Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 26)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 26

Florentino Ariza got off at the Plaza of the Carriages, which was the end of the line, hurried through the labyrinth of commerce because his mother was expecting him at six, and when he emerged on the other side of the crowd, he heard the tapping heels of a loose woman on the paving stones and turned around so that he would be certain of what he already knew: it was she, dressed like the slave girls in engravings, with a skirt of veils that was raised with the gesture of a dancer when she stepped over the puddles in the streets, a low-cut top that left her shoulders bare, a handful of colored necklaces, and a white turban. He knew them from the transient hotel. It often happened that at six in the afternoon they were still eating breakfast, and then all they could do was to use sex as if it were a bandit’s knife and put it to the throat of the first man they passed on the street: your prick or your life. As a final test, Florentino Ariza changed direction and went down the deserted Oil Lamp Alley, and she followed, coming closer and closer to him. Then he stopped, turned around, blocked her way on the sidewalk, and leaned on his umbrella with both hands. She stood facing him.

“You made a mistake, good-looking,” he said. “I don’t do that.” “Of course you do,” she said. “One can see it in your face.”

(C 9 audible)
Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: “The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot.” On the basis of this dogma the Doctor had elaborated an entire theory of character, which he considered more accurate than astrology. But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: “The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not.” He distrusted those who did not: when they strayed from the straight and narrow, it was something so unusual for them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it. Those who did it often, on the other hand, lived for that alone. They felt so good that their lips were sealed as if they were tombs, because they knew that their lives depended on their discretion. They never spoke of their exploits, they confided in no one, they feigned indifference to the point where they earned the reputation of being impotent, or frigid, or above all timid fairies, as in the case of Florentino Ariza. But they took pleasure in the error because the error protected them. They formed a secret society, whose members recognized each other all over the world without need of a common language, which is why Florentino Ariza was not surprised by the girl’s reply: she was one of them, and therefore she knew that he knew that she knew.

It was the great mistake of his life, as his conscience was to remind him every hour of every day until the final day of his life. What she wanted from him was not love, least of all love that was paid for, but a job, any kind of job, at any salary, in the River Company of the Caribbean. Florentino Ariza felt so ashamed of his own conduct that he took her to the head of Personnel, who gave her the lowest-level job in the General Section, which she performed with seriousness, modesty, and dedication for three years.

Ever since its founding, the R.C.C. had had its offices across from the river dock, and it had nothing in common with the port for ocean liners on the opposite side of the bay, or with the market pier on Las Ánimas Bay. The building was of wood, with a sloping tin roof, a single long balcony with columns at the front, and windows, covered with wire mesh, on all four sides through which one had complete views of the boats at the dock as if they were paintings hanging on the wall. When the German founders built it, they painted the tin roof red and the wooden walls a brilliant white, so that the building itself bore some resemblance to a riverboat. Later it was painted all blue, and at the time that Florentino Ariza began to work for the company it was a dusty shed of no definite color, and on the rusting roof there were patches of new tin plates over the original ones. Behind the building, in a gravel patio surrounded by chicken wire, stood two large warehouses of more recent construction, and at the back there was a closed sewer pipe, dirty and foul-smelling, where the refuse of a half a century of river navigation lay rotting: the debris of historic boats, from the early one with a single smokestack, christened by Simón Bolívar, to some so recent that they had electric fans in the cabins. Most of them had been dismantled for materials to be used in building other boats, but many were in such good condition that it seemed possible to give them a coat of paint and launch them without frightening away the iguanas or disturbing the foliage of the large yellow flowers that made them even more nostalgic.

