I stepped onto the bus, forcing a smile at the driver. Maneuvered down the aisle, careful to avoid tripping on any pocketbooks or crunching any toes. Slid into an empty seat after asking the woman snug against the window if she minded me joining.
She answered with a smile as fake as mine.
When the bus jolted from its stop, I let my muscles relax. I let my mind wander. My thoughts shaped themselves into question marks. How would I pay my rent with the government pulling more and more money out of my account each year as a penalty for my Negativities? Should I search for a soup kitchen or animal shelter in need of workers? Would I have more luck picking up trash on the side of the road?
Last time I tried to volunteer for charity work, the waiting list contained two-hundred names. Everyone wanted to help. Everyone wanted to be on their best behavior to increase their rating.
“Ahem,” the woman sharing my bus seat said, swiping at her nose with her knuckles. “Excuse me.”
I ignored the sounds of her sniffling, bounced more philanthropic ideas around in my head (adopt another dog? plant a tree? run a marathon?), and waited for the bus to reach the corner of 42nd and Cherry.
A notification popped onto my screen seconds after I stepped onto the concrete: “ONE STAR: No manners. Didn’t say bless you after hearing me sneeze on the bus.”
“Really?” I said into the snow drifting air. “Are you fucking for real? I didn’t even hear a sneeze.”
Another notification arrived from another user: “ONE STAR: She just cursed right in front of my six-month-old. So rude.”
My eyes darted until I found a baby-swaddling mother smirking at me from her place at the bus stop. People like her received a sick satisfaction from doling out low ratings. It made them feel powerful. Unstoppable. Untouchable.
I pulled up the app on my own screen, aimed it in her direction to lock onto her phone’s signal, (I could also type in her name if I knew it. Or type in the coordinates where/when I saw her in the search bar.) and wrote my own rating:
“ONE STAR: Bad mothering. She took her newborn child out in the snow without a hat or blanket or gloves.”
I smirked back at her, despite the meaninglessness of my rating. Some underpaid government worker would read through it, classify it as a ‘revenge rating’ since I wrote it seconds after getting one star from her, and unless I wanted to go to court to refute the claim, nothing would happen. The message would remain on her profile for the world to read, but it wouldn’t count toward her year-end rating.
At the end of a calendar year, an average of five stars gave us money back from the government. Nothing crazy, but a few hundred in our bank account. Four stars meant we were exempt from paying taxes for the year. Three stars gave us safety. Nothing bad happened, nothing good happened. Two stars meant we would pay money back to the government, sometimes up to ten or fifteen thousand dollars. One star meant jail time. Zero stars (only approved government workers could give out zeros) meant the death penalty.
With December ending soon, I wanted to increase my rating and make it to the safe place of three stars. But when I clicked on my profile, I found comments like:
“TWO STARS: She left a shitty tip.”
“TWO STARS: She lets her dog walk all over my lawn instead of confining it to the sidewalk like the rest of the neighbors do.“
“THREE STARS: She showed up at my party late and she left early. Wish she would make more time for her friends.”
“ONE STAR: The bitch wouldn’t fuck me after I bought her a $12 drink.”
The system felt rigged. It felt wrong. It felt fake, just like the smiles everyone on the street offered. Constant kindness came with resentment, because we had to act peppy even when we secretly felt tired or stressed or pissed the fuck off.
That kindness also came with paranoia, because of questions like is he helping me move because we’re friends or because he’s worried about how low his rating would dip if he said no? Is she really interested in what I did last weekend or only pretending to keep her rating from slipping?
Some girls felt obligated to sleep with boys to avoid being called bitches and sluts on their profile. Some men worked longer hours for gold diggers who would give them higher scores depending on how much money they spent. Some religious fanatics devoted their entire lives to getting perfect scores because they thought God used a similar system to count sin and five stars would get them into heaven.
I hated the system since the start, back when it was a harmless app without any government affiliation, something people used for fun. For friends. For dating. Before our reality star of a president bought out the company to shift it into something more serious.
In protest, I spent January through October of this year being myself. Chewing with my mouth open. Listening to loud music. Getting drunk. Asking my boss for time off when I wanted a lazy day. Turning down dates when I saw no potential. Only smiling when I felt like smiling.
