The Illusion of Brilliance
by Susan Savage Lee
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Lee started sitting next to her in Mr. Flint’s class. He wrote notes to her and passed them across the aisle when Mr. Flint’s back was turned. Susana opened them quickly and then smoothed them out across her notebook so that they blended in with the other papers. She looked down at the slanted letters across the page. I wish that you had been the first person I kissed.
The first time he had kissed her, he had been walking her home from his apartment. Most of the time when she tutored other students, they met in the library or the coffee shop on campus. She had never really seen how those students lived, although she imagined it and wrote about it in her stories.
Lee’s apartment reminded her of the private rooms that wealthy businessmen took when they traveled away from home for months at a time. He told her that his parents didn’t want him to stay in the dorms.
“My mother’s company makes that paper,” he had said, pointing to the notebook where she kept track of her hours and where she made outlines for the structure of her stories and papers. For the longest time, her teachers had said that her thesis statement was at the end of her papers. The outlines helped ameliorate the problem.
She looked down at the paper, imagining the multitude of hands that it had passed through before it became hers. The workers’ lives must have been filled with beautiful and disappointing moments or times when they didn’t have choices. She ran her hand across the paper, comforted by the human element of its creation.
“Come on,” he had said. “I’ll walk you home.”
He never liked her to walk home alone, especially when it started getting darker earlier. But usually when he reached the light post outside of her dorm, he said goodbye. This time he had stopped to lean against the pole that cast a strange yellow light onto the sparkling bits of glass in the sidewalk. She had been about to say goodbye when he pushed off of the post and leaned down to kiss her.
“I’ve wanted to do that forever,” he said, smiling. “See you tomorrow.”
Inside her room, she lay on her bed, staring up at the white stuccoed ceiling. She relived the kiss over and over again, and the way that the light from the street lamp had caught the corner of his eye, making it shine like silver. But the image disappeared and, in its place was Mr. Flint, his voice rasping next to her ear: No one will ever believe you. No one will ever love you now.
Mr. Flint was finishing his lecture on Jude the Obscure. Lee and Susana ignored him, passing notes back and forth instead. She smoothed them out each time, her heart pounding at the thought of Mr. Flint catching them and reading their private thoughts in front of the other students.
“Lee, I need to speak with you after class about your performance,” Mr. Flint said, shuffling papers on his desk while all of the students started packing up. Susana hesitated, her bag already on her shoulder. Without wanting to leave Lee behind, she went outside of the classroom anyway and waited until after the door was closed.
Once the hallway was deserted, she went back to the door, pressing her ear against the crack between the wood and its frame. A cold breeze came through the crack, carrying voices.
“Passing notes in class,” Mr. Flint was saying.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lee said. His voice sounded cool and calm.
“Look, Lee, I’m sure you’re used to getting whatever you want out of this world, but you can’t disrespect me repeatedly in class with impunity.”
“That’s funny,” Lee said, “coming from a person like you.”
There was a long pause and the sound of a chair scooting back. Susana swallowed hard at the heaviness of Lee’s words.
“I could say the same thing about you, couldn’t I?” Mr. Flint said.
“There’s a big difference between us,” Lee said.
Susana heard shuffling and then the door opened right as Susana backed away from it. She followed Lee as he quickly strode down the hallway. She didn’t have to turn around to know that Mr. Flint was now standing outside of the classroom, watching them.
* * *
Lee went home to visit his mother one weekend. He told Susana she could stay in his apartment until he got back. She kept going to the window, looking down at the students walking back and forth from one building to the next.
The police had started interviewing some of them. Susana heard bits and pieces about their questions and, despite the normalcy of what they had asked, she was unnerved by the idea of the detectives showing up at her dorm. She sat in her classes day after day, looking at the other students, especially the boys. If Mr. Flint did these things to her, what did the boys do to the girls at Megan’s parties? At the end of the day, the men, no matter their age, were probably only loyal to themselves.
Her thoughts returned to Lee. She had heard numerous messages left on his answering machine by the detectives. In the mystery movies that she used to watch with her mom, the detective always said that most homicides were committed by someone who knew the person. Lee would stand there and listen to the messages, before quietly deleting them.
“Why don’t you want to talk to them?” Susana had said. He didn’t turn around at first, but when he did, he was completely serious.
