Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 2)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Gảcia Mảquez
His daily schedule was so methodical that his wife knew where to send him a message if an emergency arose in the course of the afternoon. When he was a young man he would stop in the Parish Café before coming home, and this was where he perfected his chess game with his father-in-law’s cronies and some Caribbean refugees. But he had not returned to the Parish Café since the dawn of the new century, and he had attempted to organize national tournaments under the sponsorship of the Social Club. It was at this time that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour arrived, his knees already dead, not yet a photographer of children, yet in less than three months everyone who knew how to move a bishop across a chessboard knew who he was, because no one had been able to defeat him in a game. For Dr. Juvenal Urbino it was a miraculous meeting, at the very moment when chess had become an unconquerable passion for him and he no longer had many opponents who could satisfy it.
Thanks to him, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was among us. Dr. Urbino made himself his unconditional protector, his guarantor in everything, without even taking the trouble to learn who he was or what he did or what inglorious Avars he had come from in his crippled, broken state. He eventually lent him the money to set up his photography studio, and from the time he took his first picture of a child startled by the magnesium flash, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour paid back every last penny with religious regularity.
It was all for chess. At first they played after supper at seven o’clock, with a reasonable handicap for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour because of his notable superiority, but the handicap was reduced until at last they played as equals. Later, when Don Galileo Daconte opened the first outdoor cinema, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was one of his most dependable customers, and the games of chess were limited to the nights when a new film was not being shown. By then he and the Doctor had become such good friends that they would go to see the films together, but never with the Doctor’s wife, in part because she did not have the patience to follow the complicated plot lines, and in part because it always seemed to her, through sheer intuition, that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was not a good companion for anyone.
His Sundays were different. He would attend High Mass at the Cathedral and then return home to rest and read on the terrace in the patio. He seldom visited a patient on a holy day of obligation unless it was of extreme urgency, and for many years he had not accepted a social engagement that was not obligatory. On this Pentecost, in a rare coincidence, two extraordinary events had occurred: the death of a friend and the silver anniversary of an eminent pupil. Yet instead of going straight home as he had intended after certifying the death of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he allowed himself to be carried along by curiosity.
As soon as he was in his carriage, he again consulted the posthumous letter and told the coachman to take him to an obscure location in the old slave quarter. That decision was so foreign to his usual habits that the coachman wanted to make certain there was no mistake. No, no mistake: the address was clear and the man who had written it had more than enough reason to know it very well. Then Dr. Urbino returned to the first page of the letter and plunged once again into the flood of unsavory revelations that might have changed his life, even at his age, if he could have convinced himself that they were not the ravings of a dying man.
The sky had begun to threaten very early in the day and the weather was cloudy and cool, but there was no chance of rain before noon. In his effort to find a shorter route, the coachman braved the rough cobblestones of the colonial city and had to stop often to keep the horse from being frightened by the rowdiness of the religious societies and fraternities coming back from the Pentecost liturgy. The streets were full of paper garlands, music, flowers, and girls with colored parasols and muslin ruffles who watched the celebration from their balconies. In the Plaza of the Cathedral, where the statue of The Liberator was almost hidden among the African palm trees and the globes of the new streetlights, traffic was congested because Mass had ended, and not a seat was empty in the venerable and noisy Parish Café. Dr. Urbino’s was the only horse-drawn carriage; it was distinguishable from the handful left in the city because the patent-leather roof was always kept polished, and it had fittings of bronze that would not be corroded by salt, and wheels and poles painted red with gilt trimming like gala nights at the Vienna Opera. Furthermore, while the most demanding families were satisfied if their drivers had a clean shirt, he still required his coachman to wear livery of faded velvet and a top hat like a circus ringmaster’s, which, more than an anachronism, was thought to show a lack of distinguishable from the handful left in the city because the patent-leather roof was always kept polished, and it had fittings of bronze that would not be corroded by salt, and wheels and poles painted red with gilt trimming like gala nights at the Vienna Opera. Furthermore, while the most demanding families were satisfied if their drivers had a clean shirt, he still required his coachman to wear livery of faded velvet and a top hat like a circus ringmaster’s, which, more than an anachronism, was thought to show a lack of compassion in the dog days of the Caribbean summer.
