Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 24)

 

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 24

Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love poems, some of them inspired by Tránsito Ariza, its pages decorated with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the character of his father’s handwriting, identical to his own although he had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.

He had also seen the only two pictures of his father. One had been taken in Santa Fe, when he was very young, the same age as Florentino Ariza when he saw the photograph for the first time, and in it he was wearing an overcoat that made him look as if he were stuffed inside a bear, and he was leaning against a pedestal that supported the decapitated gaiters of a statue. The little boy beside him was Uncle Leo XII, wearing a ship captain’s hat. In the other photograph, his father was with a group of soldiers in God knows which of so many wars, and he held the longest rifle, and his mustache had a gunpowder smell that wafted out of the picture. He was a Liberal and a Mason, just like his brothers, and yet he wanted his son to go to the seminary. Florentino Ariza did not see the resemblance that people observed, but according to his Uncle Leo XII, Pius V was also reprimanded for the lyricism of his documents. In any case, he did not resemble him in the pictures, or in his memories of him, or in the image transfigured by love that his mother painted, or in the one unpainted by his Uncle Leo XII with his cruel wit. Nevertheless, Florentino Ariza discovered the resemblance many years later, as he was combing his hair in front of the mirror, and only then did he understand that a man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.

He had no memory of him on the Street of Windows. He thought he knew that at one time his father slept there, very early in his love affair with Tránsito Ariza, but that he did not visit her again after the birth of Florentino. For many years the baptismal certificate was our only valid means of identification, and Florentino Ariza’s, recorded in the parish church of St. Tiburtius, said only that he was the natural son of an unwed natural daughter called Tránsito Ariza. The name of his father did not appear on it, although Pius V took care of his son’s needs in secret until the day he died. This social condition closed the doors of the seminary to Florentino Ariza, but he also escaped military service during the bloodiest period of our wars because he was the only son of an unmarried woman.

Every Friday after school he sat across from the offices of the River Company of the Caribbean, looking at pictures of animals in a book that was falling apart because he had looked at it so often. His father would walk into the building without looking at him, wearing the frock coats that Tránsito Ariza later had to alter for him, and with a face identical to that of St. John the Evangelist on the altars. When he came out, many hours later, he would make certain that no one saw him, not even his coachman, and he would give him money for the week’s expenses. They did not speak, not only because his father made no effort to, but because he was terrified of him. One day, after he waited much longer than usual, his father gave him the coins and said:

“Take them and do not come back again.”

It was the last time he saw him. But in time he was to learn that Uncle Leo XII, who was some ten years younger, continued to bring money to Tránsito Ariza, and was the one who took care of her after Pius V died of an untreated colic without leaving anything in writing and without the time to make any provisions for his only child: a child of the streets.
The drama of Florentino Ariza while he was a clerk for the River Company of the Caribbean was that he could not avoid lyricism because he was always thinking about Fermina Daza, and he had never learned to write without thinking about her. Later, when he was moved to other posts, he had so much love left over inside that he did not know what to do with it, and he offered it to unlettered lovers free of charge, writing their love missives for them in the Arcade of the Scribes. That is where he went after work. He would take off his frock coat with his circumspect gestures and hang it over the back of the chair, he would put on the cuffs so he would not dirty his shirt sleeves, he would unbutton his vest so he could think better, and sometimes until very late at night he would encourage the hopeless with letters of mad adoration. From time to time he would be approached by a poor woman who had a problem with one of her children, a war veteran who persisted in demanding payment of his pension, someone who had been robbed and wanted to file a complaint with the government, but no matter how he tried, he could not satisfy them, because the only convincing document he could write was a love letter. He did not even ask his new clients any questions, because all he had to do was look at the whites of their eyes to know what their problem was, and he would write page after page of uncontrolled love, following the infallible formula of writing as he thought about Fermina Daza and nothing but Fermina Daza. After the first month he had to establish a system of appointments made in advance so that he would not be swamped by yearning lovers.

His most pleasant memory of that time was of a very timid young girl, almost a child, who trembled as she asked him to write an answer to an irresistible letter that she had just received, and that Florentino Ariza recognized as one he had written on the previous afternoon. He answered it in a different style, one that was in tune with the emotions and the age of the girl, and in a hand that also seemed to be hers, for he knew how to create a handwriting for every occasion, according to the character of each person. He wrote, imagining to himself what Fermina Daza would have said to him if she had loved him as much as that helpless child loved her suitor. Two days later, of course, he had to write the boy’s reply with the same hand, style, and kind of love that he had attributed to him in the first letter, and so it was that he became involved in a feverish correspondence with himself. Before a month had passed, each came to him separately to thank him for what he himself had proposed in the boy’s letter and accepted with devotion in the girl’s response: they were going to marry.

