Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 9)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
After Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, his mother knew before he told her because he lost his voice and his appetite and spent the entire night tossing and turning in his bed. But when he began to wait for the answer to his first letter, his anguish was complicated by diarrhea and green vomit, he became disoriented and suffered from sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera. Florentino Ariza’s godfather, an old homeopathic practitioner who had been Tránsito Ariza’s confidant ever since her days as a secret mistress, was also alarmed at first by the patient’s condition, because he had the weak pulse, the hoarse breathing, and the pale perspiration of a dying man. But his examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera. He prescribed infusions of linden blossoms to calm the nerves and suggested a change of air so he could find consolation in distance, but Florentino Ariza longed for just the opposite: to enjoy his martyrdom.
Tránsito Ariza was a freed quadroon whose instinct for happiness had been frustrated by poverty, and she took pleasure in her son’s suffering as if it were her own. She made him drink the infusions when he became delirious, and she smothered him in wool blankets to keep away the chills, but at the same time she encouraged him to enjoy his prostration.
“Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can,” she said to him, “because these things don’t last your whole life.” In the Postal Agency, of course, they did not agree. Florentino Ariza had become negligent, and he was so distracted that he confused the flags that announced the arrival of the mail, and one Wednesday he hoisted the German flag when the ship was from the Leyland Company and carried the mail from Liverpool, and on another day he flew the flag of the United States when the ship was from the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and carried the mail from Saint-Nazaire. These confusions of love caused such chaos in the distribution of the mail and provoked so many protests from the public that if Florentino Ariza did not lose his job it was because Lotario Thugut kept him at the telegraph and took him to play the violin in the Cathedral choir. They had a friendship difficult to understand because of the difference in their ages, for they might have been grandfather and grandson, but they got along at work as well as they did in the taverns around the port, which were frequented by everyone out for the evening regardless of social class, from drunken beggars to young gentlemen in tuxedos who fled the gala parties at the Social Club to eat fried mullet and coconut rice. Lotario Thugut was in the habit of going there after the last shift at the telegraph office, and dawn often found him drinking Jamaican punch and playing the accordion with the crews of madmen from the Antillean schooners. He was corpulent and bull-necked, with a golden beard and a liberty cap that he wore when he went out at night, and all he needed was a string of bells to look like St. Nicholas. At least once a week he ended the evening with a little night bird, as he called them, one of the many who sold emergency love in a transient hotel for sailors. When he met Florentino Ariza, the first thing he did, with a certain magisterial delight, was to initiate him into the secrets of his paradise. He chose for him the little birds he thought best, he discussed their price and style with them and offered to pay in advance with his own money for their services. But Florentino Ariza did not accept: he was a virgin, and he had decided not to lose his virginity unless it was for love.
The hotel was a colonial palace that had seen better days, and its great marble salons and rooms were divided into plasterboard cubicles with peepholes, which were rented out as much for watching as for doing. There was talk of busybodies who had their eyes poked out with knitting needles, of a man who recognized his own wife as the woman he was spying on, of well-bred gentlemen who came disguised as tarts to forget who they were with the boatswains on shore leave, and of so many other misadventures of observers and observed that the mere idea of going into the next room terrified Florentino Ariza. And so Lotario Thugut could never persuade him that watching and letting himself be watched were the refinements of European princes.
As opposed to what his corpulence might suggest, Lotario Thugut had the rosebud genitals of a cherub, but this must have been a fortunate defect, because the most tarnished birds argued over who would have the chance to go to bed with him, and then they shrieked as if their throats were being cut, shaking the buttresses of the palace and making its ghosts tremble in fear. They said he used an ointment made of snake venom that inflamed women’s loins, but he swore he had no resources other than those that God had given him. He would say with uproarious laughter: “It’s pure love.” Many years had to pass before Florentino Ariza would understand that perhaps he was right. He was convinced at last, at a more advanced stage of his sentimental education, when he met a man who lived like a king by exploiting three women at the same time. The three of them rendered their accounts at dawn, prostrate at his feet to beg forgiveness for their meager profits, and the only gratification they sought was that he go to bed with the one who brought him the most money. Florentino Ariza thought that terror alone could induce such indignities, but one of the three girls surprised him with the contradictory truth. “These are things,” she said, “you do only for love.”
It was not so much for his talents as a fornicator as for his personal charm that Lotario Thugut had become one of the most esteemed clients of the hotel. Florentino Ariza, because he was so quiet and elusive, also earned the esteem of the owner, and during the most arduous period of his grief he would lock himself in the suffocating little rooms to read verses and tearful serialized love stories, and his reveries left nests of dark swallows on the balconies and the sound of kisses and the beating of wings in the stillness of siesta. At dusk, when it was cooler, it was impossible not to listen to the conversations of men who came to console themselves at the end of their day with hurried love. So that Florentino Ariza heard about many acts of disloyalty, and even some state secrets, which important clients and even local officials confided to their ephemeral lovers, not caring if they could be overheard in the adjoining rooms. This was also how he learned that four nautical leagues to the north of the Sotavento Archipelago, a Spanish galleon had been lying under water since the eighteenth century with its cargo of more than five hundred billion pesos in pure gold and precious stones. The story astounded him, but he did not think of it again until a few months later, when his love awakened in him an overwhelming desire to salvage the sunken treasure so that Fermina Daza could bathe in showers of gold.
