A Clean Break
by Vincent Barry
“Tengo curiosidad,” she goes, curious about, she means, what I just said in there—“in there” being Tough Love, a no cost West Side addiction rehab that we both attend weekly—well, given our whereabouts, perhaps weakly; “said,” being my lover’s quarrel with Fitzgerald, whose belief in “clean breaks” I was challenging—anger/authority issues, y’see—mere moments before—I mean his what you can’t come back from—“clean breaks” Fitzgerald called ’em . . . It also happens to be what tonight’s meeting is called—“Clean Breaks”—which I guess started the whole rumpus of sounds to begin with . . . All right, all right, displacement too, I know . . . “ADA”—anger, displacement, authority, that sums me up, I’ve been told—even if it doesn’t add up, to me . . . Make that DADA— I forgot “denial.”
Anyway, “I was just saying,” I essay to her in a soft note ’cause, I admit, I’m at the—er— stage—if you favor theatre— or phase—if you relish lunar likeness—, wherever, I admit that my swooning soul is estimating the strength of its warmth of feeling for her,— “I was just saying there are no clean breaks.” Then, with more tremor, “Ask Gatsby,” and wonder, my nerves on a hair-trigger, “What’s keeping our drinks?” hers Black, mine White, Russians both; and, too, whether “Gatsby” is lost on her, my wide-eyed West Side Luisa.
We’re on a break, y’see, she and I, which we are boldly taking where no one I’m sure on a TL break has ever gone before, the Inner Sanctum, a dive devilishly set at the end of a murky, mauve-streaked alley, though near enough to the dirty yellow light of Tough Love that we can run up to IS like a couple of kids playin’ hooky and holler fish and be back in time, after having had, as the poets say, mysteries heaped upon us, about the mischief that is past and gone, while inviting new mischief in and, of course, imbibing Etta James’ “At Last.”. . .
I know, I know, hardly an ardent commitment, but here’s the thing—the thing is—what? well, we speak the same language, so to speak, albeit different, she and I, our languages. . . . And besides, late word from home has left me this night dejected, bored and blue. “How,”— who was it said?— “how can a man be more at home than that?”
“Gatsby?” she goes with snappish humor. Then, “¿No está flotando—?” and stops, self-collecting, to take a few quick puffs of a smoldering Pall Mall, which she then removes from her stenciled red mouth and holds meditatively between arching fingers.
An easy silence ensues. Her lips gradually tighten on a mirthless grin. More pause. Then she slowly begins to jab the air with the unfiltered PM as though keeping the time or setting the back-beat for what she’s about to say. Which is, in perfectly cadenced English, “Isn’t he the one floating on a raft in a West Egg pool with a bullet in his back?”
“He’s the one,” I agree, and add with a slowly drawn breath,“¡Maravilloso!” meaning literacy.
Y’see, wherever, whenever, I come upon it, literacy, it’s marvelous, isn’t it?—I mean like a rare gemstone of the Borate Class? But she—
“You mean,” she cuts me like a whip,“in a woman— !” Then, continuing with cold brusquerie, blood mounting to face and neck, large, fuliginous eyes quivering, she lets fly at me like a stretched rubber band, “¡Si fuera como hombre—!” by which I gather from my broken Spanish she means, “If she were a man I wouldn’t say that.”
“I never meant that!” I protest.
My tone sounds defensive, just as when my eyes first clapped upon her at an earlier meeting—“Fresh Starts,” I think it was— when she was saying, “One must recover everything from memory—,” and, as she paused, perhaps to recover her English, I blurted from,— who knows from where?— but with anger fueled, “Spoken like—!” and she stopped me, as now, albeit now after a marked pause, though clearly still riding the earlier wave of poetic inspiration with an identical rasping, “Your mansplaining is in plain view!”. . .
