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“And what about the terrible question I asked? Did you think I was being disloyal to Benny?”
“Can you imagine me doing that? Would you understand if I were?”
“It’s never crossed my mind,” he said.
“I sometimes wonder if it ever crossed my husband’s.”
“I think the senator was a fool when he brought the gun to the radio station,” Yano said. “But he would have been a bigger fool to have questioned your devotion, which, in my presence, I can’t say he ever did.”
Pilar fell asleep that night on the balcony of her suite at the Palm. She fell asleep faster than she was accustomed to. She had been watching the surf come in, and below her couples strolled by on the boardwalk. She’d had a cigarette, which in the past would have kept her up at night, but tonight it had the opposite effect, putting her hands at rest on the balcony table and bringing on a wave of delayed exhaustion. She had not meant to close her eyes, but when she did, she saw herself and Benito talking quietly in his hospital room, her sitting at the end of his bed. It was very dark in the room, and in her mind Benito asked her to come closer, but she said she would not. She would stay by his feet, and she would rub and wash them because the nurses had been careless and they were dirty still. In her vision, if that’s what it was, Benito kept asking and she kept saying no, and it seemed the proper thing to say, to delay her return, because together they were the great and the lowly, and her husband did not know, could not tell the difference, or in the end it simply did not matter.
The two Negro boxers were a stunt. Ramón brought them the next day because at one point Benito had courted the Negro electorate by attending the boxing matches of prizefighters. The advisor said the presence of the two men, one a welterweight, the other a super featherweight, would draw more supporters to the crowd outside. Looking out her husband’s window, Pilar thought it only drew more boxing fans to the hospital, though they were loud and the singing was decidedly in her husband’s favor. The crowd chanted, Buenos dias, Senator Reyes! that her husband might wake up and resume his position as the messiah of Havana.
The Kids, Kid Gavilan and Kid Chocolate, stood for photographs by Benito’s bed, one on either side, and Ramón tried to convince the reporters to use the caption Cuba’s Prizes Protect Cuba’s Prince. The younger fighter, Kid Gavilan, shadow boxed for the journalists and avoided answering too many questions. His real name was Gerardo, but he refused to answer to any address that wasn’t Kid or Champ even though he had a month until he fought for the title.
“Kid, why are you here?” a reporter asked him.
“Reyes is a friend of mine.”
Three left jabs and an uppercut.
“How do you know him so well?”
“He comes to my fights and sits in the front row.”
Two rights and a left hook.
“You think he’ll wake up, Kid?”
“Sure I do, sure I do. He’s going to see me become a champion!”
Kid Chocolate, fifteen years older than Gavilan, was retired since 1938, and he’d introduced himself to Pilar as Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo. He was a much softer talker than the other fighter, and Pilar assumed he was also the better of the two. His face seemed more in place, Eligio’s nose not offset from his eyes in the same way Gavilan’s was. Eligio answered questions slowly, and he looked to Pilar after every word.
“Yes, I think he’ll wake up,” Eligio said. “Senator Reyes is a fighter like I am. He’s been knocked down, but he’ll wake up. We have to cheer him on. The city needs Senator Reyes.”
When the reporters turned back to Gavilan, Eligio stepped nearer Pilar and offered his condolences.
“I’m very sorry, Señora, for your husband’s circumstance.”
Pilar was taken by how easily the older boxer dismissed her husband’s culpability. He talked of Benito’s condition as poor health, an unfortunate blow, a hard time, but never as a suicide or a coward’s last call. She wondered if Ramón had coached the two fighters to speak in such a way for the papers, but Eligio appeared genuine in his sorrow. Pilar thanked him for his kindness and left him to ask Yano if all this was necessary.
“When he wakes up, I think the people might try and make him president,” Yano said. “It seems they’ve forgiven him. Just listen.”
Reyes! Reyes! Reyes!
Pilar recalled a phrase her husband used when discussing the political factions of the island—impotent parties led by cocksure fools—and she quickly wished for the boxers to be gone and the crowd outside silent. Kid Gavilan chased his shadow, working himself into a sweat alongside her husband’s bed. The chorus of men outside the window sung their song in baritone, and Eligio spoke to a reporter about the new party that might be born when Reyes awoke. He would father in a new era of justice in the city. While he said this Gavilan picked up her husband’s arm and put the man’s knuckles against his jaw in a mock chin-buster for the camera. The flashbulbs went off as Gavilan slapped his own face with Benito’s hand and the reporters laughed at his playfulness. Looking around, Pilar saw that the men in the room were variations on the man she had married: Yano and Ramón were slaves for the office, the younger boxer picked fights with whomever, and Eligio was tactful commiseration.
