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“Every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you…”     Nietzsche

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There was a time when I thought destiny and fate notions for fools. I also believed in clocks and calendars and arranged my life accordingly. The arrow of existence, once released, soared along a succession of events, one moment following another, each day to the next, and on through the years of one’s life. And while the arrow’s progress slows it never retreats, rather it doggedly pushes ahead until a mortal strike ends it all in sudden and dramatic fashion, or it descends quietly into a glade of nonexistence. My theory was quite rational. But now, after the peculiar events I am about to describe, I am sure I was wrong.

I had just accepted a teaching position at a private school in Mexico. Immediately upon my arrival, in a capital of a country I had never been to, I noticed something disturbing— an eerie and possessing sense of familiarity with my surroundings. As the cab drove me into the heart of the city I had the horrible feeling my impressions belonged not to me, but to the memories of a stranger.

As I explored the city on the days before the term commenced, visiting its cafés, its galleries and its markets, this feeling deepened. I sensed I was observing the place through borrowed eyes instead of seeing it for the first time. The shop signs and painted buildings reached me faded, almost without color, as if etiolated by a never-ending reminiscence. I removed my sunglasses to brighten the view and searched on for the pink-cheeked crescendos that attend foreign travel, yet whenever I turned a corner I perceived, as if awaiting my return, a sight hued in sentimentality. When I continued down an unknown walk, or sat with a lit cigarette following a meal, I felt the remnants of a similar but distant experience unraveling inside me; the carved figures of a crumbling structure or a lane hedged in trumpet vine could loose a string of recollections, but belonging to whom?

Reluctantly I confessed my predicament to a colleague and she suggested déjà vu. What I was experiencing, I explained, was far more than that fleeting feeling. These were not chimeras masquerading as present events. When I sharpened my focus through the illusion déjà vu’s fragile deceit did not lift away as it should, rather a dubious veil clung to me throughout my days and nights.

She listened patiently, her brow arched. Then I noticed a curious change in her expression, a thread of light was playing at the pins of her iris. It was a fugitive luminescence I later found characteristic to the eyes of that country, a glimmer of the preternatural I detected even in the most discriminating intellectuals. She then proposed, with a sureness I found astonishing, a metaphysical theory I pretended to consider but immediately dismissed. I told her I preferred the physical sciences to the transcendental ones, and thus favored my own diagnosis.

I was confident the events were anomalies brought on by the stress of relocation. My mind was caught in a sort of chronic neurological hiccup causing a lag between what my eye saw and what my mind sluggishly interpreted as memory. I supposed such a pattern could not be sustained and the timing errors would eventually work themselves out, but to hurry the process along I began to search for an event that might startle the triggers into firing normally, without the noticeable delay.

I embarked on an exploration of the surrounding neighborhoods. I surveyed the districts of Condessa, Roma and San Angel with a measured step and an attentive eye. I stopped often in the gardens of Coyoacan hoping to find the unfamiliar view from its benches. I strolled many plazas, passing my hand along railings and over bordering plants, on occasion I pressed through a shade of leaves to clutch a bud calyxed among the growth. Perhaps in that action I hoped to grasp a sensual experience completely my own, one not yet lived, one untouched by the figment of a man whose history was haunting me. Yet what I captured between the tips of my fingers seemed only an inferior variant of the one the other man had held within his. I was experiencing two impressions simultaneously— I felt with a virgin touch and also perceived with the most intimate kind of knowledge, the second sensation was like chancing upon a thing once cherished, something presumed forever lost. The closer my observations the more disparate the two perceptions became.

For days I roamed despairingly up and down the long avenue of Reforma. I squandered hours in Chapultepec Park, walking along its trails, through its woods, frustrated that I could not outpace the false nostalgia treading upon my senses. My body, too, reacted in confusing ways, seemingly independent of conscious thought. Time and again I answered the illusory summons to stop and read, or impulsively slipped off my shoulder bag to write, sensing all the while I had done those things beneath the very same trees innumerable times before.

Then one morning I awoke to a mysterious and heavenly fragrance that filled my room. With all my effort I could not place it, it was completely without reference— it was unrecognizable. Overjoyed by the thought of a full recovery and hearing the whisking straw of my neighbor’s broom in the stairway I leapt from my bed and rushed out to inquire the source of such a sublime scent. Like an expectant child I sought in her answer the burst of elation that breaks at the heels of each new bit of knowledge. But when she informed me that the culprit was the old floripondio in the courtyard using its perfume to lure the dawn from slumber, a trace memory that could not have been mine suddenly opened, and then, to my astonishment, my lips silently mouthed the six syllables of the tree’s Latin name moments before the first phonation of Datura Candida sounded from hers.

