Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 5)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
When they recalled this episode, now they had rounded the corner of old age, neither could believe the astonishing truth that this had been the most serious argument in fifty years of living together, and the only one that had made them both want to abandon their responsibilities and begin a new life. Even when they were old and placid they were careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday.
He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound of his stallion’s stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a .fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: “The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.” He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: “This stinks like a rabbit hutch.” On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.
By this time he could do very little for himself, and the possibility of a fatal slip in the tub put him on his guard against the shower. The house was modern and did not have the pewter tub with lion’s-paw feet common in the mansions of the old city. He had had it removed for hygienic reasons: the bathtub was another piece of abominable junk invented by Europeans who bathed only on the last Friday of the month, and then in the same water made filthy by the very dirt they tried to remove from their bodies. So he had ordered an outsized washtub made of solid lignum vitae, in which Fermina Daza bathed her husband just as if he were a newborn child. Waters boiled with mallow leaves and orange skins were mixed into the bath that lasted over an hour, and the effect on him was so sedative that he sometimes fell asleep in the perfumed infusion. After bathing him, Fermina Daza helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his undershorts with as much love as if they had been a diaper, and continued dressing him, item by item, from his socks to the knot in his tie with the topaz pin. Their conjugal dawns grew calm because he had returned to the childhood his children had taken away from him. And she, in turn, at last accepted the domestic schedule because the years were passing for her too; she slept less and less, and by the time she was seventy she was awake before her husband.
On Pentecost Sunday, when he lifted the blanket to look at Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s body, Dr. Urbino experienced the revelation of something that had been denied him until then in his most lucid peregrinations as a physician and a believer. After so many years of familiarity with death, after battling it for so long, after so much turning it inside out and upside down, it was as if he had dared to look death in the face for the first time, and it had looked back at him. It was not the fear of death. No: that fear had been inside him for many years, it had lived with him, it had been another shadow cast over his own shadow ever since the night he awoke, shaken by a bad dream, and realized that death was not only a permanent probability, as he had always believed, but an immediate reality. What he had seen that day, however, was the physical presence of something that until that moment had been only an imagined certainty. He was very glad that the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming revelation had been Jeremiah de SaintAmour, whom he had always considered a saint unaware of his own state of grace. But when the letter revealed his true identity, his sinister past, his inconceivable powers of deception, he felt that something definitive and irrevocable had occurred in his life.
Nevertheless Fermina Daza did not allow him to infect her with his somber mood. He tried, of course, while she helped him put his legs into his trousers and worked the long row of buttons on his shirt. But he failed because Fermina Daza was not easy to impress, least of all by the death of a man she did not care for. All she knew about him was that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was a cripple on crutches whom she had never seen, that he had escaped the firing squad during one of many insurrections on one of many islands in the Antilles, that he had become a photographer of children out of necessity and had become the most successful one in the province, and that he had won a game of chess from someone she remembered as Torremolinos but in reality was named Capablanca
“But he was nothing more than a fugitive from Cayenne, condemned to life imprisonment for an atrocious crime,” said Dr. Urbino. “Imagine, he had even eaten human flesh.”
He handed her the letter whose secrets he wanted to carry with him to the grave, but she put the folded sheets in her dressing table without reading them and locked the drawer with a key. She was accustomed to her husband’s unfathomable capacity for astonishment, his exaggerated opinions that became more incomprehensible as the years went by, his narrowness of mind that was out of tune with his public image. But this time he had outdone himself. She had supposed that her husband held Jeremiah de SaintAmour in esteem not for what he had once been but for what he began to be after he arrived here with only his exile’s rucksack, and she could not understand why he was so distressed by the disclosure of his true identity at this late date. She did not comprehend why he thought it an abomination that he had had a woman in secret, since that was an atavistic custom of a certain kind of man, himself included, yes even he in a moment of ingratitude, and besides, it seemed to her a heartbreaking proof of love that she had helped him carry out his decision to die. She said: “If you also decided to do that for reasons as serious as his, my duty would be to do what she did.” Once again Dr. Urbino found himself face to face with the simple incomprehension that had exasperated him for a half a century.
“You don’t understand anything,” he said. “What infuriates me is not what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us for so many years.”
His eyes began to fill with easy tears, but she pretended not to see. “He did the right thing,” she replied. “If he had told the truth, not you or that poor woman or anybody in this town would have loved him as much as they did.”
She threaded his watch chain through the buttonhole in his vest. She put the finishing touches to the knot in his tie and pinned on his topaz tiepin. Then she dried his eyes and wiped his teary beard with the handkerchief sprinkled with florida water and put that in his breast pocket, its corners spread open like a magnolia. The eleven strokes of the pendulum clock sounded in the depths of the house.
“Hurry,” she said, taking him by the arm. “We’ll be late.”
