Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 30)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Dr. Urbino justified his own weakness with grave arguments, not even asking himself if they were in conflict with the Church. He would not admit that the difficulties with his wife had their origin in the rarefied air of the house, but blamed them on the very nature of matrimony: an absurd invention that could exist only by the infinite grace of God. It was against all scientific reason for two people who hardly knew each other, with no ties at all between them, with different characters, different upbringings, and even different genders, to suddenly find themselves committed to living together, to sleeping in the same bed, to sharing two destinies that perhaps were fated to go in opposite directions. He would say: “The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.” And worst of all was theirs, arising out of two opposing classes, in a city that still dreamed of the return of the Viceroys. The only possible bond was something as improbable and fickle as love, if there was any, and in their case there was none when they married, and when they were on the verge of inventing it, fate had done nothing more than confront them with reality.
That was the condition of their lives during the period of the harp. They had left behind the delicious coincidences of her coming in while he was taking a bath, when, despite the arguments and the poisonous eggplant, and despite his demented sisters and the mother who bore them, he still had enough love to ask her to soap him. She began to do it with the crumbs of love that still remained from Europe, and both allowed themselves to be betrayed by memories, softening without wanting to, desiring each other without saying so, and at last they would die of love on the floor, spattered with fragrant suds, as they heard the maids talking about them in the laundry room: “If they don’t have more children it’s because they don’t fuck.” From time to time, when they came home from a wild fiesta, the nostalgia crouching behind the door would knock them down with one blow of its paw, and then there would be a marvelous explosion in which everything was the way it used to be and for five minutes they were once again the uninhibited lovers of their honeymoon.
But except for those rare occasions, one of them was always more tired than the other when it was time to go to bed. She would dawdle in the bathroom, rolling her cigarettes in perfumed paper, smoking alone, relapsing into her consolatory love as she did when she was young and free in her own house, mistress of her own body. She always had a headache, or it was too hot, always, or she pretended to be asleep, or she had her period again, her period, always her period. So much so that Dr. Urbino had dared to say in class, only for the relief of unburdening himself without confession, that after ten years of marriage women had their periods as often as three times a week. Misfortune piled on misfortune, and in the worst of those years Fermina Daza had to face what was bound to come sooner or later: the truth of her father’s fabulous and always mysterious dealings. The Governor of the Province made an appointment with Juvenal Urbino in his office to bring him up to date on the excesses of his father-in-law, which he summed up in a single sentence: “There is no law, human or divine, that this man has not ignored.” Some of his most serious schemes had been carried out in the shadow of his son-in-law’s prestige, and it would have been difficult to believe that he and his wife knew nothing about them. Realizing that the only reputation to protect was his own, because it was the only one still standing, Dr. Juvenal Urbino intervened with all the weight of his prestige, and he succeeded in covering up the scandal with his word of honor. So that Lorenzo Daza left the country on the first boat, never to return. He went back to his native country as if it were one of those little trips one takes from time to time to ward off nostalgia, and at the bottom of that appearance there was some truth: for a long time he had boarded ships from his country just to drink a glass of water from the cisterns filled with the rains of the village where he was born. He left without having his arm twisted, protesting his innocence, and still trying to convince his son-in-law that he had been the victim of a political conspiracy. He left crying for his girl, as he had called Fermina Daza since her marriage, crying for his grandson, for the land in which he had become rich and free and where, on the basis of his shady dealings, he had won the power to turn his daughter into an exquisite lady. He left old and sick, but still he lived much longer than any of his victims might have desired. Fermina Daza could not repress a sigh of relief when she received the news of his death, and in order to avoid questions she did not wear mourning, but for several months she wept with mute fury without knowing why when she locked herself in the bathroom to smoke, and it was because she was crying for him.
