"Why do you collect pictures of Marilyn Monroe? Some women would be jealous." Dolores was not the jealous type.
"Jealous of a woman who's been dead nearly thirty years? Pretty insecure."
They were sitting together on the couch. Ben was reading papers; Dolores was studying for an exam. Or rather, she had been studying until a moment ago.
"Worshiping a woman who's been dead nearly thirty years? Pretty weird," she said, mimicking his tone.
Here in the living room were two Monroes: a full-length portrait photograph in a blue terry cloth bathroom, by a pool, and, directly across from them, over the fireplace, an artsy picture of her all in black, on a black background.
"She's a symbol. The goddess."
"What goddess? Not that sex goddess shit? She had a fat ass. And her boobs are all out of proportion."
"No. Not the sex goddess. The real Venus. You screw sex goddesses. Monroe I wanted to screw and to love. Jayne Mansfield was a sex object. Nobody loved Jayne Mansfield, and she didn't project a desire to be loved. Monroe was never that old. I was seventeen when she died"
"Before my time," she interjected.
"I know that! Do you want to know, or not?"
"'Magister'? Where'd you pick that up?"
"Hesse. Hermann? You want a coke?"
"No I don't want a coke," he said with some exasperation.
"So what is it?" she said when she came back, dropping onto the couch and popping the top as she bounced a little on the cushion. "Are you one of those fairies who worship lovely women from afar?"
"Fairy? Give me a break! I hate your hair like this," he said.
"It could all be a front," she said, sipping from the red and white can. "The whole sex thing. Maybe you're secretly queer."
"Christ you are a brat."
She stuck out her tongue like a woman in a clinic. He chose to ignore it.
"She reminds me of a time when women were creatures of mystery and vulnerability," he said, giving her a sidelong glance. "She was simultaneously sincere and a hypocrite, offering her real self, but offering false flesh not really available. I can't explain it."
"You're doing OK," she said. She tucked her feet under her. He glanced at the picture of Marilyn that hung over the desk in the bedroom; he could just see it through the door. It was the "check out the boobs" shot fromwhat? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? He didn't keep track of the sources. It was too far away to see clearly, but he had the picture memorized. The face was a surreal mask, almost a rictus of false sensuality. He kept both pictures for the contrast. The woman in the blue bathrobe was so utterly real; the woman in the sequined one-piece absolutely false. His eyes returned to the picture all in black, his favorite.
"She's an icon," he added lamely. "A symbol. A symbol of what we convinced women we wanted them to be and what, ultimately and paradoxically, they were. Only to discover that we didn't 'respect that sort of girl.'"
"'Were'? Still are, big boy," she said archly.
"Why do you do that?" he said suddenly.
"Interrupt me when I'm being serious, and deflate whatever I'm saying. Am I such a pompous windbag?"
"I guess," she said warily.
"Then why put up with me at all? Go get yourself a nice jock with an MBA and calve for him every two years until your abdomen prolapses and your arches fall."
"All right. Why do you do that? Why do you get crude like that and try to gross me out? To get me to go away?" She paused. "Why don't you like me, Ben?" Her tone was a touch plaintive. He was shocked and embarrassed. He was used to joking with her like "one of the guys." Except he'd never joked with "the guys"; he wasn't sure who they were, and he doubted if he would like them much. Her eyes looked sincerely hurt; he was a little suspicious but, at the same time, ashamed.
"It's a bad habit. I'm sorry."
"It's OK," she conceded. "I shouldn't interrupt."
"Yes you should. But not just to distract me. That's what bothers me, the feeling that your interruptions are meant to shut me up."
"That's how they feel."
They sat silently for some minutes, both of them looking at the Monroe picture over the fireplace opposite the couch. On another wall of the bedroom was the Playboy photo, ivory and red velvet; he had two other pictures mounted on the walls in his bedroom.
"She was very pretty," Dolores said at last. "My mother wore her hair like that." She was studying the black studio shot.
"I don't know. 1980. I guess."
"That doesn't make any sense."
They were silent again.
