by Kevin McCaffrey
Liquids was a cramped, filthy bar on the third floor of an old office building.
No signs on the street---or anywhere else---advertised its existence. People
either knew it was there or they did not. It was called Clear Liquids because
only clear liquids were served there. The drink menu consisted of such beverages
as gin, vodka, white rum, white wine, schnapps, water, and other liquids
which were perfectly clear or, at most, colorlessly cloudy. There was no
food menu. Why the owner of the bar had settled on this particular scheme
he never made clear. In addition to the sale of clear beverages, an ample
drug trade took place on the premises.
Drugs could be bought either from the bartender or in the bathroom from a seller who worked for the owner. Other drug dealers were actively discouraged from working at the establishment.
It was a dark place with an old linoleum floor, no decoration, no plants, a wooden bar, some bar stools, some tables and chairs. Large, dirt-spattered windows looked onto a shabby street, a tired city. At Clear Liquids there was no music.
Karla and Bruno were two people who knew where Clear Liquids was.
They sat together at a table in the waning hours of the May afternoon. Though the afternoon was warm, the windows of the bar were closed. There was no air conditioning and it was hot in the bar and the air was thick with smells of sweat, cigarettes, liquor, and a hint of the vomit which had not been thoroughly washed away from a corner of the room.
Karla said, "Well, what's your mindset, Bruno? I mean really?"
Bruno said, "I can't complain."
Karla looked out the window, then back at Bruno. He could see that she was formulating a thought, a thought which was causing her some anxiety.
"I'm not here to ask you for anything, Bruno, but I just want to know---is it easier...is it better for you being with her than it was being with me?"
Bruno put down his glass of vodka. With his finger he traced a design through wetness on the table. He said softly, "Karla, we've been through this before. I'm happy now. Or less unhappy. Not that I care a lot about my emotions. Things just work better with Ashley. It's more…uh…efficient. More mechanical."
"Mechanical," she replied, raising an eyebrow in a way he remembered well. "What's funny to me, Bruno, is you always told me that you thought Ashley and I were so similar, that we were cut from the same boring cloth."
"I know," Bruno replied. "I still do."
"And you told me before that you thought I was more..."
"Karla," Bruno interrupted, "We don't need to get into this."
He looked at her. He knew her body well. Almost as well as her mind. She was beautiful---a pallid, five foot eleven inch, emaciated, languid goddess with long legs, thin expressive hands, high cheekbones, blue eyes, short-cropped blonde hair. She looked back at him intently with an expression which, despite the complexity of her personality, was almost one of innocent befuddlement. The perpetual gee-whiz look of a faun, Bruno thought to himself, or a lamb. Or a child. Ashley, on the other hand---his Ashley---was shorter and not so very thin as Karla. Her image formed in his mind and he conducted, as he had many times before, a mental comparison. Ashley's lips were fuller than Karla's, her nose broader, her hips wider, her cheekbones lower, her breasts smaller, and her legs not as impressively long. She was less angular. Her lines were softer. Her hair---brown and shoulder length---was less distinctive. But Ashley's personality held for him an as yet unresolved mystery. She balanced a prematurely world-weary cynicism with a mild, yet constant, enthusiasm for life. Easily bored by topics that most people found interesting, she often displayed great enthusiasm for topics generally considered mind-numbingly dull. Her disposition, her spirit, seemed poised equally between the twin concepts of "why" and "why not?" At any rate, Karla and Ashley were nearly the same in one respect: each thought the world revolved around herself. This might have been too much for him, but their beauty compensated for their self-centeredness.
Karla cleared her throat. Bruno brought his attention back to her. The weakening light of the afternoon was playing tepidly now on her, daubing half her face and half her upper body with yellowish light.
He picked up his glass, took another sip, said, "This vodka gets to you."
She did not reply, turned instead to look out the window. She saw workers in skyblue uniforms sweeping the street. Freedomworkers. They swept around the prostrate body of a man who had been shot recently. Blood formed a pool around his head. The sweepers were careful to avoid the blood with their brooms. Then she noticed the sound of a police siren, still far away. Funny, she thought, she could not even remember a gunshot. Her eyes climbed the office building across the street, rising like the dead man's soul might have risen, though she doubted it. Death was death. Final. A billboard was on the roof. It depicted small, diaphanously clad children on a beach. Their eyes were closed. They were pallid. Their bodies looked stiff, contorted. They were dead too. Dead children on the beach. The billboard advertised a unisex cologne called No Future.
She said, "Well, tell me what it's like. I want to know what it's like living with Ashley." She turned her gaze towards Bruno.
Bruno looked away. Then he looked back at Karla and, using one of the expressions common to the young people of the city, he said, "It's bland. We get along pretty well."
"You mean," Karla said, "you don't have the arguments that we used to have?"
"Oh, we have some arguments, but look, why do you want to talk about this? She's your best friend."
"Yes," Karla said, "she is my best friend and I've tried---we've both tried---not to let you come between us."