  As weeks turned into months and a daily routine revealed itself there was no doubt my condition was worsening. I found orphaned and unrecognizable memories everywhere— in pulling a tattered book of poetry from a secondhand shelf, in the sodden retreat from a summer squall, in the rattled hassling with a wrought iron gate, in the bending eyes of a decaying monument; the burden of unaccountable memory was crushing me.

My work offered no relief as every thought was consumed by doubts of mental soundness. The attention I paid my students and their advancement withered openly. I was sure within days an office assistant would enter my room with a folded note summoning me to a full board review. I was just as sure, standing at the lectern, that the numerous eyes staring back at me could see the puzzle pieces of my life falling at my feet. Could they also see, fitting perfectly into the empty spaces left behind, filling them almost as quickly as the tiles fell, a portrait forming of the man whose life I was collecting?

That the true owner of those memories might be hunting me as I was searching for him tormented my thoughts. I suffered the notion of an encounter. In my weakest moments, in moments of irrational behavior, I searched for him among the porticoes and dimly lit terraces of the city’s oldest buildings. What futile punishment might a man inflict upon the one caught holding his stolen memories? The prospect stoked the embers of paranoia. A constant foreboding pervaded my walks. Glancing over my shoulder, querying the dark for movement, I heard the owner’s footsteps following just out of sync with mine. In the weedy shadows I thought I saw the rustle of a coattail, in the parroting of foreign tongues among the intrados I perceived a voice as familiar as my own. Then, exhausted, but still with enough strength to grip the frayed thread of reason that remained, I retreated to my empty apartment, freeing myself from a day of false reflections only to begin a night with another man’s dreams.

To stave the dark flumes of unconsciousness I spent my evenings in the bar at the Hotel Isabel. It was the one place that settled the torments of my mind; it was my only reprieve from the impending sense that time and memory were collapsing around me. But there was another more compelling reason for going there— it had become my heart’s desire.

The bar, frequented mostly by American and English businessmen, was not a likely choice for my taste. I would have seemed conspicuous among the loosened ties and fervid consumption that took place there had I not favored the dim corners of the room. From those strategic positions I watched her. And though I turned up most nights I had hardly spoken to her. I didn’t even know her name. My fear of being associated with the travelling men who clumsily, drunkenly, made their passes as she served their drinks drew my tongue back with quiet restraint. Still, I wanted her intensely. I devoured the hours watching her maneuver through the room. She was lovely, without question, perhaps lovelier because the thoughts and fantasies that filled my head to dizziness during those hours seemed exclusively mine.

Eventually I summoned the courage to leave her a note. It wasn’t much, a trifle really, a scribbled poem that seemed as intriguing as her, but one which concealed my motives perfectly. It was intentionally vague and quite nearly anonymous. Because I could not bear the thought of rejection I offered little room for a response. Nonetheless, on my next visit I nervously awaited my drink and some sort of sign. When she placed the glass on the table she said nothing, she did not fully look at me; if her gaze was swayed by my presence as she moved through the room I could not tell. So to protect my heart from injury I pretended the piece of paper had been shuffled unread into a bin by an unsuspecting busboy.

My heart was not so easily convinced. What I usually sipped I downed in one swallow. The spirit of the agave warmed the edges of despair, but did not make me insensible, or prepare me for what happened next. When she brought me another drink I resisted the temptation to look into her eyes for fear of revealing my wound. Instead, I assumed a close study of the cocktail menu on the table. But as she set the drink in front of me my resistance faltered. The allure of her bare skin so close, the charm of its soft salinity, melted my will into something I could not govern. My gaze descended her arm on a string of imperceptible kisses. It wasn’t until they reached the tips of her fingers that I thought I recognized, in her hand’s hesitation upon the glass, the effect of my verse. I could think of no other reason for the uncertainty of her withdrawal. I quickly looked up to confirm my suspicion and received yet another sign— a nod.

I suddenly understood. To anyone else a nod seemed nothing more than a professional courtesy, a mere gesture confirming the money she had taken from the table had paid my tab. In truth, it was a cleverly nuanced communiqué informing me, with a decanted glance only I could discern, that she endorsed my poetic flirtation and would entertain another. I quickly rummaged my bag for a pen and spent the next hour searching for the perfect words.

