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.”

“They’re crude.”

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?”

“How many?”

“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.

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.

“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.

“With what?”

“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?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“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.”

“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.

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