This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #9.
Mark is sixty-four and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the strictures of the pandemic, he had five dates with Bernice, who is fifty-seven, before the focus of their connection shifted from possibly having a relationship to becoming friends. In the process of making this shift, Mark met Bernice’s closest friends Angela, sixty-three, and Marlene, sixty, and now Mark is becoming friends with Angela and Marlene, too.
“As much as we like each other,” Mark explains in a phone conversation with his pal Alex, “it seems highly unlikely that Bernice and I will end up in a relationship, though it seems likely we’ll be friends.”
“How do you feel about that?” asks Alex, who has been married to Denise for thirty-seven years and has no female friends other than Denise’s friends.
“I feel fine,” says Mark, who wasn’t looking for new friends when he started using Find the One, the relationship web site where he met Bernice. “Though part of me must still be hoping for a relationship with her because when I logged in to Find the One yesterday to peruse the latest possibilities, I felt like I was cheating on her.”
Alex laughs. “Spoken like a true monogamist.”
Saturday dawns sunny and unusually warm for March, and Mark uses the prospect of lunch at Marlene’s as his carrot for putting in a couple hours editing a whodunit, after which he makes a big batch of guacamole for the upcoming lunch with his three new friends.
Bernice arrives at Mark’s house at 11:30 and she and Mark walk the mile to Marlene’s together. She’s wearing a summery turquoise dress and a dark green mask and schlepps a big round basket containing salad and tortilla chips and Mark’s guacamole as they traverse neighborhoods of mostly older houses, the majority of the inhabitants Internet Technology peeps who supplanted the blue collar families that abided here before the dawn of the digital age.
They are both happy and relaxed, the self-imposed pressure of trying to impress each other mostly gone now.
Mark: You look marvelous as always. Who does your hair?
Bernice: (laughs) Before the pandemic, I would only go to Francois at Tricky Curls, but since the closures I’ve allowed Marlene to make two attempts.
Mark: Looks fine to me.
Bernice: Well she is a great artist. Who cuts your hair?
Mark: Before the pandemic, Denise did. Wife of my pal Alex. She’s French, too. So we both have French haircutters. But since the pandemic began, I go to some guy I meet at my mirror every few months. We communicate telepathically and he hacks the longer stuff back. We aim for symmetry and settle for what we get.
Bernice: You look fine. Short unkempt hair is all the rage now.
Mark: That’s me. Always on the cutting edge of fashion.
Bernice: Yet another thing we have in common.
They walk another block, marveling at how warm the day.
Mark: So… we’re friends now.
Bernice: Yeah. How do you like it so far?
Mark: Very much. How do you like it?
Bernice: I love it. You’re my very first male friend who isn’t gay.
Mark: Do you have many gay male friends?
Bernice: Honey, I’m in show biz. I’ve managed a theatre company for twenty years, and before that I was a script supervisor on fourteen movies, otherwise known as the continuity person. And before that I was an aspiring actor. So, yes, I have many gay male friends. Do you have any gay male friends?
Mark: I used to. My best friend was gay, but he died and I don’t currently have any gay friends. Well, that’s not true. I correspond with a lesbian and a sometimes lesbian.
Bernice: I’m sorry you lost your friend.
Mark: Harry was a marvel. You would have loved him. Pianist. Composer. Full of fun.
They walk in silence for a time.
Mark: So you were an actor and a continuity person. You didn’t tell me that when we were trying to concoct a relationship.
Bernice: (frowns) I know. Came out easy as pie now that we’re friends.
Mark: And I didn’t tell you that I was an aspiring actor. I must have been embarrassed about that before we were friends.
Bernice: Did you go to LA and try to make it in the movies?
Mark: No. New York. Did the whole bartender by night, acting workshops and auditions by day. For three exhausting humiliating years. Then I came back to California and morphed into a book editor while trying to get parts in plays and indie films. (laughs) I was a colossal failure, but I loved trying.
