The Borges Cure

by Lynne Barrett

In a hotel in New York—in 1982, or is it 83?—the escalator lifts an old man, blind and famous, into view. To be famous and blind is a redundancy: we see him; he does not see us. From the mezzanine, my almost-former lover and I gaze at his white hair and eyebrows, his cane, his arm taken by the young woman who accompanies him. Borges is dapper, frail, and darkly luminous, as if knowledge, accumulated in sharp flecks, like mica, has slowly replaced his bones.

Yesterday, after we left our room, the elevator's mirrors showed, between stripes of flocked wallpaper, our pelvises and warm, self-conscious faces. When we stepped outside the building, night wind whipped water from our eyes. We held hands through mittens and kissed drunkenly on the blurred streets. But today my almost-former lover is again telling me what I need to change about myself to be the woman for him. The intervals during which he likes me are, I notice, ever shorter. Then we reach the mezzanine. The escalator cuts a silver hypotenuse across bright space. And there is Borges.

In the hotel's many conference rooms, papers are read aloud by academics, among them my almost-former lover, who is here attempting to save his job, or find another. His first sentences, praising a poet's heroic incoherence, irritate me so much I stop listening and look around counting pitchers and water glasses and neckties and coughs.

After this session (his paper is a hit, if success is measured, as he claims, by the fury of the questions afterward), we see Borges. The escalator continues its stately ascent. As we watch, the old Argentinian's head crests the railing of the mezzanine. For once, my almost-former lover is quiet. He simply stares and pulls my arm so we'll be standing near when Borges reaches the top.

Now, years later, I have nearly forgotten my former lover—not the facts, but the man himself. No molecule of smell remains. From time to time, I recover the scrape of his voice when he said ardent things that he'd later inevitably retract, claiming I'd broken the illusion. He wanted me to restrain, for instance, my too-spontaneous laugh. And I tried; it seems laughable now. He is alive in the world somewhere, but I haven't enough curiosity, that last remnant of desire, to touch a keyboard and look him up.

But my nearly-forgotten lover and I saw Borges, whose work I read and re-read during the period after the break-up when I was unable to sleep. I hit upon a course of Borgesian treatment, requiring concentration on glittering facts and infinite yet weightless paradoxes. In the library I spent hours tracing, say, the history of mica, its ancient deposits, use in cosmetics and the isinglass curtains in old cars. At night I would imagine the mica windows in the 500 year old Padmanabhapuram Palace, whose site is in one state of India while the land surrounding it belongs to another, and I'd reach sleep lulled by the mathematics of the escalator that is moving yet not progressing, always almost arriving, somehow never depositing Borges on the mezzanine.

The visit to New York was in 1983; the curious can check this, today, in an instant. Borges and the young woman, Maria Kodama, together for fifteen years, traveled, fulfilling even his dream of touching the skin of a living tiger, its yellow the last color his memory could see. They married shortly before, in 1986, he died. Therefore, they must have stepped off, onto the mezzanine, and moved forward, even though they are so elegantly there, still, on the escalator's stately continuum.

After seeing Borges, my almost-former lover wants a) a drink, spare no expense, at the hotel's most visible bar, and b) to get me into bed where he swears he has no doubt, really, none, not a flicker, I'm what he wants. We haven't gotten all the way redressed before he recants, the interval now so short that I declare myself finished, though he will get me to recant that, too, more than once, before we wrench ourselves apart and I begin the Borges cure, which will rid me of all but this old healed hurt, like a vaccination scar in a spot I can't view without some contortion. I could, I think, forget him completely, if only I had not been with him when I saw Borges, which makes him unforgettable.

Lynne Barrett is the author of the short story collections The Secret Names of Women and The Land of Go. Her work has appeared in One Year to a Writing Life, A Dixie Christmas, Miami Noir, Saw Palm, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the Southern Women's Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She has received the Edgar Award for best mystery story and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She lives in Miami where she teaches at Florida International University.