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Chinese New Year Stories

Happy Chinese New Year!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

2021. Year of the Ox. I just made a new outgoing message for my answering machine, which reminded me of the true story about an outgoing message I made in 1983. I thought you might enjoy this story if you haven’t read it before or even if you have.

*

I was one of the last adults in America to get an answering machine to go with my phone, and I only got one in 1983 because my Hollywood agent said he wouldn’t represent me if I didn’t have an answering machine. That Hollywood agent went on to become a very powerful person in the entertainment world, but not before he dropped me as a client. Clearly, I was holding him back.

In those early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the message lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every few days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of things going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the internet, which was not very long ago but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a neato person walking on the beach with an adorable dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap, I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and the billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.

Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment, of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day I made that message was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.

Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.

A poet called from Germany. After listening to my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.

People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”

An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”

A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.

 A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled and one kid shouted, “You a silly poo poo!”

A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”

I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month or so until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.

I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.

Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.

Happy Birthday, Darling

*

Speaking of tender fearlessness, my two new books of stories Little Movies tales of love and transformation and Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories are now widely available in paperback and as e-books. You can order copies of the paperbacks from your local bookstore or from various online sources, and e-books from all the various e-book sites. Your reviews are much appreciated.

Here are some viable links.

Bookshop.org

Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino

Amazon

iTunes Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo Books

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Friendship Dialogues #3

This is the sequel to Friendship Dialogues #2.

Mark is about to jump on his bike and ride the mile through a neighborhood connecting Berkeley and Oakland to Marlene’s house to help Marlene walk her neighbor’s two large dogs when the phone rings. He almost doesn’t pick up, but he does, and the caller is Bernice.

We should explain that the pandemic is still raging, Mark is sixty-four, Marlene is sixty and French, and Bernice is fifty-seven. Bernice and Mark had five dates before they gave up on trying to forge a relationship and decided to be friends. And in the course of pursuing a friendship with Bernice, Mark became friends with Marlene who is Bernice’s closest friend. And yesterday, Mark walked the aforementioned two large dogs with Marlene for the first time, which was also the first time he’d done something with Marlene without Bernice being there, too.

Bernice: Hi Mark. It’s Bernice.

Mark: Hey, I’m just going out the door to go walk the giant dogs again with Marlene.

Bernice: I know. That’s what I’m calling about.

Mark: You gonna join us?

Bernice: Well… I wasn’t going to, but… would you like me to?

Mark: Sure.

Bernice: Well, I can’t, but I’m glad you asked me.

Mark: Is something wrong?

Bernice: No, I just… so did you have fun yesterday?

Mark: Big fun. The dogs are great and Marlene made us delicious sandwiches and very strong black tea. She’s a kick. It’s easy to see why she’s your best friend.

Bernice: Oh good.

Mark: You want to talk later today when I get back?

Bernice: Yeah, that would be great. Call me.

Mark: I will.

Bernice: Okay. Bye.

Mark: Bye.

*

Eschewing his bike for his car because he’s running late now, Mark surmises Bernice is upset and possibly jealous about him meeting with Marlene yesterday. He makes this surmise because Bernice has already expressed her fear that he is attracted to Marlene and Marlene is attracted to him; and so he is very glad not to be entangled in a relationship with Bernice because he’s been in relationships with jealous partners before, they were routinely unfaithful to him, and the last thing he wants is a repeat of that kind of experience.

*

Marlene is waiting for Mark in front of her house, and as he pulls into her driveway he marvels at his good fortune to be spending time with such a charming woman. He puts on his mask before getting out of his car, and Marlene puts on her mask, too, though not before she greets him with an exuberant, “Bon Jour Mark. I’m so happy to see you again.”

*

After their three-mile jaunt with Juno and Chico, Marlene and Mark return the big dogs to Marlene’s grateful neighbor Jacqueline who is awaiting hip-replacement surgery, and Mark sits at the big round glass-topped table on Marlene’s backyard patio. He and Marlene converse through the open kitchen door as she prepares their tea and lunch, Mark’s reward for helping Marlene walk Jacqueline’s dogs.

After they discuss the highlights of their walk with Juno and Chico, Marlene brings out mugs of black tea, sits on the other side of the table from Mark, and they remove their masks.

Marlene: I made a chicken casserole today. It will be ready in just a few minutes.

Mark: I’m in no hurry.

Marlene: I’m not either.

Mark: I have momentous news, Marlene.

Marlene: About Bernice?

Mark: No. I have no news about Bernice.

Marlene: She didn’t call you last night?

Mark: No, she called this morning as I was going out the door to come here and I said I’d call her when I got home. Is she okay?

Marlene: I think so. I shouldn’t speak for her.

Mark: About?

Marlene: Oh it’s complicated. Tell me your news.

Mark: My news is… I am no longer an editor of other people’s prose.

Marlene: (startled) You quit your job?

Mark: I did. Emboldened by your encouraging words, I called the publisher, who is my very good friend, and told him the time had come. He was disappointed but understanding, and he’s giving me a generous severance package in thanks for my thirty years of service to the company.

Marlene: Oh Mark I’m so glad for you. Ah, there’s my alarm for the casserole. Congratulations. I will serve lunch now.

Marlene goes into the house and returns with two plates of food. When she is seated again, Mark raises his mug to her.

Mark: Here’s to you for urging me to do what I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. And to our new friendship.

Marlene raises her glass and they drink. Now they each take a bite of the casserole.

Mark: Fantastic.

Marlene: I used coconut oil instead of butter for you.

Mark: Thank you. I’m so grateful to you for… wanting me to be happy. An enormous weight has been lifted from my weary shoulders.

Marlene: (hesitates) Mark, I need to tell you something.

Mark: About Bernice?

Marlene: Yes. She came over yesterday afternoon and asked about our visit. I told her it was fun for both of us and you were coming again today, and she wanted to know every detail. I mentioned you cried because you were happy to be coming here every day to walk the dogs and visit with me, and she said she was a fool not to start a relationship with you and was going to call you and tell you so.

Mark: What did you say to that?

Marlene: I said I thought she wanted to be friends with you first, and she got very angry with me and said she knew I was interested in you, and I said, “I would rather have nothing to do with him than endanger my friendship with you,” and she said, “Then call him and tell him not to come tomorrow.” And I said, “You’re acting crazy, Bernice. What’s wrong? Tell me.” And she burst into tears and apologized and said she was upset because she knew you needed to be in a relationship now, not someday, and she wanted to try with you. So I said, “Tell him.” And she said she was going to call you right away, but she didn’t until this morning, and you still came over so I thought you and she had come to a new understanding.

Mark: I’ve certainly come to a new understanding. I don’t see any solution to this except for me to withdraw entirely from our nascent quartet of friends, though I love knowing you and Angela. I have no interest in disrupting your troika and even less interest in being in a relationship with Bernice. She’s betrayed my trust too many times now. I’ve been involved with such people before, but never again.

Marlene: I’m so sorry, Mark. I like you so much. I just… Bernice has been my best friend for twenty-five years.

Mark: I understand. (gets up) Your casserole is delicious but I cannot stay. I think you’re marvelous, and I’m sad and angry we won’t get to be friends, you and I, but that’s how life goes sometimes. Bon chance.

Marlene: Bon chance.

*

Mark drives home in a daze of anger and sorrow, and without waiting to calm down he calls Bernice and recounts what Marlene told him.

Bernice: Everything she said is true. I’m ready to be in a relationship with you, Mark. Shall I come over now?

Mark: No. I never want to to see you again. You pulled the football away one too many times, if you get my Lucy and Charlie Brown reference. I don’t trust you. You’re not a good friend. And I don’t want to intrude on your bubble with Marlene and Angela. We gave it a try, it didn’t work. Have a good life.

*

Six weeks later, on a balmy morning in early May, Mark is in his front yard fertilizing his rose bushes when Marlene comes walking by with Juno on a leash. Marlene is masked, her hair in a ponytail, and she’s wearing shorts and T-shirt and running shoes. Juno is eager to say hello and drags Marlene closer to Mark so he can pet the friendly dog.

Mark: Bon jour, Marlene. What brings you to this neck of the woods?

Marlene: I was just passing by and here you are.

Mark: A new route through the metropolis for you and Juno?

Marlene: No. (struggles) I wanted to see you, but I was afraid to call, so… maybe I would have just gone by, but here you are so…

Mark: Here I am. What did you want to see me about?

Marlene: Well… um… there have been some big changes in my life and I thought I would see if you wanted to resume our friendship… not involving Bernice, of course, because… (starts to cry) my friendship with her has changed and we are no longer in a bubble together.

Mark: I’m sorry to hear that.

Marlene: No, I think it’s better this way. It’s a long story. I won’t bore you if you would rather not engage with me again.

