Love in thhe Time of Cholera (Chapter 37)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Audible Chapter 12)
Almost two years after the disappearance of Fermina Daza, an impossible coincidence occurred, the sort that Tránsito Ariza would have characterized as one of God’s jokes. Florentino Ariza had not been impressed in any special way by the invention of moving pictures, but Leona Cassiani took him, unresisting, to the spectacular opening of Cabiria, whose reputation was based on the dialogues written by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The great open-air patio of Don Galileo Daconte, where on some nights one enjoyed the splendor of the stars more than the silent lovemaking on the screen, was filled to overflowing with a select public. Leona Cassiani followed the wandering plot with her heart in her mouth. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, was nodding his head in sleep because of the overwhelming tedium of the drama. At his back, a woman’s voice seemed to read his thoughts:
“My God, this is longer than sorrow!”
That was all she said, inhibited perhaps by the resonance of her voice in the darkness, for the custom of embellishing silent films with piano accompaniment had not yet been established here, and in the darkened enclosure all that one could hear was the projector murmuring like rain. Florentino Ariza did not think of God except in the most extreme circumstances, but now he thanked Him with all his heart. For even twenty fathoms underground he would instantly have recognized the husky voice he had carried in his soul ever since the afternoon when he heard her say in a swirl of yellow leaves in a solitary park: “Now go, and don’t come back until I tell you to.” He knew that she was sitting in the seat behind his, next to her inevitable husband, and he could detect her warm, even breathing, and he inhaled with love the air purified by the health of her breath. Instead of imagining her under attack by the devouring worms of death, as he had in his despondency of recent months, he recalled her at a radiant and joyful age, her belly rounded under the Minervan tunic with the seed of her first child. In utter detachment from the historical disasters that were crowding the screen, he did not need to turn around to see her in his imagination. He delighted in the scent of almonds that came wafting back to him from his innermost being, and he longed to know how she thought women in films should fall in love so that their loves would cause less pain than they did in life. Just before the film ended, he realized in a flash of exultation that he had never been so close, so long, to the one he loved so much.
When the lights went on, he waited for the others to stand up. Then he stood, unhurried, and turned around in a distracted way as he buttoned his vest that he always opened during a performance, and the four of them found themselves so close to one another that they would have been obliged to exchange greetings even if one of them had not wanted to. First Juvenal Urbino greeted Leona Cassiani, whom he knew well, and then he shook Florentino Ariza’s hand with his customary gallantry. Fermina Daza smiled at both of them with courtesy, only courtesy, but in any event with the smile of someone who had seen them often, who knew who they were, and who therefore did not need an introduction. Leona Cassiani responded with her mulatta grace. But Florentino Ariza did not know what to do, because he was flabbergasted at the sight of her.
She was another person. There was no sign in her face of the terrible disease that was in fashion, or of any other illness, and her body had kept the proportion and slenderness of her better days, but it was evident that the last two years had been as hard on her as ten difficult ones. Her short hair was becoming, with a curved wing on each cheek, but it was the color of aluminum, not honey, and behind her grandmother’s spectacles her beautiful lanceolate eyes had lost half a lifetime of light. Florentino Ariza saw her move away from her husband’s arm in the crowd that was leaving the theater, and he was surprised that she was in a public place wearing a poor woman’s mantilla and house slippers. But what moved him most was that her husband had to take her arm to help her at the exit, and even then she miscalculated the height of the step and almost tripped on the stairs at the door.
Florentino Ariza was very sensitive to the faltering steps of age. Even as a young man he would interrupt his reading of poetry in the park to observe elderly couples who helped each other across the street, and they were lessons in life that had aided him in detecting the laws of his own aging. At Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s time of life, that night at the film, men blossomed in a kind of autumnal youth, they seemed more dignified with their first gray hairs, they became witty and seductive, above all in the eyes of young women, while their withered wives had to clutch at their arms so as not to trip over their own shadows. A few years later, however, the husbands fell without warning down the precipice of a humiliating aging in body and soul, and then it was their wives who recovered and had to lead them by the arm as if they were blind men on charity, whispering in their ear, in order not to wound their masculine pride, that they should be careful, that there were three steps, not two, that there was a puddle in the middle of the street, that the shape lying across the sidewalk was a dead beggar, and with great difficulty helped them to cross the street as if it were the only ford across the last of life’s rivers. Florentino Ariza had seen himself reflected so often in that mirror that he was never as afraid of death as he was of reaching that humiliating age when he would have to be led on a woman’s arm. On that day, and only on that day, he knew he would have to renounce his hope of Fermina Daza.
