A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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It must have been a real publicity bust for Marilyn and her people. I mean, here it is thirty years later, and I’ve never seen anything about it in all the flood of words about her since.
I thought at the time that it was my flattop that did it. My photo was the epitome of neat and sincere, the two things that counted most in 1957, especially in Edmond, Oklahoma. I’m almost positive it wasn’t my accompanying essay, “Why I Want To Spend An Evening With Marilyn.” My literary talents, like those of most fourteen-year-olds, consisted of assembling clichés, so my letter was probably pretty much the same as all the others.
The only thing that matters is that I did win this national contest for a teenage boy to spend an evening with Marilyn. The fantasy of every boy and man who ever looked with lust on that famous photo on the red velvet. The photo that introduced us all to the new art form of the centerfold, and the subsequent elevation to new heights of an old, old form of self-entertainment.
The news came in a telegram: “Congratulations. We will be in touch soon to discuss appropriate plans for the evening. Please give some thought to the subject in the meantime.” It has been thirty years, and the exact wording is a little hazy to me. But the specific words I still recall vividly were: “You will be provided with the car of your choice for the evening.”
Of course, I was only fourteen, and didn’t have a license, but everything was possible in Marilyn’s world. Don’t you remember?
Actually, I didn’t have much to say about the plans for the evening. By the time Marilyn’s agent called me, he had already been in touch with Mr. Robinson, the school principal, to plan a dance in the gym. I did recommend a restaurant for after the dance, though. “Royce’s is where everyone goes for dinner after church on Sundays,” I told the agent. “It’s the nicest place in town. They make their own private-label salad dressing that you can buy by the jar, and each booth has its own Wurlitzer Remote Selector so you don’t even have to leave your seat to play a record.”
“Perfect,” he said. I thought I detected a smile behind his voice.
After that, the event took on a life of its own that had very little to do with me. Mr. Robinson was spending his days dealing with photographers, caterers, dance bands, all kinds of people wanting to donate their services to be a part of the evening. The line outside his office grew every day, and once, when I walked by, his eye clamped on me like a hand on the back of the neck.
The ensuing weeks saw a series of big red pimples, sometimes two and three at a time: the kind that get infected when you squeeze them, then become permanent features of your facial anatomy. My relationship with the other Marilyn, my sort-of girlfriend, sadly deteriorated. “Just look at how all this has changed you, Bobby,” she lamented tearfully. I didn’t know if she meant the pimples or the big head my best friend had reported to me candidly. There was practically no worse form of psychosis known to my eighth-grade class in 1957 Edmond. It was at the exact opposite end of the personality-traits scale from neat and sincere.
There was definitely something happening to my head. And all the time I was spending with Marilyn’s photo was affecting not only my brain but another part of my body as well. Algebra was taking on new meanings of conjugal interaction, forms different but equivalent joined at the “equals” sign. In English class, words danced erotically across the page, revealing hidden meanings of which not even the author was aware.
And girls! Girls walked around nude in their clothes before me. I lived in dread of being called to stand at the blackboard to diagram a sentence. My Levi’s felt like they would split.
Everyone was taking dancing lessons after school. I felt I had an image to maintain, so I didn’t get involved. My parents were Baptists and didn’t dance, so they couldn’t help. Then one day Miss Adams, my English teacher, offered her services. She invited me to dinner, and I was surprised to see candles on the table in her dimly lit dining room when I arrived.
“One must set the proper mood for dancing,” she explained.
After dinner she demonstrated the box step, and then put on a record of slow music. “And now with feeling,” she said as she pulled me closer and moved me back and forth across the floor. “Fee-e-ling, Bobby,” she whispered, pressing her body against mine and looking directly into my eyes.
I was so sure that what I was feeling was not supposed to have anything to do with teachers — and was not what she intended — that I tore myself away from her and fled.
There was a buzz of energy among the boys that manifested in “you-son-of-a-gun” pokes on the arm, which became harder and less humorous as the weeks went by. Basketball practices became ferocious. (Finally, an elbow to the jaw got me out of this deadly contest for the final week, and probably saved my life.) Aggressive adolescent voices boomed in the halls, and classroom discipline was constantly giving way to cut-ups and macho posturing. In the final week before the big date, I couldn’t force myself to meet the eyes of any of my teachers or the principal. I had infected my classmates with a sexual energy beyond their years.
