I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that Sara Jane lied about dating Bruce Willis or the fact that you believed her. But then again, she wanted people to believe her, Mark said at brunch, that was the entire point.
Sara Jane had always been a little crazy, but good crazy, Joann had thought, not pathological liar crazy, somewhere below insane asylum but slightly above just fine. It made her fun — fun until she hit 40, that is, when it started to reek of pathetic — or would have been pathetic anywhere but New York.
She told me she met him at Soho House, said Joann, the sort of place where one might meet these people, Mark pointing out anyone who’d lived in the city for any time at all knew you really only saw celebrities in unexpected spots: Ricki Lake at the beauty parlor, that guy who played George on Gray’s Anatomy in the park.
Still, Joann was newly arrived enough to think one might meet Bruce Willis at Soho House, and besides, she told him, there were the articles.
Sara Jane was in the news a lot, following this listserv where reporters put out calls for comment. She’s always been a bit of a media whore, Mark nodded, I’ll give you that. But didn’t you notice the articles were off?
She had — after the incident, that is. Beforehand, Sara Jane had just looked good at PR, a dazzling array of search results online, but now Joann knew each and every hit formed a paper trail of lies: The Daily News quoting Sara Jane in an article about women who hated drinking water, The Post in one on those who loved it. In Glamour, she’d talked about how much she loved wearing hats; in Bustle, she’d said hats were horrid. Anything to be in the limelight, Joann realized — easier to see now that she knew, now that she knew what had happened.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, Mark told her, moving his hand through the air, everybody’s naive about something.
But that was the thing: Joann was not naive. At least, she didn’t think she was, Sara Jane telling the story at one of her parties, interrupting the group every time somebody started talking about anything other than her. Joann had met this guy, a nice man who’d moved to the city from Alabama, an architect and good-looking at that. He’d just asked Joann for her number when up popped Sara Jane, pushing her way into the conversation the exact moment she saw them getting close, using her body to shove in from the side and telling the architect, I used to date Bruce Willis.
Get out, said Joann, then Sara Jane launched into this bit about the Soho House, how she was a member and went there for drinks, was sitting at the bar with a friend and had asked what they had by way of bourbon, when all of a sudden, there was Bruce Willis, sliding his arm around from behind, saying I’d like to buy you a drink.
Just like that, Joann said, some strange dude puts his arm around you and you didn’t push him away? Even in Kentucky — where she and Sara Jane were originally from — you wouldn’t do that, you wouldn’t let some man just touch you.
Sara Jane squinted, fixing her eyes on Joann, pursing her lips and shifting them to the side. This was Bruce Willis, she said. Bruce. Willis. As in Die Hard? Then pulling up the contact list on her phone, said See? Right there, pointing to the name Bruce.
Yeah, but that could be any Bruce, the architect said, Sara Jane rolling her eyes. I was there, okay? It happened. Then she smiled.
So that night, after Joann had gotten home, she’d Googled Sara Jane for the very first time, adding “Bruce Willis” in quotation marks — an old-fashioned boolean search — then she found it: how to date a celebrity, a BuzzFeed article quoting Sara Jane. Not the bastion of journalism, Joann thought, no Nick Clooney, but still.
This of course was before Joann had found Sara Jane’s other reported-on lies: pre-incident, pre-episode. Later — after everything had happened — Joann looked for the article again and it was gone.
Bruce Willis’ people made them take it down, Mark said, I heard he got a restraining order. But when Joann searched Justia and PACER for the filing, two legal databases she’d found reliable before, nothing was there.
See, thing is, Joann never would have believed it to begin with had her own life not been so exciting. The whole reason she’d moved to New York was luck, walking through Churchill Downs the morning of the Kentucky Derby when a wager stub hit her leg. She was walking along that long stretch of sidewalk between Gate 10 and the track when it blew off the ground, twirling and swirling in the wind, whacking her shin hard and sticking. Guess that bettin’ slip’s yours, pretty lady, the man beside her said, and peeling it off, Joann saw the ticket was for a horse named Always Dreaming. Her dream had been to move to New York, so after the race, she did. Joann-who-never-bet, Joann-who-this-time-won put that money into a one year lease on a studio apartment, this tiny closet thing on the Lower East Side, then sitting at a bar her very second night, asked the bartender what they had for bourbon and heard a voice four stools down: I can spot another Kentuckian anywhere. Where you from, and Joann answered, Maysville.
That’s when she knew she was going to be okay, that moving had been the right decision — because in a city as big as New York, she’d already found a friend.
If she could meet Sara Jane, then Sara Jane could meet Bruce Willis, and at the end of the day, don’t we all just want to believe?
You have proof, Mark said, like the wager stub I assume, and even I thought you were lying at first, tilting his head, taking a drink. Then Joann asked, Why would somebody lie about accidentally winning the Derby, and Mark said, I don’t know. Why would someone lie about Bruce Willis? Tax benefits? Don’t look at me.
The truth was, people lie because they want attention. Back home, they called it a cry for help, narcissistic personality disorder in the city, Joann’s cousin once telling her some people live these marvelous lives and others just live the delusion.
What Sara Jane had done was this: She’d hired a Bruce Willis lookalike, an actor who plays an actor — Joann Googling them after the deed, shocked to see Bruce Willis in more demand than George Clooney. She then sent an announcement to (less) reputable press: Bruce Willis, Soho House at six. She’d gotten them all, everyone she’d lied to about water or hats, a database of names galore. She and the lookalike entered the club so the press could see them together. The actor then announced he was leaving his wife, divorcing her for Sara Jane, a woman he’d secretly been in love with for years.
Crazy thing is, they went for it. If New York were the town of reinvention, then Sara Jane had invented a credible lie. That’s why you can’t be too hard on me, Joann told Mark, the press all believed it and they aren’t from Kentucky, Mark calling her a local-yokel, saying not to worry, that the city would whack and whack and whack until all her naivete was gone.
But before she could answer, insist she was not naive, Joann’s phone rang, a piercing yanking shrill. Don’t you need to get that, he asked and Joann told him, No, I’ll call back later, holding the screen up for Mark to see: It’s just my cousin, George Clooney.
Terena Elizabeth Bell has published in The Atlantic, Playboy, The Yale Review, Juked, and others. Her novel was excerpted by Malarkey Books, and her short stories have won grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Originally from Sinking Fork, Kentucky, she lives in New York, where she edits Writing Through the Classics, a series of classic novels annotated with prompts and notes on fiction craft.