Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 25)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Captain Rosendo de la Rosa was enthusiastic about his guest’s enthusiasm, and he told him in detail the history of each object. As he spoke he sipped aguardiente without pause. He seemed to be made of reinforced concrete: he was enormous, with hair all over his body except on his head, a mustache like a housepainter’s brush, a voice like a capstan, which would have been his alone, and an exquisite courtesy. But not even his body could resist the way he drank. Before they sat down to the table he had finished half of the demijohn, and he fell forward onto the tray of glasses and bottles with a slow sound of demolition. Ausencia Santander had to ask Florentino Ariza to help her drag the inert body of the beached whale to bed and undress him as he slept. Then, in a flash of inspiration that they attributed to a conjunction of their stars, the two of them undressed in the next room without agreeing to, without even suggesting it or proposing it to each other, and for more than seven years they continued undressing wherever they could while the Captain was on a trip. There was no danger of his surprising them, because he had the good sailor’s habit of advising the port of his arrival by sounding the ship’s horn, even at dawn, first with three long howls for his wife and nine children, and then with two short, melancholy ones for his mistress.
Ausencia Santander was almost fifty years old and looked it, but she had such a personal instinct for love that no homegrown or scientific theories could interfere with it. Florentino Ariza knew from the ship’s itineraries when he could visit her, and he always went unannounced, whenever he wanted to, at any hour of the day or night, and never once was she not waiting for him. She would open the door as her mother had raised her until she was seven years old: stark naked, with an organdy ribbon in her hair. She would not let him take another step until she had undressed him, because she thought it was bad luck to have a clothed man in the house. This was the cause of constant discord with Captain Rosendo de la Rosa, because he had the superstitious belief that smoking naked brought bad luck, and at times he preferred to put off love rather than put out his inevitable Cuban cigar. On the other hand, Florentino Ariza was very taken with the charms of nudity, and she removed his clothes with sure delight as soon as she closed the door, not even giving him time to greet her, or to take off his hat or his glasses, kissing him and letting him kiss her with sharp-toothed kisses, unfastening his clothes from bottom to top, first the buttons of his fly, one by one after each kiss, then his belt buckle, and at the last his vest and shirt, until he was like a live fish that had been slit open from head to tail. Then she sat him in the living room and took off his boots, pulled on his trouser cuffs so that she could take off his pants while she removed his long underwear, and at last she undid the garters around his calves and took off his socks. Then Florentino Ariza stopped kissing her and letting her kiss him so that he could do the only thing he was responsible for in that precise ceremony: he took his watch and chain out of the buttonhole in his vest and took off his glasses and put them in his boots so he would be sure not to forget them. He always took that precaution, always without fail, whenever he undressed in someone else’s house.
As soon as he had done that, she attacked him without giving him time for anything else, there on the same sofa where she had just undressed him, and only on rare occasions in the bed. She mounted him and took control of all of him for all of her, absorbed in herself, her eyes closed, gauging the situation in her absolute inner darkness, advancing here, retreating there, correcting her invisible route, trying another, more intense path, another means of proceeding without drowning in the slimy marsh that flowed from her womb, droning like a horsefly as she asked herself questions and answered in her native jargon; where was that something in the shadows that only she knew about and that she longed for just for herself, until she succumbed without waiting for anybody, she fell alone into her abyss with a jubilant explosion of total victory that made the world tremble. Florentino Ariza was left exhausted, incomplete, floating in a puddle of their perspiration, but with the impression of being no more than an instrument of pleasure. He would say: “You treat me as if I were just anybody.” She would roar with the laughter of a free female and say: “Not at all: as if you were nobody.” He was left with the impression that she took away everything with mean-spirited greed, and his pride would rebel and he would leave the house determined never to return. But then he would wake for no reason in the middle of the night, and the memory of the self-absorbed love of Ausencia Santander was revealed to him for what it was: a pitfall of happiness that he despised and desired at the same time, but from which it was impossible to escape.
One Sunday, two years after they met, the first thing she did when he arrived was to take off his glasses instead of undressing him, so that she could kiss him with greater ease, and this was how Florentino Ariza learned that she had begun to love him. Despite the fact that from the first day he had felt very comfortable in the house that he now loved as if it were his own, he had never stayed longer than two hours, and he had never slept there, and he had eaten there only once because she had given him a formal invitation. He went there, in fact, only for what he had come for, always bringing his only gift, a single rose, and then he would disappear until the next unforeseeable time. But on the Sunday when she took off his glasses to kiss him, in part because of that and in part because they fell asleep after gentle love-making, they spent the afternoon naked in the Captain’s enormous bed. When he awoke from his nap, Florentino Ariza still remembered the shrieking of the cockatoo, whose strident calls belied his beauty. But the silence was diaphanous in the four o’clock heat, and through the bedroom window one could see the outline of the old city with the afternoon sun at its back, its golden domes, its sea in flames all the way to Jamaica. Ausencia Santander stretched out an adventurous hand, seeking the sleeping beast, but Florentino Ariza moved it away. He said: “Not now. I feel something strange, as if someone were watching us.” She aroused the cockatoo again with her joyous laughter. She said: “Not even Jonah’s wife would swallow that story.” Neither did she, of course, but she admitted it was a good one, and the two of them loved each other for a long time in silence without making love again. At five o’clock, with the sun still high, she jumped out of bed, naked as always and with the organdy ribbon in her hair, and went to find something to drink in the kitchen. But she had not taken a single step out of the bedroom when she screamed in horror. She could not believe it. The only objects left in the house were the lamps attached to the walls. All the rest, the signed furniture, the Indian rugs, the statues and the handwoven tapestries, the countless trinkets made of precious stones and metals, everything that had made hers one of the most pleasant and best decorated houses in the city, everything, even the sacred cockatoo, everything had vanished. It had been carried out through the sea terrace without disturbing their love. All that was left were empty rooms with the four open windows, and a message painted on the rear wall: This is what you get for fucking around. Captain Rosendo de la Rosa could never understand why Ausencia Santander did not report the robbery, or try to get in touch with the dealers in stolen goods, or permit her misfortune to be mentioned again.
