It wasn’t that I didn’t sleep. I didn’t have insomnia. I could fall asleep, and I would do it on the sofa, reading in a chair, watching TV. In the past, Brenda would have made me get up then and go to bed, but there’s no Brenda now, and I don’t want to sleep. That’s the crux of it. Each night when my eyes start to close and consciousness begins to fade, I think, this is what it will be like. This is death. No me. When I was young, sleep was a deep, welcome rest in the luxurious expanse of my life. Now, there is no expanse, and the sleep is just time taken away, death making deposits on a layaway plan, but I don’t want to sell.
When I wake up at maybe one or two in the morning, I clean up from dinner. I don’t want to go to bed, so I sit down at my computer in the little alcove that offers a slice of sky through the window, where if I stand and look down I can see the opposing slice of Third Avenue – part of the reason I took the apartment and pay five hundred more a month than it’s worth. I read blogs, answer emails, look at Facebook. My oldest, Rebecca, told me to get on, said I’d be surprised. She was right. I didn’t put much in my profile – I wasn’t going to pour myself into a void – but soon enough I started getting friend invitations, some of them family connections, others people I’d known through work, a lot of them old friends from high school I hadn’t heard from in thirty-five years. I saw the friends they had, watched their activity. They were all seeking each other. One of them, writing from Oregon, told me it was the Saturn Return: late fifties, and suddenly everyone wanting to fly back to the starting point, like homing pigeons.
It was on one of those nights, groggy and resisting bed – as if I actually had something in particular to do – that I saw the email.
The message read, “Are you the Howard Ratner I hitchhiked all through New England with and almost froze to death with our thumbs out to an empty road in North Hero, Vermont in the middle of the night, and no sleeping bag or winter coat?”
What from the past would return to me next? I was.
And he was Gary Radomsky. Everyone called him Gary Rad, then just Rad, sometimes The Rad Man. For a few years in high school – I don’t know, two, three – we were pretty close. We didn’t do everything together. He didn’t play handball down at the beach. I didn’t go cruising with him and the others on Flatbush Avenue. But music was big in those days – I guess it still is – and we’d be at Sam Goody the morning a new album came out. The Band. Tommy. Cream. The Kinks. Anything Jeff Beck. We were DJs for the others before they had DJs. Rad played the best air guitar of anyone. This was before they had competitions.
You lose track of how you got drawn apart. You discover – maybe you hear about it from a mutual acquaintance – that there were things you didn’t know about each other, secret lives I guess most people have that somehow don’t get revealed (I don’t mean anything weird or kinky, though that happens too), even though you thought you were close, thought you knew each other.
We both had been dying to get out of Rockaway. Rad went to Brooklyn College, moved near it, I think. I’m not sure. I went to Queens, lived with my parents longer. Anyway, college did that to friendships. Some don’t survive it. You lose track. Then I heard – I had no idea – that Rad had turned all political, radical. It surprised me. I mean we did all the things kids did then, moratoriums, marches. But those were the times. I wasn’t that serious. I didn’t think he was, either. Next I heard – it blew my mind (that’s what I would have said then) – I heard he went to Cuba. To harvest – pick, cut, I don’t know – what do you do with sugar cane? The Venceremos Brigade. That’s what they were called. A brigade. Very revolutionary. Venceremos: we shall overcome. I couldn’t believe he did that.
That was it. I lost track of other people too. They lost track of me. Rad didn’t know how ambitious I was – I don’t think anybody did – how much I wanted to be big in business. I did. I wanted it bad. The money. The authority and importance to an operation. The aura of success. But that’s all superficial. I wanted the sense of significance, for myself, what I felt when I placed a killer shot low in the corner of the wall. Mastery. I was driven by that for a couple of decades. I not only didn’t know if Rad ever came back – I didn’t even think about it.
He didn’t come back. The email was from Cuba. Havana. Thirty-nine years later, and he was still there. We caught up a little. He had found me on our high school reunion website. His answers about why he stayed were vague. I could see how they might be. All the little decisions – you don’t realize it – that add up to your life. Someone asks you a question: how, basically, did you get from 20 to 59. Answer that in an email.
Rad – he signed himself Gary (I guess he rightly considered Rad was no name for an adult) –Gary invited me down for a visit, whenever I might be free. The fact was I was free then.
I did go into business – a significant, midsize company. Transportation and logistics. I got married, had two girls. Struggled through thirty years of kind incompatibility until the girls were out on their own. Then Brenda said she wanted out. I said okay. The youngest, Kyra, had just moved to Israel to work for a tech startup. Don’t ask me where any of that came from. Not me. Not her mother. I felt like a cliché. That’s some feeling, that you’re whole life is cliché. And then the fact that you can live with it. You wonder you don’t put a gun to your head. Kind of dramatic, I know. So I didn’t.
