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The Girl at Ocean Beach

Lucille Lang Day

Being lonely in the fog is more predictable.

In my head, Jeannette McDonald was singing, “San Francisco, open your Golden Gate!” I’d seen that movie as a kid, and at last I’d arrived. Although it’s been nearly sixty years since that Saturday afternoon in May 1954, I remember the day as clearly as the orange tulips I saw at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park last week, maybe more clearly, because I’ve thought about that day more than any other of my life. I’d rolled into San Francisco a couple of days earlier in my ’46 Ford Coupe. I drove out from Illinois after completing my Ph.D. in twentieth-century American poetry at Northwestern because I’d been hired to teach in the English Department at San Francisco State College, as it was then called. I was staying with friends while looking for an apartment, and they’d recommended that I visit Ocean Beach.

Standing on the sidewalk above the seawall, I watched huge waves rise and rush forward, then crash on the sand with a tumble of foam and a throaty roar. I felt exhilarated. Gulls wheeled overhead and periodically dove to peck at morsels on the beach. Some had gray wings and yellow legs; others were much darker. A chilly wind was blowing hard and fog was rolling in, dissolving the Cliff House, perched high above the northern end of the beach, in mist. I put my hands in my jacket pockets to warm them. A few people, fully clothed, were picnicking on the beach, and a couple of kids were running with kites. As I descended the stairs toward the beach, I spotted the girl. Sitting on the sand with her back to the wall, she was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a green wool jacket. A beige scarf covered her brown hair, and she was wearing sunglasses. A book lay beside her, and a notebook, in which she was writing, was propped on her knees.

I doubt I would have approached her, but a huge German shepherd started bounding toward her, apparently to retrieve a tennis ball. Having once been bitten on the leg by a similar creature on the shore of Lake Michigan, I feared for her safety, so I rushed down the remaining stairs and ran toward her, following the dog.

As she handed the ball to the dog and stroked its long nose, I felt flustered and ridiculous asking, “Are you okay?” She nodded. It was then that I noticed the cover of the slim book beside her on the sand: Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. Young and single, I also noticed that she was quite pretty.

The combination of a pretty girl and a book of poetry was too much to pass up. I held out my hand. “Jerry. May I join you?” I stammered. “I was worried about the dog,” I added, knowing this must sound lame. By now the dog was long gone, cavorting near the surf with a shoeless young man in tan slacks.

Tentatively taking my hand, she nodded again. “Jean.” She had clear skin and wore no makeup. I noticed a small beauty mark on her left cheek. She appeared to be in her early twenties.

I sat down beside her and picked up the book. “Do you like Sandburg?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said softly and earnestly. “I love poetry.”

I didn’t want to act like I was interrogating her, but I was eager to know more. “What other poets do you like?”

“Jeffers, Frost, Bishop, Eliot, Williams. I like them all!”

A thrill ran through me. I’d written my dissertation on the early poems of William Carlos Williams. This girl and I had things in common. “So do I. I’ll be teaching poetry at San Francisco State starting this fall.”

“Well, you must know a lot more about it than I do,” she said in a rush, sounding a bit embarrassed. “I’m just a fan.”

“Fans are good. Poets need fans.” I glanced at her open notebook. “Do you write poetry?”

“A little, but not seriously. I mean, it’s not any good.”

“May I see?”

She hesitated for a moment, but with a shy smile, she handed me the notebook, and I read:

Wind blows in from the sea

I feel lonely

In all this light

This was not first-rate poetry. “Wind blows in from the sea” is a mundane observation. “I feel lonely” is a bald statement that would best be developed through imagery or context. Nevertheless, I perceived a true poetic instinct in these three lines: the irregular, yet pleasing, meter; the long o in “blows” echoed in “lonely”; the repeated long e sounds in “sea,” “feel,” and “lonely”; and all those l’s in “blows,” “feel,” “lonely,” “all,” and “light.” There was moaning and keening in the o and e sounds, evoking loneliness and sorrow. Best of all was the unexpected “light” in the last line. “It’s lovely,” I said with all sincerity, handing the notebook back to her.

“Thank you. At first I was going to say ‘in all this fog,’ but I thought ‘light’ sounded nicer.”