Years later, when he tried to remember what the maiden idealized by the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her from the heartrending twilights of those times. Even when he observed her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer of two o’clock in a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it was always April regardless of the season of the year. The only reason he was interested in accompanying Lotario Thugut on his violin from the privileged vantage point in the choir was to see how her tunic fluttered in the breeze raised by the canticles. But his own delirium finally interfered with that pleasure, for the mystic music seemed so innocuous compared with the state of his soul that he attempted to make it more exciting with love waltzes, and Lotario Thugut found himself obliged to ask that he leave the choir. This was the time when he gave in to his desire to eat the gardenias that Tránsito Ariza grew in pots in the patio, so that he could know the taste of Fermina Daza. It was also the time when he happened to find in one of his mother’s trunks a liter bottle of the cologne that the sailors from the Hamburg-American Line sold as contraband, and he could not resist the temptation to sample it in order to discover other tastes of his beloved. He continued to drink from the bottle until dawn, and he became drunk on Fermina Daza in abrasive swallows, first in the taverns around the port and then as he stared out to sea from the jetties where lovers without a roof over their heads made consoling love, until at last he succumbed to unconsciousness. Tránsito Ariza, who had waited for him until six o’clock in the morning with her heart in her mouth, searched for him in the most improbable hiding places, and a short while after noon she found him wallowing in a pool of fragrant vomit in a cove of the bay where drowning victims washed ashore.
She took advantage of the hiatus of his convalescence to reproach him for his passivity as he waited for the answer to his letter. She reminded him that the weak would never enter the kingdom of love, which is a harsh and ungenerous kingdom, and that women give themselves only to men of resolute spirit, who provide the security they need in order to face life. Florentino Ariza learned the lesson, perhaps too well. Tránsito Ariza could not hide a feeling of pride, more carnal than maternal, when she saw him leave the notions shop in his black suit and stiff felt hat, his lyrical bow tie and celluloid collar, and she asked him as a joke if he was going to a funeral. He answered, his ears flaming: “It’s almost the same thing.” She realized that he could hardly breathe with fear, but his determination was invincible. She gave him her final warnings and her blessing, and laughing for all she was worth, she promised him another bottle of cologne so they could celebrate his victory together.
He had given Fermina Daza the letter a month before, and since then he had often broken his promise not to return to the little park, but he had been very careful not to be seen. Nothing had changed. The reading lesson under the trees ended at about two o’clock, when the city was waking from its siesta, and Fermina Daza embroidered with her aunt until the day began to cool. Florentino Ariza did not wait for the aunt to go into the house, and he crossed the street with a martial stride that allowed him to overcome the weakness in his knees, but he spoke to her aunt, not to Fermina Daza.
“Please be so kind as to leave me alone for a moment with the young lady,” he said. “I have something important to tell her.”
“What impertinence!” her aunt said to him. “There is nothing that has to do with her that I cannot hear.”
“Then I will not say anything to her,” he said, “but I warn you that you will be responsible for the consequences.”
That was not the manner Escolástica Daza expected from the ideal sweetheart, but she stood up in alarm because for the first time she had the overwhelming impression that Florentino Ariza was speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So she went into the house to change needles and left the two young people alone under the almond trees in the doorway.
In reality, Fermina Daza knew very little about this taciturn suitor who had appeared in her life like a winter swallow and whose name she would not even have known if it had not been for his signature on the letter. She had learned that he was the fatherless son of an unmarried woman who was hardworking and serious but forever marked by the fiery stigma of her single youthful mistake. She had learned that he was not a messenger, as she had supposed, but a well-qualified assistant with a promising future, and she thought that he had delivered the telegram to her father only as a pretext for seeing her. This idea moved her. She also knew that he was one of the musicians in the choir, and although she never dared raise her eyes to look at him during Mass, she had the revelation one Sunday that while the other instruments played for everyone, the violin played for her alone. He was not the kind of man she would have chosen. His foundling’s eyeglasses, his clerical garb, his mysterious resources had awakened in her a curiosity that was difficult to resist, but she had never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love.
She herself could not explain why she had accepted the letter. She did not reproach herself for doing so, but the ever-increasing pressure to respond complicated her life. Her father’s every word, his casual glances, his most trivial gestures, seemed set with traps to uncover her secret. Her state of alarm was such that she avoided speaking at the table for fear some slip might betray her, and she became evasive even with her Aunt Escolástica, who nonetheless shared her repressed anxiety as if it were her own. She would lock herself in the bathroom at odd hours and for no reason other than to reread the letter, attempting to discover a secret code, a magic formula hidden in one of the three hundred fourteen letters of its fifty-eight words, in the hope they would tell her more than they said. But all she found was what she had understood on first reading, when she ran to lock herself in the bathroom, her heart in a frenzy, and tore open the envelope hoping for a long, feverish letter, and found only a perfumed note whose determination frightened her.