Only when they had their first child did they realize, after a casual conversation, that their letters had been written by the same scribe, and for the first time they went together to the Arcade to ask him to be the child’s godfather. Florentino Ariza was so enraptured by the practical evidence of his dreams that he used time he did not have to write a Lovers’ Companion that was more poetic and extensive than the one sold in doorways for twenty centavos and that half the city knew by heart. He categorized all the imaginable situations in which he and Fermina Daza might find themselves, and for all of them he wrote as many models and alternatives as he could think of. When he finished, he had some thousand letters in three volumes as complete as the Covarrubias Dictionary, but no printer in the city would take the risk of publishing them, and they ended up in an attic along with other papers from the past, for Tránsito Ariza flatly refused to dig out the earthenware jars and squander the savings of a lifetime on a mad publishing venture. Years later, when Florentino Ariza had the resources to publish the book himself, it was difficult for him to accept the reality that love letters had gone out of fashion.

As he was starting out in the River Company of the Caribbean and writing letters free of charge in the Arcade of the Scribes, the friends of Florentino Ariza’s youth were certain that they were slowly losing him beyond recall. And they were right. When he returned from his voyage along the river, he still saw some of them in the hope of dimming the memory of Fermina Daza, he played billiards with them, he went to their dances, he allowed himself to be raffled off among the girls, he allowed himself to do everything he thought would help him to become the man he had once been. Later, when Uncle Leo XII took him on as an employee, he played dominoes with his officemates in the Commercial Club, and they began to accept him as one of their own when he spoke to them of nothing but the navigation company, which he did not call by its complete name but by its initials: the R C.C. He even changed the way he ate. As indifferent and irregular as he had been until then regarding food, that was how habitual and austere he became until the end of his days: a large cup of black coffee for breakfast, a slice of poached fish with white rice for lunch, a cup of café con leche and a piece of cheese before going to bed. He drank black coffee at any hour, anywhere, under any circumstances, as many as thirty little cups a day: a brew like crude oil which he preferred to prepare himself and which he always kept near at hand in a thermos. He was another person, despite his firm decision and anguished efforts to continue to be the same man he had been before his mortal encounter with love.

The truth is that he was never the same again. Winning back Fermina Daza was the sole purpose of his life, and he was so certain of achieving it sooner or later that he convinced Tránsito Ariza to continue with the restoration of the house so that it would be ready to receive her whenever the miracle took place. In contrast to her reaction to the proposed publication of the Lovers’ Companion, Tránsito Ariza went much further: she bought the house at once and undertook a complete renovation. They made a reception room where the bedroom had been, on the upper floor they built two spacious, bright bedrooms, one for the married couple and another for the children they were going to have, and in the space where the old tobacco factory had been they put in an extensive garden with all kinds of roses, which Florentino Ariza himself tended during his free time at dawn. The only thing they left intact, as a kind of testimony of gratitude to the past, was the notions shop. The back room where Florentino Ariza had slept they left as it had always been, with the hammock hanging and the writing table covered with untidy piles of books, but he moved to the room planned as the conjugal bedroom on the upper floor. This was the largest and airiest in the house, and it had an interior terrace where it was pleasant to sit at night because of the sea breeze and the scent of the rosebushes, but it was also the room that best reflected Florentino Ariza’s Trappist severity. The plain whitewashed walls were rough and unadorned, and the only furniture was a prison cot, a night table with a candle in a bottle, an old wardrobe, and a washstand with its basin and bowl.

The work took almost three years, and it coincided with a brief civic revival owing to the boom in river navigation and trade, the same factors that had maintained the city’s greatness during colonial times and for more than two centuries had made her the gateway to America. But that was also the period when Tránsito Ariza manifested the first symptoms of her incurable disease. Her regular clients were older, paler, and more faded each time they came to the notions shop, and she did not recognize them after dealing with them for half a lifetime, or she confused the affairs of one with those of another, which was a very grave matter in a business like hers, in which no papers were signed to protect her honor or theirs, and one’s word of honor was given and accepted as sufficient guarantee. At first it seemed she was growing deaf, but it soon became evident that her memory was trickling away. And so she liquidated her pawn business, the treasure in the jars paid for completing and furnishing the house, and still left over were many of the most valuable old jewels in the city, whose owners did not have funds to redeem them.

