The Art of the Group Chat

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When Abbie cut out Debbie's name, but not Betty's, from lighting the "best friends” bat mitzvah candle mid-stanza of the candle lighting poem, you'd think that would have been the end of the friendship. But Debbie's smiling in every picture of the three best friends from the bat mitzvah. She tells her mom with a straight face that she still wants to be in the same bunk as Abbie and Betty that summer at sleepaway camp.
On the last day of junior year at City Arts High there's a tradition where you choose a word about yourself and present it on stage. Debbie is gleeful to announce her word is "tenacious." Her teachers agree it’s perfect and she can’t wait for her parents to see how much she’s come into herself this school year. The next morning Abbie changes her word to "pertinacious" which none of the teachers can spell and no one has ever heard of. After skillful googling, Mr. Cruz announces it means ‘extra tenacious.” Debbie isn’t the only one who gasps. Abbie has a lisp and has always been careful to avoid certain words, even when she is texting. Suddenly she’s making her word pertinacious and announcing in painting studio how her senior project will focus on the concept of “work” which she pronounces as “wuk” again and again. Abbie tells the class she has an entire album of pictures of her mom passed out "working" which looks like her mom passed out holding her phone like a delicate egg. Betty's senior studio project will investigate the male gaze on domestic workers using screenshots from her dad's Nest camera of their nanny, housekeepers, and gardeners. She has plans to consider how self-portraiture has changed (or not) since Antoni. She’ll cast classical busts of the workers’ expressions from organic sugar-free chocolate and re-sculpt by licking the chocolate, washing her mouth out with soup every time she feels guilty or ashamed for eating; anytime she thinks, “I’m scared this will make me fat.”
Betty texts Debbie, "It's like she's saying her dad is part of the capitalist machine and she's ok with reproducing it." Debbie texts back, "Despite the direct reference to Antoni, it’s really just a version of Sophie Calle's ‘Following Piece’ obsessed with self-referencing the artist’s own disordered eating."
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
To celebrate the end of the school year, Debbie's parents are taking her to lunch at her favorite Indian buffet. Debbie's just downloaded Judy, an app going viral that generates images from any prompt you give. So she's looking forward to talking about images, bias, and limitations with her parents over samosas. As a kid, Debbie would leave the room at parts of movies no one else had considered to be potentially scary. She'd just slip out and wait quietly in another room for the scene to change. She'd rather miss parts and misunderstand the story. She'll ask Judy, the AI image-generator, to draw "non-scary nightmares" and a "sad story that doesn't make you cry" followed by "how proud and excited Abbie, Betty and I used to be to stay up to see the New Year in."
Debbie's mom is kind of watching Debbie play around with Judy but is mostly telling her husband stuff like, "When I was dating Nicholas in the early 2000s, his dad worked for Sony Ericsson and he had this model for a phone that had a camera in it and he told us phones would soon be like computers in your pocket. We didn't believe him."
Debbie's realistic art pleases her parents. They love posting snaps of Debbie sitting at her desk holding a still life she's painted next to the still life's vase, bottle, and flower arrangement intact, or holding her canvas depicting a lush landscape while standing in the landscape. Her dad doesn't even color correct the images before posting to the family’s shared Google Photos.
Debbie's mom told Abbie and Betty's moms she was glad Debbie wasn't interested in political art. Every time Debbie enters a new instructor's studio, her mom worries for a bit it’s the teacher that could lead her away from representation. She doesn’t need Debbie thinking about junkspace, the illegible, barf, or how we’re all of us always already constrained.
Debbie's mom likes making little cards from Debbie's still-lives and having them on hand for thank-you cards or get-well cards. Debbie's mom likes to tell the girls stories about what phones were like when she was a kid. Debbie's mom says she, Abbie's mom, and Betty's mom would go to the payphone near the playground and dial 1-800-TAMPONS. It was called prank calling. When the Tampax representative answered you'd ask questions about how to use a tampon and hang up laughing. Because there were so many representatives you could keep calling back. You could even order a welcome kit -- and Abbie, Betty, and Debbie knew by heart the dramatic story of Abbie and Betty's moms ordering a box to Debbie mom's house when they were in one of their fights. The girls love the part when Debbie's mom does the face her older brothers made when the sparkling pink box arrived at their house.
Abbie's mom reminds the girls they went through a lot: Columbine cast a huge shadow. When they heard about Columbine they were all sixteen and they were scared out of their minds, but in the process the three girls became closer friends than they ever had before. They organized a bake sale. They drove cross country and sang power ballads Abbie's mom's boyfriend had burned onto a CD for them using his college ethernet and Napster.
