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“How is that new one?” Pilar asked. “Do you like it? It’s less of a mystery, I believe.”
“It suits me fine, Señora.”
Pilar had bought him a novel every month for four years.
“Do you have a favorite writer?” she asked.
“I think Antonio Velasquez,” he said. “He writes about true crimes.”
“Why do you enjoy them so much?”
“He writes about gruesome happenings, but I never feel dirty when I put them down.”
“He lets you watch from a safe distance.”
“Pardón, Señora, but it’s more like he tells you about them, just what you need to know so you can understand the why and the how.”
“Is that what makes it a good read?”
The driver said, “It makes for a pleasant enough escape.”
Pilar wondered why she had not tried to leave Benito, or even Cuba for that matter. She could have escaped to Spain where her family was from, to the northeastern hills abutting France and the country estate of some distant cousins. She wondered then if she’d given something away to Yano, revealed her longing to such a degree that her transgressions were apparent. She wondered then if Benny had ever suffered the same doubts. Maybe he knew, and the gun was something like a confession; he could not blame her, so he blamed himself.
“Did the senator ever ask you about those books, Ruben?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“What did you two talk about when I wasn’t in the car?”
“Señor Reyes asked about my family, my mother in Mantanzas. Mostly he read the newspaper.”
They turned a corner onto the beachside boulevard, and the Royal Palm was lit up at the end of the street where the road forked.
“Did you remember a house in Guanabacoa, Ruben?” Pilar asked.
“I don’t know which house you mean.”
“The gray, two-story house with the white trim. Close to the water with a mango tree in front. It died the summer we were there. We went once or twice a few years back.”
“I’m having trouble recalling it.”
“Did you ever mention the house to Benny?”
“No,” Ruben said firmly.
Pilar was briefly ashamed for interrogating her driver, but she was grateful for his unwavering courtesy, the fact that he did not look into the rearview mirror when he said no. The Bel Air pulled up to the entrance of the Royal Palm and a clean-shaven valet approached the door.
Pilar asked, “Do you mind that I buy you books, Ruben?”
“Not at all.”
The valet opened the door.
“What do you do with them when you’re done?”
“I put them on a bookshelf and sometimes I reread them.”
“But you know all the endings, don’t you?”
“Sometimes I forget, and it’s new again.”
Pilar tipped the valet and, looking at his hairless chin, she thought again about the lawyer, who always shaved before their trysts. At the time, she worried she would forget what it was like to be with Benito. Yet when she reached for the stranger, she touched his arms as if they were Benito’s, and she checked his collarbone for sunspots, his hip for a healed wound. But his hands were all wrong, the fingers especially, shorter and thicker than her husband’s. The sex was stale because of it. It slowed down the minutes and felt like waiting.
The photograph of Pilar at her husband’s bedside made the front cover of El Mundo and Bohemia, but there was other news about Senator Benito Reyes being played on the radio. An aide from the Ministry of Economy and Planning was claiming the senator had bribed him for approval of an aqueduct project to bring more water to the city. The Autentico leaders screamed corruption and hypocrisy, but Pilar could not understand how it was immoral to bribe a man for the good of citizens. She hoped the news explained why Benito had shot himself, the whistleblower the root of this catastrophe and not her own desirous frailty. Outside the hospital a crowd had gathered, and she could not discern who was there in support of her husband and who had come out of disgust. Some would certainly feel betrayed, and she wondered how many that would be in the end.
Yano and Ramón discussed the accusations in the hallway outside of Benito’s room, and to avoid hearing them, Pilar shut the door behind her when she entered. The nurses were preparing Benito for a bath, and a doctor was taking his pulse. She did not want to disturb their efforts, so she squeezed her husband’s foot as a greeting to his unconscious body, nodded at the staff, and resumed the chair by the window.
“How is he?” she asked the doctor.
“Steady,” the doctor said. “He looks better.”
“He still hasn’t woken.”
“Yes, but everything is normal: the blood, his temperature, the breathing. His gasps are louder now. The body wants to return to its routines.”
Pilar nodded, and the doctor left. Working together, the nurses removed her husband’s gown. Watching them, she thought their motions too brisk, and thought to say so before she noticed the smell from the day before.
