Love in the Time of Cholera ( Chapter 21)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 21

The night before they reached the port of Caracolí, which was the end of the journey, the Captain gave the traditional farewell party, with a woodwind orchestra composed of crew members, and fireworks from the bridge. The minister from Great Britain had survived the odyssey with exemplary stoicism, shooting with his camera the animals they would not allow him to kill with his rifles, and not a night went by that he was not seen in evening dress in the dining room. But he came to the final party wearing the tartans of the MacTavish clan, and he played the bagpipe for everyone’s entertainment and taught those who were interested how to dance his national dances, and before daybreak he almost had to be carried to his cabin. Florentino Ariza, prostrate with grief, had gone to the farthest corner of the deck where the noise of the revelry could not reach him, and he put on Lotario Thugut’s overcoat in an effort to overcome the shivering in his bones. He had awakened at five that morning, as the condemned man awakens at dawn on the day of his execution, and for that entire day he had done nothing but imagine, minute by minute, each of the events at Fermina Daza’s wedding. Later, when he returned home, he realized that he had made a mistake in the time and that everything had been different from what he had imagined, and he even had the good sense to laugh at his fantasy.

But in any case, it was a Saturday of passion, which culminated in a new crisis of fever when he thought the moment had come for the newlyweds to flee in secret through a false door to give themselves over to the delights of their first night. Someone saw him shivering with fever and informed the Captain, who, fearing a case of cholera, left the party with the ship’s doctor, and the doctor took the precaution of sending Florentino to the quarantine cabin with a dose of bromides. The next day, however, when they sighted the cliffs of Caracolí, his fever had disappeared and his spirits were elated, because in the marasmus of the sedatives he had resolved once and for all that he did not give a damn about the brilliant future of the telegraph and that he would take this very same boat back to his old Street of Windows.

It was not difficult to persuade them to give him return passage in exchange for the cabin he had surrendered to the representative of Queen Victoria. The Captain also attempted to dissuade him, arguing that the telegraph was the science of the future. So much so, he said, that they were already devising a system for installing it on boats. But he resisted all arguments, and in the end the Captain took him home, not because he owed him the price of the cabin but because he knew of his excellent connections to the River Company of the Caribbean. The trip downriver took less than six days, and Florentino Ariza felt that he was home again from the moment they entered Mercedes Lagoon at dawn and he saw the trail of lights on the fishing canoes undulating in the wake of the boat. It was still dark when they docked in Niño Perdido Cove, nine leagues from the bay and the last port for riverboats until the old Spanish channel was dredged and put back into service. The passengers would have to wait until six o’clock in the morning to board the fleet of sloops for hire that would carry them to their final destination. But Florentino Ariza was so eager that he sailed much earlier on the mail sloop, whose crew acknowledged him as one of their own. Before he left the boat he succumbed to the temptation of a symbolic act: he threw his petate into the water, and followed it with his eyes as it floated past the beacon lights of the invisible fishermen, left the lagoon, and disappeared in the ocean. He was sure he would not need it again for all the rest of his days. Never again, because never again would he abandon the city of Fermina Daza.

The bay was calm at daybreak. Above the floating mist Florentino Ariza saw the dome of the Cathedral, gilded by the first light of dawn, he saw the dovecotes on the flat roofs, and orienting himself by them, he located the balcony of the palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, where he supposed that the lady of his misfortune was still dozing, her head on the shoulder of her satiated husband. That idea broke his heart, but he did nothing to suppress it; on the contrary, he took pleasure in his pain. The sun was beginning to grow hot as the mail sloop made its way through the labyrinth of sailing ships that lay at anchor where the countless odors from the public market and the decaying matter on the bottom of the bay blended into one pestilential stench. The schooner from Riohacha had just arrived, and gangs of stevedores in water up to their waists lifted the passengers over the side and carried them to shore. Florentino Ariza was the first to jump on land from the mail sloop, and from that time on he no longer detected the fetid reek of the bay in the city, but was aware only of the personal fragrance of Fermina Daza. Everything smelled of her.
He did not return to the telegraph office. His only interest seemed to be the serialized love novels and the volumes of the Popular Library that his mother continued to buy for him and that he continued to read again and again, lying in his hammock, until he learned them by heart. He did not even ask for his violin. He reestablished relations with his closest friends, and sometimes they played billiards or conversed in the outdoor cafés under the arches around the Plaza of the Cathedral, but he did not go back to the Saturday night dances: he could not conceive of them without her.

On the morning of his return from his inconclusive journey, he learned that Fermina Daza was spending her honeymoon in Europe, and his agitated heart took it for granted that she would live there, if not forever then for many years to come. This certainty filled him with his first hope of forgetting. He thought of Rosalba, whose memory burned brighter as the other’s dimmed. It was during this time that he grew the mustache with the waxed tips that he would keep for the rest of his life and that changed his entire being, and the idea of substituting one love for another carried him along surprising paths. Little by little the fragrance of Fermina Daza became less frequent and less intense, and at last it remained only in white gardenias.
One night during the war, when he was drifting, not knowing what direction his life should take, the celebrated Widow Nazaret took refuge in his house because hers had been destroyed by cannon fire during the siege by the rebel general Ricardo Gaitán Obeso. It was Tránsito Ariza who took control of the situation and sent the widow to her son’s bedroom on the pretext that there was no space in hers, but actually in the hope that another love would cure him of the one that did not allow him to live. Florentino Ariza had not made love since he lost his virginity to Rosalba in the cabin on the boat, and in this emergency it seemed natural to him that the widow should sleep in the bed and he in the hammock. But she had already made the decision for him. She sat on the edge of the bed where Florentino Ariza was lying, not knowing what to do, and she began to speak to him of her inconsolable grief for the husband who had died three years earlier, and in the meantime she removed her widow’s weeds and tossed them in the air until she was not even wearing her wedding ring. She took off the taffeta blouse with the beaded embroidery and threw it across the room onto the easy chair in the corner, she tossed her bodice over her shoulder to the other side of the bed, with one pull she removed her long ruffled skirt, her satin garter belt and funereal stockings, and she threw everything on the floor until the room was carpeted with the last remnants of her mourning. She did it with so much joy, and with such well-measured pauses, that each of her gestures seemed to be saluted by the cannon of the attacking troops, which shook the city down to its foundations. Florentino Ariza tried to help her unfasten her stays, but she anticipated him with a deft maneuver, for in five years of matrimonial devotion she learned to depend on herself in all phases of love, even the preliminary stages, with no help from anyone. Then she removed her lace panties, sliding them down her legs with the rapid movements of a swimmer, and at last she was naked.

She was twenty-eight years old and had given birth three times, but her naked body preserved intact the giddy excitement of an unmarried woman. Florentino Ariza was never to understand how a few articles of penitential clothing could have hidden the drives of that wild mare who, choking on her own feverish desire, undressed him as she had never been able to undress her husband, who would have thought her perverse, and tried, with the confusion and innocence of five years of conjugal fidelity, to satisfy in a single assault the iron abstinence of her mourning. Before that night, and from the hour of grace when her mother gave birth to her, she had never even been in the same bed with any man other than her dead husband.

She did not permit herself the vulgarity of remorse. On the contrary. Kept awake by the gunfire whizzing over the roofs, she continued to evoke her husband’s excellent qualities until daybreak, not reproaching him for any disloyalty other than his having died without her, which was mitigated by her conviction that he had never belonged to her as much as he did now that he was in the coffin nailed shut with a dozen three-inch nails and two meters under the ground.
“I am happy,” she said, “because only now do I know for certain where he is when he is not at home.”
That night she stopped wearing mourning once and for all, without passing through the useless intermediate stage of blouses with little gray flowers, and her life was filled with love songs and provocative dresses decorated with macaws and spotted butterflies, and she began to share her body with anyone who cared to ask for it. When the troops of General Gaitán Obeso were defeated after a sixty-three-day siege, she rebuilt the house that had been damaged by cannon fire, adding a beautiful sea terrace that overlooked the breakwater where the surf would vent its fury during the stormy season. That was her love nest, as she called it without irony, where she would receive only men she liked, when she liked, how she liked, and without charging one red cent, because in her opinion it was the men who were doing her the favor. In a very few cases she would accept a gift, as long as it was not made of gold, and she managed everything with so much skill that no one could have presented conclusive evidence of improper conduct. On only one occasion did she hover on the edge of public scandal, when the rumor circulated that Archbishop Dante de Luna had not died by accident after eating a plate of poisonous mushrooms but had eaten them intentionally because she threatened to expose him if he persisted in his sacrilegious solicitations. As she used to say between peals of laughter, she was the only free woman in the province.

The Widow Nazaret never missed her occasional appointments with Florentino Ariza, not even during her busiest times, and it was always without pretensions of loving or being loved, although always in the hope of finding something that resembled love, but without the problems of love. Sometimes he went to her house, and then they liked to sit on the sea terrace, drenched by salt spray, watching the dawn of the whole world on the horizon. With all his perseverance, he tried to teach her the tricks he had seen others perform through the peepholes in the transient hotel, along with the theoretical formulations preached by Lotario Thugut on his nights of debauchery. He persuaded her to let themselves be observed while they made love, to replace the conventional missionary position with the bicycle on the sea, or the chicken on the grill, or the drawnand-quartered angel, and they almost broke their necks when the cords snapped as they were trying to devise something new in a hammock. The lessons were to no avail. The truth is that she was a fearless apprentice but lacked all talent for guided fornication. She never understood the charm of serenity in bed, never had a moment of invention, and her orgasms were inopportune and epidermic: an uninspired lay. For a long time Florentino Ariza lived with the deception that he was the only one, and she humored him in that belief until she had the bad luck to talk in her sleep. Little by little, listening to her sleep, he pieced together the navigation chart of her dreams and sailed among the countless islands of her secret life. In this way he learned that she did not want to marry him, but did feel joined to his life because of her immense gratitude to him for having corrupted her. She often said to him:

“I adore you because you made me a whore.”

Said in another way, she was right. Florentino Ariza had stripped her of the virginity of a conventional marriage, more pernicious than congenital virginity or the abstinence of widowhood. He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love. And something else that from that time on would be her reason for living: he convinced her that one comes into the world with a predetermined allotment of lays, and whoever does not use them for whatever reason, one’s own or someone else’s, willingly or unwillingly, loses them forever. It was to her credit that she took him at his word. Still, because he thought he knew her better than anyone else, Florentino Ariza could not understand why a woman of such puerile resources should be so popular–a woman, moreover, who never stopped talking in bed about the grief she felt for her dead husband. The only explanation he could think of, one that could not be denied, was that the Widow Nazaret had enough tenderness to make up for what she lacked in the marital arts. They began to see each other with less frequency as she widened her horizons and he exploited his, trying to find solace in other hearts for his pain, and at last, with no sorrow, they forgot each other.

That was Florentino Ariza’s first bedroom love. But instead of their forming a permanent union, of the kind his mother dreamed about, both used it to embark on a profligate way of life. Florentino Ariza developed methods that seemed incredible in someone like him, taciturn and thin and dressed like an old man from another time. He had two advantages working in his favor, however. One was an unerring eye that promptly spotted the woman, even in a crowd, who was waiting for him, though even then he courted her with caution, for he felt that nothing was more embarrassing or more demeaning than a refusal. The other was that women promptly identified him as a solitary man in need of love, a street beggar as humble as a whipped dog, who made them yield without conditions, without asking him for anything, without hoping for anything from him except the tranquillity of knowing they had done him a favor. These were his only weapons, and with them he joined in historic battles of absolute secrecy, which he recorded with the rigor of a notary in a coded book, recognizable among many others by the title that said everything: Women. His first notation was the Widow Nazaret. Fifty years later, when Fermina Daza was freed from her sacramental sentence, he had some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred twenty-two entries of long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures that did not even deserve a charitable note.

After six months of furious lovemaking with the Widow Nazaret, Florentino Ariza himself was convinced that he had survived the torment of Fermina Daza. He not only believed it, he also discussed it several times with Tránsito Ariza during the two years of Fermina Daza’s wedding trip, and he continued to believe it with a feeling of boundless freedom until one fateful Sunday when, with no warning and no presentiments, he saw her leaving High Mass on her husband’s arm, besieged by the curiosity and flattery of her new world. The same ladies from fine families who at first had scorned and ridiculed her for being an upstart without a name went out of their way to make her feel like one of them, and she intoxicated them with her charm. She had assumed the condition of woman of the world to such perfection that Florentino Ariza needed a moment of reflection to recognize her. She was another person: the composure of an older woman, the high boots, the hat with the veil and colored plume from some Oriental bird–everything about her was distinctive and confident, as if it had been hers from birth. He found her more beautiful and youthful than ever, but more lost to him than she had ever been, although he did not understand why until he saw the curve of her belly under the silk tunic: she was in her sixth month of pregnancy. But what impressed him most was that she and her husband made an admirable couple, and both of them negotiated the world with so much fluidity that they seemed to float above the pitfalls of reality. Florentino Ariza did not feel either jealousy or rage–only great contempt for himself. He felt poor, ugly, inferior, and unworthy not only of her but of any other woman on the face of the earth.

 

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