Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 39)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Gảcia Mảquez
Six months later, by unanimous agreement, Florentino Ariza was named President of the Board of Directors and General Manager of the company. After the champagne toast on the day he took over the post, the old lion in retirement excused himself for speaking without getting up from the rocker, and he improvised a brief speech that seemed more like an elegy. He said that his life had begun and ended with two providential events. The first was that The Liberator had carried him in his arms in the village of Turbaco when he was making his ill-fated journey toward death. The other had been finding, despite all the obstacles that destiny had interposed, a successor worthy of the company. At last, trying to undramatize the drama, he concluded: “The only frustration I carry away from this life is that of singing at so many funerals except my own.”
It goes without saying that to close the ceremony he sang the “addio alla vita” from Tosca. He sang it a capella, which was the style he preferred, in a voice that was still steady. Florentino Ariza was moved, but he showed it only in the slight tremor in his voice as he expressed his thanks. In just the same way that he had done and thought everything he had done and thought in life, he had scaled the heights only because of his fierce determination to be alive and in good health at the moment he would fulfill his destiny in the shadow of Fermina Daza.
However, it was not her memory alone that accompanied him to the party Leona Cassiani gave for him that night. The memory of them all was with him: those who slept in the cemeteries, thinking of him through the roses he planted over them, as well as those who still laid their heads on the pillow where their husbands slept, their horns golden in the moonlight. Deprived of one, he wanted to be with them all at the same time, which is what he always wanted whenever he was fearful. For even during his most difficult times and at his worst moments, he had maintained some link, no matter how weak, with his countless lovers of so many years: he always kept track of their lives. And so that night he remembered Rosalba, the very first one, who had carried off the prize of his virginity and whose memory was still as painful as it had been the first day. He had only to close his eyes to see her in her muslin dress and her hat with the long silk ribbons, rocking her child’s cage on the deck of the boat. Several times in the course of the numerous years of his life he had been ready to set out in search of her, without knowing where, or her last name, or if she was the one he was looking for, but certain of finding her somewhere among groves of orchids. Each time, because of a real difficulty at the last minute or because of an ill-timed failure of his own will, his trip was postponed just as they were about to raise the gangplank: always for a reason that had something to do with Fermina Daza.
He remembered the Widow Nazaret, the only one with whom he had profaned his mother’s house on the Street of Windows, although it had been Tránsito Ariza and not he who had asked her in. He was more understanding of her than of any of the others, because she was the only one who radiated enough tenderness to compensate for Fermina Daza despite her sluggishness in bed. But she had the inclinations of an alleycat, which were more indomitable than the strength of her tenderness, and this meant that both of them were condemned to infidelity. Still, they continued to be intermittent lovers for almost thirty years, thanks to their musketeers’ motto: Unfaithful but not disloyal. She was also the only one for whom Florentino Ariza assumed any responsibility: when he heard that she had died and was going to a pauper’s grave, he buried her at his own expense and was the only mourner at the funeral.
He remembered other widows he had loved. He remembered Prudencia Pitre, the oldest of those still alive, who was known to everyone as the Widow of Two because she had outlived both her husbands. And the other Prudencia, the Widow Arellano, the amorous one, who would rip the buttons from his clothes so that he would have to stay in her house while she sewed them back on. And Josefa, the Widow Zúñiga, mad with love for him, who was ready to cut off his penis with gardening shears while he slept, so that he would belong to no one else even if he could not belong to her.
He remembered Ángeles Alfaro, the most ephemeral and best loved of them all, who came for six months to teach string instruments at the Music School and who spent moonlit nights with him on the flat roof of her house, as naked as the day she was born, playing the most beautiful suites in all music on a cello whose voice became human between her golden thighs. From the first moonlit night, both of them broke their hearts in the fierce love of inexperience. But Ángeles Alfaro left as she had come, with her tender sex and her sinner’s cello, on an ocean liner that flew the flag of oblivion, and all that remained of her on the moonlit roofs was a fluttered farewell with a white handkerchief like a solitary sad dove on the horizon, as if she were a verse from the Poetic Festival. With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them. Alone in the midst of the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: “My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse.” He wept copious tears at the grief of parting. But as soon as the ship had disappeared over the horizon, the memory of Fermina Daza once again occupied all his space.
