Love in the Time of Cholera ( Chapter 29)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
He had known for a long time that he was predestined to make a widow happy, and that she would make him happy, and that did not worry him. On the contrary: he was prepared. After having known so many of them during his incursions as a solitary hunter, Florentino Ariza had come to realize that the world was full of happy widows. He had seen them go mad with grief at the sight of their husband’s corpse, pleading to be buried alive in the same coffin so they would not have to face the future without him, but as they grew reconciled to the reality of their new condition he had seen them rise up from the ashes with renewed vitality. They began by living like parasites of gloom in their big empty houses, they became the confidantes of their servants, lovers of their pillows, with nothing to do after so many years of sterile captivity. They wasted their overabundant hours doing what they had not had time for before, sewing the buttons on the dead man’s clothes, ironing and reironing the shirts with stiff collar and cuffs so that they would always be in perfect condition. They continued to put his soap in the bathroom, his monogrammed pillowcase on the bed; his place was always set at the table, in case he returned from the dead without warning, as he tended to do in life. But in those solitary Masses they began to be aware that once again they were mistresses of their fate, after having renounced not only their family name but their own identity in exchange for a security that was no more than another of a bride’s many illusions. They alone knew how tiresome was the man they loved to distraction, who perhaps loved them but whom they had to continue nurturing until his last breath as if he were a child, suckling him, changing his soiled diapers, distracting him with a mother’s tricks to ease his terror at going out each morning to face reality. And nevertheless, when they watched him leave the house, this man they themselves had urged to conquer the world, then they were the ones left with the terror that he would never return. That was their life. Love, if it existed, was something separate: another life.
In the restorative idleness of solitude, on the other hand, the widows discovered that the honorable way to live was at the body’s bidding, eating only when one was hungry, loving without lies, sleeping without having to feign sleep in order to escape the indecency of official love, possessed at last of the right to an entire bed to themselves, where no one fought them for half of the sheet, half of the air they breathed, half of their night, until their bodies were satisfied with dreaming their own dreams, and they woke alone. In the dawns of his furtive hunting, Florentino Ariza would see them coming out of five o’clock Mass, shrouded in black and with the raven of destiny on their shoulder. As soon as they spotted him in the light of dawn, they would cross the street to walk on the other side with their small, hesitant steps, the steps of a little bird, for just walking near a man might stain their honor. And yet he was convinced that a disconsolate widow, more than any other woman, might carry within her the seed of happiness.
So many widows in his life, since the Widow Nazaret, had made it possible for him to discern how happy they were after the death of their husbands. What had been only a dream until then was changed, thanks to them, into a possibility that he could seize with both hands. He saw no reason why Fermina Daza should not be a widow like them, prepared by life to accept him just as he was, without fantasies of guilt because of her dead husband, resolved to discover with him the other happiness of being happy twice, with one love for everyday use which would become, more and more, a miracle of being alive, and the other love that belonged to her alone, the love immunized by death against all contagion.
Perhaps he would not have been as enthusiastic if he had even suspected how far Fermina Daza was from those illusory calculations, at a time when she was just beginning to perceive the horizon of a world in which everything was foreseen except adversity. In those days, being rich had many advantages, and many disadvantages as well, of course, but half the world longed for it as the most probable way to live forever. Fermina Daza had rejected Florentino Ariza in a lightning flash of maturity which she paid for immediately with a crisis of pity, but she never doubted that her decision had been correct. At the time she could not explain what hidden impulses of her reason had allowed her that clairvoyance, but many years later, on the eve of old age, she uncovered them suddenly and without knowing how during a casual conversation about Florentino Ariza. Everyone knew that he was heir apparent to the River Company of the Caribbean during its greatest period; they were all sure they had seen him many times, and had even had dealings with him, but no one could remember what he was like. It was then that Fermina Daza experienced the revelation of the unconscious motives that had kept her from loving him. She said: “It is as if he were not a person but only a shadow.” That is what he was: the shadow of someone whom no one had ever known. But while she resisted the siege of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who was just the opposite, she felt herself tormented by the phantom of guilt: the only emotion she could not bear. When she felt it coming on, a kind of panic overtook her which she could control only if she found someone to soothe her conscience. Ever since she was a little girl, when a plate broke in the kitchen, when someone fell, when she herself caught her finger in the door, she would turn in dismay to the nearest adult and make her accusation: “It was your fault.” Although in reality she was not concerned with who was responsible or with convincing herself of her own innocence: she was satisfied at having established it.