“Is that the soap?” she asked. “The scent?”
“Yes,” said the nurse who held Benito up on his side. The other nurse washed his back with a gray cloth.
“Is that the same soap you use for all the patients? Is there another kind?”
“It’s very nice soap, Señora. Very gentle on the skin.”
“Are you used to the smell? Can you two smell it?”
“Just a bit,” the nurse with the cloth answered. “Only when we first mix the powder and the water.”
“It seems too strong, maybe pungent. There’s no other soap?”
“No, Señora,” they said together.
“It makes his body smell rotten.”
The nurse holding her husband said, “He will smell fresh in just a moment.”
When they were gone, Pilar went to Benito and took his hand again. It still felt unusually warm. She brought his fingers up to her nose. As she inhaled, all Pilar could smell were the hospital suds. She inspected the bed sheets, cotton run through with industrial-strength detergent, but the fabric had no odor, and when she smelled her husband’s palm and wrist and then his arm, she was certain the soap was to blame. She put his hand back down, but it was so warm that she picked it up again and pressed it against her cheek. It felt wonderful there, and if she could just change the soap, she might soon kiss his knuckles. She went to the phone and called the maid at home and asked her to gather the senator’s shampoos into a bag. Pilar would send Ruben to the house that afternoon. He would bring the soaps from their bath, and the next time the nurses bathed her husband, she might recognize him.
But she found she couldn’t wait. Even in the chair across the room and by the open window, the odor persisted. Pilar sent Ruben home immediately and spoke to the staff about another wash that afternoon.
“He doesn’t smell the way he should,” she told them.
They smiled at her and said they would certainly bathe him again if she liked. They also told her that he was on different IV solutions, which might affect his perspiration. His body odor might be reacting to the detergent on the sheets. The room might have some lingering scents from when it was painted a month ago. But of course they would wash him again if the Señora wanted.
While Pilar waited for Ruben to return, Yano came to see how she was doing. She asked him if he noticed any smells, but when he said no, she dropped it.
“He’s not done,” Yano told her.
“His career. I don’t think it matters that he bribed the aide. He was going to bring an aqueduct to Havana and solve the city’s water problems.”
“What does Ramón think?” Pilar asked.
“He’s not sure, but Ramón is not good with uncertainties.”
“And this is why the gun.”
“I think so,” Yano said.
“It doesn’t seem like much.”
“He’d spoken on the radio every Sunday for eight years against corruption. He was the white knight.”
Though the scandal was public and on the radio, the repercussions already outside the hospital, Pilar could not rationalize Benito’s actions. It was all trivial politics, and she wondered which was worse, the news they’d gotten six years ago or the possibility that he was a fraud. If there was something to die for, she supposed and hoped it was the family, or at least the long ago death of their family.
“I’m sorry for last night, Yano,” Pilar said. “I hope you don’t think of me as a hysterical woman. Or a jealous wife.”
“No,” he said. “Of course not. You were shaken. We’re all confident now, Señora, but he could have easily gone yesterday. It’s easy to fear what we might have neglected.”
“I might have neglected him, staying away from the city so often. You said he missed me, didn’t you?”
Pilar imagined Benito alone in his apartment, cigarette in hand, standing by the window. She tried to see herself at the country house as her husband might have. What did he imagine her doing at home alone? Where did he imagine her sitting in the living room? What did she read, or what radio station did she tune to? Did she write letters to her mother and father in Spain? Her distant cousins? What did she tell them about her life in the house with three bedrooms, two of them for show?
“I did,” Yano said.
Pilar noticed for the first time that Yano wore a tie that morning, a navy blue tie with lilac squares. At first she thought, He thinks my husband will die today, but then, He is also fixed to Benny.
“You’re close to him,” she said. “To be honest, I’m jealous. You’ve spent so many hours together.”
“Just work. Just long days writing policy. We’re colleagues.”
“You’re at least friends, if not confidants. Two men cannot talk about just work their entire lives.”
“We might have.”
“So you have regrets as well?”
“That’s reassuring,” she said. “It makes me feel less alone.”
“You’re not alone,” he said.
“What did you think last night when I told you I was lonely?”
“I thought you had a right to be, and I felt some guilt for keeping your husband in the city most nights.”