On one of many occasions Greta Garbo visited her fellow actress Marilyn Monroe in her home town, the City of Angels. Greta, who lived in New York, flew to the West Coast, took a taxi at the airport, and rode home to Marilyn, who welcomed her in her usual fashion, barefoot in a simple dress. She often wore an apron too because she loved baking rolls for Greta, who kindled her passion for rolls. Greta said she had this effect on people; they wanted to bake and feed her all sorts of delicacies. Marilyn Monroe agreed because she had never had the urge to bake rolls for anyone else. She always loved to open a bottle of wine in the company of good friends so she could be at ease. But Greta wasn’t demanding company, she was absentminded and dreamy, always tired after flying, and got absorbed in gazing at little things around her: a statue of a naked boxer with a towel round his neck, a glass ashtray that reminded one of a fishbowl, a book on the coffee table.
It’s well known that both Greta and Marilyn had loved reading since they were little girls in their home towns of Los Angeles and Stockholm and had quite developed tastes. They shared a passion for literature and rolls. Marilyn offered Greta champagne, which Greta declined unless she happened to be visiting on a Saturday. Nothing suited Saturdays better than champagne after all the Saturday brunches in the years between the two wars. And now there was world peace, though she hadn’t forgotten anything or those many millions who had lost their lives. She would never stop grieving but sparkling wine brightens up numbed spirits.
“Tell me again, Marilyn, how many years are there between us?” Greta asked, holding a glass of champagne in one hand, as she turned the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses with the other. The book was a new special edition, finely printed with beautiful typography and an impressive cover.
“Oh, I don’t remember,” lied Marilyn, who was good at memorizing dates, years and birthdays, and she painted the rolls with egg yolk. She seldom forgot the birthdays of friends who had disappeared or those that she still in contact with.
She had been like that as far back as she could remember and Greta had asked the same question countless times and always received the same reply: “Oh, I don’t remember.” Her voice sounded innocent. Next she put the baking sheet of rolls in the oven, closed the door, took off the oven mitts and apron, filled the empty champagne glass, and walked toward Greta, who sat in one of the chairs in the sitting room with Ulysses in her lap. “There are about twenty-one years between us.” Marilyn said.
“Yes, of course.” Greta answered and asked, not for the first time, “Was I twenty when you were born?”
“Oh, how old will you be, my dear cinnamon stick, when I die?” asked Marilyn in a voice that was gentle yet full of mischief.
She placed her fingers on the film star’s shoulders and began to massage them.
“Now then, Marilyn,” Greta’s deep voice answered, “stop being so melodramatic. You remind me of a pessimistic Swede,” she added.
Marilyn laughed. It pleased her to resemble a pessimistic Swede. Her orphaned heart felt closer to her uncertain origins, a father of Norwegian descent whom she had never met. The fact that the actresses both had roots in Scandinavia somehow gave them the feeling that they had a mysterious connection because they ignored all talk about origins, nationality and family ties.
“We are free spirits in a world without boundaries,” Greta once retorted to a chain-smoking Danish reporter who had heard about the actresses’ friendship and wanted to interview them for an article on Nordic beauty to be published in a Danish nationalist newspaper.
“Beauty connects us,” Marilyn told the Dane, “inner beauty.” Now she massaged Greta’s shoulders and asked her:
“Can you smell the bread?” Greta nodded.
“Don’t you think I’m motherly and good to you?” Greta nodded.
“I want you to feel as if I’m your mother.”
“I do,” Greta answered, “You are like my American mother.”
“Good,” Marilyn said and thought to herself: American Mother, that’s a good title for a poem. Tomorrow I’ll write a poem called “American Mother.”
She stopped massaging her friend’s shoulders, kissed the back of her neck, and tiptoed over to the oven. She put on her apron, pulled on the oven mitts, opened the oven and drew out the tray of fragrant rolls.
Greta opened her green overnight case. Inside it were a little toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste, a nightgown, a silk scarf, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of tights, deodorant, a flaçon of perfume, a facecloth, a small towel, and an English copy of Egilssaga. She picked up the book and placed it on the table on top of Ulysses. Marilyn looked round and smiled. “Don’t you just adore this smell?” she asked.
“Yes,” Greta answered. She closed the case and went over to Marilyn.
Together they moved the rolls onto a pretty plate which had been bought on one of Marilyn’s trips to Mexico.
Greta: “The smell of the rolls blends well with your perfume.”
“Yes, I’m wearing Acqua de Parma, the perfume you gave me.”
“How nice,” Greta said, “I just love it when my gifts are appropriate.”
Marilyn kissed Greta’s cheek and said, “You are so sweet.” Then she took off the apron and oven mitts and carried the Mexican plate of rolls into the sitting room. They sat picnic style on the floor, which, instead of being green, was covered in a sand-colored carpet, luxuriously soft under their bare feet.
Greta, who was wearing loose-fitting jeans and a silk top, rolled up her pant legs as men did on picnics. Marilyn tied up her hair in a ponytail. She yawned and said something about feeling sleepy all the time. Greta said, “I am the same. If I’m not sleepy then there is something wrong with me.”
They ate several rolls and washed them down with champagne. Greta lay on her stomach and stretched out her long body. Marilyn curled up like a fetus with her hand under her cheek and gazed at Greta, who opened Egilssaga. They had got to the part where Egill, returning from a spectacular victory, wanted to marry Ásgerur. Greta began to read and Marilyn continued gazing. The sun over the Pacific Ocean cast its spears through a chink in the drapes on the large window and bathed the actresses’ feet in golden rays. Marilyn thought Greta read well and Greta thought the same about Marilyn. When the day drew to a close and the rolls had been eaten, they left the sitting room. They put on their pale green and pink nightdresses in the pink-tiled bathroom, washed off their face masks and brushed their teeth, then went into the bedroom, where they continued reading in bed under the lamp above the headboard.
Translation of “#14.” Copyright Kristín marsdóttir. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright Janice Balfour. All rights reserved.