Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 11)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 11

In any case, the details of the engagement were settled in their letters during the weeks that followed. Fermina Daza, on the advice of her Aunt Escolástica, accepted both the two-year extension and the condition of absolute secrecy, and suggested that Florentino Ariza ask for her hand when she finished secondary school, during the Christmas vacation. When the time came they would decide on how the engagement was to be formalized, depending on the degree of approval she obtained from her father. In the meantime, they continued to write to each other with the same ardor and frequency, but free of the turmoil they had felt before, and their letters tended toward a domestic tone that seemed appropriate to husband and wife. Nothing disturbed their dreams.
Florentino Ariza’s life had changed. Requited love had given him a confidence and strength he had never known before, and he was so efficient in his work that Lotario Thugut had no trouble having him named his permanent assistant. By that time his plans for the School of Telegraphy and Magnetism had failed, and the German dedicated his free time to the only thing he really enjoyed: going to the port to play the accordion and drink beer with the sailors, finishing the evening at the transient hotel. It was a long time before Florentino Ariza, realized that Lotario Thugut’s influence in the palace of pleasure was due to the fact that he had become the owner of the establishment as well as impresario for the birds in the port. He had bought it gradually with his savings of many years, but the person who ran it for him was a lean, one-eyed little man with a polished head and a heart so kind that no one understood how he could be such a good manager. But he was. At least it seemed that way to Florentino Ariza when the manager told him, without his requesting it, that he had the permanent use of a room in the hotel, not only to resolve problems of the lower belly whenever he decided to do so, but so that he could have at his disposal a quiet place for his reading and his love letters. And as the long months passed until the formalizing of the engagement, he spent more time there than at the office or his house, and there were periods when Tránsito Ariza saw him only when he came home to change his clothes.

Reading had become his insatiable vice. Ever since she had taught him to read, his mother had bought him illustrated books by Nordic authors which were sold as stories for children but in reality were the crudest and most perverse that one could read at any age. When he was five years old, Florentino Ariza would recite them from memory, both in his classes and at literary evenings at school, but his familiarity with them did not alleviate the terror they caused. On the contrary, it became acute. So that when he began to read poetry, by comparison it was like finding an oasis. Even during his adolescence he had devoured, in the order of their appearance, all the volumes of the Popular Library that Tránsito Ariza bought from the bargain booksellers at the Arcade of the Scribes, where one could find everything from Homer to the least meritorious of the local poets. But he made no distinctions: he read whatever came his way, as if it had been ordained by fate, and despite his many years of reading, he still could not judge what was good and what was not in all that he had read. The only thing clear to him was that he preferred verse to prose, and in verse he preferred love poems that he memorized without even intending to after the second reading, and the better rhymed and metered they were, and the more heartrending, the more easily he learned them.

They were the original source of his first letters to Fermina Daza, those half-baked endearments taken whole from the Spanish romantics, and his letters continued in that vein until real life obliged him to concern himself with matters more mundane than heartache. By that time he had moved on to tearful serialized novels and other, even more profane prose of the day. He had learned to cry with his mother as they read the pamphlets by local poets that were sold in plazas and arcades for two centavos each. But at the same time he was able to recite from memory the most exquisite Castilian poetry of the Golden Age. In general, he read everything that fell into his hands in the order in which it fell, so that long after those hard years of his first love, when he was no longer young, he would read from first page to last the twenty volumes of the Young People’s Treasury, the complete catalogue of the Gamier Bros. Classics in translation, and the simplest works that Don Vicente Blasco Ibáñez published in the Prometeo collection.

