sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”Arthur C.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Mark: You gonna join us?
Bernice: Well… I wasn’t going to,
but… would you like me to?
Bernice: Well, I can’t, but I’m glad
you asked me.
Mark: Is something wrong?
Bernice: No, I just… so did you have
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.
Mark: I will.
Bernice: Okay. 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
Marlene: She didn’t call you last
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.
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
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
Marlene: Oh Mark I’m so glad for
you. Ah, there’s my alarm for the casserole. Congratulations. I will serve lunch
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.
raises her glass and they drink. Now they each take a bite of the casserole.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mark: I never did get more than a
bite of your fabulous chicken casserole.
Marlene: (smiles) Tomorrow I promise
you more than a bite.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
her say this, Mark is moved to tears. Marlene comes out with their sandwiches
and finds Mark crying.
Marlene: (concerned) Are you okay,
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
Marlene: A gift for me, too. I’ll
get the tea.
goes back inside and Mark has another cry before Marlene returns with the tea
Mark: I feel like I’m on the French Riviera.
sits across the table from him, she pours their tea, and they remove their
Marlene: Have you ever been to the
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
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
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
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
Marlene: What happened fifteen years
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.
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
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
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
“Unless,” he adds, speaking to the
rain, “it’s my own book.”
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
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
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
walk another block, marveling at how warm the day.
Mark: So… we’re friends now.
Bernice: Yeah. How do you like it so
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
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
Mark: Harry was a marvel. You would
have loved him. Pianist. Composer. Full of fun.
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
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: 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
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…
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
Marlene: Oh you can just email it to
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
Mark: Five or six, and to make my
forty hours I work every day.
Marlene: You don’t take weekends
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
Mark: So what do you do with your
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
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
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
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
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
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
Marlene: What do you love about them,
Angela: I love the suspense and the
danger and the needing to know who did it.
Mark: You identify with the
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
again and trying to stay six feet apart, Mark and Bernice take their time
walking home from Marlene’s.
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
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
Mark: Because I love being your
friend and I want to see where it takes us.
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.
Bernice: I’m being an idiot, aren’t
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.
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
Mark: I try to buy the freshest
beans. Maybe that’s the trick.
Bernice: I love these pancakes. Old
Mark: No that’s a recent acquisition
from my friend Denise. She’s gluten free and these use millet and sorghum and
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.
chat a while more about dietary matters before Mark steers the conversation in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Bernice: We can’t know until we
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
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.
all raise their cups and drink.
Marlene: I love that you used the
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
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
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
Bernice: He makes a fabulous
Angela: Oh bring that. I love
Marlene: Yes, and I will make
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
Mark: Crane Lake. Sauvignon Blanc.
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.
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
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.
plays Bernice’s message for Alex.
Alex: Could you run that again,
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.
supper, Mark calls Bernice.
Bernice: Oh Mark, I’m so glad you
called. May I come over?
Bernice: Yes. I’ll stand on your
front porch and you can stay inside and be warm and dry. I really want to see
Mark: Okay, but…
Bernice: I’ll be there in ten
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Mark: (laughing) So when’s our next
Bernice: Tomorrow? Supposed to be
Mark: Well we know how that goes.
But assuming it is sunny… breakfast
on my terrazzo at ten?
Bernice: I’ll be here.
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…
Bernice: You look good in a T-shirt.
You have beautiful arms. And that’s really what I wanted to say. You have
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Mark: Why do you think you’re afraid
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
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
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.
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.
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?
Marlene: I have mint in a pot on my
kitchen windowsill. I will cut fresh leaves for you.
Mark: Thank you.
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
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
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
Marlene: I hope this never happens
again. But if it does, yes, you must make a bubble with your friends.
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
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.
goes back inside. Angela and Bernice sit down and remove their masks, so Mark
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.
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
Angela: (to Mark) You have beautiful
lips. I thought the corners would turn down, but they turn up so you seem to be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
Angela: Who wouldn’t?
Marlene: When he took off his mask, his tender lips were the big surprise.