Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 35)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Miss Barbara Lynch, Doctor of Theology, was the only child of the Reverend Jonathan B. Lynch, a lean black Protestant minister who rode on a mule through the povertystricken settlements in the salt marshes, preaching the word of one of the many gods that Dr. Juvenal Urbino wrote with a small g to distinguish them from his. She spoke good Spanish, with a certain roughness in the syntax, and her frequent slips heightened her charm. She would be twenty-eight years old in December, not long ago she had divorced another minister, who was a student of her father’s and to whom she had been unhappily married for two years, and she had no desire to repeat the offense. She said: “I have no more love than my troupial.” But Dr. Urbino was too serious to think that she said it with hidden intentions. On the contrary: he asked himself in bewilderment if so many opportunities coming together might not be one of God’s pitfalls, which he would then have to pay for dearly, but he dismissed the thought without delay as a piece of theological nonsense resulting from his state of confusion.
As he was about to leave, he made a casual remark about that morning’s medical consultation, knowing that nothing pleases patients more than talking about their ailments, and she was so splendid talking about hers that he promised he would return the next day, at four o’clock sharp, to examine her with greater care. She was dismayed: she knew that a doctor of his qualifications was far above her ability to pay, but he reassured her: “In this profession we try to have the rich pay for the poor.” Then he marked in his notebook: Miss Barbara Lynch, Mala Crianza Salt Marsh, Saturday, 4 p.m. Months later, Fermina Daza was to read that notation, augmented by details of the diagnosis, treatment, and evolution of the disease. The name attracted her attention, and it suddenly occurred to her that she was one of those dissolute artists from the New Orleans fruit boats, but the address made her think that she must come from Jamaica, a black woman, of course, and she eliminated her without a second thought as not being to her husband’s taste.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino came ten minutes early for the Saturday appointment, and Miss Lynch had not finished dressing to receive him. He had not felt so much tension since his days in Paris when he had to present himself for an oral examination. As she lay on her canvas bed, wearing a thin silk slip, Miss Lynch’s beauty was endless. Everything about her was large and intense: her siren’s thighs, her slow-burning skin, her astonished breasts, her diaphanous gums with their perfect teeth, her whole body radiating a vapor of good health that was the human odor Fermina Daza had discovered in her husband’s clothing. She had gone to the clinic because she suffered from something that she, with much charm, called “twisted colons,” and Dr. Urbino thought that it was a symptom that should not be ignored. So he palpated her internal organs with more intention than attention, and as he did so he discovered in amazement that this marvelous creature was as beautiful inside as out, and then he gave himself over to the delights of touch, no longer the best-qualified physician along the Caribbean coastline but a poor soul tormented by his tumultuous instincts. Only once before in his austere professional life had something similar happened to him, and that had been the day of his greatest shame, because the indignant patient had moved his hand away, sat up in bed, and said to him: “What you want may happen, but it will not be like this.” Miss Lynch, on the other hand, abandoned herself to his hands, and when she was certain that the Doctor was no longer thinking about his science, she said:
“I thought this not permitted by your ethics.”
He was as drenched by perspiration as if he had just stepped out of a pool wearing all his clothes, and he dried his hands and face with a towel.
“Our code of ethics supposes,” he said, “that we doctors are made of wood.”
“The fact I thought so does not mean you cannot do,” she said. “Just think what it mean for poor black woman like me to have such a famous man notice her.”
“I have not stopped thinking about you for an instant,” he said.
It was so tremulous a confession that it might have inspired pity. But she saved him from all harm with a laugh that lit up the bedroom.
“I know since I saw you in hospital, Doctor,” she said. “Black I am but not a fool.”
It was far from easy. Miss Lynch wanted her honor protected, she wanted security and love, in that order, and she believed that she deserved them. She gave Dr. Urbino the opportunity to seduce her but not to penetrate her inner sanctum, even when she was alone in the house. She would go no further than allowing him to repeat the ceremony of palpation and auscultation with all the ethical violations he could desire, but without taking off her clothes. For his part, he could not let go of the bait once he had bitten, and he continued his almost daily incursions. For reasons of a practical nature, it was close to impossible for him to maintain a continuing relationship with Miss Lynch, but he was too weak to stop, as he would later be too weak to go any further. This was his limit.