“So do I. Being lonely in the fog is more predictable. Surprises are part of the joy of poetry.”

She smiled again, more openly this time, and it was a beautiful smile. I would not call her glamorous, but her smile was radiant.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” I asked. It was quite cold, and I felt even colder sitting still. When she hesitated, I explained, “It’s very cold just sitting here.”

After a few seconds of reflection, she said, “Okay,” putting the book and notebook in a small canvas bag, which she slipped over her arm. Then she stood and dusted herself off.

A brown pelican skimmed the waves, and shorebirds with short necks and long legs darted about on the sand. I believe they were plovers. As we walked, I thought of Frost’s sonnet “Once by the Ocean” and began reciting, “The shattered water made a misty din./Great waves looked over others coming in.”

“And thought of doing something to the shore,” Jean continued. “That water never did to land before.”

“Have you studied poetry?” I wondered aloud.

“A couple of night classes at UCLA. Mostly, I read it on my own.”

“Do you want to be a professional poet?”

“No. I’m not good enough. I want to be an actress.”

“A movie star?”

“No,” she said emphatically. “My goal is to be a real artist. To act on stage. I’d like to do Shakespeare.”

Plodding along the sand in icy wind, stepping over kelp stalks that looked like huge green snakes with bulbous heads and leafy hair, I couldn’t fathom why my friends thought I’d like to visit the beach on a day like this. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “I haven’t had lunch.”

“Me neither.”

I looked in the direction of Playland at the Beach, the amusement park across the street. I could see the top of the roller coaster from where I stood, and I pointed in its direction. “Let’s see what we can find.”

When we reached the top of the stairs, I said, “Why are you wearing sunglasses on this foggy day?”

“Just a habit, I guess,” she said, laughing, then took them off and looked at me intently. She had the most extraordinary blue eyes I’d ever seen. This was a very pretty girl, and I suddenly felt like I’d known her all my life. I wondered if she were my soul mate.

She put the glasses back on, and we proceeded across the street. I bought hot dogs and lemonade for both of us at a stand near the roller coaster, which I now saw was called the Big Dipper. We ate as we walked, stopping periodically to observe a ride or game.

“Do you live near here?” I hoped to see her again.

“No, I live in Los Angeles. My husband is from San Francisco. We’re visiting his sister.”

“Husband! You’re married?” I looked at her left hand. There was no ring.

“Yes,” she said softly, looking down. “We got married in January.”

“Well, he’s a very lucky man,” I said. My disappointment must have been palpable. “Why aren’t you wearing a wedding ring?”

“It was expensive. My husband doesn’t want me to wear it when I go out alone.”

“What kind of work does he do?” I was thinking he must be wealthy. Even so, I couldn’t imagine giving a woman such an expensive ring that she’d need someone to protect her whenever she wore it.

“He’s retired.”

“Retired? He must be a lot older than you.”  This revelation was even more painful for me than the first. She was married to an old geezer! “What does he do while you pursue your acting?”

“He wants me to quit and be a housewife. We fight about it.”

It was more than I could bear: this lovely young woman who loved poetry and wanted to be an actress was married to an old geezer who didn’t give a damn about her goals or fulfillment of her potential. He just wanted her all for himself. “Leave him,” I said strongly and unequivocally, as though I knew every detail of their lives.

“I do think about that.”

I started to tremble. I’d dated a few women, but I’d never been in love or even infatuated before. Serious and studious, I’d passionately loved only poetry, swooning over things like Williams’ red wheelbarrow, slick with rain, and Whitman’s lilacs blooming in the dooryard. Now, in less than half an hour, I’d gone from thinking I’d found the love of my life to learning that she was already married to someone who didn’t appreciate her and couldn’t possibly love her as much as I would. Perhaps her unavailability made me want her all the more. What was happening was so out of character for me that it was as though I’d become someone else. I’d not only never experienced love at first sight before, I’d never even believed in it. Yet against all logic and caution, I felt that I was the man this girl needed and deserved, and that I, and only I, could make her happy.

Any further talking, and I’d surely lose my mind. “Let’s go on some rides,” I suggested.

