My next-door neighbor is a gentleman by the name of Eduardo. Over the years, he has kept himself to himself. It’s said he’s of Cuban origin. He communicates mainly by signifiers of good will. For example, sometimes he’ll take delivery of a package for me and leave it outside my door. Eduardo’s apartment shares plumbing with mine, and if there’s a pipe blockage we liaise about turning taps on and off.
I once saw a limousine run him down. He was in the crosswalk—he’s pushing seventy and has a slow, hobbling gait—when the limo turned straight into him. I ran over and helped Eduardo get up. There was no sign of an injury. My neighbor, I understood, is hard as nails.
On a Friday morning in April, O.C.G. pops up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That’s only five blocks away. That is squarely in my turf.
I jump to my feet, put on a baseball cap and sunglasses, and dash out. I encounter Eduardo at the elevator.
We smile at each other. When we exit the building, I hold open the door and wait for him to pass through. Then he speaks: “You play baseball?”
He’s referring to the bat I’m holding.
I’m going to a meeting, I tell him.
“I’ll walk with you,” he says. “That O.K.?”
“Sure,” I say. I’m checking my phone. O.C.G. hasn’t gone anywhere.
To repeat: Eduardo is a steady walker but a deliberate one. As his escort, I have no choice but to go at his speed. This is a first, I should say. We’ve never walked together before.
In a second first, Eduardo makes an important-sounding announcement. “Today is the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs.”
“The Bay of Pigs? Huh.” The Bay of Pigs, Bunker Hill, Bull Run, the bridge over the River Kwai—who cares, at this point? Who knows how to care?
“I was sixteen,” Eduardo tells me. He tells me that he was among the troops on the Houston. His best friend there was named Garcilaso. Garcilaso was fifteen years old.
With that he has my ear, even as I keep an eye on my phone.
Eduardo relates that, after his family fled Cuba, he enrolled at Georgia Tech.
“Wait,” I say. “You enrolled at sixteen?”
“Correct,” Eduardo says. “At sixteen.” He tells me that it was in Atlanta, at the Y.M.C.A., that he was recruited by the counter-revolutionaries. “Everybody else was going,” he says. “So I thought, Why not? Let’s go.” He flew down to Miami to sign up with the C.I.A. After two weeks of training in the mountain jungles of Guatemala, Eduardo and Garcilaso boarded the Houston. They were given ancient Garand rifles. In the absence of helmets, they wore cowboy hats.
One morning, at dawn, Garcilaso and Eduardo sneaked into the captain’s quarters. “Garcilaso had heard there were MM’s in there,” Eduardo told me. “We look around, and we find the MM’s. At that exact moment, we see the Cuban jets. Flying low, coming straight at us.”
He laughs. He’s been laughing softly the whole time.
I ask Eduardo if he and Garcilaso got to eat the MM’s. He tells me they did not.
It seems that this is the full extent of his anecdote. Only in response to my questioning does he disclose that the bombing sank the ship. Eduardo had to jump overboard, into the Bay of Pigs, and swim to shore.
“Anybody die?” I ask.
“Sure,” Eduardo says.
We’ve reached the end of the block. “I’m headed uptown,” I say.
Eduardo indicates that he’s also headed that way. We set off.
In the morning rush, this bit of Eighth Avenue is barely manageable on foot. The problem is that an almost impenetrable pedestrian mass, discharged by buses from New Jersey and the Times Square subway exits, hurries south in a kind of stampede. The sense of a great flight—of crops put to the torch, of a ruined and shaken hinterland—is only heightened by trains booming underfoot, by the bleeping Klaxons of reversing box trucks, by the disorderly shoving of food carts between the stopped cars, and, above all, by the strangely focusless expressions worn by the oncoming commuters, who are seemingly devoid of ordinary consciousness. It all bodes ill. Either the barbarians are at the gates or we ourselves are the barbarians.
What I’d give for a green and silent lane. What I’d give for a woodland’s leopard-skin light.
In short, Eduardo and I can go forward only in starts: we advance a few yards, wait for a gap in the crowd, and advance again. I notice that he’s trying to tell me something.
“Say again?” I shout.
An ambulance siren is shrieking. Eduardo waits for the shriek to pass. “I’m going in there, to get a coffee,” he says.
It feels natural to follow Eduardo—even though I’m averse to this particular deli, which I know to be a busy, cavernous, impersonal establishment with an offhand staff. When Eduardo sits at the little countertop by the window, I join him but I don’t get myself anything to drink. I listen when he tells me that a small group of them, a handful of the survivors of the sinking of the Houston, walked for a day and a night through the swamps. On the second day, they surrendered to Castro’s forces and, en route to Havana, they ran into Che.
The prisoner-transport vehicle had come to an unexpected halt. Che Guevara and a woman comrade appeared. They examined the prisoners and conferred in French, so as not to be understood. Finally, Che said to Eduardo, Who are you, young man? Eduardo answered, Eduardo Sanchez de Cadenas. Che said, Are you a relation of Captain Cadenas? I have no idea, Eduardo said.
“I was relaxed,” he tells me. “My attitude was, they were going to shoot us or they weren’t.”
The older prisoners were not so relaxed. Unlike Eduardo, they’d recognized Che. Shut up, kid, they said.
Nobody got shot. The truck drove on. Eduardo never saw Che Guevara again.
“What about your friend?” I ask. “What about Garcilaso?”
Eduardo shakes his head—or, rather, he moves his head in such a way that I don’t know what he’s signalling. I’m afraid to know.
Then Eduardo says, “Garcilaso was O.K.,” and by God that’s a very beautiful thing to hear.
For a minute or two, we watch the world go by.
“You want another coffee?” I say. “I’m getting myself one.”
“I’m O.K.,” Eduardo says. “You don’t need to be anywhere?”
Do I need to be anywhere? What kind of question is that? Of course I need to be somewhere. There is no end to the places I need to be.
I buy myself a coffee. Then I regain my stool.
Tell me more, I want to say to Eduardo but do not say, because he seems ready to leave. Tell me about Garcilaso and about how things went well for him. ♦