Abbie's mom says she didn't get her first cell until 2005. Abbie's mom says before cellphones, when you dialed the number wrong, a voice would say "we're sorry, the number you are trying to reach is out of service" or "I'm sorry, the number you're trying to reach is not available. Please call back later." Abbie's mom still talks about her first cellphone The screen lit up when it rang, revealing a bright green face, with a big digital display in the center. She used the cell to take grainy pictures of everything. She keeps it in a shoebox in her closet because it has the text where Bill first said he loved her.
Abbie, Betty and Debbie are going to see Dave Chapelle perform tonight with their moms and they can't stop talking about how Chapelle requires guests to lock up their phones. Abbie tells her dad that one of Dave Chapelle's opening acts was a clown.
After the show, Abbie's mom tags the girls and posts on Facebook: "I must share a sadly astonishing experience I had tonight at Dave Chapelle's show. A crowd of thousands gathered without a single cell phone to be seen, touched, or checked. For Karen, Cynthia, and I: a trip backward in time, but our daughters had never had the opportunity before to experience anything like this."
Abbie says to her mom as they wait in traffic to get out of the venue parking lot: "It was like our phones didn't even exist, they were that unimportant." She texts Debbie and Betty to remind them she's still the kind of person who needs praise doled out regularly. Their school is hiring a new digital design faculty member and at the most recent job talk the girls behaved so badly, the rest of the search will be done on Zoom.
"Back in the days before cell phones, you were home when you got home from work. Today, goddamn work follows us home. Damn Zoom." yelled Abbie's dad, "This is not the horse I want to be betting on!" Abbie's dad has wanted to get rid of all the desks in the house for some time now.
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
Abbie's list of "life-altering traumas" she's experienced is growing longer. She will talk about them with her therapist to see if her narratives are distorted. She's still confused about distortion versus diagnosis. Her dad has a chronic illness that no one ever talks about. Her parents didn't tell her he was sick until last year when he passed out during the tap routine at the school's end-of-year showcase and they suggested she not google what she heard the EMTs saying. We didn't tell you because we didn't want to worry you, sweetheart, they said in a chorus when they face-timed her from the hospital recovery room.
She picked a big fight with Betty and Debbie immediately in the dressing room while they stripped off their nude tights. You're way too sensitive, Abbie. Why do you take everything so personally? Stop making such a big deal of things. We feel like we have to walk on eggshells around you and we hate it! As they are yelling at her the fight itself is fading in Abbie's mind, having been replaced with her dad's voice sounding tired and stuttering on the phone.
Even now as she's texting her therapist on her therapy app about her most recent distorted thoughts about a Freudian close reading of Marx’s Capital as evidence of her continued catastrophic thinking, she feels overwhelmingly sorry for her dad.
After the awards dinner, Betty and Abbie went to their favorite diner. All three girls were honored for their contributions to the larger school community, but Debbie's mom had an important guest on her podcast that day, so Debbie skipped the awards dinner.
Abbie wanted sweet and savory, but didn't want to spend the carbs on anything besides fro-yo and like five gummy bears. So she got a Diet Coke and crushed the ice to make a slightly Diet Coke-flavored slushie right in the front part of her throat. Betty got eggs and bacon and toast and spread the butter pretty carefully. The whole time thinking about what "thank you" gift she should get for her tennis coach to give him at the gala.
"It's gonna be super classy." Betty tells Abbie, "I mean like, the people who run the club are like super rich so I'm sure I'll see all my dad’s old prep school and finance friends: all those Chads."
In the group chat, Debbie is describing a degenerative skin disease
Desquamation is a rare skin condition sometimes called ‘snake shedding skin syndrome,’ desquamation of the skin occurs when the skin sloughs off in tiny flakes, which can lead to dry or irritated patches of skin in severe cases. It is usually a result of a skin infection, an allergic reaction or extreme heat exposure."
She double texts, of course, a link to this artist that uses her sensitive skin as a canvas. Because the artist has dermatographism her skin to breaks out in painless welts when it is scratched: this photographs really well for Instagram. She's known for hyperrealist drawings of different shops along Main Streets in various towns across America depicted with the shop owners. She does line drawings of the people and the businesses on her thighs and stomach, often at a very close angle, so the faces look abstract and the bodies like gestures.