In any event, his youthful adventures in the transient hotel were not limited to reading and composing feverish letters but also included his initiation into the secrets of loveless love. Life in the house began after noon, when his friends the birds got up as bare as the day they were born, so that when Florentino Ariza arrived after work he found a palace populated by naked nymphs who shouted their commentaries on the secrets of the city, which they knew because of the faithlessness of the protagonists. Many displayed in their nudity traces of their past: scars of knife thrusts in the belly, starbursts of gunshot wounds, ridges of the razor cuts of love, Caesarean sections sewn up by butchers. Some of them had their young children with them during the day, those unfortunate fruits of youthful defiance or carelessness, and they took off their children’s clothes as soon as they were brought in so they would not feel different in that paradise of nudity. Each one cooked her own food, and no one ate better than Florentino Ariza when they invited him for a meal, because he chose the best from each. It was a daily fiesta that lasted until dusk, when the naked women marched, singing, toward the bathrooms, asked to borrow soap, toothbrushes, scissors, cut each other’s hair, dressed in borrowed clothes, painted themselves like lugubrious clowns, and went out to hunt the first prey of the night. Then life in the house became impersonal and dehumanized, and it was impossible to share in it without paying. Since he had known Fermina Daza, there was no place where Florentino Ariza felt more at ease, because it was the only place where he felt that he was with her. Perhaps it was for similar reasons that an elegant older woman with beautiful silvery hair lived there but did not participate in the uninhibited life of the naked women, who professed sacramental respect for her. A premature sweetheart had taken her there when she was young, and after enjoying her for a time, abandoned her to her fate. Nevertheless, despite the stigma, she had made a good marriage. When she was quite old and alone, two sons and three daughters argued over who would have the pleasure of taking her to live with them, but she could not think of a better place to live than that hotel of her youthful debaucheries. Her permanent room was her only home, and this made for immediate communion with Florentino Ariza, who, she said, would become a wise man known throughout the world because he could enrich his soul with reading in a paradise of salaciousness. Florentino Ariza, for his part, developed so much affection for her that he helped her with her shopping and would spend the afternoons in conversation with her. He thought she was a woman wise in the ways of love, since she offered many insights into his affair without his having to reveal any secrets to her.

If he had not given in to the many temptations at hand before he experienced Fermina Daza’s love, he certainly would not succumb now that she was his official betrothed. So Florentino Ariza lived with the girls and shared their pleasures and miseries, but it did not occur to him or them to go any further. An unforeseen event demonstrated the severity of his determination. One afternoon at six o’clock, when the girls were dressing to receive that evening’s clients, the woman who cleaned the rooms on his floor in the hotel came into his cubicle. She was young, but haggard and old before her time, like a fully dressed penitent surrounded by glorious nakedness. He saw her every day without feeling himself observed: she walked through the rooms with her brooms, a bucket for the trash, and a special rag for picking up used condoms from the floor. She came into the room where Florentino Ariza lay reading, and as always she cleaned with great care so as not to disturb him. Then she passed close to the bed, and he felt a warm and tender hand low on his belly, he felt it searching, he felt it finding, he felt it unbuttoning his trousers while her breathing filled the room. He pretended to read until he could not bear it any longer and had to move his body out of the way.

She was dismayed, for the first thing they warned her about when they gave her the cleaning job was that she should not try to sleep with the clients. They did not have to tell her that, because she was one of those women who thought that prostitution did not mean going to bed for money but going to bed with a stranger. She had two children, each by a different father, not because they were casual adventures but because she could never love any man who came back after the third visit. Until that time she had been a woman without a sense of urgency, a woman whose nature prepared her to wait without despair, but life in that house proved stronger than her virtue. She came to work at six in the afternoon, and she spent the whole night going through the rooms, sweeping them out, picking up condoms, changing the sheets. It was difficult to imagine the number of things that men left after love. They left vomit and tears, which seemed understandable to her, but they also left many enigmas of intimacy: puddles of blood, patches of excrement, glass eyes, gold watches, false teeth, lockets with golden curls, love letters, business letters, condolence letters–all kinds of letters. Some came back for the items they had lost, but most were unclaimed, and Lotario Thugut kept them under lock and key and thought that sooner or later the palace that had seen better days, with its thousands of forgotten belongings, would become a museum of love.