Hoping my confidence would be restored with another drink I folded the finished note, tucked it into my pocket, and then waited. I exhausted the rest of the evening in a labyrinth of speculation— I imagined her reply, then what I would say next, I was so lost in the long winding passages that would compose my next love note that I recklessly drank beyond my limit. If I did not leave, I thought, I was at risk of committing some terribly foolish act. Nevertheless, I had not imbibed so much that I failed to see the opportunity such a situation presented. Feigning ignorance of its location I asked her to escort me to the taxi cue. If she was wise to my intention she did not seem to mind. I even simulated a misstep along the way so she suddenly captured my arm and pulled me closer to her. She smelled of wineberries and amber, whereas I was redolent with the extravagantly smoked tobacco of undeclared love. I inhaled deeply, as it was a mingling of scent I wished to suspend in memory forever. The temple of her breast yielded beneath the press of my shoulder, and then, for a moment too brief to drown in, though I wanted to so badly, a long undulant wave of hair purled over my cheek. I pretended to regain my balance, but only enough so she continued in the same manner, pulling me into her until the very last step.

As she released me into the porter’s care she insisted walking home alone was too dangerous after so much tequila. He agreed, as did an old man waiting in line ahead of me who added that the worst crime was that nothing ever changed, that the same torments and offenses were committed endlessly and with so little distinction. Then she turned for the lobby’s glow and we held our words until the pleasure of her silhouette had vanished into the light.

When I told the porter my destination the old man insisted I share his cab as he was going exactly the same way. The porter pitched me a crooked look, as if to warn such foolishness brings the worst sort of trouble. His punctuated brow inspired an expression of my own— there was nothing threatening about a timeworn abuelito in a cardigan sweater, I thought. So I threw my hand to the air and announced with intoxicated zeal, “¿Por qué no?” What could possibly happen?

It wasn’t until the old man closed the door behind him, when the guardianship of the hotel and its familiar sounds were shut from reach, that I sensed my reckless decision. In the hushed darkness of the cab the drawn face and sloping shoulders of the old man appeared menacing. A second later the cab pulled off and the hotel quickly receded from view. Panic cut through the tequila’s haze. I waited for the man to say something reassuring, something elderly and wise to appease my anxiety, but he remained silent. He made no attempt to acknowledge me. My efforts at conversation were ignored, or weren’t heard, I couldn’t tell because he did not move, he only stared. The mass of each vacant moment swelled in my throat until I could not swallow. Then I noticed his hands, they were knotting and twisting in his lap. What sinister game was he playing? What was he waiting for? I looked out the window hoping to find comfort in the recognizable. Though my head was turned I felt his eyes crawling down me like insidious fingertips. Then suddenly he erupted with laughter. My heart convulsed. I tried for the seat buckle but my arm didn’t move; my body would not obey. Then I felt his hand touch my leg, and he began to speak.

“The worst feeling in the world is the burden of a bad decision paralyzing your limbs. Is it not? When I was a young man I also got into a taxi with a stranger and wondered if I had made the right choice. But just as I was preparing to jump from the moving vehicle the old man whose ride I had accepted looked into my eyes, the same way I am now looking into yours, and to calm my racing heart began telling me the most unusual story. It appears fate demands the same from me now.”

I managed a look of surrender. He considered me for a moment, and then, in a voice grave and crevassed by time, he began his story.

“Imagine a café,” he said. “Now picture it situated in a very old city whose buildings, while not on European soil, possess those qualities. In fact,” he informed me while motioning out the window, “they are not unlike the ones passing above us now.”

“It is a small café holding only a few tables, two of which are pushed against the very large windows that overlook the lively boulevard outside. It is at one of these tables that we discover a man, somewhat hunched, with loose skin and fading eyes. The clothes he is wearing inform us not that he doesn’t care how he looks, but that his thoughts were called away while dressing. Behind him, hanging from the back of his chair, there is a leather bag discolored by nearly a half century’s use. It is filled with letters from his lover Maria Carmen Cardenas.

“It is a winter out of time. The old man is sitting at the table with a pen pressed to his lips. Several papers covered in an unsteady scrawl share the table with an espresso that has grown cold and an ashtray that is holding a burning cigarette. He will eventually reach for it and find that there is nothing left. Accustomed to this he will light another one, take a drag, and place it in the ashtray until it too burns itself into oblivion.

“The old man is not the only character,” he said, “there is also the owner of the café. When not occupied with other customers the owner contemplates the old patron. For as long as he can recall the man has been a fixture there, and yet he does not even know his name. What the owner does know is limited— he appears everyday during the slow hours of the afternoon and remains until the dinner lights are turned up; his days are spent writing and gazing out the window; once a week, Wednesdays perhaps, he enters the café with a letter in his hand which he nervously opens, and once a week he sends a letter out using the postal box on the street corner.

“The owner, curious but shy, wonders what the old man is writing. On a few occasions he has peered over his shoulder while pretending to sweep a few crumbs from under a table or beneath a chair, but he has never dared to speak directly to the man regarding such personal issues. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might discover.

