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The reporters were from Bohemia and El Mundo, the largest papers on the island; Bohemia even shipped to Miami. They knocked before entering, and Pilar went to the door to let them in. They began with the interview, and after three questions—Where were you when he shot himself? Was this a surprise? How do you feel?—and three curt answers—Home, Yes, Shaken—they asked for her prepared statement. The paragraph Ramón had composed seemed too long, and it was riddled with phrases like “the Fatherland” and “freedom for truth.” Instead Pilar said to the reporters, “My husband is not dead, but he is barely alive. Pray for him.”
They put their notebooks away, and Pilar had to wait a few minutes while they assembled their cameras. They moved quickly, but when the reporter from El Mundo noticed Pilar watching them, he slowed down and took his time. When they were ready, she looked over herself in the mirror and flattened the lapels of her blouse. She pulled down on her summer skirt and let her hair fall behind her shoulders. She moved to the bed and stood with her hands clasped at her waist.
“Señora Reyes,” the Bohemia reporter said. “Would you kindly stand closer to your husband? Perhaps on the far side of the bed, next to his shoulder?”
Pilar moved but kept her hands in place. The smell she’d noticed earlier was stronger nearer the bed, and she was certain then that the nurses had washed her husband in a cheap hospital soap.
“Señora Reyes, would you also hold your husband’s hand?” Pilar flinched, and the reporter said, “It will make for a better picture. Seeing you by his side, the people will feel for you and your husband.”
She did as they asked, and Benito’s hand was much warmer than she’d expected. It was also softer than she remembered. She no longer accompanied him to political events if she could help it, and when she did attend, they locked arms without touching fingers. She’d forgotten how long his were. The reporter’s raised their cameras, but Pilar didn’t look up, and she was examining Benito’s wedding band when the flashbulbs whitened her vision.
Pilar stayed by her husband’s side after the reporters left. Ramón and Yano looked in on her once, but when they caught her holding Benito’s hand, they retreated into the hallway. She realized she still had some power as the wife. She was the owner of her husband’s body, and it startled her to think that only now, when he was incapacitated, could she make demands regarding his flesh.
The first would be for the nurses to use another kind of soap. Bedside, Pilar had pulled back the white covers, exposing Benito’s torso. She’d wanted to see the wound, but the scent from earlier rose from his chest. She covered her mouth, and after a few slow breaths she pulled the covers down a little farther. With her fingers she traced the edges of the gauze covering his abdomen. Her husband’s side contracted slightly, and it startled her. For a moment she heard a low keening from his throat. She touched his hand again and it was warmer still. Pilar pushed the white sheets down to her husband’s waist. She blushed, feeling indecent, as if spying a stranger in the bath.
But it was her husband, and what she saw was familiar: a spray of sunspots along his collarbone, a blue vein descending the length of his ribcage, and a scar just above his hip from the duel he’d fought. At the time, five years ago, she’d urged him to call it off.
“It’s against the law,” she told him. “And you’re the senator who follows the law.”
“You’re right,” he said.
The capitulation startled her. Benito was older than Pilar by a decade, and she’d expected him to dismiss her outright, something to do with the ego of an older man. The ego was also what attracted her to him, an arrogance sutured to righteous causes—shelters for the poor, road repairs, a new aqueduct—pride in service of public works.
“But if I back out now, half of congress won’t take me seriously.”
“You’d cut another man to appear tough?”
“It’s a show, Pilar. A little dirt on my hands means I have a spine.”
“Whose idea was this? Yano’s?”
“It was mine,” he said.
Later, she helped him dress, securing denim guards around his thighs and over his chest. The padding was worn underneath one’s clothes, and he’d asked her if she wouldn’t mind seeing him naked though they hadn’t more than kissed since the visit to the specialist. Pilar could not remember when exactly they had silently agreed to no longer touch one another. A week turned into thirty days without intimacy, which swelled to ninety, and then blossomed into one hundred and eighty.
“Are we married still?” Pilar asked, tightening the leather straps behind his knee.
“Of course,” he said.
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“You’ve stopped loving me?”
“You won’t allow me to,” she said. “And yet you tell me I’m your wife.”
“You look like her,” Benito said. “I want you to be her. You can take my arm and we can share a quiet bed.”
Pilar said, “The decent thing would be for you to divorce me.”
“The decent thing would be for me to take a lover. To have a bastard and make you raise him. Do you love me enough for that?”
Pilar’s chest tightened and she stepped away from her husband. She could feel the silk slip beneath her skirt slide up her thigh. She’d not worn underwear that morning, had not for the last three months in the hopes that she would be ready for Benito when he came.
“There seems a fruitlessness to the act now,” he said.
“Is that the only reason you ever touched me?” she asked.
“Sometimes people suffer the same tragedy, but they break it apart. They claim their bits and pieces, and then they suffer it alone.”