Aminta Dechamps, Dr. Lácides Olivella’s wife, and her seven equally diligent daughters, had arranged every detail so that the silver anniversary luncheon would be the social event of the year. The family home, in the very center of the historic district, was the old mint, denatured by a Florentine architect who came through here like an ill wind blowing renovation and converted many seventeenth-century relics into Venetian basilicas. It had six bedrooms and two large, well-ventilated dining and reception rooms, but that was not enough space for the guests from the city, not to mention the very select few from out of town. The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone fountain murmuring in the center and pots of heliotrope that perfumed the house at dusk, but the space among the arcades was inadequate for so many grand family names. So it was decided to hold the luncheon in their country house that was ten minutes away by automobile along the King’s Highway and, had over an acre of patio, and enormous Indian laurels, and local water lilies in a gently flowing river. The men from Don Sancho’s Inn, under the supervision of Señora de Olivella, hung colored canvas awnings in the sunny areas and raised a platform under the laurels with tables for one hundred twenty-two guests, with a linen tablecloth on each of them and bouquets of the day’s fresh roses for the table of honor. They also built a wooden dais for a woodwind band whose program was limited to contradances and national waltzes, and for a string quartet from the School of Fine Arts, which was Señora de Olivella’s surprise for her husband’s venerable teacher, who would preside over the luncheon. Although the date did not correspond exactly to the anniversary of his graduation, they chose Pentecost Sunday in order to magnify the significance of the celebration.
The preparations had begun three months earlier, for fear that something indispensable would be left undone for lack of time. They brought in live chickens from Ciénaga de Oro, famous all along the coast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of pure gold were found in their gizzards. Señora de Olivella herself, accompanied by some of her daughters and her domestic staff, boarded the luxury ocean liners and selected the best from everywhere to honor her husband’s achievements. She had anticipated everything except that the celebration would take place on a Sunday in June in a year when the rains were late. She realized the danger that very morning when she went to High Mass and was horrified by the humidity and saw that the sky was heavy and low and that one could not see to the ocean’s horizon. Despite these ominous signs, the Director of the Astronomical Observatory, whom she met at Mass, reminded her that in all the troubled history of the city, even during the crudest winters, it had never rained on Pentecost. Still, when the clocks struck twelve and many of the guests were already having an aperitif outdoors, a single crash of thunder made the earth tremble, and a turbulent wind from the sea knocked over the tables and blew down the canopies, and the sky collapsed in a catastrophic downpour. In the chaos of the storm Dr. Juvenal Urbino, along with the other late guests whom he had met on the road, had great difficulty reaching the house, and like them he wanted to move from the carriage to the house by jumping from stone to stone across the muddy patio, but at last he had to accept the humiliation of being carried by Don Sancho’s men under a yellow canvas canopy. They did the best they could to set up the separate tables again inside the house–even in the bedrooms–and the guests made no effort to disguise their surly, shipwrecked mood. It was as hot as a ship’s boiler room, for the windows had to be closed to keep out the wind-driven rain. In the patio each place at the tables had been marked with a card bearing the name of the guest, one side reserved for men and the other for women, according to custom. But inside the house the name cards were in confusion and people sat where they could in an obligatory promiscuity that defied our social superstitions on at least this one occasion. In the midst of the cataclysm Aminta de Olivella seemed to be everywhere at once, her hair soaking wet and her splendid dress spattered with mud, but bearing up under the misfortune with the invincible smile, learned from her husband, that would give no quarter to adversity. With the help of her daughters, who were cut from the same cloth, she did everything possible to keep the places at the table of honor in order, with Dr. Juvenal Urbino in the center and Archbishop Obdulio y Rey on his right. Fermina Daza sat next to her husband, as she always did, for fear he would fall asleep during the meal or spill soup on his lapel. Across from him sat Dr. Lácides Olivella, a well-preserved man of about fifty with an effeminate air, whose festive spirit seemed in no way related to his accurate diagnoses. The rest of the table was occupied by provincial and municipal officials and last year’s beauty queen, whom the Governor escorted to the seat next to him. Although it was not customary for invitations to request special attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary clothes. At each place was a menu printed in French, with golden vignettes.
Señora de Olivella, horror-struck by the devastating heat, went through the house pleading with the men to take off their jackets during the luncheon, but no one dared to be the first. The Archbishop commented to Dr. Urbino that in a sense this was a historic luncheon: there, together for the first time at the same table, their wounds healed and their anger dissipated, sat the two opposing sides in the civil wars that had bloodied the country ever since Independence. This thought accorded with the enthusiasm of the Liberals, especially the younger ones, who had succeeded in electing a president from their party after forty-five years of Conservative hegemony. Dr. Urbino did not agree: in his opinion a Liberal president was exactly the same as a Conservative president, but not as well dressed. But he did not want to contradict the Archbishop, although he would have liked to point out to him that guests were at that luncheon not because of what they thought but because of the merits of their lineage, which was something that had always stood over and above the hazards of politics and the horrors of war. From this point of view, in fact, not a single person was missing.
The downpour ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun began to shine in a cloudless sky, but the storm had been so violent that several trees were uprooted and the overflowing stream had turned the patio into a swamp. The greatest disaster had occurred in the kitchen. Wood fires had been built outdoors on bricks behind the house, and the cooks barely had time to rescue their pots from the rain. They lost precious time reorganizing the flooded kitchen and improvising new fires in the back gallery. But by one o’clock the crisis had been resolved and only the dessert was missing: the Sisters of St. Clare were in charge of that, and they had promised to send it before eleven. It was feared that the ditch along the King’s Highway had flooded, as it did even in less severe winters, and in that case it would be at least two hours before the dessert arrived. As soon as the weather cleared they opened the windows, and the house was cooled by air that had been purified by the sulfurous storm. Then the band was told to play its program of waltzes on the terrace of the portico, and that only heightened the confusion because everyone had to shout to be heard over the banging of copper pots inside the house. Tired of waiting, smiling even on the verge of tears, Aminta de Olivella ordered luncheon to be served.