The meeting frightened away sleep. Instead of driving Leona Cassiani in the carriage, he walked with her through the old city, where their footsteps echoed like horses’ hooves on the cobblestones. From time to time, fragments of fugitive voices escaped through the open balconies, bedroom confidences, sobs of love magnified by phantasmal acoustics and the hot fragrance of jasmine in the narrow, sleeping streets. Once again Florentino Ariza had to summon all his strength not to reveal to
Leona Cassiani his repressed love for Fermina Daza. They walked together with measured steps, loving each other like unhurried old sweethearts, she thinking about the charms of Cabiria and he thinking about his own misfortune. A man was singing on a balcony in the Plaza of the Customhouse, and his song was repeated throughout the area in a chain of echoes: When I was sailing across the immense waves of the sea. On Saints of Stone Street, just when he should have said good night at her door, Florentino Ariza asked Leona Cassiani to invite him in for a brandy. It was the second time he had made such a request to her under comparable circumstances. The first time, ten years before, she had said to him: “If you come in at this hour you will have to stay forever.” He did not go in. But he would do so now, even if he had to break his word afterward. Nevertheless, Leona Cassiani invited him in and asked for no promises.
That was how he found himself, when he least expected it, in the sanctuary of a love that had been extinguished before it was born. Her parents had died, her only brother had made his fortune in Curaçao, and she was living alone in the old family house. Years before, when he had still not renounced the hope of making her his lover, with the consent of her parents Florentino Ariza would visit her on Sundays, and sometimes until very late at night, and he had contributed so much to the household that he came to consider it his own. But that night after the film he had the feeling that his memory had been erased from the drawing room. The furniture had been moved, there were new prints hanging on the walls, and he thought that so many heartless changes had been made in order to perpetuate the certainty that he had never lived. The cat did not recognize him. Dismayed by the cruelty of oblivion, he said: “He does not remember me anymore.” But she replied over her shoulder, as she was fixing the brandies, that if he was bothered by that he could rest easy, because cats do not remember anyone.
Leaning back as they sat close together on the sofa, they spoke about themselves, about what they had been before they met one afternoon who knows how long ago on the muledrawn trolley. Their lives were spent in adjacent offices, and until now they had never spoken of anything except their daily work. As they talked, Florentino Ariza put his hand on her thigh, he began to caress her with the gentle touch of an experienced seducer, and she did not stop him, but she did not respond either, not even with a shudder for courtesy’s sake. Only when he tried to go further did she grasp his exploratory hand and kiss him on the palm.
“Behave yourself,” she said. “I realized a long time ago that you are not the man I am looking for.”
While she was still very young, a strong, able man whose face she never saw took her by surprise, threw her down on the jetty, ripped her clothes off, and made instantaneous and frenetic love to her. Lying there on the rocks, her body covered with cuts and bruises, she had wanted that man to stay forever so that she could die of love in his arms. She had not seen his face, she had not heard his voice, but she was sure she would have known him in a crowd of a thousand men because of his shape and size and his way of making love. From that time on, she would say to anyone who would listen to her: “If you ever hear of a big, strong fellow who raped a poor black girl from the street on Drowned Men’s Jetty, one October fifteenth at about half-past eleven at night, tell him where he can find me.” She said it out of habit, and she had said it to so many people that she no longer had any hope. Florentino Ariza had heard the story as many times as he had heard a boat sailing away in the night. By two o’clock in the morning they had each drunk three brandies and he knew, in truth, that he was not the man she was waiting for, and he was glad to know it.
“Bravo, lionlady,” he said when he left. “We have killed the tiger.”
