Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 28)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Florentino Ariza always associated that scandalous event with the memory of an opulent stranger who sat beside him. He had noticed her at the beginning of the ceremony, but then he had forgotten her in the frightful suspense of anticipation. She attracted his attention because of her mother-of-pearl whiteness, her happy plump woman’s scent, her immense soprano’s bosom crowned by an artificial magnolia. She wore a very close-fitting black velvet dress, as black as her eager warm eyes, and her hair, caught at the nape of her neck with a gypsy comb, was blacker still. She wore pendant earrings, a matching necklace, and identical rings, shaped like sparkling roses, on several fingers. A beauty mark had been drawn with pencil on her right cheek. In the din of the final applause, she looked at Florentino Ariza with sincere grief.
“Believe me, my heart goes out to you,” she said to him.
Florentino Ariza was amazed, not because of the condolences, which he in fact deserved, but because of his overwhelming astonishment that anyone knew his secret. She explained: “I knew because of how the flower trembled in your lapel as they opened the envelopes.” She showed him the velvet magnolia in her hand, and she opened her heart to him.
“That is why I took off mine,” she said.
She was on the verge of tears because of his defeat, but Florentino Ariza raised her spirits with his instincts of a nocturnal hunter.
“Let us go someplace where we can cry together,” he said.
He accompanied her to her house. At the door, since it was almost midnight and there was no one on the street, he persuaded her to invite him in for a brandy while they looked at the scrapbooks and photograph albums, containing over ten years of public events, which she had told him she owned. It was an old trick even then, but this time it was guileless, because she was the one who had talked about her albums as they walked from the National Theater. They went in. The first thing Florentino Ariza observed in the living room was that the door to the only bedroom was open, and that the bed was huge and luxurious with a brocaded quilt and a headboard with brass foliage. That disturbed him. She must have realized it, for she crossed the living room and closed the bedroom door. Then she invited him to sit down on a flowered cretonne sofa where a sleeping cat was lying, and she placed her collection of albums on the coffee table. Florentino Ariza began to leaf through them in an unhurried way, thinking more about his next step than about what he was seeing, and then he looked up and saw that her eyes were full of tears. He advised her to cry to her heart’s content, and to feel no shame, for there was no greater relief than weeping, but he suggested that she loosen her bodice first. He hurried to help her, because her bodice was tightly fastened in the back with a long closure of crossed laces. He did not have to unlace them all, for the bodice burst open from sheer internal pressure, and her astronomical bosom was able to breathe freely.
Florentino Ariza, who had never lost the timidity of a novice even in comfortable circumstances, risked a superficial caress on her neck with the tips of his fingers, and she writhed and moaned like a spoiled child and did not stop crying. Then he kissed her on the same spot, just as softly, and he could not kiss her a second time because she turned toward him with all her monumental body, eager and warm, and they rolled in an embrace on the floor. The cat on the sofa awoke with a screech and jumped on top of them. They groped like desperate virgins and found each other any way they could, wallowing in the torn albums, fully dressed, soaked with sweat, and more concerned with avoiding the furious claws of the cat than with the disastrous love they were making. But beginning the following night, their scratches still bleeding, they continued to make love for several years.
When he realized that he had begun to love her, she was in the fullness of her years, and he was approaching his thirtieth birthday. Her name was Sara Noriega, and she had enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame in her youth when she won a competition with a collection of poems about love among the poor, a book that was never published. She was a teacher of deportment and civics in the public schools, and she lived on her salary in a rented flat in the motley Sweethearts’ Mews in the old Gethsemane District. She had had several occasional lovers, but none with intentions of matrimony, because it was difficult for a man of her time and place to marry a woman he had taken to bed. Nor did she cherish that dream again after her first formal fiancé, whom she loved with the almost demented passion of which one is capable at the age of eighteen, broke the engagement one week before the date they had set for the wedding, and left her to wander the limbo of abandoned brides. Or of used goods, as they used to say in those days. And yet that first experience, although cruel and short-lived, did not leave her bitter; rather, she had the overwhelming conviction that with or without marriage, or God, or the law, life was not worth living without a man in her bed. What Florentino Ariza liked best about her was that in order to reach the heights of glory, she had to suck on an infant’s pacifier while they made love. Eventually they had a string of them, in every size, shape, and color they could find in the market, and Sara Noriega hung them on the headboard so she could reach them without looking in her moments of extreme urgency. Although she was as free as he was, and perhaps would not have been opposed to making their relationship public, from the very first Florentino Ariza considered it a clandestine adventure. He would slip in by the back door, almost always very late at night, and sneak away on tiptoe just before dawn. He knew as well as she that in a crowded and subdivided building like hers the neighbors had to know more than they pretended. But although it was a mere formality, that was how Florentino Ariza was, how he would be with all women for the rest of his life. He never made a slip, with her or with any other woman; he never betrayed their confidence. He did not exaggerate: on only one occasion did he leave a compromising trace or written evidence, and this might have cost him his life. In truth, he always behaved as if he were the eternal husband of Fermina Daza, an unfaithful husband but a tenacious one, who fought endlessly to free himself from his servitude without causing her the displeasure of a betrayal.