Mark: I’m dying to hear what happened. Want some tea?

Marlene: (crying) Yes, please.

*

They sit on Mark’s backyard terrace, Juno sitting obediently beside Marlene. Mark serves tea and oatmeal raisin cookies, and when he is seated the requisite eight feet from Marlene, they remove their masks.

Marlene: It always feels so good to take off my mask.

Mark: Good for me, too. I’m always pleased to see you nose and mouth and cheeks.

Marlene: So… how does it feel not to be editing murder mysteries?

Mark: By turns strange and marvelous and frightening and exhilarating. Mostly exhilarating.

Marlene: What have you been doing with your days?

Mark: After being in shock for a couple weeks following the denouement of my connection to your troika, I’ve been on a sorting and cleaning binge, throwing out lots of old stuff, selling things, getting ready for whatever comes next. Maybe sell the place. I don’t know. I’m in a pleasant kind of free fall. But enough about me. What happened with Bernice?

Marlene: Well I was in shock, too, after the denouement of our friendship, and Angela and Bernice and I had many long talks about what happened, and I went to see my therapist several times. And I realized that in a subtle but pervasive way, Bernice has always controlled our troika to suit her purposes. Not consciously, but because of the particular interlocking neuroses of our trio. She’s had many short-lived relationships in the last twenty years, while Angela has only had three, and I none. Bernice lived how she wanted to live, and we conformed to her patterns. And whenever either us deviated from what Bernice wanted, she became upset or depressed or terribly needy or she acted out as she did when she feared you and I were becoming friends and might… I don’t know… like each other too much.

Mark: She’d done this before?

Marlene: Not this exactly because I haven’t been close friends with a man who isn’t gay in twenty years. But similar. And Angela realized that the three men she was in relationships with all ended those relationships to pursue Bernice, though she says she didn’t encourage them. But she must have.

Mark: She’s reflexively seductive. As were my two wives. It’s not malicious. They simply know no other way to be.

Marlene: It is, as you say, her habit. And it was also her way of keeping us wedded to her, seducing us again and again with her charm and her need to be comforted and adored.

Mark: Quite a revelation.

Marlene: Yes, and Bernice sees it all quite clearly now and says she wants to change.

Mark: You and Angela were her enablers.

Marlene: Yes. And I might never have seen this if I hadn’t allowed myself to… to spend time with you and then Bernice reacted so violently to our liking each other.

Mark: What is your new arrangement with her?

Marlene: We are still friends, but we won’t see each other much for the next six months at least, and longer if it seems a good thing to continue not being so intimate.

Mark: And you and Angela are still in a bubble together?

Marlene: Yes, and we are encouraging each other to look outside our bubble for new friends now that we know Bernice cannot interfere.

Mark: And you’d like to resume your friendship with me.

Marlene: Very much.

Mark: I accept.

Marlene: You do?

Mark: I do.

Marlene: (crying) Oh thank you, Mark. This makes me very happy.

Mark: (crying) Me, too.

Marlene: I should go. Get Juno home.

Mark: Shall we go on a walk tomorrow?

Marlene: Yes. If you come to my house at eleven, we can have lunch after we walk Juno.

Mark: Sounds divine.

Marlene: What would you like for lunch?

Mark: I never did get more than a bite of your fabulous chicken casserole.

Marlene: (smiles) Tomorrow I promise you more than a bite.

fin

A Wedding Song

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Friendship Dialogues #2

This is the sequel to Friendship Dialogues #1.

Mark is sixty-four, a book editor and denizen of a neighborhood where Berkeley morphs into Oakland. Though the pandemic rages on, he has embarked on a friendship with Bernice, who is fifty-seven, and with Bernice’s closest friends Angela, sixty-three, and Marlene, sixty. He thinks of Bernice as his primary friend in the troika of women friends, and has yet to imagine spending time with either Angela or Marlene without Bernice in the mix.

So he is initially surprised and subsequently pleased when on a cold cloudy morning in March he gets a call from Marlene, who is French, asking if he’d like to go on a walk with her.

“I walk my neighbor’s dog Juno every day,” she explains, “because Jacqueline, my neighbor, needs a new hip and cannot walk very far, and now she is dog sitting her daughter’s dog Chico who is young and big, and Juno is big, too, and the two dogs are too much for me, so I thought perhaps you would like some exercise and could help me.”

“I’d be happy to,” says Mark, who finds Marlene delightful. “When do you envision this walk happening?”

“Now?” she says, laughing. “I’m sorry for such short notice, but I just thought of you and got your number from Bernice and called you.”

“I can be there in twenty minutes,” he says, ever amazed by the exigencies of fate.

“Perfect,” she says. “They say it might rain, but I don’t think so.”

*

Juno, it turns out, is a very large five-year-old half Saint Bernard, half Golden Retriever, friendly and well trained. Chico, still growing at eleven months, is even bigger than Juno. Half Great Dane and half Black Lab, Chico is formidably strong and barely trained at all.

Fortunately, Chico immediately likes Mark, and Mark keeps him on a short firm leash, which Chico also seems to like. So Marlene handles Juno, who she’s known since Juno was a puppy, Mark handles Chico, and they take the dogs on a brisk three-mile jaunt with two poop stops for each dog, and a few pissing stops, too.

When they get back to Marlene’s and return the dogs to Jacqueline, Marlene invites Mark to have tea and sandwiches on her patio.

Mark: I’d love to, Marlene, but rain is imminent and I am not allowed inside your house.

Marlene: Yes, you are. If it starts to rain you can come in my kitchen and we will leave the door and windows open.

Mark sits at a large round table on Marlene’s patio adjacent to her lily pond. Warm from their walk and comfy in his down jacket and wool pants, he converses with Marlene through the sliding glass door of her kitchen.

Marlene: Do you like avocado and bacon together?

Mark: Love them. I’m avoiding dairy these days, though not eggs, and I eat meat.

Marlene: I love this combination of bacon and avocado. I have buckwheat bread without gluten for you and I will have my French bread. Lettuce and mustard and mayonnaise. It will be delicious.

Mark: I’m drooling in anticipation.

Marlene: Did you enjoy walking the dogs? It was fun. Yes?

Mark: It was great. I love those dogs. Makes me want to get one, only I’d probably get something a little smaller.

Marlene: I’m so glad you love them because Jacqueline has Chico for another week and I could use your help if you have the time. I will make you a good lunch every day to thank you.

Hearing her say this, Mark is moved to tears. Marlene comes out with their sandwiches and finds Mark crying.

Marlene: (concerned) Are you okay, Mark?

Mark: Yes, I’m fine. I just… I’m happy to know that for the next week I’ll be walking the dogs with you and having lunch with you and doing something I want to do and not being alone working at a job I hate. It’s a mitzvah getting to be with you every day. A gift.

Marlene: A gift for me, too. I’ll get the tea.

She goes back inside and Mark has another cry before Marlene returns with the tea tray.

Mark: I feel like I’m on the French Riviera. In winter.

Marlene sits across the table from him, she pours their tea, and they remove their masks.

Marlene: Have you ever been to the French Riviera?

Mark: No. I’ve never been to Europe.

Marlene: (surprised) Why not? You seem so sophisticated. I would have guessed you’ve been many times.

Mark: I’ve rarely had much money beyond survival expenses, and the few times I did have a little extra, going to Europe was not high on my list.

Marlene: What was high on your list, if I may ask?

Mark: Buying my son a car before he left for college. Buying him a guitar. Taking the train across Canada to visit a friend in Nova Scotia. Getting a new roof for my house. But even so, I still feel like I’m on the French Riviera.

Marlene: I haven’t traveled much in the last ten years. Now that my parents are gone, I have no reason to go back to France. When I was in the movie business I traveled so much it was not my idea of a holiday. But I have been many times to the French Riviera and this is exactly like it. I designed my backyard as a replica of the Riviera.

Mark: You’re kidding.

Marlene: No, they have lily ponds everywhere on the Riviera. (laughs) Yes, I’m kidding.

Mark: Were you ever in a movie? Surely some director would have wanted you enhancing a scene or two.

Marlene: I could have been, but I said No. It was important to me to be recognized for my work, not for being attractive. I was very proud of myself for my success in a field where men are so dominant, and yet I only made two movies I even like a little. I’m not ashamed, but I don’t like to dwell in that unhappy past.

Mark: What made it unhappy?

Marlene: I told you. The movies I worked on were shameful. Big budget thrillers. Not a meaningful line in any of them. And the last film I worked on was a very big science-fiction movie. I was contracted to make four of those movies. But when the first one was done, I was done, too, and it took me many years to recover.

Mark: From that one movie or the sum total of the movies you made?

Marlene: The sum total. A good way to say it.

Mark: I’m sorry.