It was not the only thing that came to an end that night. The evil lie about the pavilion of consumptives had ruined his sleep, for it had instilled in him the inconceivable idea that Fermina Daza was mortal and as a consequence might die before her husband. But when he saw her stumble at the door of the movie theater, by his own volition he took another step toward the abyss with the sudden realization that he, and not she, might be the one to die first. It was the most fearful kind of presentiment, because it was based on reality. The years of immobilized waiting, of hoping for good luck, were behind him, but on the horizon he could see nothing more than the unfathomable sea of imaginary illnesses, the drop-by-drop urinations of sleepless nights, the daily death at twilight. He thought that all the moments in the day, which had once been his allies and sworn accomplices, were beginning to conspire against him. A few years before he had gone to a dangerous assignation, his heart heavy with terror of what might happen, and he had found the door unlocked and the hinges recently oiled so that he could come in without a sound, but he repented at the last moment for fear of causing a decent married woman irreparable harm by dying in her bed. So that it was reasonable to think that the woman he loved most on earth, the one he had waited for from one century to the next without a sigh of disenchantment, might not have the opportunity to lead him by the arm across a street full of lunar grave mounds and beds of windblown poppies in order to help him reach the other side of death in safety.
The truth is that by the standards of his time, Florentino Ariza had crossed the line into old age. He was fifty-six well-preserved years old, and he thought them well lived because they were years of love. But no man of the time would have braved the ridicule of looking young at his age, even if he did or thought he did, and none would have dared to confess without shame that he still wept in secret over a rebuff received in the previous century. It was a bad time for being young: there was a style of dress for each age, but the style of old age began soon after adolescence, and lasted until the grave. More than age, it was a matter of social dignity. The young men dressed like their grandfathers, they made themselves more respectable with premature spectacles, and a walking stick was looked upon with favor after the age of thirty. For women there were only two ages: the age for marrying, which did not go past twenty-two, and the age for being eternal spinsters: the ones left behind. The others, the married women, the mothers, the widows, the grandmothers, were a race apart who tallied their age not in relation to the number of years they had lived but in relation to the time left to them before they died. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, faced the insidious snares of old age with savage temerity, even though he knew that his peculiar fate had been to look like an old man from the time he was a boy. At first it was a matter of necessity. Tránsito Ariza pulled apart and then sewed together again for him the clothes that his father decided to discard, so that he went to primary school wearing frock coats that dragged on the ground when he sat down, and ministerial hats that came down over his ears despite the cotton batting on the inside to make them smaller. Since he had also worn glasses for myopia from the age of five, and had his mother’s Indian hair, as bristly and coarse as horsehair, his appearance clarified nothing. It was fortunate that after so much governmental instability because of so many superimposed civil wars, academic standards were less selective than they had been, and there was a jumble of backgrounds and social positions in the public schools. Half-grown children would come to class from the barricades, smelling of gunpowder, wearing the insignias and uniforms of rebel officers captured at gunpoint in inconclusive battles, and carrying their regulation weapons in full view at their waists. They shot each other over disagreements in the playground, they threatened the teachers if they received low grades on examinations, and one of them, a third-year student at La Salle Academy and a retired colonel in the militia, shot and killed Brother Juan Eremita, Prefect of the Community, because he said in catechism class that God was a full-fledged member of the Conservative Party.
On the other hand, the sons of the great ruined families were dressed like old-fashioned princes, and some very poor boys went barefoot. Among so many oddities originating in so many places, Florentino Ariza was certainly among the oddest, but not to the point of attracting undue attention. The harshest thing he heard was when someone shouted to him on the street: “When you’re ugly and poor, you can only want more.” In any event, the apparel imposed by necessity became, from that time on and for the rest of his life, the kind best suited to his enigmatic nature and solemn character. When he was promoted to his first important position in the R.C.C., he had clothes made to order in the same style as those of his father, whom he recalled as an old man who had died at Christ’s venerable age of thirty-three. So that Florentino Ariza always looked much older than he was. As a matter of fact, the loose-tongued Brígida Zuleta, a brief love who dished up unwashed truths, told him on the very first day that she liked him better without his clothes because he looked twenty years younger when he was naked. However, he never knew how to remedy that, first because his personal taste would not allow him to dress in any other way, and second because at the age of twenty no one knew how to dress like a younger man, unless he were to take his short pants and sailor hat out of the closet again. On the other hand, he himself could not escape the notion of old age current in his day, so it was to be expected that when he saw Fermina Daza stumble at the door of the movie theater he would be shaken by a thunderbolt of panic that death, the son of a bitch, would win an irreparable victory in his fierce war of love.