From Ilan Stavans' Collection, "The One-Handed Pianist"

The Spot

       Better to get used to it. After all, what's a spot? No big deal: a nuisance, something trivial. I left the house that morning like any other morning, in a rush and worried about the same old things. Carpe diem, I'm sure I said. I had to be in school in less than an hour. A bus and train ride awaited me. I remember selecting the shirt. (Or had it been waiting for me in the closet?). I shaved, put my belt and tie on the bed. The phone rang but I didn't answer. Although it was already with me, I ignored it out of distraction as we do the most urgent matters, the ones that sooner or later make our lives unbearable and force us to send everything to hell. I was still in the elevator, just after arriving at school, when I saw the cloudy spot, dark and oily, on the front of my shirt's white vastness, just under the right shoulder. The first thing I did was to see if anyone, some busybody, had already seen it, but luckily no one had. I touched it softly with my fingertip, feeling resigned and overcome by an uneasiness I couldn't shake off. Truth was I would've liked to rip it off, snuff out its hateful existence, but I chose to be polite. I was in the elevator and had to put on an act in front of the others. Since when have you been there, bitch? I couldn't remember the exact awful moment it entered this world, stamping itself on me without an invitation. Had a car splashed me midblock? Or had it been a screaming boy in the subway car? Why hadn't the Chinese Laundromat seen it? An unforgivable mistake. Now I'd have to find a better cleaner. But for now what was the solution? Make it disappear, erase it. Not so easy. I had to find one of those magic potions advertised on TV that clean without leaving a trace. Go to a supermarket, but how? Class began in twenty minutes. Anyway, there was no store nearby. My sense of anger and lunacy grew by the minute. Ignore it. Then I thought about all the filthy, dirty people, in particular, those men who come back from the john with an apple-sized spot by the zipper, as if the last drop had broken its course. I also thought of a fat woman cheerfully coming out of a restaurant with a spot under the chin where the defiant forkful hadn't made it down the gullet. Sooner or later, we all get spots, I told myself. They are part and parcel of life. What is a cloud if not a spot? And what's a shadow? But students, colleagues, the secretary, the whole world would notice. What a shame! That's life: you shower, you get dressed pretending there's order in the world, that your body and clothes are clean then, all of a sudden, an indication of filth, of... Lowering my shoulder, I stepped out of the elevator. I recalled that several months ago, a lady sitting in front of me with a shopping bag in a packed bus told me as she rang the buzzer to get out: "Excuse me sir, but your zipper...ugh, how can I put it? Really, you should know your fly is down and well... You know what the world is like now." I felt the sky crashing down upon me and that my throbbing heart, beating rapidfire, was more than I could take. I felt--what did I feel? I realized I had four options: despite the awful heat, I could wear the sweater in my office drawer and pretend I had a cold and that my doctor had suggested I wear it, or else keep my hand tucked like Napoleon Bonaparte for the rest of the day or just turn half way around and quickly tell the secretary that I wouldn't be in class, to make up any sort of excuse. The last option, sheer lunacy, was to take some scissors, but damn, the shirt had cost me an arm and a leg and I had only worn it twice. I went straight to the bathroom. I took off my shirt one, two, three, soaked the spotted edge in cold water, then stretched it flat. How stupid of me! The whole area was shadowed by a huge cloud. This is when my paranoia got the best of me. I couldn't leave the bathroom because the spot was even more noticeable. On the other hand, staying there, stubbornly closed in, was the mark of an unstable mind. A spot. What's in a spot? My colleagues--what would they think? They'd come in to take a piss and comb their hair, they'd see me and ask if I was okay. I had no choice but to stay like this until... I suddenly understood how a tiny problem had grown beyond my control. A spot, an omen, a huge and awful reality. Fear. What if someone had arranged for this awful, filthy spot to throw me to the bottom of the well of confusion? And if it were the beginning of the end? I had lost my freedom. I was imprisoned. Yes, a hateful group of enemies had planned this misadventure. The spot was my punishment. The spot. Tomorrow a detective would find my body and the forensic doctor would say that not only my clothes, but all my skin, even the pores were covered with...The autopsy, the cause of death, a total mystery. No, no, no noooooo. I couldn't just give up, no way. With my spirit torn to shreds, I bravely decided to put my shirt back on. The spot was still there but the water had...I lowered my eyes. I saw, not without a good bit of shock, that my pants were now full of spots and that...It had all begun with a meaningless... A spot, a zipper. A... I tried to convince myself, nobody has died of...But under my chin, another dark spot. Another and another and.... I wanted to get used to it. After all, a spot is nothing more than a slight inconvenience. At wit's end, I went into a bathroom stall and wrapped toilet paper around my throat. Then I stuck my head, my carefully shaven face, my hair so meticulously combed since morning, in the john and that was the end of all spots and all shame. To hell with carpe diem....Pssshhhh and the phone.

Translated by Alison Stavchansky and David Unger