I do not know if we will recur in a second cycle, like numbers in a repeating fraction; but I know that a vague Pythagorean rotation night after night leaves me on some ground in the suburbs of the world. A remote spot which might be either north or east or south, but always with these things — a crumbled path, a miraculous wall, a fig tree giving shade.
— Jorge Luis Borges
The heat’s on, Eddie.
Have you ever felt a heat like it? It’s just you and me now, Eddie — and her, over there, behind her door just across the street. But you’re tired, a little confused, and not sure how to proceed. You’d like an understudy to step in and take over, an expert in these matters to tell you what to do because all you have is your memory, which can only take you backward, and your will, which urges you on. But for now, you will give in to memory and lean back against the wall and hear the sound of loose bits of stone and mortar slide to the ground as you remember. . . .
It was a long bus ride from Mexico City to San Miguel, coming as it did on the heels of the overnight flight. You were glad when it ended and at the same time you would have preferred to keep on going. You stepped over the outstretched legs of the man sleeping next to you, hauled your suitcase from the rack above, and followed the other passengers off the bus into an oven of insufferable Mexican sunshine. You felt your pocket for her letter where she’d written down directions to her house. It was a long, steep climb through narrow streets, alongside whitewashed dwellings. You were out of breath and sweating fiercely by the time you reached the little cul-de-sac. You walked nearly to the end and stopped when you saw the house number on the opposite side of the street.
The number is printed in blue tile just to the left of a wooden door set into a broken-down wall, like the wall you are leaning against on your side of the street. And there behind the wall, just as she wrote, rises and spreads the jacaranda tree that shades her patio and whose branches toss in a stifling breeze. The door is your wife’s door, behind which she has been living without you for almost half a year.
It all seems so unreal, and slightly foolish. Why are you here? How did you come to be deposited amidst the dry, chalky odor of a hot afternoon on a dusty, foreign, dead-end street? Suddenly the only thing separating you from your wife is a dirt road and a wooden door set into a wall badly in need of repair.
But you know that is a lie. There is still much more than that between you.
After six months, just when it felt as though you were beginning to adjust to life without her, her letter came and made it seem as if you’d left her only the day before. It was different from the other letters she’d written, the ones that told of how well she was doing and how she was so enjoying her new, post-you life in Mexico. This one had a different tone and in it she was asking you to come down and see if you both could work things out. What things? She didn’t get specific. But then you didn’t elaborate either when you left her. Between her lines she seemed to imply that there was some hope, and you resented this. You threw the letter away, but the next morning retrieved it from the trash, excusing your lack of resolve by telling yourself that maybe you needed to try again, one last time, even if you knew it was no good. Maybe you had to backtrack before you could move on.
But, now, on this blazing street, you are having doubts. You drop your suitcase to the sidewalk. On both sides of the street are high walls that in places are crumbling into dust and rubble. You watch as a dog inspects a crate of rubbish. He sniffs it, then raises a leg and waters it before moving on. Just down from your wife’s door there’s a dilapidated structure, and from a second-story window a round-faced woman beats a carpet with a stick. The more she beats the carpet, the more dust billows from it. The dust never stops until she stops beating the carpet and takes it inside. A bicycle passes swiftly in the street like a shadow, then disappears around the corner. Weeds grow from pockets in the brittle walls, weeds bleached to a bone yellow. The round-faced woman appears with another carpet. She unfurls it and beats it and clouds fly up like smoke signals.
Somehow it seems wrong to you, this going backward, trying to mend this thing between the two of you; it’s like breaking a vow. You stoop to pick up your valise, grip the handle, but then let it go. It seems just as wrong not trying to mend it. Nothing feels right to you. Everything is difficult.
You left her, convinced that you needed a broader horizon, that you were confined, and that out there, somewhere, was something finer, a better way. You thought she was an obstruction but you found, when she was out of the way, that you could see no further than you ever could.
But this trying once more — it’s dangerous. What if it works? What if you both find yourselves starting in again, still in love? Or thinking you are? And how could you ever know the difference now?
You’re not ready for this yet, you say?
All right. Lean back against the wall once more. Listen to the pebbles spilling to the sidewalk. They’re like pieces of a conversation that keeps intruding, the one you had with that unfortunate fellow, Simms, on the flight down to Mexico City. You’ve still got some time. You can put off knocking at her door for just a little while. But you will knock, Eddie. Because there is, if not a reason, an explanation for why you are here. Remember?
On the overnight flight to Mexico City?