Lying then, “I never meant that,” but now, twice shy for once burned, but still wondering how the hell she knows a sockdolager word like mansplaining, I try, this time truthfully, with the quickness of a bell hop at a ritzy hotel, “Plain as a Pikestaff?” and, happily, she jerks out, “Subtle as a needlepoint.” Imagine that! And I know we’re okay, okay for sure when she reassures softly, “Somos buenos.”
Then the Russians arrive, which, as if a posthypnotic cue, sets off a spluttering, strangling version of “Carthago delenda est.”
“¡Trump debe ser destruido!” she flings out, of our Dear Leader, her disorder of thick, dark hair tossing from side to side. Then, flushing fulgurously, “¡Huracán Maria!…¡tres mil muertos!….¡ninguna electricidad! . . . ¡treinta mil—!” “I know,” I try catching up her unavailing wrath with a kindling eye, “I know, I know,” I say again, “thirty-thousand still without roofs,” and she cries dolefully, of Puerto Ricans, “¡Americanos! ”—“I know, I know,” clasping her thin, deep-veined hand, the one with polished nails of different colors drumming on the table top.Then, still trembling and hot-eyed, she says scornfully, of President Plunderbund, “And he calls himself the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico! Pah!”. . .
And I imagine, for her lightning flashing eyes and her smoke-drawn tight mouth, the ventripotent Punchinello-in-Chief hanging by a red silk tie upside down, Mussoliniesque, from a makeshift girder in front of 666 Fifth Avenue, . . . and she asks, “Why are you grinning like an idiot?” and I, smiling idiotically I’m sure, I hear only, through the whorls of bluish-white skail, a sensual post coital,“What are you thinking?”
“Look,” shunting back to the main line of my thought, “I just mean—meant—” “Yes?” “George Wilson didn’t kill Gatsby.” “Oh, really? Who then? Daisy?” “In a way, yes, in a real way, yes, actually,… his past is what—”
“¿Su pasado?” she goes, before, with aspirating English, “Next you’ll be quoting Faulkner’s,’’ then back to Spanish, “El pasado nunca está muerto. Ni siquiera ha pasado.” A pause punctuates a fierce squash of a half-sucked cig into a skull-shaped ash tray inscribed “Dig It” around the word “Life” in an open grave centerpiece. Then a tap out of another from a white on red soft pack that tells us we are, of all the gin joints, so to say, we are “WHEREVER PARTICULAR PEOPLE CONGREGATE,” beneath an armorial crest that promises in Latin, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” and I wonder if we will—conquer.
“Es cierto,” I agree, “the past,” I continue, mumbling above my white drink, that Max, a preternaturally grave man with a close-cropped head and hard jaw, who reminds me of Norma Desmond’s Max, except, of course, for his chrome-hook of a hand lost looking for love in Afghanistan, has just delivered,“the past is never dead.” Of it, the past, that being the undead dead, Max’s quick ironic look inquires, before my head wags him away, and with a sheepish obeisance he slues off, Norma’s Max does, into the Sanctum’s dark den. . . . A waiter could do worse.
“Ni siquiera ha pasado,” rolls more Faulkner from her with the musical ups and downs of the Caribbean, and I nod, “It’s not even—” “Pasado,” she breaks in. And I think, “Literacy! I love—” but, of course, naturally dare not say, favoring instead, “Faulkner was right,” adding “You can’t come back because there are no clean breaks to come back from.”
“‘Oh, por favor,” she goes, the swimming wonder of her eyes again snapping, her fugitive flush now paling, “How long since—?” “Donkey’s years,” I break in sullenly, which she chases with a laughing, “¿Años de burro?” and I know where she’s going, ’cause I know, y’see, she’s perceptive,—I mean she knows, sees, can imagine, ’cause stuff comes out in recovery that she’s, as she might say, “rápido para recoger el ritmo.” “Ah!—” I bluff, then from her,“ “Ah Wilderness?”
“¿Increíble—por qué? . . . From a Puerto Rican, you mean?”
“No, no!” I protest, as to her earlier “from a woman.” “I never meant— ” then meekly, “More like,” with a bluffing laugh, “Ah the Far Off Odor of Home.”