But I could have endured anything anyone did to me. I was alone, boiling in my secret passions. There was never a doubt in my mind how the evening would end. Archetypical virgin and archetypical older woman: the perfect algebraic configuration. Her experience and sensuality coming together with my roaring adolescent juices to produce an evening that neither of us would ever forget. Every time I looked at that photo, every time I played the evening through in my mind, the conclusion was inevitable, obvious. It was there on her face. She would want me as much as I wanted her.
Then it was the night of the Big Date. Big Date, ha! Who am I talking to? Jack Nicholson might understand. Warren Beatty might understand. These men have had dates with glamorous movie stars. But even that is not the same. They are famous in their own right. And besides, they never had a date with Marilyn. No, not even they could understand.
And for all the rest of you, there is not even a basis for communication. If you rolled all the Big Dates of a lifetime together, all the Big Dates of every lifetime together, you still would have no understanding of what it was like. Through the mist of thirty years, it’s sometimes difficult for me to believe that it actually happened.
When I got home from school that afternoon, a bright red-and-white Corvette convertible was in the driveway. The keys were in the ignition, and propped on the steering wheel was a pink envelope. “Dear Bobby,” the note said, “I can hardly wait to meet you. Please pick me up at 7 at the Skirvin Hotel. I am looking forward to our evening together.” It was signed simply “Marilyn.”
“I can hardly wait to meet you”! I read through the note dozens of times, finding nuances and innuendos the sum total of which was an absolute confirmation to me of my every fantasy. It was going to happen! Exactly the way I had imagined it — there was no doubt in my mind.
My charcoal-gray suit, fresh from the cleaners and wrapped in a plastic bag, hung on the door to my closet. On the bed was a package containing my stiffly starched white shirt, also done at the cleaners. It was the first time this had ever happened. My mother always did my shirts, but apparently not for something this big. But she had ironed the new shorts and white socks that were laid out next to the shirt. The underwear had been done military-style, two sharp creases down the front and back.
Dinner was impossible for me. I stood in the bathroom in my underwear, trying out the box step. My movements were wooden, no “feeling” at all. My hands shook as I dressed. The whole thing was beginning to take on a nightmarish quality that was intensified every time I saw my unworthiness reflected in the mirror. Maybe one of the other guys would have been more appropriate, I was beginning to think. Mark Wilson, the basketball stud with hair already on his legs. Or Larry Tidwell, the speech class star with the silver tongue. But then every time I looked at that picture, I knew it had to be me.
I was ready an hour early. My dad was watching Wednesday-night wrestling in the living room, and I sat down with him to try to distract myself. But the rolling and grabbing on the screen was to me nothing but an obscene exercise in sublimation, intolerable in my state of readiness for the real thing. Besides, that Corvette was calling.
I tossed my overnight bag onto the passenger seat. Inside were the silk bathrobe and slippers I had secretly purchased with my saved-up allowance. And of course the photograph was in there too. It would have an appropriately autographed message of appreciation before the night was over. I would hold it back until our love was properly consummated.
It was surprising how easy it was to drive the Corvette, considering that I had never driven any car before. It laid rubber in every gear. (I didn’t know a car could do that.) The car and I were made for each other, and I tried not to think of giving it back the next day. I took the back roads so I could really wind it out and see what it would do.
It took the turns in effortless power slides, flew over hilltops to float weightlessly back to the road. It did all this with only my left hand on the wheel. My right arm was draped casually over the back of the passenger seat, and I couldn’t believe the witty, charming conversation I was having with an empty seat.
The countryside I roared through was all new to me. It had a movie-like quality that turned cow pastures I had seen a million times into exotic background for the drama that was about to begin.
The drama that was about to begin! How could I possibly have expected more than what I already had? A telegram was in my pocket, with the most incredible announcement of my young life. And I was driving the car of my dreams through the open countryside of Oklahoma. But at fourteen I still knew that all dreams are possible, and will happen exactly the way we envision them.
So at ten minutes till 7, I pulled up in front of the Skirvin Hotel, which in 1957 was the Waldorf Astoria of Oklahoma City. A man at the door greeted me as I pulled up, and took the car to park.
I took the elevator to the top floor, and knocked. When the door opened, it was not Marilyn, but a man in an expensive silk suit. I recognized his voice as Charlie, the agent who had called me.
“No corsage?” One eyebrow lifted slightly, and I saw the smile I had heard on the phone. “No matter, I’ll take care of it.” He walked to the phone without shaking my outstretched hand. “Introduce yourself to the boys.”
The “boys” were a couple of thickly-built men sitting in front of the TV. They, too, were watching the wrestling matches.