"Has that been hard?"
"Yes. At times. Very hard," Karla replied. She thought for a moment; her expression became wistful. "Jesus," she exclaimed with a trace of enthusiasm, "do you remember this is the same sweating place where we first met each other?"
"Yes, " Bruno said. "When was that? Five or six years ago?"
"Yes," she said, looking at him, looking at the same time into the distance of the past. "This place had a different name then."
"It did. What was it called? Something like The Palace or The Chalice. Something that made no sense."
"No," Karla smiled, "I'm sure the name referred to some kind of emotional state. It might have been Malice."
"No, " Bruno said. "I would remember if it had something to do with feelings."
"Like you have them, ugly."
"I do, when it's appropriate."
"Who cares about that? It was named Malice."
"Well," Karla replied, her voice girlish and insincere, "we rarely agree."
"What's the point?" Bruno said. "Sometimes I just prefer to be disagreeable." Then, leaning forward, he changed subject. "What do you think of the dream therapy sessions?"
"Oh, them," Karla said. "Bland. Mildly bland. Bland squared."
"And what do you think of Dr Bentley?"
"She fits her role perfectly, I think. If someone is going to lead me through my nightmares, I want it to be someone like her."
"Yes," Bruno said, "You're right about that."
"So how are your dreams, Bruno? How is your dreamlife?" Karla smiled.
"The same. Nonexistent."
"Never," Bruno answered. "How about you?"
"Oh, my dreams are boring, I mean really. But I'd love to know what you're actually dreaming these days."
"Believe me, Karla, my mind is blank."
"You say that, but I'd like to think," Karla said, "that you're dreaming about me at least once in a while."
Bruno said, "Well, I do daydream about you occasionally."
Karla smiled, "I know you do."
Bruno raised his eyebrows.
"Perhaps," she responded cryptically, "I know more than you think."
Bruno looked at her more closely and let it pass. He had seen this manufactured mysteriousness before. He took another sip of vodka, then he said, "I'm glad you've been able to maintain your friendship with Ashley. That's important to me."
"Because something tells me," Bruno said, "that when I'm gone from both your lives, you'll still have each other."
"Maybe you should write the inscriptions for sympathy cards," Karla said. "That's such a deeply touching thought."
Bruno pursed his lips, then he looked out the window. "No, I'm being sincere," he said.
"Sincere? Bruno, the day that you or I or Ashley actually say what we really mean, or even know if we…uh…if we mean what we're saying---that will be a banner day in...in...well, it will be a banner day, whatever that is."
Bruno did not respond.
Then Karla said, "You know, I thought up a story, maybe yesterday or the day before. Would you like to hear it?"
"Napping. The story goes like this: there were two twins, two women. Identical twins. And they were almost exactly alike in every respect. Of course they weren't the same person, but they were almost like two...uh...manifestations of the same person. Absolutely identical, like I said. And there was one guy...one of the twins was in love with this guy. Needless to say---just to make the story more interesting---he wasn't really worthy of her love. But what is love if not a sacrifice of ourselves to something that is not worthy of such a sacrifice, huh?"
Bruno grunted, "That's today's definition of love, anyway."
"Anyway," Karla smiled, "one of the twins was deeply in love with this guy, this specimen, this unworthy fellow, and he's in love with her. In so far as that's possible, I mean. Yet, the other twin---it would be too trite to call her the evil twin---decides that she wants to sleep with this guy. Who knows why? She's bored maybe. And so she finds an opportunity to pretend that she is her sister, and she sleeps with him---and guess what?---he doesn't know the difference. Imagine! So, this goes on for months, maybe years, with the one twin, the surrogate, pretending she is her sister, and neither her sister nor her sister's boyfriend ever know that there's a...third element in their relationship."
Bruno nodded, "That's napping. What happens in the end?"
"Who says there's an end, you pessimist? Maybe the end is that the sister and her boyfriend die and they are buried side by side and so the twin decides to kill herself and she buries herself, or she has herself buried, between the two of them. Or better yet---she has her sister's coffin exhumed and hers buried in its place. Just to keep up the pattern. That would be a pretty good ending, huh?"
"Yes, that would be an excellent ending. Would you like another drink?"
"I would." Karla got up and walked to the bar, ordered herself a vodka, ordered the same for Bruno, came back. She carried two old jelly jars filled nearly full with the clear liquid. They drank, they smoked cigarettes. They did not say much for a few minutes. Then Bruno had an impulse, an impulse he instantly knew he should discount, stifle. But for some reason the impulse moved from impulse to verbalization so quickly and smoothly he could not stop it.
He said, "So how would you like to go back to your apartment and make love?" He felt his face redden, but he held Karla's eyes. "In a way, we would be acting out the story you just told. Obviously."
She looked at him, then looked down at her drink, took another sip, puffed on her cigarette, exhaled.
She said, "Give me a moment to think about it, you ugly fucker."
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