Message from Camilo 8

What a sad day this is. I’ve just heard that Fidelito has killed himself, after suffering from depression. Of course it was depression, that’s the killer. The civilian killer. And of course no one ever heard that he was suffering, that isn’t the kind of thing people talk about. Not in Cuba, not in the U.S., not here in Costa Rica.

But it levels me. There he is in the photo, between me and Fidel, nine years old on the day we rolled into Havana, the 8th of January, 1959. That handsome young boy. His mother was a famous beauty, but she and Fidel were finished. She was living with Fidelito in New York, in Queens, and why she brought him down to Havana where his father could grab him and keep him, I don’t know. That was it for Mirta—she rarely saw her son again.

He was such a tender boy that day, dressed in a little army shirt and cap. He was the age of some of my grandchildren now. Of course he grew up. He went to Russia and became a nuclear physicist, and was a loyal Cuban for decades. But I only knew the young Fidelito, the boy who’d been separated from his mother, the one who rode in the truck with us into Havana, trying to keep his chin up. I don’t know any more about depression than any other doctor of internal medicine, and even the experts can only guess about it. But hearing the news today, I can’t help thinking about that fateful day.

On my desk I have a copy of the manuscript John Thorndike, an American writer, has written about my life. And there, a third of the way in, is a description of that monumental day. It makes me ache now to think of Fidelito as depressed, as dead. He had three children himself, and what has become of them? Little Russians, they were. Anyway, here’s how Sr. Thorndike (el compadre Torndique, we call him around here) describes the day I met Fidelito:

Havana, by ten in the morning, was noisy with anticipation. Fidel’s caravan was approaching the city, though no one knew when it would arrive. Cars honked, church bells rang, sirens and fog horns blared from ships in the harbor. Camilo, following a call from Fidel, had his men drive him out to Cotorro, east of the capital.

There, inside the town’s municipal building, he found Fidelito, Fidel’s nine-year-old son who’d flown down from New York with his mother the day before. Alone now, he sat at a wooden table in the courtyard. As Camilo watched from the entrance, a soldier brought him a glass of juice. It looked like mamey, which was delicious to adults but not always to children.

Fidelito took a single taste, then pushed it aside.

Camilo walked up, set his Thompson on a chair and sat down across from the boy. “Would you like something else?” he asked in Spanish. “Some other drink?”

Fidelito hesitated, then asked, “¿Habrá una Coca-Cola?”

Camilo relayed the order, and in less than a minute a frosted bottle appeared from a nearby restaurant, the cap removed. No money was asked for, and Camilo still had none.

Outside, visible through the entrance, people had gathered in the square. There were women on rooftops, men in the trees, families by the curb with baskets of fruit and candied peanuts to offer the rebels when they came. Camilo by now was used to the hubbub, but Fidelito looked wary.

“How’s your English?” Camilo asked, in English.

Immediately the boy perked up. “All my friends speak English.”

“You live in New York, right?”

“In Queens.”

“I lived in New York. I worked there in a famous hotel, the Waldorf Astoria. Do you know it?”

The boy shook his head. Why, Camilo wondered, was he sitting here alone? Fidelito sipped his Coca-Cola. He wore blue jeans and what looked like a little army shirt. He stared out past a couple of soldiers on guard at the vaulted opening and the crowd beyond. Then he glanced at Camilo and asked, “Where is this?”

“You mean this town? It’s Cotorro.”

Fidelito just looked at him. Camilo searched through his pockets, found an envelope and unfolded it, then pulled his chair around and sat down next to the boy. Using a pen, he drew a primitive map of Cuba, putting Santiago in the east, then Camagüey and Santa Clara in the middle, then Havana and Cotorro, a half inch apart. “Right here,” he said.

The boy studied the little map. It lay on the table in front of him. He sat up straight on his chair and glanced around the room. He didn’t look happy.

“Is your mother here?”

“No.”

“She didn’t bring you?”

The boy shook his head. “I didn’t see her today.” He sounded sad and unsure.

“How did you get here?”

“Some soldiers. I don’t know them.”

Camilo hunched his chair closer. “Pretty soon your father will come. I know he’ll be happy to see you, because he is talking about you all the time.”

Fidel had only mentioned his son a few times in the Sierra, and always in anger at Mirta, the boy’s mother. Still, Camilo’s small lie seemed to work, and Fidelito looked less worried.

“We’re going to have a good time,” Camilo said. “We’ll all get on a truck, or even on top of a tank, and we’ll drive from here to Havana. You see all those people outside? They’re waiting for your papá.”

“I know.”

Fidelito drank more of his Coca-Cola. He looked around the high-ceilinged room, more observant now, his brown eyes as long-lashed as a girl’s. He was a good-looking kid, and his mother a famous beauty. He asked, “Is there a bathroom here?”

“I’m sure there is. Let’s go find it.”

Camilo stood outside while the boy used the room. It took a long time, so long that Camilo called out, “Are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” came the answer. His English was pure yanqui.

“You don’t need any help?”

No response. Of course he didn’t need any help, he was nine years old. Then the sound of the toilet flushing, and Fidelito came out with his hands wet, drying them on his shirt. “I’ll be all right,” he said.

This made Camilo even sadder. Where was Mirta, anyway?

Fidel jumped out of his jeep, overjoyed at the sight of his son. He snatched him up, hugged and kissed him, put him on his shoulders and carried him up to a balcony above the plaza, where the people cheered the two of them wildly. With Fidelito at his side he gave a twenty-minute speech in which he mentioned the boy’s name a half dozen times.

Finally they were ready to go. Fidel sat his son in the back of an oversized jeep along with some soldiers, and told him he’d be safe there. He stood above the cab and called Camilo and Huber Matos to ride beside him, their guns at the ready.

“And Fidelito?” Camilo said after a few kilometers. “Don’t you want to let him ride up here with us?”

“Too dangerous,” Fidel said. He did not look back, had not glanced around since they left Cotorro. “Of all the times someone could shoot me, this would be the day. Plenty of people want to, you know. We will soon find out how many enemies we have. Just stay alert—and if anyone points a gun at me, shoot him. You hear that, Huber? Both of you, keep your eyes open.”

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