Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 34)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 34

Although they maintained a formal correspondence concerning their children and other household matters, almost two years went by before either one could find a way back that was not mined with pride. During the second year, the children went to spend their school vacation in Flores de María, and Fermina Daza did the impossible and appeared content with her new life. That at least was the conclusion drawn by Juvenal Urbino from his son’s letters. Moreover, at that time the Bishop of Riohacha went there on a pastoral visit, riding under the pallium on his celebrated white mule with the trappings embroidered in gold. Behind him came pilgrims from remote regions, musicians playing accordions, peddlers selling food and amulets; and for three days the ranch was overflowing with the crippled and the hopeless, who in reality did not come for the learned sermons and the plenary indulgences but for the favors of the mule who, it was said, performed miracles behind his master’s back. The Bishop had frequented the home of the Urbino de la Calle family ever since his days as an ordinary priest, and one afternoon he escaped from the public festivities to have lunch at Hildebranda’s ranch. After the meal, during which they spoke only of earthly matters, he took Fermina Daza aside and asked to hear her confession. She refused in an amiable but firm manner, with the explicit argument that she had nothing to repent of. Although it was not her purpose, at least not her conscious purpose, she was certain that her answer would reach the appropriate ears.

Dr. Juvenal Urbino used to say, not without a certain cynicism, that it was not he who was to blame for those two bitter years of his life but his wife’s bad habit of smelling the clothes her family took off, and the clothes that she herself took off, so that she could tell by the odor if they needed to be laundered even though they might appear to be clean. She had done this ever since she was a girl, and she never thought it worthy of comment until her husband realized what she was doing on their wedding night. He also knew that she locked herself in the bathroom at least three times a day to smoke, but this did not attract his attention because the women of his class were in the habit of locking themselves away in groups to talk about men and smoke, and even to drink as much as two liters of aguardiente until they had passed out on the floor in a brickmason’s drunken stupor. But her habit of sniffing at all the clothing she happened across seemed to him not only inappropriate but unhealthy as well. She took it as a joke, which is what she did with everything she did not care to discuss, and she said that God had not put that diligent oriole’s beak on her face just for decoration. One morning, while she was at the market, the servants aroused the entire neighborhood in their search for her three-year-old son, who was not to be found anywhere in the house. She arrived in the middle of the panic, turned around two or three times like a tracking mastiff, and found the boy asleep in an armoire where no one thought he could possibly be hiding. When her astonished husband asked her how she had found him, she replied: “By the smell of caca.”

The truth is that her sense of smell not only served her in regard to washing clothes or finding lost children: it was the sense that oriented her in all areas of life, above all in her social life. Juvenal Urbino had observed this throughout his marriage, in particular at the beginning, when she was the parvenu in a milieu that had been prejudiced against her for three hundred years, and yet she had made her way through coral reefs as sharp as knives, not colliding with anyone, with a power over the world that could only be a supernatural instinct. That frightening faculty, which could just as well have had its origin in a millenarian wisdom as in a heart of stone, met its moment of misfortune one ill-fated Sunday before Mass when, out of simple habit, Fermina Daza sniffed the clothing her husband had worn the evening before and experienced the disturbing sensation that she had been in bed with another man.

First she smelled the jacket and the vest while she took the watch chain out of the buttonhole and removed the pencil holder and the billfold and the loose change from the pockets and placed everything on the dresser, and then she smelled the hemmed shirt as she removed the tiepin and the topaz cuff links and the gold collar button, and then she smelled the trousers as she removed the keyholder with its eleven keys and the penknife with its mother-of-pearl handle, and finally she smelled the underwear and the socks and the linen handkerchief with the embroidered monogram. Beyond any shadow of a doubt there was an odor in each of the articles that had not been there in all their years of life together, an odor impossible to define because it was not the scent of flowers or of artificial essences but of something peculiar to human nature. She said nothing, and she did not notice the odor every day, but she now sniffed at her husband’s clothing not to decide if it was ready to launder but with an unbearable anxiety that gnawed at her innermost being.

Fermina Daza did not know where to locate the odor of his clothing in her husband’s routine. It could not be placed between his morning class and lunch, for she supposed that no woman in her right mind would make hurried love at that time of day, least of all with a visitor, when the house still had to be cleaned, and the beds made, and the marketing done, and lunch prepared, and perhaps with the added worry that one of the children would be sent home early from school because somebody threw a stone at him and hurt his head and he would find her at eleven o’clock in the morning, naked in the unmade bed and, to make matters worse, with a doctor on top of her. She also knew that Dr. Juvenal Urbino made love only at night, better yet in absolute darkness, and as a last resort before breakfast when the first birds began to chirp. After that time, as he would say, it was more work than the pleasure of daytime love was worth to take off one’s clothes and put them back on again. So that the contamination of his clothing could occur only during one of his house calls or during some moment stolen from his nights of chess and films. This last possibility was difficult to prove, because unlike so many of her friends, Fermina Daza was too proud to spy on her husband or to ask someone else to do it for her. His schedule of house calls, which seemed best suited to infidelity, was also the easiest to keep an eye on, because Dr. Juvenal Urbino kept a detailed record of each of his patients, including the payment of his fees, from the first time he visited them until he ushered them out of this world with a final sign of the cross and some words for the salvation of their souls.