The most absurd element in their situation was that they never seemed so happy in public as during those years of misery. For this was the time of their greatest victories over the subterranean hostility of a milieu that resisted accepting them as they were: different and modern, and for that reason transgressors against the traditional order. That, however, had been the easy part for Fermina Daza. Life in the world, which had caused her so much uncertainty before she was familiar with it, was nothing more than a system of atavistic contracts, banal ceremonies, preordained words, with which people entertained each other in society in order not to commit murder. The dominant sign in that paradise of provincial frivolity was fear of the unknown. She had defined it in a simpler way: “The problem in public life is learning to overcome terror; the problem in married life is learning to overcome boredom.” She had made this sudden discovery with the clarity of a revelation when, trailing her endless bridal train behind her, she had entered the vast salon of the Social Club, where the air was thin with the mingled scent of so many flowers, the brilliance of the waltzes, the tumult of perspiring men and tremulous women who looked at her not knowing how they were going to exorcise the dazzling menace that had come to them from the outside world. She had just turned twenty-one and had done little more than leave her house to go to school, but with one look around her she understood that her adversaries were not convulsed with hatred but paralyzed by fear. Instead of frightening them even more, as she was already doing, she had the compassion to help them learn to know her. They were no different from what she wanted them to be, just as in the case of cities, which did not seem better or worse to her, but only as she made them in her heart. Despite the perpetual rain, the sordid merchants, and the Homeric vulgarity of its carriage drivers, she would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years. Dr. Urbino, for his part, commanded respect with the same weapons that were used against him, except that his were wielded with more intelligence and with calculated solemnity. Nothing happened without them: civic exhibitions, the Poetic Festival, artistic events, charity raffles, patriotic ceremonies, the first journey in a balloon. They were there for everything, and almost always from its inception and at the forefront. During those unfortunate years no one could have imagined anyone happier than they or a marriage more harmonious than theirs.
The house left by her father gave Fermina Daza a refuge from the asphyxiation of the family palace. As soon as she could escape from public view, she would go in secret to the Park of the Evangels, and there she would visit with new friends and some old ones from school or the painting classes: an innocent substitute for infidelity. She spent tranquil hours as a single mother, surrounded by what remained of her girlhood memories. She replaced the perfumed crows, found cats on the street and placed them in the care of Gala Placidia, who by this time was old and somewhat slowed by rheumatism but still willing to bring the house back to life. She opened the sewing room where Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, where Dr. Juvenal Urbino had her stick out her tongue so that he could try to read her heart, and she turned it into a sanctuary of the past. One winter afternoon she went to close the balcony because a heavy storm was threatening, and she saw Florentino Ariza on his bench under the almond trees in the little park, with his father’s suit altered to fit him and his book open on his lap, but this time she did not see him as she had seen him by accident on various occasions, but at the age at which he remained in her memory. She was afraid that the vision was an omen of death, and she was grief-stricken. She dared to tell herself that perhaps she would have been happier with him, alone with him in that house she had restored for him with as much love as he had felt when he restored his house for her, and that simple hypothesis dismayed her because it permitted her to realize the extreme of unhappiness she had reached. Then she summoned her last strength and obliged her husband to talk to her without evasion, to confront her, to argue with her, to cry with her in rage at the loss of paradise, until they heard the last rooster crow, and the light filtered in through the lace curtains of the palace, and the sun rose, and her husband, puffy with so much talk, exhausted with lack of sleep, his heart fortified with so much weeping, laced his shoes, tightened his belt, fastened everything that remained to him of his manhood, and told her yes, my love, they were going to look for the love they had lost in Europe: starting tomorrow and forever after. It was such a firm decision that he arranged with the Treasury Bank, his general administrator, for the immediate liquidation of the vast family fortune, which was dispersed, and had been from the very beginning, in all kinds of businesses, investments, and long-term, sacred bonds, and which only he knew was not as excessive as legend would have it: just large enough so one did not need to think about it. What there was of it was converted into stamped gold, to be invested little by little in his foreign bank accounts until he and his wife would own nothing in this harsh country, not even a plot of ground to die on.