Florentino Ariza continued to visit her in the looted house, whose furnishings were reduced to three leather stools that the thieves forgot in the kitchen, and the contents of the bedroom where the two of them had been. But he did not visit her as often as before, not because of the desolation in the house, as she supposed and as she said to him, but because of the novelty of a mule-drawn trolley at the turn of the new century, which proved to be a prodigious and original nest of free-flying little birds. He rode it four times a day, twice to go to the office, twice to return home, and sometimes when his reading was real, and most of the time when it was pretense, he would take the first steps, at least, toward a future tryst. Later, when Uncle Leo XII put at his disposal a carriage drawn by two little gray mules with golden trappings, just like the one that belonged to President Rafael Núñez, he would long for those times on the trolley as the most fruitful of all his adventures in falconry. He was right: there is no worse enemy of secret love than a carriage waiting at the door. In fact, he almost always left it hidden at his house and made his hawkish rounds On foot so that he would not leave wheel marks in the dust. That is
why he evoked with such great nostalgia the old trolley with its emaciated mules covered with sores, in which a sideways glance was all one needed to know where love was. However, in the midst of so many tender memories, he could not elude his recollection of a helpless little bird whose name he never knew and with whom he spent no more than half a frenetic night, but that had been enough to ruin the innocent rowdiness of Carnival for him for the rest of his life. She had attracted his attention on the trolley for the fearlessness with which she traveled through the riotous public celebration. She could not have been more than twenty years old, and she did not seem to share the spirit of Carnival, unless she was disguised as an invalid: her hair was very light, long, and straight, hanging loose over her shoulders, and she wore a tunic of plain, unadorned linen. She was completely removed from the confusion of music in the streets, the handfuls of rice powder, the showers of aniline thrown at the passengers on the trolley, whose mules were whitened with cornstarch and wore flowered hats during those three days of madness. Taking advantage of the confusion, Florentino Ariza invited her to have an ice with him, because he did not think he could ask for anything more. She looked at him without surprise. She said: “I am happy to accept, but I warn you that I am crazy.” He laughed at her witticism, and took her to see the parade of floats from the balcony of the ice cream shop. Then he put on a rented cape, and the two of them joined the dancing in the Plaza of the Customhouse, and enjoyed themselves like newborn sweethearts, for her indifference went to the opposite extreme in the uproar of the night: she danced like a professional, she was imaginative and daring in her revelry, and she had devastating charm. “You don’t know the trouble you’ve gotten into with me,” she shouted, laughing in the fever of Carnival. “I’m a crazy woman from the insane asylum.”
For Florentino Ariza, that night was a return to the innocent unruliness of adolescence, when he had not yet been wounded by love. But he knew, more from hearsay than from personal experience, that such easy happiness could not last very long. And so before the night began to degenerate, as it always did after prizes were distributed for the best costumes, he suggested to the girl that they go to the lighthouse to watch the sunrise. She accepted with pleasure, but she wanted to wait until after they had given out the prizes.
Florentino Ariza was certain that the delay saved his life. In fact, the girl had indicated to him that they should leave for the lighthouse, when she was seized by two guards and a nurse from Divine Shepherdess Asylum. They had been looking for her since her escape at three o’clock that afternoon–they and the entire police force. She had decapitated a guard and seriously wounded two others with a machete that she had snatched away from the gardener because she wanted to go dancing at Carnival. It had not occurred to anyone that she might be dancing in the streets; they thought she would be hiding in one of the many houses where they had searched even the cisterns. It was not easy to take her away. She defended herself with a pair of gardening shears that she had hidden in her bodice, and six men were needed to put her in the strait jacket while the crowd jammed into the Plaza of the Customhouse applauded and whistled with glee in the belief that the bloody capture was one of many Carnival farces. Florentino Ariza was heartbroken, and beginning on Ash Wednesday he would walk down Divine Shepherdess Street with a box of English chocolates for her. He would stand and look at the inmates, who shouted all kinds of profanities and compliments at him through the windows, and he would show them the box of chocolates in case luck would have it that she, too, might look out at him through the iron bars. But he never saw her. Months later, as he was getting off the mule-drawn trolley, a little girl walking with her father asked him for a piece of chocolate from the box he was carrying in his hand. Her father reprimanded her and begged Florentino Ariza’s pardon. But he gave the whole box to the child, thinking that the action would redeem him from all bitterness, and he soothed the father with a pat on the back. “They were for a love that has gone all to hell,” he said.
As a kind of compensation from fate, it was also in the mule-drawn trolley that Florentino Ariza met Leona Cassiani, who was the true woman in his life although neither of them ever knew it and they never made love. He had sensed her before he saw her as he was going home on the trolley at five o’clock; it was a tangible look that touched him as if it were a finger. He raised his eyes and saw her, at the far end of the trolley, but standing out with great clarity from the other passengers. She did not look away. On the contrary: she continued to look at him with such boldness that he could not help thinking what he thought: black, young, pretty, but a whore beyond the shadow of a doubt. He rejected her from his life, because he could not conceive of anything more contemptible than paying for love: he had never done it.