In the three weeks that followed, Fermina Daza did not find the odor in his clothing for a few days, she found it again when she least expected it, and then she found it, stronger than ever, for several days in a row, although one of those days was a Sunday when there had been a family gathering and the two of them had not been apart for even a moment. Contrary to her normal custom and even her own desires, she found herself in her husband’s office one afternoon as if she were someone else, doing something that she would never do, deciphering with an exquisite Bengalese magnifying glass his intricate notes on the house calls he had made during the last few months. It was the first time she had gone alone into that office, saturated with showers of creosote and crammed with books bound in the hides of unknown animals, blurred school pictures, honorary degrees, astrolabes, and elaborately worked daggers collected over the years: a secret sanctuary that she always considered the only part of her husband’s private life to which she had no access because it was not part of love, so that the few times she had been there she had gone with him, and the visits had always been very brief. She did not feel she had the right to go in alone, much less to engage in what seemed to be indecent prying. But there she was. She wanted to find the truth, and she searched for it with an anguish almost as great as her terrible fear of finding it, and she was driven by an irresistible wind even stronger than her innate haughtiness, even stronger than her dignity: an agony that bewitched her.
She was able to draw no conclusions, because her husband’s patients, except for mutual friends, were part of his private domain; they were people without identity, known not by their faces but by their pains, not by the color of their eyes or the evasions of their hearts but by the size of their livers, the coating on their tongues, the blood in their urine, the hallucinations of their feverish nights. They were people who believed in her husband, who believed they lived because of him when in reality they lived for him, and who in the end were reduced to a phrase written in his own hand at the bottom of the medical file: Be calm. God awaits you at the door. Fermina Daza left his study after two fruitless hours, with the feeling that she had allowed herself to be seduced by indecency. Urged on by her imagination, she began to discover changes in her husband. She found him evasive, without appetite at the table or in bed, prone to exasperation and ironic answers, and when he was at home he was no longer the tranquil man he had once been but a caged lion. For the first time since their marriage, she began to monitor the times he was late, to keep track of them to the minute, to tell him lies in order to learn the truth, but then she felt wounded to the quick by the contradictions. One night she awoke with a start, terrified by a vision of her husband staring at her in the darkness with eyes that seemed full of hatred. She had suffered a similar fright in her youth, when she had seen Florentino Ariza at the foot of her bed, but that apparition had been full of love, not hate. Besides, this time it was not fantasy: her husband was awake at two in the morning, sitting up in bed to watch her while she slept, but when she asked him why, he denied it. He lay back on the pillow and said: “You must have been dreaming.”

After that night, and after similar episodes that occurred during that time, when Fermina Daza could not tell for certain where reality ended and where illusion began, she had the overwhelming revelation that she was losing her mind. At last she realized that her husband had not taken Communion on the Thursday of Corpus Christi or on any Sunday in recent weeks, and he had not found time for that year’s retreats. When she asked him the reason for those unusual changes in his spiritual health, she received an evasive answer. This was the decisive clue, because he had not failed to take Communion on an important feast day since he had made his first Communion, at the age of eight. In this way she realized not only that her husband was in a state of mortal sin but that he had resolved to persist in it, since he did not go to his confessor for help. She had never imagined that she could suffer so much for something that seemed to be the absolute opposite of love, but she was suffering, and she resolved that the only way she could keep from dying was to burn out the nest of vipers that was poisoning her soul. And that is what she did. One afternoon she began to darn socks on the terrace while her husband was reading, as he did every day after his siesta. Suddenly she interrupted her work, pushed her eyeglasses up onto her forehead, and without any trace of harshness, she asked for an explanation:

He was immersed in L’Ile des pingouins, the novel that everyone was reading in those days, and he answered without surfacing: “Oui.” She insisted:
“Look at me.”
He did so, looking without seeing her through the fog of his reading glasses, but he did not have to take them off to feel burned by the raging fire in her eyes.
“What is going on?” he asked. “You know better than I,” she said. That was all she said. She lowered her glasses and continued darning socks. Dr. Juvenal Urbino knew then that the long hours of anguish were over. The moment had not been as he had foreseen it; rather than a seismic tremor in his heart, it was a calming blow, and a great relief that what was bound to happen sooner or later had happened sooner rather than later: the ghost of Miss Barbara Lynch had entered his house at last.

Dr. Juvenal Urbino had met her four months earlier as she waited her turn in the clinic of Misericordia Hospital, and he knew immediately that something irreparable had just occurred in his destiny. She was a tall, elegant, large-boned mulatta, with skin the color and softness of molasses, and that morning she wore a red dress with white polka dots and a broad-brimmed hat of the same fabric, which shaded her face down to her eyelids. Her sex seemed more pronounced than that of other human beings. Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not attend patients in the clinic, but whenever he passed by and had time to spare, he would go in to remind his more advanced students that there is no medicine better than a good diagnosis. So that he arranged to be present at the examination of the unforeseen mulatta, making certain that his pupils would not notice any gesture of his that did not appear to be casual and barely looking at her, but fixing her name and address with care in his memory. That afternoon, after his last house call, he had his carriage pass by the address that she had given in the consulting room, and in fact there she was, enjoying the coolness on her terrace. It was a typical Antillean house, painted yellow even to the tin roof, with burlap windows and pots of carnations and ferns hanging in the doorway. It rested on wooden pilings in the salt marshes of Mala Crianza. A troupial sang in the cage that hung from the eaves. Across the street was a primary school, and the children rushing out obliged the coachman to keep a tight hold on the reins so that the horse would not shy. It was a stroke of luck, for Miss Barbara Lynch had time to recognize the Doctor. She waved to him as if they were old friends, she invited him to have coffee while the confusion abated, and he was delighted to accept (although it was not his custom to drink coffee) and to listen to her talk about herself, which was the only thing that had interested him since the morning and the only thing that was going to interest him, without a moment’s respite, during the months to follow. Once, soon after he had married, a friend told him, with his wife present, that sooner or later he would have to confront a mad passion that could endanger the stability of his marriage. He, who thought he knew himself, knew the strength of his moral roots, had laughed at the prediction. And now it had come true.

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