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?
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.
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.
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.
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.