You must have read that damned letter over a dozen times and you couldn’t sleep. You had an aisle seat. An older man in a dark suit sat by the window. His bouquet of roses lay on the empty seat between you and him. During the takeoff the man leaned forward with his neck twisted around, and he peered through the window into the darkness. When the plane leveled off, he unbuckled his seat belt and said to you, “Jesus, I hate flying.” He said his name was Gerald Simms. You shook hands. Simms eyed the letter that was lying in your lap.
“A woman’s handwriting, I’d say.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Why, the finely curved letters and the graceful loops.”
He reached across and pointed to the “L” in “Love” at the bottom and you covered up her name with your thumb.
“And look how firm and clear and centered the writing is,” he said. “Women don’t need lined paper in order to write in straight lines. And they maintain the margins even when there are none visible on the paper. A sheet of female writing is like a fine sketch. My wife’s script, for instance, looks like a page from the Book of Kells. Mine, on the other hand, is like that of a child learning a new alphabet. Take a sample of a man’s writing: it’s all over the place. Men don’t write. They scrawl. Women, on the other hand —”
“I’m sure all women don’t write letters like this,” you said, and folded the letter.
Simms smiled. “No, of course not,” he said, and added, “I’m not much of a letter writer myself.”
“I’m not either,” you said, and it brought to mind that miserable attempt you made at a written reply, just after you tossed her letter out. You tried to explain your feelings honestly and reasonably. You got as far as telling her it would be a waste of time coming to Mexico, and then you stopped. All your reasons and protests merely skirted the issue; your excuses in the end could not shout down or cancel out her simple invitation. Your explanations were thin and unclear. The more you wrote and expressed yourself, the more you concealed. Words were a smokescreen, your letter a proxy. You knew then that you had to go there yourself, but you couldn’t say why. Now, staring at her door across the street, you still don’t know why.
“My wife writes all my letters for me,” Simms said. “I’d be nowhere without her.”
Two flight attendants were working their way down the aisle with the bar on wheels. You wanted a drink badly but you would have to wait. So you asked Simms a question, just to pass the time.
“Who are the roses for?”
Simms swallowed so hard you could hear it. “My wife. We’ve been together and in love for thirty-seven years. It’s rare nowadays, isn’t it? We call ourselves the human dodos, the last of a dying breed, on the verge of extinction. We joke around and say that when we die they’re going to put us in the Smithsonian.” He chuckled, but there was no mirth in the sound. He looked down at the roses.
“And you live in Mexico?” you asked.
“Part of the time. . . . You know what an archaeologist is? He’s a sanctioned grave robber. He digs up ruins and brings to the surface decayed things that have been buried for centuries. That’s what I do in Mexico. But to maintain my professional standing I have to travel, teach, give lectures, attend conferences, and write articles, all very scholarly, all very boring. Twenty years ago I took my wife back to Cuernavaca. She was born there. That’s where she lives most of the year. It’s my home too, but I’m away a lot on these trips, even though I hate flying. Funny. I never minded it much when I was younger.”
The bar approached and you ordered a Scotch. Simms asked for a beer. The whisky burned your throat but warmed your stomach and you decided you would have three before the plane landed. In fact, you had five and you are paying for it now in the hot sun of this dusty barrio. Your head is throbbing, your gut is in turmoil, your tongue is clotted as if someone had wiped their boots on it. But you are not yet ready to lie beneath the jacaranda tree that rises above your wife’s patio. Your thoughts are still up in the air.
“It must be interesting work.”
Simms turned to you. “It’s marvelous work, the kind you never tire of, or retire from. I expect to be poking my nose into crumbling temples and chipped artifacts until I drop. I love what I do, only I’m cursed with an obsession to fully comprehend what I love.”
“Cursed? Why cursed?”
“Because, you see, there’s a danger of losing your passion for the subject as a whole. It’s easy to get caught up in the millions of details. You can end up bleeding the subject to death until all that you do is just habit, or sentiment, and then there’s no passion at all.”
“Passion. Sentiment,” you said, and pondered the words.
Simms nodded. His eyes got very big. “There’s a tremendous difference, I think. Sentiment is monologue. Pardon the analogy, but sentiment is like masturbation — it focuses only on ourselves. Passion, on the other hand, is like copulation. It has to be shared to be realized.”
“But how do you guard against getting bogged down in the details?”
“I do it by remembering what it was that so attracted me to the subject in the first place. The boyish, naive romance of ancient history. Dinosaurs, cave men, saber-toothed tigers, pyramids, walled cities, armies, wars fought with chariots and spears, phalanxes of shields and armor. . . . Very unscientific and unprofessional, I agree.”
