Lunch with Borges
by Michael Larkin
It is a hot summer day in Texas in 1973 when my father, a young hematologist, somehow finds himself sitting down to lunch with Jorge Luis Borges.
Or perhaps it is 1974 … or ’71. Possibly ’69. And maybe it is not summer at all, not a sweltering Texas noontime of memory. Perhaps it is a frigid January and, contrary to all normal weather patterns, it is snowing in downtown Houston. Who can say?
But there they are at the table, my father and Borges, the world-famous writer. At once frumpy and dapper, Borges wears a brown tweed coat and a bright yellow tie with an exceptionally large knot. He drapes both hands over the loop of his cane and slouches a little, one eye clouded and droopy, the other searching and emoting, aware of everything. Though Borges is legally blind, through the blur of fluorescent lights he can see clearly my father’s white lab coat and his own bright yellow tie, a tie that matches Borges’s exactly.
The two of them sit there with a third man, a dean at the University of Texas, where Borges has just given a lecture about time and memory in fiction. The dean has invited my father to join them for lunch. It is a reward, perhaps, for my father’s attendance at many interminable deans’ meetings.
There should be more people at lunch with such an esteemed writer, yet there are only these three. And though it would seem to be an occasion for a fine restaurant, they instead eat from plastic trays in a UT Medical Center cafeteria.
“I can’t believe we’re having lunch here,” the dean says. “God Almighty, what is this? Jell-O?”
“I don’t mind,” Borges says. “Humble food for humble occasions, no?” He winks at my father with his livelier eye.
My father is used to five-minute lunches wolfed down in stolen breaks during rounds. Although there is no patient who needs tending, nowhere my father immediately needs to be but at this table with Borges, old habits prevail. He stuffs the rest of his hamburger into his mouth.
“I am captivated by Texas,” says Borges, “which is why I keep returning to give lectures. So much to think about: the duality of the Mexican border, the mythos of the Hollywood Western, the doctors eating hamburguesas.”
My father almost chokes on his last bite of hamburger as he laughs. “You notice my listing, yes? Why is it that lists so often come in threes? Rhetorical patterns, religious patterns, jokes. I wonder at this. And in others there is a twinning. Always two or three. Whereas one never enumerates a list of, say, six or seventeen. There is a mathematical explanation for it, a biological one, maybe spiritual.”
His throat at last clear, my father nods. “Just before your lecture today, I was in the lab looking at a patient’s slides. Normal blood cells—the usual moieties of the healthy leukocyte and erythrocyte. Quite beautiful, really, when stained under the microscope, like something Van Gogh might have painted.
“And then there it is: a cell split in two but not fully divided, and the top of each half has a distinctive three-hump pattern like a set of dorsal fins. Twos and threes. And then I see another and another and another. Abnormal cells. Cancer. Ugly business. They should have brought him to me sooner. I don’t know how his docs missed it.”
“Now wait a minute!” the dean says.
Borges holds up a hand, palm forward. “I think there are three types.” He counts them off on his fingers. “World builders. World healers. World destroyers. With my little stories and poems, I build worlds. I built this hospital in my mind already, even before I step inside it.” He flicks his water glass with his index finger—the world builder—and the glass sings as he continues.
“You—you are a world healer, though not because you are a physician. You are wearing a yellow tie today, and yellow is the only color I can see at all well anymore. You have worn this for me out of your healing instinct. But being a physician is no guarantee. This one”—he gestures toward the dean—“maybe he is a world destroyer. By which I mean no offense. Perhaps you destroy only gelatin.”
The dean stops scraping the last of his lime Jell-O out of his bowl.
“But the categories are too facile. Our blood cells—like your patient’s—they do all three, no?”
“Builders build in infinite ways, healers destroy infinitely, destroyers heal, so it is chaos even within the three.” Borges shrugs.“Maybe it is just comedy and tragedy that I mean. Comedy with an accent.” He grunts quietly and then adds, “People used to make sport of the way I speak. Now they listen to my every word as if what I have to say is of grave importance.”
My father looks at the dean, who is intently picking food off each of their trays, munching on limp, abandoned French fries as if he hasn’t eaten in days. My father looks back at Borges. “May I tell you something?”
“You speak of accents. I grew up in Boston, and I’ve never met anyone who sounds like me. My parents, my brothers and cousins—they all have very broad Boston accents, as did my boyhood friends. But I don’t. The only one I’ve ever heard of who sounds like me is … You will find this strange.”
Borges leans forward, good eye sparkling. “Yes?”
“The only voice I’ve ever heard that sounds like mine—exactly the same as mine—belongs to the chaplain at Harvard.”
“Ah, Harvard! I have spent time in Cambridge. I have written poems about it. Let us see.” Borges closes his eyes, turns his face toward the ceiling:
As in dreams
behind high doors there is nothing,
not even emptiness.
As in dreams
behind the face that looks at us there is no one.
Obverse without a reverse,
one-sided coin, the side of things.
That pittance is the boon
tossed to us by hastening time.