Despite his almost maniacal love for the city and a knowledge of it superior to anyone’s, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had not often had reason as he did that Sunday to venture boldly into the tumult of the old slave quarter. The coachman had to make many turns and stop to ask directions several times in order to find the house. As they passed by the marshes, Dr. Urbino recognized their oppressive weight, their ominous silence, their suffocating gases, which on so many insomniac dawns had risen to his bedroom, blending with the fragrance of jasmine from the patio, and which he felt pass by him like a wind out of yesterday that had nothing to do with his life. But that pestilence so frequently idealized by nostalgia became an unbearable reality when the carriage began to lurch through the quagmire of the streets where buzzards fought over the slaughterhouse offal as it was swept along by the receding tide. Unlike the city of the Viceroys where the houses were made of masonry, here they were built of weathered boards and zinc roofs, and most of them rested on pilings to protect them from the flooding of the open sewers that had been inherited from the Spaniards. Everything looked wretched and desolate, but out of the sordid taverns came the thunder of riotous music, the godless drunken celebration of Pentecost by the poor. By the time they found the house, gangs of ragged children were chasing the carriage and ridiculing the theatrical finery of the coachman, who had to drive them away with his whip. Dr. Urbino, prepared for a confidential visit, realized too late that there was no innocence more dangerous than the innocence of age.
The exterior of the unnumbered house was in no way distinguishable from its less fortunate neighbors, except for the window with lace curtains and an imposing front door taken from some old church. The coachman pounded the door knocker, and only when he had made certain that it was the right house did he help the Doctor out of the carriage. The door opened without a sound, and in the shadowy interior stood a mature woman dressed in black, with a red rose behind her ear. Despite her age, which was no less than forty, she was still a haughty mulatta with cruel golden eyes and hair tight to her skull like a helmet of steel wool. Dr. Urbino did not recognize her, although he had seen her several times in the gloom of the chess games in the photographer’s studio, and he had once written her a prescription for tertian fever. He held out his hand and she took it between hers, less in greeting than to help him into the house. The parlor had the climate and invisible murmur of a forest glade and was crammed with furniture and exquisite objects, each in its natural place. Dr. Urbino recalled without bitterness an antiquarian’s shop, No. 26 rue Montmartre in Paris, on an autumn Monday in the last century. The woman sat down across from him and spoke in accented Spanish.
“This is your house, Doctor,” she said. “I did not expect you so soon.” Dr. Urbino felt betrayed. He stared at her openly, at her intense mourning, at the dignity of her grief, and then he understood that this was a useless visit because she knew more than he did about everything stated and explained in Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s posthumous letter. This was true. She had been with him until a very few hours before his death, as she had been with him for half his life, with a devotion and submissive tenderness that bore too close a resemblance to love, and without anyone knowing anything about it in this sleepy provincial capital where even state secrets were common knowledge. They had met in a convalescent home in Port-au-Prince, where she had been born and where he had spent his early years as a fugitive, and she had followed him here
a year later for a brief visit, although both of them knew without agreeing to anything that she had come to stay forever. She cleaned and straightened the laboratory once a week, but not even the most evil-minded neighbors confused appearance with reality because they, like everyone else, supposed that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s disability affected more than his capacity to walk. Dr. Urbino himself supposed as much for solid medical reasons, and never would have believed his friend had a woman if he himself had not revealed it in the letter. In any event, it was difficult for him to comprehend that two free adults without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society’s prejudices had chosen the hazards of illicit love. She explained: “It was his wish.” Moreover, a clandestine life shared with a man who was never completely hers, and in which they often knew the sudden explosion of happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised. On the contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary.
On the previous night they had gone to the cinema, each one separately, and had sat apart as they had done at least twice a month since the Italian immigrant, Don Galileo Daconte, had installed his open-air theater in the ruins of a seventeenth-century convent. They saw All Quiet on the Western Front, a film based on a book that had been popular the year before and that Dr. Urbino had read, his heart devastated by the barbarism of war. They met afterward in the laboratory, she found him brooding and nostalgic, and thought it was because of the brutal scenes of wounded men dying in the mud. In an attempt to distract him, she invited him to play chess and he accepted to please her, but he played inattentively, with the white pieces, of course, until he discovered before she did that he was going to be defeated in four moves and surrendered without honor. Then the Doctor realized that she had been his opponent in the final game, and not General Jerónimo Argote, as he had supposed. He murmured in astonishment:
“It was masterful!”