Simms picked up the roses and sniffed at them. All were red except for one in the middle that was yellow. Carefully he put them back on the empty seat. “But why else would I stand out in the hot sun and dig in the dirt for skulls and bits of broken pottery?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either. It often makes no sense at all.”
The flight attendants had begun passing out trays of hot food. Simms was gazing out the window. There was nothing out there but the wing of the airplane, and the little light at the tip.
“I’ve spent the better part of my life,” he said, “studying the ancient cultures of Mexico, and just when I think I have an understanding of them, something breaks down, doesn’t fit, and I have to revise and begin again. . . . Like Sisyphus and his rock. Just when you think you’ve accomplished something, you’re made to realize that all you’ve done is lay the groundwork for your own failure. Still, I keep analyzing and rejecting and reexamining, constantly. That’s science, after all. The result is that I’ve reduced a great deal of my passion to revised theories that, in the end, won’t hold water.”
At this point Simms had lost you, but he was talking out the window, to himself, really, and he was shaking his head. “Theories. You know, at one time I wanted to be the greatest archaeologist who ever lived. Imagine. I wanted people to say, ‘According to Simms.’ In time I outgrew that. I accepted the fact that I was not going to be, say, a Dr. Louis Leakey. I have never discovered anything startling, like a new form of ancient man. I have never unearthed the answer to an age-old question. All I’ve ever turned up was more evidence to support the theories of others and the few facts already in existence. I discovered only what was already known. I am no wiser for it, and the world is no better or worse off. But I learned to let it satisfy me. . . . Of course, if I’d discovered what Leakey discovered it’d be another story . . . or maybe not. I wonder if I would have known the value and significance of what it was. It makes me wonder how many things I have found, how many things have passed through my hands whose true meaning I didn’t see. I have my ways of thinking, my prejudices, like any man. My problem is that I’ve always tended to look for continuity instead of surprises. Maybe that’s what separates a genius like Leakey from an average man like myself. Maybe you can find continuity only through unlikely surprises and contradictions. It’s the startling accidents that lead to discovery, if only you can recognize them. The difficulty is that most educated and civilized men aren’t taught how to deal with accidents. We’re taught only how to avoid them or prevent them. The way to control accidents and contradictions is to pretend they don’t exist. But, of course, they’re there, aren’t they?”
The stewardess came with the dinner trays. You told her you weren’t hungry. She set a tray down in front of Simms.
“I suppose,” he said, “that I ought to keep quiet. I’m disturbing you. You want to read your letter.”
“I know it by heart already.”
Simms buttered the cold roll sitting in the corner of his tray. “A good meal once a day, and my wife’s love,” he said. “That’s what I cherish most. What more should a person ask for? Talk about continuity. . . . Have you been to Mexico before?”
Simms leaned over his tray and picked at his food.
“You’d better eat something on the plane, then,” he said. He was staring down at the pale green peas, disturbing the pile and pushing them around with his knife. “If you’re not used to it, the food in Mexico can lay you right out.”
“I have pills for turista,” you said.
“That’s smart. But turista’s a picnic compared to the parasites. Amoebas, everyone calls them.”
“They didn’t give me anything for amoebas.”
“That’s because you need a doctor’s prescription for that medicine, which is a good indication that the cure is worse than the disease. Turista’s just your system getting used to different bacteria, but your system never gets used to amoebas.”
Just then you remembered seeing one once under a microscope in a high-school biology lab. It was sort of a blob.
“They’re in the water, the meat, and the milk. They’re in all the vegetables that take lots of irrigated water to grow. The lettuce. Stay away from the lettuce. If you diagnose them early you can get rid of them. If you don’t they set up house in your intestines and eat you alive. They can even go to your brain and when that happens you’re a dead man. I’m not trying to scare you, but parasites are the second leading cause of death in Mexico.”
You watched Simms push his tray forward, his meal only half finished, then you asked, “What’s the first?” and ordered another Scotch.
“Malnutrition. So you see, you’re damned if you eat and damned if you don’t.” He grinned, but added soberly, “I think there must be nothing worse than being alone in a hotel room, in a foreign country, sick as a dog.”
“I won’t be staying in hotel rooms,” you said, and wondered what her house was like, and where in it you would sleep.
“You’re staying with friends?”
