A Song of the Past: Installment Nine

(Previous installment.)

The Struggle for Position

“History justifies whatever we want it to. It teaches absolutely nothing, for it contains everything and gives examples of everything.”
—Paul Valéry, De l’historie, Regards sur le monde actuel

Tuesday, Oct. 21, 7:00 PM
Tuesday night after work, as Deirdre showered, the hot stream that caressed her body glistened, hung on the precipice of a breast, plunged in rivulets down the curve of her belly, splattered against her face and lifted a fine mist into her eyes, ran together, merged and vanished. As she gazed at the complex patterns made by the flowing water it became a symbol of the intricate confluence of events that brought her and Chuck together, in this particular time and place. Because of the difficulties in his marriage, his old connections in New Haven, her desire to leave Cork and explore the wider world, her Aunt living in Connecticut, and God knew what other odd circumstances, they had entered the same current. How long would that river hold within its banks before it lost its identity in the wine-dark sea?

Christ, she was mad thinking like this after only a few encounters and a single meal together. True, she was certain that she was not alone in experiencing a tingling, magnetic force drawing their bodies closer whenever they met. But that kind of innate attraction was a common enough occurrence that she ought to know it was no trustworthy sign of something meaningful. The voice of prudence cautioned her simply to enjoy the pleasure she felt in Chuck’s company, without desperately attempting to erect a fairytale castle atop such a tenuous foundation. Despite recognizing the wisdom in that warning, she feared that she had already begun constructing her cherished folly, and that she would not abandon the project until either the edifice rose into the clouds of her fantasies, or it collapsed into a heap of rubble, bringing down with it whatever genuine affection and companionship their relationship could offer. What was the source of the gravitational attraction that the most extreme ways of regarding her circumstances exercised over her? She either abandoned herself to present pleasures without heed for the predictable regrets to follow in their wake, or obsessed over the conceivable ramifications of her decisions, even those far beyond her control, until her flood of worries swept away every opportunity she might have had to enjoy the journey itself. The image came to her of a sodden bit of driftwood tumbling through a series of rapids, helpless to avoid or even anticipate the next battering some boulder would deliver.

When Deirdre realized that she had spent several minutes engrossed in such navel-gazing, she once again chastised herself for allowing her fancy to roam without guidance or direction. Tonight, anyway, was not the night that the rushing river carrying her along would overleap its banks and carve a new course; when she was finished dressing, she left her apartment and per habit walked down to the center of Westville procure food and drink. It was roughly 7:30 when she entered the New West Café. She chose a stool at the bar that was both vacant and not too close to any other drinker, in the hope that she could read the book she had brought along in peace. The bartender asked if she would have “the usual”: a pint of Guinness. She accepted his offer and ordered a turkey club as well. He politely asked how she was doing, and, receiving a vague but congenial response, he moved off to the taps to pour her stout, while shouting her food order to someone in the kitchen behind the bar. Preparing for the impending arrival of her drink, she turned her attention to her backpack, out of which she extracted her thick book, its navy cover bearing in gold letters the title Three Centuries of New Haven: 1638-1938. After carefully positioning the volume on the bar so as to allow her pint and her sandwich to be placed in their customary spots, she commenced scanning its pages briefly, seeking an overview of its contents, looking, in particular, for any sections that struck her as potentially relevant to her present inquiry. Before she had completed that initial survey, the bartender placed her drink down in front her, albeit not in its assigned location, so that she had to set aside the book for a moment while she corrected his faux pas, in the course of which process she took a large gulp from the offending vessel. Harmony having been restored to her immediate vicinity, she resumed her preliminary inspection of her book, finishing it just as she reached the bottom of her first pint. Before turning to a more thorough study of the sections of the work that had struck her as especially interesting, she flipped to the thirteenth page, which, as she recalled, presented a map of the design imposed, in 1640, on the newly founded English colony by its leaders, who had left Massachusetts to establish a more theologically pure settlement. This closer perusal revealed that early New Haven had been divided into nine squares, with the central square providing common pastureland and its surrounding octet containing the homes and private landholdings of the original colonists. On the following page Deirdre learned that New Haven was the first planned community of the New World.

