By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Shino Arihara
One Sunday last summer, I was on the verge of leaving a Macy's — empty-handed and somewhat abashed, but still restless and primed for a sale, somewhere — when I saw her. I froze. Marilyn? From several feet away, I studied a woman with a cloud of windproof curls and the square, assured body of a dancer even at rest, shoving aimlessly through racks of shorts and blouses. She looked like Marilyn, but more tellingly her head was bent and her brow was set in both innate repose and intellectual readiness; she was studying those blouses in the same curious way I remember Marilyn studying our acting professor when we were beleaguered graduate students of theater at UCLA almost 20 years ago.
I had always liked Marilyn, but I'd been too shy to say so back then. In a group of 10 actors seeking varying degrees of validation, I figured out early that I required the most, and Marilyn the least, and therefore we were unmatched for friendship no matter how great our shared misery or mutual affection. She was a woman of confidence who asked endless questions and had the temerity to strip onstage when a script required it; I wanted to be a leading lady but was too worried about getting chosen to be onstage at all. Marilyn thrashed about in the world but always claimed her place in it, while I thrashed but waited pathologically, like the would-be greeters of Godot, for a place to be made.
Still, we had pacts. We huddled about our curly hair and about our beastly professor; we discovered we liked to look at everything and shop for nothing in particular; we sat on the floor of my apartment once reading sheaves of my poetry, which I had not shown to anyone else. It was Marilyn who first declared me a writer. But after graduation the bond felt like it had been one of circumstance. I saw Marilyn several years later in a dim restaurant on Melrose, and we exchanged numbers pleasantly enough, but that was all.
Now, the possibility of this woman in Macy's being Marilyn thrilled me unexpectedly; here was someone I knew I would in many ways be meeting for the first time. Would she remember me as completely as I was remembering her? I could bear her ignorance of the past more than I could bear indifference or a cool reception. I was nervous. Finally, after 10 minutes of shadowing the woman from the blouse rack to the jeans, I approached. Before I had even said my name, she cried out joyously, grabbed me around the shoulders, declared to several amused people nearby that she had just been thinking about me because this Macy's was the first store we wandered through together years ago (it was the Broadway then). We stood nearly shouting at each other for some minutes before the first heady flush of reunion propelled us out of the store and into the mall for a cup of coffee and a real talk.
Much had changed, though not as I imagined it would. Fearless Marilyn proved to have no more stomach for the acting business than I had; where it once seemed too grand for me to occupy, it was too confining for her. She had a business teaching movement and yoga, and was married, with children — twin girls. We lived not far apart, I in Inglewood and she down the road in Westchester. I marveled at her life, especially her family; of everyone in our class, I had voted her the least likely to hew to tradition. Besides her wild hair and general stage daring, Marilyn had dated women as long as I'd known her; she called herself butch and confessed to never having worn high heels until our class traveled to Paris in 1986 and she was moonstruck by the élan of French women. Now here she was with a devoted husband, twins in private school and a house in one of the most resolutely middle-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Marilyn was impressed, though not surprised, that I wrote for a living. "You chose the absolute right thing," she declared with a wave of her hand, and I recalled again why I liked her: For all her talent and adventurousness, her heart was the biggest thing about her. In school she had often been less worried about being good onstage than about other people being good, and I understood in a moment how it made perfect sense that she was now a mother.
Though married, I am not a mother, and over our coffee I panicked fleetingly — why not? If Marilyn, of all people, had done this, what was my excuse? As more minutes passed, I discovered Marilyn was never the inveterate wanderer that I had made her out to be, just as I was never the leading lady. I had typecast us as opposites (beginning with the fact I was black and she was Jewish) when we were really allies. Her having had children hadn't changed that at all.
Marilyn and I picked up where we had never quite started. One of the first things we did, naturally, was go shopping. I learned that though Marilyn had left the theater business, she was still in the business of theater, as a singer. She took a regular workshop and staged full-length cabaret shows on her own. I felt another small, surprising spark of regret over what I hadn't done; I had always liked to sing but, aside from a few stints as a backup vocalist, had never really plumbed my ability or put it out there. Marilyn sensed something and began petitioning me to join the workshop. "You had a great voice," she said. "So pure. I remember that." Like she remembered my writing, I suppose.