Marlene: It was a long time ago. Seventeen years. Now I design sets for Bernice’s plays, and I even wield a hammer and saw, you know, and make little worlds for the actors to play in. It makes me happy even if the plays are like television shows now. It’s fun, and the people are wonderful. (muses) I haven’t talked about my movies in a long time. I was surprised to hear the bitterness in my voice. I thought I was done with all that.

Mark: Bitter memories bring their bitterness to the surface when we unearth them.

Marlene: Yes, but it was a long time ago and I have done good therapy about it, so…

Mark: I’ve read a number of books about neuroscience, and it seems our brains record everything that ever happens to us, and those recordings contain the emotions associated with those memories. So even though you’ve made peace with those bitter times, your memories of working on those movies still trigger bitterness. I guess the trick is not reattaching to those feelings so they can dissipate.

Marlene: I think so. And since I met you, I’ve been letting go of my bitter feelings about men. That’s why I called you. Before I met you I would never have called a man to help me. But you changed my idea of what a man can be, so I asked you for help, and I’m glad I did.

Mark: How have I changed your idea of what a man can be?

Marlene: In many ways. You are not condescending. You are a good listener. You don’t just look at me as someone for sex or not for sex. You share your feelings. You cry. You tell the truth. You don’t hide behind a false persona. You don’t monopolize the conversation. You’re very kind. And you make excellent guacamole.

Mark: These are all firsts for you vis-à-vis a man?

Marlene: Not all firsts for me, but the first time they have been true of the same man who is not gay.

Mark: Bernice says I’m her first male friend who isn’t gay.

Marlene: Well because you know how to be a friend. Most men don’t even know how to be friends with other men, and they don’t have a clue about how to relate to a woman as a whole person. To be good friends, we have to be vulnerable to each other, and men are not supposed to be vulnerable because that is a feminine attribute, and for a man to be feminine is to verge on being gay. I know it’s not politically correct, but I think many men choose to be gay because then they can be vulnerable and share their feelings and not always have to be ready to fight.

Mark: There’s a reason men are the way they are. It’s how we’re shaped by our culture.

Marlene: Yes, but somehow you avoided this shaping. No?

Mark: No, I didn’t. I used to look at women with sex in mind, and still do sometimes. And until fifteen years ago I’d never shared my emotional self with anyone except my best friend Harry who was gay. Never cried in front of anyone. And from twelve to fifty I tried out all sorts of false personas to see if any of them might work better than who I really am.

Marlene: And did they?

Mark: In the short term, sometimes. Got me laid a few times. Got me a job or two. But I never could keep up the pretense. I’m a terrible liar.

Marlene: I’m surprised. You seem so authentic to me.

Mark: I’m glad. I feel I am now. And I’ve always been a good listener. I find other people fascinating. I’ve always liked helping other people, and I’ve always loved to cook. It was how I connected with my mother, though I didn’t master guacamole until a few years ago when I was determined to match the guacamole of my favorite Mexican restaurant.

Marlene: What happened fifteen years ago?

Mark: I went into therapy with a Buddhist psychologist who helped me be okay with who I am.

Marlene: A woman?

Mark: Yes, and that was key.

Marlene: Why?

Mark: Because I needed her feminine energy as much I needed her insight and compassion. I needed to be loved for who I am by a woman. And though she didn’t love me romantically, she loved me in ways I’d never been loved by anyone, even my mother. And I think that’s what most men lack in their lives. Strong women who love us but don’t take any shit from us and encourage us to be fully ourselves, even if that means being frightened and anxious and vulnerable.

Marlene: You found a good teacher.

Mark: I found a good teacher.

Marlene: Do you meditate every day?

Mark: I do a stretching routine every morning before I shackle myself to my desk, and at the end of the stretching I sit for twenty minutes in hope of quieting the chattering mind, though I’m not often successful.

Marlene: I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but I think it would be good for you to quit your job as soon as you can. It can’t be good for you to do something you hate day after day, year after year. Do you really need the money so much? And if you do, maybe there is something else you could do besides a job you hate.  

Mark: I think I need the money so much until I’m sixty-six and Social Security kicks in, but maybe I don’t. I think I don’t yet have enough to safely retire, but maybe I do. I appreciate your suggestion to re-examine my situation.

Marlene: I just keep hearing how much you dislike your work, and I don’t want you to keep suffering. You’re a good person, Mark. You deserve a happier life.

Mark: Now I may cry again.

Marlene: That’s okay. I might cry with you.

The rain begins to fall.

Mark: I think I won’t come in. I really need to get back to work.

Marlene: Shall we say another dog walk tomorrow at eleven o’clock?

Mark: I’ll be here barring a tempest.

*

When Mark gets home from Marlene’s, he makes a cup of coffee, sits down at his desk, and resumes editing a murder mystery he’s been working on for a month and is nearly done with. As he methodically works his way through the last few pages of the laughably unoriginal whodunit, he thinks of Marlene saying, “It can’t be good for you to do something you hate day after day, year after year. Do you really need the money so much?”

After changing the last confusing he to the name of the detective, Mark puts down his pen, gets up from his desk, walks into his living room, gazes out his window at the rain, and hears Marlene saying, “You’re a good person, Mark. You deserve a happier life.”

And he decides he is done being a book editor.

“Unless,” he adds, speaking to the rain, “it’s my own book.”

fin

One Fell Swoop

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Friendship Dialogues #1

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #9.

Mark is sixty-four and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the strictures of the pandemic, he had five dates with Bernice, who is fifty-seven, before the focus of their connection shifted from possibly having a relationship to becoming friends. In the process of making this shift, Mark met Bernice’s closest friends Angela, sixty-three, and Marlene, sixty, and now Mark is becoming friends with Angela and Marlene, too.

*

“As much as we like each other,” Mark explains in a phone conversation with his pal Alex, “it seems highly unlikely that Bernice and I will end up in a relationship, though it seems likely we’ll be friends.”

“How do you feel about that?” asks Alex, who has been married to Denise for thirty-seven years and has no female friends other than Denise’s friends.

“I feel fine,” says Mark, who wasn’t looking for new friends when he started using Find the One, the relationship web site where he met Bernice. “Though part of me must still be hoping for a relationship with her because when I logged in to Find the One yesterday to peruse the latest possibilities, I felt like I was cheating on her.”

Alex laughs. “Spoken like a true monogamist.”

*

Saturday dawns sunny and unusually warm for March, and Mark uses the prospect of lunch at Marlene’s as his carrot for putting in a couple hours editing a whodunit, after which he makes a big batch of guacamole for the upcoming lunch with his three new friends.

Bernice arrives at Mark’s house at 11:30 and she and Mark walk the mile to Marlene’s together. She’s wearing a summery turquoise dress and a dark green mask and schlepps a big round basket containing salad and tortilla chips and Mark’s guacamole as they traverse neighborhoods of mostly older houses, the majority of the inhabitants Internet Technology peeps who supplanted the blue collar families that abided here before the dawn of the digital age.

They are both happy and relaxed, the self-imposed pressure of trying to impress each other mostly gone now.

Mark: You look marvelous as always. Who does your hair?

Bernice: (laughs) Before the pandemic, I would only go to Francois at Tricky Curls, but since the closures I’ve allowed Marlene to make two attempts.

Mark: Looks fine to me.

Bernice: Well she is a great artist. Who cuts your hair?

Mark: Before the pandemic, Denise did. Wife of my pal Alex. She’s French, too. So we both have French haircutters. But since the pandemic began, I go to some guy I meet at my mirror every few months. We communicate telepathically and he hacks the longer stuff back. We aim for symmetry and settle for what we get.

Bernice: You look fine. Short unkempt hair is all the rage now.

Mark: That’s me. Always on the cutting edge of fashion.

Bernice: Yet another thing we have in common.

They walk another block, marveling at how warm the day.

Mark: So… we’re friends now.

Bernice: Yeah. How do you like it so far?

Mark: Very much.  How do you like it?

Bernice: I love it. You’re my very first male friend who isn’t gay.

Mark: Do you have many gay male friends?

Bernice: Honey, I’m in show biz. I’ve managed a theatre company for twenty years, and before that I was a script supervisor on fourteen movies, otherwise known as the continuity person. And before that I was an aspiring actor. So, yes, I have many gay male friends. Do you have any gay male friends?

Mark: I used to. My best friend was gay, but he died and I don’t currently have any gay friends. Well, that’s not true. I correspond with a lesbian and a sometimes lesbian.

Bernice: I’m sorry you lost your friend.

Mark: Harry was a marvel. You would have loved him. Pianist. Composer. Full of fun.

They walk in silence for a time.

Mark: So you were an actor and a continuity person. You didn’t tell me that when we were trying to concoct a relationship.

Bernice: (frowns) I know. Came out easy as pie now that we’re friends.

