especially offensive to Carmen and more evidence of impropriety or kink, not simply roleplaying or fantasy. In her regular voice, Raina said, “Dom, have you thought about what I said, about the next level?”
Dom shifted in his chair, his white hands fluttering towards the top of the screen and out of the frame, probably running through his hair. He was definitely chewing. “I just think it might change things, like, too much,” he said, after a long pause. “I like things the way they are now.”
“I do, too,” Raina said, slowly, back in her gentle whisper voice, “but if you’re really my boyfriend, it would make more sense to actually see each other, or at least more of each other.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “My dad’s texting me, gotta go. I’ll call or something tonight.”
Raina didn’t hear his phone buzzing, but she said bye.
Knowing her mother would not be home for another two hours at least, Raina checked the comments.
Earthworm366: Dude, you seriously just gave me a brain orgasm. Didn’t now that was possible
168 thumbs up
AnimeAniME: Comment hidden due to low rating. Show Comment:
U gave me an actual orgasm
147 thumbs down
RhiRhi#1Fan: RIANWHISPER YOU NEED TO GET ON HERE AND AND MAKE
SOME MORE VIDEOS SO I CAN SLEEP. U HAVE THE BEST TRIGGERS!!
ALL TINGLES ALL THE TIME
37 thumbs up
NiceGirlFinishFirstorSecond: love this. one request: can you make a
roleplaying vid about rolling cigars???
12 thumbs up
Lalalalalaland: Why is it that this video is most popular with men and boys ages 18-64? SMH. Just saying.
80 thumbs up
She appreciated the positive feedback, but sometimes Raina felt, briefly, that everyone only wanted or saw a piece of her, not a whole, that she was mere flesh, a series of keywords to help identify her:
ASMR whispers breasts cleavage rain tingles black African American African-American full thick DDs long-hair-don’t-care natural curly massage soft spoken binaural bob ross water sounds storytelling hair brushing gentle role play adenoids spa day fairy tales tapping mind massage autonomous sensory meridian response
As she deleted one of the latest offensive comments, which were fewer and further between this round, her eyes found another post, clearly from Kevin or one of his sidekicks, maybe Adam or Michael.
SmexyandIKnowIt: I want it you got it lemme get come on wit it Raina.
This one was probably Michael’s work. His punctuation was always the worst of the three guys, even though he had been in Honors English in eighth grade and sat three seats to the left of Raina in AP English now. Kevin was their sort of leader. He had been nicer in elementary school, though his mean edge was present if you crossed him. Raina almost liked him then, admiring his short brown hair and the way his green eyes contrasted with his tan. But he became really mean around sixth grade, to a lot of the girls, not just Raina, though he often made comments about the size of her chest. It was only when he tried to feel her up on a class trip to Catalina that they became enemies. She had pushed him into a row of kayaks, causing him to knock them over. She used the chance to run off crying; he told his friends—and subsequently the entire class—that Raina was a slut who had flashed him her boobs.
She blocked SmexyandIKnowIt before looking at the recent uploads from some of the other ASMR channels. Raina was one of only a handful of black ASMR providers, and so far only one other black girl had more subscribers than she did, but that girl was older and had been making videos longer. Raina hoped to compete with the non-black majority of ASMR makers, some of whom had hundreds of thousands of followers and videos with millions of views. If she counted her previous two Youtube names, she had a total of 3 million views—though at least 1,000 of those were probably from Carmen. Under her current name, Rainwhispers, Raina’s most-watched video was at nearly 900,000. Her income from the videos meant she could bypass her father and buy herself the 3D headset she used with Dom and in her videos, but she didn’t make big purchases often.
Her mother never relented in her disapproval of the means, but she approved of Raina’s profits and agreed that a money market account would help Raina secure her future, without having to depend on a man, even her father. “All of this, this lifestyle, isn’t just from the settlement,” Carmen reminded Raina regularly, pointing around the house. “I was on the payroll. Always make sure you’re on the payroll.” She wondered if her mother knew that it wasn’t her father’s money that burdened her, but the way her mother showed it—Dorsey, the towncar, endless luncheons and benefits. Raina vowed to send her own kids to public school, somewhere where they’d never be the only one of anything, and to be home when they were, at least some of the time.
Carmen blew in through the house around seven, her hands full of large brown and white paper bags with twine handles. She filled the room, despite her thin frame. “Did you eat?” she asked Raina, who was seated at the kitchen island half watching a reality show and half thinking about what Dom said.
“Just finished one chicken breast and the Brussels sprouts you left,” Raina sighed. She was still hungry and planning on raiding the freezer for whatever stevia-sweetened sorbet or other low-carb snacks she could find once her mother was out of the room.
“Good. The family commercial is coming up in two weeks, don’t forget.”
“I know, you’ve told me three times and left a note.”
“I never know if you read them or just throw them away first,” Carmen said, smoothing one of her brown bags off the counter. “I picked a few things out for you. How was your day, by the way?”
