“Dreams of Success” part 2

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK
    I would hear from Honey once a year when she came to New York to go shopping at Bergdorf’s and Saks and Barneys. She would insist on taking me to lunch at the Four Seasons, and I always accepted. The Four Seasons was not a restaurant that I normally patronized, even on my expense account, but I enjoyed observing many of New York’s movers and shakers.
     Honey’s second marriage lasted five years. It was over when Honey shot and killed her husband in their Palm Beach bedroom. The ensuing trial made all of the papers, and was featured on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Extra.” Her famous criminal defense attorney helped her negotiate the movie rights to her story, from which he would receive 50 percent of the proceeds. She had, so I was later told, also given him an attaché case containing hundreds of thousands of tax-free dollars. His fee. It would be deducted from the sale of the movie.
     After a five-week trial covered by Court TV, she was acquitted. I had not attended the trial, but I had read the newspaper accounts of what transpired in the courtroom. Her husband had been a brute, frequently beating her, raping her, locking her in a closet or basement. She shot him in self-defense, in fear of her life. The jury bought it, and on the steps of the courthouse, Honey, dressed in black, as if in mourning, bowed her head and waved aside the reporters badgering her for a comment.
     When it was all over, she emerged with even more money than she had before; she now owned three country homes, a yacht, a Maybach, and her dead husband’s prized Maserati A6GS 2000. She employed a full-time publicist and a part-time bodyguard.
     Three years later, after leaving a party in Westchester, she was speeding down the Saw Mill River Parkway in her Maserati. Drunk and somewhat high on coke and singing at the top of her lungs, she lost control of the car and slammed into a tree. The bridge of her nose snapped like a pretzel and her left cheekbone shattered. Six teeth were dislodged, two of which were driven into her lower lip. Police later estimated she had been going over 90 m.p.h., had not worn a seat belt, and had been severely inebriated.
    After recuperating at New York Hospital from her injuries, she went to an exclusive clinic, where she had extensive reconstructive facial surgery. Following that, she rented a large suite at the Carlyle on Madison Avenue, where I visited her. I had not seen her for several years. She slowly opened the doors to her suite and hoarsely whispered, “Don’t stand there looking dumbfounded. Come in. This is the same suite that Jack Kennedy used to screw his girlfriends in when Jackie was out of town.”
    Her face was still bruised and her nose was bandaged. Her lower lip was puffy. She was dressed in a gold lamé kimono and wore matching gold slippers with short black heels. She apparently had a face-lift to go along with the reconstructive surgery, and it left her tightly pulled skin looking like a waxed mask. It must have hurt her to smile, but she did so with only a minor wince and the twitch of her brow. Her hair was now auburn. Her eyes were bloodshot and her speech, either from the surgery or from alcohol, was slightly slurred and sibilant.
     “I’m in pain all the time,” she whispered, whereupon she popped a pair of pills into her mouth, then poured herself a generous glass of vodka and sipped it. “This helps, but not for long. I have to overdose myself to keep the pain under control. I know I look terrible, and the pills help me to forget.”
     She stumbled and carelessly fell back onto a large stuffed sofa. Seated, she gave me a crooked smile as if we had just shared some absurd joke. Now made voluble by drink and pills, she poured out a disjointed story of her life among celebrities and European royalty, and what she called “a bunch of shitty evil egomaniacs.”
     After two hours, she became drowsy, and fell in and out of sleep. I told her I thought I should go, and she muttered something unintelligible. I gently kissed her forehead and left her sleeping on the sofa.
     I visited Honey a few more times, and each time felt that we had less and less to talk about. Our shared experiences were long behind us. I had already heard the stories of marriages, divorces, and affairs. There wasn’t much else to talk about. Her dependence on alcohol and pills had come to dominate her days and nights. I was pained to hear her slurred speech and observe her trembling hands.
     After a year, she managed to gain enough strength to leave New York for Monaco, where an estate agent had rented her a seaside villa. There, she was introduced to a handsome young man, an ersatz investment banker who claimed to be descended from one of the oldest and most prominent French families. He was her junior by many years and was artful in his abilities to flatter and amuse her.
    She grew increasingly dependent on his attentions, and he manipulated her emotions like an unscrupulous therapist. He became her personal trainer, money manager, and motivational coach. Over the next five years, he siphoned millions of dollars out of her accounts, some of which went to support his young girlfriend and their child. When he had gotten all that he wanted from Honey, he quickly and silently departed. She threatened to sue him, to kill him, to castrate him, and finally begged him to return. He never did.
     Honey stayed on in Monaco for several years. I received neither phone calls nor e-mails from her. While vacationing in Florida one winter, I read in a Palm Beach paper that Honey had purchased a large oceanfront house. I phoned and left a message with a servant, but Honey did not call me back.
     Another few years passed, and Honey phoned me at my New York office.
    “I’m just calling to say I’m still alive and enjoying the company of my seven cats,” she said.
      “I would love to visit you the next time I’m in Florida,” I said.
     “I think it’s better if we just speak on the phone. My looks are gone. I wouldn’t want you to see me. I don’t go out much.”
     I wanted to ask her if she was still drinking, but it wasn’t necessary, for I could hear it in her hoarse voice, her slurred speech. I thought of how beautiful she had been in college, of that first time I saw her in the student cafeteria. I thought of her ambitions to be rich and break away from her family. Well, she was certainly rich now. And her parents had died years ago, never having been visited by Honey, though she bought them a house in upstate New York and frequently sent them money. Otherwise, she had nothing to do with them. They had been an embarrassment, best left hidden away. I wanted to scold her, to tell her to pull her life together. I had learned to be a good father and felt an impulse to impart my paternal advice. Instead, I said nothing. I just felt sorry for her.
     She interrupted my reflective silence, saying, “We’ve known each other for such a long time; we were so attractive back then,” she said. “I always thought you were the smarter one. And maybe you are. You’re happy and content. Aren’t you?”
     “Yes, I guess that I am.”
     “I have some wonderful memories, you know. And one of them is of you. I think that you were my best friend. I could always count on you. Right?”
     “Right,” I said.
     Later that year, having suffered a stroke, Honey fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. My wife and I were the only ones at her funeral. Not even the tabloids showed up.

    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.