When the maid summoned her to the phone, Pilar Reyes was unaware that her husband, Senator Benito Reyes of Havana, had shot himself at the end of his weekly radio broadcast. Having talked beyond his twenty-seven-minute slot, the station went to commercial, and instead of the gunshot listeners heard a jingle for Café Pilon.
Receiving the news, Pilar first understood it to mean someone else had fired on him. Perhaps a pistolero from the Auténticos, the regime’s party and the group her husband regularly criticized for corruption. But the station manager on the phone clarified her confusion: the gun was his, a 7.62 Luger, and his finger pulled the trigger. He was still alive because he had shot himself through the stomach rather than the head, the neck, the throat, or the heart.
In the car her driver Ruben asked if she’d like the radio, and Pilar thought of how quiet a man he was. Ruben never listened to the afternoon zarzuelas or the replays of the detective series Chan Li Po despite always having his nose in the mystery novels she gave him. He did not know the cruel joke he’d said. When he eyed her in the rearview mirror, she shook her head, but then she asked him to please stop and lower all the windows in the car because the wind had no rhythm or melody. She could not get the sound of Celia Cruz out of her head, the vibrant oyé from the Café Pilon commercial playing over and over again in her ear: listen, listen, cup of coffee to fill your husband’s wound….
Pilar kept herself from asking why do it because that line of questioning led to why not and the belief that Benito wouldn’t have considered the gun if they’d had children. He’d wanted some boys, but Pilar was barren. To think of what might have stopped him was to gather guilt into her lap. More upsetting was the fact that their marriage had not been enough.
At the hospital, Pilar told Ruben to keep the Bel Air running. If Benito passed, she would check into the Royal Palm and make the funeral arrangements from the suite. She’d made a rule to never again linger in hospital wards. Six years ago Benito had wanted to leave the examination room the moment the specialist told them her ovaries were not sending her uterus any eggs, but Pilar sat for a while in the white robe they’d given her and slapped her husband when he tried to take her hand. He was a garrulous man when there was cause to celebrate, the first to cut a cigar or break the seal on a bottle of brandy, but he did his suffering in private and expected the same from her. Pilar tried to dress but the thought of Benito’s disappointment, their undeserved disgrace—they were Spanish Catholics after all—made her angry, and wearing only a brassiere, she struck a lamp near the examination table. Benito said, Let’s go home and break our own things.
Her husband’s two closest advisers, Ramón and Yano, were waiting for her in the hospital lobby, and they each took an arm when leading her to the operating room. Just before a set of swinging doors stood the prime minister, a man Pilar’s husband had more than once accused of gangsterism on his Sunday show. He nodded at Pilar without stopping the conversation he was having with a police officer. Pilar paused in front of him despite Ramón and Yano’s tugging.
“Prío is too busy?” she asked the prime minister.
“The president will come if Benito dies,” he said.
“A servant of the state has been shot.”
“He shot himself.”
Ramón and Yano let go of Pilar’s arms, perhaps thinking she would strike the callous minister, but her chin rose a little higher and she walked on through the set of swinging doors and into the viewing room, where through a large pane of glass she saw a doctor sliding a needle into her husband’s back. Benito was on his hip, another doctor and two nurses holding him in place, and even though he was now forty-four and it had been four years since Pilar had last seen his hairless, sand-white cheeks in such clear, clean light, she was surprised at how they looked the same as ever. She found herself wanting one of the nurses to attend to the blood on his left buttock, a red brushstroke that disturbed the alabaster skin of what she remembered as a strong, robust ass.
“Señora Reyes,” Ramón said.
She turned away from the glass. Ramón was a tall, thin man with an uneven mustache, and he was responsible for the words Benito spoke over the air.
“The physicians say Benito might recover. If so, slowly, very slowly.”
Yano nodded along, a thicker man who sweat too much and never wore an undershirt. His chest hairs were white, and in the dimple above his chin a few drops of perspiration gathered.
“But he might not die,” Ramón concluded.
“Was this a stunt?” Pilar asked.
Benito was a bit of a fool, a little arrogant she knew, and he was known not only for his scathing Sunday speeches, but also for his grand gestures. Not so long ago, he’d challenged another congressman to a duel.
The two advisors looked at one another.
“No,” Yano finally said to her. “We don’t think so. We think maybe the aqueduct, which fell through. He’d made some promises, maybe a few that weren’t entirely white. He didn’t speak to you about his intentions?”
“Of course not.”
“No note or letter in his study back home?” Ramón asked.
“Why would I have looked?”