Bernice: You didn’t fail, Mark. You just didn’t realize that trying was your success. That’s what I realize now when I look back on all the things I’ve done in my life. I never failed. I just didn’t understand that trying was my practice. As the Buddhist teachers say, we practice to practice, not to get somewhere, not to win some prize. When you practice the guitar you’re not failing. You’re practicing.
Mark: And lately I’ve been failing to practice. But I know what you mean and I thank you for reminding me.
Bernice: I do occasionally have a small part in one of our plays. But acting in plays has never been my bliss. I wanted to be in movies. I’ve never been keen on playing the same part over and over again, but I love becoming someone else in relation to other people. That’s my favorite part about acting.
Mark: So is that where you and Marlene met? In Hollywood?
Bernice: Yes, she was the art director on two films I worked on, and we became instant friends. And then a year after I moved here to take the job managing the theatre company, she moved up here, too, and I eventually enticed her to design some sets for us, and she turned out to be a fabulous actor.
Mark: Was she a success in Hollywood, speaking of success?
Bernice: She art directed some very big movies and made lots of money, and if you ask her about her movie career she’ll say they paid her a fortune to make crap look good.
Mark: And how did you meet Angela?
Bernice: She is the accountant for our company. We met twenty years ago and fell in love as best friends will. Isn’t she just the most brilliant deadpan comedian?
Mark: She’s great. Every spoke of your troika is great.
Bernice: And so are you, my friend. So are you.
On Marlene’s terrace, frogs and turtles sunning themselves on lily pads in her big pond, Marlene serves a lunch of chicken enchiladas, spicy tomato rice, refried beans, salad, and guacamole. The women have beer, Mark water with a slice of lemon. Angela and Bernice and Marlene share a big table, Marlene and Angela wearing floppy sunhats and sun dresses, while Mark sits at a smaller table ten feet from them.
Marlene: You don’t drink any alcohol, Mark?
Mark: I have the occasional sip of wine and the occasional sip of beer. I love the taste, but I’m allergic to alcohol and more than a little makes me ill.
Angela: Do you smoke pot?
Mark: No. I used to, but not anymore.
Angela: Why did you stop?
Mark: Well… I was addicted and it was ruining my life. So I quit.
Marlene: Good choice, Mark.
Angela: The three of us sometimes smoke pot together. We like getting high and watching a movie or dancing or… whatever.
Mark: Sounds wonderful. I loved getting stoned before I became addicted. But then it ceased to be about love and was all about needing to be high so I could feel okay about being here. You know what I mean?
Angela: Oh I do. Believe me, I do.
Mark: I believe you.
Bernice: Fortunately, we’re all cheap dates, so a puff or two usually does the trick.
Marlene: Speaking of getting high, I’m getting high on this guacamole. You must give me your recipe.
Mark: I’ll write it down before I go.
Marlene: Oh you can just email it to me.
Bernice: I’ll send you her email.
Mark: Great. So… what have you all been up to since we breakfasted at my place an eternity ago?
Angela: I’ve been doing other people’s taxes. Crunch time. Eight hours a day. Any more than that and the numbers begin to blur.
Mark: I know what you mean. I can only edit for a few hours at a time and then my brain stops working and I have to stop looking at words and get up and move around.
Marlene: How many hours a day do you work?
Mark: Five or six, and to make my forty hours I work every day.
Marlene: You don’t take weekends off?
Mark: (attempts French accent) What is this thing you call weekend?
Bernice: I can’t remember. The days all blur together now.
Marlene: I still keep my weekends separate from the weekdays, though I haven’t had a job since the pandemic began.
Mark: So what do you do with your time?
Marlene: I exercise for two hours in the morning before breakfast, yoga and Pilates online, and then after breakfast I draw for an hour or so. Then I take my neighbor’s dog for a walk, then I write emails, then I have lunch with tea and read, and then I visit friends in-person or on the computer. Then I might go shopping or do gardening work, and then it’s supper, and after supper I might watch a movie or take a long bath. Often I do something with Bernice or Angela or both of them.