The Reverend Lynch did not lead a regular life, for he would ride away on his mule on the spur of the moment, carrying Bibles and evangelical pamphlets on one side and provisions on the other, and he would return when least expected. Another difficulty was the school across the street, for the children would recite their lessons as they looked out the windows, and what they saw with greatest clarity was the house across the way, with its doors and windows open wide from six o’clock in the morning, they saw Miss Lynch hanging the birdcage from the eaves so that the troupial could learn the recited lessons, they saw her wearing a bright-colored turban and going about her household tasks as she recited along with them in her brilliant Caribbean voice, and later they saw her sitting on the porch, reciting the afternoon psalms by herself in English.
They had to choose a time when the children were not there, and there were only two possibilities: the afternoon recess for lunch, between twelve and two, which was also when the Doctor had his lunch, or late in the afternoon, after the children had gone home. This was always the best time, although by then the Doctor had made his rounds and had only a few minutes to spare before it was time for him to eat with his family. The third problem, and the most serious for him, was his own situation. It was not possible for him to go there without his carriage, which was very well known and always had to wait outside her door. He could have made an accomplice of his coachman, as did most of his friends at the Social Club, but that was not in his nature. In fact, when his visits to Miss Lynch became too obvious, the liveried family coachman himself dared to ask if it would not be better for him to come back later so that the carriage would not spend so much time at her door. Dr. Urbino, in a sharp response that was not typical of him, cut him off.
“This is the first time since I know you that I have heard you say something you should not have,” he said. “Well, then: I will assume it was never said.”
There was no solution. In a city like this, it was impossible to hide an illness when the Doctor’s carriage stood at the door. At times the Doctor himself took the initiative and went on foot, if distance permitted, or in a hired carriage, to avoid malicious or premature assumptions. Such deceptions, however, were to little avail. Since the prescriptions ordered in pharmacies revealed the truth, Dr. Urbino would always prescribe counterfeit medicines along with the correct ones in order to preserve the sacred right of the sick to die in peace along with the secret of their illness. Similarly, he was able in various truthful ways to account for the presence of his carriage outside the house of Miss Lynch, but he could not allow it to stay there too long, least of all for the amount of time he would have desired, which was the rest of his life.
The world became a hell for him. For once the initial madness was sated, they both became aware of the risks involved, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino never had the resolve to face a scandal. In the deliriums of passion he promised everything, but when it was over, everything was left for later. On the other hand, as his desire to be with her grew, so did his fear of losing her, so that their meetings became more and more hurried and problematic. He thought about nothing else. He waited for the afternoons with unbearable longing, he forgot his other commitments, he forgot everything but her, but as his carriage approached the Mala Crianza salt marsh he prayed to God that an unforeseen obstacle would force it to drive past. He went to her in a state of such anguish that at times as he turned the corner he was glad to catch a glimpse of the woolly head of the Reverend Lynch, who read on the terrace while his daughter catechized neighborhood children in the living room with recited passages of scripture. Then he would go home relieved that he was not defying fate again, but later he would feel himself going mad with the desire for it to be five o’clock in the afternoon all day, every day.
So their love became impossible when the carriage at her door became too conspicuous, and after three months it became nothing less than ridiculous. Without time to say anything, Miss Lynch would go to the bedroom as soon as she saw her agitated lover walk in the door. She took the precaution of wearing a full skirt on the days she expected him, a charming skirt from Jamaica with red flowered ruffles, but with no underwear, nothing, in the belief that this convenience was going to help him ward off his fear. But he squandered everything she did to make him happy. Panting and drenched with perspiration, he rushed after her into the bedroom, throwing everything on the floor, his walking stick, his medical bag, his Panama hat, and he made panic-stricken love with his trousers down around his knees, with his jacket buttoned so that it would not get in his way, with his gold watch chain across his vest, with his shoes on, with everything on, and more concerned with leaving as soon as possible than with achieving pleasure. She was left dangling, barely at the entrance of her tunnel of solitude, while he was already buttoning up again, as exhausted as if he had made absolute love on the dividing line between life and death, when in reality he had accomplished no more than the physical act that is only a part of the feat of love. But he had finished in time: the exact time needed to give an injection during a routine visit. Then he returned home ashamed of his weakness, longing for death, cursing himself for the lack of courage that kept him from asking Fermina Daza to pull down his trousers and burn his ass on the brazier.
He did not eat, he said his prayers without conviction, in bed he pretended to continue his siesta reading while his wife walked round and round the house putting the world in order before going to bed. As he nodded over his book, he began to sink down into the inevitable mangrove swamp of Miss Lynch, into her air of a recumbent forest glade, his deathbed, and then he could think of nothing except tomorrow’s five minutes to five o’clock in the afternoon and her waiting for him in bed with nothing but the mound of her dark bush under her madwoman’s skirt from Jamaica: the hellish circle.