“One day the old man goes to the restroom and the owner hurries to his table to read one of his letters. It is drenched with passionate metaphors— an indication, he scoffs, of irrational or mad love. It is signed Maria Carmen Cardenas. He hears the water running in the bathroom and rushes back to the counter before the old man returns.

“As he is cleaning up that evening he sees the man’s bag in the corner behind a chair. He puts it away knowing the man will return the following day to resume writing and reading his love letters. That night the owner of the café cannot sleep— he is imagining the two lovers, the countless letters, the tragedy of their affair, and is left tossing and turning through the night.

“The next morning he opens early and waits for the old man to return. He does not show. Days go by, then weeks. The sight of the bag torments him. He moves it from one place to another each time believing it to be out of sight, but invariably he stumbles across it. He begins to fear secrets regarding his own life may be contained in those letters.”

It was at that moment that I realized the taxi had been idling in front of my building for several minutes. The old man noticed that I had slipped from the clutches of his tale.

“Well,” he said, “have you reached your destination?”

“No, I mean yes,” I said somewhat confused. He knew what I meant, that I could not leave without hearing the rest of the story. He turned and stared deeply into me, his eyes casting the luminous energy of collapsing stars.

“Well then,” he continued, “a year goes by.”

“On the anniversary of the old man’s disappearance the owner determines that he will open the bag and read each letter. He uncovers a romance of nearly forty years. The first letter, written by Maria, is in the same flourishing style he had seen before. The next letter signed simply,  “your eternal…”, was one the old man had written. As he is reading through it the owner realizes something which chills his blood. A feeling of vertigo overwhelms him when he places the two letters side by side and confirms that both were written by the same hand.

“Rifling through the bag he pulls out the envelopes the letters were sent in. He checks the postal marks and is staggered by the unimaginable; each envelope has been stamped with a date that has not yet passed. His thoughts follow a bead of sweat inching down his back. For a moment the owner questions the existence of the letters, the existence of the old man, the existence of the leather bag and the wasted cigarettes, even of himself and the café. Then out of the corner of his eye he beholds a tremendous defilement of time; the sender’s name on the back of the envelopes is his own.

I staggered up the stairs to my building. I had left the old man laughing in the back of the taxi. As I reached into my pocket for the key he rolled down his window and said the most provocative thing. “Young man,” he laughed, “don’t be in such a rush— it has already been written!”

His taunt still threatened the darkness after the taillights of his cab disappeared. I searched my pocket for the key. What I found instead was a square of folded paper. My heart sank. As I opened the note splinters of moonlight stirred the amorous words from the page. The old man’s story had betrayed the most intimate and secret details of my own existence.

Suddenly I was trembling. I was standing in the nave of a terrible paradox. If I believed him, that everything has always existed and will continue to exist, repeating endlessly with little variation, that he and I, that the old man in the café and the owner, we are one and the same, then to envision my life was to imagine perpetual suffering. This was my destiny, an existence with no beginning, no end? Could I not resist, or defeat, or rewrite what he proclaimed was already written? My mind raced desperately away from reason. Months of searching had left me broken; my body and mind were crippled. The anguish, the constant speculation, the phantom ruminations, the black foliage of false impressions, I could endure them no more. I surrendered the frayed tether of rational thought and embraced its deviant counterpart.

Then, in the temporal calm that followed, I conceived an extraordinary idea— such a fate was not a curse. To discover one’s identity threading through innumerable layers of time rather than lost in a single swift stitch in its fabric was transcendent, godlike, but only if I embraced the inevitable absolutely. I must accept the misery as I would the joy. I must carry the greatest weight imaginable.

And what tiny joy redeems my eternally tortured life? It was her! She was my purpose, she the hinge of my existence. If she offered a fleeting taste of love such a fate might be sufferable. I must leap, risk, and gamble for a chance at it. If for a single instant I can experience whatever it is, so beautiful, so profound, that will inspire scores of an old man’s hand-written delusions, even if that love is doomed to fail, I will submit to it. And after I have lost her I will joyfully suffer epochs of pain knowing the fabric of time will fold again and for a moment, no matter how slight, she will return to me.

Once more my gaze fell upon the letter. In the years spanning the note which I held so tightly, and the winter when my bag will be fed with fictions written in the throes of madness or despair, at some point during that long reach of time I had to believe there would be a great love affair. I must pursue her.

I folded the note and placed it back into my pocket. I pulled out the key, slipped it into the door, and as it silently turned back the lock I was certain, that in all of eternity’s endless repetitions, her love will forever linger near the tip of my persistent pen.

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