Bernice: You’re so disciplined.
Marlene: Well, I have to be. I’m very prone to melancholy, so without the structure I will become morose and it isn’t good for me.
Mark: Sounds like a good life.
Marlene: It is. I’m very lucky.
Mark: Did you study art in college?
Marlene: Yes. I studied drawing and painting and sculpture in France, and then specifically set design and art direction for films in Switzerland.
Mark: And then you conquered Hollywood.
Marlene: (laughs) Au contraire. Hollywood demolished me. So much work to make crap look good, and one day I woke up and realized I was growing old and all I’d done with my life was help promote stereotypes of women as whores and men as vengeful heroes.
Mark: Do you ever wish you’d stayed in France? Made more complex dramas?
Marlene: Sometimes. Not often. France was quite stifling for me in many ways.
Angela: Not to change the subject, but these enchiladas are to die for.
Bernice: They are so good.
Mark: Fantastic. And I’m a serious enchilada aficionado.
Marlene: I’m glad you like them. (looks at Mark) I’m so sorry you can’t be at our table. But in a few months we will all be vaccinated and then we can sit together.
Mark: In the meantime, I appreciate your wish.
A pleasant silence falls as they enjoy the delicious lunch.
Angela: (to Mark) Bernice says you edit murder mysteries. Anything you’d recommend? I gobble them like candy.
Mark: I’m not the one to ask about that. Having edited hundreds of them, I now loathe the genre, though I do understand their appeal. In fact, a big part of my job is insuring that the books deliver that particular high the reader is reading for.
Marlene: If you hate the genre, why not edit some other kind of books?
Mark: Not to avoid your question, but perhaps the best way to answer you would be to ask why didn’t you art direct movies that weren’t crap?
Marlene: They make very few movies in America that are not crap, and most of the ones that are not crap either don’t pay their art directors very well or those jobs go to the few men at the top of the art director pyramid.
Mark: Well… they publish very few books in America that are not crap. And the relatively small publisher I work for can’t afford to publish books that aren’t moneymakers, which precludes most books that are not crap.
Angela: I think that’s so sad.
Mark: Depends on what you like to read. I mean… only a very small percentage of our population buys books of any kind, let alone literary works, and that same population is two or three generations removed from the golden age of American literature that ended, for all intents and purposes, in the 1960s. And they probably wouldn’t like fiction of that quality if it were published today because the collective taste has changed, forever altered by television and the subsequent versions of television most people now access on their phones.
Marlene: Which is why I’m reading Dickens again. He holds up well.
Angela: And I read murder mysteries.
Bernice: And twenty years from now they’ll say the golden age was the early 2000s, and on we’ll go.
Mark: Thus it has always been. I was recently reading Twain’s autobiography and he reeled off the names of a dozen or so of his most famous contemporaries circa 1900 and I’d never heard of any of them.
Angela: So maybe it’s not so sad. Things just change.
Marlene: I wish I could look at it that way, but it feels like a death to me. The contemporary plays we do now, they feel so much like television shows.
Mark: They are. Because that’s all the younger writers know about. They’re not going to imitate Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller or Samuel Beckett. They’re going to write in ways that feel familiar to them.
Angela: (to Mark) Bernice tells us you write plays.
Mark: I’ve written a few. And I’ve gotten a handful of stellar rejection letters, but I fear I may already be a dead writer, though my body has yet to die. I stopped watching television when I was nineteen and traveled down a long road of reading great dead writers, so I don’t really speak the language of now.
Bernice: Which brings up an interesting question. Why write something or create something for which there is no audience?
Mark: It’s not only an interesting question, it is the fundamental question for artists who make original art. And my answer is that some part of me must still believe there is an audience for what I do if only by some miracle it gets to live on a larger stage than my desk.