Mark: And I didn’t tell you that I was an aspiring actor. I must have been embarrassed about that before we were friends.

Bernice: Did you go to LA and try to make it in the movies?

Mark: No. New York. Did the whole bartender by night, acting workshops and auditions by day. For three exhausting humiliating years. Then I came back to California and morphed into a book editor while trying to get parts in plays and indie films. (laughs) I was a colossal failure, but I loved trying.

Bernice: You didn’t fail, Mark. You just didn’t realize that trying was your success. That’s what I realize now when I look back on all the things I’ve done in my life. I never failed. I just didn’t understand that trying was my practice. As the Buddhist teachers say, we practice to practice, not to get somewhere, not to win some prize. When you practice the guitar you’re not failing. You’re practicing.  

Mark: And lately I’ve been failing to practice. But I know what you mean and I thank you for reminding me.

Bernice: I do occasionally have a small part in one of our plays. But acting in plays has never been my bliss. I wanted to be in movies. I’ve never been keen on playing the same part over and over again, but I love becoming someone else in relation to other people. That’s my favorite part about acting.

Mark: So is that where you and Marlene met? In Hollywood?

Bernice: Yes, she was the art director on two films I worked on, and we became instant friends. And then a year after I moved here to take the job managing the theatre company, she moved up here, too, and I eventually enticed her to design some sets for us, and she turned out to be a fabulous actor.

Mark: Was she a success in Hollywood, speaking of success?

Bernice: She art directed some very big movies and made lots of money, and if you ask her about her movie career she’ll say they paid her a fortune to make crap look good.

Mark: And how did you meet Angela?

Bernice: She is the accountant for our company. We met twenty years ago and fell in love as best friends will. Isn’t she just the most brilliant deadpan comedian?

Mark: She’s great. Every spoke of your troika is great.

Bernice: And so are you, my friend. So are you.

*

On Marlene’s terrace, frogs and turtles sunning themselves on lily pads in her big pond, Marlene serves a lunch of chicken enchiladas, spicy tomato rice, refried beans, salad, and guacamole. The women have beer, Mark water with a slice of lemon. Angela and Bernice and Marlene share a big table, Marlene and Angela wearing floppy sunhats and sun dresses, while Mark sits at a smaller table ten feet from them.

Marlene: You don’t drink any alcohol, Mark?

 Mark: I have the occasional sip of wine and the occasional sip of beer. I love the taste, but I’m allergic to alcohol and more than a little makes me ill.

Angela: Do you smoke pot?

Mark: No. I used to, but not anymore.

Angela: Why did you stop?

Mark: Well… I was addicted and it was ruining my life. So I quit.

Marlene: Good choice, Mark.

Angela: The three of us sometimes smoke pot together. We like getting high and watching a movie or dancing or… whatever.

Mark: Sounds wonderful. I loved getting stoned before I became addicted. But then it ceased to be about love and was all about needing to be high so I could feel okay about being here. You know what I mean?

Angela: Oh I do. Believe me, I do.

Mark: I believe you.

Bernice: Fortunately, we’re all cheap dates, so a puff or two usually does the trick.

Marlene: Speaking of getting high, I’m getting high on this guacamole. You must give me your recipe.

Mark: I’ll write it down before I go.

Marlene: Oh you can just email it to me.

Bernice: I’ll send you her email.

Mark: Great. So… what have you all been up to since we breakfasted at my place an eternity ago?

Angela: I’ve been doing other people’s taxes. Crunch time. Eight hours a day. Any more than that and the numbers begin to blur.

Mark: I know what you mean. I can only edit for a few hours at a time and then my brain stops working and I have to stop looking at words and get up and move around.

Marlene: How many hours a day do you work?

Mark: Five or six, and to make my forty hours I work every day.

Marlene: You don’t take weekends off?

Mark: (attempts French accent) What is this thing you call weekend?

Bernice: I can’t remember. The days all blur together now.

Marlene: I still keep my weekends separate from the weekdays, though I haven’t had a job since the pandemic began.

Mark: So what do you do with your time?

Marlene: I exercise for two hours in the morning before breakfast, yoga and Pilates online, and then after breakfast I draw for an hour or so. Then I take my neighbor’s dog for a walk, then I write emails, then I have lunch with tea and read, and then I visit friends in-person or on the computer. Then I might go shopping or do gardening work, and then it’s supper, and after supper I might watch a movie or take a long bath. Often I do something with Bernice or Angela or both of them.

Bernice: You’re so disciplined.

Marlene: Well, I have to be. I’m very prone to melancholy, so without the structure I will become morose and it isn’t good for me.

Mark: Sounds like a good life.

Marlene: It is. I’m very lucky.

Mark: Did you study art in college?

Marlene: Yes. I studied drawing and painting and sculpture in France, and then specifically set design and art direction for films in Switzerland.

Mark: And then you conquered Hollywood.

Marlene: (laughs) Au contraire. Hollywood demolished me. So much work to make crap look good, and one day I woke up and realized I was growing old and all I’d done with my life was help promote stereotypes of women as whores and men as vengeful heroes.

Mark: Do you ever wish you’d stayed in France? Made more complex dramas?

Marlene: Sometimes. Not often. France was quite stifling for me in many ways.

Angela: Not to change the subject, but these enchiladas are to die for.

Bernice: They are so good.

Mark: Fantastic. And I’m a serious enchilada aficionado.

Marlene: I’m glad you like them. (looks at Mark) I’m so sorry you can’t be at our table. But in a few months we will all be vaccinated and then we can sit together.

Mark: In the meantime, I appreciate your wish.

A pleasant silence falls as they enjoy the delicious lunch.

Angela: (to Mark) Bernice says you edit murder mysteries. Anything you’d recommend? I gobble them like candy.

Mark: I’m not the one to ask about that. Having edited hundreds of them, I now loathe the genre, though I do understand their appeal. In fact, a big part of my job is insuring that the books deliver that particular high the reader is reading for.

Marlene: If you hate the genre, why not edit some other kind of books?

Mark: Not to avoid your question, but perhaps the best way to answer you would be to ask why didn’t you art direct movies that weren’t crap?

Marlene: They make very few movies in America that are not crap, and most of the ones that are not crap either don’t pay their art directors very well or those jobs go to the few men at the top of the art director pyramid.

Mark: Well… they publish very few books in America that are not crap. And the relatively small publisher I work for can’t afford to publish books that aren’t moneymakers, which precludes most books that are not crap.

Angela: I think that’s so sad.

Mark:  Depends on what you like to read. I mean… only a very small percentage of our population buys books of any kind, let alone literary works, and that same population is two or three generations removed from the golden age of American literature that ended, for all intents and purposes, in the 1960s. And they probably wouldn’t like fiction of that quality if it were published today because the collective taste has changed, forever altered by television and the subsequent versions of television most people now access on their phones.

Marlene: Which is why I’m reading Dickens again. He holds up well.

Angela: And I read murder mysteries.

Bernice: And twenty years from now they’ll say the golden age was the early 2000s, and on we’ll go.

Mark: Thus it has always been. I was recently reading Twain’s autobiography and he reeled off the names of a dozen or so of his most famous contemporaries circa 1900 and I’d never heard of any of them.

Angela: So maybe it’s not so sad. Things just change.

Marlene: I wish I could look at it that way, but it feels like a death to me. The contemporary plays we do now, they feel so much like television shows.

Mark: They are. Because that’s all the younger writers know about. They’re not going to imitate Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller or Samuel Beckett. They’re going to write in ways that feel familiar to them.

Angela: (to Mark) Bernice tells us you write plays.

Mark: I’ve written a few. And I’ve gotten a handful of stellar rejection letters, but I fear I may already be a dead writer, though my body has yet to die. I stopped watching television when I was nineteen and traveled down a long road of reading great dead writers, so I don’t really speak the language of now.

Bernice: Which brings up an interesting question. Why write something or create something for which there is no audience?

Mark: It’s not only an interesting question, it is the fundamental question for artists who make original art. And my answer is that some part of me must still believe there is an audience for what I do if only by some miracle it gets to live on a larger stage than my desk.

Marlene: And my answer is we create what we create regardless of what anyone else thinks. Otherwise it’s not art. It’s commercial art, maybe, but not art.

Bernice: And my answer is a combination of both your answers. I assume the poem has come to me for a reason I’ll discover after I get the thing written down. Then I can decide if it’s something I want to share or just needed to get out. Like a bowel movement.

Marlene: (laughs) I have drawn many pictures of this sort.

Angela: And I don’t write or draw or create anything. I read murder mysteries and watch television, lots of television, especially British stuff. And you’re right, Mark. I’ve tried to read Faulkner and Nabokov and Dickens and Philip Roth and John Updike and I find it all impenetrable and nothing I care about. I couldn’t even read Harry Potter. But I love murder mysteries.

