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?
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?
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.