Pudica Darling. #SOScuba

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Chapter 19

Pudica presented Oliver with a box of apple juice by holding a straw to his mouth. Half-awake, he raised his head some degrees and pouted his lips to extract the sweet liquid.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
His wife brushed his puffy eyebrows with her thumb and said nothing. She looked at the thermometer in her hand, huffing at the number one-hundred-and-two. Before Robert retired for the night, he advised if the fever increased by one more degree, she should call him straightaway. She rested her ear on his chest with an intense need to hear him alive.
“Are you familiar with plants?” Betsy asked in a cautious tone.
Pudica sat up on the bed startled by her presence. She frowned at the question pondering about its relevance. Because of the lack of medical supplies, Cubans resorted to leaf teas called cocimientos. It gave Pudica the notion Betsy suggested a herbal drink for Oliver.
“Mami liked to grow anise and mint in case I got a cold, but she never taught me.” At the sight of Betsy, Pudica realized her anger had vanished, leaving an endless sadness. “I can help you make some tea if you’d like.”
“This breed of Cubans are so allergic to communism, they prefer to buy their tea at the supermarket.” Betsy made a half-smile, approaching the bed. “But I inquire for a different purpose.”
“Hm.” Pudica pressed her lips.
“The night Robert found out about you, he came to me with a picture of me carrying a baby. He said you thought the newborn was Oliver, but we met Oliver’s parents about a year after his birth. They were looking for a babysitter. I could not hide the truth from my husband any longer, and as I told him, I remembered why I named you Pudica.”
This was a detail of her life of which the girl was incognizant, so she crawled toward the edge of the mattress with extraordinary interest.
Betsy sighed. “Yeah, yeah, Cubans will name their kid Captain Thunder-pants as long as it sounds foreign, unique, and exotic. Be glad yours doesn’t start with Y.”
Her daughter had to giggle at the last sentence.
“My sister wanted me to call you Liudmila, like our mother,” the woman continued. “But outside the hospital where I gave birth to you, a mimosa pudica grew by the bus stop. As I sat there with this beautiful baby girl on my chest, I tapped the plant with my bag, accidentally, and its leaves started folding over the stems. And that’s when I saw the plant did this because it feared me. It recognized I had the power to hurt it.”
Aunt Betsy stared into nothingness, tucking and rocking her arms. She swallowed with her eyes closed while her tears trailed down her face. “I was a bad person—an alcoholic, a cheater, and a manipulator. Anyone was a better mother than me. I asked Melba to send me pictures of you, but she joined that religion and forbade me from having contact with you. Those days, I thought it was for the best.”
It wasn’t, and Betsy still took care of Sutton, Quentin, and Oliver. She became a parent to Oliver and gave him all the love in the world.
“You should have fought for me when you sobered up,” said Pudica. “I was Melba’s prisoner until the day she died.”
“By the time I did, it was too late, Pudica. It took a lot for me to stop drinking. Sometimes I still sip on non-alcoholic daiquiris to calm my thirst. Honestly, I didn’t change for myself or Robert.” Betsy walked around the bed and sat by a sleeping Oliver. “I did it for him because I saw the sadness in his eyes and I couldn’t let him become like me. But I thought about you every day. That’s why I went to Melba’s funeral; to meet you.”
Pudica enveloped her husband’s palm. Her selfishness blinded her to the idea that Oliver might have needed Betsy’s love more than her. It would have been devastating having nobody to trust. Oliver's adoptive mother had knowledge of his parents’ fatal end, but Pudica conformed to hearing it from his lips.
“I understand if you can’t forgive me,” said Betsy.
To their astonishment, the man opened his eyes. He interlaced his fingers with Pudica’s hand and frowned at the two bodies staring at him. His limb flourished as he supported himself on one elbow.
“No, you shouldn’t be here. You’ll get it, too,” he croaked, covering his mouth with his arm.
“Baby, we want to take care of you,” said Betsy.
“Get out, please. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave it to both of you.”
“Ollie, we’ve been here awhile. If we have it, we have it. Lie down,” said Pudica while fluffing his pillow.
Betsy aimed at his shoulder, and he bounced off the bed.
“Leave!” When his adoptive mother turned her head away, Oliver snatched a pillow and covered his groin despite him wearing briefs.
His wife showed him her palms and waved them gently. “I’ve had it, remember? I think Uncle Robert said something about me having antibodies.”
“Yes, she’s right.” Betsy nodded and moved a distance from them. “She won’t catch it.”
Pudica guided the ill man toward the covers.
“I’ll make you some tea.” The mother smiled at the couple and exited the room.

