I can’t recall whether we were drinking, but if the party was anything like the others I had gone to since landing in New York, there must have been jugs of cheap red wine and an abundant stock of paper cups, which means that we were probably growing drunker and drunker as we continued to talk. I wish I could dredge up more of what we said, but 1967 was a long time ago, and no matter how hard I struggle to find the words and gestures and fugitive overtones of that initial encounter with Born, I mostly draw blanks. Nevertheless, a few vivid moments stand out in the blur. Born reaching into the inside pocket of his linen jacket, for example, and withdrawing the butt of a half- smoked cigar, which he proceeded to light with a match while informing me that it was a Montecristo, the best of all Cuban cigars— banned in America then, as they still are now— which he had managed to obtain through a personal connection with someone who worked at the French embassy in Washington. He then went on to say a few kind words about Castro— this from the same man who just minutes earlier had defended Johnson, McNamara, and Westmoreland for their heroic work in battling the menace of communism in Vietnam. I remember feeling amused at the sight of the disheveled political scientist pulling out that half- smoked cigar and said he reminded me of the owner of a South American coffee plantation who had gone mad after spending too many years in the jungle. Born laughed at the remark, quickly adding that I wasn’t far from the truth, since he had spent the bulk of his childhood in Guatemala. When I asked him to tell me more, however, he waved me off with the words another time.
I’ll give you the whole story, he said, but in quieter surroundings. The whole story of my incredible life so far. You’ll see, Mr. Walker. One day, you’ll wind up writing my biography. I guarantee it.
Born’s cigar, then, and my role as his future Boswell, but also an image of Margot touching my face with her right hand and whispering: Be good to yourself. That must have come toward the end, when we were about to leave or had already gone downstairs, but I have no memory of leaving and no memory of saying good- bye to them. All those things have been blotted out, erased by the work of forty years. They were two strangers I met at a noisy party one spring night in the New York of my youth, a New York that no longer exists, and that was that. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t even bother to exchange phone numbers.
I assumed I would never see them again. Born had been teaching at Columbia for seven months, and since I hadn’t crossed paths with him in all that time, it seemed unlikely that I would run into him now. But odds don’t count when it comes to actual events, and just because a thing is unlikely to happen, that doesn’t mean it won’t. Two days after the party, I walked into the West End Bar following my final class of the afternoon, wondering if I might not find one of my friends there. The West End was a dingy, cavernous hole with more than a dozen booths and tables, a vast oval bar in the center of the front room, and an area near the entrance where you could buy bad cafeteria- style lunches and dinners— my hangout of choice, frequented by students, drunks, and neighborhood regulars. It happened to be a warm, sun- filled afternoon, and consequently few people were present at that hour. As I made my tour around the bar in search of a familiar face, I saw Born sitting alone in a booth at the back. He was reading a German newsmagazine (Der Spiegel, I think), smoking another one of his Cuban cigars, and ignoring the half- empty glass of beer that stood on the table to his left. Once again, he was wearing his white suit— or perhaps a different one, since the jacket looked cleaner and less rumpled than the one he’d been wearing Saturday night— but the white shirt was gone, replaced by something red— a deep, solid red, midway between brick and crimson.
Excerpted from Invisible by Paul Auster. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Auster. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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