Raina shrugged. She debated telling her mother about Kevin, again, but instead said, “Fine. We had a sub in English today, so I got my homework done during class. The video is doing pretty well so far.”
“Hmm,” Carmen said, her lips pinched together. “I wish you had left out the boob shot, but the story was cute. I’m thinking this blue one is the best dress for the commercial; your father will be in blue, though I’ll probably wear gray or green—I haven’t decided.”
“It looks too small,” Raina said, getting up to feel the fabric of a navy-blue A-line dress with a narrow rhinestone belt attached to the waist. “It’s a 10/12,” she said more loudly than she planned, though she could never control her voice with Carmen. “I’m a 14. You know that.”
“Yes, but you have two weeks,” Carmen said, smiling a little and pointing to another bag. “They’re all twelves. At least look at them. I spent, like, an hour of my day looking for pieces that would be flattering.”
“I’m supposed to be calling Dom soon,” Raina said, and left for her bedroom.
Raina sat on her bed, turned on her television, and considered using her trump card: “I can go stay with Dad, then,” but this battle didn’t seem worth it, yet. Maybe if Carmen pushed again about Raina getting the edges of her hair touched up, Raina might invoke the idle but still useful threat. Her dad didn’t exactly approve of the videos either, but he said they weren’t harming anything as long as she kept them clean. She wasn’t sure if he had seen many of them, but when she opened the money market account, he joked, via text message, that Raina was a budding young businesswoman after his own heart and that maybe he’d let her write and direct one of his commercials eventually. He never followed through, even after Raina presented him with a script. “That’s so cute, honey,” he had emailed. “But we have a professional guy who does that. Love you. Listen to your mother ;)”
Raina hated posing for the commercials. She hunched awkward and chubby against her mother’s tall thinness and blended into her father’s roundness, their features melding together while Carmen’s jutted, smug. Raina inherited her father’s bug eyes. “Sad she takes after him,” she overheard a tipsy aunt say once at a holiday party.
The biannual commercials for her father’s car dealerships stopped being cool after about first grade, when she transferred to Dorsey, where the kids of CEOs were not impressed. She tried to laugh it off when Kylie S., and even Megan and Liz, her two friends, joked about the silly slogan her father insisted on. In homage to a DMX song fluffed and smoothed out into R&B, her father sang, “What’s our name? Tyson Family Motors. If you want it, we got it, come and get it, our cars are with it.” The song came out the year Raina was born, when they still lived in the foothills of Rancho Cucamonga, and her father, fresh out of undergrad, had inherited and rebranded his parents’ dealership, turning one location into four and beginning her family’s ascent—really their move west—from one house in the Inland Empire to one in Westwood and a vacation condo in Aspen. They didn’t ski. Her father lived in Woodland Hills, about 30 minutes away, with his girlfriend Manda, a blonde twenty-something who basically treated Raina the same way Carmen did, only she thought Raina’s hair, “Looked so cute that way, with all those little curls.” Raina saw them about six times a year, plus the two commercial shoots, which her mother still participated in four years after the divorce, because she and Raina’s father both agreed that, “The family brand is different from the family.”
Scenes from the family brand: Manda standing with a plastered smile, off to the side, off camera; a montage of Raina, Carmen, and Carl Tyson huddled together at the intersection of each dealership and each of her father’s billboards; a family existent only in cuts; her dad making promises in a voiceover; the theme song playing over their poses.
Dom didn’t answer when she tried to call him for a video chat, but he texted five minutes later and said he would call in an hour.
“How do you know this Dom guy is even a real person?” her friends had asked, sounding exactly like Carmen, for a change. “Catfish?”
Raina knew Dom was real and close to her age, though once he had said seventeen and once he had said fifteen. They had never hung out in person—Dom lived in Connecticut—but she had seen his whole face early on in live video chats, when they used to talk like normal people. It was only after her popularity increased that he started asking her to make it, “More like an ASMR video,” quiet and without her face. She would wait another day or so before she asked him again about chatting the old way. Anyway, he was supposed to be in California for a summer program, only five months away, he said; at very worst, they’d see each other then.
Carmen knocked on her door, “I’m sorry about the twelves, Rain. How about we’ll take you to my pilates class tomorrow, so you’ll feel more confident? We can go shopping at the end of the week and you can pick something you like, fourteen, twelve, whatever.”
Raina started outlining a new video. She usually wrote a script and storyboard first and improvised her actual monologue once she began filming, sometimes taking three days for a single concept. She sat in front of the camera, with her 3D microphone nearby, but she quickly abandoned her notes. With her whole head in the frame, she spoke in her natural voice, softened so that Carmen would not hear her. “Today, I’m not going to tell you a fairy tale, but something I’ve been thinking about, about myself,” she began. She might have been crying, her voice, sharp and cracking, would not modulate. She persisted until she felt spent, emptied as though after a deep purge.
She deleted the footage and started over. Editing was the easiest part; she worked best in short frames, slivers, fragments. Everyone said so.
About the Author: Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a native Californian and a Visiting Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Compose, Blinders, FLO
Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.