The Actress sits in the corner of the small café, looking at the rose beside her cup of coffee. She is also young, roughly the same age as the author of the play in which she played the main role. She is not particularly beautiful but is not without an erotic charge (which, with the lack of classical beauty, is much more distinct), with sensuous lips which could be mistaken for those of Angelina Jolie in the semi-darkness, with legs of which Uma Thurman would not be ashamed, with chestnut hair tied back but twisted over her shoulder to rest on her generously rounded breast. At first glance her posture looks hostile, but examined more closely it reveals despondency.
The café is empty apart from the waiter and the Actress. In the doorway, the thin figure of Barton Fink appears. He approaches the counter and orders a Malibu, a Cointreau and a Tia Maria. He also asks for a large, empty glass. Then he goes to the Actress’s table, moves one of the four armchairs and sinks into it.
“I can’t forgive you for dragging me into such a mess,” the Actress says immediately. “Do you know how many people are sneering at me this moment? All my friends, and tomorrow the whole town.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” replies Barton soothingly.
“You know only too well that I’m not an actress. And you will never be a playwright.”
The waiter brings three full glasses plus a larger, empty one and puts them on the table. As he walks back to the counter he unexpectedly turns to see what Barton Fink will do with the drinks. He notices that the Actress is following him with her eyes, as if evaluating a potential sexual partner. Barton Fink also notices this; he blushes slightly and sinks lower as if the thought disturbs him.
The Actress notices that Barton is upset, so she flashes the waiter a smile. The waiter returns the smile, but notices that Barton Fink is watching and immediately looks serious, even frowns, and goes back behind the counter. From there he watches how Barton pours the three glasses of liqueur, one at a time, into the larger glass. He shakes the mixture and drinks it down at one go.
“Have you forgotten what we did with those liqueurs?”
“We?” The Actress looks at him. “You weren’t even there!”
“Of course I was! Although we were using a stranger as an instrument of passion, I experienced the event a lot more intensely than you. And don’t pretend you suffered. Not the first time, nor the second, nor the third. And when we do it for a fourth time you’ll enjoy it even more. It is a characteristic of addiction that it intensifies.”
“Look for someone who takes more pleasure in being abused.”
“Have you forgotten what energy flowed between us? Each time, just before you came, you reached out to me as if you needed help. I squeezed your hand and you gripped mine tightly until your last tremor of passion faded. And the whole time we were looking at each other, you never once looked at him.”
“And what would you call that?” The Actress looks into his eyes. “Love?”
Barton gazes through the window at the empty street. The drizzle has become rain, which the occasional gust of wind throws against the dilapidated wall of the house opposite or against the café window, the drops sliding down the pane like small transparent spiders.
“Do you think it’ll stop?” He turns back to the Actress.
“What are you thinking of?”
“I’ll be blown away, Audrey, really, blown away forever. I’ve never been superstitious but precisely today, the thirteenth, I found out that I only have a year to live. I’ll take my leave of the world at the age of twenty, like some tubercular nineteenth-century poet!”
The Actress presses herself against the back of the armchair as if trying to put the greatest possible distance between her and Barton.
“You obviously don’t care.”
“What, Barton, what don’t I care about?” she almost barks. “That you are repeating stupid lines from your stupid play?”
“That I’m fatally ill. I got the diagnosis today.”
“And what illness do you have that can’t be cured?”
“Cancer of the spleen.”
“Like the hero of your play?”
“I know it’s hard to believe. But I wouldn’t joke about such a thing. I’m not naïve.”
“I’m the naïve one, believing everything you say. This time I’ll make an exception.”
Barton looks at the floor, he seems crushed. “I never lied to you.”
“Lies I would understand. But you fantasise. You take a crumb of reality, maybe three or four crumbs, and combine them into something else altogether. You watch too many films, you read too many novels. You have left this world and live in an imaginary one. I’m sure it’s more interesting, but I can’t allow you to drag me into it.”
“You’re exaggerating again.”
“We are always in some film or other, some novel. You change our names. I was Ana Karenina, you were Vronsky. And then we destroyed it, that beautiful love story. One time you are Indiana Jones, another the Terminator. Every time I am one of your women. Why you have been Barton Fink for quite some time and I Audrey Taylor is not completely clear to me. It’s even less clear to me why I go along with it every time.”
“Because you enjoy the game?”
“Maybe I did once. But that’s over. Don’t forget that you’re not Barton Fink, but Simon. And I’m Violeta.”
As is appropriate for tense moments, these words are followed by silence. Time is needed to gather one’s thoughts and come up with a strategy for the next move. Barton (let him remain Barton for a while) turns and calls to the waiter, “The same again! And a coffee.”
The waiter gets right down to it.
“He seems very obliging,” says Barton. “Do you think he’d be suitable?”
“I’m not saying a word.”
“Listen, Violeta. We never live only in reality, but also in the illusions that are part of that reality. Whatever we read, whatever we see on TV or at the movies is like building material that automatically gets included in the structure of the illusion that we refer to as the self. We are made up of the present and the past, the personal and the collective.”
“I have simply pushed that natural process of shedding reality a step further, to where I can imagine that I am, alongside everything else that I am, the hero of every novel, every film.”
“Studying literature has ruined you.”
“You’ve proved so often that you know how to be original. Why this regression, this sinking into mediocrity?”
It seems to Barton that the Actress blushes. He realises he should have spoken somewhat more gently. But it is too late.
“Thanks, Simon, I find mediocrity quite pleasing…”
“Not Simon, Barton.”
“Not Barton, Simon. I have quit the game. And don’t try to drag me back, because I might decide without regret never to see you again. Maybe I’d be interested if you were at least generous enough to let me choose once in a while. Then I’d have the feeling that I was participating. That I was alive, not just your plaything.”
“But you always decide. And only when you feel like it.”
“This time I don’t. This blackmail of yours has gone too far. You’re going to die, etcetera, etcetera.”
“Do this for me for the same reasons you did it the first, second and third times, not out of pity.”
The Actress leans forward and rests her elbows on her knees. She looks agitated.
Nevertheless, she decides to wait, for the waiter is heading toward them between the tables and armchairs holding a tray. He has already heard too much, anyway. She can’t help but notice him straining to hear as he stands behind the counter and unconvincingly pretends to rinse glasses.
He places three liqueur glasses on the table, lining them up in front of Barton. He puts the large empty glass to Barton’s left, evidently so that pouring the liqueurs into it will be as simple as possible. Then he places a cup of coffee in front of the Actress, carefully pushing aside the scarlet rose – extremely carefully, so as not to damage it. Barton gets the impression that the waiter has a feeling for gentle, measured gestures and that the rhythm of his movements bears witness to their mutual dependency and disposition. If he knows how to make use of these virtues in bed he would certainly be an ideal candidate for Mr Four.
Spontaneously Barton reaches for the rose and offers it to the waiter, who accepts it without knowing why. Perhaps to get it out of the way, perhaps the guest wants him to throw it away.
“My girlfriend gives you this rose as a sign of her admiration.”
The recipient reacts with astonishment. “Me? Why?”
“Do you know the significance of the three liqueurs you brought me?”
“I’ve been trying to guess.”
Excerpted from If I Only Had Time, Evald Flisar, translated from the Slovenian by David Limon, Attic Books.