In the operating room the nurses washed her husband’s body, and under the large lamps his skin was the color of bones.
“He’s lost a fair amount of blood,” Yano said, “which is why he is so pale.”
The two doctors pulled a clean sheet up to his neck. With the nurses, they transferred him onto a gurney and wheeled him out of the room.
“Are there officers waiting to escort him?” Pilar asked.
“I’ll see,” Yano said, and he left.
“How is home?” Ramón asked her, and the question felt like an accusation.
“When he’s not with you, he’s with me,” Pilar said. “When he’s not with me, he’s with you.” Politician first, husband second. “Perhaps something you wrote. Your scripts sound like the manifestos of a rebellion. I think you sometimes write too much for one man to say.”
“He’s been adding his own words lately.”
“I can’t tell them apart from yours,” she said.
Yano returned and said that Benito was settled in his room. Señora could see him now. Yano led her out through the swinging doors, and Ramón did not follow.
“He was tense today,” the advisor said. “Just before the show. We usually sit in the studio with him, and he tells jokes before the red light comes on.”
Pilar did not know that about her husband.
“But today he was very quiet and he kept reading over the script.”
“What jokes does he tell?” she asked.
Yano touched the top of his sternum where the white chest hairs reached for his neck.
“Country jokes,” he said.
“Tell me one.”
Pilar stopped walking. “Tell me one of his jokes.”
Yano coughed and rubbed his stomach. He asked, “How many Cubans does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“One Cuban will screw anything.”
But it wasn’t true, and walking into her husband’s hospital room, seeing two nurses position his body on a bed, Pilar thought about their home, a country house thirty kilometers outside the city. She’d lied just a little: the house was fine, but there were no bodies in it. Or the bodies inside, hers and her husband’s, never touched, so that the noise of persons passing in the hall culminated in the murmur of strangers.
Because the nurses were arranging Benito just so, Pilar sat in a chair by the room’s window instead of going to him. She didn’t want to interrupt them, and the way they shifted his limbs gave his unconscious form a strange animation, detached yet effusive. They taped tubes to his arms, dropping them with such haste that they sometimes made a slapping sound. Beside the bed a monitor clicked, and a fan had been placed near the door. The collective hum seemed a substitute for conversation, as if to bide the time until the senator awoke. Pilar crossed her legs, and the nurses seemed to rush then, perhaps thinking the wife would like to be alone with her husband. She’d like to hold his limp hand. One of the nurses retrieved an extra pillow and slipped it behind Benito’s head. A small noise escaped his mouth, and he was somewhere in between lying down and sitting up. The nurses left.
There was an odd smell in the room, and Pilar couldn’t decide if it was her husband or the sterile walls, the too-white sheets. She was suddenly afraid to approach the senator for fear they’d grown so apart she no longer recognized his odor. It didn’t seem as though there’d been enough time for such forgetfulness. She watched Benito breathe, yet before she could summon the courage to approach his body, Ramón slipped through the door.
“I’m sorry for earlier,” he said. “Benito admits often how much strength you give him.”
“Fine,” she said.
Ramón said, “The newspapers have arrived.”
“To interview my unconscious husband?”
“No, I’ve spoken with them. But the prime minister is also speaking with them, and I’m afraid he’ll steal the story from Benito.”
“Perhaps he should be left alone for once.”
“I only worry about his career when he recovers.”
Pilar had not thought until that moment that this event might be the end of her husband’s career, only possibly his life. But then she understood that somehow over the years the two had become synonymous. He would always be a politician, and nothing would change that short of death. It meant she’d also stopped seeing her husband as a man. He was a position, an office, an entity of power.
“What would you like him to do?” she asked.
“You, señora,” Ramón said. “I would like you to stand next to him for a photograph. Then I’d like you to say something to the press.”
“I don’t make speeches.”
“You wouldn’t even ask the people to pray for your husband?”
“They won’t already? He’s earned as much as that.”
“Of course, but if we don’t say something ourselves, then the prime minister will be the voice in the papers. We have to remind the people that your husband is their champion.”
“I’m not sure you can make martyrdom from suicide.”
Pilar relented after Yano seconded the idea. She decided that if she’d cast her husband as a politician in perpetuity, it was only fair to support him in that role. If he had wandered away from manhood into caricature, then she was as guilty of letting him go as he was of going. And without children or marriage, it was all that was left of him.
She had demands, though. Ramón and Yano could choose only two reporters, and the advisors had to wait outside during the interview. Ramón balked at the latter demand, but Yano hushed him and said they would give her two minutes to prepare. Ramón left for her a slip of paper with a statement to make.