“Dreams of Success”

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

    When she strode into the student cafeteria, eyes turned. Her clothes were stylishly elegant and expensive: odd for a college student, I thought. She was obviously attired to attract attention. And the fact that she was beautiful and statuesque helped to keep a spotlight on her.
     I inquired of one of my tablemates, “Who’s that?”
     “She’s called Honey because of the color of her hair; I don’t know her real name. She has a large number of followers, guys she flirts with, but all of whom she keeps at arm’s distance, or so I’ve been told. I don’t think she has a boyfriend.”
     “I was not planning on wasting my time,” I said a bit too aggressively. “I don’t need to pursue a narcissistic prima donna and join a chorus of flatterers.”
     “I think you protest too much,” my friend responded, a slight smirk on his face.
     I did, however, encounter Honey two weeks later. We attended the same student council meeting. She had raised her hand to ask a question: “Did you mean to infer that freshman are too ignorant to be members of the student council?”
     Before the president of the student council could respond, I interjected: “You meant to say imply, not infer. Imply means to express indirectly and infer means to derive as a conclusion.”
     She looked red-faced and sat down. Rather than being a flatterer, I felt I had popped a bubble of pretension and tried not to smile.
     On the way out, she bumped into me and with exaggerated deference said, “Excuse me.”
    “That’s all right. I shouldn’t have publicly corrected you. It was cheap of me.” She turned her face toward mine and asked “Who does your laundry?”
     “I do it. Why?”
     “Even the ironing?”
     “Yes, even the ironing?”
     “Well, you see, I’m an agent for a commercial laundry, and I can get you a special deal on all your washing, drying, folding, and ironing. Interested?”
     “No. Strange as it might sound to you, I enjoy ironing. It gives me time to think. And I don’t mind doing my laundry. The machines aren’t expensive, and I can read while my clothes are being washed and dried.”
     “Why don’t you take me out for dinner by way of an apology for your rudeness,” she suggested, “and I’ll try and convince you to hire my laundry service. Or are you disinterested?”
     “Uninterested,” I responded. “Besides I’m on a very tight budget. Working as a dishwasher and in the library, I have just enough to pay my bills.”
     “Okay,” she murmured, “then let me take you out to dinner!”
     “Why don’t we go dutch. And let’s go to Vincenzo’s, it’s inexpensive and the pasta is wonderful.”
     It was over dinner that I learned that Honey came from a poor farm family in upstate New York. She had found farming unattractive and felt that her parents were narrow-minded, uneducated, prejudiced, and unambitious.
     “They want me to become a teacher or a nurse. That’s not me. I want to make lots of money, see the world, and meet fascinating people.”
     “All on money from your laundry business?”
     “Don’t be smart. I have plans.”
     I was surprised that Honey and I became friends. I was fascinated by her stark ambition to get as much of everything as she could. I had never known someone like her and I was curious to see if she could turn her dreams into realities. I’m not sure what she saw in me other than someone to whom she could talk candidly and who would neither flatter nor judge her.
     One day, over lunch in the cafeteria, Honey confessed that she had taken a lover, an older man who was a wealthy stockbroker. “He is helping me pay for an off-campus apartment and a gorgeous, but used, Austin Healey.”
     I didn’t comment on her lover. Instead, I asked her why she chose an Austin Healey.
     “I think it’s the coolest looking sports car. Mine is red and white. I’ll be picking it up Saturday.”
     I later learned from one of my friends that Honey, prior to hooking up with her stockbroker, had been something of a loan shark. She lent money to classmates and charged inordinately high interest rates. She used a combination of charm and threats to make sure her loans were repaid. Now that she was living with her stockbroker, she no longer needed the loan-sharking business. When I asked her about being a loan shark, she informed me that she had “sold my little black book to a football player.”
    “He should have no trouble with deadbeats,” she added with a smile. “Now I’m on my way. Soon, when I graduate from this juvenile playground, I can step into the real world and make some big money.”
     “What exactly will you do in the real world?”
     “I’ll keep you updated.”
     Over the next few years, I learned that Honey had moved from benefactor to benefactor. She was building a large nest egg that would permit her to realize her dreams.
     After graduating, I went to work for a large advertising agency, and Honey moved to London, where — after years of partying — she seduced and married a celebrity millionaire. I often received Christmas cards from her, but that was about it.
     I had made a comfortable life for myself as an advertising copywriter, married a woman who I had known since high school, and had two young children in expensive private schools.
     One afternoon, while racking my brain for a slogan for a Korean television company, my office phone rang and there was Honey inviting me to have lunch the next day. She was as friendly as if we had just spoken the day before. I was glad for the opportunity to get away from my office. She named a French bistro on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and we agreed to meet there at 1 p.m.
    I arrived about 10 minutes early and so went for a walk. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, the kind that makes one feel young. I walked for several blocks, looking in the windows of art galleries. I returned to the front of the restaurant as Honey was emerging from a taxi. She was elegantly and expensively dressed in a beige pantsuit and three-inch suede heels. Around her neck was draped a gold and ruby necklace. Her hair, no longer honey golden, was now raven black, sleek and shiny, and cut dramatically short. She wore blood-red lipstick and carried a color-coordinated blood-red alligator handbag.
     “Hi there,” she called out upon seeing me.
     She trotted over, her heels clacking on the cement sidewalk, and pecked a cool little kiss on my right cheek. Before I could return one, she pulled away, appraised me, and said, “You’re looking fit and healthy.”
     “And you look terrific.” She smiled, nodded, and said thank you. “You’ve always been a sweetie. Let’s go inside and order lunch. There’s something I must discuss with you.”
     We went into the dimly lit, cozy French restaurant and sat at a small round table draped with a maroon tablecloth.
     Her face was near mine and I could savor her subtle perfume, which was overpowered by her peppermint breath. Her long, graceful fingers drummed slowly and softly on the table. When the waiter appeared, Honey asked for a double vodka martini with three olives. I ordered a glass of the house red wine.
     After our drinks arrived, Honey announced: “I need a good divorce lawyer. My husband sleeps with every golddigger who lays predatory paws on him. I’ve had it. If I had the nerve, I’d castrate the bastard.”
     I expressed my sympathy and gave her the name and number of a friend of mine, a good divorce lawyer who wouldn’t string her along and bleed as much money out of her as possible. “You’ll like him,” I said, “he has handled divorces for a couple of British royals and several American billionaires. Mention that we’re friends.”
     Following a media-centered divorce of soap opera proportions, she got several million dollars and joint custody of their children. (I thought it odd that she had never once mentioned that she had children.) The divorce from a wealthy celebrity had entailed much gossip and salacious details in the tabloids. Promoting her public image, she had appeared in court in either a black pantsuit and blouse that was open to expose plenty of cleavage or a low-cut short white sheath that emphasized every curve of her figure.
     She now had what she had always wanted: millions of dollars to call her own and a celebrity that would attract rich suitors. And indeed, she had dates and dates and dates with real estate, high-tech, and biotech moguls, with senators and former senators, with entertainers whose careers were on a downward slope or whose careers had ended years early as well as with a couple of professional athletes just starting out on their careers and in need of public glamour. After a few years of being pursued, photographed, and gossiped about, she married an heir even richer than her first husband. At least, that’s what the tabloids claimed. And, of course, those same tabloids reported the marriage, implying that Honey was the most successful femme fatale of the age.

    Jeffrey Sussman is the author of “No Mere Bagatelles,” a biography of Judith and Gerson Leiber, as well as 10 other books. He is president of Jeffrey Sussman, Inc. (powerpublicity.com), a marketing and PR business.