During this period Florentino Ariza had to attend to too many responsibilities at the same time, but his spirits never flagged as he sought to expand his work as a furtive hunter. After his erratic experience with the Widow Nazaret, which opened the door to street love, he continued to hunt the abandoned little birds of the night for several years, still hoping to find a cure for the pain of Fermina Daza. But by then he could no longer tell if his habit of fornicating without hope was a mental necessity or a simple vice of the body. His visits to the transient hotel became less frequent, not only because his interests lay elsewhere but because he did not like them to see him there under circumstances that were different from the chaste domesticity of the past. Nevertheless, in three emergency situations he had recourse to the simple strategy of an era before his time: he disguised his friends, who were afraid of being recognized, as men, and they walked into the hotel together as if they were two gentlemen out on the town. Yet on two of these occasions someone realized that he and his presumptive male companion did not go to the bar but to a room, and the already tarnished reputation of Florentino Ariza received the coup de grace. At last he stopped going there, except for the very few times he did so not to catch up on what he had missed but for just the opposite reason: to find a refuge where he could recuperate from his excesses.

And it was just as well. No sooner did he leave his office at five in the afternoon than he began to hunt like a chicken hawk. At first he was content with what the night provided. He picked up serving girls in the parks, black women in the market, sophisticated young ladies from the interior on the beaches, gringas on the boats from New Orleans. He took them to the jetties where half the city also went after nightfall, he took them wherever he could, and sometimes even where he could not, and not infrequently he had to hurry into a dark entryway and do what he could, however he could do it, behind the gate.

The lighthouse was always a blessed refuge in a storm, which he evoked with nostalgia in the dawn of his old age when he had everything settled, because it was a good place to be happy, above all at night, and he thought that something of his loves from that time flashed out to the sailors with every turn of the light. So that he continued to go there more than to any other spot, while his friend the lighthouse keeper was delighted to receive him with a simpleminded expression on his face that was the best guarantee of discretion for the frightened little birds. There was a house at the foot of the tower, close to the thunder of the waves breaking against the cliffs, where love was more intense because it seemed like a shipwreck. But Florentino Ariza preferred the light tower itself, late at night, because one could see the entire city and the trail of lights on the fishing boats at sea, and even in the distant swamps.

It was in those days that he devised his rather simplistic theories concerning the relationship between a woman’s appearance and her aptitude for love. He distrusted the sensual type, the ones who looked as if they could eat an alligator raw and tended to be the most passive in bed. The type he preferred was just the opposite: those skinny little tadpoles that no one bothered to turn around and look at in the street, who seemed to disappear when they took off their clothes, who made you feel sorry for them when their bones cracked at the first impact, and yet who could leave the man who bragged the most about his virility ready for the trashcan. He had made notes of these premature observations, intending to write a practical supplement to the Lovers’ Companion, but the project met the same fate as the previous one after Ausencia Santander sent him tumbling with her old dog’s wisdom, stood him on his head, tossed him up and threw him down, made him as good as new, shattered all his virtuous theories, and taught him the only thing he had to learn about love: that nobody teaches life anything.

Ausencia Santander had had a conventional marriage for twenty years, which left her with three children who had married and had children in turn, so that she boasted of being the grandmother with the best bed in the city. It was never clear if she had abandoned her husband, or if he had abandoned her, or if they had abandoned each other at the same time, but he went to live with his regular mistress, and then she felt free, in the middle of the day and at the front door, to receive Rosendo de la Rosa, a riverboat captain whom she had often received in the middle of the night at the back door. Without giving the matter a second thought, he brought Florentino Ariza to meet her.

He brought him for lunch. He also brought a demijohn of homemade aguardiente and ingredients of the highest quality for an epic sancocho, the kind that was possible only with chickens from the patio, meat with tender bones, rubbish-heap pork, and greens and vegetables from the towns along the river. Nevertheless, from the very first, Florentino Ariza was not as enthusiastic about the excellence of the cuisine or the exuberance of the lady of the house as he was about the beauty of the house itself. He liked her because of her house, bright and cool, with four large windows facing the sea and beyond that a complete view of the old city. He liked the quantity and the splendor of the things that gave the living room a confused and at the same time rigorous appearance, with all kinds of handcrafted objects that Captain Rosendo de la Rosa brought back from each trip until there was no room left for another piece. On the sea terrace, sitting on his private ring, was a cockatoo from Malaya, with unbelievable white plumage and a pensive tranquillity that gave one much to think about: it was the most beautiful animal that Florentino Ariza had ever seen.

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