The Administrative Section was on the upper floor of the building, in small but comfortable and well-appointed offices similar to the cabins on the boats, for they had been built not by civil architects but by naval engineers. At the end of the corridor, like any employee, Uncle Leo XII dispatched his business in an office similar to all the others, the one exception being that every morning he found a glass vase filled with sweet-smelling flowers on his desk. On the ground floor was the Passenger Section, with a waiting room that had rustic benches and a counter for selling tickets and handling baggage. Last of all was the confusing General Section, its name alone suggesting the vagueness of its functions, where problems that had not been solved elsewhere in the company went to die an ignominious death. There sat Leona Cassiani, lost behind a student’s desk surrounded by corn stacked for shipping and unresolved papers, on the day that Uncle Leo XII himself went to see what the devil he could think of to make the General Section good for something. After three hours of questions, theoretical assumptions, and concrete evidence, with all the employees in the middle of the room, he returned to his office tormented by the certainty that instead of a solution to so many problems, he had found just the opposite: new and different problems with no solution.

The next day, when Florentino Ariza came into his office, he found a memorandum from Leona Cassiani, with the request that he study it and then show it to his uncle if he thought it appropriate. She was the only one who had not said a word during the inspection the previous afternoon. She had remained silent in full awareness of the worth of her position as a charity employee, but in the memorandum she noted that she had said nothing not because of negligence but out of respect for the hierarchies in the section. It had an alarming simplicity. Uncle Leo XII had proposed a thorough reorganization, but Leona Cassiani did not agree, for the simple reason that in reality the General Section did not exist: it was the dumping ground for annoying but minor problems that the other sections wanted to get rid of. As a consequence, the solution was to eliminate the General Section and return the problems to the sections where they had originated, to be solved there.

Uncle Leo XII did not have the slightest idea who Leona Cassiani was, and he could not remember having seen anyone who could be Leona Cassiani at the meeting on the previous afternoon, but when he read the memorandum he called her to his office and talked with her behind closed doors for two hours. They spoke about everything, in accordance with the method he used to learn about people. The memorandum showed simple common sense, and her suggestion, in fact, would produce the desired result. But Uncle Leo XII was not interested in that: he was interested in her. What most attracted his attention was that her only education after elementary school had been in the School of Millinery. Moreover, she was learning English at home, using an accelerated method with no teacher, and for the past three months she had been taking evening classes in typing, a new kind of work with a wonderful future, as they used to say about the telegraph and before that the steam engine.

When she left the meeting, Uncle Leo XII had already begun to call her what he would always call her: my namesake Leona. He had decided to eliminate with the stroke of a pen the troublesome section and distribute the problems so that they could be solved by the people who had created them, in accordance with Leona Cassiani’s suggestion, and he had created a new position for her, which had no title or specific duties but in effect was his Personal Assistant. That afternoon, after the inglorious burial of the General Section, Uncle Leo XII asked Florentino Ariza where he had found Leona Cassiani, and he answered with the truth.

“Well, then, go back to the trolley and bring me every girl like her that you find,” his uncle said. “With two or three more, we’ll salvage your galleon.”

Florentino Ariza took this as one of Uncle Leo XII’s typical jokes, but the next day he found himself without the carriage that had been assigned to him six months earlier, and that was taken back now so that he could continue to look for hidden talent on the trolleys. Leona Cassiani, for her part, soon overcame her initial scruples, and she revealed what she had kept hidden with so much astuteness during her first three years. In three more years she had taken control of everything, and in the next four she stood on the threshold of the General Secretaryship, but she refused to cross it because it was only one step below Florentino Ariza. Until then she had taken orders from him, and she wanted to continue to do so, although the fact of the matter was that Florentino himself did not realize that he took orders from her. Indeed, he had done nothing more on the Board of Directors than follow her suggestions, which helped him to move up despite the traps set by his secret enemies.

Leona Cassiani had a diabolical talent for handling secrets, and she always knew how to be where she had to be at the right time. She was dynamic and quiet, with a wise sweetness. But when it was indispensable she would, with sorrow in her heart, give free rein to a character of solid iron. However, she never did that for herself. Her only objective was to clear the ladder at any cost, with blood if necessary, so that Florentino Ariza could move up to the position he had proposed for himself without calculating his own strength very well. She would have done this in any event, of course, because she had an indomitable will to power, but the truth was that she did it consciously, out of simple gratitude. Her determination was so great that Florentino Ariza himself lost his way in her schemes, and on one unfortunate occasion he attempted to block her, thinking that she was trying to do the same to him. Leona Cassiani put him in his place.

