The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     In the weeks that followed Roberto successfully established a regular training routine for anyone in building number one who was interested in participating, with the exception of the political prisoners held in solitary confinement, who were never permitted time outdoors or to exercise.

     For his efforts, Roberto slowly began to gain the respect of the warden and many of the guards. The daily training routine however—which would sometimes last for hours in the hot sun, and when the wind was blowing, made worse by the choking dust stirred up from the exercise yard—was beginning to take a toll physically.

     Knowing it could be months before being granted a hearing and possible release, he knew the debilitating physical effects from the lack of food would be a danger to his health, and so one day boldly made a demand for increased food rations. To his surprise and good fortune, the request was personally granted by the warden.

     Roberto’s cell mates never thought to hold this against him, and he was grateful for their understanding and shared the extra food with them as much as he could. The quality of the food was better also and when they were in a particularly good mood, the guards would sometimes bring Roberto chicken or fish.

     It was almost two months before Roberto received a visit from anyone. It was his brothers, Lazaro and Pedro, who had come. They had been trying for many weeks to arrange a visit ever since Roberto had been arrested. His mother and brother Carlos were reluctant to come to Combinado del having heard too many horror stories about the treatment received by family members of inmates.

     The visiting room was long and narrow with wooden tables bordered on both sides by concrete benches. It was there, after going through multiple security checkpoints, that the two brothers, sitting opposite Roberto, were able to talk with their brother. Visitation was always no more and no less than two and a half hours.

     Several guards patrolled the room eavesdropping on conversations and ogling the wives and girlfriends who came to visit and had braved the security checks, which often included humiliating same sex strip searches. Roberto was relieved that Maura had not come with his brothers.

     “How is Mother?” asked Roberto first.

     “She is worried, as always,” replied Lazaro. “She doesn’t understand why you are always the one going to prison.”

     “I take more risks I suppose,” said Roberto. “How is Maura?”

     “She is worried also, but she is young and can handle the stress better,” answered Lazaro.

     “And Pedro, how are you?” asked Roberto.

     “Struggling and sick of life, like everyone now,” he said. “Roberto, Lazaro has told me about the boat and your plan.”

     “That’s a little uncertain. At least for now,” said Roberto.

     “I want to go with you,” said Pedro.

     “That would make eight now assuming I ever get out of here. I don’t know if the boat is safe with that many people. Have you been to Cojimar to see the boat? Have you spoken with Pedrito?” asked Roberto. He knew all too well the look of desperation in his brother’s eyes.

     “We went to Cojimar last week to see Pedrito. He said he switched the motor and that the Coast Guard had come to check,” said Pedro. “He said everything was fine with the Coast Guard and he would take his chances and put the more powerful motor back in just before leaving.”

     “The guard is coming. I know him, but wait until he passes,” said Roberto.

     “Pedrito is worried, Roberto,” said Lazaro after the guard had passed.

     “About what? He’s not the one who is in prison,” said Roberto. He was becoming suspicious.

     “He’s worried you may be in prison for several years. He said he has known of people imprisoned here who have waited for years to get a hearing, much less a trial,” said Lazaro.

     “I have a good relationship with the warden and the guards. I don’t think it will be much longer,” said Roberto.

     “But what if they sentence you to several years?” asked Pedro.

     “That isn’t going to happen. They have no evidence,” said Roberto.

     “Pedrito says he wants to leave soon, that he doesn’t want to wait,” said Lazaro, then waited nervously for Roberto’s response.

     “What do you mean he doesn’t want to wait? He can’t do that to me,” said Roberto trying not to raise his voice and attract the attention of the guards. “Besides, he has no connections in Florida.”

     “He says he doesn’t care what happens when he gets to Florida. That he just wants the hell out of Cuba,” said Lazaro.

     “You have to convince him to wait, Lazaro. I have more invested in this than anyone. It’s not fair. What does Maura say?” he asked.

     “She doesn’t want to leave without you,” replied Lazaro.

     “Ask her to talk to Pedrito. Jesus, I can’t believe this is happening,” said Roberto.

     “I’ll go to Cojimar with Maura and talk to him,” promised Lazaro.

     “You’re allowed to visit again in three weeks. Ask Pedrito to come with you. I want to talk with him directly,” said Roberto.

     “You want Maura to come?” asked Lazaro.

     “No. I don’t want her inside this shit hole,” said Roberto.

     “Time’s up, Ramos,” said one of the guards loudly as he walked past the table where they were sitting.

     “You have to tell Pedrito not to leave without me Lazaro,” whispered Roberto. “This is my only chance.”

     With that Lazaro and Pedro stood up from the table, said goodbye to Roberto and were escorted out of the visitation room to the prison exit. Roberto was returned to his cell. He had little to say to the others who wanted to know how the visit went with Roberto’s brothers and if there was any news from the outside.

     Roberto explained that the visit with his brothers had not gone well, and he was not in a mood to talk and apologized to the others for it, explaining that he needed some time to think.

     It was evening and a heavy, slow-moving thunderstorm had settled in over the Combinado del Este prison complex, breaking the heat and bringing some relief to the prisoners who were now in their cells for the night. The cells on the lowest level, where even a strong breeze was never felt, were always hot, even at night, except in winter when the wind came from the sea and it was cold, and then they were always cold. The men in these cells suffered the most. Roberto remembered when he was in solitary confinement how the cold had made it impossible to sleep for many days and nights.

     By the middle of the night Roberto had not slept and had memorized every crack in the leaky, crumbling, concrete ceiling. The frustration he felt from being trapped in a situation that was out of his control was building, and he was becoming angry. His relationship with the guards and the warden was a good one, he thought, and would eventually work in his favor, but how long would it be before he was released and would Pedro and the others wait for him?