The Illusion of Brilliance
by Susan Savage Lee
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When Susana got to Lee’s apartment, the detectives were just leaving. When they saw her, they stopped and looked at her as if she were an object in a curiosity shop. One of the men finally stepped forward and extended his hand. She took it hesitantly, blankly listening to his introduction, which she forgot only moments later.
“We were just asking Lee about Megan Woods,” he said, gesturing with a hitchhiker’s thumb towards Lee, who was standing halfway outside of his apartment door. “Did you know her?”
“No,” she said. “I mean, I knew who she was, but we weren’t friends.”
“That’s strange,” the man said, his eyes twinkling as if he could divine her deepest secrets. “It seems like everyone was friends with Megan.”
“Not everyone,” Susana said, briefly looking down at her shoes. “Not scholarship students like me.” She clasped her hands more tightly around the books that she held to her chest.
“Do you know anything of her whereabouts?”
“No, not a clue.”
“Well, if you should remember something, anything, here’s my card,” he said, handing her a business card with a doubtful look. She made sure that their fingers didn’t touch in the exchange.
Once they continued down the hallway, Lee and Susana watched them go towards the elevator. They turned and entered his apartment.
She knew that something was wrong when Lee sat down on the couch to smoke a cigarette. When he did that, the thoughts that he drifted into weren’t filled with secret rose gardens.
Susana put her books on the coffee table and slowly sat down on the couch next to him, the brown leather pulling her more and more deeply into its folds. Lee was quiet for another minute or two, the only sound his breath exhaling.
“Did you think Megan was a good person?” he said, looking at her for the first time since the detectives had left.
“I don’t know.” She turned away from the unexpected question.
* * *
Since Susana had first come to Fielding Boarding School over three years ago, she had gotten used to the way that the kids treated her in contrast to the way that they treated each other. Scholarship students at Fielding were like broken toys; sad and vulnerable but not sad enough to throw away. Most of the kids left her alone, especially after she began tutoring them for college entrance exams. Megan did not.
There was a neat and orderly progression to their relationship: first, Megan had put gum in Susana’s hair; then, when Susana began wearing her hair in braided buns, Megan called her Princess Leia; and, finally, Megan completely tossed aside the blind innocence of name-calling for more pointed, more adult barbs.
“It’s like I can smell the poverty on you,” Megan had said, looking up from the bathroom sink. She had been carefully blotting her lip gloss, leaning towards the mirror to get a better view. Susana had been washing her hands, already aware that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Megan turned and looked at her frankly and Susana saw that she hadn’t said it out of pure meanness; she had meant it. Then Megan walked out of the bathroom, her long blonde hair swinging behind her.
Susana turned over Megan’s words, surprised that there could be additional meanings beyond “poverty” that placed her on the margins of the groups around her. Leaving her family behind so that she could make it in the States had been only one rung of the ladder to climb.
* * *
“Yeah, you do,” Lee said, putting out his cigarette. He quickly lit another one. “I know the things she said about you and to you. What if I told you something about her? Something really bad?” he said, turning to her for the first time. “Then would you be able to think of her as just a mean girl?”
“Like what?” she asked. The Missing! Megan Woods posters were still stapled to every electrical pole by the school, their ragged appearance contrasting sharply with the white, glittering sidewalks beneath them. At least once a week, Megan’s parents went on television, begging for any information about her whereabouts from the community. They always told the audience what a beautiful person their daughter was, both inside and out. Then her picture would flash across the screen, her white teeth gleaming within a perfect smile.
“What if I told you that she had a disease,” he said, “a really serious one?”
“That story about HIV?” Susana remembered some girls in the cafeteria gleefully whispering that Megan was HIV positive. When she thought about it now, she hadn’t heard anyone speaking about Megan in a positive way or with the expectation that she would safely return. Someone had even drawn a red heart with an arrow through it on one of the posters, as if it was a beautiful love story on everyone’s mind instead of a missing rich girl. “Having a disease doesn’t make someone bad.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but what if I told you that she was so pissed that someone did that to her that she purposefully did it to other people?” His hand was shaking as he brought his cigarette to his lips again.
Susana was quiet for a minute, the implications of his words weighing her down like heavy, sodden rags. “People like you?” she asked, her mouth becoming dry. “Did you get tested?”
“Yes. It’s too bad that I didn’t listen to my messages first that day, because then I would’ve known that I was safe, and I wouldn’t have gone over there.” Lee put his cigarette out and looked at her with his blue-green eyes that reminded her of cerulean waters.
“It’s funny: that that day in the library you were worried that I would think you were a terrible person,” he said, laughing to himself. “We all do stupid things, or make mistakes, or people do bad things to us. The only difference is that sometimes those things can ruin your life.”