Marlene: What do you love about them, darling?

Angela: I love the suspense and the danger and the needing to know who did it.

Mark: You identify with the detective.

Angela: I do. I feel like I’m there, and I’m in danger, and I’ve got to find out who the killer is before they kill me.

Mark: That’s my job, Angela. Making the writing is good enough so the reader will identify with the detective and feel the detective is not merely solving a crime, but defying death.

Marlene: I’ve always wondered what the appeal was. And now I know. But it’s nothing I want to read. I feel like I’m defying death every day. Isn’t that what life is? Defying death?

Bernice: And eating good food while we’re at it.

*

Masked again and trying to stay six feet apart, Mark and Bernice take their time walking home from Marlene’s.

Bernice: Mark?

Mark: Yes?

Bernice: I watch television. And if we were in a relationship I would still watch television.

Mark: And I would watch it with you sometimes, just to be with you.

Bernice: I also drink beer and wine and sometimes scotch on the rocks and every now and then I smoke pot.

Mark: Would you allow me the occasional sip of your booze?

Bernice: I would. But I also like lots of plays by writers who are not dead.

Mark: You could educate me, and if I didn’t like a play you liked, we could have revealing discussions about why you like the play and I don’t.

Bernice: You say all the right things.

Mark: So do you.

Bernice: Do you think you’re still hoping to be in a relationship with me?

Mark: Probably. But I’m also fine with being your friend and never being in a relationship with you.

Bernice: How about taking ballroom dance lessons? Would you do that for me if we were in a relationship?

Mark: I would do that for you as your friend. And that goes for watching television with you and having sips of your booze and discussing contemporary plays. We don’t have to wait. We can do it all now.

Bernice: But no sex.

Mark: No, I’d even have sex with you as your friend.

Bernice: I don’t think that would work. Not yet anyway.

Mark: I wonder why you brought up being in a relationship when we were having so much fun being friends.

Bernice: Maybe because I can talk about it now without being afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.

Mark: Well that’s good.

Bernice: So now, once again, if not for the pandemic we would probably kiss, wouldn’t we?

Mark: That’s nonsense. If we want to kiss each other, we will. We’re both healthy and strong and neither of us has the virus. And we both know it.

Bernice: So why don’t you try to kiss me?

Mark: Because I love being your friend and I want to see where it takes us.

They stop walking and look at each other.

Bernice: I want to see where it takes us, too. I think the reason I brought up being in a relationship is that the more time I spend with you, the more I like you, and maybe I’m afraid you’ll fall in love with someone else and I’ll miss my chance.

Mark: I’m flattered. But I don’t think the fear of missing your chance is a good reason to start a relationship.

Bernice: No, of course not, but… I saw the way you were looking at Marlene and… she really likes you.

Mark: The mind boggles.

They resume walking.

Bernice: I’m being an idiot, aren’t I?

Mark: Yeah, but you’re very cute when you’re being an idiot.

Bernice: You’re just saying that to make me feel better.

Mark: No, it’s true. You get very open and vulnerable when you talk about your fears, and you become more beautiful than ever, which is an extreme kind of cuteness.

Bernice: (laughs) I like being your friend.

Mark: Ditto.

Bernice: Imagine me holding your hand.

Mark: Imagine me really liking it.

fin

Light Song

Categories
Uncategorized

Relationship Interview #9

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #8.

For their fifth official date since meeting through Find The One, a relationship web site, Bernice comes for breakfast at Mark’s house on a sunny morning in early March and brings her friends Marlene and Angela, both of whom also attended Date #4.

Bernice is fifty-seven and manages a theatre company. Mark is sixty-four and edits how-to books and murder mysteries. Marlene is sixty, French, an artist and actor, and Angela is sixty-three, an accountant originally from New Jersey.

They gather on Mark’s backyard terrace, and because the pandemic is still raging, the women, who are in a bubble together, sit at one table and Mark sits at another. They keep their masks on until Mark serves the pancakes and coffee, and when everyone is seated, they remove their masks.

Mark: Here we are together again.

Angela: I’m so happy we are. Things ended too abruptly yesterday.

Marlene: I’m happy, too. You make very good coffee, Mark. Many people don’t, you know. They think they do, but they don’t.

Mark: I try to buy the freshest beans. Maybe that’s the trick.

Bernice: I love these pancakes. Old family recipe?

Mark: No that’s a recent acquisition from my friend Denise. She’s gluten free and these use millet and sorghum and tapioca flour.

Marlene: So delicate. Are you gluten free? I could not do without my French bread.

Mark: I’m experimenting. Less wheat seems to suit me. Less lots of things seem to suit me these days as I ramble through my sixties.

Angela: I know what you mean.

They chat a while more about dietary matters before Mark steers the conversation in another direction.

Mark: So last night when Bernice came by, we spoke of friendship and she mentioned the rules of friendship. And I wonder what those are.

Bernice: I meant how friends treat each other differently than people in relationships often treat each other.

Mark: I sense what you mean, but I’m unclear about how friendship rules differ from relationship rules.

Angela: They shouldn’t. That’s what ruins most relationships. They don’t treat each other like friends.

Marlene: The two times in my life I married, I chose men I assumed were my friends. But once we were married, they seemed to forget we were separate people. They began to take offense at things I liked and what I said and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, and they could not see how they were trying to make me into some kind of female echo of them. So I got out of those marriages and have not been tempted to marry again.

Bernice: I would never tell Marlene or Angela what they should do with their lives or how they should dress or what they should or shouldn’t like. But that’s what people in relationships do to each other all the time.

Mark: So would one rule be: Never Criticize Each Other?

Marlene: Yes, because we must accept our friends for who they are. We like them as they are. That’s why we chose them to be our friend and they chose us, not because we want to change them into someone else.

Bernice: Something happens to people when they identify as a couple instead of as two individuals, as if they believe they own the other person now. Doesn’t happen to everybody, but it happens to lots of people.

Angela: It happened to my ex-husband. After we got married, he absolutely thought he owned me and he was constantly trying to make me adhere to his idea of how things should be. And I put up with that for nineteen years until our daughter graduated from high school, and then it was divorce him or die. And I’m not exaggerating.

Mark: So… No Owning Each Other would be another rule of friendship.

Bernice: No owning each other and no being cruel to each other and no hiding things from each other.

Mark: And no being afraid of each other.

Marlene: Why would you be friends with someone you feared? You could never be yourself.

Mark: Why would you marry someone you feared, as so many people do?

Bernice: Because the rules governing marriage and the rules governing friendships aren’t the same rules. They should be, but they aren’t.

Mark: Even now? In the so-called advanced societies?

Marlene: Did your marriages follow the rules of friendship?

Mark: No. My marriages followed the rules of addict and enabler, I the enabler.

Angela: Mine, too.

Marlene: Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was also your friend?

Mark: No, but I’m only sixty-four. Surely there’s still time.

Bernice: Theoretically, but maybe not. Maybe just the fact that you’re still actively pursuing a relationship means you’re not looking for a friend. You’re looking for a mate.

Mark: I can’t look for both in the same person?

Bernice: You can. You are. I’m just saying you might not find them because you’re looking for both.

Mark: Are you suggesting I stop looking?

Bernice: No. I’m suggesting I stop looking. That’s why I said I wanted to be your friend with the rules of friendship. That’s the gift you gave me, Mark. You let me play out my usual neurotic bullshit in relation to a man who also happens to be a fine human being, with both of us constrained by the pandemic, so I could finally understand that until I can be totally comfortable with you as my friend, there’s no point in trying to have a relationship with you. I’ll just revert to my old patterns, and the pretense of a healthy relationship will vanish.

Mark: Oh but not this time, Bernice. This time will be different. I’m not like those other guys. I’m something special. I’m your knight in shining armor. I’ll be your best friend and your dream lover and your muse, and while I’m at it I’ll give you the secret to eternal life and the five sure ways to make a million dollars with no up-front investment.

The women laugh.

Angela: You’re a good cook, too.

Marlene: Friends don’t want anything from their friends except to be appreciated for who they are. If a person wants more than this from you… beware.

Angela: Friends help each other. They don’t hinder.

Mark: Do they judge each other?

Marlene: Of course. We’re human. But then we stop judging because this is our friend.

Bernice: Unless we think they’re going terribly wrong or doing something self-destructive. Then we’ll say something. We’ll intervene as lovingly as we can.

Mark: What about sex?

Bernice: What about sex?

Mark: Well… it seems to me if we eliminate sex or sexual desire from the equation, a relationship would be indistinguishable from friendship. I, for instance, could join your bubble and be one of four people, not one man with three women. We could be four friends. But if you and I became lovers, we would be a relationship and two women. Yes?

Marlene: Yes, that’s true.