We went on the Caterpillar, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Roundup. We rode the merry-go-round and crashed into each other in the bumper cars. We went through the haunted house and down in the diving bell, which plunged into water that was too murky to reveal the promised sea creatures. I put my arm around her on the Big Dipper, and when she leaned into me, my heart raced more from her nearness than from the height of the roller coaster. We both screamed gleefully.

When twilight began to descend with hints of pink and orange glimmering through the fog over the sea, she said she had to get home, or her husband would be angry.

“I’ll give you a ride.”

“Thanks, but I can take the bus.”

I didn’t argue with her, knowing she wouldn’t want to be seen anywhere near her husband’s sister’s house in a car with another man, but as we walked toward the bus stop, I felt unable just to let her go. “Can I see you again?” I asked tentatively, not at all sure that this was a good idea, but at the same time longing for it to happen.

As I held my breath, she looked down at her left hand where the ring should have been. Finally, she looked back up and said, “Next week?” I nodded, and she took off her dark glasses again and looked into my eyes as the bus pulled up. At five-ten, I was about five inches taller than she. I leaned forward, and she kissed me on the mouth. It was neither a passionate kiss nor a platonic one, but a tender, romantic kiss that said she liked me and wanted to meet again. I had never felt such joy.

• • •

I was pretty sure that if I went back to the beach at the same time the following Saturday, she’d be there. That night, I told my friend Dave about her while his wife, Nancy, did the dishes. Dave and I had known each other since high school. He was a practical man who worked for an insurance company in San Francisco.

“Jerry, you’d be nuts to see her again,” he said. “Pretty girls who write poetry and want to be actresses are a dime a dozen in California, and most of them are single. When you start teaching, you’ll face whole lecture halls full of them. Forget Jean. If you get involved with her, you’re headed for trouble. She might break your heart. Worse yet, the geezer might kill you.”

I didn’t go back the next Saturday, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind, so I went back the Saturday after that and the next one and the next. She wasn’t there. I’d stood her up, and she’d given up on me. I never saw her again. I felt devastated, as though I’d lost an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. I didn’t blame Dave, though, because I knew his advice had been sound.

I thought about Jean often, but I got on with my life. Two years later, in the cafeteria at State, I met Laura, who was studying for her elementary teaching credential. The following year we married, and four years later our son Nathan was born. Laura and I did not have a bad marriage in those early years, but we fought like everyone does, and whenever we argued, I thought wistfully of Jean. What was she doing? Did she ever leave the geezer? Would I have been happier with her?

Nate was a year old when the news broke that Marilyn Monroe was dead, apparently a suicide. I would never have thought this concerned me in any way, but Laura started chattering endlessly about her: her name at birth was Norma Jean Baker. She wrote poetry and wanted to act on stage, to be Juliet and Lady Macbeth. She’d married Joe DiMaggio in 1954 and divorced him the same year. Egad! I thought. Could it be?

The thought seemed so outlandish, that at first I tried to brush it out of my mind, but it kept coming back, and eight years after the day at Ocean Beach, I finally faced the extraordinary truth: I’d stood up Marilyn Monroe. Oh God, what an idiot I was! I was so removed from popular culture that it had never occurred to me that the girl at Ocean Beach might be Marilyn Monroe. Of course, I had no way of proving this, and there was a chance that I was wrong. But I couldn’t convince myself either that Jean was not Marilyn Monroe or that she wouldn’t have returned. Forever after, I would think of myself as the man who stood up Marilyn Monroe.

I feared that if I told anyone, they’d think I was making it up or having delusions of grandeur, so I kept it to myself. I wondered myself if I were delusional, so I read all I could about her in hopes of finding some piece of evidence that would contradict my conclusion. Instead, everything I read affirmed my conviction that Jean was indeed Marilyn. I learned that she sometimes went out in disguise; a wig, dark glasses, and jeans were typical. DiMaggio was no geezer, but he’d retired from baseball in 1951 and was more than a decade older than Marilyn. The wedding ring he gave her contained thirty-five diamonds. What woman in her right mind would go to the beach alone wearing a million-dollar ring? He wanted her to quit acting and move to San Francisco, and they spent nearly two months there, staying with his sister, in April and May 1954.