In bedrooms across town, their parents' phones light up, momentarily, with a text bringing news of three new Covid cases in the girls' homeroom and virtual learning planned for the next week. While virtual learning was ok for AP lit, the parents wondered how they could justify paying such high tuition for studio courses being “taught” remotely. On the main class of 2018 parents chat, Debbie’s mom revives the earlier thread about asking the administration about refunds at the next board meeting.
The current project for Mr. Cruz’ class asks students to collaborate with Judy, or an AI meme generator of students’ choice. Abbie feels determined for her work to both involve generative models and not include photorealistic depictions of faces. Mr. Cruz helped her develop the concept and though it's a rigid set of constraints, Abbie gravitates towards rule-based art. She likes how she doesn't have to center herself yet the work often projects or anthropomorphizes, regardless. It can be a problem in critiques because her classmates tend to prefer trauma porn because their teachers prefer trauma porn because art institutions have been quietly celebrating trauma porn. Mr. Cruz is aware of the increase in scholarship around this issue. When the girls were learning to talk, Abbie's lisp was so primary the moms wondered if their conversations might always revolve around what Abbie could say. Through her lisp treatments, the girls fought, sometimes two excluded one, and sometimes the other two excluded the other, though Betty was never excluded. Everyone but Betty's mom recognized this pattern early. The moms talked so often about the current status of the girls' friendship it was the like the weather. Cloudy with a chance of Betty expertly tormenting her besties while they adore her.
Betty's mom had just learned how to use the search function on her iPhone to find an old Gmail message so Betty wasn't worried about her mom finding the digital evidence of her and Debbie making a secret Instagram account to torment Abbie about her lisp. The three high school juniors newly-diagnosed with Covid and starting quarantine tomorrow find themselves in a group chat, just the three of them. It's kind of like being a really tight circle, with their chairs pulled away from their desks, shoulders nearly touching, in the back of the classroom so they can be away from most contact with other students.
Abbie texts back, "So sensitive, Deb..." which is a dig. Because the tenderness they used to give each other is now tempered out like there's a reward for disregard.
Debbie is having a protein shake. She doesn’t know Abbie and Betty didn't invite her to the diner. They have a separate chat, just the two of them. And they do talk about protein shakes. She's never dated anyone, let alone had a Chad. Betty and Abbie are really into fro-yo. Debbie is super into counting the scabs she’s been gathering despite the mounting shame as her collection grows.
Betty and Abbie are talking about how they drove around the shopping center parking lot last weekend talking endless shit about Debbie. On Debbie’s phone there's a text from her mom, telling her that her uncle is really sick. Her mom sends a bunch of voice memos pouring her heart out about her dear brother on a ventilator because of covid that Debbie doesn't listen to.
At school, there was an active shooter drill in the chemistry classroom and even though that's the room with the least good hiding places. Abbie got to one of them today. The entire length of the drill she imagined how if this was real, she'd pull out her phone to text the group. "Do you remember when I wanted my bat mitzvah theme to be texting? I'm glad you guys made me choose makeup instead." Betty won't see the texts, she'll be thinking about electronic graves and zoom funerals. Debbie looks like she's scrolling for news, but she's just refreshing her various google search strings for rare skin diseases.
Later at tennis, the coach is only paying attention to Betty and the other girls on the team are talking about their college essays. Everyone wants to make a metaphor about the Internet. Abbie's parents think she should write about 9-11. Betty is going to write about The Office and their mutual friend who didn't go to college but moved to Chicago and took improv classes instead and a boy who is just a friend with a car.
"The world needs writers like me," Abbie texts the group before bed.
Before she sees Betty’s text Debbie is annoyed her mom won't stop talking about the barn swallow nest in the diseased dogwood tree. Her parents planted that tree the year her brother was born and liked to force the kids to take pictures in front of the tree during particular moments they’d taken a picture the year before and the year before and the year before that.
The waitress drops the bill in the middle of the table, knowing that Abbie always pays.
Betty texts the group, "I try to be a good friend, but I am an even better wolf."
Why can't she just text in line with what they are talking about? “Read the room, Betty,” Debbie always thinks. How many examples could she point to of Betty's divergent texts? If we are talking about the week Mrs. Finger made us do observational drawing and the oranges totally rotted, why can't you stay there with us, Betty?
The art room smelled like ass because of the still life sitting in the sun and it was hard not to wretch and Abbie was keen to point out the oranges looked like they'd been decorated by miniature seamstresses working with sequins and opal and silk. Isn't there that artist that does close-up photographs of banquet feasts discarded after they've decayed a bit? They went to the diner for lunch after observational drawing and Debbie mentioned she didn't feel the need to behave differently with the food or the table or waste. Abbie was annoyed Mrs. Finger was making them take on this assignment.
