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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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Relationship Interview #7

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #6.

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

Mark: (picks up the phone) Hello?

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

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

Bernice: Yes, of course.

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

Mark: You still there?

Bernice: I’m here. You okay?

Mark: I’m fine. How are you?

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

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

Bernice: Would you like to see me again?

Mark: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: Why would you do that?

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

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

Bernice: I loved our three dates. So much.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene: Please sit where you like.

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

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

Mark: Tea would be wonderful.

Marlene: Black or herbal?

Mark: Mint?

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

Mark: Thank you.

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

Marlene: Here you are.

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

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

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

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

Mark: Beautiful place to survive in.

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

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

Marlene: You’ve been alone the whole time?

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

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

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

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

Angela and Bernice arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

Bernice: (laughing) Yes you have.

Mark: Nice to meet you.

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

Bernice: Wine for me, please.

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

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

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

Mark: So are you.

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

Mark: Pleasantly, I hope.

Bernice: Yes. Pleasantly.

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

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

Marlene: What did I miss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela: Do you take lessons online?

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

Bernice: Angela plays the guitar.

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

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

Marlene: And so do you, dear.

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

Mark: I can’t wait.

Marlene: Are you Jewish, Mark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark: And you?

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

Mark: Do you think of yourself as Jewish?

Bernice: No, though I’ve tried to.

Mark: What do you mean?

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

Mark: Me, too.

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

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

Bernice: Hide our true natures or die.

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

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

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

Mark: Sounds good to me.

Angela: Did you have a sister, Mark?

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

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

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

The sky darkens ominously.

Marlene: Oh no. The rain is coming.

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

Mark: Sexually? No. Emotionally? Yes.

Rain begins to fall.

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

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

Bernice: (to Mark) I’ll call you.

Mark: I hope so. 

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

Bernice: Well? Did you like him?

Angela: What’s not to like?

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

Angela: He’s a peach.

Bernice: Can we have him over again soon?

Marlene: Of course. He’s delightful.

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

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

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

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

Bernice: You see why I want to kiss him.

Angela: Who wouldn’t?

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

fin

Rain