And yet Florentino Ariza actually existed, contrary to what she had decided to believe. He was on the pier where the French ocean liner was docked when she arrived with her husband and child in the landau drawn by the golden horses, and he saw them emerge as he had so often seen them at public ceremonies: perfect. They were leaving with their son, raised in such a way that one could already see what he would be like as an adult: and so he was. Juvenal Urbino greeted Florentino Ariza with a joyous wave of his hat: “We’re off to conquer Flanders.” Fermina Daza nodded, and Florentino Ariza took off his hat and made a slight bow, and she looked at him without the slightest compassion for the premature ravages of baldness. There he was, just as she saw him: the shadow of someone she had never met.
These were not the best times for Florentino Ariza either. In addition to his work, which grew more and more intense, and the tedium of his furtive hunting, and the dead calm of the years, there was also the final crisis of Tránsito Ariza, whose mind had been left almost without memories, almost a blank, to the point where she would turn to him at times, see him reading in the armchair he always sat in, and ask him in surprise: “And whose son are you?” He would always reply with the truth, but she would interrupt him again without delay:
“And tell me something, my boy,” she would ask. “Who am I?”
She had grown so fat that she could not move, and she spent the day in the notions shop, where there was no longer anything to sell, primping and dressing in finery from the time she awoke with the first roosters until the following dawn, for she slept very little. She would put garlands of flowers on her head, paint her lips, powder her face and arms, and at last she would ask whoever was with her, “Who am I now?” The neighbors knew that she always expected the same reply: “You are Little Roachie Martínez.” This identity, stolen from a character in a children’s story, was the only one that satisfied her. She continued to rock and to fan herself with long pink feathers, until she began all over again: the crown of paper flowers, violet on her eyelids, red on
her lips, dead white on her face. And again the question to whoever was nearby: “Who am I now?” When she became the laughingstock of the neighborhood, Florentino Ariza had the counter and the storage drawers of the old notions shop dismantled in one night, and the street door sealed, and the space arranged just as he had heard her describe Roachie Martínez’s bedroom, and she never asked again who she was. At the suggestion of Uncle Leo XII, he found an older woman to take care of her, but the poor thing was always more asleep than awake, and at times she gave the impression that she, too, forgot who she was. So that Florentino Ariza would stay home from the time he left the office until he managed to put his mother to sleep. He no longer played dominoes at the Commercial Club, and for a long time he did not visit the few women friends he had continued to see, for something very profound had changed in his heart after his dreadful meeting with Olimpia Zuleta.
It was as if he had been struck by lightning. Florentino Ariza had just taken Uncle Leo XII home during one of those October storms that would leave us reeling, when he saw from his carriage a slight, very agile girl in a dress covered with organza ruffles that looked like a bridal gown. He saw her running in alarm from one side of the street to the other, because the wind had snatched away her parasol and was blowing it out to sea. He rescued her in his carriage and went out of his way to take her to her house, an old converted hermitage that faced the open sea and whose patio, visible from the street, was full of pigeon coops. On the way, she told him that she had been married less than a year to a man who sold trinkets in the market, whom Florentino Ariza had often seen on his company’s boats unloading cartons of all kinds of salable merchandise and with a multitude of pigeons in a wicker cage of the sort mothers used on riverboats for carrying infants. Olimpia Zuleta seemed to belong to the wasp family, not only because of her high buttocks and meager bosom, but because of everything about her: her hair like copper wire, her freckles, her round, animated eyes that were farther apart than normal, and her melodious voice that she used only for saying intelligent and amusing things. Florentino Ariza thought she was more witty than attractive, and he forgot her as soon as he left her at her house, where she lived with her husband, his father, and other members of his family.
A few days later he saw her husband at the port, loading merchandise instead of unloading it, and when the ship weighed anchor Florentino heard, with great clarity, the voice of the devil in his ear. That afternoon, after taking Uncle Leo XII home, he passed by Olimpia Zuleta’s house as if by accident, and he saw her over the fence, feeding the noisy pigeons. He called to her from his carriage: “How much for a pigeon?” She recognized him and answered in a merry voice: “They are not for sale.” He asked: “Then what must I do to get one?” Still feeding the pigeons, she replied: “You drive her back to the coop when you find her lost in a storm.” So that Florentino Ariza arrived home that night with a thank-you gift from Olimpia Zuleta: a carrier pigeon with a metal ring around its leg.