She was in the midst of the fifth chapter, describing “The Decline and Fall of the Colony,” when she noticed that a woman had taken the seat next to her and was peering at her book. Deirdre tried to size up her observer without being too obvious about it; she was short and dark, her eyes an exquisitely deep brown, her face delicately sculpted, the chiseled nose supporting wire-rimmed glasses and her forehead partly hidden by a black beret. When their eyes met, the woman asked, with a trace of a Hispanic accent, “What are you reading?”

“The story of how the New Haven colony lost its independence and was assimilated into the colony of Connecticut.”

"That's interesting. I didn't even realize that there had been a New Haven colony."

"Yes, our miniscule state once was comprised of two colonies, during the seventeenth century — one centered around Hartford, and the other around New Haven.”

"And what was the cause of the New Haven colony's demise?”

“Apparently it was the damned heretics, who were determined to punish the God-fearing, Puritan colonists for hiding three of the judges who had condemned Charles I to death from their royalist pursuers. The colonists were being tested—if they just had held steadfastly to their holy mission, then everything would have come out fine.”

The woman appeared to contemplate Deirdre’s answer while she took a long sip from her drink. Then her face brightened, and she said, “Isn’t it funny how whenever these religious fanatics fail, it was the fault of the godless, but when someone they don’t like fails, it’s a sign of God’s displeasure with the other folks’ wicked ways?”

“I hear ya. A friend of mine once brought me along to one of her church services. The preacher went on about just that sort of thing. His flock had faced these and those difficulties, which represented God’s way of strengthening their faith. Meanwhile, various naughty folk had encountered their own problems, but those troubles demonstrated God’s anger at their sins.”

The woman nodded with approval, and then said, “My name’s Juanita.” She offered Deirdre her hand, while adding, “And yours is?”

“Deirdre. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You’ve got a different sort of accent. Where is it from?”

“It is a symptom of acute hibernophrenia.”

“What the hell is that?”

“A disease I contracted in early childhood. It’s an extremely rare illness that causes its victims to imagine they grew up in Ireland. But seriously, that’s were I really did spend my wonder years. Where are you from? You’ve got a bit of an accent yourself.”

“Puerto Rico. I moved here about ten years ago. Let’s see, what do I ask next? I know: Are you working at a real job at present, or just a holding operation until you get your big break in some artsy endeavor?”

“Well, I’m a cop, which I guess is a pretty ‘real’ job, or at least it is for me.”
Juanita could not conceal being nonplussed by that bit of information, and so Deirdre paused to allow her a moment to digest the notion that this young and hip-looking woman of color worked for “the Man.” When she appeared to have absorbed it, Deirdre asked, “And what pursuit occupies your days?”

“I’m a feminist poet and a political activist.”

Deirdre had to restrain the upward movement of her eyebrows. “And are those things a person can make a living at?”

“Well, I also substitute teach in the New Haven school system, and sometimes I get grants from state agencies or private art foundations to work on my poetry.”

“Well, that’s grand, then. Myself, I write occasionally as well.”

“Really? What sort of stuff do you write?”

“Ah, I make desultory efforts at keeping a journal of sorts. Just trying to record the puzzles I meet in everyday life and such. It probably amounts to nothing more than personal therapy.”

“Oh, but that’s the best reason to write. I’m convinced that the core of any authentic creative work is always based around what the author herself is struggling with in her own life. Even one’s political life should be an embodiment of their personal experience, or they just will wind up being another way to act out false consciousness.”

“So, this poetry you write, it’s political then?”

“Quite a lot of it is. I try to give expression to the struggle faced by of women and minorities as they strive to liberate their spirits from societal oppression, which all too often they have internalized.”

