Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 32)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If anything vexed her, it was the perpetual chain of daily meals. For they not only had to be served on time: they had to be perfect, and they had to be just what he wanted to eat, without his having to be asked. If she ever did ask, in one of the innumerable useless ceremonies of their domestic ritual, he would not even look up from the newspaper and would reply: “Anything.” In his amiable way he was telling the truth, because one could not imagine a less despotic husband. But when it was time to eat, it could not be anything, but just what he wanted, and with no defects: the meat should not taste of meat, and the fish should not taste of fish, and the pork should not taste of mange, and the chicken should not taste of feathers. Even when it was not the season for asparagus, it had to be found regardless of cost, so that he could take pleasure in the vapors of his own fragrant urine. She did not blame him: she blamed life. But he was an implacable protagonist in that life. At the mere hint of a doubt, he would push aside his plate and say: “This meal has been prepared without love.” In that sphere he would achieve moments of fantastic inspiration. Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, saying only: “This stuff tastes of window.” Both she and the servants were surprised because they had never heard of anyone who had drunk boiled window, but when they tried the tea in an effort to understand, they understood: it did taste of window.
He was a perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, or turned out a light, or closed a door. In the morning darkness, when he found a button missing from his clothes, she would hear him say: “A man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew on his buttons.” Every day, at his first swallow of coffee and at his first spoonful of soup, he would break into a heartrending howl that no longer frightened anyone, and then unburden himself: “The day I leave this house, you will know it is because I grew tired of always having a burned mouth.” He would say that they never prepared lunches as appetizing and unusual as on the days when he could not eat because he had taken a laxative, and he was so convinced that this was treachery on the part of his wife that in the end he refused to take a purgative unless she took one with him.
Tired of his lack of understanding, she asked him for an unusual birthday gift: that for one day he would take care of the domestic chores. He accepted in amusement, and indeed took charge of the house at dawn. He served a splendid breakfast, but he forgot that fried eggs did not agree with her and that she did not drink café con leche. Then he ordered a birthday luncheon for eight guests and gave instructions for tidying the house, and he tried so hard to manage better than she did that before noon he had to capitulate without a trace of embarrassment. From the first moment he realized he did not have the slightest idea where anything was, above all in the kitchen, and the servants let him upset everything to find each item, for they were playing the game too. At ten o’clock no decisions had been made regarding lunch because the housecleaning was not finished yet, the bedroom was not straightened, the bathroom was not scrubbed; he forgot to replace the toilet paper, change the sheets, and send the coachmen for the children, and he confused the servants’ duties: he told the cook to make the beds and set the chambermaids to cooking. At eleven o’clock, when the guests were about to arrive, the chaos in the house was such that Fermina Daza resumed command, laughing out loud, not with the triumphant attitude she would have liked but shaken instead with compassion for the domestic helplessness of her husband. He was bitter as he offered the argument he always used: “Things did not go as badly for me as they would for you if you tried to cure the sick.” But it was a useful lesson, and not for him alone. Over the years they both reached the same wise conclusion by different paths: it was not possible to live together in any other way, or love in any other way, and nothing in this world was more difficult than love. In the fullness of her new life, Fermina Daza would see Florentino Ariza on various public occasions, with more frequency as he improved his position, but she learned to see him with so much naturalness that more than once, in sheer distraction, she forgot to greet him. She heard about him often, because in the world of business his cautious but inexorable advance in the R.C.C. was a constant topic of conversation. She saw him improve his manners, his timidity was passed off as a certain enigmatic distance, a slight increase in weight suited him, as did the slowness of age, and he had known how to handle his absolute baldness with dignity. The only area in which he persisted in defying time and fashion was in his somber attire, his anachronistic frock coats, his unique hat, the poet’s string ties from his mother’s notions shop, his sinister umbrella. Fermina Daza grew accustomed to seeing him with other eyes, and in the end she did not connect him to the languid adolescent who would sit and sigh for her under the gusts of yellow leaves in the Park of the Evangels. In any case, she never saw him with indifference, and she was always pleased by the good news she heard about him, because that helped to alleviate her guilt.
