In The Misfits, I watched Marilyn break open. Even though their marriage was already failing, Arthur Miller wrote the script as a gift to her. He wanted to give her the chance to show the world her range. But the director, John Houston, having no need to make any such offerings, reduced her to little more than a paddle ball and an ass, a shot of cleavage, a ripe pout. Let’s be honest here, he seemed to say. Sex Symbols don’t need plotlines and poignancy, they just need to be sexed.
The heat cloaked the set. The sweat off-screen waited to make its entrance. Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift appeared wilted. But in Marilyn, for the first time, there’s no seduction, no warmth. The sadness in her eyes pushed away the sex. All she wanted in life was a man to love her, a brood of children and to be taken seriously. Here, she was at the point where she realized none of her dreams would come true, even though she spent her life dreaming the hardest.
My problem was I could relate to Marilyn there at the end. I could relate too much. That need to become, to be loved, and realizing that it was never going to happen. The emptiness, the brokenness. Water found water, hour followed hour. All of that sappy emo shit.
A bit of my back story is required, isn’t it? Daddy didn’t love me, as daddies often don’t. Daughters are different beasts, wild mustangs ourselves. Fathers ask, Do we lasso them or let them run free? If they reach for the lasso, who’s to say they can aim? If they let us roam, who’s to say we won’t wander far enough? Keep the bastards guessing—a daughter’s special skill. I don’t blame my father for throwing up his hands, becoming a stereotype. It was there for the plucking: a doctor, on the school board, more willing to help anyone but his own.
And my mother? Another cliché, but more embarrassing. A never-was ex-beauty queen, now sloppy drunk. By sloppy I mean slippery, like a greased pig, sliding in and out of other men’s hands and laps. How people looked at her when she was drunk was how she looked at me and my sister when she was sober. This was a simple case of trickle-down economics: the upper-ups dropped their scraps to the starving fools beneath them. We ate the hate like love because it was all we got.
Daddy kept us all around because we made him look good.
“Why does he put up with them?” the ladies at church brunches and hospital fundraisers would whisper to each other behind their crisp linen napkins. “She’s on her third Bloody Mary and what is that the daughter’s wearing? A hand-me-down garbage bag? He’s obviously a saint.”
You can hear a lot of conversation with your earbuds in but no music playing on your iPod. If my dad ever did decide to stray, he’d have the pick of the litter, that’s for certain.
I’ll skip over my teen angst and drama, though I assure you I had my share and your share too. That brings us to last fall, the beginning of my sophomore year at the finishing school turned legitimate all-girl university. And to Delia. Oh, Delia. What can I say? She was like a tiny, timid kitten, eyes bleary and half-closed, left in a crumpled cardboard box by the side of the road. I was not a cat person. Any animal really, though I showed a cow for 4H once back in middle school. Betty. Blue-ribbon winner. I walked her around that ring with a shit-eating grin—I swear—on both of our faces. Then I snuck behind the bleachers to smoke a cigarette I stole out of my mother’s pack. I never felt guilty eating a cheeseburger or a good steak, and I liked them both rare. Still mooing, as they said.
But by Delia’s shoes—black patent leather heels with satin bows on the toes, thrift-store but classy—and the way she sped across campus in them, I could tell there was more to her and we were our own kind of kindred spirits. I planned to show her the genuine Chanel purse I found at Goodwill for six dollars and she would fawn over it and I’d lift her out of that cardboard box and then she’d fawn over me.
Except she wasn’t exactly left on the side of the road. That would have made things much easier. We didn’t have any classes together, so I waited for her in the dining hall, keeping my eye on the entrance as my panini grew cold. I figured she’d have to eat eventually, but she never showed. Maybe Delia didn’t come out of her dorm room except to go to class, so I asked around. A friend of a friend was in her writing workshop. Not caring if it were creepy, I waited outside the building and then followed behind her. Sure, I could have talked to her then, while we walked, but I thought it might be better to go to her on her own turf. Her dorm room ended up being directly below mine.
