Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 15)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fermina Daza shared with her schoolmates the singular idea that the Arcade of the Scribes was a place of perdition that was forbidden, of course, to decent young ladies. It was an arcaded gallery across from a little plaza where carriages and freight carts drawn by donkeys were for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense. The name dated from colonial times, when the taciturn scribes in their vests and false cuffs first began to sit there, waiting for a poor man’s fee to write all kinds of documents: memoranda of complaints or petition, legal testimony, cards of congratulation or condolence, love letters appropriate to any stage in an affair. They, of course, were not the ones who had given that thundering market its bad reputation but more recent peddlers who made illegal sales of all kinds of questionable merchandise smuggled in on European ships, from obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required or with flowers at the tip that would open their petals at the will of the user. Fermina Daza, somewhat unskilled in the customs of the street, went through the Arcade without noticing where she was going as she searched for a shady refuge from the fierce eleven o’clock sun.
She sank into the hot clamor of the shoeshine boys and the bird sellers, the hawkers of cheap books and the witch doctors and the sellers of sweets who shouted over the din of the crowd: pineapple sweets for your sweetie, coconut candy is dandy, brown-sugar loaf for your sugar. But, indifferent to the uproar, she was captivated on the
spot by a paper seller who was demonstrating magic inks, red inks with an ambience of blood, inks of sad aspect for messages of condolence, phosphorescent inks for reading in the dark, invisible inks that revealed themselves in the light. She wanted all of them so she could amuse Florentino Ariza and astound him with her wit, but after several trials she decided on a bottle of gold ink. Then she went to the candy sellers sitting behind their big round jars and she bought six of each kind, pointing at the glass because she could not make herself heard over all the shouting: six angel hair, six tinned milk, six sesame seed bars, six cassava pastries, six chocolate bars, six blancmanges, six tidbits of the queen, six of this and six of that, six of everything, and she tossed them into the maid’s baskets with an irresistible grace and a complete detachment from the stormclouds of flies on the syrup, from the continual hullabaloo and the vapor of rancid sweat that reverberated in the deadly heat. She was awakened from the spell by a good-natured black woman with a colored cloth around her head who was round and handsome and offered her a triangle of pineapple speared on the tip of a butcher’s knife. She took it, she put it whole into her mouth, she tasted it, and was chewing it as her eyes wandered over the crowd, when a sudden shock rooted her on the spot. Behind her, so close to her ear that only she could hear it in the tumult, she heard his voice:
“This is not the place for a crowned goddess.”
She turned her head and saw, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, those other glacial eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified with fear, just as she had seen them in the crowd at Midnight Mass the first time he was so close to her, but now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment. In an instant the magnitude of her own mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand.
“No, please,” she said to him. “Forget it.”
That afternoon, while her father was taking his siesta, she sent Gala Placidia with a two-line letter: “Today, when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion.” The maid also returned his telegrams, his verses, his dry camellias, and asked him to send back her letters and gifts, Aunt Escolástica’s missal, the veins of leaves from her herbariums, the square centimeter of the habit of St. Peter Clavier, the saints’ medals, the braid of her fifteenth year tied with the silk ribbon of her school uniform. In the days that followed, on the verge of madness, he wrote her countless desperate letters and besieged the maid to take them to her, but she obeyed her unequivocal instructions not to accept anything but the returned gifts. She insisted with so much zeal that Florentino Ariza sent them all back except the braid, which he would return only to Fermina Daza in person so they could talk, if just for a moment. But she refused. Fearing a decision fatal to her son, Tránsito Ariza swallowed her pride and asked Fermina Daza to grant her the favor of five minutes of her time, and Fermina Daza received her for a moment in the doorway of her house, not asking her to sit down, not asking her to come in, and without the slightest trace of weakening. Two days later, after
an argument with his mother, Florentino Ariza took down from the wall of his room the stained-glass case where he displayed the braid as if it were a holy relic, and Tránsito Ariza herself returned it in the velvet box embroidered with gold thread. Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow.
III ( C5)
AT THE AGE of twenty-eight, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been the most desirable of bachelors. He had returned from a long stay in Paris, where he had completed advanced studies in medicine and surgery, and from the time he set foot on solid ground he gave overwhelming indications that he had not wasted a minute of his time. He returned more fastidious than when he left, more in control of his nature, and none of his contemporaries seemed as rigorous and as learned as he in his science, and none could dance better to the music of the day or improvise as well on the piano. Seduced by his personal charms and by the certainty of his family fortune, the girls in his circle held secret lotteries to determine who would spend time with him, and he gambled, too, on being with them, but he managed to keep himself in a state of grace, intact and tempting, until he succumbed without resistance to the plebeian charms of Fermina Daza.
