T H E C O M F O R T E R
H E N W E F I R S T H E A R D about the cold front, possibly the worst in a decade, we paid it no mind. It was rare, even in the outskirts of Havana, for temperatures to drop below ten degrees Celsius. The previous winter, we had been thrown into a bit of a frenzy by a few pneumonia cases. Edesio, a sixty-two-year-old schizophrenic who weighed a measly one hundred pounds, had ended up in critical condition before passing, days later, at a city hospital. e director praised our response. Because Edesio hadn’t expired at our lo- cation, he said, the old man didn’t go in our records as a fatality. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Nutrition and overall health had been on decline for quite a while. The occasional dead was nothing to fuss over, especially when it came to mostly forgotten patients in a mental institution.
In situations like this, the staff was to shut all windows and doors, provide coats to those who didn’t have one, and allocate at least an extra bed sheet to every patient. Since virtually all employees in our wing—from the administrators down to the cleaning ladies—had at one point or another stolen things, we knew there wouldn’t be enough. My friend Donys, an assistant stock manager at the ward, liked to say that the procedures were all bullshit.
“They create this illusion of rules and accountability,” he’d told me. “They sell that crap to the government higher-ups and the patients’ families. They don’t want them thinking that it’s a jungle in here, like anywhere else.”
Ours was the largest psychiatric hospital in the country, and the amount of supplies that came into the stockroom could only be described as minimal. Donys philosophy was, “Why give it to a bunch of poor nutjobs who are going to break it and crap all over it anyway? Let the people who keep this place from falling apart, the people who still got to go out there and lead a regular a life, get a piece of the action.”
I wouldn’t have put it the way Donys did, but I agreed with his overall view. Being constantly surrounded by the clinically insane—with an ever-shrinking inventory and every-man-for-himself attitude—rules and accountability were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Again, this was nothing new, so we carried on with our routines.
Two days before the front was to arrive, the weatherman on the radio forecasted partly cloudy skies and mild winds. A refreshing breeze blew in through the open doorways of the complex and across the halls. Toward the end of my shift, I went to check on Beba, my oldest patient. Beba hated winter, so every night after tucking the edges of the bed sheet under her body, I’d close the wooden shutters of her window and ask if that was better. She’d wiggle slightly in her cocoon, checking that she was properly covered, and smile with the ingenuous pleasure of a young girl.
At one point, Beba had been the star patient in the facility. She’d spent two decades in a large room on a restricted-access building we called “The White Wing” because it always looked so clean and renovated. Donys had delivered boxes there a couple of times. He said the patients had individual rooms with televisions, an indoor garden, and a small gym with brand-new equipment. The White Wing was reserved for reputable foreigners and family members of important government bureaucrats and military personnel. This wasn’t the official word, but we all knew it. The rest of the patients were crammed into common areas filled with creaky beds.
Beba was one of a handful of everyday citizens who’d been treated at the White Wing. For a while, she’d been the premier stop for international health delegations being shown the top-notch care Cuba offered its people. She had the right look and background. She was black with short hair on a perfectly round head and eyes that could disarm you. I’d seen a few photographs, and she had undoubtedly been a striking woman. She’d also been a clandestine fighter during the Revolution and a decorated construction brigade supervisor. She had medals and certificates on her record to prove it.
“Don’t let my current body confuse you,” she’d told me during my first week on the job. “I was strong as an ox.”
Her story, the reason for her internment, was tragic and heartbreaking enough to make the delegations pity her. Beba’s husband, a white university professor, had left her for her sister. He’d also taken Beba’s six-year- old son, Angel, with him to Spain. Beba spent a year trying to get her son back, but her husband had falsified all kinds of papers with the right people, leaving her with nothing but her home and her memories. She never saw Angel again. When a neighbor found her one night slumped by her front door, blood smeared on her nightgown and a dead dog—a knife jammed into its neck—cradled in her arms, Beba claimed her husband had tried to kill her, and she’d had no choice. She bawled and refused to let go of the dog until the police pried the animal from her.
Recalling her experience, she shared with me how there had always been a fire inside of her. “I never wanted to be a home wife,” she said. “I couldn’t stand tidying up the house, doing the laundry, cooking dinner. My husband hated it. He said I wasn’t feminine enough, that I spent too much time with the construction brigades. That’s why he took Angel. To get back at me. But what could I do? I grew up surrounded by white men who demanded I show my ass, that I shake it for them like a Tropicana dancer.”
This I couldn’t picture. Beba’s emaciated body at age seventy bore no resemblance to the voluptuous curves of a showgirl.
Despite never being able to rid herself of hallucinations—visions of her husband attacking her or Angel ignoring her—Beba was usually in good spirits and willing to talk. At the White Wing, she’d even met Diego Maradona during one of his stays to battle his drug addiction. On days when her mind was clear, Beba had told me about a framed photograph that hung above her headboard in which Maradona was kissing her forehead. She had no idea who he was, but she knew he was famous, and it thrilled her. Unfortunately, the picture had been misplaced the day Beba was moved to a regular wing. No doubt it had already made its way to a tourist’s hands somewhere in Old Havana.
After her transfer, she was given her own room. She was the first to receive supplies: gowns, slippers, towels, pillows. In time, however, the director decided to strip her of what he called her privileged position. She was allowed to keep her room, but she was otherwise treated like any other patient. As she got older and more demanding about her needs, she was assigned to new orderlies. “Trial by fire,” the more experienced orderlies called it, almost always with a smirk. For the past year, Beba had been my responsibility.
“Angel, I’m still cold,” she grumbled now, staring at the ceiling. “I can feel it in my bones.”
I caressed her head. “You’ve got a thick bed cover, Beba. And you know my name is Eber. Angel is not here.”
“My skin does nothing for me anymore.”
“I know. Hang in there, okay?”
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