In the past few years he had become conscious of the burden of his own body. He recognized the symptoms. He had read about them in textbooks, he had seen them confirmed in real life, in older patients with no history of serious ailments who suddenly began to describe perfect syndromes that seemed to come straight from medical texts and yet turned out to be imaginary. His professor of children’s clinical medicine at La Salpêtrière had recommended pediatrics as the most honest specialization, because children become sick only when in fact they are sick, and they cannot communicate with the physician using conventional words but only with concrete symptoms of real diseases. After a certain age, however, adults either had the symptoms without the diseases or, what was worse, serious diseases with the symptoms of minor ones. He distracted them with palliatives, giving time enough time to teach them not to feel their ailments, so that they could live with them in the rubbish heap of old age. Dr. Juvenal Urbino never thought that a physician his age, who believed he had seen everything, would not be able to overcome the uneasy feeling that he was ill when he was not. Or what was worse, not believe he was, out of pure scientific prejudice, when perhaps he really was. At the age of forty, half in earnest and half in jest, he had said in class: “All I need in life is someone who understands me.” But when he found himself lost in the labyrinth of Miss Lynch, he no longer was jesting.
All the real or imaginary symptoms of his older patients made their appearance in his body. He felt the shape of his liver with such clarity that he could tell its size without touching it. He felt the dozing cat’s purr of his kidneys, he felt the iridescent brilliance of his vesicles, he felt the humming blood in his arteries. At times he awoke at dawn gasping for air, like a fish out of water. He had fluid in his heart. He felt it lose the beat for a moment, he felt it syncopate like a school marching band, once, twice, and then, because God is good, he felt it recover at last. But instead of having recourse to the same distracting remedies he gave to his patients, he went mad with terror. It was true: all he needed in life, even at the age of fifty-eight, was someone who understood him. So he turned to Fermina Daza, the person who loved him best and whom he loved best in the world, and with whom he had just eased his conscience.
For this occurred after she interrupted his afternoon reading to ask him to look at her, and he had the first indication that his hellish circle had been discovered. But he did not know how, because it would have been impossible for him to conceive of Fermina Daza’s learning the truth by smell alone. In any case, for a long time this had not been a good city for keeping secrets. Soon after the first home telephones were installed, several marriages that seemed stable were destroyed by anonymous tale-bearing calls, and a number of frightened families either canceled their service or refused to have a telephone for many years. Dr. Urbino knew that his wife had too much self-respect to allow so much as an attempt at anonymous betrayal by telephone, and he could not imagine anyone daring to try it under his own name. But he feared the old method: a note slipped under the door by an unknown hand could be effective, not only because it guaranteed the double anonymity of sender and receiver, but because its time-honored ancestry permitted one to attribute to it some kind of metaphysical connection to the designs of Divine Providence.
Jealousy was unknown in his house: during more than thirty years of conjugal peace, Dr. Urbino had often boasted in public–and until now it had been true–that he was like those Swedish matches that light only with their own box. But he did not know how a woman with as much pride, dignity, and strength of character as his wife would react in the face of proven infidelity. So that after looking at her as she had asked, nothing occurred to him but to lower his eyes again in order to hide his embarrassment and continue the pretense of being lost among the sweet, meandering rivers of Alca Island until he could think of something else. Fermina Daza, for her part, said nothing more either. When she finished darning the socks, she tossed everything into the sewing basket in no particular order, gave instructions in the kitchen for supper, and went to the bedroom.
Then he reached the admirable decision not to go to Miss Lynch’s house at five o’clock in the afternoon. The vows of eternal love, the dream of a discreet house for her alone where he could visit her with no unexpected interruptions, their unhurried happiness for as long as they lived–everything he had promised in the blazing heat of love was canceled forever after. The last thing Miss Lynch received from him was an emerald tiara in a little box wrapped in paper from the pharmacy, so that the coachman himself thought it was an emergency prescription and handed it to her with no comment, no message, nothing in writing. Dr. Urbino never saw her again, not even by accident, and God alone knows how much grief his heroic resolve cost him or how many bitter tears he had to shed behind the locked lavatory door in order to survive this private catastrophe. At five o’clock, instead of going to see her, he made a profound act of contrition before his confessor, and on the following Sunday he took Communion, his heart broken but his soul at peace.