The specter was so notorious that Dr. Urbino realized how much it threatened the harmony of his home, and as soon as he detected it he hastened to tell his wife: “Don’t worry, my love, it was my fault.” For he feared nothing so much as his wife’s sudden categorical decisions, and he was convinced that they always originated in a feeling of guilt. The confusion caused by her rejection of Florentino Ariza, however, had not been resolved with comforting words. For several months Fermina Daza continued to open up the balcony in the morning, and she always missed the solitary phantom watching her from the deserted little park; she saw the tree that had been his, the most obscure bench where he would sit to read as he thought about her, suffered for her, and she would have to close the window again, sighing: “Poor man.” When it was already too late to make up for the past, she even suffered the disillusionment of knowing that he was not as tenacious as she had supposed, and from time to time she would still feel a belated longing for a letter that never arrived. But when she had to face the decision of marrying Juvenal Urbino, she succumbed, in a major crisis, when she realized that she had no valid reasons for preferring him after she had rejected Florentino Ariza without valid reasons. In fact, she loved him as little as she had loved the other one, but knew much less about him, and his letters did not have the fervor of the other one’s, nor had he given her so many moving proofs of his determination. The truth is that Juvenal Urbino’s suit had never been undertaken in the name of love, and it was curious, to say the least, that a militant Catholic like him would offer her only worldly goods: security, order, happiness, contiguous numbers that, once they were added together, might resemble love, almost be love. But they were not love, and these doubts increased her confusion, because she was also not convinced that love was really what she most needed to live.
In any case, the principal factor operating against Dr. Juvenal Urbino was his more than suspect resemblance to the ideal man that Lorenzo Daza had so wanted for his daughter. It was impossible not to see him as the creature of a paternal plot, even if in reality he was not, but Fermina Daza became convinced that he was from the time she saw him come to her house for a second, unsolicited medical call. In the end, her conversations with Cousin Hildebranda only confused her. Because of Cousin Hildebranda’s own situation as a victim, she tended to identify with Florentino Ariza, forgetting that perhaps Lorenzo Daza had arranged her visit so that she could use her influence in favor of Dr. Urbino. God alone knows what it cost Fermina Daza not to accompany her cousin when she went to meet Florentino Ariza in the telegraph office. She would have liked to see him again to present him with her doubts, to speak with him alone, to learn to know him well so that she could be certain that her impulsive decision would not precipitate her into another, more serious one: capitulation in her personal war against her father. But that is what she did at a crucial moment in her life, giving no importance whatsoever to the handsomeness of her suitor, or his legendary wealth, or his youthful glory, or any of his numerous virtues; rather, she was stunned by the fear of an opportunity slipping away, and by the imminence of her twenty-first birthday, which was her private time limit for surrendering to fate. That one moment was enough for her to make the decision that was foreseen in the laws of God and man: until death do you part. Then all her doubts vanished, and she could accomplish without remorse what reason indicated as the most decent thing to do: with no tears, she wiped away the memory of Florentino Ariza, she erased him completely, and in the space that he had occupied in her memory she allowed a field of poppies to bloom. All that she permitted herself was one final sigh that was deeper than usual: “Poor man!”
The most fearful doubts began, however, when she returned from her honeymoon. As soon as they opened the trunks, unpacked the furniture, and emptied the eleven chests she had brought in order to take possession as lady and mistress of the former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, she realized with mortal vertigo that she was a prisoner in the wrong house and, even worse, with a man who was not. It took her six years to leave, the worst years of her life, when she was in despair because of the bitterness of Doña Blanca, her mother-in-law, and the mental lethargy of her sisters-in-law, who did not go to rot in a convent cell only because they already carried one inside themselves.
Dr. Urbino, resigned to paying homage to his lineage, turned a deaf ear to her pleas, confident that the wisdom of God and his wife’s infinite capacity to adapt would resolve the situation. He was pained by the deterioration of his mother, whose joy in living had, at one time, sparked the desire to live in even the most skeptical. It was true: that beautiful, intelligent woman, with a human sensibility not at all common in her milieu, had been the soul and body of her social paradise for almost forty years. Widowhood had so embittered her that she did not seem the same person; it had made her flabby and sour and the enemy of the world. The only possible explanation for her decline was the rancor she felt because her husband had knowingly sacrificed himself for a black rabble, as she used to say, when the only fitting sacrifice would have been to survive for her sake. In any case, Fermina Daza’s happy marriage lasted as long as the honeymoon, and the only person who could help her to prevent its final wreckage was paralyzed by terror in the presence of his mother’s power. It was he, and not her imbecilic sisters-in-law and her half-mad mother-in-law, whom Fermina Daza blamed for the death trap that held her. She suspected too late that behind his professional authority and worldly charm, the man she had married was a hopeless weakling: a poor devil made bold by the social weight of his family names.