The work was hard and the pay was low, but she did it well. What she could not endure were the sobs, the laments, the creaking of the bedsprings, which filled her blood with so much ardor and so much sorrow that by dawn she could not bear the desire to go to bed with the first beggar she met on the street, with any miserable drunk who would give her what she wanted with no pretensions and no questions. The appearance of a man like Florentino Ariza, young, clean, and without a woman, was for her a gift from heaven, because from the first moment she realized that he was just like her: someone in need of love. But he was unaware of her compelling desire. He had kept his virginity for Fermina Daza, and there was no force or argument in this world that could turn him from his purpose.

That was his life, four months before the date set for formalizing the engagement, when Lorenzo Daza showed up at the telegraph office one morning at seven o’clock and asked for him. Since he had not yet arrived, Lorenzo Daza waited on the bench until ten minutes after eight, slipping a heavy gold ring with its noble opal stone from one finger to another, and as soon as Florentino Ariza came in, he recognized him as the employee who had delivered the telegram, and he took him by the arm.

“Come with me, my boy,” he said. “You and I have to talk for five minutes, man to man.”

Florentino Ariza, as green as a corpse, let himself be led. He was not prepared for this meeting, because Fermina Daza had not found either the occasion or the means to warn him. The fact was that on the previous Saturday, Sister Franca de la Luz, Superior of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, had come into the class on Ideas of Cosmogony with the stealth of a serpent, and spying on the students over their shoulders, she discovered that Fermina Daza was pretending to take notes in her notebook when in reality she was writing a love letter. According to the rules of the Academy, that error was reason for expulsion. Lorenzo Daza received an urgent summons to the rectory, where he discovered the leak through which his iron regime was trickling. Fermina Daza, with her innate fortitude, confessed to the error of the letter, but refused to reveal the identity of her secret sweetheart and refused again before the Tribunal of the Order which, therefore, confirmed the verdict of expulsion. Her father, however, searched her room, until then an inviolate sanctuary, and in the false bottom of her trunk he found the packets of three years’ worth of letters hidden away with as much love as had inspired their writing. The signature was unequivocal, but Lorenzo Daza could not believe–not then, not ever–that his daughter knew nothing about her secret lover except that he worked as a telegraph operator and that he loved the violin.

Certain that such an intricate relationship was understandable only with the complicity of his sister, he did not grant her the grace of an excuse or the right of appeal, but shipped her on the schooner to San Juan de la Ciénaga. Fermina Daza never found relief from her last memory of her aunt on the afternoon when she said goodbye in the doorway, burning with fever inside her brown habit, bony and ashen, and then disappeared into the drizzle in the little park, carrying all that she owned in life: her spinster’s sleeping mat and enough money for a month, wrapped in a handkerchief that she clutched in her fist. As soon as she had freed herself from her father’s authority, Fermina Daza began a search for her in the Caribbean provinces, asking for information from everyone who might know her, and she could not find a trace of her until almost thirty years later when she received a letter that had taken a long time to pass through many hands, informing her that she had died in the Water of God leprosarium. Lorenzo Daza did not foresee the ferocity with which his daughter would react to the unjust punishment of her Aunt Escolástica, whom she had always identified with the mother she could barely remember. She locked herself in her room, refused to eat or drink, and when at last he persuaded her to open the door, first with threats and then with poorly dissimulated pleading, he found a wounded panther who would never be fifteen years old again.

He tried to seduce her with all kinds of flattery. He tried to make her understand that love at her age was an illusion, he tried to convince her to send back the letters and return to the Academy and beg forgiveness on her knees, and he gave his word of honor that he would be the first to help her find happiness with a worthy suitor. But it was like talking to a corpse. Defeated, he at last lost his temper at lunch on Monday, and while he choked back insults and blasphemies and was about to explode, she put the meat knife to her throat, without dramatics but with a steady hand and eyes so aghast that he did not dare to challenge her. That was when he took the risk of talking for five minutes, man to man, with the accursed upstart whom he did not remember ever having seen, and who had come into his life to his great sorrow. By force of habit he picked up his revolver before he went out, but he was careful to hide it under his shirt.

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