Such secretiveness could not flourish without misapprehensions. Tránsito Ariza died in the conviction that the son she had conceived in love and raised for love was immune to any kind of love because of his first youthful misfortune. But many less benevolent people who were very close to him, who were familiar with his mysterious character and his fondness for mystic ceremonies and strange lotions, shared the suspicion that he was immune not to love but only to women. Florentino Ariza knew it and never did anything to disprove it. It did not worry Sara Noriega either. Like the countless other women who loved him, and even those who gave and received pleasure without loving him, she accepted him for what he really was: a man passing through.
He eventually showed up at her house at any hour, above all on Sunday mornings, the most peaceful time. She would leave whatever she was doing, no matter what it was, and devote her entire body to trying to make him happy in the enormous mythic bed that was always ready for him, and in which she never permitted the invocation of liturgical formalisms. Florentino Ariza did not understand how a single woman without a past could be so wise in the ways of men, or how she could move her sweet porpoise body with as much lightness and tenderness as if she were moving under water. She would defend herself, saying that love, no matter what else it might be, was a natural talent. She would say: “You are either born knowing how, or you never know.” Florentino Ariza writhed with retrogressive jealousy, thinking that perhaps she had more of a past than she pretended, but he had to swallow everything she said because he told her, as he told them all, that she had been his only lover. Among many other things that he did not like, he had to resign himself to having the furious cat in bed with them, although Sara Noriega had his claws removed so he would not tear them apart while they made love.
However, almost as much as rolling in bed until they were exhausted, she liked to devote the aftermath of love to the cult of poetry. She had an astonishing memory for the sentimental verses of her own time, which were sold in the street in pamphlet form for two centavos as soon as they were written, and she also pinned on the walls the poems she liked most, so that she could read them aloud whenever she wished. She had written versions of the deportment and civics texts in hendecasyllabic couplets, like those used for spelling, but she could not obtain official approval for them. Her declamatory passion was such that at times she continued to shout her recitation as they made love, and Florentino Ariza had to force a pacifier into her mouth, as one did with children to make them stop crying.
In the plenitude of their relationship, Florentino Ariza had asked himself which of the two was love: the turbulent bed or the peaceful Sunday afternoons, and Sara Noriega calmed him with the simple argument that love was everything they did naked. She said: “Spiritual love from the waist up and physical love from the waist down.” Sara Noriega thought this definition would be good for a poem about divided love, which they wrote together and which she submitted to the Fifth Poetic Festival, convinced that no participant had ever presented such an original poem. But she lost again.
She was in a rage as Florentino Ariza accompanied her to her house. For some reason she could not explain, she was convinced that Fermina Daza had plotted against her so that her poem would not win first prize. Florentino Ariza paid no attention to her. He had been in a somber mood ever since the awarding of the prizes, for he had not seen Fermina Daza in a long time, and that night he had the impression that she had undergone a profound change: for the first time one could tell just by looking at her that she was a mother. This came as no surprise to him, for he knew that her son was already in school. However, her maternal age had never seemed so apparent to him as it did that night, as much for the size of her waist and the slight shortness of breath when she walked as for the break in her voice when she read the list of prizewinners.
In an attempt to document his memories, he leafed through the albums of the Poetic Festivals while Sara Noriega prepared something to eat. He saw magazine photographs in color, yellowing postcards of the sort sold in arcades for souvenirs, and it was a kind of ghostly review of the fallacy of his own life. Until that time he had maintained the fiction that it was the world that was changing, and its customs and styles: everything but her. But that night he saw for the first time in a conscious way how Fermina Daza’s life was passing, and how his was passing, while he did nothing more than wait. He had never spoken about her to anyone, because he knew he was incapable or saying her name without everyone’s noticing the pallor of his lips. But that night, as he looked through the albums as he had done on so many other evenings of Sunday tedium, Sara Noriega made one of those casual observations that freeze the blood.