And oddly, the reporters—the same men who days ago arranged her by Benito’s side in a caricature of love—did not seem to notice Pilar standing alone in the corner. They took no photographs of her in the gray dress she wore, and it was as if she were not the wife but some mistress. She worried, suddenly, that the life she’d lived would mean nothing in the end if she didn’t claim her husband’s body back from the vultures that were eating away at his flesh in the service of the city, the featherweight title, and the biggest news of the day. She, after all, was the married woman and her wedding band came with the lawful power of possession, so she very quietly asked them to leave at once. Pilar did not repeat herself, and once the men were gone, she shut the window and touched her husband’s hand because she loved it and wanted nothing from him anymore. She understood that she’d been a vulture, too, and that she’d spent the last few years wanting something from his body when she could have simply been in love. Sex was a symptom of love, not a means.
She cried and pulled his arm against her chest, but there came again the wicked smell of the hospital soap. Pilar could not wait for the afternoon wash to happen, so she called the nurses, commanding them to bathe her husband’s body that instant. Two fresh girls arrived and they took to the task with the same haste as the nurses from the previous days. Pilar showed them the soaps from home, but they didn’t put enough in the basin. They chatted as if Pilar were not there, as though they were doing laundry in the river as her great-great-great-grandmother had, gossiping with a neighbor instead of beating the shirts clean. Eventually, she told them to leave. She would clean her husband’s body herself, and they said, Of course, Señora. As you wish.
Pilar held her husband like a toddler, and his head rested against her shoulder. She had forgotten the weight of him, and though his arms were limp at his sides, she recalled lovingly how his torso could press upon her own and squeeze the air from her lungs. She washed his back first and scrubbed the skin with a foaming cloth until the suds faded and the skin reddened. Pilar believed she only had to rub harder than the chickadee nurses, to reach into all the small creases of his body, and the smell would disappear. Her nose was so close to the space behind his ear she thought she could detect the rise of his natural odor. It was still there, underneath the sterile air of the hospital room and the foul hospital soap, and Pilar scrubbed till her fingers were hot.
She jumped when she heard his voice. It was garbled and uncertain. His hands swung up quickly, and to keep from falling off the bed, Pilar gripped Benito tighter. He responded by grasping her shoulders and moaning, but it was nonsense, and she knew he had no idea where he was, or that he was terrified to realize he’d failed at killing himself. The idea brought tears and she buried them in her husband’s neck and kissed him there despite the fact that she’d not finished washing his bedridden body. At the touch of her lips he calmed, and she could feel his mouth at her ear, his own lips opening and closing, and for the first time in years he perhaps tried to kiss her. She put her hand behind his head and turned him closer to her face and felt the pungent air of his unclean mouth across her cheek. His lips pursed just once and only briefly against her right temple, and then his body slackened.
In the time it took Pilar to lay her husband back down on the bed, lock the door to his room, and unzip her gray dress, she understood with certainty the coming week and the procession through the old quarter for the Prince of Havana, the King of Radio. Ramón and Yano would acquire for Benito a patch of grass in the Cementerio Colón, and she would speak to the bishop about the Catholic rites. If he wouldn’t allow the ceremony because the death was a suicide, then she would ask him to visit the body an hour before the parade just the same. When the people saw the miter lead the casket out, they would think he’d been sent to heaven where he belonged. Pilar would wear a black dress and no veil, and she would only look forward at the coffin in the car ahead of them, and the crowd outside the window would be larger and the Cuban flags more numerous. The funeral cortège would follow them into the cemetery, and those who spoke against her husband would be obligated to say over his corpse sweet bits of praise for his achievements and his voice. The mourners would cry because they’d begun to think of him as the next president, and to bury his body was to let go of the dreams they’d attached to him, which would be Pilar’s biggest burden when the pubic grieving was done, the painful need to accept her future years as the widow of Benito Reyes.
More importantly, and as Pilar slid unclothed into her husband’s deathbed, she at last understood where and when, in their country home and following Benito’s only duel, she’d ultimately abandoned her husband. Following the sword fight, he could do practically nothing without pulling on the stitches in his side, and raising his arms gave him a great pain for which he took a slew of numbing pills. For two weeks she helped him dress and bathe and reach high up in the cupboards, and there was so much contact that Pilar believed a new flame was growing between them. She began to touch him for no discernible reason, and when he did not balk at her advances she was hopeful for the last time, reaching for him one night and feeling the muscles of his buttocks and sliding her hand around to his crotch. He did not stop her until she wrapped her leg around his side and pressed her knee onto the wound she thought was mostly well. He groaned, and she knew she had hurt him, but it had been six months, and she had been tempted for two weeks by his naked body in the tub, by the fresh scent of the expensive soap she lathered on his back, by the private whiteness of his ass, and she could not stop herself. Pilar was convinced she deserved far more than what she was asking, and she would not be deterred, not even when he struck her across the face. It had been a lazy slap, tempered by drugs and sleep and amnesia, but still he hit her, and still she forced their love.