by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
“El doctor!” he heard, calling from behind. He had been moving deliberately, in his construction workers’ costume, making his way through the fence around Guantanamo to where he might slip through, shaking hands and introducing himself as Juan to anyone who asked.
“Doctor, I thought that was you,” said the workman; an old patient from — was it a gallbladder surgery? Perhaps an appendix removed?
“Jose.” The doctor drew his former patient in close, in the half-handshake, half-hug of Cuban men. “You caught me!” It was a racy thing to say in the postrevolutionary country, Che and Fidel thinning the ranks of their opposition day by day. There were men deep in La Cabana who had moaned the doctor’s name: Who dressed this wound, demanded a party loyalist, perhaps one of the men of the Sierra Maestra who Doctor Fajardo had once counted among his friends, and the counterrevolutionaries who were his allies now gave it up in agony, admittances to just to make the torture end. It did: at the firing squads.
Jose looked confused, at the doctor’s words and the doctor’s presence; what could a surgeon be doing here?
“Ay, Jose,” said Doctor Fajardo, with a laugh. “You know, there is no better way to see the country through the eyes of another than to walk in another man’s shoes.”
Jose was uncertain and other workers drew near, curious.
“Now I know what it is to be a workman! I have been learning how to repair this fence all day. We must work together now, si? You will show me what you know?”
However strange it might have been to see his doctor dressed in construction coveralls Jose was flattered at the opportunity to show the surgeon what he knew — he, Jose, a worker, teaching a man as smart and educated as Doctor Fajardo! This was the revolution at work!
And so they spent the afternoon together, digging and mixing concrete, solidifying the walls around Guantanamo that the doctor had hoped to slip through. Doctor Fajardo made jokes and Jose laughed; they shared an earthy machismo and at the end of the day el doctor went back to Santiago, a made man, thinking on his next opportunity to escape.
Armando Fausto Fajardo was a man’s man, a surgeon who loved his job and was well-respected in his community. He had lived in the country, in a place called Marcane in southeastern Cuba; in the Oriente province where the revolution had first brewed on the farm next to his, where the Castros lived. He had operated on old Angel Castro, a last-ditch effort to save the man’s life, and it hadn’t succeeded but none of Angel’s children seemed to hold it against him. He had gone to school with Fidel — in Havana, at Belen, where all famous Cuban boys went, where Desi Arnaz entertained all his classmates with his guitar and his smile and where Fidel’s younger brother Raul pretended that he wasn’t the one setting fires in the bathroom or torturing small lizards when none of the Jesuits were looking — but it was Mongo with whom he was closest, Mongo to whom he leased land and sold sheep, Mongo who strode in and out of his house and greeted his wife and gave presents to his daughters.
The land Armando owned was wild and he tamed it with horse and rifle, riding at night. Hunting in Cuba lacked spectacle — Armando traveled each year to Wyoming, to shoot bears and deer and moose — but here there were cigars and rum, and rum families like the Bacardis and the Medellins who were his friends. He ate a steak each day and his wife was beautiful and his mustache was imperious, a Cuban Ron Swanson, and early in the revolution he had carried messages for his friends the Castros, back when anything seemed better than Batista.
But as Fidel’s power grew Armando began to doubt his old schoolmate and he sent his two daughters out first. They went to Miami, stayed with his sister-in-law until his wife could leave too — but Armando was tied to Cuba for a little while yet, unwilling to leave while his ailing parents still lived. His sister had fled at the first signs of chaos, moving her family to Spain, and their son — their doctor — was the only family his parents had left.
He had buried them, days before he went to Guantanamo.
When the revolution began they had stayed in the countryside, hiding under beds and tables as bullets flew by — the Castro family farm was headquarters for the revolution and fighting blossomed out from it, arriving in Havana only in newspapers and radio stories; but there, in Oriente, in the Sierra Maestra, the soundtrack of overthrow was not suspicious whispers or protest chants but gunfire and groaning.
They moved to Santiago, the whole Fajardo family, as the fighting continued. Cuba’s second-largest city, there on the southeastern coast, a port city, safer than living next door to Fidel.
Next he tried a ship: a Greek ship, a transport vessel, and the swarthy captain had agreed — over rum and cigars in Santiago — to stow him away, out of site and out of Cuba. He arrived on the docks at the appointed time and place but the port was crawling with revolutionary soldiers, inspecting passenger manifests, looking over cargo, standing guard. There had been riots here last night — new security measures, a young soldier told Armando sternly. Who was he?
“Ship’s doctor,” said Armando. “Please let me through.”
“Ship’s doctor?” The soldier consulted a crew list. “I don’t see your name here.”
“Well, then there is a misprint. I am this ship’s doctor.”
“Show me,” said the soldier.
The doctor had never been inside this particular ship before but he boarded it with practiced confidence, the soldier at his back. He nodded at crewmembers in the narrow hallways as though they were his coworkers at the hospital, looking for the ship’s infirmary without trying to appear as though he was looking.
“Don’t you know where you are going?” asked the soldier, two hours on.
“I thought I would give you the full tour,” said Armando.
They found the infirmary; closed.
“Ah,” said Armando. “I have forgotten my keys! Well, I suppose it is not so bad. I need to buy more bandages before we leave anyway.”
They backtracked, the doctor and the soldier, out of the ship, back onto the docks; Armando to his car, a made man once more.
He never saw the Greek again.
Mongo had sent him a message, as his parents were dying: It’s an emergency; please come back to Marcane. We need your medical knowledge. He would not have come for Fidel or Raul but for his old friend Mongo he began to pack — perhaps it was old Lina Castro, Angel’s wife; the family had trusted him with their patriarch, and perhaps he was the only one they could trust with her too.
Mongo’s wife had a sister, a plain but friendly woman named America. America’s marriage lacked love and instead she felt it all for Armando — even his eight-year-old daughter had realized it. His wife tolerated the affection so long as it was from a distance and as Armando was planning his journey back to Marcane another message came, this one from America: Don’t come back here, she wrote. It’s a trap. They will kill you. They want you dead. You have to get out of here as soon as possible.
Armando wrote a short letter to his former neighbor explaining that he couldn’t make it out to the country on account of his sick parents, and he began to plan his escape.
He found a fisherman, a name passed along by trusted parties; it was good to be well-respected, to have so many friends in such an hour of need. Anybody with a boat was in high demand on the island but the fisherman had a sick daughter and Armando offered a trade, treatment for escape.
They crammed into the small motorboat, half a dozen where only two fit comfortably. They left under a full moon, departing from a dark and quiet beach — they had tried to leave when the night wasn’t so bright but the weather was sour, storms brewing off the coast, and better to leave under a full moon than not at all. Armando was a wanted man; the fisherman was suspect.
They didn’t try to run the motor until they were out from the shore but when the fisherman pulled the cable it sputtered and coughed, hoary and mechanical and then quiet. Another pull: silence.
There were no sails to raise and so they rowed and drifted in the quiet Caribbean, landing two days later at Puerto Rico and safe haven.