I thought I saw Marilyn today. She was standing just a few feet from me, her pink lips breaking into a smile, the skin around her eyes crinkling like tissue paper. It was her eyes that caught me, off guard, just the way they had all those years ago. Soft and grey-blue, like the unbroken surface of a lake in mid-summer then suddenly, a laugh, a whisper and a glimpse of the wildness underneath rippling through the stillness. She has changed of course but then, haven’t we all? Time is a killer.
We met her in Beijing. There were three of us, filling in a university summer backpacking in the Far East. Mike, the mouthy one with his golden tan and dark blonde hair, John, the clown, and me, Jack Kerouac under my arm and a postcard of Mao tucked into my back pocket. She was just another drifter. Dyed blonde hair and fading Henna tattoo snaking up her arm, desperate to be liked, leaning in to listen, running at the slightest request to get a guide book or map to show the best route, the cheapest shops, the most authentic this or that. Nobody cared of course, nobody except me.
Beijing in March. I remember it still. The moment we stepped off the plane the icy greyness surrounded us, sky the colour of steel, a breeze that seemed to pierce to the very marrow of our being. Beijing was a city of smog back then, cracked pavements, roads thronged with roaring traffic, old men hawking up phlegm in the back of their throat and spitting it onto the street with a resounding smack. We were out of our depth in a country we couldn’t understand but, adventurers all, were determined to love it.
Marilyn, travelling alone, was almost a hostel fixture by the time we arrived, considering a train journey down to Tianjin, on first name terms with the staff. Then again, perhaps not, perhaps it was all show too. It was hard to tell with Marilyn – those unreadable eyes. She certainly jumped at the chance to pal around with us, relishing her role as travel guide and perhaps feeling accepted for once, as if we hadn’t noticed her accent, the cheapness of her clothes.
I remember so clearly even now, that night in the common room in the hostel we stayed in, mismatched furniture in a low ceilinged room with a bare hardwood floor and worn out rugs. She was beside me, lazing on a couch, near the heater, her bare legs dangling down the side the chair. A new group had arrived that day, Americans, loud and full of themselves with a girl amongst them –a girl with bright eyes and dark hair, a new challenge for Mike who was so easily bored.
I remember Marilyn had a sketch pad with her that night, she brought it with her everywhere, fingertips always smudged with charcoal, staring at people, at buildings as if she wanted to absorb them whole. It was the same intense look she had that night as she watched that boisterous American group from across the room, lost in her thoughts. “Draw me,” I said, breaking her spell, calling her back to me. She looked over the sketch book at me, appraising me for a moment then “Okay,” with a smile. She leaned back against the couch, biting her lower lip as she worked. “You look so serious,” she admonished playfully. I laughed and snapped her pad away, making her shriek in mock outrage as she leapt after it “I haven’t finished! It’s not ready!” But she had for there I was evermore, a muddle of dusty black, round glasses and unkempt hair. I studied it, feeling her breath on my ear, the weight of her arm leaning on my shoulder, “Do you like it?”
I nodded, “Yeah, it’s great, really good” and she smiled at my enthusiasm, taking the drawing back, unfurling herself across the couch, languidly stretching her legs over my lap, like a cat. “I always wanted to be an artist you know,” she said stretching her thin, ballerina limbs, “Living in a garret surrounded by my paintings.”
“Why don’t you? You’re really good.”
She absent mindedly dropped the pad onto the floor and shrugged, not answering. “What about you?” she asked after a moment, “What you goinga do when you get back home?”
Home was university, parents, a job in the city, a wife, a mortgage, 2.4 kids and a two week holiday in the South of France every year.
“I’m going to be a writer,” I revealed. Saying it there, to her in that gloomy, little room made it seem somehow real, possible. Beijing dreams.
“Cool,” she said, nonchalant, “You won’t forget me? When you’ve made your millions and I’m just a starving artist in my garret?”
“Of course not,” I was confidential, cosy.
“I think you’ll be a brilliant writer you know? I’ve seen you, always scribbling. Hey, maybe you could write about me!” She sat up and spread her arms dramatically as she spoke, as if addressing the hordes of adoring fans below us on the dusty, dull floor. “You could write about how you knew me before I became a celebrated artist with exhibitions all over the world, in Paris and New York and…”
She was cut off by a roar of success from across the room where Mike was playing cards with the Americans. They were all together now over there, laughing and joking, already we were set apart.
“And you won’t forget me?” I asked her, now so suddenly quiet, and she looked back to me, her eyes clear and still. “No, no, I won’t ever forget you,” she lied softly, smiling that sweet, fake smile.
To think of it now, our youthful bluster, unsure confidence. Was that really me? She unnerved me completely. I remember the goose pimples on her thin, white arms in the chilly, spring air that final evening, the red of her lips, the pinched pinkness of her cheeks. We were at the Night Market, rows of canopied stalls selling strange and wonderful delicacies, fried ants, skewered snake, starfish ready to be crunched under strong jaws. “I dare you to try one,” she whispered then squealed with delight and pulled me away with a laugh as I moved forward to accept her challenge. The sky above was the colour of spilt ink, neon signs flashing pinks and blues onto our faces as we breathed in those intoxicating woody, smoky smells. Black hot plates spat and sizzled under jets of dark gold oil, worn traders cajoled us as we peered at their wares, tireless chefs deftly shovelled unknown meats onto white polystyrene plates ready for hungry mouths. We lost the others in the crowd but didn’t care as we ate chilli beef, the spices igniting our mouths. Her breath was a soft cloud in the cold night and her lips, burning red and slightly swollen.
“Oh look,” she said pulling at my arm, “look Pete – they have scorpions on sticks, isn’t it horrible?” she turned to me, grimacing, her eyes bright, intrigued by the array of mysterious foods, jostled by the crowd,. “Let’s try some! She announced dramatically. “Come on, I dare you.”
She turned and began to forward, but still so very close. I felt my hand slide into hers, felt the warmth of her skin on mine, the gentle probing of her fingers in my palm.
“Yes,” I began. “Let’s…” Then a shout from Mike, or was it John, and it was gone, a moment lost as we turned, her hand slipping from mine, pulling away as we saw our friends beaming at us through the crowds.
I was wrong of course. It wasn’t her I saw today. Just a woman with grey-blue eyes. I smiled at her as she moved past me, feeling old and foolish and disappointed. For just a moment you see, I was that boy again, full of ideals and dreams, feeling the gentle touch of another’s fingers close around mine.