“She’s a whore,” she said.
She said it as she walked past him and saw a print of Fermina Daza disguised as a black panther at a masquerade ball, and she did not have to mention anyone by name for Florentino Ariza to know whom she was talking about. Fearing a revelation that would shake his very life, he hurried to a cautious defense. He objected that he knew Fermina Daza only from a distance, that they had never gone further than formal greetings, that he had no information about her private life, but was certain she was an admirable woman who had come out of nowhere and risen to the top by virtue of her own merits.
“By virtue of marrying a man she does not love for money,” interrupted Sara Noriega. “That’s the lowest kind of whore.” His mother had told Florentino Ariza the same thing, with less crudeness but with the same moral rigidity, when she tried to console him for his misfortunes. Shaken to the very core, he could find no appropriate response to Sara Noriega’s harshness, and he attempted to change the subject. But Sara Noriega would not allow that to happen until she had given vent to her feelings. In a flash of inspiration that she could not have explained, she was convinced that Fermina Daza had been the one behind the conspiracy to cheat her of the prize. There was no reason to think so: they did not know each other, they had never met, and Fermina Daza had nothing to do with the decision of the judges even though she was privy to their secrets. Sara Noriega said in a categorical manner: “We women intuit these things.” And that ended the discussion.
From that moment on, Florentino Ariza began to see her with different eyes. The years were passing for her too. Her abundant sexuality was withering without glory, her lovemaking was slowed by her sobbing, and her eyelids were beginning to darken with old bitterness. She was yesterday’s flower. Besides, in her fury at the defeat, she had lost count of her brandies. It was not her night: while they were eating their reheated coconut rice, she tried to establish how much each of them had contributed to the losing poem, in order to determine how many petals of the Golden Orchid would have gone to each one. This was not the first time they had amused themselves with Byzantine competitions, but he took advantage of the opportunity to speak through his own newly opened wound, and they became entangled in a mean-spirited argument that stirred up in both of them the rancor of almost five years of divided love.
At ten minutes before twelve, Sara Noriega climbed up on a chair to wind the pendulum clock, and she reset it on the hour, perhaps trying to tell him without saying so that it was time to leave. Then Florentino Ariza felt an urgent need to put a definitive end to that loveless relationship, and he looked for the opportunity to be the one to take the initiative: as he would always do. Praying that Sara Noriega would let him into her bed so that he could tell her no, that everything was over, he asked her to sit next to him when she finished winding the clock. But she preferred to keep her distance in the visitor’s easy chair. Then Florentino Ariza extended his index finger, wet with brandy, so that she could suck it, as she had liked to do in the past during their preambles to love. She refused.
“Not now,” she said. “I’m expecting someone.”
Ever since his rejection by Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza had learned to always keep the final decision for himself. In less bitter circumstances he would have persisted in his pursuit of Sara Noriega, certain of ending the evening rolling in bed with her, for he was convinced that once a woman goes to bed with a man, she will continue to go to bed with him whenever he desires, as long as he knows how to move her to passion each time. He had endured everything because of that conviction, he had overlooked everything, even the dirtiest dealings in love, so that he would not have to grant to any woman born of woman the opportunity to make the final decision. But that night he felt so humiliated that he gulped down the brandy in a single swallow, doing all he could to display anger, and left without saying goodbye. They never saw each other again.
The relationship with Sara Noriega was one of Florentino Ariza’s longest and most stable affairs, although it was not his only one during those five years. When he realized that he felt happy with her, above all in bed, but that she would never replace Fermina Daza, he had another outbreak of his nights as a solitary hunter, and he arranged matters so that he could portion out his time and strength as far as they would go. Sara Noriega, however, achieved the miracle of curing him for a time. At least now he could live without seeing Fermina Daza, instead of interrupting whatever he was doing at any hour of the day to search for her along the uncertain pathways of his presentiments, on the most unlikely streets, in unreal places where she could not possibly be, wandering without reason, with a longing in his breast that gave him no rest until he saw her, even for an instant. The break with Sara Noriega, however, revived his dormant grief, and once again he felt as he did on those afternoons of endless reading in the little park, but this time it was exacerbated by his urgent need for Dr. Juvenal Urbino to die.