Mrs. Finger is trying to make a point that the students are too focused on appearances. She wants her students to focus on the importance of truth and integrity in both their drawing and careers. She doesn't care how her students talk in other classes. She tells the class about a group of artists who call themselves “New Sincerity.”
But Betty's already talking about the totally inappropriate writing prompt their English teacher gave them last week and how Chad spoke while they were workshopping his short story in workshop. You need to be braver, Betty, Chad said flatly..
Their AP English teacher published a story in the New Yorker and Playboy while getting his MFA with a bunch of “bigwigs” as he called them. He made sure to mention how the workshop was a sacred space and no they could not bring a friend to class the week they were doing erasure poems.
Last week he'd asked them to try autotheory.
This week they had to start and end their stories with a sentence they found in a magazine article. Most of her classmates went to Time as Mr. Blank suggested and a few chose Newsweek and People. Debbie looked up from scrolling her subreddit boards about difficult to diagnose skin conditions to half-heartedly choose Time because she was obsessed with the Allen Ginsberg line about being obsessed with Time magazine. She used to think the entire magazine was about the concept of time. Debbie chooses, “Dermatologists around the world are gathering data on what may be largely overlooked symptoms of COVID-19: skin conditions ranging from rashes to ‘pseudo-frostbite.’” And “But Femia says people who develop unusual skin conditions should use telemedicine to consult a dermatologist, who can help them sort out whether those may be related to COVID-19 and reason to self-isolate.” Once she started looking, she found Time included all the things her mother had said about the barn swallow's nest, how the barn swallows just kept on building in the gap in the eave of her house, despite the noises coming from inside.
Whenever the girls have a sleepover, Debbie's mom makes pancakes and there are usually bites taken out of most of the pancakes.
It's not a red flag to Abbie that no one says anything. Betty's the one who misinterprets silence. Betty's the one who'll just start talking and saying, “Like, why if you guys are my besties, why do you think this renaissance is accidental? It has been being made for ages.”
The girl's friendship wasn't born when they "met in art school" like so many of their classmates. In fact, they met because their moms grew up on the same cul-de-sac watching their moms slug warm slim fasts. Betty describes her mom, and all their moms, best: like workaholics on a very long summer break.
Now in high school, the girls are standing under the grand stone archway that leads to their Arts Academy, waiting for their moms to pick them up and take them to their respective after-school activities. Abbie and Betty play tennis at the Cricket Club and Debbie goes home to pretend to practice her cello, but really to manicure the TikTok she runs with her cousin Sandy: snarky commentary on contemporary art museum exhibitions around the world. She will die on the hill that is telling her parents it is not appropriate for her middle school brother to have TikTok even if he says he’s not going to post content.
Debbie's mom has been into whispering since Debbie’s uncle died from COVID. She's figured out how to whisper loudly, though. She whispers to the girls as they are watching TV and looking at their phones: "no one in this family has been blowing off enough steam." During the zoom funeral, Debbie made a new Instagram account under the table to post her sketches of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party where she reimagines the event to happen in 2022. She has a notebook of over two hundred drawings detailing materials and plans to reconstruct the massive banquet table. All the time her parents had to spend on her uncle’s declining health and funeral arrangements left Debbie with the space to consider how one dinner party, already so documented and overwrought, might be remade in so many hopeful ways. She’s been into ornament recently. She considers adding a thin layer of glitter on top of the sketches even though she knows it will obscure her ability to photograph them well for Instagram.
When Betty texts the group, "My story for Mr. Dennis's class is feeling unremarkable," Debbie's almost pissed enough to call her selfish and short-sighted. Instead she makes a note to ask the guidance counselor to transfer her out of classes she shared with both Betty and Abbie. She texts Abbie, "Betty has a snapchat where she reposts the miniature sculptures she makes by hot gluing her scabs and pieces of her cuticles and nails to toothpicks and floss.”
And Abbie texts back almost immediately, "Ugh, can we keep waiting for things to get back to the way they were? I don't know what else we can do."
Debbie walks into the bedroom, and sees her own face reflected in her mother’s phone.
It's 7 a.m., and Betty is standing at the bus stop with Abbie and Debbie. They're laughing at the tennis team group chat. The texts contain images of a cartoon dog, a meme involving guacamole, and an advertisement for a new clothing line at Walmart. They are laughing in the group chat. And then there's a series of texts suggesting that the three of them are in fact not friends. The bus comes like it's a fable and being chased by a tiger and they board in awkward silence.
