Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy
By Carlos Eire
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $26
Having just died, I shouldn't be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns. Is it a bad omen, this sandwich? Perhaps. But maybe it's a good one too. How can I know?
I have no way of discerning good from bad omens, much less of intuiting that all auguries are really an extension of our own fears. I don't know yet, at this point in life, that misfortunes can prove to be gifts from on high, sometimes the greatest gifts of all, or that ironic twists of fate are sure signs of divine providence. A child of eleven has no way of knowing that, or of believing it. And that's how old I am.
It's late at night, and I've just arrived at the camp for airlifted Cuban children in deepest, darkest South Florida. Earlier today, I left behind my parents, my entire family, all of my possessions, and my native land, and at this moment I don't really know whether I'll see any of them ever again.
In other words, I've just died. I've passed through the burning silence that strips you bare of everything you've ever been. And so have the other two boys sharing the table with me: Luis Del Riego Martinez, age seven, and his little brother Roberto, age six.
The sandwich I've been served is very white. It's on that kind of bread that comes in square slices and is all spongy and tasteless, with a thin rubbery crust. American bread. Pan Americano. The chicken is almost as colorless as the bread, and so is the mayonnaise that oozes out, cautiously. It's been cut down the middle, diagonally, and the square has been turned into two triangles. It reminds me of the sandwiches served at my first communion reception, at the Havana Yacht Club, back when the world was still spinning in the right direction. Except those had ham salad inside, not sliced-up chicken, which gave you a hint of pink. I stare at it, this white thing, these symmetrical triangles, there, on the flimsy white paper plate, which is round, on a square table that's covered by a white tablecloth. It's so orderly, so controlled, so geometrical, so colorless, this plate of food. Two triangles that form a square, inside a circle, laid out on a larger square. It's the perfect disguise for the very messy and painful process that made this meal possible. Chickens aren't square or triangular. Chickens don't just lay themselves down on bread, in neat thin slices. Where are the feathers? Where are the feet, or the beak, or the blood and offal? Who dismembered this lumpy, clucking creature and turned it into a geometry lesson?
The plate has scalloped edges that curve upward slightly. The curving indentations on the rim are perfect, having been stamped by a machine, a contraption that is surely a masterpiece of modern engineering, made possible only by very precise computations and the manipulation of Euclidean geometry.
Bright fluorescent bulbs flood the room with a bluish yellow light that makes everyone look slightly jaundiced or just plain ugly. The bulbs are long and tubular: perfect circles stretched out, in which mercury vapor atoms go berserk. The fixture into which these tubes are inserted — as two parallel lines that could stretch to infinity—is rectangular. The other two boys look like zombies. The nuns look very kindly and very stern all at once, and very wrinkled, save for their habits and veils, which are the very definition of order, neatness, and control expressed in cloth.
"Pan Americano, Pan American: how hilarious, this double meaning," I say to myself, thinking of the bread on my plate and one of the two airlines that link Cuba and the United States. I've just flown on the other one, KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines.
This is only one of the many non sequiturs that are racing through my mind as I adjust to my death and rebirth, and prepare for torture.
Having just flown for the first time, I have airplanes on my mind.
Aircraft are all about geometry and symmetry too, and about using exact calculations to transcend our limitations. Airplanes are all about leaving messes behind too, and forgetting they exist. I meditate briefly on the fact that if it were up to me to invent airplanes, there wouldn't ever be any, given my loathing of exact calculations and my inborn distrust of the laws of nature. No airplanes, no way, if it were all up to me. No triangular chicken sandwiches either.
"Ay, pero esto es pollo," I yell inside my head, very, very loudly. Oh, but this is chicken.
Talk about a rough landing.
This chicken meal offends me, greatly, and scares the hell out of me. My parents have always been extremely indulgent when it came to my food preferences. I've spent my entire childhood shielded from chicken flesh, which, as every well-educated person knows, is not much different from that of reptiles. Even the not-so-well educated know this, I suspect. After all, is there anyone on earth who hasn't noticed that bird feet are thoroughly reptilian? And how is the taste of reptile meat described by those who have sunk their teeth into frogs, snakes, alligators, and iguanas?
"Tastes just like chicken."
Big problem, this likeness between avian and reptile flesh: It's all part of the evolution that made us humans what we are — so different from birds and snakes, and yet so much like them. Even as a small child, the whole deal bothered me to no end: Eat or be eaten, and beware of serpents in paradise.
Excerpted from Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire. Copyright 2010 by Carlos Eire. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.