“¿Casa?. . . Did I ever mention—?” and she breaks off indignantly, but of course I know she meant it, home, and I say, “You implied as much,” and from her, “Then, por favor. . . .”
“The last time actually,” I answer, “as it so happens,—”
“Nada es casuaidad,” she says, and I agree, “Nothing’s by chance,” and add, “Unless you mean, by chance, el mar—”
“Ah, the sea!” she goes with a nod. Then, “Si, el mar que trae todas las oportunidades.”
“‘—that brings all chances,’” I go on, recognizing Tristan, then, “‘I would like to try the sea that —’”
“—trae todas las opportunidades —,” she goes, and I, mesmerized, “‘but to what land?’” “Of all oportunidades?” “Of course,” then realize, “no matter—.” “Claro,” she smiles. Of course, I allow, “So long as it heals my wound.” “Sana la herida,” she whispers like an amen.
That’s when—well, I dare to wonder, “Could it be that we’re not, as the poet says, she and I, ‘two souls tinged with the same hue’?” Then I pick up, “As it so happens—,” continuing, “—from my brother this morning of my sister:
‘Sorry to pass on bad news. Kit passed away this morning. She had been ill with stomach cancer and the last few weeks things turned for the worst.
‘The particulars of funeral . . . .’”
“¿Es todo?” she asks. It is, all. “Your brother,” she says dryly, “is excellent at—” then fills it out— “notificación de muerte.”
“Other than of death,” I get out, “I never hear from him.”
“And him?” “Him?” “From you? “I have no deaths to report.” “Or have you no way to report them?” I don’t reply. “Oh bien,” she goes, unfastening her eyes from mine, “a man doesn’t have to say what he feels to feel what he doesn’t say,” and I feel . . . sad, neglected, abandoned. . . . Then a wide, uncomfortable pause.
“So,” at last from her, “will you go back for the—?” “Hmm, interesting construction,” I break in, “‘back’ ‘will.’” “Pasado futuro.” “Exactamente. . . .¿no lo ves? …There is no back back there.” “Because you’ve made a clean break?” “No, because there’s no clean break to make—ever.” “With the past?” “Si, con el pasado.”
A meditative interval passes, then she sighs, “Bien entonces,” and continues in English, “Well then, ‘the best you can do is manage and protect it as one does an afflicted member of one’s family.’”
“Who—?” I falter on it. Then, a bit manically, “I demand to know! Who said that?”
“You demand,” she laughs with sidelong glances. “Why, you sound positively— Major Strasserish!”
“So?” I go, Casablanca not lost on me, “So what? Does that mean you’re gonna plug me?”
“And if I did?”
“Well, if you did,” I ponder bemused, before, “there would be nothing else to do but—” making space for her to complete my thought, “Round up the usual suspects?” she laughs across at me.
We sit quietly for a while with Etta:
And then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine—
At last, from one or the other of us, “We better be getting back.” Her half-smoke squashes in the overloaded ash tray that rests on a Jackson I slip under it. We get up to leave with a “Volviendo,” from one or the other of us.
“’Something wrong with—?” flings the gelid, muddled Max, staring with a cold grey fish eye at our untouched Russians.
Looking at each other in an interpretive way, “No,” we assure him in tandem, our words entwined with laughter low and the mystic chemistry of our being, adding, “solo con nosotros.”
Once outside we quickly escape the puddle of purple cast by a naked light bulb, and
then, side by side, with guileless confidence, stride for stride, with cloudless smiles, we make our way with fresh decision through the gathering mist toward the xanthic light at the mouth of the alley, and, from one or the other,—no, no! it’s from me, allowed along the way, definitely from me, like a tipsy reveler trying his damnedest to mask a disenchanted sadness, “Luisa, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. After a stint with the Peace Corps more years ago than he prefers to remember, Barry’s one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College and authoring textbooks. Now retired from teaching, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad. Barry lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara.