Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 22)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
So she had returned. She came back without any reason to repent of the sudden change she had made in her life. On the contrary, she had fewer and fewer such reasons, above all after surviving the difficulties of the early years, which was especially admirable in her case, for she had come to her wedding night still trailing clouds of innocence. She had begun to lose them during her journey through Cousin Hildebranda’s province. In Valledupar she realized at last why the roosters chase the hens, she witnessed the brutal ceremony of the burros, she watched the birth of calves, and she listened to her cousins talking with great naturalness about which couples in the family still made love and which ones had stopped, and when, and why, even though they continued to live together. That was when she was initiated into solitary love, with the strange sensation of discovering something that her instincts had always known, first in bed, holding her breath so she would not give herself away in the bedroom she shared with half a dozen cousins, and then, with eagerness and unconcern, sprawling on the bathroom floor, her hair loose, smoking her first mule drivers’ cigarette. She always did it with certain pangs of conscience, which she could overcome only after she was married, and always in absolute secrecy, although her cousins boasted to each other not only about the number of orgasms they had in one day but even about their form and size. But despite those bewitching first rites, she was still burdened by the belief that the loss of virginity was a bloody sacrifice.
So that her wedding, one of the most spectacular of the final years of the last century, was for her the prelude to horror. The anguish of the honeymoon affected her much more than the social uproar caused by her marriage to the most incomparably elegant young man of the day. When the banns were announced at High Mass in the Cathedral, Fermina Daza received anonymous letters again, some of them containing death threats, but she took scant notice of them because all the fear of which she was capable was centered on her imminent violation. Although that was not her intention, it was the correct way to respond to anonymous letters from a class accustomed by the affronts of history to bow before faits accomplis. So that little by little they swallowed their opposition as it became clear that the marriage was irrevocable. She noticed the gradual changes in the attention paid her by livid women, degraded by arthritis and resentment, who one day were convinced of the uselessness of their intrigues and appeared unannounced in the little Park of the Evangels as if it were their own home, bearing recipes and engagement gifts. Tránsito Ariza knew that world, although this was the only time it caused her suffering in her own person, and she knew that her clients always reappeared on the eve of great parties to ask her please to dig down into her jars and lend them their pawned jewels for only twenty-four hours in exchange for the payment of additional interest. It had been a long while since this had occurred to the extent it did now, the jars emptied so that the ladies with long last names could emerge from their shadowy sanctuaries and, radiant in their own borrowed jewels, appear at a wedding more splendid than any that would be seen for the rest of the century and whose ultimate glory was the sponsorship of Dr. Rafael Núñez, three times President of the Republic, philosopher, poet, and author of the words to the national anthem, as anyone could learn, from that time on, in some of the more recent dictionaries. Fermina Daza came to the main altar of the Cathedral on the arm of her father, whose formal dress lent him, for the day, an ambiguous air of respectability. She was married forever after at the main altar of the Cathedral, with a Mass at which three bishops officiated, at eleven o’clock in the morning on the day of the Holy Trinity, and without a single charitable thought for Florentino Ariza, who at that hour was delirious with fever, dying because of her, lying without shelter on a boat that was not to carry him to forgetting. During the ceremony, and later at the reception, she wore a smile that seemed painted on with white lead, a soulless grimace that some interpreted as a mocking smile of victory, but in reality was her poor attempt at disguising the terror of a virgin bride.
It was fortunate that unforeseen circumstances, combined with her husband’s understanding, resolved the first three nights without pain. It was providential. The ship of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, its itinerary upset by bad weather in the Caribbean, announced only three days in advance that its departure had been moved ahead by twenty-four hours, so that it would not sail for La Rochelle on the day following the wedding, as had been planned for the past six months, but on that same night. No one believed that the change was not another of the many elegant surprises the wedding had to offer, for the reception ended after midnight on board the brightly lit ocean liner, with a Viennese orchestra that was premiering the most recent waltzes by Johann Strauss on this voyage. So that various members of the wedding party, soggy with champagne, had to be dragged ashore by their long-suffering wives when they began to ask the stewards if there were any free cabins so they could continue the celebration all the way to Paris. The last to leave saw Lorenzo Daza outside the port taverns, sitting on the ground in the middle of the street, his tuxedo in ruins. He was crying with tremendous loud wails, the way Arabs cry for their dead, sitting in a trickle of fouled water that might well have been a pool of tears.
Not on the first night on rough seas, or on the following nights of smooth sailing, or ever in her very long married life did the barbarous acts occur that Fermina Daza had feared. Despite the size of the ship and the luxuries of their stateroom, the first night was a horrible repetition of the schooner trip from Riohacha, and her husband, a diligent physician, did not sleep at all so he could comfort her, which was all that an overly distinguished physician knew how to do for seasickness. But the storm abated on the third day, after the port of Guayra, and by that time they had spent so much time together and had talked so much that they felt like old friends. On the fourth night, when both resumed their ordinary habits, Dr. Juvenal Urbino was surprised that his young wife did not pray before going to sleep. She was frank with him: the duplicity of the nuns had provoked in her a certain resistance to rituals, but her faith was intact, and she had learned to maintain it in silence. She said: “I prefer direct communication with God.” He understood her reasoning, and from then on they each practiced the same religion in their own way. They had had a brief engagement, but a rather informal one for that time: Dr. Urbino had visited her in her house, without a chaperone, every day at sunset. She would not have permitted him to touch even her fingertips before the episcopal blessing, but he had not attempted to. It was on the first calm night, when they were in bed but still dressed, that he began his first caresses with so much care that his suggestion that she put on her nightdress seemed natural to her. She went into the bathroom to change, but first she turned out the lights in the stateroom, and when she came out in her chemise she covered the cracks around the door with articles of clothing so she could return to bed in absolute darkness. As she did so, she said with good humor: “What do you expect, Doctor? This is the first time I have slept with a stranger.”
Dr. Urbino felt her slide in next to him like a startled little animal, trying to keep as far away as possible in a bunk where it was difficult for two people to be together without touching. He took her hand, cold and twitching with terror, he entwined his fingers with hers, and almost in a whisper he began to recount his recollections of other ocean voyages. She was tense again because when she came back to bed she realized that he had taken off all his clothes while she was in the bathroom, which revived her terror of what was to come. But what was to come took several hours, for Dr. Urbino continued talking very slowly as he won her body’s confidence millimeter by millimeter. He spoke to her of Paris, of love in Paris, of the lovers in Paris who kissed on the street, on the omnibus, on the flowering terraces of the cafés opened to the burning winds and languid accordions of summer, who made love standing up on the quays of the Seine without anyone disturbing them. As he spoke in the darkness he caressed the curve of her neck with his fingertips, he caressed the fine silky hair on her arms, her evasive belly, and when he felt that her tension had given way he made his first attempt to raise her nightgown, but she stopped him with an impulse typical of her character. She said: “I know how to do it myself.” She took it off, in fact, and then she was so still that Dr. Urbino might have thought she was no longer there if it had not been for the glint of her body in the darkness.
After a while he took her hand again, and this time it was warm and relaxed but still moist with a tender dew. They were silent and unmoving for a while longer, he looking for the opportunity to take the next step and she waiting for it without knowing where it would come from, while the darkness expanded as their breathing grew more and more intense. Without warning he let go of her hand and made his leap into the void: he wet the tip of his forefinger with his tongue and grazed her nipple when it was caught off guard, and she felt a mortal explosion as if he had touched a raw nerve. She was glad of the darkness so he could not see the searing blush that shook her all the way to the base of her skull. “Don’t worry,” he said with great calm. “Don’t forget that I’ve met them already.” He felt her smile, and her voice was sweet and new in the darkness.
“I remember it very well,” she said, “and I’m still angry.” Then he knew that they had rounded the cape of good hope, and he took her large, soft hand again and covered it with forlorn little kisses, first the hard metacarpus, the long, discerning fingers, the diaphanous nails, and then the hieroglyphics of her destiny on her perspiring palm. She never knew how her hand came to his chest and felt something it could not decipher. He said: “It is a scapular.” She caressed the hairs on his chest one by one and then seized all the hair in her fist to pull it out by the roots. “Harder,” he said. She tried, until she knew she was not hurting him, and then it was her hand that sought his, lost in the darkness. But he did not allow their fingers to intertwine; instead he grasped her by the wrist and moved her hand along his body with an invisible but well-directed strength until she felt the ardent breath of a naked animal without bodily form, but eager and erect. Contrary to what he had imagined, even contrary to what she herself had imagined, she did not withdraw her hand or let it lie inert where he placed it, but instead she commended herself body and soul to the Blessed Virgin, clenched her teeth for fear she would laugh out loud at her own madness, and began to identify her rearing adversary by touch, discovering its size, the strength of its shaft, the extension of its wings, amazed by its determination but pitying its solitude, making it her own with a detailed curiosity that someone less experienced than her husband might have confused with caresses. He summoned all his reserves of strength to overcome the vertigo of her implacable scrutiny, until she released it with childish unconcern as if she were tossing it into the trash.
“I have never been able to understand how that thing works,” she said. Then, with authoritative methodology, he explained it to her in all seriousness while he moved her hand to the places he mentioned and she allowed it to be moved with the obedience of an exemplary pupil.
At a propitious moment he suggested that all of this was easier in the light. He was going to turn it on, but she held his arm, saying: “I see better with my hands.” In reality she wanted to turn on the light as well, but she wanted to be the one to do it, without anyone’s ordering her to, and she had her way. Then he saw her in the sudden brightness, huddled in the fetal position beneath the sheet. But he watched as she grasped the animal under study without hesitation, turned it this way and that, observed it with an interest that was beginning to seem more than scientific, and said when she was finished: “How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman’s thing.” He agreed, and pointed out other disadvantages more serious than ugliness. He said: “It is like a firstborn son: you spend your life working for him, sacrificing everything for him, and at the moment of truth he does just as he pleases.” She continued to examine it, asking what this was for and what that was for, and when she felt satisfied with her information she hefted it in both hands to confirm that it did not weigh enough to bother with, and let it drop with a gesture of disdain.
“Besides, I think it has too many things on it,” she said.
He was astounded. The original thesis of his dissertation had been just that: the advantage of simplifying the human organism. It seemed antiquated to him, with many useless or duplicated functions that had been essential in other stages of the human race but were not in ours. Yes: it could be more simple and by the same token less vulnerable. He concluded: “It is something that only God can do, of course, but in any event it would be good to have it established in theoretical terms.” She laughed with amusement and so much naturalness that he took advantage of the opportunity to embrace her and kiss her for the first time on the mouth. She responded, and he continued giving her very soft kisses on her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids, while he slipped his hand under the sheet and caressed her flat, straight pubic hair: the pubic hair of a Japanese. She did not move his hand away, but she kept hers on the alert in the event that he took one step further. “Let’s not go on with the medical lesson,” she said. “No,” he said. “This is going to be a lesson in love.”
Then he pulled down the sheet and she not only did not object but kicked it away from the bunk with a rapid movement of her feet because she could no longer bear the heat. Her body was undulant and elastic, much more serious than it appeared when dressed, with its own scent of a forest animal, which distinguished her from all the other women in the world. Defenseless in the light, she felt a rush of blood surge up to her face, and the only way she could think of to hide it was to throw her arms around her husband’s neck and give him a hard, thorough kiss that lasted until they were both gasping for breath.
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.
At dawn, when they fell asleep, she was still a virgin, but she would not be one much longer. The following night, in fact, after he taught her how to dance Viennese waltzes under the starry Caribbean sky, he went to the bathroom after she did, and when he returned to the stateroom he found her waiting for him naked in the bed. Then it was she who took the initiative, and gave herself without fear, without regret, with the joy of an adventure on the high seas, and with no traces of bloody ceremony except for the rose of honor on the sheet. They both made love well, almost as if by miracle, and they continued to make love well, night and day and better each time for the rest of the voyage, and when they reached La Rochelle they got along as if they were old lovers.
They stayed in Europe, with Paris as their base, and made short trips to neighboring countries. During that time they made love every day, more than once on winter Sundays when they frolicked in bed until it was time for lunch. He was a man of strong impulses, and well disciplined besides, and she was not one to let anyone take advantage of her, so they had to be content with sharing power in bed. After three months of feverish lovemaking he concluded that one of them was sterile, and they both submitted to rigorous examinations at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, where he had been an intern. It was an arduous but fruitless effort. However, when they least expected it, and with no scientific intervention, the miracle occurred. When they returned home, Fermina was in the sixth month of her pregnancy and thought herself the happiest woman on earth. The child they had both longed for was born without incident under the sign of Aquarius and baptized in honor of the grandfather who had died of cholera.
It was impossible to know if it was Europe or love that changed them, for both occurred at the same time. They were, in essence, not only between themselves but with everyone else, just as Florentino Ariza perceived them when he saw them leaving Mass two weeks after their return on that Sunday of his misfortune. They came back with a new conception of life, bringing with them the latest trends in the world and
ready to lead, he with the most recent developments in literature, music, and above all in his science. He had a subscription to Le Figaro, so he would not lose touch with reality, and another to the Revue des Deux Mondes, so that he would not lose touch with poetry. He had also arranged with his bookseller in Paris to receive works by the most widely read authors, among them Anatole France and Pierre Loti, and by those he liked best, including Rémy de Gourmont and Paul Bourget, but under no circumstances anything by Emile Zola, whom he found intolerable despite his valiant intervention in the Dreyfus affair. The same bookseller agreed to mail him the most attractive scores from the Ricordi catalogue, chamber music above all, so that he could maintain the well-deserved title earned by his father as the greatest friend of concerts in the city.