He liked to say that this love was the result of a clinical error. He himself could not believe that it had happened, least of all at that time in his life when all his reserves of passion were concentrated on the destiny of his city which, he said with great frequency and no second thoughts, had no equal in the world. In Paris, strolling arm in arm with a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, and still he had told himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.
The ship made its way across the bay through a floating blanket of drowned animals, and most of the passengers took refuge in their cabins to escape the stench. The young doctor walked down the gangplank dressed in perfect alpaca, wearing a vest and dustcoat, with the beard of a young Pasteur and his hair divided by a neat, pale part, and with enough self-control to hide the lump in his throat caused not by terror but by sadness. On the nearly deserted dock guarded by barefoot soldiers without uniforms, his sisters and mother were waiting for him, along with his closest friends, whom he found insipid and without expectations despite their sophisticated airs; they spoke about the crisis of the civil war as if it were remote and foreign, but they all had an evasive tremor in their voices and an uncertainty in their eyes that belied their words. His mother moved him most of all. She was still young, a woman who had made a mark on life with her elegance and social drive, but who was now slowly withering in the aroma of camphor that rose from her widow’s crepe. She must have seen herself in her son’s confusion, and she asked in immediate self-defense why his skin was as pale as wax.
“It’s life over there, Mother,” he said. “You turn green in Paris.”
A short while later, suffocating with the heat as he sat next to her in the closed carriage, he could no longer endure the unmerciful reality that came pouring in through the window. The ocean looked like ashes, the old palaces of the marquises were about to succumb to a proliferation of beggars, and it was impossible to discern the ardent scent of jasmine behind the vapors of death from the open sewers.
Everything seemed smaller to him than when he left, poorer and sadder, and there were so many hungry rats in the rubbish heaps of the streets that the carriage horses stumbled in fright. On the long trip from the port to his house, located in the heart of the District of the Viceroys, he found nothing that seemed worthy of his nostalgia. Defeated, he turned his head away so that his mother would not see, and he began to cry in silence.
The former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, historic residence of the Urbino de la Calle family, had not escaped the surrounding wreckage. Dr. Juvenal Urbino discovered this with a broken heart when he entered the house through the gloomy portico and saw the dusty fountain in the interior garden and the wild brambles in flower beds where iguanas wandered, and he realized that many marble flagstones were missing and others were broken on the huge stairway with its copper railings that led to the principal rooms. His father, a physician who was more self-sacrificing than eminent, had died in the epidemic of Asian cholera that had devastated the population six years earlier, and with him had died the spirit of the house. Doña Blanca, his mother, smothered by mourning that was considered eternal, had substituted evening novenas for her dead husband’s celebrated lyrical soirées and chamber concerts. His two sisters, despite their natural inclinations and festive vocation, were fodder for the convent.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not sleep at all on the night of his return; he was frightened by the darkness and the silence, and he said three rosaries to the Holy Spirit and all the prayers he could remember to ward off calamities and shipwrecks and all manner of night terrors, while a curlew that had come in through a half-closed door sang every hour on the hour in his bedroom. He was tormented by the hallucinating screams of the madwomen in the Divine Shepherdess Asylum next door, the harsh dripping from the water jar into the washbasin which resonated throughout the house, the long-legged steps of the curlew wandering in his bedroom, his congenital fear of the dark, and the invisible presence of his dead father in the vast, sleeping mansion. When the curlew sang five o’clock along with the local roosters, Dr. Juvenal Urbino commended himself body and soul to Divine Providence because he did not have the heart to live another day in his rubble-strewn homeland. But in time the affection of his family, the Sundays in the country, and the covetous attentions of the unmarried women of his class mitigated the bitterness of his first impression. Little by little he grew accustomed to the sultry heat of October, to the excessive odors, to the hasty judgments of his friends, to the We’ll see tomorrow, Doctor, don’t worry, and at last he gave in to the spell of habit. It did not take him long to invent an easy justification for his surrender. This was his world, he said to himself, the sad, oppressive world that God had provided for him, and he was responsible to it.