One Friday night, I descended and knocked on her door. She answered in her pajamas: an oversized Bob Dylan t-shirt, printed boxer shorts and her short hair hidden beneath a lacy black headband.
“Hello?” she said.
I pushed my way into her room. Its layout was the same as mine, except she had moved her bed so its foot-end nooked beneath the desk built into the wall. Did she sleep curled up in a ball? She really was a kitten.
“I’m Beth,” I said, holding out my hand.
Nonplussed, she shook. “Delia.”
“All the friends I ever had are gone,” I said with a smirk. At this, she blushed and looked down at her shirt. Yeah, I knew my Dylan, including the deeper cuts and the covers, though I was in the He Can’t Sing camp. What can I say, I like icons.
“Did you—What are— ” she stammered.
“I’m here to be your friend,” I interrupted. “I saw your shoes and knew we’d get along.”
I plopped myself down on her desk chair. She sat on the floor and answered my questions dutifully. Yes, transfer student, left art school in Brooklyn because she wanted to be a writer and the school wasn’t a good academic fit.
At this, I sputtered, “You left New York City to come to Bumfuck, Virginia because the school wasn’t a good fit? It’s Brooklyn! You make that shit fit!”
“It’s nice here,” she said. “Charming, don’t you think? When I saw the front quad and the rows of rocking chairs on the main porch, I was sold.”
Nice. She honestly said nice.
Bless her heart.
Continuing on, she told me she was originally from western Pennsylvania. Her interest in the South, its culture and its writers, brought her here. She mumbled something about Sally Mann and Annie Dillard, our school’s prestigious alumnae. People actually read that tripe in the glossy pamphlets the university bulk-mailed? I told her she’d find all the southern culture she wanted, as long as she wanted rebel-flag bikinis from Happy’s flea market and moonshine.
“So you hate it here?” she asked.
“I’m a fourth generation Virginian,” I explained. “I’m proud of my roots. So much so I worked hard the summer after seventh grade to rid myself of my accent. Get me drunk, though…”
I reached over and swung open her mini-fridge. Cans of Diet Coke and a red mesh bag half full of gleaming Granny Smith apples. This was all she’d eaten since arriving on campus two weeks ago.
“I was anorexic in high school,” I shared, shutting the fridge with its pneumatic thud. “My boyfriend adored my best friend who was ninety pounds drenched, so I stopped eating. Every four days or so, I’d faint walking up the stairs to homeroom. I’d wake in the nurse’s office. She’d feed me protein bars. When the nurse called my mom, if my mom would even answer, she’d just say that losing a few pounds wouldn’t kill me. Mom’s fond of liquid diets. You know, vodka.” I laughed bitterly, then shrugged. “After a few months of this song and dance, Jason broke up with me, so I said fuck it and took to eating everything in sight. That’s how I got this figure you see here.” That is, zaftig. Marilyn was no twig herself.
Those nights we sat in her dorm room, she told me about her suffering, and it was so trivial. It was the kind of suffering that caused a few fault lines, tiny cracks throughout her foundation. She disliked her nose, her thighs, her bowed legs. Big deal. My suffering was complete. I despised myself. So did my parents, my ex-best friend and my other ex-best friend. But did I hide in my room picking at my face and nibbling an apple a day to shrink myself into nonexistence? No, I was going to build myself up like a champ. To be loved, Marilyn had bleached and lipsticked and posed herself into an archetype. She attempted to build a life of dreams around her, but did it work? No, because love, like dreaming, is shallow. I would be more than the starlet in the movie; I would be the director, molding the story. I would save Delia and in the process, save myself.
In the next few months, by pulling slowly but forcefully, I brought Delia out of her room. We took trips to the movie theater across town or to Target for make-up runs. For me, anyway. The only make-up Delia wore was her Russian Red lipstick, which she had to order off the internet and which screamed against her death-pale skin.