“Make no mistake,” she said to him. “I will withdraw from all this whenever you wish, but think it over carefully.”

Florentino Ariza, who in fact had never thought about it, thought about it then, as well as he could, and he surrendered his weapons. The truth is that in the midst of that sordid internecine battle in a company in perpetual crisis, in the midst of his disasters as a tireless falconer and the more and more uncertain dream of Fermina Daza, the impassive Florentino Ariza had not had a moment of inner peace as he confronted the fascinating spectacle of that fierce black woman smeared with shit and love in the fever of battle. Many times he regretted in secret that she had not been in fact what he thought she was on the afternoon he met her, so that he could wipe his ass with his principles and make love to her even if it cost nuggets of shining gold. For Leona Cassiani was still the woman she had been that afternoon on the trolley, with the same clothes, worthy of an impetuous runaway slave, her mad turbans, her earrings and bracelets made of bone, her necklaces, her rings with fake stones on every finger: a lioness in the streets. The years had changed her appearance very little, and that little became her very well. She moved in splendid maturity, her feminine charms were even more exciting, and her ardent African body was becoming more compact. Florentino Ariza had made no propositions to her in ten years, a hard penance for his original error, and she had helped him in everything except that.

One night when he had worked late, something he did often after his mother’s death, Florentino Ariza was about to leave when he saw a light burning in Leona Cassiani’s office. He opened the door without knocking, and there she was: alone at her desk, absorbed, serious, with the new eyeglasses that gave her an academic air. Florentino Ariza realized with joyful fear that the two of them were alone in the building, the piers were deserted, the city asleep, the night eternal over the dark sea, and the horn mournful on the ship that would not dock for another hour. Florentino Ariza leaned both hands on his umbrella, just as he had done in Oil Lamp Alley when he barred her way, only now he did it to hide the trembling in his knees.

“Tell me something, lionlady of my soul,” he said. “When are we ever going to stop this?”

She took off her glasses without surprise, with absolute self-control, and dazzled him with her solar laugh. It was the first time she used the familiar form of address with him.
“Ay, Florentino Ariza,” she said, “I’ve been sitting here for ten years waiting for you to ask me that.”
It was too late: the opportunity had been there with her in the mule-drawn trolley, it had always been with her there on the chair where she was sitting, but now it was gone forever. The truth was that after all the dirty tricks she had done for him, after so much sordidness endured for him, she had moved on in life and was far beyond his twenty-year advantage in age: she had grown too old for him. She loved him so much that instead of deceiving him she preferred to continue loving him, although she had to let him know in a brutal manner.
“No,” she said to him. “I would feel as if I were going to bed with the son I never had.” Florentino Ariza was left with the nagging suspicion that this was not her last word. He believed that when a woman says no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision, but with her he could not risk making the same mistake twice. He withdrew
without protest, and even with a certain grace, which was not easy for him. From that night on, any cloud there might have been between them was dissipated without bitterness, and Florentino Ariza understood at last that it is possible to be a woman’s friend and not go to bed with her.
Leona Cassiani was the only human being to whom Florentino Ariza was tempted to reveal the secret of Fermina Daza. The few people who had known were beginning to forget for reasons over which they had no control. Three of them were, beyond the shadow of any doubt, in the grave: his mother, whose memory had been erased long before she died; Gala Placidia, who had died of old age in the service of one who had been like a daughter to her; and the unforgettable Escolástica Daza, the woman who had brought him the first love letter he had ever received in his life, hidden in her prayerbook, and who could not still be alive after so many years. Lorenzo Daza (no one knew if he was alive or dead) might have revealed the secret to Sister Franca de la Luz when he was trying to stop Fermina Daza’s expulsion, but it was unlikely that it had gone any further. That left the eleven telegraph operators in Hildebranda Sanchez’s province who had handled telegrams with their complete names and exact addresses, and Hildebranda Sánchez herself, and her court of indomitable cousins.

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