The Lyceum was all theater seating. Anna knew most people by name and recognized some faces.
She read from a chapter she knew almost by heart, while picturing Kevin and her under the lamppost with snow coming down in thick and soft bunches; too cold to melt onto their coats or the roads or the train tracks, even. It was her favorite part of the novel transposing that event to her characters, Alice and Spencer, and their realization that his next journey would be treacherous, behind the Berlin Wall.
Anna told herself at the start, once reading, she would use her talent for intonation to make the scene come alive for the audience, then closed her notes and looked up as their applause echoed down the halls and into the empty rooms throughout the old building.
Their host, Charlie Carter, stood and held the mic.
“Congratulations for your success. Turning to Anna, he asked: How autobiographical is this work?”
Surprising even herself she flowed right into it, straightforward. “Everyone who writes, writes some of themselves into their work, the character can be the opposite sex, older, a terrible criminal, but the dainty woman with her pen to the paper possesses some of his layers, perhaps the quietest piece of his soul, but still, it is the creator and the criminal. So, yes, I’m there in Alice and Spencer, and many of the other characters, sometimes small parts of me, sometimes just an idea I once held.”
Anna scanned the rows of listeners when her eyes caught a familiar face. Almost hidden in the last row, for an easy escape was LiLan. Her beautiful face was caught in the last of the day’s sun from the high windows. For an instant they saw one another and LiLan stared hard and then broke the connection and looked down and seemed to disappear.
Thrilled, Anna’s first thought, did she like what she heard? She would give anything to know what that elusive girl thought of the work, hear a question from her that would tell a million things about the girl from just the framing of the asking. But, she was gone, slipped out the side door and got into her expensive car and drove to her apartment.
Anna knew from the newspapers and magazines, there was a young man, Jonathan Sung, a physicist who studied at Stanford and was Chinese, born in America. He was tall like LiLan, movie star handsome, and smiled for cameras, his arm protectively around the girl’s waist. There was something solid about Sung Anna recognized that might have drawn LiLan to him; something LiLan lacked; Jonathan kept her grounded, without him, she would float away.
Later, Anna checked her voice messages. “This is Dan Carlton at the Post. I’d like to talk with you, please call me on my private number.” His voice carried a serious urgency, the kind the listener knew was not good, something that turned the world’s revolving, that no one would ever be the same. She sensed this time she would say please just tell me, don’t go with any long expressions of apologies, just tell me. She punched in the number as fast as she could, fumbled once with the wrong extension and repeated again, this time without messing up.
The voice was as serious as in the message when he said, “I’m sorry to tell you, one of our people here got a call from the coroner’s office, LiLan Chen was found dead this morning.”
He rushed on, sounding younger but still very somber, sincere, “uh, Ms. Bentley, I want you to know that I am not expecting a statement. It’s really a courtesy from all of us working in the Arts and Culture section.”
Dan answered Anna’s question “why call me who barely knew her? Instead, she asked, “Has her family been notified? You must know that.”
“Yes. We’ve all been following both of you, so it seemed the most logical thing. Please, I would like to think that maybe, later on, we could talk. Sometime. Not real soon.”
“Yes, Dan. That would be fine. I’m sorry, I have to leave.” She lied. She had to stop for a moment, breathe for a moment, remember how she felt a moment ago and how she felt now. She didn’t wait for him to answer, she just ended the call.
The Post headline, and then the Guardian and then the Times. ‘LiLan Chen found dead in her apartment on Connecticut Avenue’, the line read, under the photo of an attractive young woman with a split to another photo of a body bag on a gurney and the line, neatly typed.
We’re all so mollified by neat type, it puts everything into an equally neat perspective. First life which is messy and now death, which is so precise. No surprise to Anna when the phone rang with friends who were solicitous of Anna’s feelings and genuinely so, and then there were a parade of others, Peter Hollingsby at the Writers Group, equal measure of sympathy for Anna and asking whether she would still want to keep their arrangement for her to give a reading two weeks from now.
“Not really Peter, let’s just postpone.”
“Uh, have you heard anything from anyone?”
“I’m not sure who anyone would be.” Anna thanked her forethought for once in her life, that she would not reveal the call from Dan at the Post. She knew where Peter was going, always short on funds, paying the rent on that drafty building he’d once had a chance of buying and now could never afford, and so now he wanted her to be his benefactor, or, at the very least put him in touch with people she knew, new people who had deep pockets.
She wanted to tell him to get one of his cronies at The National Endowment for the Arts to slice a piece of their funds in his direction. Someone once warned her that if she became famous for any reason at all, she’d find out who was not a friend a lot quicker than who was. Peter got front row, first seat.
Anna turned off her phone and sat back with a very large glass of wine, thinking about the few times she’d been in near company to LiLan Chen. The Lyceum reading was not near enough with LiLan hunched down in the last row, then beating a retreat as soon as it was over.
She mentally ticked off what she’d knew about LiLan, the Android Press announcing contestants. Photos everywhere, in magazines, Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair, of course, Lilan on the Harvard Square, early fall leaves doing their red and yellow thing and LiLan ensconced on a stone bench. LiLan’s interview when she won Android’s contest, dodging questions. At the time Anna thought she was being cagey, or just young, thinking someone would steal her style if she revealed too much of her process. When she was stealing from others.
Anna's face was wet from tears she’d shed. Her sorrow if she gave it a name, was for how hard it is to be alive. Maybe LiLan knew that better than I do.