I drove her to my parents’ house in Blacksburg, forty-five minutes away. I chugged Diet Coke and smoked. It took eight cigarettes to get home. Delia didn’t say a word. I knew she was alive because I saw her foot occasionally tapping along to the stereo. Once there, we ate pizza—Delia picking at hers—with my little sister, who was awed by Delia’s boyish, dyed black hair. Jenna, only nine, asked Delia if she were a lesbian. Delia laughed and said she hoped not, boys were intimidating enough. Jenna accepted this with a solemn nod, before breaking off into giggles herself.
Laughing made Delia a completely different person. It made her human. Soon, she and Jenna were sitting on the floor, building a stage for Jenna’s puppets, a cat she named Mr. Bow and a giraffe she called Necky. Jenna forced me and my mom to sit there and watch the play they had quickly written out in crayon. Death of a Salesman this was not. Delia said she wanted to be a writer? Good luck with that one.
The next time I came back to visit, I came alone. Jenna rushed to the door. She had buzzed off all of her chestnut curls. “Like it?” she asked, posing with one hand behind her ear, the other cocked on her hip. I told her she looked like a cancer patient.
When I asked my mom about it, she said between sips of her Irish coffee, “Hell, I considered doing it to my own hair. Delia looked so cute. Where is she? When are you bringing her back?”
Appearing next to me, fuzzy raccoon in hand, Jenna said, “Yeah, bring Delia back. Tell her I got a new puppet!”
Scowling, I absconded to the basement to smoke and fume. It was going to be a long weekend.
But the biggest mistake I made was introducing Delia to Jason. He and I were still friendly, sort of. I knew I was his back-up booty call, but we’d hang out just to hang out sometimes, smoking bowls and listening to dancehall and grime. I’d caught myself bandying about the term soul-mate when thinking about him. Sometimes I made myself puke. Figuratively, that is. Not like Delia.
Jason liked his girls to be skinny, but he also preferred them to be the aggressors, to take the first bite. He’d be too many calories for Delia, and besides, I wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t a lesbian, despite what she said. She had mentioned some boyfriend back in Pennsylvania, but when we went out to bars or parties and guys approached her—as they often did, trying to flirt—she’d smile blankly and turn back to me, our group, my friends, all girls. Flirting doesn’t breach a sworn loyalty, and while she claimed to love her boyfriend, I’d never seen a single photo of him. There were no mentions of him on her blog, which she obsessively updated. He never visited. I didn’t even know his name.
So I wasn’t worried. But then Jason fell for her. Physically, as I said, she was perfect for him, but upon meeting—as I knew she would—she backed away, retreated into herself, and sat in silence on his cum-stained futon, studying his black-light responsive ganja posters. Several days later, Jason called me up, gushing. Rooting around online, he’d found her blog, read the entire thing—four years of archives; who has time for that?—and found a link buried in there deep. Apparently, our subdued little Delia was not just a writer, but a musician as well. And apparently, Jason thought she was—his words—fucking amazing, holy shitballs.
“Do you think she’d want to start a band with me?” he asked.
“I didn’t know you played an instrument,” I said.
“I can learn.”
Because we were on the phone, he couldn’t see me roll my eyes, so I added a scoff to make my point.
“Beth, jealousy never became you,” he said, then added, “Doesn’t Delia look like Audrey Hepburn? But you know, like a rock n’ roll Audrey Hepburn? Or Joan Jett? Joan Hepburn! Audrey Jett? Anyway, when are you bringing her back to B-burg?”
If I hadn’t been on my cell, I would’ve slammed down the receiver. Instead, I jabbed at the screen, ending the call, and threw my phone at my pillow, a much less satisfying option.
Grabbing my cigarettes, I headed outside. Chain-smoking, I looped the campus several times. Jason thought I was jealous? Of Delia? Even more egregious, he thought she looked like Audrey Hepburn? That’s fine. Really. The only people who talked about Audrey still were all the sad little anorexics mining the internet for thinspiration. No one remembered that Audrey also sang at President Kennedy’s birthday, they only remembered Marilyn.
Jason was a dipshit. What did he do besides smoke pot, jerk off and live off of his mother? Screw him.