Why didn’t you just say, yes, and leave it at that? But you said, “No, I’m going to see my wife. She’s been down there for a while.” Surely you knew where such an answer would lead. Didn’t you think it odd, and unlike you, that you would pursue this with a total stranger? You hadn’t discussed it with anyone up until then. Even when you left her, you never really discussed it. A silent sonofabitch, isn’t that what she called you? And even then you didn’t answer. Perhaps you never heard her. The mute are also often deaf.
Simms said, “If you’re not going to eat anything on the plane, I suggest waiting until you see her. Don’t start right in filling up on tacos off the streets. Your wife’ll know what to feed you. That is, if she’s been there any length of time and knows the ropes.”
“Six months,” you said, recalling how sure you were, after hearing through the grapevine she’d gone to Mexico, that she’d be back within a week. Even a month later, when you got her first, glowing letter, you didn’t take her seriously. You never had. None of her pains and joys and victories were ever real to you. They were all somehow frivolous, make-believe, not nearly as weighty and important as your own concerns. And why was she not one of them? Did you think that, like an expensive watch, she would run forever? That once she was on your wrist, you could forget about her until you needed the time? There are some watches which, when ignored or even dropped, keep on ticking. But there are others which demand attention.
Knowing that the archaeologist, Gerald Simms, would piece the evidence together anyway, you added, “We’ve been separated.”
Now you were ready to tell him. Whether he wanted to hear it or not didn’t matter. There was a part of you that needed to tell someone, because another part of you needed to hear it. There is something about the spoken word that separates hard facts from vague fictions.
Nevertheless you would not tell him everything. After all, Simms had not divulged his private life to you, only some professional crisis that would undoubtedly pass. He was merely conversing politely, formally, one passenger to another. It might embarrass him to have to sit there and listen to all the sentimental details — the ones you’ve been obsessed with but can’t specifically remember anymore — just as you might regret letting them escape your lips and become fixed sound, language, that once spoken could never be retrieved.
No. There was no cause for total honesty, not yet. You would just test the spring of the diving board with Simms. You were preparing, you thought, for the moment when it really counted, when she would be standing right in front of you. You would not lie to Simms, but you would tell him only a little bit, and hope it would be enough, for him and for you. Admit that you will only be honest, brutally honest, when pushed to it, when no other choice remains, when there is no other way out.
But when you reach that point, just what will your honesty be worth? It will have become impotent through all the deceptions that preceded it. Your honesty will sound, even to you, like just another lie; your wall of strength will have been erected simply to conceal a basic weakness. Still, you’ll use honesty if it can secure the desired result. . . . Which is what? With all this, how is it possible to know what you desire? You have no morality. You have no philosophy. You have no goals, no faith. You have only tactics.
“We’ve been separated.”
“I see. I suppose you could say my wife and I have been separated, too, what with my being away so much. But up until now we’ve been separated only by miles, and only periodically.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No, it’s not,” Simms said. “I guess I don’t really know what being separated means. Would it be too much — I don’t mean to pry — if I asked you what it’s like?”
You gave him a long look. Was he merely analyzing you, chipping away at something, looking for a cryptic meaning? To him you were nothing but a hieroglyph at an excavation from which a theory might come that would have to be revised in time. Well, you thought, so what? Let the old man dig. What was it like? Being separated.
“I mean, how do you fill up the time?” he asked.
“I work, same as you.”
“Is it enough?”
“It fills up the days.”
“And the nights?”
You shrugged. “They seemed impossible at first, but then you find you keep getting through them. Then you start going out and having fun.”
“You know. Meeting people.” You weren’t going to tell him exactly how sentimental the nights got at times.
“Was it very difficult . . . adjusting?”
You noticed then that he was not just practicing at his archaeology. He really wanted to know.
“Yes, even though the decision to leave was mine,” you heard yourself say. “I didn’t believe I’d actually done it at first. I felt like an orphan. I lost track of the days. Once, I showed up to work on a Sunday morning, thinking it was Monday. The doors were locked. I felt ridiculous, I wanted to crawl into a hole. It took a while getting used to being alone. I had to build a whole new structure for myself, without her, from scratch it seemed. I hadn’t realized I would have to do that. I thought it would be easy, starting over, easier than being with her.”
“Do you think it was a good decision, leaving?”
“At this point it doesn’t matter. I’m used to being on my own now. I think that’s been good for me. From the sound of her letters it’s been good for her, too.”
“The best thing for both of you, maybe,” Simms said.
“Maybe. But apparently we aren’t satisfied with a good thing, can’t let it alone.”
“No. Otherwise why would she ask me to come see her, and why would I go?”
“Maybe you’re both too satisfied,” Simms said guardedly, “too comfortable.”