Mark: Even if I was a friend of your troika for years and years, the minute I became lovers with one of you, or for that matter the minute two of you became lovers, then the equation would change, because in this society relationships outweigh friendships.

Bernice: Maybe so.

Marlene: Not maybe. Yes, they do.

Angela: They shouldn’t, but they do.

Mark: So then applying the rules of friendship to a relationship will make the relationship better, but it will alter all pre-existing friendships. And that, it seems to me, is tragic.

Marlene: Not necessarily. If you and one of my friends are happy in a relationship, my friendship may be altered but not degraded, and I would gain you as a friend.

Angela: Friends want their friends to be happy.

Bernice: Amen.

Marlene: The truth is, close friends, friends like the three of us, are in a relationship, only without sex. We didn’t ask anyone else to be in our bubble, though we all have other friends. So the difference is not as distinct as you imply.

Mark: I’m not implying anything. I’m trying to understand how I might be in a relationship with someone in an intimate trio such as yours while abiding by the rules of friendship. How would that work?

Bernice: We can’t know until we become friends.

Mark: You and I? Or all four of us?

Bernice: You and I in the context of all four of us.

Mark: So now I’m dating the three of you?

Angela: Friends don’t so much date as do things together.

Marlene: Friends spend time together, but we don’t call it dating.

Mark: So are you inviting me to become a friend of your bubble?

Bernice: I am inviting you to be my friend. I won’t speak for Marlene or Angela.

Angela: Based on this breakfast alone, I’d love to be your friend.

Marlene: I like you very much, Mark, and I would be happy to be your friend, though at the moment you are more Bernice’s friend than my friend, but I’m enjoying getting to know you.

Mark: (looks at Bernice) So are you and I done dating?

Bernice: I guess so. But not done being friends. If you want to keep being friends.

Mark: I do. Though this isn’t how I imagined things evolving between us, but I much prefer it to never seeing you again. (looks at Angela) And I really like you, Angela. (looks at Marlene) And I really like you, Marlene. So…(raises coffee cup) here’s to our nascent friendships. May they mature into something wonderful.

They all raise their cups and drink.

Marlene: I love that you used the word nascent.

Angela: So do I.

Bernice: He’s such a poet.

Mark: (to Bernice) It may take me a while to stop focusing on you as the woman I desire.

Marlene: Why stop? She’s a lovely woman.

Mark: Well so are you? Shall I focus my desire on you, too?

Marlene: I don’t know. I might like it. But I might not. I suppose it would depend on the quality of your focus.

Angela: She would like it.

Bernice: How could you not focus your desire on her? She’s gorgeous.

Marlene: (to Bernice) You’re sweet to say so, darling.

Mark: I’m confused.

Bernice: (laughs) Welcome to my world.

Marlene: Shall we have lunch on Saturday at my house? It’s supposed to be sunny and warm. Are you free, Mark?

Mark: Free as a bird. What can I bring?

Bernice: He makes a fabulous guacamole.

Angela: Oh bring that. I love guacamole.

Marlene: Yes, and I will make chicken enchiladas.

Bernice: And I’ll bring a salad and chips for the guacamole.

Angela: And I’ll bring the tomato rice and refried beans.

Mark: (gazes at Bernice) You want to come here first and we’ll walk over together?

Bernice: I’d love to.

Marlene: Shall we say noon?

Mark: Noon is perfect.

Angela: You know I have to tell you something, Mark. I don’t know if you realize what an unusual man you are, but you are. I keep thinking you’re gonna just throw up your hands and say, ‘Enough already. I can’t handle this. It didn’t work. I’ll go back to the web site and hunt for somebody else.’ But you don’t. You’re open to what’s happening, which is, of course, a testament to how much you like Bernice, but it’s also a testament to your resiliency and your curiosity and your openness and your goodness. You’re really a good person, and that’s why I said I would love to be your friend.

Mark: (puts a hand on his heart) Thank you Angela. Imagine me hugging you.

Angela: (laughs) I do. And it’s nice. You’re a good hugger. I knew you would be.

fin

Just Love

Categories
Uncategorized

Relationship Interview #8

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #7.

Mark and Bernice have gotten together in-person four times since they met through Find The One, a relationship-starting web site. Bernice is fifty-seven and the manager of a theatre company. Mark is sixty-four and an editor of how-to books and murder mysteries.

Their fourth meeting took place in the backyard of the home of Bernice’s close friend Marlene, with Marlene and Angela, another of Bernice’s closest friends, joining them. Everyone had a good time, the gathering was cut short by rain, and because of the pandemic Mark couldn’t enter Marlene’s house and had to walk home in the downpour.

*

On his homeward trek, his umbrella inadequate in the deluge, Mark is perplexed by how angry he feels. He doesn’t mind the rain, he very much enjoyed meeting Bernice’s friends, and he loved seeing Bernice again. Yet he is angry and grows angrier by the minute when it dawns on him that for the last month he has shared the most intimate details of his life with Bernice, yet only today found out she is in a bubble with Marlene and Angela; and he only knows that because Marlene told him.

He recalls several times when he commiserated with Bernice about the emotional stress of living alone during the pandemic, and he is baffled and hurt that she never mentioned her arrangement with Marlene and Angela, an omission that makes him doubt everything Bernice ever said to him.

*

Bernice is initially ecstatic about how things went with Mark in the company of Marlene and Angela, but when Marlene says Mark seemed startled when she mentioned their bubble, Bernice’s ecstasy vanishes.

Bernice: (in shock) Now he’ll think I lied to him and he won’t ever want to see me again.

Angela: Of course he will. He’s crazy about you.

Marlene: I don’t know. He might not want to see you again. You told us he was more hurt by dishonesty than infidelity.

Bernice: I’m an idiot. A fucking idiot.

Marlene: Why didn’t you tell him about our bubble?

Bernice: I don’t know. I must have been afraid to tell him.

Angela: Why would you be afraid?

Bernice: I must have thought he would disapprove.

Marlene: He doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who would disapprove of friends weathering a storm together.

Bernice: No he wouldn’t disapprove, but…

Angela: Your previous partners might?

Bernice: Yes, but not Mark.

Marlene: (embracing her) I’m so sorry, dear. He might forgive you if you explain to him.

Angela: Call him. Tell him what you just realized.

Marlene: Yes, and do so without apology. Just say this is what happened and ask him to start over with you.

*

Mark is drenched and cold and sad when he gets home. He takes a hot bath and decides not to have anything more to do with Bernice.

Luxuriating in his warm house, dressed in an old T-shirt and sweatpants, he makes a cup of coffee and settles down in his study to put in a few hours editing a murder mystery rife with confusing pronouns and the crazy-making overuse of the word it. Mark has completely rewritten all four of this particular author’s books, and they are all bestsellers and have made the author wealthy, though not a better writer.

When the inevitable headache takes hold after twenty minutes of clarifying who he and she and they and them are, Mark returns to the kitchen and makes another cup of coffee. While he waits for the coffee to brew, he picks up the latest New Yorker and thereby uncovers his answering machine with two messages awaiting him.

The first message is from his best friend Alex.

Alex: (British) Mark. Tis I. Denise and I are making our shopping list for tomorrow’s foray into the viral soup. We loved the bottle of white wine you gave us, and sadly I recycled the bottle without writing the name down. If you remember the make and serial number, please enlighten us. And in any case, call me.

The next message is from Bernice.

Bernice: Hi Mark. I hope you didn’t get too wet walking home. I’m calling because I regret not telling you I’m in a bubble with Marlene and Angela. I was afraid to share that with you and I don’t know why except I must have been afraid you would disapprove, though I know you wouldn’t. I’m just flailing around here trying not to drown. I imagine you’ve had enough of me, but if by some chance you want to keep trying I would like to start over with you. If you’d rather not, I understand. And just so you know, Angela thinks you’re a peach and Marlene thinks you’re delightful, and I think so, too.  

Mark listens to Bernice’s message two more times and calls Alex.

Alex: Ah Mark. Tell me you’ve remembered the vintage details of that lovely white you brought us. Denise loved it so much she had a third glass with supper, a previously unheard of event, and she became nostalgic and laughed and cried and rejoiced at being alive. Hence we are desperate to buy a case.

Mark: Crane Lake. Sauvignon Blanc. 2019.

Alex: Brilliant. What news of the fair Bernice and today’s soiree?

Mark: Do you have a minute?

Alex: I have dozens of minutes.

Mark: Well I got to Marlene’s house…

Alex: The French gal?

Mark: Yes, the French gal.

Alex: Continue.

Mark: So I got there before Bernice and Angela arrived, and Marlene informed me that she and Bernice and Angela are in a bubble together, something Bernice never mentioned to me. And when I was walking home after our short-but-sweet gathering, I realized that Bernice has always presented herself to me as someone not in a bubble with other people and therefore suffering in all the ways I suffer living alone during this pandemic. And it made me furious to realize that everything she’s ever said to me was couched in a lie, and possibly lots of lies, and I decided I didn’t want to have anything more to do with her.