“And if you succeed, what will the result be?”

“I want to raise the consciousness of just how ubiquitous and life-denying that oppression is, which is the first step towards overcoming it.”

“Once your readers’ consciousness has been raised, they’ll get behind your political program then?”

“It’s almost inevitable. Anyone who glimpses the reality that patriarchal ideology functions to veil, who is awakened to the subjugation of women and people of color, and who is brought to really feel the suffering that the present system generates, even a white male, will be moved to join the fight for universal liberation.”

“Even a white male?” Deirdre’s voice expressed incredulity.

“It’s true that a white man, socially conditioned to regard dominance and privilege as his birthrights, will find it hard to surrender his advantages and work for equality. But men have consciences, too, and if you bring the pain home to them, they can be won over.”

“Ah, you’re just windin’ me up! Men with consciences—can you imagine that?”

“No, seriously, there are many men who are on our side in the struggle.”
Deirdre’s current preoccupation came to the forefront of her mind. “Say, do you know anything about the Masons?”

“You mean the Freemasons?” Deirdre nodded. “Well, of course many Freemasons, like Bolivar and Marti, played a role in liberating South and Central America from Spain, but it was and still is an essentially patriarchal organization, formed around an idea of ‘brotherhood’ that excludes women.”

“But aren’t feminists devoted to the idea of sisterhood?”

“That’s an entirely different matter! After having been oppressed for so long, women aren’t looking to establish an exclusive club that only the privileged can join, but are working to uplift ourselves through solidarity. In the end, whatever good they may have done, the Masons are just another cog in the apparatus of male oppression.”

The two women fell silent for a moment, a space that Deirdre welcomed, for it offered her the opportunity to focus on polishing off the remaining third of her pint of stout, an opportunity she didn’t waste.

Sensing her companion’s thirst, Juanita asked her if she could buy her another round.

“Oh, I can’t see why not, at least not from this stool.”

When Juanita leaned forward to place the order she pressed her breast, not by accident, Deirdre suspected, firmly against the latter’s upper arm. Deirdre found the smooth, soft presence quite pleasant even as she tried to pretend it wasn’t really there, and a warm tingling spread up and down her limb from the point of contact. She looked into Juanita’s face, and found her returning the attention. For a second their eyes embraced, and then Juanita smiled coyly and turned her head to the approaching bartender.

Juanita, as she handed Deirdre her drink, asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Halle Berry?”

“No, not really.” Deirdre acted nonchalant, but she was secretly a little flattered.

“Well, I think you do—your eyes are like hers, and you have the same lovely skin color.” She looked directly into Deirdre’s face again. “So what’s it like being a cop?”

“It’s a job. Most of the time I like it, and other times it’s a royal pain in me arse. Probably not too different from being an activist and a poet.”

“Do the men on the force respect you?”

“For the most part they do. I’ve had a few problems, but once they realize that I’m competent, they usually come around.”

They both had finished their drinks. Juanita put her glass down, and gazed at a spot just above Deirdre’s eyes. She reached her hand up and twirled a lock of Deirdre’s hair. “I love your hair.” As she lowered her hand the back of it again brushed across Deirdre’s breast. An electric spark shot from that point and travelled downward from there.

“Hey, I’ve got a bottle of nice wine sitting idle in my apartment. Why don’t we go put it to good use?”

Deirdre found herself immobilized by competing forces of desire and fear. Finally fear triumphed, at least for the time being, and she stammered out: “I have to be at work early, so I’d better not. Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you.”

Juanita smiled and put her hand softly on Deirdre’s arm. “I understand. Here’s my card,” she said, lifting a white rectangle from out of her purse.

Deirdre thanked her as she accepted the offering, and then she rose and headed out of the bar. This night, the army of the Puritan saints had withstood the charge of the decadent Cavaliers, but she knew the outcome had been in doubt right up to the battle’s last moment.

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