Just beyond the Sarah Lawrence Library there is a patch of earth where young children play. They bounce into each other, ricocheting off in all directions, exploring their new world, digging into the ground incessantly with plastic buckets, scoops, and rakes. I wonder if they are aware of what they are doing. We are constantly sifting through the dust of the past. Annie Dillard said, “We arise from dirt and we dwindle to dirt and the might of the world is arrayed against us.”
A little boy, his hair a cropped mohawk, wipes his muddy hands on a bright orange shirt. Next to him a little blond girl rakes calmly at the giant mound of earth he excavated. Then without warning they toss down their tools and are off chasing something out of view. A new boy and girl move in and take their place, digging.
When I was a child my father told me a story about growing up in Trujillo, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. The story was about the day he lost his sneakers gambling marbles with the Garifuna Indians, who lived in thatch huts right on the beach.
For years that story existed as an interesting afterthought, until one day when I stood on that beach myself and stared up into the wispy fronds of the palm trees and glanced down the coast at the Garifuna villages that still stood, just where he once described them. There was an old man on the Trujillo beach that day as well, staring at the calm, listless water of the bay. When Columbus first discovered mainland America on his fourth and final voyage he called it Honduras, “the depths,” for its rare deep waters. I was aware in that moment, as I looked around waiting to feel something, that we were the only two people there. I waited for illumination, for insight into my father’s life, I waited to understand the man I knew back home in California. But one can only watch nothingness for so long under the tropical sun, and so I moved to leave the beach. And yet I was disconcerted somehow to not be recognized by this other man. He seemed wholly unaware, unperturbed by my presence—that of an obvious foreigner. I wondered if he was conjuring his own past, his own childhood here among the Garifuna. Perhaps he even conjured his own father as I did mine.
When I finally greeted him, he looked surprised to see someone else on the beach.
“My father grew up here,” I said eventually.
His brow lifted. “Maybe I knew him. What was his name?”
“Yes. I knew him,” he replied.
I pictured them flicking marbles together in the white sand below my feet. Saw them running around the finger-carved marble circle. Saw this man a naked little boy climbing the tree to snatch down a coconut for my father. I felt the shock when my father lost and handed over his only pair of shoes.
I didn’t know what to say, what else I wanted to ask. After writing down his name in my notebook I left him there, still staring out.
Later that night I called my father and told him about the man I’d met. I recalled with excitement my discovery of his past.
“It wasn’t me,” he said when I finished talking.
“What do you mean? He knew you,” I said.
“There was another Jorge Bendeck in Trujillo,” he replied. I could hear amusement in his voice. Surprise. Memory.
“The other Jorge was older, a distant cousin,” my father said.
Who was this other Jorge? I remember thinking. But I found him, I said to myself, feeling robbed by the truth. And yet now, I can’t help thinking of the life of this other Jorge. There are parallel lives we inhabit of those who share our name, echoes of people we could have been.
On Columbus’s final journey, the one that discovered my father’s Honduras, he looked on at this tierra nueva from his ship, old and gout stricken. He was tired, uninterested in this strip of the earth, preoccupied with finding the sea route to Asia he promised the king and queen. When it came time to claim the land for Spain, Columbus stayed on the boat and sent his young son Fernando instead. What joy it brought him, he recalled in his journal later, seeing his young son’s excitement when he returned from the shore.
Geoff Bendeck lives in New York City where he is a student in the MFA Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College. His essays have appeared recently in Litro, the Common Online, and the Washingtonian Magazine blog.