When I watched reruns of her movies, I remembered her kiss and the way she leaned into me on the roller coaster, also her smile and her laugh, and it was hard not to weep. Once when I went to give a paper at UCLA, I visited her crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park and saw the six red roses that DiMaggio sent three times a week for twenty years. By then, I knew he’d had the habit of hitting her and had even given her a black eye after she filmed the skirt-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch. Even though I was only a lowly young academic when we met, I was sure she would have left him for a sensitive man like me. Thinking of her behind the cold stone, I bawled right there in front of the cemetery staff and a cluster of red-eyed fans.

Through the years, my inner life was totally different from what it would have been if I’d never met her. I was also different as both a husband and a father. I encouraged my wife and kids in whatever cockamamy pursuit took their fancy. When Laura wanted to take expensive tennis lessons, I said fine, and I shuttled Nathan and his younger brother, Ethan, to their own lessons and activities while she practiced. Nathan took a year off to travel through Europe after college, which turned into two years with time in India and Southeast Asia. I wired him money whenever he asked for it. When Ethan announced that he wanted to major in ceramics at Arizona State University, I said okay. Every time I said yes to their impractical dreams, I felt I was doing it for Marilyn. Despite the tennis lessons, Laura continued her career as a second-grade teacher until her retirement. Nathan eventually became an attorney, Ethan an accountant. They would all be shocked to know I indulged them for Marilyn Monroe.

My own career was ordinary. I published my book on Williams and got tenure, and I wrote occasional papers for scholarly journals. I taught at State for forty years. The legions of beautiful girls who wrote poetry and wanted to be actresses never materialized. I taught students of all races and ages, some of them bright, others as dull as San Francisco’s foggy summer sky.

I would gladly have given it all up for her. The best thing I could have done with my life would have been to love and protect her, to hold her at night when she couldn’t sleep, to listen to her doubts and help her fulfill her dream of acting on stage. If I’d gone back to the beach the day she said she’d be there, I don’t think she would have died of a drug overdose in 1962. I believe I could have saved her.

In saving her, perhaps I could have saved myself. Through the years, part of me died, bit by bit. Laura and I were done having sex by the time I was forty-five, but I rarely thought of sex when I thought of Marilyn. It was a different kind of daily life and companionship that I craved. Writing critical papers about poetry began to bore me, and Laura got on my nerves. I was better off not even talking to her, especially not about movies. After we saw Million Dollar Baby, I said, “What do you think was happening at the end?” She said, “Frankie and his daughter were meeting at the café,” and she was quite adamant about it. “That’s absurd,” I said. “If you’d been paying attention to the movie, you’d never say that.” What I was thinking was, You are a nitwit, and I should have left you long ago. Walking from the theater to the car, I looked at her. She kept repeating platitudes like “Everyone has a right to their own opinion.” She’d grown fat, and her gait was as slow as her mind.

When I saw My Week with Marilyn, I left Laura at home. I didn’t want to hear any of her inane pronouncements about that one! If I’d gone back to Ocean Beach that day, Clark would have had no week with Marilyn. She would never have married Miller, and I would have been with her when she went to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl. I would not have left her there as Miller did, and I would have handled any troubles with Olivier myself. I wasn’t there. That is my failure.

My life changed the day I went to Ocean Beach, and it changed again the day I didn’t go back. It’s not easy to live most of one’s life with a secret. For years, I considered telling my friend Dave but always decided against it. He’d have thought I was pulling his leg. “Hey, Dave, you remember that girl you told me not to meet again at Ocean Beach? Well, I’ve figured out that she was Marilyn Monroe…” A likely story! Anyhow, it’s too late now: Dave died long ago. As for therapy, I’ve never seriously considered it. I don’t think therapists know any more than I do. Besides, I don’t have a psychological problem. This isn’t an obsession or delusion or anything like that.

Every night I still fall asleep thinking of her, and every morning I wake with her image before me, not as she appeared in publicity shots, but in the beige scarf and brown wig, reciting “Once by the Ocean” as we walked along the beach, or laughing as our Tilt-A-Whirl car swung round and round.

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