I sold the house in Rockville Center, which I needed to do anyway to settle with Brenda, and took the apartment in Manhattan. Then I got downsized. I’m 59, two years out of work, and no way, at that age, back into my career. It’s over. I don’t know what I’m doing. I go to museums a lot, the library. There’s a restaurant in my neighborhood – Mr. Chin’s, a Chinese place. It’s got an upscale gloss to it, like it might be fashionably sophisticated, though it’s never been fashionable a moment of its existence. There’s a lot of places like that in New York – neighborhood places with airs. It’s got a piano bar. How many of those do you find these days, with no cover? I’m in there a few nights a week, one of the regulars now. The young girl who plays and sings, she’s cute, sharp, strong dramatic voice. I say girl – she’s probably 25, petite. I love her version of “When I Fall in Love.” A couple of young business guys who seem to work together – I get the sense one is the other’s superior, though they’re friends – they come by and sit at the bar, right in front of her. They’re full of promise, those two. It’s like the world is theirs, or will be. You can sense it. Good young men, I think. There’s some very heavy flirting going on. She hasn’t decided yet which one she favors. They’re waiting. I’m waiting. While I wait, I talk to Regina. She was an exec with Ringling Brothers, of all jobs. That’s a good one. She drinks her vodka martinis while I like my Seven & Seven. She drinks very slowly, three or four, maybe five, over the course of the evening, but she’s pretty tipsy by the end. She cocks her head and looks up at me from her shoulder – she’s a redhead, her pale skin flushed and translucent with age and the liquor, the sparkle of flirtation in her eye a light beam barely reaching the surface of the water – and she says, “What are you doing here?”
I always ask her if she needs help getting home. She always says no. I don’t think she remembers how to say yes. I don’t remember what else I could say.
When I reminded Gary that it was illegal to travel to Cuba, he wrote, “Only to spend dollars, not actually to travel. Most people don’t know that. If we host you, pay for you, it’s all right.”
Still, he said, I’d need a visa and wasn’t likely to get one, so he suggested I connect through Mexico City, where I was less apt to be spied by U.S. customs than in Toronto or Bermuda. From there, I had booked a separate ticket on a Mexican carrier. I traveled a fair amount for business, a little overseas, too – but I made it to, oh, I guess you’d say upper middle management, so my expense account was never that liberal. All of my business trips were like traveling on Dad’s money: it was always going to be there, but you were going to keep it cheap. And you certainly weren’t going to Cuba.
When I arrived at the airport in Havana, I was a little nervous in front of the immigration agent. Though Gary had assured me, I was worried there would be a record of my trip.
“Please don’t –” I offered uncertainly.
The agent nodded his head a little wearily. “– stamp the passport. I know.”
He did the things immigration agents do, flipping pages, stamping other papers, never glancing up. Then he closed the book and looked directly at me as he handed it back. A trace of a smile.
“Is like you were never here,” he said.
Gary met me outside the terminal. It was a good thing we’d described ourselves. We both had long hair then, beards. Some guys called me toothpick. Gary was athletic looking, if not athletic. I’ve bulked up quite a bit since, pretty much all grey, and Gary was now gaunt, his eyes hollow.
I spent a week. Gary worked as a critic for a music magazine, so even when he had to work, I tagged along. The music was everywhere. Gary and Pilar, his second wife, lived in Miramar, a wide open, breezy Havana suburb. They ran a paladar, one of the unofficial private restaurants that people operate out of some of the large, multi-story, former private homes of that Embassy area. Pilar was a raven-haired beauty, bursting with sensuality and very gracious to me. She set us up with food and a couple of Mojitos that day I arrived, then left for the afternoon.
“No, stay,” I said.
She said, “Old friends. So many years apart. You need to know each other again. Later we’ll have dinner.”
And that’s what we did. Got to know each other again. When I was done bringing Gary to the present, he said, “You were always so shy. Just take her by the arm and start walking her home. She’ll let you. Don’t ask.”
He was talking about Regina. Gary always cared about his friends. He loved his friendships.
“She’s an alcoholic, Gary.”
“What, you’re afraid she won’t amount to anything in life? You like each other. Keep each other company.”
Gary and Pilar had been married almost fifteen years. She was forty-five. Gary left his first wife for her, after twenty years.
“It was the worst thing I ever did.”
I must have looked shocked.
“I don’t mean I regret it. That’s not it. A woman like Pilar? Pilar and music. The rest doesn’t matter.”