“Marilyn’s not here yet,” was their only response to my introduction. I took an empty chair off to the side, and tried my best not to see the figures on the screen.
“Corsage is on its way, Bobby. Not to worry.” Charlie came over to where I was sitting. “Marilyn’s not here yet. She went out shopping and isn’t back. Help yourself to a Coke or something, and make yourself comfortable.” He waved toward the bar, and then disappeared into the other room. I had never seen a suite, except in the movies, and was surprised to find one in Oklahoma City.
I found a Coke in the small refrigerator under the bar, and dumped it into a glass with a big slug of bourbon. Too big a slug, I discovered with the first gulp. My eyes were watering as I wandered over to the big window overlooking the city streets below. In the small dots of figures, I tried to make out Marilyn hurrying back to the hotel for her date. It was hard to imagine her as anything less than bigger-than-life.
I stood at that window for what seemed like hours, although my watch told me it had been only one. The wrestling matches were over, and the boys had begun a card game. No one even looked my way. The sweet drink had turned sour in my stomach, and I was developing a headache.
Then there was the sound of a key in the door, and Charlie was there instantly to meet her. But it was not the Marilyn of my photograph. It was a young woman in a trench coat, scarf, and dark glasses. She was accompanied by two more men of the type playing cards. There was a flurry of commotion as she moved quickly through the room and into the adjacent bedroom. The door was promptly slammed shut. I had caught only fragments of her whispered remarks as she blew through like a breeze.
After some time Charlie came out to tell me that Marilyn would be ready soon. “She just has to put on her makeup and dress.” And then as an aside to the boys, “Hopefully not more than twice.” They all snickered at some inside joke.
Another hour passed. Once, the door opened, and I caught a glimpse of her in a slinky evening gown. At last things are beginning to come around, I thought. It’s really going to happen!
Charlie was in and out of the room. He glanced in my direction a couple of times, but never even made an apology. When the corsage arrived, he took it at the door. “You won’t be needing this after all,” he said, apparently to me, and dumped it in the trash can.
He went to the bar and poured some champagne into a glass, and handed it to one of the other men. The card playing had halted, and there was a new sense of readiness in the room. “Get the elevator,” Charlie ordered, motioning to one of the men. My mouth went dry.
And then there SHE was! Not in the gown I had glimpsed earlier, but in toreador pants and a tight pink sweater. And not stopping at the threshold of the room to make the grand entrance of a movie star, but flitting nervously through the room and out the door to the waiting elevator.
The entire entourage was immediately sucked into her momentum, and someone motioned to me to follow. As I hurried to keep up, I glanced around for a place to set my glass. In the hallway someone took it from my hand and tossed it on the floor. I squeezed into a corner in the back as the elevator began its rapid descent.
“Marilyn, this is Bobby,” Charlie announced. One of the men grabbed me and pulled me forward. I couldn’t think of a single word to say. Besides, Marilyn was preoccupied, digging for something in her small handbag. She eventually came up with a prescription bottle, which she nervously tried to open. Charlie took it from her, opened it, and took out a capsule. The man with the champagne gave it to her, and she chased down the pill with it. She relaxed for a moment, leaning back in the elevator and closing her eyes. Then she remembered me.
“Oh, thank you so much for your patience. I am so sorry.”
I would have waited forever, I wanted to say. I could have said it to the woman in the red velvet photograph. There were a million clever things I could have said to her, and had said in my fantasies. But I couldn’t get this young woman to match up with anything in my head. She was so small standing there surrounded by those goons. This woman had nothing to do with my Marilyn. I hadn’t expected her to be a stranger.
I stood, dumbfounded, as everyone waited for my response. Then she was putting on her dark glasses and scarf again, and someone helped her into her trench coat as the door opened and we hustled through the hotel lobby. She was surrounded by the four men, and I followed behind with Charlie.
The Vette sat waiting at the front door, engine idling impatiently. Charlie helped her with the door, and the other men got into a black sedan waiting behind us. I was fumbling with the overnight bag, which had fallen to the floor, when she leaned over and, in that breathy whisper of hers, said, “Lose them.”
“Please,” she whispered almost inaudibly.
The scream of tires and the roar of that big V-8 echoing through the concrete canyons of Oklahoma City were something for which I was totally unprepared, and I’m sure the men in the black sedan were even more surprised. Their headlights were in my rearview mirror, smaller and smaller after each screeching turn. Marilyn squealed with delight beside me like a little girl on a carnival ride. She took off her scarf to let the wind blow through her hair, and I could hardly watch the road.
