The scars are all ridges and swirls, like the surface of the sea, except the sea is colored a rich chocolate and smeared along her neck, her collarbone, up to the ridge of the left cheekbone. Quirot sits in her dining room, shuffling a deck of cards on a white lace tablecloth. The streets outside stink of diesel, but up here on the 10th floor, with the salt breeze blowing through the windows, the air is fresh. She sets down the cards. She twists one ring off her hand and lays it on the table. Her nails, manicured and painted, are perfect.
She was always vain, and like most vain people Quirot at her core believed there was something wrong with the way she looked. She would peer into the mirror: Your nose is too wide. Your lips aren't quite right. Growing up, her thickness earned her the nickname gorda—Fatty—and though the fat faded, the name never did. Before the accident she worked occasionally as a model, and many were the reporters who came away from interviews sure that Quirot had flirted with them. She liked to play. She liked the strength that being attractive gave her.
The first time Quirot saw herself after the accident, she forgot her promise to return to the track. "I wasn't going to run anymore," she says, taking off another ring and stacking it on top of the first. "I wanted to, but I looked horrible."
She could not close her hands; she couldn't raise her arms enough to comb her hair. Quirot was 29 then. Doctors reassured her that with time and therapy and many operations, she could be well again. She listened; why not? They were the best doctors in Cuba. But then there were days when Quirot would catch sight of her swollen face, the skin planed to plastic smoothness, and tears would stream over the scars. She felt sure the doctors were tricking her. Sometimes when her mother and her sister came to visit, Ana Fidelia screamed at them to leave her alone. She felt her spirit shriveling to ash. An antiathlete now, she could do nothing physical. Useless. She told her mother they should've let her die.
Then there were the rumors. Quirot heard them all, the plot lines more baroque than in the wildest soap opera: The explosion wasn't an accident. She had tried to commit suicide after a fight with her lover, the father of her unborn child, who was married to another woman and was said to be none other than Cuba's world-record high jumper, Javier Sotomayor. Quirot had wanted to name the child after him. He refused and broke off the affair. She lit herself on fire.
"I've heard a lot of versions," Quirot says, smiling thinly. Four gold rings sit in a pile before her. "When you're famous, people are always speculating—and never in your favor. Sometimes it's good to be famous...." She shrugs. "Sometimes it's bad."
She had been married for eight years to former world champion wrestler Ra�l Cascaret, then divorced in 1991. Yes, she says, Sotomayor was the father of the lost baby. But there was no fight. "My relations with my lover were very good," she says. The night of the accident, she was with a friend in her apartment. "It's best for me not to remember," she says. "It's a nightmare."
Quirot had gone to the kitchen to light her cooker, a kerosene contraption used all over Cuba and a frequent cause of fire. Shortages of bleach and soap have forced many Cubans to wash their clothes on the stove, in a heated mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. Quirot thought the cooker, which sat on her stove, was off. She poured in the alcohol, and it flowed over the lip of the pot, down the sides and into the fire. "And the flames came up," she says. They leaped onto her sweater. She struggled to pull it off, too late.
Sotomayor, she says, helped her in the first days in the hospital. "He was always by my side," she says. Then the baby was discovered to have brain damage, and doctors induced labor. "At a certain point we talked," Quirot says of Sotomayor. "I decided to break it off. It's hard to have a relationship when you're in a hospital. I decided he should have his own life. For his own good—so it wouldn't interfere with his training." Once in a while, now, Quirot will see Sotomayor at the track, but this isn't hard anymore. "You get used to everything," she says.
Slowly Quirot got used to her new self. Thanks to the hospital's satellite dish, she could spend hours watching sports on ESPN. Three weeks after the accident her coach visited, waving to her through the glass at the burn ward. The first thing Quirot did was lightly slap her thighs, to show him her legs were untouched. A team of doctors led by Pedro P�rez Due�as, a former world-record holder in the triple jump, treated her with synthetic human skin. After a month Quirot was doing light cardiovascular work. By the second month she was stretching and biking and running up and down the hospital stairs. After three months she was released.