However, when she thought he was completely erased from her memory, he reappeared where she least expected him, a phantom of her nostalgia. It was during the first glimmering of old age, when she began to feel that something irreparable had occurred in her life whenever she heard thunder before the rain. It was the incurable wound of solitary, stony, punctual thunder that would sound every afternoon in October at three o’clock in the Sierra Villanueva, a memory that was becoming more vivid as the years went by. While more recent events blurred in just a few days, the memories of her legendary journey through Cousin Hildebranda’s province were as sharp as if they had happened yesterday, and they had the perverse clarity of nostalgia. She remembered Manaure, in the mountains, its one straight, green street, its birds of good omen, the haunted house where she would wake to find her nightgown soaked by the endless tears of Petra Morales, who had died of love many years before in the same bed where she lay sleeping. She remembered the taste of the guavas, which had never been the same again, the warning thunder, which had been so intense that its sound was confused with the sound of rain, the topaz afternoons in San Juan del César when she would go walking with her court of excited cousins and clench her teeth so that her heart would not leap out of her mouth as they approached the telegraph office. She had to sell her father’s house because she could not bear the pain of her adolescence, the view of the desolate little park from the balcony, the sibylline fragrance of gardenias on hot nights, the frightening face of an old lady on the February afternoon when her fate was decided, and regardless of where she turned her memory of those times, she would find herself face to face with Florentino Ariza. But she always had enough serenity to know that they were not memories of love or repentance, but the image of a sorrow that left a trail of tears on her cheeks. Without realizing it, she was menaced by the same trap of pity that had been the downfall of so many of Florentino Ariza’s defenseless victims.
She clung to her husband. And it was just at the time when he needed her most, because he suffered the disadvantage of being ten years ahead of her as he stumbled alone through the mists of old age, with the even greater disadvantage of being a man and weaker than she was. In the end they knew each other so well that by the time they had been married for thirty years they were like a single divided being, and they felt uncomfortable at the frequency with which they guessed each other’s thoughts without intending to, or the ridiculous accident of one of them anticipating in public what the other was going to say. Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.
ON THE OCCASION of the celebration of the new century, there was an innovative program of public ceremonies, the most memorable of which was the first journey in a balloon, the fruit of the boundless initiative of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Half the city gathered on the Arsenal Beach to express their wonderment at the ascent of the enormous balloon made of taffeta in the colors of the flag, which carried the first airmail to San Juan de la Ciénaga, some thirty leagues to the northeast as the crow flies. Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife, who had experienced the excitement of flight at the World’s Fair in Paris, were the first to climb into the wicker basket, followed by the pilot and six distinguished guests. They were carrying a letter from the Governor of the Province to the municipal officials of San Juan de la Ciénaga, in which it was documented for all time that this was the first mail transported through the air. A journalist from the Commercial Daily asked Dr. Juvenal Urbino for his final words in the event he perished during the adventure, and he did not even take the time to think about the answer that would earn him so much abuse.
“In my opinion,” he said, “the nineteenth century is passing for everyone except us.” Lost in the guileless crowd that sang the national anthem as the balloon gained altitude, Florentino Ariza felt himself in agreement with the person whose comments he heard over the din, to the effect that this was not a suitable exploit for a woman, least of all one as old as Fermina Daza. But it was not so dangerous after all. Or at least not so much dangerous as depressing. The balloon reached its destination without incident after a peaceful trip through an incredible blue sky. They flew well and very low, with a calm, favorable wind, first along the spurs of the snow-covered mountains and then over the vastness of the Great Swamp.
From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias, the most beautiful in the world, abandoned by its inhabitants because of the cholera panic after three centuries of resistance to the sieges of the English and the atrocities of the buccaneers. They saw the walls still intact, the brambles in the streets, the fortifications devoured by heartsease, the marble palaces and the golden altars and the Viceroys rotting with plague inside their armor.
They flew over the lake dwellings of the Trojas in Cataca, painted in lunatic colors, with pens holding iguanas raised for food and balsam apples and crepe myrtle hanging in the lacustrine gardens. Excited by everyone’s shouting, hundreds of naked children plunged into the water, jumping out of windows, jumping from the roofs of the houses and from the canoes that they handled with astonishing skill, and diving like shad to recover the bundles of clothing, the bottles of cough syrup, the beneficent food that the beautiful lady with the feathered hat threw to them from the basket of the balloon.