By the time we reached open roads, the headlights in my mirror were gone, and I just drove, straight and fast. Marilyn leaned back in her seat and let the wind play with the baby-fine wisps of her blond hair. It was one of those warm spring evenings that come early in Oklahoma, and something in her was responding that I have never seen in a woman since. Her entire body was immersed in the exotic luxury of freedom. She raised her hand to the wind overhead, and I could swear I heard her purr.
We rode in silence for hours. I knew the party was over by now, and if anyone had gone to Royce’s, they had already left. I would be regarded as a total fraud by everyone, and the attitudes of the previous weeks would be nothing compared to what was coming. But it didn’t matter. I was having my date with Marilyn, and I didn’t care if anyone ever believed it had happened.
“Bobby, what do you want to be when you grow up?” It was the first time she had spoken since we left the hotel.
I had the normal inflated expectations of a fourteen-year-old, and began to expound proudly: college, law school maybe. I had a friend whose uncle was in politics and could help me make the right connections. I took her silence to mean interest, and went on. Of course whatever I did, money was important to me. That and the power and prestige of public office. . . . She placed her fingers over my lips.
“Bobby, don’t aspire to fame and power. Don’t ever aspire to anything but being as ordinary as you can possibly be.”
I looked at her, not knowing what to say. She was silent for a moment, and then kissed me on the cheek.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” she said.
I didn’t know if she meant that the date was over, or that she wanted me to spend the night with her.
Back at the hotel, her bodyguards threw me to the floor and pinned me there before she could intervene.
“Stop it!” she shouted above the commotion, barely able to make herself heard. “Leave him alone!”
They let me up grudgingly. One of them lifted me roughly to my feet by the lapels. It wasn’t easy for them to turn off what had been waiting for me. But it was obvious who paid the bills.
“You can go now,” she ordered.
The four of them glowered at me as they filed out of the room. Only Charlie was left.
“All of you,” she said, looking at him.
“Are you all right, baby?” He looked closely at her.
“I’ve had a glorious evening,” she said, smiling at me. “Good night, Charlie.”
He kissed her on the cheek, and then growled at me on the way out the door, “Don’t you ever try that again, you little shit.”
I was sure I never would — not in a million lifetimes.
“You’ll find some champagne in the fridge,” she said, winking at me. “How about pouring a couple of glasses while I slip into something more comfortable?”
I watched her from behind as she swayed provocatively through the door to the bedroom. “Something more comfortable.” Magic words of the Fifties! Here we were at the grand finale, exactly the way I had pictured it.
The champagne fizzled and swelled over the lips of the glasses onto the carpet.
“Marilyn,” I called out, “would you like me to bring you your drink?”
“Put it on the table by the bed. And bring the bottle.”
She was behind a dressing screen, the pants and sweater she had worn tossed over the top. I put the glasses and the bottle on the night stand, and took a sip from mine.
“You’ll find a silk dressing gown hanging in the bathroom,” she told me from behind the screen.
“I brought my own,” I laughed, the bubbles of champagne tickling my nose.
“Why, you little devil!” she giggled.
I retrieved my bag from the living room floor, where it had fallen during the tussle. I whistled and swung it jauntily as I went into the bathroom.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” I said.
“Count to a thousand,” she called out.
“What? It takes a long time to count to a thousand.”
“I know,” she laughed. And I knew I would count to a million if necessary.
I counted to two hundred, as I stood admiring my image in the new robe. I splashed on a little more aftershave.
“Marilyn, can I come out now?”
There was no answer. Two hundred one, two hundred two. I reached into the bag to take out the photograph on red velvet. . . .
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Especially if you are a man in your forties or fifties, you know the rest of the story. You have stood in that same bathroom in your silk robe, splashing on aftershave, wild with anticipation.
All the strategies and techniques you developed through the years for bringing a woman to the point that was so easy with Marilyn were learned out of the need born of that photograph. You know that every woman you ever made love to was Marilyn. The woman you married was Marilyn, and the woman who left you was Marilyn.
I take the picture from the bag, but instead of the lush red playing against the most naked body in the world, there is only black and white. Her nude body lies face down on the bed, her eyes are closed. The prescription bottle sits on the night stand, empty.
I look in the mirror again. I am astonished to see a middle-aged man looking back.
Nine hundred ninety-seven, nine hundred ninety-eight, nine hundred ninety-nine. . . .
Marilyn, are you out there?