They finished dressing Benito in silence, and to Pilar’s surprise, he looked marvelous in his dueling gear. His form was fuller from all the padding, and slung through the belt at his hip was his father’s saber. A waistcoat rounded his shoulders and he had the appearance of a Greek sculpture, which reminded Pilar of a bronze replica of Hermes her father had kept in their Bejucal manor. The mold, her father had told her, was excellent, and the lines of the statue were the proof. Pilar had blushed after touching the metal ribs of the hollow torso.
“I would hate you for dying this way,” she said, and she tried to take Benito’s hand and put it to her chest. When she pulled on his wrist he would not move.
“Stay home,” Benito told her.
“Your health used to be mine,” she said, letting him go. “I’d like to be present when you’re cut to straw.”
Ruben drove them to a plantation even further west of Havana than their country home, a farm close to Camacho. The opponent was a senator who worked for the minister of education, and Benito had offhandedly accused him of skimming from school construction funds. The opponent was also a fan of cockfighting even though that, like dueling, was illegal. South of the plantation house was a small, square-cut hayfield where the roosters were brought to spar. It was May, so the grass in the adjoining meadow was high and green, but arriving, Pilar could see the heads of men bobbing up from the clearing. Gamecocks dodged in and out of the weeds, and once out of the car she had to be careful not to step on one.
“I let them roam so they’re never cowed,” the other senator told her. “They stay peckish if they think they’re free.”
The only other witness to the duel besides Pilar would be the laborer whose job it was to keep roosters clear of the ring. He paced slowly around the perimeter of the square with a rake in hand, scratching the grass with the tines to scare away the birds. Benito and the other senator exchanged civilities in the middle of the open patch, agreed to the rules of engagement and crossed swords.
The fight lasted seventy-three seconds, and Pilar remembered this because she counted each one in her head and thought, for whatever reason, that if they could make it three minutes without killing one another they’d see how stupid this was. Benito drew first blood, nicking the young advisor in the arm. The young man countered, perhaps unfairly, when Benito pulled back to let him consider the wound. The saber did not cut Pilar’s husband deeply, but it drew a long, red line above his hip, and soon both contenders were bleeding, which signaled the end of the fight. They had each struck the other, and both could save face without finishing.
In her husband’s hospital room, Pilar followed the scar around Benito’s side and across his lower back. It dipped towards his buttocks because Benito had jumped at the feeling of the blade against his skin. She pushed the white sheets down to his kneecap. The flesh of his rear was compressed under the weight of his pelvis, and it pushed out from his legs, curving in her direction like a melon out of the ground. She touched him there, and the skin was not as warm as his hand. Folding the sheet once more, she could smell the strange soap again, and she was worried for the first time that she was in the same room as death. That the nurses had rinsed his body with only water and this was the scent of a man passing into another life.
Yano escorted her out of the hospital through a back entrance and into a parking lot where Ruben was waiting with the car. Before leaving her, Yano pressed Pilar’s hands between his and told her to take a little gin in some pineapple juice, to keep a window open in her room for the fresh air, and to try to sleep. His back was turned when she asked him if Benito had ever been unfaithful to her. She asked because she had twice been unfaithful to him.
“He spends a great deal of time in the city,” Pilar said.
“He’s industrious. Very faithful to his constituency.”
“He has his own apartment near the courthouse.”
“I know, Señora.”
“Three rooms and a kitchen. A spare bed from our house. Our house has three bedrooms. It’s a large, empty place.”
“I remember the dinner you cooked for us after the veranda was finished. A delicious roast, and the new wood looked beautiful.”
“We’ve each had three rooms to ourselves. Too much space, I think, for just one woman. And it’s very quiet in the country.”
“Relaxing, I imagine,” Yano said.
“I was lonely. Do you think my husband was every lonely?”
“I’m sure he missed you.”
“Of course, but was he ever lonely, Yano?”
Her husband’s advisor looked her in the eyes and shook his head. “Never. Not once.”
Ruben stood beside the Bel Air with the door open and his hand out. Pilar took it and he helped her into the car. It was late, but the Royal Palm was not far, though they had to drive through the red light district and weave around prostitutes in the street. They passed the cemetery, and the white tombstones nearest the road reminded her of the book Ruben was reading, a thriller with a coffin on the cover.
“Do you remember when I started giving you mystery novels?” she asked.
“No, Señora, I don’t.”
The first time Pilar made Ruben drive her to a lover’s house, to the home of a lawyer she’d met at a fundraiser, she’d made him stop at a bookstore where she could get him something to read. She wasn’t sure when Ruben would realize to where or to what he was taking her, but she was bolder knowing his mind would be occupied as he waited in the car. In the end she only visited the lawyer’s house two times, but out of guilt she kept buying Ruben books because she’d given him the first one without a cause, and to stop would be the same as admitting her infidelity to the driver. After her husband, he was the next closest man in her life.