But I admit: it wore on me. I’d watch Delia crossing campus and I’d notice other people watching her. With increasing frequency, people called out to her and waved. She’d smile, wave back and then continue walking and reading her book. More girls traded their hoodies and flannel pants for pumps and lipstick. They began wearing vintage dresses and stumbling around with their noses in novels. When girls invited Delia on camping trips, I graciously let her borrow my otherwise unused sleeping bag, and when my favorite professor in the art department asked her to model for some classes, I urged her to go. It was something I had always wanted to do, but had never been approached. She refused, embarrassed.
There was no way she couldn’t have realized that her days as an anonymous transfer loser were over, yet she feigned ignorance. After dinner, as I smoked on the steps leading up to the dining hall, she’d sit next to me, biting at her cuticles, encased in impenetrable anxiety and later in the night there’d be a post on her blog about how lonely and unloved she was. She wasn’t fishing for compliments there: she had the comment-function turned off. She wasn’t asking to be dissuaded; she was stating-as-fact.
I knew that feeling extremely well. It had been the only lover who hadn’t left me yet, so a part—a small part—of me could sympathize, but then another part of me—most of me—could only see red lipstick everywhere and hear Jason calling her fucking amazing. What was a shitball, anyway, and how could that possibly describe something good? How could he not see what I saw? The bile-stained fingers, the fresh scars spiraling their way up her arm, the tacit need for assurance and affirmation and the subsequent denial. It could be yes, he saw, as did the rest of them, and they all wanted to be saviors. Just like I had.
Delia, however, refused to let anyone help her, not even me, her best friend. I had no idea what she wanted. Love, she said, yet she had a boyfriend—I finally confirmed his existence by checking her phone one time when she went to refill her Diet Coke at dinner. There, saved, were hundreds of insipid texts to and from a Charlie, a tug-of-war of you-don’t-love-mes and yes-I-dos. Friends, she said, yet she had me, she had everyone reaching out to her. It was insulting. Hadn’t I pulled her from her room? Hadn’t I given her a social life? Hadn’t I given her what she constantly yearned for?
I wrote her a letter. Yes, a letter, to attack her with what she loved most: words. With a pen like an atom bomb, I chose my words with the sole purpose of hurting her. Because if she wouldn’t allow me to save her, then my only option was to destroy her. Because I was stronger. Because I could.
I told her she was weak, unappreciative, selfish, a dreamer who needed to get her head out of both the clouds and her ass. Her woe-is-me act was disgusting, and worse, banal. Find a rock, I finished in my slanty purple scrawl, and get over yourself.
After she left for class, I slipped the letter under her door and returned to my room. There, I pictured her reading the letter once over, while sitting on her bed. By the end, she’d feel tingly and flush, the bottom of her stomach dropping out. Then she’d read it again, trying to find the joke, since it was obviously a joke, right? Except it wasn’t funny and I did make some salient points. Unarguable points. She’d understand I was serious and she’d fling herself up the stairs to knock on my door with a trembling hand.
I waited for her, sneaking cigarettes, sipping on wine, ready to accept her apology and take her back as my friend on the condition that she stop acting like such a thankless martyr. That she actually appreciate me. She would nod and throw her arms around my neck, dripping tears and I’m-so-sorries onto my shoulder. She’d admit that she’d been taking me for granted and that I’m a better friend than she deserves. She’d thank me for helping her to see that.
By that point, the bottle of wine and my pack of Marlboro Lights were empty. The sky outside my window had turned from azure to indigo. I moved to turn on my desk lamp and check her blog. Surely she’d written something there.
I crept downstairs, pressed my ear to her door. I didn’t hear anything. Maybe she had taken a handful of her sleeping pills and passed out.
I needed more wine. Returning from the Kroger with three bottles of merlot, I saw her walking back from the library with Morgan, my friend. Morgan was my friend. Mine. They were huddled together, laughing. What were they laughing about? My letter? Me?
In her last taped interview, Marilyn begged the reporter not to make her a joke. In the end, the world made her a casualty. I would be neither. A director needed someone to direct. Actresses who refused to learn their lines got replaced. They were like ugly sweaters at Goodwill, anyway: plentiful and cheap. I would find someone else, someone better. I would make my mark.