"What was your mother like?" she said, still looking at the poster.
"Pretty. When I was little. There was a movie star she looked a lot like when I was really little. Ann something. Sheridan. She had colorless skin, like milk with strawberry flavoring. And blue veins." He looked at the picture. "I walked in on her accidentally once, in the bathroom, when she accidentally left the door open. I didn't know what she was doing then, I was just a little kid, but I guess she was putting on a Kotex belt. I caught a glimpse of her belly, just an instant before she squealed and I fled. It was white as a fish, unnatural, and bulging and tight, like she was three or four months pregnant."
"I don't think so. I think she was just the typical gut-busted breeder of her generation. Prolapsed abdomen, muscles shot. I guess she could have been. I found out later she had been having miscarriages right and left."
"A lot of women her age did." She had flinched at "gut-busted"; mentally he jabbed himself with a hatpin. She crossed her arms, still looking at the picture.
"I don't think so. I mean, I don't think she was pregnant. I think of her as pear-shaped, all her life. In fact, I can't visualize her really pregnant."
"I lied. She's beautiful."
"Marilyn. I've loved her since I was, I dunno, thirty. She'd been dead, oh, ten years."
"I love my mom," Dolores said, still looking at the picture.
"She doesn't love me."
"I know. I need a hug."
ms., Diseases of the Heart
I culled another promising letter from Monday's mail. Without consulting Ellen, I arranged to meet this one on Friday. Linda was scheduled for Wednesday, Terry for Thursday. The first girl, Erica, was Monday; and on Tuesday, Jo Anne.
The first two interviews were a wash; both women were pretty but not interesting. Erica had expected someone younger; she talked like a sorority girl waiting for the right lawyer-in-training to come by. Jo Anne didn't know what "connubial" meant. We dined and went our ways. Talking with them, I was carefully ambiguous about the nature of my intentions, suggesting that I was looking primarily for a housekeeper. The second girl, Jo Anne, was convinced I was gay and needed a companion for political reasons. She asked twice if anybody else lived with me.
On Wednesday night, Linda and I met for dinner and I knew at once it was a mistake. She frightened me; she wanted the job, but just to have it. She interrupted me to finish my questions, usually incorrectly, and then answered what she thought I was about to ask. I kept backing up and trying to repeat questions, saying, "What I was going to say was" and "That's not what I meant." When I mentioned housekeeping, she was a housekeeper; when I asked about books, she couldn't come up with anything specific but there were a lot she meant to read. Their names were not on the tips of her fingers either. It was not as if she was illiterate; it was as if she was sure the truth would be the wrong answer and wasn't sure what lie would serve. She was a good-looking woman, except for the edge of terror not quite awakened around her eyes. She was desperate to please. She had me choose her dinner. I don't find that flattering.
On the fourth night, depressed and mildly foreboding, I met Terry Shackleford. It did not begin well.
"Are you Mr. Aquino?" It was the name I used on the phone. I was looking into the brown eyes of a chocolate-voiced girl in her late teens. The light of her picture had added, I guessed, five years. She had a purse large as luggage perched like a toddler on her hip. Her skirt looked like some heavy canvas, tent material; it was wrapped around a long-sleeved salmon leotard that clashed with the butterscotch tint of her hands and neck. She wore Persian rings and earrings and hair clasps with tinny bangles on her temples. The others had dressed up for me. This one, I thought, is testing my limits. I thought, eyeing her, she might have found them. She looked more like a real gypsy than a young lady with a taste for Santa Fe chic.
"If your driver's license says 'Terry,' I am," I said.
"You don't really think I'm going to show you my driver's license? Right after I see yours. Can I sit down?"
"Please. Pleased to meet you."
"Aquino," she said, scooting her chair up to the table. "I'll bet that isn't your real name."
"Close enough. I'll bet Terry isn't yours."
"Yeah. But we'll hold off on last names until I get to know you."
"Do you want a drink?" She nodded. "Tell you what." I signaled to a cocktail waitress. "You make the waitress card you, and we'll be under way."
|Chapter Twelve continues...|