“I like to delay the inevitable sometimes,” he said. He laughed to himself, but she thought that he looked like he was about to cry.
Thinking about it now, she wondered who he really was. Maybe he was capable of doing terrible things like Mr. Flint or maybe he was one of those unfortunate people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were other thoughts, however, that she couldn’t quite articulate in her mind. She continued to stare out of the window.
She had come to view Mr. Flint and Megan as the black-hatted villains in the westerns that her dad watched on Sundays after church. In her experience, there wasn’t much difference between the two. Maybe Megan would grow out of it while Mr. Flint had not, or maybe she would become worse. For a brief moment, Susana wished that she had been the one to draw the red heart on the Missing! poster, but then she felt shame at the idea of slowly becoming her tormentors.
Instead, it was better to imagine the endless afternoons spent in the darkness of the matinee, watching Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies, or B-rated horror movies where they could see the zippers going down the back of the monster’s costume. Lee and Susana talked about the films as they slowly walked back to his apartment.
In Lee’s bed, where they lay facing each other, they told stories about who they were before Fielding tried to sculpt them into better versions of themselves. He told her about vacations in the Caribbean and the time that he saw an eel slowly coming out of a hole in a reef, completely unconcerned by Lee’s existence.
“I wish I could see things like that all the time,” Lee said, “like how our paths are always crossing someone or something else’s.”
Then he asked her where she got the ideas for her stories, and she had looked up at the ceiling, trying to imagine her first one.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think they are based on what I want the world to be instead of what it really is.”
“I’m not really good at things like that,” he said. “This will probably be the best part of my life. Kind of like those idiotic after-school movies they show us in class where everyone is pals in high school and everything is possible,” he said, laughing hollowly. “That is, before something bad happens.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because I’m going to work for my mother’s company after this is all over. And then I will probably do the same things my parents did, even though I already know that those things don’t work,” he said.
She grew silent, not knowing how someone like him could sound so defeated.
On the Wednesday after he had returned from his visit home, Susana and Lee were sitting in Mr. Flint’s class as they did every Wednesday. Susana stared down at the note that he had written her, completely unaware that the headmaster had walked into the room.
I would do anything for you. I hope that you know that.
When she looked up, Mr. Flint was walking out into the hallway with them. They were gone for several minutes, long enough to make the students start murmuring. When they came back inside, Mr. Flint angrily started packing up his belongings, casting a long glance first at Susana and then at Lee. Susana looked at Lee and she saw that he was slightly smiling as he casually leaned back in his chair.
“Class is dismissed for the rest of the week,” the headmaster said. “Your new teacher will begin on Monday.”
The students hurriedly started to leave before he could change his mind. Lee and Susana were the only ones who remained behind.
“You did this?” Susana said when the classroom resumed its silence.
“That’s why I went home this weekend,” he said. “Actually, my mother did it.”
“He’s not going to just leave,” she said, her hands starting to shake.
“Yeah, he is,” he said. “This is where real life departs from the movies.” He turned and leaned towards her. “But I have to tell you something,” he said. “And this is the part where you’re going to hate me.”
“What is it?” she said, a sinking sensation slowly growing in her stomach. He reached for the paper where he had written his previous note and he put it back down on his desk. He stared at it for the longest time before beginning to write. Then he held it in his hands, reading and rereading the words that she couldn’t see.
“It was an accident,” he said, handing her the paper. He got up quickly from his desk, slinging his bag onto his back. Lee cast one more glance at her before leaving the room.
Alone in the room, she looked at the paper. It was folded in half. She could see the imprint of his pencil on it, but she couldn’t make out the words. There was always the possibility that she could throw it away, never see what those words said and live a life without knowing. As her fingers slowly opened the page, she knew she couldn’t be that kind of person.
I put her on some rocks in the canyon so that she could face the sunset every night.
The words repeated themselves in Lee’s voice. A bird hitting the classroom window startled her. Susana crumpled the paper in her hand before shoving it into her bag. When she got up to leave, she was blinded by the heat of her own tears.
Outside the sun shone brightly onto the glittering sidewalk. When she was a little girl, she used to think that the sparkles were from diamonds innocently mixed into the cement to make it beautiful. Now she knew that they were nothing more than cheap pieces of glass put there to give the illusion of brilliance.
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Savage Lee