They met in the health food store, in the refrigerated foods section where Mandy was deliberating over tofu: silky or extra firm? Extra firm she could sauté with veggies, the silky she could use in smoothies. In the end, she tossed both of them into her crocheted marketing bag.
Ben cared little for health food stores, and not at all for tofu. All Ben wanted was a cold drink. But he did find interest in the young woman next to him; she was wearing a leotard and a large print scarf arrangement over tights; she was sylph-like, an apparition really, with long dark hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail. She looked to him to weigh about 83 pounds, but of course that was not correct. She also looked shy and sweet and feminine. (That was not correct either, as Ben was shortly to discover.)
“Hi.” He tried to sound hopeful, upbeat.
“Hi, yourself.” Mandy reopened the refrigerator case and retrieved a strawberry Kefir.
“That stuff any good?”
“I like it.”
Ben noticed her earlier choices. “Looks as though you also like tofu.”
Mandy turned to study him. “You have something against tofu?” she asked, her hand on one small hip.
“Not at all; it makes great wallpaper paste.”
Mandy sniffed and moved off in the direction of the produce section. Ben chose a fruit drink from the case; when he found her again, she was squeezing the oranges and putting a few into her string bag.
Ben tried again. “How many navels does one girl need?”
“How many does one woman need,” she corrected, without halting the squeezing process.
By the time they had paid for their purchases, Ben had convinced her to sit with him on the bench outside the market.
“No harm in just sitting here, is there?” Ben was suddenly aware of his grimy clothes, the result of a long day’s work in the field. “Have a mint,” he said, reaching into his pocket to offer her a candy in the hopes she wouldn’t notice his filthy jeans.
“Can’t,” she answered.
“Are you diabetic?” Ben popped a couple of mints in his mouth.
“No, I’m philosophically opposed.”
“Philosophically opposed to mints?”
“No, philosophically opposed to Altoids, which are produced by a company owned by Altria, which is really Philip Morris.”
“Oh.” Ben chewed on the mints.
“Philip Morris sells cigarettes to young kids.” Mandy gave him a withering look. “For someone I met in a health food store, I thought you’d know that.”
“I do know it; I just can’t get behind being upset at what I can’t change.”
“But you could change it; that’s the point. If everyone in the world made a commitment to change, change would occur. It takes action, a desire to make the world a better place.”
Ben stood up and dumped the mint container in the trash. “Change,” he said. “Commitment. Action. You’re pretty excitable when you’re upset, you know that?”
“Okay, I apologize for that remark. So, do you want to go out with me or not?” He took a last swig of his drink and pointedly dumped the bottle in the glass recycle container. “You mind if I move my car into the shade? If we’re going to sit here a bit, I’d like to get it out of the sun.” He pointed to a car in the corner of the lot.
Mandy shrank back.
“What’s the matter?”
“You drive a Mitsubishi,” she answered, her voice a monotone.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?” he asked.
Mandy sighed. “Mitsubishi is the world’s largest corporation, with revenues exceeding $175 billion. They are categorically the largest destroyer of rainforests in the entire world. In Alberta, they own the largest paper mill on the planet. Their clear-cuts in Siberia are threatening the extinction of the few remaining Siberian tigers.”
“And I suppose you drive a hybrid, right?”
“Wrong,” Mandy said. “I take the bus.”
Ben grabbed her by the elbow. “Look,” he said, “let’s talk about something else. Hobbies, for instance. You have any hobbies?”
“I don’t have time for hobbies; I only have time to do my part to save the world from imminent destruction.”
“Well, I have a hobby,” Ben said. “Photography.”
“And I suppose you own a Nikon,” replied Mandy, discouraged.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Ben answered. The look on Mandy’s face said it all. “Let me guess,” he continued. “The world’s first genetically modified camera.”
“Go ahead, make fun if you want, but you should know that Nikon’s parent company is Mitsubishi. Don’t you do your homework before you make a purchase?”
“What would you have me do – sell my car and buy a bike?”
“I don’t even know you; what you do is immaterial. Look, I have to go now; I’ll miss my bus.”
“I could take you home.”
“Because we come from different planets, that’s why.”
“That Mars and Venus stuff?”
“No, that commitment to the earth and not giving a damn stuff.”
“You don’t even know me!”
“That’s just the point. I don’t think I want to know you.”
Ben sat her back down on the bench. “Well, I want to know you. Five minutes, that’s all I ask. I’m really a nice guy.”
“If you’re such a nice guy, how come you look as though you’ve been rolling in the dirt?”
“Because I’m a large equipment operator, that’s why. I’m trying to earn a living, just like the rest of the billions on this planet. I haven’t had time for a shower; give me ten and I’ll come back smelling like Tide.”
“Large equipment?” Mandy asked. “As in Caterpillar?”
“Caterpillar sometimes, yea, why?”
“Don’t you know that Caterpillar tractors are being used by the Israelis to destroy Palestinian homes? Don’t you care that Tide is made by Procter and Gamble and that they test products on animals? Doesn’t that make a difference to you?”
Ben sighed. “So I’m an ignoramus. But I’m a quick study. I could learn; you could teach me. You know, sort of My Fair Lady, only in reverse. What do you think?”
