Marilyn 1200 1600 Don J. Rath

He calls her Marilyn now.

Ever since the diagnosis, His memory has slipped. At first, it was little things, like the poached eggs. He had made her breakfast every morning since the day they returned from their honeymoon in Nashville thirty-four years ago. She always ate the same thing. Two scrambled eggs, one piece of lightly buttered wheat toast, a half-glass of OJ, and a black coffee. After making 24,820 eggs (less sixty-eight, because on His birthday she wouldn’t let him cook), it was inconceivable He would change anything. But He did, one Tuesday morning when it was raining hard, and the newspaper had soaked through the plastic bag, the black ink running over the headlines, so it was impossible to tell if Congress had passed the Medicare or the Methadone Expansion Act. She stared at the runny yolk and hard crust and asked Him what had happened.

“Nothing,” He said. “The usual.”

First, it was the little things He forgot. The two overdue library books He was supposed to return but never did. The purple fuzzy slippers that were two sizes too small and identical to the ones He’d bought a week before. But last month, the bank returned a check for a payment on a mortgage that they’d paid off two- and-a-half years before. He’d blamed it all on her. She wondered what she would do with Him if His memory got worse.

And then there was Marilyn.

“What’s wrong with the eggs, Marilyn? Overcooked?”

She knew no Marilyn and couldn’t remember Him ever mentioning a woman by that name. She tried correcting Him at first. He would nod and smile a bit, trying to hide His embarrassment. Then ten minutes later, He’d do it again.

It wasn’t just the name. It was the way He said it. Mar-rah-lynnnnnnn. It rolled off his tongue like a sliver of chocolate, the sweetness of it making Him smile, His eyes a bit teary, like He remembered someone He had once cherished, then somehow lost. Marilyn was more than a passing acquaintance. She must have been someone He once loved.

She never asked about the relationships He had before they were married. She never saw the point. But she couldn’t help but wonder when suddenly He started calling her by that name as if Marilyn were the only woman in the world to Him. The thanks she got for thirty-four years of marriage.

Though she had never met the woman, at least not that she knew of, she imagined Marilyn as a looker, a ruby-lipped, hip-swinging hussy who walked like she was dancing the cha-cha. She probably hadn’t always dressed that fancy. Maybe she grew up poor, shared a bedroom with four sisters, and went to bed hungry some nights. Only when she discovered how to manipulate men into buying things for her did she start to come up in the world. Got her hair done once a week. Shortened her skirts and bought one of those push-up bras that make your boobs pop like birthday balloons. For the price of a pair of spread legs, persuaded a rich man from Manhattan to spring for a real fur coat, one of those Stone Martin jobs.

So by the time she met Him, Marilyn could pass herself off as a real lady. Then she put Him under her spell, and did things to Him that he would never forget. Even thirty-four years later.

Why did she obsess about her so much?

She could hear Him in the room next door, talking to That Woman, the one who came once a week and sometimes helped her bathe. Once, He told her That Woman was their daughter and upset her so. She threw the plate of spaghetti and meatballs at him and watched the stringy noodles and marinara sauce drip down the violet-painted wall of their bedroom. So ridiculous. Like she wouldn’t remember if they’d had a child!

“How is she today?” That Woman said.

“The same.”

“Did she eat this morning?” she said.

“Not a bite. Didn’t touch her eggs.”

“She needs to eat,” That Woman said. “She’s getting so thin.”

“Marilyn was never that big, to begin with,” He said. “She’ll be fine.”

There was a long pause in their conversation.

“Don’t you think it’s time?” That Woman said. “How long can you deal with this? Not eating. The fit she threw when you replaced those ratty slippers. That silly thing with the bank and the mortgage.”

“No,” He said. “It’s not time. Not yet.”

She never liked That Woman. That Woman always made Him talk about her like she wasn’t in the same house. Like she couldn’t hear every goddamn word they said through the violet wall. She wondered how long it would be before That Woman made her move on Him.

But she wouldn’t let Him go so easily. She still remembered how to get his attention. She walked over to the mirror and pinned up her hair, just the way He liked it. She brushed her lips with the lipstick that matched the violet wall. She rubbed the white moisturizing cream into the thin crevices of her wrinkled cheeks and practiced her best smile.

Tonight she would make love to him. And tonight, just to make him happy, she would pretend to be Marilyn.

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