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Friendship Dialogues #3

This is the sequel to Friendship Dialogues #2.

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

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

Bernice: Hi Mark. It’s Bernice.

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

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

Mark: You gonna join us?

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

Mark: Sure.

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

Mark: Is something wrong?

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

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

Bernice: Oh good.

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

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

Mark: I will.

Bernice: Okay. Bye.

Mark: Bye.

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

Mark: I’m in no hurry.

Marlene: I’m not either.

Mark: I have momentous news, Marlene.

Marlene: About Bernice?

Mark: No. I have no news about Bernice.

Marlene: She didn’t call you last night?

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

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

Mark: About?

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

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

Marlene: (startled) You quit your job?

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: Fantastic.

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

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

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

Mark: About Bernice?

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

Mark: What did you say to that?

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

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

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

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

Marlene: Bon chance.

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: I’m sorry to hear that.

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

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

Marlene: (crying) Yes, please.

*

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene: What have you been doing with your days?

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

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

Mark: She’d done this before?

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

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

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

Mark: Quite a revelation.

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

Mark: You and Angela were her enablers.

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

Mark: What is your new arrangement with her?

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

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

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

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

Marlene: Very much.

Mark: I accept.

Marlene: You do?

Mark: I do.

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

Mark: (crying) Me, too.

Marlene: I should go. Get Juno home.

Mark: Shall we go on a walk tomorrow?

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

Mark: Sounds divine.

Marlene: What would you like for lunch?

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

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

fin

A Wedding Song

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Friendship Dialogues #2

This is the sequel to Friendship Dialogues #1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene: Do you like avocado and bacon together?

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

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

Mark: I’m drooling in anticipation.

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

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

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

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

Marlene: (concerned) Are you okay, Mark?

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene: Have you ever been to the French Riviera?

Mark: No. I’ve never been to Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: You’re kidding.

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

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

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

Mark: What made it unhappy?

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

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

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

Mark: I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene: And did they?

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

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

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

Marlene: What happened fifteen years ago?

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

Marlene: A woman?

Mark: Yes, and that was key.

Marlene: Why?

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

Marlene: You found a good teacher.

Mark: I found a good teacher.

Marlene: Do you meditate every day?

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

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

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

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

Mark: Now I may cry again.

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

The rain begins to fall.

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

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

Mark: I’ll be here barring a tempest.

*

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

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

And he decides he is done being a book editor.

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

fin

One Fell Swoop