For the first time, Mandy studied him. He was very handsome, tall with big arms and a cute smile. Plus, he was willing to change. “Deal,” she said finally.
Ben’s diet changed; pretty soon he discovered he actually enjoyed edamame, though hummus and tahini were on his list of forgettables.
He marched for Fair Wages for Farm Workers; he signed his name to letters requesting that animal shelters become no-kill establishments.
He listened as Mandy related stories about the School of the Americas; he started to read Paul Krugman and Seymour Hersch and Edward Abbey and Eric Schlosser. On Mandy’s ‘must read’ list he noted other writers: Naomi Klein, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Ehrenreich. Ben’s head was swimming; he didn’t want to be political, he just wanted to get Mandy in the sack.
Which did not seem a high priority on Mandy’s list. Instead, daily she instituted changes designed to make a new man of Ben: caring, sensitive, vegetarian, political, healthy.
He balked at getting rid of his car, though he did give up meat, at least in her presence. He twisted himself into a pretzel in her yoga class and said not a word about his aching back. He enrolled in MoveOn.org and regularly called his representatives. He switched toothpaste and soap and shampoo and detergent and began using organic soy products instead of dairy. He promised to take no more jobs with land-developers and worked solely for private parties.
He listened only to alternative radio, or on occasion NPR.
In short, he turned his life around.
At first, Mandy was affectionate, though non-committal. “I can’t sleep with you until I believe you’re really a changed man,” she told him. “Otherwise, I’d be going against my moral tenets.”
“How long do you suppose it will take until you see that I’ve changed?” Ben asked. “Just curious,” he added quickly.
In an effort to please, Ben enrolled in Co-Op America and changed his phone service provider to Working Assets. The promise of a year’s worth of Ben and Jerry’s was the real incentive for that change, but of course he did not share this with Mandy. On her behalf he donated his $90 Nikes to the food bank thrift store, and subscribed to The Nation. For this he was rewarded with some heavy-duty necking.
On Sunday, Ben and Mandy joined a cadre of protestors at a peace rally in San Francisco. They rode in a bus with the Grandmothers for Peace because Mandy’s aunt belonged to the organization, something Mandy said she planned to join as soon as she became a grandmother, which Ben figured would never happen because she categorically refused to participate in the process that would get her there.
San Francisco was hot – rare for the town – and tempers flared as the temperature rose. Near Union Square, Mandy became involved in a verbal altercation with an inebriated flag-waver who was bent on antagonizing the marchers.
The path to reason was wasted on this person, as Mandy soon realized, so she devolved to something that felt better. “Lounge lizard!” she screamed at him.
“Hippie bitch!” he yelled back.
Ben responded by decking the moron, a gentlemanly act he thought would forever endear him to his love. Instead, it had the opposite effect.
Ben was nursing a split lip when the police came and carted him and seven others away. Mandy, still supine on the street, a paean to non-violence, was fuming.
“Mandy, it’s me. What the hell is going on?”
“I don’t want to talk to you ever again, that’s what’s going on.”
“Why? Because I stood up for you? Because I defended your honor?”
“I don’t need defending, thank you very much. You acted like an idiot, involving yourself in a street brawl.”
“I did it for you.”
“Ben, my commitment is to peace, to tranquility and harmony.”
“Bullshit. You think calling someone a lounge lizard creates harmony? On what planet? You think leaving me in jail creates harmony? I don’t think so.”
“I did it for your own good. You needed to think about violence as an answer to life’s problems.”
“I didn’t have any problems before I met you!” he yelled. “I worked hard; I enjoyed a beer now and then, and yes, I admit it, a steak on occasion. I watched television; I read the funnies instead of anarchists.”
“Seymour Hersh is not an anarchist.”
“Edward Abbey is.”
“Okay, was. And you know what else? I even made love once in a while.”
“I can’t make love to an angry person.”
“Angry? You bet I’m angry. For you I pretended cauliflower was a complete meal!”
“Cauliflower with sesame seeds,” she replied.
“You know what?” he said. “You are a crazy-maker. Cauliflower with or without sesame seeds DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A COMPLETE MEAL!”
“You’re shouting at me. I won’t be shouted at.”
“I plan on never shouting at you again! I plan on eating what I want, drinking what I want, driving what I want, reading what I want, watching what I want, buying what I want, wearing what I want, Mandy. All of it.”
“You are really a very angry person, Ben. I’m surprised I didn’t see this before. I do hope you find an anger management class or something.”
“You know what, Mandy? I don’t need anger management! I’m pissed off; I have a right to be, but I’ve never been healthier. And as soon as I rid my refrigerator of the unidentifiable substances you put in it, I’ll be happier as well. No more liquid aminos, no more sprouts and green stuff. No more Mandy!”
“There are several very good nerve tonics on the market, Ben. I recommend you try one. Skullcap, hops, valerian can work wonders. Stress can wreak havoc with your sex life.”
“What sex life? I don’t have one!”
As Ben was hanging up the phone, he could hear her prattling on, still offering advice. “Essential oils. Aromatherapy. You might try acupuncture…”