She insisted that she deserved no praise, but rather that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, already lost in the mists of death, had moved his pieces without love. When he stopped the game at about a quarter past eleven, for the music from the public dances had ended, he asked her to leave him. He wanted to write a letter to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, whom he considered the most honorable man he had ever known, and his soul’s friend, as he liked to say, despite the fact that the only affinity between the two was their addiction to chess understood as a dialogue of reason and not as a science. And then she knew that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had come to the end of his suffering and that he had only enough life left to write the letter. The Doctor could not believe it.
“So then you knew!” he exclaimed.
She not only knew, she agreed, but she had helped him to endure the suffering as lovingly as she had helped him to discover happiness.
Because that was what his last eleven months had been: cruel suffering
“Your duty was to report him,” said the Doctor.
“I could not do that,” she said, shocked. “I loved him too much.” Dr. Urbino, who thought he had heard everything, had never heard anything like that, and said with such simplicity. He looked straight at her and tried with all his senses to fix her in his memory as she was at that moment: she seemed like a river idol, undaunted in her black dress, with her serpent’s eyes and the rose behind her ear. A long time ago, on a deserted beach in Haiti where the two of them lay naked after love, Jeremiah de SaintAmour had sighed: “I will never be old.” She interpreted this as a heroic determination to
struggle without quarter against the ravages of time, but he was more specific: he had made the irrevocable decision to take his own life when he was seventy years old.
He had turned seventy, in fact, on the twenty-third of January of that year, and then he had set the date as the night before Pentecost, the most important holiday in a city consecrated to the cult of the Holy Spirit. There was not a single detail of the previous night that she had not known about ahead of time, and they spoke of it often, suffering together the irreparable rush of days that neither of them could stop now. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour loved life with a senseless passion, he loved the sea and love, he loved his dog and her, and as the date approached he had gradually succumbed to despair as if his death had been not his own decision but an inexorable destiny.
“Last night, when I left him, he was no longer of this world,” she said. She had wanted to take the dog with her, but he looked at the animal dozing beside the crutches and caressed him with the tips of his fingers. He said: “I’m sorry, but Mister Woodrow Wilson is coming with me.” He asked her to tie him to the leg of the cot while he wrote, and she used a false knot so that he could free himself. That had been her only act of disloyalty, and it was justified by her desire to remember the master in the wintry eyes of his dog. But Dr. Urbino interrupted her to say that the dog had not freed himself. She said: “Then it was because he did not want to.” And she was glad, because she preferred to evoke her dead lover as he had asked her to the night before, when he stopped writing the letter he had already begun and looked at her for the last time. “Remember me with a rose,” he said to her.
She had returned home a little after midnight. She lay down fully dressed on her bed, to smoke one cigarette after another and give him time to finish what she knew was a long and difficult letter, and a little before three o’clock, when the dogs began to howl, she put the water for coffee on the stove, dressed in full mourning, and cut the first rose of dawn in the patio. Dr. Urbino already realized how completely he would repudiate the memory of that irredeemable woman, and he thought he knew why: only a person without principles could be so complaisant toward grief.
And for the remainder of the visit she gave him even more justification. She would not go to the funeral, for that is what she had promised her lover, although Dr. Urbino thought he had read just the opposite in one of the paragraphs of the letter. She would not shed a tear, she would not waste the rest of her years simmering in the maggot broth of memory, she would not bury herself alive inside these four walls to sew her shroud, as native widows were expected to do. She intended to sell Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s house and all its contents, which, according to the letter, now belonged to her, and she would go on living as she always had, without complaining, in this death trap of the poor where she had been happy.
The words pursued Dr. Juvenal Urbino on the drive home: “this death trap of the poor.” It was not a gratuitous description. For the city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps. In winter sudden devastating downpours flooded the latrines and turned the streets into sickening bogs. In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the bestprotected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air. On Saturdays the poor mulattoes, along with all their domestic animals and kitchen utensils, tumultuously abandoned their hovels of cardboard and tin on the edges of the swamps and in jubilant assault took over the rocky beaches of the colonial district. Until a few years ago, some of the older ones still bore the royal slave brand that had been burned onto their chests with flaming irons. During the weekend they danced without mercy, drank themselves blind on home-brewed alcohol, made wild love among the icaco plants, and on Sunday at midnight they broke up their own party with bloody free-for-alls. During the rest of the week the same impetuous mob swarmed into the plazas and alleys of the old neighborhoods with their stores of everything that could be bought and sold, and they infused the dead city with the frenzy of a human fair reeking of fried fish: a new life.