“What? No. It seems we have to go through this thing one more time, just to make sure. Maybe then we’ll start feeling better without each other.”
Simms was staring into his glass of beer. “You sound pessimistic.”
“It’s a lost cause. I think it’s dead, and I think we both know it. We’re going to give it a proper funeral.”
Simms put his hand lightly on the bouquet and leaned back in his seat. “Do you remember the day you got married?”
“How long did you think it would last?”
“There was no reason to think it would ever end.”
“But we were kidding ourselves.”
“No, it was your optimism.”
“Sure, but based on illusions and myths, on disregard for the reality, which is that most marriages are failures.”
Simms cocked his head toward you. “Isn’t that what all optimism is? Irrational disregard for the facts. In spite of all the evidence, isn’t that why you’re going to see her? Even if you were going to see someone new, you’d be going with the same optimism, the same hope.”
“I have no hopes. I’m here in spite of myself. I feel defeated, as if I’d surrendered.”
“If you did, well, it was to the superior forces of heat and gravity. Men often set their sights impossibly high. Like me, wanting to be The Great Archaeologist. But in the end, reality pulls us down to our own level, we’re forced to find an equilibrium. Like Icarus, man’s wings are made of wax. And a woman reminds you of what you are, that you are of the earth, not of the air. Do you still love her?”
“I don’t know.”
“I suppose you’ll know when you see her.”
Know what? you asked yourself. Only a week before you’d been so certain that you didn’t want her or anyone. But that letter of hers had awakened an appetite for something that was no longer there. You felt a need to scratch when there was no discernible itch. It was a feeling close to homesickness. It turned out that your new foundation, the basis and core of your new freedom, was a farce. It had been constructed out of paper, prefabricated out of illusions and hastily assembled on the spot. She had demolished it in an instant. All it took was one thin envelope, slipped through the mail slot in the front door, and the edifice fell apart like the ash of a cigarette.
On her street, propped up against the wall, you are burning under the sun, and you cannot bring yourself to take that step toward her door. With that letter she destroyed the elaborate structure you’d taken such pains to build, and now you’re afraid that you are the same, old you.
“It’s a lost cause,” you said like an incantation over your drink.
Simms nodded, but said, “Then again, you never know about these things. My wife loves her native country. She’s said she wants to die there. But she has this fear of dying in Mexico while I’m away. So she’s left explicit instructions with the cook and the maid: if they think she’s died, they are not to bury her until I’ve been contacted and return to Cuernavaca, no matter how long it takes.”
“That’s a little odd, isn’t it?”
“Not really, when you consider that mistakes have been known to occur and people have been put into a box and into the ground before they were dead, when they only appeared to be dead.”
“You mean, buried alive?”
“People easily deceive themselves and tend to pronounce death prematurely. Causes can be lost even before they are contested.”
“But if you’re certain a person is dead, you wouldn’t want to keep their corpse lying around.”
“No, you wouldn’t — if you were certain. And you’re never certain until you lay your hand on their heart, as only you can do, you who knows that heart. And even then it can feel like it’s still beating, still warm, because that’s how you know it, that’s how you remember it.”
“What do you do then?”
“You call in an expert. Someone who can make you believe the worst is true, who can tell you that your optimism is unfounded.”
“Even experts make mistakes,” you said to Simms.
“They certainly do. But inevitably there comes a time when you can’t rely solely on your own judgment. At some point you’ve got to listen to someone else, someone who doesn’t have a vital stake in the matter.” Simms gave the bouquet a slight turn so that the roses hung over the seat and the petals swung free. “My wife loves roses. When I get home I’ll put them in water, in a vase, and set them on the mantel in the living room. Then I’ll sit and listen to the experts make their case. Initially I’ll resist, but in the end I expect to be convinced.”
There are no experts in your case, Eddie. On this desolate street there is no one to tell you whether it is love or nostalgia, fear or courage, that has brought you here. Each seems to be wearing the other’s disguises. Perhaps they have always done so, and the thousand changing faces of love are all only the same return to some former, better existence, some mad ideal, an empty promise, a warm womb, death and the fertile earth itself.
You lift your suitcase finally and start across the street toward that door, leaving your lies and your honesty, your tactics, your sentiment and your silence buried beneath the small avalanches of pebbles and concrete spilling from the wall. You make footprints in the dusty street, and behind your back the wind fills them in with more dust and they vanish. You wonder, as you knock, how you and she will begin again, and how it will end this time. You raise your fist to knock once more, but the knock isn’t needed. You already hear her footsteps coming to the door.