Marlene: And my answer is we create what we create regardless of what anyone else thinks. Otherwise it’s not art. It’s commercial art, maybe, but not art.
Bernice: And my answer is a combination of both your answers. I assume the poem has come to me for a reason I’ll discover after I get the thing written down. Then I can decide if it’s something I want to share or just needed to get out. Like a bowel movement.
Marlene: (laughs) I have drawn many pictures of this sort.
Angela: And I don’t write or draw or create anything. I read murder mysteries and watch television, lots of television, especially British stuff. And you’re right, Mark. I’ve tried to read Faulkner and Nabokov and Dickens and Philip Roth and John Updike and I find it all impenetrable and nothing I care about. I couldn’t even read Harry Potter. But I love murder mysteries.
Marlene: What do you love about them, darling?
Angela: I love the suspense and the danger and the needing to know who did it.
Mark: You identify with the detective.
Angela: I do. I feel like I’m there, and I’m in danger, and I’ve got to find out who the killer is before they kill me.
Mark: That’s my job, Angela. Making the writing is good enough so the reader will identify with the detective and feel the detective is not merely solving a crime, but defying death.
Marlene: I’ve always wondered what the appeal was. And now I know. But it’s nothing I want to read. I feel like I’m defying death every day. Isn’t that what life is? Defying death?
Bernice: And eating good food while we’re at it.
Masked again and trying to stay six feet apart, Mark and Bernice take their time walking home from Marlene’s.
Bernice: I watch television. And if we were in a relationship I would still watch television.
Mark: And I would watch it with you sometimes, just to be with you.
Bernice: I also drink beer and wine and sometimes scotch on the rocks and every now and then I smoke pot.
Mark: Would you allow me the occasional sip of your booze?
Bernice: I would. But I also like lots of plays by writers who are not dead.
Mark: You could educate me, and if I didn’t like a play you liked, we could have revealing discussions about why you like the play and I don’t.
Bernice: You say all the right things.
Mark: So do you.
Bernice: Do you think you’re still hoping to be in a relationship with me?
Mark: Probably. But I’m also fine with being your friend and never being in a relationship with you.
Bernice: How about taking ballroom dance lessons? Would you do that for me if we were in a relationship?
Mark: I would do that for you as your friend. And that goes for watching television with you and having sips of your booze and discussing contemporary plays. We don’t have to wait. We can do it all now.
Bernice: But no sex.
Mark: No, I’d even have sex with you as your friend.
Bernice: I don’t think that would work. Not yet anyway.
Mark: I wonder why you brought up being in a relationship when we were having so much fun being friends.
Bernice: Maybe because I can talk about it now without being afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.
Mark: Well that’s good.
Bernice: So now, once again, if not for the pandemic we would probably kiss, wouldn’t we?
Mark: That’s nonsense. If we want to kiss each other, we will. We’re both healthy and strong and neither of us has the virus. And we both know it.
Bernice: So why don’t you try to kiss me?
Mark: Because I love being your friend and I want to see where it takes us.
They stop walking and look at each other.
Bernice: I want to see where it takes us, too. I think the reason I brought up being in a relationship is that the more time I spend with you, the more I like you, and maybe I’m afraid you’ll fall in love with someone else and I’ll miss my chance.
Mark: I’m flattered. But I don’t think the fear of missing your chance is a good reason to start a relationship.
Bernice: No, of course not, but… I saw the way you were looking at Marlene and… she really likes you.
Mark: The mind boggles.
They resume walking.
Bernice: I’m being an idiot, aren’t I?
Mark: Yeah, but you’re very cute when you’re being an idiot.
Bernice: You’re just saying that to make me feel better.
Mark: No, it’s true. You get very open and vulnerable when you talk about your fears, and you become more beautiful than ever, which is an extreme kind of cuteness.
Bernice: (laughs) I like being your friend.
Bernice: Imagine me holding your hand.
Mark: Imagine me really liking it.