As a result, my rating slipped from a four to a three to a two, coming close to a one. My own personal protest felt less important as January inched closer with my punishment awaiting me.
Instead of scrambling to find charity work like I’d daydreamed about on the bus, I lifted the collar of my coat and headed to a black market operation. A place for junkies and alcoholics. They gave each other high ratings in exchange for blow and blowjobs. I could only offer the latter.
“Tell me about yourself,” the man behind the desk said once I shuffled inside. He held a pen in one hand to jot down my information and a joint in the other. “Five things. Go.”
“I have a Dachshund with an extra toe. I work at the last remaining library in the state. I hate to cook, unless it’s breakfast food. I… I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.” I fiddled with the stud in my nose. “What is this, a date?”
“We need to know so we can create realistic star ratings for you. Someone can say your dog cheered them up when they were lonely. Someone else can say you helped them find their favorite childhood book at the library. Or that you dropped breakfast off at their house when you knew they were sick.”
“You’re worried about the government calling bullshit if the comments don’t line up with my personality.” I nodded, impressed. “What about the fact that I’ll be getting a bunch of positive ratings all at once after being shitty for months? Won’t that look suspicious?”
“People always scatter at the end of the year. Nothing unusual. If you didn’t know about this place, you’d probably be baking orphans cookies right now.”
Another reason I hated the system. Helping to look good, helping for a reward. Nothing happened out of the kindness of someone’s heart anymore. They only acted for their own benefit.
The man in charge nodded to a row of folded out metal chairs, told me to wait twenty to thirty minutes with the rest of the group. The people I would be giving five stars. The people who would be giving me five stars.
I sat beside a woman chewing at her cuticles, trying to rip a stubborn piece off.
“Why are you here?” she asked after twisting her head one last time and spitting the skin onto the ground.
“Because I stopped giving a shit.” I shrugged off my jacket. “I don’t think I’m a bad person. I never curse people out or cheat on boyfriends or steal from stores. This year, I just decided to stop faking smiles. Faking interest. Faking friendships.”
“Exactly,” I laughed, but her eyes clasped closed like shutters. Thinking. Remembering.
“I went out with a guy once, but there wasn’t any chemistry, so I turned my cheek when he tried to kiss me. That pissed him off, because he bought me a steak. He picked me up. He was a gentleman,” she said, thumbs rubbing circles onto her thighs. “Turned out he was a government worker, one of the ones approved to give out zeros.”
“He can’t give you a zero for blue balls.” I laughed. “That’s only for shooting drugs. Breaking and entering. Rape. Murder. Criminal shit. Right?”
“Yeah, unless you lie like he did. Accused me of physically assaulting him. I went to court to dispute it, but he won, even without any marks on his skin.” She crossed her legs, uncrossed them. “It lowered my overall score from a three to a two. That’s fine, I can afford to pay the fee. But enough zeroes have the potential to lead to the death penalty. He was willing to risk having me killed. Because of sex.”
“What a prick.”
She stretched out a leg, winced at the crack. “It’s fine. In retrospect, I deserved the zero anyway.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I don’t mean for turning down sex. For killing him.” A smirk twitched at her lips. “Inverted his skull with a hammer. Took a few tries. He knocked me over in the middle of it, fucked up my knee, but it was worth it. No one caught me, which has been nice. Unexpected, but nice.”
The confession caught me off guard, but not because of the gory details or the woman’s soft eyes. I struggled to remember the last time I heard such raw, unfiltered words slip from someone’s lips. A story that hadn’t been cut and pasted together to sound appropriate, inoffensive, inauthentic.
“We’re supposed to give each other fake five stars,” she said, sucking at her teeth. “Do you feel bad about that now that you know me? Guilty about coming here?”
I felt better than I had ever felt forcing smiling on buses. Laughing at unfunny jokes. Agreeing to attend parties when I wanted to stay in bed. Keeping people in my world I craved to cut out. Censoring every sentence to avoid offending anyone. Losing my authenticity. Becoming a copy of everyone else. A counterfeit.
“Those stars won’t be fake,” I said. “Five sounds about right to me.”