He saw me try to understand.
“It’s the worst thing I ever did to another person.” I could see him remember the pain. “The worst. And the thing is, I’d do it again.”
I was silent. “So things are good with Pilar?” I said after a while.
“They’ve been great.” He emptied his glass. “You remember that Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris?”
He surprised me again. “Yeah?”
“Near the end Brando suddenly decides that he actually does want to know this woman, and he wants her to know him. He starts chasing her out of the tango hall, scaring the shit out of her, telling her everything he can about himself in a rush. He calls out above the music, ‘I got a prostate the size of a potato, but I’m still a pretty good stick man.’ I love that line. I think Brando ad-libbed it.”
Gary chewed on a mint leaf. He raised his eyebrows at me. “I got a prostate the size of a potato.”
I nodded. “These are good,” I said, draining my glass.
“Wait till you try the Havana Club. Siete. It’s like a warm fire in the winter going down.”
I never did bring up the politics of it all. Who was I to, anyway? And what might he have been feeling after all that had happened, or hadn’t.
“You’ve been happy here?” I asked instead.
“I love it,” he said. He glanced out the window toward the sea. “I don’t know. In the summer, when the breeze blows through the palms, or when the hurricanes make you feel like the island’s just a boat on the water, and you’re riding it out for all you can make of it, whatever moments there are. When the rhythm comes up and a woman like Pilar tosses her hips. And the maracas rattle and a man rolls his shoulders.” Now he looked at me. “It’s supposed to be an atheist society, right? After all this, there’s nothing?” He paused. “It’s the opposite of nothing.”
During the week we visited the cigar factories, smoked our long Monte Cristos and Romeo y Juliets, sipped shot after shot of Havana Club rum. One afternoon on my own I walked old Havana, where all the new hotels are that serve the European tourists. Then I took a trip to El Moro Castle, at the mouth of the harbor. The British took both it and Cuba from the Spanish in 1762 in some very intense fighting. Men scaled walls and fought hand to hand. A year later, the Seven Years War ended, and the British traded it all back to the Spanish for Florida.
On Friday, my next to last night, Gary said he had a treat.
“We’re going to La Zorra y El Cuervo, the best jazz club in Cuba, on La Rampa.” He took me by the shoulders. “You, my friend, are going to see Chucho Valdes.”
The great pianist was little known in the U.S., outside of jazz circles.
It had been beyond strange to see someone again – someone whose presence was once almost the very dailiness of your life – after what became an absence of thirty nine years. Our lives had passed. We had been barely children. Now we were gray, gaunt, and flabbier. On that empty road outside of North Hero back in ’70, Gary and I had held ourselves shivering against the cold and our unpreparedness for what we had set out to do. Amazingly, about midnight, an MG pulled up out of the blackness. Two older guys, maybe late 20s, sat in the two-seater and commiserated with us for ten or fifteen minutes, for company, then wished us well. We sang till morning, when we caught our ride.
Now in that basement club in Havana, the music that had been the mother of our brief brotherhood held us in its arms again. We had good seats close to the small stage, though one row in front an especially tall man kept shifting and obstructing my view, then turning to glance back as if somehow it was I who was annoying him. But the rum and the cigars were mellow, Pilar was full of womanly laughter, and the music soared into the morning. At one point, Pilar stepped out for some fresh air – the smoke was thick – and the tall guy had, like a blessing, disappeared, and Gary and I knocked back our Siete and thumped the table, bobbing our heads and looking back and forth at each other like we couldn’t believe we’d made it to heaven together.
The piano cascaded, the congas crashed with the weight of the room’s desire, and by the time Pilar finally returned, her cheeks pink from the cool night air, someone, somewhere, had started it, and the entire club was forming a train. Left hand on the shoulder in front, right hand on a hip, I held onto Gary, he onto Pilar, with others behind and in front. At three in the morning, in La Zorra y El Cuervo, in Havana, Cuba, we all danced together as one. I could see it and feel it still, like a deliverance from my life, six months later, when Pilar wrote to tell me The Rad Man had died: winding among the tables, crossing in front of the stage, snaking around the bar, each of us reaching, through the rhythm in our bones, in our sway and in our step, and by the hold we took of each of other, for the opposite of nothing.
A. Jay Adler is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College and Contributing Poetry Editor at West magazine. His poetry has appeared in Blood Lotus, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pebble Lake Review, Adagio Verse Quarterly, and PoetryBay. Journalism, essay and criticism have appeared in DoubleTake, Tikkun, the Times of Israel, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema. Adler’s screenplay What We Were Thinking Of won second prize at the Maui Writers Conference Screenwriting Competition.