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.
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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.
I was doubtful in the old way, but wanted to see if she was right. I came to the workshop one week, mounting the big stage with some fright but with greater expectation here would come the proof, finally, that I was the force I could never quite let myself be. This would not be a faceless audition (one of many factors that ultimately deterred me from the Business) but the rousing signature number of a show, my show, that I had been performing in my head for much of my life. Now the music would finally burst free before God, strangers and Marilyn the kind of exacting but empathetic audience I could only dream of assembling in one place at the right time. The pianist played the opening chords of the number from Fame with a flourish; I was poised on a cliff, reeling happily in the thin air, ready to fly.
But I didn't fly. I bombed. I couldn't hit notes that I routinely hit in my kitchen. The floor fell away from under me, and I didn't finish the song. The encouraging applause as I slunk away was more than I could stand, and Marilyn knew it. She was distressed by my distress she felt responsible for it but, unlike me, hardly believed this was the end of the matter. "You have a wonderful voice," she said again in the parking lot before I made my escape. "But you just have no confidence. That's all." All? It was generous and brutal, and true out loud, terribly true, for the first time; it was the truth of why I never pursued the stage, of why Marilyn and I had danced around a relationship easily enough but had never really come together before now. I realized her assessment of my poetry had been no less forthright, just easier to hear, and much depended on how I heard everything else and whether I heard it at all. The parking-lot crisis wasn't about coming back to the workshop and to singing so much as it was about coming back to Marilyn, and staying.
A couple of months ago, Marilyn and I shared the bill at a little Hollywood spot with all the workshop singers. I was in leading-lady dress, complete with flattened hair and heels; Marilyn, of course, wore her curls, and real diamond earrings and a pleated skirt that had belonged to her mother, and was no less glamorous. Backstage, we enthused over each other's costumes. I sang a couple of songs, one torchy and one not, didn't hit all the notes as well I had in rehearsal, and got prolonged, partisan cheers that felt like a homecoming. Marilyn sang robustly but intimately, perched on a stool, like she'd been doing this her whole life, with the emotional control and pinpoint focus that was a revelation for me. The program pronounced us all the class of 2003 a long delayed but satisfying coda to the class of 1987.
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