It wasn’t an entirely normal day for the politician. There he was in an ophthalmologist’s chair, staring at a painting of a mouth outlined in red lipstick, very white teeth inexplicably framing an eye. Something didn’t seem quite right about a doctor with surrealist tastes; most medical professionals preferred dull landscapes or abstract forms, something that didn’t attract the attention too much. But this one appeared to be unafraid of expressing his true preferences. Perhaps he meant to decrease the natural unease of the patient in the waiting room with a little light humor, but on him it had the opposite effect.
Casting around for something else to look at, he settled on a photo of the doctor with platinum blonde actress Mirtha Legrand, now an octogenarian at the peak of her power. The snap next to it was with Mike Tyson, who looked fresh-faced and (this was the important thing, he supposed) healthy-eyed. Had he booked an emergency visit while abroad? In any case, these photos, like the painting, had a double effect. On the one hand the celebrity patients inspired confidence. If they, with their infinite funds, chose to trust this particular doctor, wouldn’t it be presumptuous for him to choose anyone else? Yet the images also seemed a touch ostentatious, the equivalent of fifteen framed degrees on the wall.
When the doctor finally called him in, he did so with a nod rather than words; during visits like these, everything was predetermined, and both already knew what to expect. The doctor opened an instructional video on a screen to explain the options. One could insert two tiny pieces of plastic in the eyelids for life (or fifteen years, which came to the same thing; the likelihood their professional relationship would last longer was beyond the realm of probability). Alternatively, one could undergo a surgery to correct vision in a more permanent way, an option that at first sight might seem expensive or drastic, but was more reasonable, the computer voice explained. Myopia was a common and easily correctable condition, and surgery was more cost-effective in the long run.
Those words, couched in the language of finance, triggered some recognition — the vocabulary of daily discussions, things read in newspapers and seen on television — though the politician wasn’t sure if this recognition meant he liked the idea or not, if his continued exposure to such phrases was due to preference or circumstance. He watched the eyeball rotate on the screen, optic nerve, retina, iris, cornea, and thought of what he’d usually be doing at this time, in his office. The same rain falling outside would be outside his window as he spoke with a colleague, or more precisely, listened — he always paid a little too much attention, getting caught up in individual words, as if something like myopia of the ear existed — while stirring a packet’s worth of sugar into steaming coffee, spoon moving in slow circles. From the eleventh floor he’d see the mud and metal of Retiro station, trains embarking on journeys to distant points of the provinces. The idea of faraway cities linked by means of efficient planning, nodes of connection that grew and strengthened with the application of scientific methods, fascinated him, and he was convinced it was the only way the nation would progress.
Then the idea came to him. Why shouldn’t he do it? It would be a sort of aide memoire to remind him why he’d been attracted to his position in the first place. (He always thought of it as a ‘position’ and not work, a higher calling rather than an obligation, a job as old and respectable as the priesthood.) As a child he’d read stories of ancient kings who went, disguised, to examine their kingdoms. Perhaps this was a memory from his mother’s Bible; he’d grown up with night-time readings and Sunday incense, and some longing for a power both sacred and true had stayed with him. This was what he wanted, not the farce of imitation glory, in halls where so often he recognized the faces of old classmates. The kingdom, after all, was not so large.
This is what he’d do then: go about the city just as in the old stories, disguised in an outfit he’d never normally wear, a simple collared buttoned-up shirt and jeans, along with (why not?) a pasted-on beard. If the press found out, it’d have a field day, but it never would; anyway, it was not to be believed. Journalists reported what they suspected would happen, what was prepared in advance or what was slightly surprising but not overly so. They’d reported, for instance, on the company he’d founded with a colleague, whose proposal had been brilliant: an ecowood that didn’t deform, and maintained its resistance in any climate. They’d sold it to the fathers of friends and made a fortune on country houses with requests for outer deck installation. The prices charged were high, but in the long run it was a good negotiation for the client, and everyone won. That was a possible story; this, no.
But what escaped reporting was still reality. A week later, there he was, a newman. The last touch was glasses, a tortoiseshell-rimmed pair. The mirror now reflected the face of a shabby secondary school teacher, or owner of a bookshop. He was ready. After swallowing a dram of whisky for courage, he set out to wander. The streets were marvelously open, each intersection presenting a decision that in some way resolved itself. There was a certain logic in the turnings, and though he didn’t know exactly where he was, and sensed he was moving ever farther south, he couldn’t say he was ever truly lost. He walked for a very long time; finally, exhausted, he sat to rest in a park under a tree with roots that looked like enormous dried-up worms from another epoch. There he carried on a chat he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d begun with an elderly woman sitting on a splayed-out piece of cloth beside him.
The woman spoke of insecurity in the city in the wake of a recent crime wave, and as he listened to her ramble about the impunity of thieves, a sense of well-being pervaded him. He’d taken a few more pulls of the amber liquid on the way to sustain his energy and connect in that mystical way he was seeking with his surroundings, and though he wasn’t entirely sure who’d begun the conversation, he felt he was a part of it, and it part of him. This was what it meant to talk with the people; no poll or adviser report could replace this discourse, which took place everywhere, at the cold cut vendor’s while purchasing salami and cheese, at the supermarket while picking up a packet of frozen raviolis, at the hairdresser while waiting for split ends to be snipped, but which was inaccessible to him in his role as politician. Such contact was essential. He was both a leader of the land and a citizen like the rest; he was simultaneously above the nation, part of, and one with it. The body of the country was made up of nerve-like connections, fluid circulations of contacts, networks of linked cells, and his privilege lay in helping develop these combinations. He would carry the republic forward; the republic would carry him forward. The necessity for disguise was hypothetical, of course. If he were to go out in his normal state, most likely he would go unrecognized. Perhaps a few avid readers of the political pages would note his presence; at most, just as when minor theater actresses passed on the Avenida Corrientes at four in the afternoon, people would simply whisper ‘Look, it’s…’ and nothing would come of it. Discreet in public, bold in private — that was the way that things worked here.
He continued to wander, had a knife fight in bar, crossed several avenues, slept a few hours by a fountain, woke without his wallet, continued on… it was difficult for him to remember the details now. When he got back he went directly to the bathroom and doused a washcloth with alcohol, which stung when it touched his bare skin. He had just enough presence of mind to limit his reaction to a wince rather than cry out, so as not to wake his wife sleeping in the next room. He ran himself a long hot shower to get rid of the sweat and accumulated grime of the day, then slipped into a pair of clean white pajamas and wrapped his arms around the warm body beside him. It would be impossible to hide the wound, he knew, but he’d be able to imagine a good excuse if necessary. Drifting gently to sleep, he forgot the pain, and the entire episode, welcoming oblivion.
The raw place eventually healed into a scar, the skin raised slightly in a bacillus-like shape. His prepared excuse remained tucked away like a poison pill, a reassurance for the worst that was never needed. His wife stroked the place tenderly, without ever questioning it, seemingly wanting to preserve the mystery. And that intimate gash, invisible to the public, somehow deepened the bond between them. It amplified their relationship, lent it enigmas and shadows, an insubstantiality that paradoxically became the base for greater solidity between them. He was satisfied; he had made his excursion into barbarian territory and returned safely. Now the episode was half-forgotten, and sometimes he doubted whether it had happened at all. Just like the mouth with red lipstick, however, it returned to him from time to time when least expected — a vision that was unsettling, out of place — a reminder that other worlds exist.