They flew over the dark ocean of the banana plantations, whose silence reached them like a lethal vapor, and Fermina Daza remembered herself at the age of three, perhaps four, walking through the shadowy forest holding the hand of her mother, who was almost a girl herself, surrounded by other women dressed in muslin, just like her mother, with white parasols and hats made of gauze. The pilot, who was observing the world through a spyglass, said: “They seem dead.” He passed the spyglass to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who saw the oxcarts in the cultivated fields, the boundary lines of the railroad tracks, the blighted irrigation ditches, and wherever he looked he saw human bodies. Someone said that the cholera was ravaging the villages of the Great Swamp. Dr. Urbino, as he spoke, continued to look through the spyglass.
“Well, it must be a very special form of cholera,” he said, “because every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of the neck.”
A short while later they flew over a foaming sea, and they landed without incident on a broad, hot beach whose surface, cracked with niter burned like fire. The officials were there with no more protection against the sun than ordinary umbrellas, the elementary schools were there waving little flags in time to the music, and the beauty queens with scorched flowers and crowns made of gold cardboard, and the brass band of the prosperous town of Gayra, which in those days was the best along the Caribbean coast. All that Fermina Daza wanted was to see her birthplace again, to confront it with her earliest memories, but no one was allowed to go there because of the dangers of the plague. Dr. Juvenal Urbino delivered the historic letter, which was then mislaid among other papers and never seen again, and the entire delegation almost suffocated in the tedium of the speeches. The pilot could not make the balloon ascend again, and at last they were led on muleback to the dock at Pueblo Viejo, where the swamp met the sea. Fermina Daza was sure she had passed through there with her mother when she was very young, in a cart drawn by a team of oxen. When she was older, she had repeated the story several times to her father, who died insisting that she could not possibly recall that.
“I remember the trip very well, and what you say is accurate,” he told her, “but it happened at least five years before you were born.”
Three days later the members of the balloon expedition, devastated by a bad night of storms, returned to their port of origin, where they received a heroes’ welcome. Lost in the crowd, of course, was Florentino Ariza, who recognized the traces of terror on Fermina Daza’s face. Nevertheless he saw her again that same afternoon in a cycling exhibition that was also sponsored by her husband, and she showed no sign of fatigue. She rode an uncommon velocipede that resembled something from a circus, with a very high front wheel, over which she was seated, and a very small back wheel that gave almost no support. She wore a pair of loose trousers trimmed in red, which scandalized the older ladies and disconcerted the gentlemen, but no one was indifferent to her skill.
That, along with so many other ephemeral images in the course of so many years, would suddenly appear to Florentino Ariza at the whim of fate, and disappear again in the same way, leaving behind a throb of longing in his heart. Taken together, they marked the passage of his life, for he experienced the cruelty of time not so much in his own flesh as in the imperceptible changes he discerned in Fermina Daza each time he saw her.
One night he went to Don Sancho’s Inn, an elegant colonial restaurant, and sat in the most remote corner, as was his custom when he ate his frugal meals alone. All at once, in the large mirror on the back wall, he caught a glimpse of Fermina Daza sitting at a table with her husband and two other couples, at an angle that allowed him to see her reflected in all her splendor. She was unguarded, she engaged in conversation with grace and laughter that exploded like fireworks, and her beauty was more radiant under the enormous teardrop chandeliers: once again, Alice had gone through the looking glass.
Holding his breath, Florentino Ariza observed her at his pleasure: he saw her eat, he saw her hardly touch her wine, he saw her joke with the fourth in the line of Don Sanchos; from his solitary table he shared a moment of her life, and for more than an hour he lingered, unseen, in the forbidden precincts of her intimacy. Then he drank four more cups of coffee to pass the time until he saw her leave with the rest of the group. They passed so close to him that he could distinguish her scent among the clouds of other perfumes worn by her companions. From that night on, and for almost a year afterward, he laid unrelenting siege to the owner of the inn, offering him whatever he wanted, money or favors or whatever he desired most in life, if he would sell him the mirror. It was not easy, because old Don Sancho believed the legend that the beautiful frame, carved by Viennese cabinetmakers, was the twin of another, which had belonged to Marie Antoinette and had disappeared without a trace: a pair of unique jewels. When at last he surrendered, Florentino Ariza hung the mirror in his house, not for the exquisite frame but because of the place inside that for two hours had been occupied by her beloved reflection.