* * *
In the library, they had wandered down to the classical literature aisle where none of the other students ever went. The library had a different smell there, like a neglected attic, because the books were so old and rarely handled. Many of them had corresponding drawings in black and white, or colored paintings on smooth paper inside of their covers. The colored pictures were always inside of the books with gold edging along the page like the books that she had read as a child.
They liked to pick them randomly from the shelves and ask a question before turning to a passage to see if it responded.
“Does God exist?” Lee asked, a smile playing on his lips before choosing Tess of the d’Urbervilles bound in navy blue cloth. He let the book fall open and he placed his finger at the beginning of a paragraph before reading out loud:
“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound, a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on? A splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
“Ha ha,” Lee said, closing the book with a thump. “I’m going to take that as a no.”
Susana had laughed and, as every time she laughed, the feeling of pleasure quickly eroded into one of sadness.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. He was leaning against the shelf, his hand instinctively going to the wooden beam that separated one case from the next.
“Nothing.” She was holding a book with a tiny piece of paper sticking out of it. Lee saw it and slowly pulled the paper out. It was a saying on a fortune cookie that someone had used as a bookmark.
“What does it say?” Susana asked.
“Never trust the keeper of secrets.” He started to smile but, when he saw her frown, he became serious again.
“That’s stupid,” she said, looking down at her shoes. They were the same ones she had been wearing the day that Mr. Flint first asked her to help him carry a stack of books and papers to his car. Relieved that they wouldn’t be alone outside with the students passing here and there, Susana had agreed, knowing that she could always run.
“Hey, you can tell me if something is wrong,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re just friends.”
“I can’t,” she said and she could feel her bottom lip tremble like a little kid’s who was afraid of monsters under her bed. She was staring down, unable to look him in the eye. Her brown leather shoes appeared dull in the poor lighting of the library’s back aisles.
“Because I don’t want you to think differently about me,” she said, looking up and already feeling the wetness in her eyes. “I like how it is now between us.”
Lee was quiet for a moment, his face completely serious. “I won’t. I promise.”
“How can you promise that when you don’t know what it is?”
“Because I can,” he said. “Because I’m not looking for some perfect automaton like Megan Woods. I want someone who is real, like I’m real.”
Susana looked at the shelves and the books that she had spent hours reading to curb the loneliness of not fitting in at Fielding. When she had the money, she would go to a matinee, the coolness of the air conditioning comforting her.
She looked down at her shoes again. If she told him, he couldn’t unknow it. If she didn’t tell him, he would always wonder what it was that he didn’t know. Before she could change her mind, she leaned forward, lowering her voice although she was sure that no one else was around.
“He makes me do things,” she said into his ear, cupping her hand around her mouth. She slowly withdrew and looked at his face. He was standing there, his eyes darting back and forth as he considered what she had told him.
“Mr. Flint? It’s him, isn’t it?” His voice came out in a harsh whisper. She swallowed hard and she nodded her head. “But you were a virgin,” he said, “with me.”
“He doesn’t like it that way,” she said, feeling the hot flush of shame on her face.
The images of what he liked became heavy, unwieldy rocks that weighed on her chest. She could smell his cheap aftershave and the sour smell of his breath, coming in and out just behind her ear.
Facing the back of the classroom, she saw famous quotes by famous authors written in calligraphy. Her eyes roamed over them, following the curves of their elaborate letters, yet their meanings slipped past her. No one is going to believe you. No one is going to believe you if you tell.
It was the way that a furrow grew between Lee’s eyes, causing a wrinkle in his smooth skin, that unnerved her. She could still hear her words as if they were being spoken over and over again on a recording and the sound of their echoes made everything real. She started crying, the kind of crying that came out like one of mourning before tapering off into the jagged breathing of children frustrated by their own fatigue.
“It’s okay,” Lee said, pulling her close to him. He patted her back as her grandmother used to do when she fell down and skinned a knee or cut herself with scissors. “He’s not going to do that anymore,” he whispered.
“It’s worse now that he can tell about you,” she said, her own hair sticking to the edges of her mouth as she realized what she had done. He pulled away from her, holding her by her shoulders.
“He’s not going to do that anymore,” he said again, this time with a look in his eye that caused her tears to stop. Some of them were already halfway down her cheeks, intent on their course. “I need you to believe that... to trust me,” he said. She nodded her head quickly, and then she wiped at her eyes.
On the way back to his apartment, she kept absently rubbing at her nose, wondering how she could be so stupid as to know about the world but somehow believe that its flaws could not affect her.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Savage Lee