We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.*
“That’s depressing as hell!” the dean exclaims, his cheeks stuffed like a hamster’s.
Borges opens his eyes. “I was melancholy during that visit, it is true. Missing Buenos Aires, if the poems are any testimony. A hard winter in Cambridge, 1967.”
“I was there then!” my father says. “My son was born there.”
Borges brightens again. “Perhaps we passed each other on the street. Or perhaps I encountered this man you speak of, this chaplain. It would not be so strange if our paths crossed, or that his voice sounds like yours, no? A man may sound like another, or he may sound like no other.”
“But there is more to it,” my father says. “For one, unlike the chaplain, I’m not religious. I left the Catholic Church when I was eighteen. Darwin was one of my heroes, and our priest told me that evolution was a bogus theory.”
“We have evolution or we have stasis,” Borges declares.
“There’s more. Whereas I am white and heterosexual, the chaplain is black and homosexual.”
“Who isn’t?” Borges says.
My father smiles. “But these are just contrasts. The truly odd thing is that this man, whose name I don’t know, isn’t even the chaplain at Harvard yet. In fact, odder still, I haven’t ever heard of him. I don’t know who he is. I won’t hear of this vocal resemblance to me until twenty-some-odd years from now, when my son—who is only a little boy—will hear the chaplain interviewed on a television program and look up, startled to hear his father speaking through another man’s body. I am not sure how it’s possible I know this, but I do.”
“Yes,” Borges says, nodding. “The son struck dumb by the sound of his father’s voice. His father who is both religious and not. His father who knows blood and is of his blood. And not.”
“This is crazy talk!” the dean says. He has arrayed all three of their plastic trays in front of himself and he finger paints with ketchup inside the trays’ little squares.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” my father says.
“Physics might explain it, but I like metaphysics for this. How does that popular song go? ‘We are stardust.’” Borges does a passable imitation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
My father doesn’t know the song, or any contemporary songs. He listens to Baroque music while he presses his eyes to microscopes, immersing himself in the arcane language of blood cells that are forever building, destroying, healing.
Borges smiles. “It is good to have met you. Or perhaps it is more proper to say: it is good to have met you again and again.”
My father sees me thumbing through a thick collection of Borges’s poems and says, “Mmm. Had lunch with him once.”
He gestures at my book with his glass of wine, the ice cubes within it splintering sunlight. “Brilliant man.”
“Hang on. You had lunch with Borges?”
“What?! How is it I don’t know this? When was this?”
“Ages ago. In Texas. At the teaching hospital. He’d been giving a talk, and the dean invited me to lunch. Brilliant fellow. Incredibly articulate.”
“Borges? Oh my God … Borges!?”
A garden of forking paths has arrived at my door. A vast library as big as the world opens before me, though its outlines are faint and fast disappearing. Borges is long dead. And now my father the hematologist has a disease that is slowly thickening his own blood, a disease whose features he knows all too well. The blood that built him is now destroying him. His blood that is my blood. There will be no healing.
My father could give a biological explanation for what is happening to him, these red blood cells crowding each other as they boil over from his marrow. Borges might say there is a mathematical or a metaphysical explanation as well. Perhaps there is a spiritual one. I would like to ask the only man ever to sound like my father, the chaplain—whose name we now know to be Peter Gomes—but they have never met, and, like Borges, the chaplain too is gone.
Evolution and stasis cross in time at this very point; they will not linger long.
“What did Borges say?” I ask. “What did you even talk about?”
My father looks up at the wall, searching his elephantine memory. He squints, purses his lips. Borges is up there somewhere, waiting for my father to find him again.
After a few beats my father brings his gaze down and with his index finger flicks the edge of his wineglass. It sings at impact, the sound resonating across space and time, an infinite atom of noise whose sine wave joins the waves of all the atoms of noise and matter that have ever existed, that ever will exist.
“Can’t recall precisely. This and that. A bit obscure,” he says. “Brilliant fellow though.”
Borges’s book of poems is open on my lap. The refracted light from my father’s glass is an iridescent pile of broken mirrors on the floor. The song of the glass is almost done. My father closes his eyes. His breathing slows. The library is closing. The blood is having its way.
My father is wearing a bright yellow tie. Who wears yellow ties anymore?
I look down toward Borges’s book of poems, and I realize I too am wearing a bright yellow tie. Suddenly, I can remember years ago looking for my father, wandering the confusing labyrinth of hospital halls where all but the initiated lost themselves time and again.
The singing of the wineglass falls silent, or perhaps it continues at a frequency only a dog can hear.
My father’s breathing slows and slows. The refraction of the light spreads until it refracts him, his shape losing its form, splintering. Only the bright yellow tie remains clearly itself.
I begin to read one of the poems aloud, the voice not mine but still familiar, and then the rest of it comes back to me: I can remember perfectly that day many years ago when I had lunch with Borges.
*Poem translated by Hoyt Rogers.
Published on April 7, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 56.
First published in Harvard Review 56.