She took refuge in her newborn son. She had felt him leave her body with a sensation of relief at freeing herself from something that did not belong to her, and she had been horrified at herself when she confirmed that she did not feel the slightest affection for that calf from her womb the midwife showed her in the raw, smeared with grease and blood and with the umbilical cord rolled around his neck. But in her loneliness in the palace she learned to know him, they learned to know each other, and she discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them. She came to despise anything and anyone who was not him in the house of her misfortune. She was depressed by the solitude, the cemetery garden, the squandering of time in the enormous, windowless rooms. During the endless nights she felt herself losing her mind, as the madwomen screamed in the asylum next door. She was ashamed of their custom of setting the banquet table every day with embroidered tablecloths, silver service, and funereal candelabra so that five phantoms could dine on café con leche and crullers. She detested the rosary at dusk, the affected table etiquette, the constant criticism of the way she held her silverware, the way she walked in mystical strides like a woman of the streets, the way she dressed as if she were in the circus, and even the rustic way she treated her husband and nursed her child without covering her breast with her mantilla. When she issued her first invitations to five o’clock tea, with little imperial cakes and candied flowers, in accordance with recent English fashion, Doña Blanca objected to serving remedies for sweating out a fever in her house instead of chocolate with aged cheese and rounded loaves of cassava bread. Not even dreams escaped her notice. One morning when Fermina Daza said she had dreamed about a naked stranger who walked through the salons of the palace scattering fistfuls of ashes, Doña Blanca cut her off:
“A decent woman cannot have that kind of dream.”
Along with the feeling of always being in someone else’s house came two even greater misfortunes. One was the almost daily diet of eggplant in all its forms, which Doña Blanca refused to vary out of respect for her dead husband, and which Fermina Daza refused to eat. She had despised eggplants ever since she was a little girl, even before she had tasted them, because it always seemed to her that they were the color of poison. Only now she had to admit that in this case something had changed for the better in her life, because at the age of five she had said the same thing at the table, and her father had forced her to eat the entire casserole intended for six people. She thought she was going to die, first because she vomited pulverized eggplant and then because of the cupful of castor oil she had to take as a cure for the punishment. Both things were confused in her memory as a single purgative, as much for the taste as for her terror of the poison, and at the abominable lunches in the palace of the Marquis de Casalduero she had to look away so as not to repay their kindness with the icy nausea of castor oil.
The other misfortune was the harp. One day, very conscious of what she meant, Doña Blanca had said: “I do not believe in decent women who do not know how to play the piano.” It was an order that even her son tried to dispute, for the best years of his childhood had been spent in the galley slavery of piano lessons, although as an adult he would be grateful for them. He could not imagine his wife, with her character, subjected to the same punishment at the age of twenty-five. But the only concession he could wring from his mother, with the puerile argument that it was the instrument of the angels, was to substitute the harp for the piano. And so it was that they brought a magnificent harp from Vienna that seemed to be gold and sounded as if it were, and that was one of the most valued heirlooms in the Museum of the City until it and all it contained were consumed in flames. Fermina Daza submitted to this deluxe prison sentence in an attempt to avoid catastrophe with one final sacrifice. She began to study with a teacher of teachers, whom they brought for that purpose from the city of Mompox, and who died unexpectedly two weeks later, and she continued for several years with the best musician at the seminary, whose gravedigger’s breath distorted her arpeggios.
She herself was surprised at her obedience. For although she did not admit it in her innermost thoughts, or in the silent arguments she had with her husband during the hours they had once devoted to love, she had been caught up more quickly than she had believed in the tangle of conventions and prejudices of her new world. At first she had a ritual phrase that affirmed her freedom of thought: “To hell with a fan when the wind is blowing.” But later, jealous of her carefully won privileges, fearful of embarrassment and scorn, she demonstrated her willingness to endure even humiliation in the hope that God would at last take pity on Doña Blanca, who never tired of begging Him in her prayers to send her death.