The girls are in a few group chats together: summer camp, tennis, and school literary magazine. And then versions of those group chats across social media platforms. And the offshoots of those chats that exclude members from the main chat.
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
When they did a microdose of mushrooms before the winter dance, Betty tried to get the managing editor of the lit magazine, Charlie, to remove Debbie from the lit mag group chat, but he wouldn't even after she said she'd consider doing all of his sketches for figure drawing if he did it. He thought they were best friends, Betty and Abbie and Debbie. "Aren't you guys like, best friends?" he said to her again. She doesn't answer. She calls it "boldy using the caesura" like Mrs. Beckett teaches in AP Lit. She calls it "exploring if there is a life at all within the unsaid" in her reflection journal. Charlie is working on finding his "voice" with a private creative writing tutor recommended by a friend of his older sister's whose first novel was chosen by Oprah.
Later at school, there's an active shooter drill in the classroom with the least good hiding places. Abbie gets to one of them today. The girls know something they don't want to know. The police and teachers and school workers walk to their designated places in the school until the threat is properly assessed and then the students are told to return to their regular schedule. But, this time, Abbie is not where she should be.
Debbie is describing blueberry muffin rash in the group chat:
Although these types of rashes are rare, it’s possible that a pregnant person with rubella can pass this blueberry muffin rash infection along to their baby. Babies who get rubella while in the womb may experience a combination of symptoms after birth, including a blueberry muffin type of rash.
Abbie texts Betty in their side-chat: "You're the one who started the group chat." Betty texts back "You're just trying to make me cry!" and then, quickly "I mean."
She sends the second text before she's finished and Abbie's transfixed there staring at her phone where Betty is confessing to being mean and knowing it. Abbie shuts her phone off and puts on her noise-canceling headphones. They look just like her regular headphones. No headphone can replace the sound of her friends' laughing around the table, or the sound of hanging out with Debbie and hearing Betty's signature text flurries only from Debbie's phone.
What Abbie doesn’t know then is Debbie is also getting alert after alert as her posts are being flagged on Instagram.
During the Covid outbreak, the teachers get together to design a collaborative, multilingual, interdisciplinary and intersectional multimedia STEM project for the juniors. So everyone is working on the group project researching OpenAI's method called "gradient descent" that takes an arbitrary point in an arbitrary webpage and predicts. One of the predictions says: "A lot of people have covid so you probably do too." Another one says "You don't have to come into school now." And another, "The girl who is watching "Dorian Gray" on her laptop starts to cry." Debbbie is picking a scab. She’s picking this spot on the back of her neck that isn’t a scab yet.
The group chat has been silent for the last six hours.
Debbie's mom doesn't think a private chat is really private. Debbie's mom texts Abbie's mom, "What do you know about Rachel?"
Abbie's mom, "Texts are contagious. When one person gets a text, it puts the impulse in other people's heads to send one."
Betty creates a new group chat, add the entire junior class, and makes only herself the group owner like a muscle reflex. She titles the chat, “Fucking Chess” and sends the entire junior class a link to the CNN story about the chess robot in Moscow that grabbed its child opponent’s hand after the child made its next move too quickly. She understands what it feels like when your opponent doesn’t do what you expect.
Instead of replying to the CNN story, Debbie says, “I am working on an ARG about my death. It won’t be as mysterious as you imagine, though.” Betty replies, “I’m doing research on hellsites trying to figure out who was the biggest bully from middle school.”
There's a video going around school that Debbie posted as a reel to her Dinner Party finsta. In the video, which is recorded from above like a documentary, Debbie is feverishly drawing and scratching her leg when she looks up, covers her mouth like she has had a religious revelation, makes a high-pitched sound, and puts her hand over her heart. Then she goes back to drawing.
Debbie’s dad is at work barely surviving multiple pornographic Zoom bombings during the end of the fiscal year planning meeting. He thinks of himself as the oat milk of dads, the CEO of his wife’s and daughter’s universes.
The moms are calling it a viral video and by the time the dads get it, the moms have already drafted a few emails to the principal. Starting today, no more planes are flying over Russia.
Michelle Taransky is the author of Abramowitz-Grossberg (Factory Hollow 2020), Sorry Was In The Woods (Omnidawn 2013), and Barn Burned, Then (2009), winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Prize. Taransky is a lecturer in Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania where she also teaches creative writing and was the recipient of the 2014 Beltran Family Award for Innovative Teaching & Mentoring at the Kelly Writers House.