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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

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Seals

waiting

Tilly, Molly, and Flynn photo by Todd

Harbor seals have spotted coats in shades of white, silver-gray, black, or dark brown. They grow to six feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are true crawling seals, having no external ear flaps. True seals have small flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies.

A few days ago I met the Golden Retrievers Tilly and Molly, and their Chihuahua-mix pal Flynn, along with their humans Sally and Robin at Big River Beach for a morning constitutional—walking for the humans, chasing tennis balls for Molly and Tilly, trotting along being sociable for Flynn.

Whilst flinging tennis balls for the retrievers, we spotted a big harbor seal in the waves offshore, the surf raucous, and to our delight, this seal dazzled us with expert body surfing, something I had not previously observed the seals doing at Big River Beach, though I have fond memories of watching harbor seals surfing the waves in Santa Cruz.

In California, harbor seal pups are born between February and April and weigh about twenty-two pounds at birth. Pups are born knowing how to swim and will sometimes ride on their mothers’ backs when tired. Pups are weaned at four weeks. Adult females usually mate and give birth every year, and may live thirty years.

I used to be a zealous body surfer, and I know the exact moment I gave up the sport. I was in my mid-twenties, living on Lighthouse Avenue in Santa Cruz back in the days when you could rent a four-bedroom house near the beach for a couple hundred dollars a month. When the weather was good, I would walk or run the four blocks to the beach just north of Lighthouse Point and body surf if the waves were good. Just south of the lighthouse is the world famous surfboarding spot Steamer Lane, where spectators can stand on the point and be incredibly close to the surfing action.

One late summer day I arrived at that oh-so-convenient beach, smiled in delight to see what looked like perfectly-formed body surfing waves, ran out into the surf, dove under a few breakers, and found myself caught in a powerful current that dragged me way out to sea as if I were floating down a fast-flowing river. By way out, I mean the people on the beach were ant-sized by the time the current released me. The water was very cold, I had no wetsuit, and I felt fairly certain I was going to drown.

I flopped onto my back and tried to swim back to shore, but I kept encountering that outflowing current. I tried to swim parallel to shore, but I was quickly growing too weak to make much headway. And then, miracle of miracles, my friend Bob Smith, who had come to the beach with me on that day, arrived on an air mattress he’d borrowed from a sunbather when he saw what was happening to me, and I clung to that air mattress and kicked with Bob, and we got to shore where I collapsed in exhausted ecstasy, so happy to still be alive.

Pacific harbor seals spend half their time on land and half in the water. They can dive to 1500 feet and stay underwater for up to forty minutes, though their average dive lasts three to seven minutes and is typically shallow. They sometimes sleep in the water. They feed on sole, flounder, cod, herring, octopus, and squid.

Harbor seals like to watch people playing Frisbee on the beach. One day at Big River Beach, I fell into an impromptu Frisbee exchange with another beachcomber, and a seal popped her head up out of the water to watch us. Then another seal popped up beside that first seal, and eventually there were four harbor seals in a little group watching the disc go back and forth between the two humans, those four beautiful heads moving synchronously from left to right, like spectators at a tennis match.

The worldwide harbor seal population is estimated to be 500,000, with 34,000 in California. They are usually found in small groups, but sometimes congregate in the hundreds.

My favorite connection to the seals at Big River Beach involves singing. Shortly after almost drowning in Santa Cruz, I started a musical combo called Kokomo. The group was composed of: Todd playing guitar and singing his original folk rocking bluesy songs, Jon playing violin and mandolin and singing harmony, and the occasional bass or dobro player noodling along with us. After Jon and I rehearsed a few of my songs, I called around to the various venues in Santa Cruz where such ragtag combos performed in the 1970s, lined up some auditions, and off we went.

Most of our auditions involved going into the prospective bar, pub, or café in the late afternoon and doing a couple tunes for the manager. The first place we auditioned was Happy’s, an upstairs bar in an alley off Pacific Avenue. When Jon and I arrived, there was a quartet of early drinkers at the bar and the bartender/manager on hand to listen. We launched into a groovy tune of mine called Should Be Better In the Morning, and when we finished, one of those early drinkers slapped a dollar bill on the bar and slurred, “For you do dat again.”

So we did the tune again and the bartender said, “You free tonight?”

I said we had another gig, which was true in the sense that we had to get busy rehearsing more tunes so we could play for forty-five minutes without repeating ourselves, and voila, we had our first gig: every Thursday night at Happy’s until further notice.

Then we went to Positively Front Street, a much bigger tavern, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier, and we auditioned for Terry, the owner/manager, and a lovely young woman and a handsome young man who were Terry’s pals. We played Should Be Better In the Morning and followed that with a skanky blues called Loose Woman, and Terry said, “Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bucks plus tips, all the burgers and fries and beer you want.”

The young woman and young man introduced themselves as Mouse & Timber. They had been the Friday/Saturday night act at Positively Front Street for the previous year, but they were moving on to a casino lounge at South Lake Tahoe paying three hundred a night, plus tips, five nights a week, plus a free hotel room. Timber said, “You guys would kill at Tahoe. Come on up and we’ll get you a gig.”

We never did get up to the casino, but we eventually rehearsed twenty of my tunes along with a few Hank Williams classics and a handful of other standards for lonely drunk people, and for most of the next year we were the house band on Friday and Saturday nights at Positively Front Street and the Thursday night attraction at Happy’s.

And once I’d earned actual dollars for singing, the world would never be the same. Making money for singing is like making money for being human—which can be both wonderful and confusing, depending on, as we used to say, how together you are.

Speaking of which, there I was a couple years ago, standing on the shores of Big River, inland a couple hundred yards from where the river meets the sea, and I sang out over the smooth surface of the water and a seal popped up to have a look at me. When she heard me singing, her eyes grew wide, she dove under the water, and a moment later popped up again with two friends. Ere long there were seven seals listening to me sing my song Real Good Joe, Hank Williams’ Cheating Heart, and another song of mine called Beautiful.

And though I would like to say those seven seals especially liked my songs, the truth is, just as with the mob at Positively Front Street, they favored Hank Williams. How do I know? Oh you can just tell when your audience really locks in with you.