“The fever’s going down.” Pudica placed the thermometer on the nightstand and pulled the bed sheets over Oliver’s chest.
“I still feel like shit,” said the husband. His limbs vibrated close to his torso. Perceiving the sponge beside him flatten, he called her with effort. “Come back.”
“I’m just getting you some socks,” she said.
“You must know.” With no desire to speak more than his body allowed, he hoped she captured the urgency in his words.
She sat by him and placed her hand on his stomach.
“Pudding, you’re important to me.”
“Ollie, I didn’t mean—”
“I know you were sad, but you’re right. Our past doesn’t define us though it shapes who we are.”
“What you said about your parents, is that true?”
The man nodded, sighed, and closed his eyes. He was still for a few seconds and continued speaking. “There was an Ebola outbreak in the village where my dad was preaching. Mom told me I couldn’t play with friends because of that. In the mind of a kid, the illness didn’t sound like a big deal, so I had a soccer match with the other children. Long-story-short, I got sick and gave it to my parents. I recovered and they—” To say it aloud hurt more than the combination of all the years he kept his secret. It was the subject he barred the Hendricks and his best friends from broaching because it would remind him of his guilt. He deserved the death sentence.
Pudica stared with pitiful eyes, immediately caressing his tears. This was the basis to break up with his exes. Every time one of them learned his parents were dead, they pestered for more and treated him like an invalid. Angie, his second girlfriend, used his trauma to exploit him economically. She made him believe he was worthless and that he was nothing without her.
Pudica’s impending response would be unoriginal. “It wasn’t your fault,” Aunt Betsy said the night she and Robert officially adopted him. “You were just a kid, bro,” Quentin said as he patted Oliver’s shoulder.
But his wife’s lips formed a line, and the corners of her eyes raised. “So you have to ruin our children’s happiness because of that.”
“Huh?” He listened, all right; every single word. Coronavirus had yet to turn people deaf.
“Yeah, if you’re constantly miserable because you blame yourself, what kind of father will you be? You’ll spread your pain to your family. Christian missionaries preach about kindness and forgiveness. Regardless of who’s at fault for this tragedy, forgive yourself because that’s what your parents’ would have wanted.”
Oliver was speechless by her argument, or perhaps the aching muscles weren’t letting him articulate.
Children. His opinion on the matter was “it’d be nice to have some.” Pudica’s mooting made it seem closer to a tangible reality. And he definitely wouldn’t harm his future kids by running from his past.
“I never saw it in that light,” he said. “If you’re talking about us having babies together, sounds like you’re planning on staying for the long run.”
The girl lifted a corner of her mouth and rubbed his chest. Aunt Betsy wheeled a cart through the door.
“Sorry I took so much time. Did you know there’s an elevator by the kitchen?” said Aunt Betsy, pouring tea into a cup. “Gut told me about it when he saw me struggling up the stairs.”
“How convenient.” Pudica pulled Oliver upright, but he plummeted back on the bed.
“Can we use a straw?” He held his spinning head.
Betsy passed a straw and a cup to Pudica. The tea was like a scorching plain liquid, but it momentarily eased Oliver’s sore throat. Although the fever had hardly gone down, he appeared healthier, elated his wife might learn to love him. After responding to his revelation, there was no doubt in his mind Pudica was the one.
Fuck this virus. The man felt more alive than ever.

Blue fabric rippled then whirled in front of the mirror as Pudica wished Oliver saw her in such an elegant dress. Embroidery hid her cleavage, covering most of her chest and arms. Layers of sheer draped over her skirt. These high heels were taller than the ones from yesterday, so she had yet to agree with them. Just a minor detail she ignored, better focusing on the decorative stars around her braided updo.
“So beautiful.” Aunt Betsy gasped and approached Pudica.
“Thanks. We should let Oliver sleep.” Pudica glanced at the bed, then walked past Betsy into the hallway.
Outside, Robert buttoned his suit jacket and fixed his tie. With his gray sideburns and leather monk shoes, he was a dapper doctor, no doubt.
“Oh, hey,” he said in a neutral tone.
Pudica pressed her lips as an awkward greeting. They avoided each other until then. How could she be fine around him, knowing she was the source of his discontentment?
“I hope you have a great time,” said Betsy.
Only now had they noticed Betsy was wearing a casual blouse and a pair of jeans.
“You’re not coming?” asked Pudica.
“It’s better if I stay. The Fanjuls won’t want me there and the same might be true for you,” the middle-aged woman replied. “I’ll check on Oliver every few minutes.”
“Okay.” Robert seemed unaffected by her absence.
Pudica nodded and followed him downstairs. Careless acting suddenly turned heartless. She wondered if she and Robert should have been more understanding. After all, she was the one telling Oliver to be more forgiving.

Two waiters opened the door for Pudica and Robert to find the supposed small gathering was a crowd of guests laughing and cheering in the backyard. There was an outdoor cocktail bar and a buffet. It had to be the COVID’s secret ingredient.
“I wouldn’t eat anything if I were you,” said Robert.
“I concur,” replied Pudica, scanning the flock for her sister.
“I’ll sit by the bar.”
The girl nodded at Robert and popped her head for a better search. Before going further into the backyard, Ninel dragged her elbow into a circle.
“Welcome, we’re so ecstatic to see you again.” Yolanda Fanjul kissed Pudica on both cheeks.
“The night is full of surprises,” Ninel whispered into her ear.
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