Alex: Oh Mark, I’m so sorry. Though I doubt everything she said was a lie. It’s hard sometimes to let down our guard, especially for women in this dangerous world. Not that you aren’t right to end things with her, but to suggest this is consistent with her fear of revealing herself to you. A bubble is, after all, an intimate consortium.

Mark: Would you mind listening to the message she left on my answering machine just now?

Alex: No, wouldn’t mind at all. The voyeur in me thrills at the prospect of hearing her voice.

Mark plays Bernice’s message for Alex.

Alex: Could you run that again, please?

Mark plays the message again.

Alex: My God what a voice. She could soothe lions and resolve international disputes and melt the hardest of hearts. I hear no deceit in her voice, not a trace. Only honest love.

Mark: You hear love in her voice?

Alex: I do. Not old love, but new love full of promise. I have an image of a bridge being built across a chasm, the two sides meeting for the first time in the middle, the bridge nowhere near complete, but at least now there is a way across if one goes carefully.

Mark: I’ll listen again with that in mind. Thank you, Alex.

Alex: You’re welcome, dear friend. Keep me posted.

Mark: Will do.

*

 After supper, Mark calls Bernice.

Bernice: Oh Mark, I’m so glad you called. May I come over?

Mark: Now?

Bernice: Yes. I’ll stand on your front porch and you can stay inside and be warm and dry. I really want to see you.

Mark: Okay, but…

Bernice: I’ll be there in ten minutes.

Mark goes to change his clothes, but stops halfway to his bedroom.

Mark: Fuck it. She can see me in a T-shirt and sweatpants. The real me.

Mark makes cocoa while he waits for Bernice to arrive. When his doorbell sounds he puts on his mask and carries two mugs of piping hot cocoa to the front door. Bernice is wearing her long winter coat, a burgundy beret pulled down over her ears, and a black mask.

Bernice: (from ten feet away) Hi.

Mark: Hi. Cocoa?

Bernice: Thank you.

She takes the cocoa from him and returns to a safe distance away.

Mark: You can set the mug on the railing there if you want to let it cool down.

Bernice: (sets the cocoa on the railing) So… I really like you, Mark. Very much. Hugely. And I don’t want to be afraid of you. And I’m not really afraid of you, but sometimes when we’re together I’m afraid to say what I want to say and so I either don’t say it or I say something else that isn’t a lie, but isn’t truly what I want to say, and you honestly respond to these not-lies that aren’t really what I want to say and I never know how to get things back to saying what I want to say without first telling you I’ve been lying, which I haven’t been, except in a way I have. I don’t always do this with you, only sometimes. And I’m never this way around Marlene and Angela, which is why I wanted them to be with us today.

Mark: So what you’re saying is you’re a fucked up person. Well I’m a fucked up person, too. And we’re both trying to get unfucked up while trying to start a relationship, which we don’t seem to be very good at. So now we have to decide if we want to keep trying or not.

Bernice: Right.

Mark: We obviously like each other, but that may not be enough to overcome all the emotional shit we keep running into. In other words, it’s a gamble. A big gamble. Do you want to keep gambling with me? And do I want to keep gambling with you?

Bernice: I want to be friends with you. With the rules of friendship. I don’t ever want to lie to you again, though I’ll probably tell more not-lies that aren’t really what I want to say because that’s my neurotic tendency, but I’ll try not to and I invite you to sound the alarm whenever you think I might be doing that.

Mark: The alarm? Should I make a beeping noise?

Bernice: That would be fine, though it might be a little weird in front of other people.

Mark: I could sing my favorite lines from ‘Someone To Watch Over Me.’

Bernice: How do they go?

Mark: (sings) There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see, I hope that she, turns out to be, someone who’ll watch over me.

Bernice: Wow. You have a beautiful voice. And you’re a tenor, not a baritone.

Mark: I’m told you have a beautiful voice, too. Want to sing something for me?

Bernice: (sings the opening lyrics to ‘I Thank You’) You didn’t have to love me like you did, but you did, but you did. And I thank you.

Mark: You know if we weren’t in a pandemic I would definitely try to kiss you now.

Bernice: And I would definitely let you kiss me. And then we’d go to bed and fuck our brains out.

Mark: God I hope this friendship thing works out.

Bernice: Me, too. Because it’s clearly way too early to fuck our brains out.

Mark: True, but not too early to invite our brains to shut the fuck up so our hearts can talk to each other.

Bernice: I think you’re wonderful. And that’s what I really wanted to say. So maybe we just needed to add a little profanity to the conversation.

Mark: Yeah and we need to stop worrying about what the other person thinks of us. You know what I mean? Fuck the other person.

Bernice: Exactly. (laughs) Fuck the other person.

Mark: (laughing) So when’s our next date?

Bernice: Tomorrow? Supposed to be sunny.

Mark: Well we know how that goes. But assuming it is sunny… breakfast on my terrazzo at ten?

Bernice: I’ll be here.

Mark: Great.

Bernice: What can I bring?

Mark: Fruit. Some kind of fruit to go with pancakes.

Bernice: Fruit it is. I’m so glad you didn’t say nothing.

Mark: You can bring Marlene and Angela if you want. Just let me know how many are coming so I’ll know how much batter to make.

Bernice: Really? I can invite Marlene and Angela?

Mark: Why not? You’re in a bubble with them. You can all sit at the same table, rubbing shoulders and snarfling on each other, and I’ll sit ten feet away reveling in my good fortune to have three delightful women visiting me.

Bernice: Probably won’t be three. Angela has a full-time job and works during the week.

Mark: What does she do, by the way?

Bernice: She’s an accountant and this is the height of tax season.

Mark: Invite her anyway. Even accountants need to eat.

Bernice: I’ll call you.

Mark: Good. Drive safely.

Bernice: I will. And…

Mark: Yes?

Bernice: You look good in a T-shirt. You have beautiful arms. And that’s really what I wanted to say. You have beautiful arms.

fin

 Beautiful

Categories
Uncategorized

Relationship Interview #7

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #6.

Mark and Bernice have had three dates since they met through Find The One, a web site for people seeking life partners. Bernice is fifty-seven, Mark sixty-four. Bernice is the manager of a theatre company, Mark an editor for a book publisher.

*

The day after their third date, Mark calls Bernice to arrange their next meeting and is surprised and disappointed when Bernice expresses ambivalence about seeing him again and ends their conversation by saying she will call him when she has a better understanding of what’s going on with her.

*

Mark is by turns angry and sad for the next three days, and he assumes he will never hear from Bernice again. On the fourth day he wakes feeling glad he allowed himself to fall in love with Bernice because in doing so he rekindled his desire to connect with other people. So he calls a few friends and makes dates for walks and get-togethers, and his friends are happy he reached out to them.

*

On the evening of the eighth day after he last heard from Bernice, Mark is sitting on his living room sofa watching a basketball game on television when the phone rings.

Mark: (picks up the phone) Hello?

Bernice: Mark? It’s Bernice. Is this a good time to talk?

Mark: (his eyes filling with tears) Can you hold on a minute?

Bernice: Yes, of course.

Mark turns off the television and goes out his front door to stand in the cold air and have a good cry. He comes back inside, resumes his place on the sofa, and picks up the phone.

Mark: You still there?

Bernice: I’m here. You okay?

Mark: I’m fine. How are you?

Bernice: I’m doing better now. Had a rough week. I wanted to call you every day, but I was such a mess I couldn’t. I’m sorry.

Mark: No need to apologize. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been having such a hard time.

Bernice: Would you like to see me again?

Mark: Yes.

Bernice: Would you mind if we meet at my friend Marlene’s house, and Marlene and Angela join us?

Mark: (considers this) I don’t mind, but… may I ask why?

Bernice: Well… I’ve been talking to Marlene and Angela about you, and I realize I’m afraid to reveal more of myself to you.

Mark: Why do you think you’re afraid of me?

Bernice: Because prior to meeting you… at this point in getting to know a man, I would either end things or go to bed with him. And if I go to bed with him, I stop being who I really am and start pretending to be the person I think he wants me to be.

Mark: Why would you do that?

Bernice: Because I’m afraid you won’t find the real me desirable. That if you know who I really am, you won’t like me.

Mark: Oh Bernice, I’ve done the same thing my whole life. Only I didn’t do it with you. Didn’t stuff my feelings or pretend to be someone I’m not. And when I thought you were ending things I was sad for a few days, but then I was fine. And I was glad we had our three dates.

Bernice: I loved our three dates. So much.

Mark: Good. And when we meet at Marlene’s you’ll have her and Angela to support you and protect you, and you can be who you really are because you’ll be with your best friends who love you.

*

At noon on a cold cloudy day in late February, Mark dresses warmly, dons his gray mask, and walks eleven blocks to Marlene’s beautiful two-story house on a quiet street of houses built in the early 1900s. Per Bernice’s directions, Mark goes to the backyard gate where he is greeted by Marlene, a striking woman of sixty wearing a long black skirt and a peach blouse, her blonde hair in a ponytail, her mask the blue of her eyes.

Marlene: (with a French accent) Bon jour Mark. How prompt you are. Please follow me.

Mark follows Marlene down a walkway bordered by dense stands of bamboo.

Marlene: Bernice and Angela are late as usual. I assume you know this about Bernice.

Mark: Yes. We’ve had three dates and she’s been a little late to each of them.

They emerge into a backyard featuring a large lily pond. On the patio next to the pond are four chairs arrayed around a glass table, the chairs ten feet apart from each other.

Marlene: Please sit where you like.

Mark: (sits in a chair with a view of the pond) Love your pond. Are there fish?

Marlene: Oh yes. Goldfish, koi, mosquito fish, and turtles and always tadpoles and frogs. May I get you something to drink? A cup of tea? It’s so cold today. It was supposed to be warmer and now it looks like it’s going to rain.

Mark: Tea would be wonderful.

Marlene: Black or herbal?

Mark: Mint?

Marlene: I have mint in a pot on my kitchen windowsill. I will cut fresh leaves for you.

Mark: Thank you.

Marlene disappears into her house. Mark gets up to look for fish and turtles and frogs in the pond. Marlene returns and sets Mark’s mug of tea on the table.

Marlene: Here you are.

Mark: (picks up the mug and returns to his chair) Thank you.

Marlene: (sits in the chair with her back to the house) So… you are a book editor.

Mark: I am. And you are an actor and set designer.

Marlene: I suppose so, though I’m not acting or designing anything right now. Just surviving, you know. Hoping for this virus to go away soon, though I don’t think it will be soon.

Mark: Beautiful place to survive in.

Marlene: Yes, I’m very lucky. And we have our bubble, Bernice and Angela and I. Did she tell you?

Mark: No. That’s wonderful. I wish I had a bubble with someone.

Marlene: You’ve been alone the whole time?

Mark: Well I have two cats, but no humans in my bubble.

Marlene: I can’t imagine. I would have gone mad without Bernice and Angela to just relax with, you know. To not always wear masks and be afraid of each other.

Mark: If this ever happens again, I will definitely create a bubble with a few friends. We’ve already agreed to that.

Marlene: I hope this never happens again. But if it does, yes, you must make a bubble with your friends.

Angela and Bernice arrive.

Marlene: Here they are. Not so late. But I think it might rain soon and I’m so sorry I can’t invite you inside.

Mark: Don’t be sorry. We need the rain.

Bernice emerges into the backyard first, her short brown hair just washed, her mask green, a black winter coat over a burgundy blouse and blue jeans. Angela appears next. She is sixty-three with frizzy gray hair, red-frame glasses, and a black mask. Her winter coat is blue, her blouse gray, her slacks brown.

Bernice: (smiling radiantly) Hi Mark. I knew you’d get here before me. This is Angela.

Angela: (a New Jersey accent) Hello Mark. I’ve heard so much about you.

Bernice: (laughing) Yes you have.

Mark: Nice to meet you.

Marlene: (gets up) I was just starting to interrogate him. He’s having mint tea. What for you two?

Bernice: Wine for me, please.

Angela: Tea sounds good. Black, please. So cold today. And it was supposed to be sunny.

Marlene goes back inside. Angela and Bernice sit down and remove their masks, so Mark removes his.

Angela: (to Mark) With a nose and a mouth you’re a whole different person.

Mark: So are you.

Bernice: (to Mark) I’m always surprised when you take off your mask. I don’t know who I’m expecting, but I’m always surprised when I see your face.

Mark: Pleasantly, I hope.

Bernice: Yes. Pleasantly.

Mark: And I’m always amazed at how beautiful you are.

Marlene emerges from the house with a tray bearing a cup of tea and two wine glasses brimming with white wine. She sets the tray on the table, takes one of the glasses of wine, sits, and removes her mask.

Marlene: What did I miss?

Bernice: (getting her glass of wine) I was just saying I’m always surprised when Mark takes off his mask because his face is never what I’m expecting.

Angela: And Mark said he’s always amazed at how beautiful Bernice is.

Marlene: (to Mark) Your lips are the big surprise for me. You are no grim patriarch. Why I expected that, I don’t know.

Angela: (to Mark) You have beautiful lips. I thought the corners would turn down, but they turn up so you seem to be smiling.

Marlene: Bernice’s lips turn up at the corners, too. But not mine. When I was a girl, my mother warned me not to smile too much. She said smiling makes ugly wrinkles on the face. Can you imagine? Telling a child not to smile? And I believed her, so for all my life I tried not to smile, which is why people think I’m unhappy. But I’m not. I just don’t often smile.

Mark: Takes hundreds of conscious repetitions to create new brain maps to replace the old ones. I’m learning to play the guitar at this late date, and my fingers and brain balk at learning new tricks.

Angela: Do you take lessons online?

Mark: No, I go to my teacher every two weeks. We sit ten feet apart on his porch. He’s an old friend, so we talk as much as we play. But I’m learning. Slowly but surely.

Bernice: Angela plays the guitar.

Angela: Folk songs. Nothing fancy. I strum the basic chords.

Bernice: She sings beautifully, too. So does Marlene.

Marlene: And so do you, dear.

Angela: Not only that, but we sing on key. One day we’ll sing for you.

Mark: I can’t wait.

Marlene: Are you Jewish, Mark?

Mark: What gave me away? My frequent use of Yiddish?

Marlene: No. (laughs) I don’t know. It just came to me to ask.

Mark: My mother was Jewish, my father an agnostic Unitarian. Are you Jewish?

Marlene: No, I’m a lapsed Catholic. I still dream of nuns.

Angela: I’m Jewish. Of course everyone from New Jersey is Jewish, even the non-Jews.

Mark: (to Bernice) We never got around to our religious affiliations on our first three dates.

Bernice: You mentioned sending your son a card for Hanukkah, so I surmised you were at least half.

Mark: And you?

Bernice: My father was a zealous atheist, my mother a closeted Jew.

Mark: Do you think of yourself as Jewish?

Bernice: No, though I’ve tried to.

Mark: What do you mean?

Bernice: When I was in my forties I joined a shul and studied Hebrew, but I felt oppressed by the grim dogma.

Mark: Me, too.

Angela: Too bad you didn’t have a woman rabbi. Some radical mystic to rampage through the Talmud with you.

Marlene: No, a thousand years ago when they deemed all the wise women witches and annihilated us by the millions, what were we to do?

Bernice: Hide our true natures or die.

Angela: Play the parts written for us by men with no sense of humor. Think how different things would be if our oppressors had been funny.

Mark: I wonder what relationships were like before the great annihilation began.

Marlene: Women were more masculine, men more feminine. And when we danced around the fires at night we were wild and free.

Mark: Sounds good to me.

Angela: Did you have a sister, Mark?

Mark: A brother. But I grew up with two cousins who were like sisters to me, Elaine and Jean. Elaine was my age, Jean a year older. They were strong and athletic and light years smarter than I was, so I knew from the get go women were my superiors.

Marlene: Do you still think women are superior to men?

Mark: I do. In all ways except brute strength.

The sky darkens ominously.

Marlene: Oh no. The rain is coming.

Angela: (to Mark) Have you ever been in love with a man?

Mark: Sexually? No. Emotionally? Yes.

Rain begins to fall.

Marlene: Oh Mark, I’m so sorry you can’t come inside.

Mark: (gets up and opens his umbrella) Not to worry. I like walking in the rain. It was a pleasure being with all of you.

Bernice: (to Mark) I’ll call you.

Mark: I hope so. 

When Mark is gone, Angela and Marlene and Bernice hurry inside.

Bernice: Well? Did you like him?

Angela: What’s not to like?

Marlene: I didn’t think I would, but I did. And he is definitely not a melancholic. And he made me laugh. I can’t remember the last time a man made me laugh.

Angela: He’s a peach.

Bernice: Can we have him over again soon?

Marlene: Of course. He’s delightful.

Angela: Hold the presses. Headline. Marlene Declares Man Delightful.

Marlene: Of course he was on his best behavior, so maybe he tricked me.

Bernice: He’s always that way. He loved both of you. Did you see his eyes sparkling?

Angela: Next sunny weekend let’s have a barbecue.

Bernice: You see why I want to kiss him.

Angela: Who wouldn’t?

Marlene: When he took off his mask, his tender lips were the big surprise.

fin

Rain