He remembered Andrea Varón, outside whose house he had spent the previous week, but the orange light in the bathroom had been a warning that he could not go in: someone had arrived before him. Someone: man or woman, because Andrea Varón did not hesitate over such details when it came to the follies of love. Of all those on the list, she was the only one who earned a living with her body, but she did so at her pleasure and without a business manager. In her day she had enjoyed a legendary career as a clandestine courtesan who deserved her nom de guerre, Our Lady of Everybody. She drove governors and admirals mad, she watched eminent heroes of arms and letters who were not as illustrious as they believed, and even some who were, as they wept on her shoulder. It was true, however, that President Rafael Reyes, after only a hurried half hour between appointments in the city, granted her a lifetime pension for distinguished service to the Ministry of Finance, where she had never worked a day of her life. She distributed her gifts of pleasure as far as her body could reach, and although her indecent conduct was public knowledge, no one could have made a definitive case against her, because her eminent accomplices gave her the same protection they gave themselves, knowing that they had more to lose in a scandal than she did. For her sake Florentino Ariza had violated his sacred principle of never paying, and she had violated hers of never doing it free of charge, even with her husband. They had agreed upon a symbolic fee of one peso, which she did not take and he did not hand to her, but which they put in the piggy bank until enough of them had accumulated to buy something charming from overseas in the Arcade of the Scribes. It was she who attributed a distinctive sensuality to the enemas he used for his crises of constipation, who convinced him to share them with her, and they took them together in the course of their mad afternoons as they tried to create even more love within their love.
He considered it a stroke of good fortune that among so many hazardous encounters, the only woman who had made him taste a drop of bitterness was the sinuous Sara Noriega, who ended her days in the Divine Shepherdess Asylum, reciting senile verses of such outrageous obscenity that they were forced to isolate her so that she would not drive the rest of the madwomen crazy. However, when he took over complete responsibility for the R.C.C., he no longer had much time or desire to attempt to replace Fermina Daza with anyone else: he knew that she was irreplaceable. Little by little he had fallen into the routine of visiting the ones who were already established, sleeping with them for as long as they pleased him, for as long as he could, for as long as they lived. On the Pentecost Sunday when Juvenal Urbino died, he had only one left, only one, who had just turned fourteen and had everything that no one else until then had had to make him mad with love.
Her name was América Vicuña. She had arrived two years before from the fishing village of Puerto Padre, entrusted by her family to Florentino Ariza as her guardian and recognized blood relative. They had sent her with a government scholarship to study secondary education, with her petate and her little tin trunk as small as a doll’s, and from the moment she walked off the boat, with her high white shoes and her golden braid, he had the awful presentiment that they were going to take many Sunday siestas together. She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her. All at once she burst into flower, which left her floating in a limbo of happiness and which motivated her studies, for she was always at the head of her class so that she would not lose the privilege of going out on weekends. For him it was the most sheltered inlet in the cove of his old age. After so many years of calculated loves, the mild pleasure of innocence had the else: he knew that she was irreplaceable. Little by little he had fallen into the routine of visiting the ones who were already established, sleeping with them for as long as they pleased him, for as long as he could, for as long as they lived. On the Pentecost Sunday when Juvenal Urbino died, he had only one left, only one, who had just turned fourteen and had everything that no one else until then had had to make him mad with love.
Her name was América Vicuña. She had arrived two years before from the fishing village of Puerto Padre, entrusted by her family to Florentino Ariza as her guardian and recognized blood relative. They had sent her with a government scholarship to study secondary education, with her petate and her little tin trunk as small as a doll’s, and from the moment she walked off the boat, with her high white shoes and her golden braid, he had the awful presentiment that they were going to take many Sunday siestas together. She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her. All at once she burst into flower, which left her floating in a limbo of happiness and which motivated her studies, for she was always at the head of her class so that she would not lose the privilege of going out on weekends. For him it was the most sheltered inlet in the cove of his old age. After so many years of calculated loves, the mild pleasure of innocence had the charm of a restorative perversion.
They were in full agreement. She behaved like what she was, a girl ready to learn about life under the guidance of a venerable old man who was not shocked by anything, and he chose to behave like what he had most feared being in his life: a senile lover. He never identified her with the young Fermina Daza despite a resemblance that was more than casual and was not based only on their age, their school uniform, their braid, their untamed walk, and even their haughty and unpredictable character. Moreover, the idea of replacement, which had been so effective an inducement for his mendicancy of love, had been completely erased from his mind. He liked her for what she was, and he came to love her for what she was, in a fever of crepuscular delights. She was the only one with whom he took drastic precautions against accidental pregnancy. After half a dozen encounters, there was no dream for either of them except their Sunday afternoons.
Since he was the only person authorized to take her out of the boarding school, he would call for her in the six-cylinder Hudson that belonged to the R.C.C., and sometimes they would lower the top if the afternoon ,was not sunny and drive along the beach, he with his somber hat and she, weak with laughter, holding the sailor hat of her school uniform with both hands so that the wind would not blow it off. Someone had told her not to spend more time with her guardian than necessary, not to eat anything he had tasted, and not to put her face too close to his, for old age was contagious. But she did not care. They were both indifferent to what people might think of them because their family kinship was well known, and what is more, the extreme difference in their ages placed them beyond all suspicion.
They had just made love on Pentecost Sunday when the bells began to toll at four o’clock. Florentino Ariza had to overcome the wild beating of his heart. In his youth, the ritual of the tolling bells had been included in the price of the funeral and was denied only to the indigent. But after our last war, just at the turn of the century, the Conservative regime consolidated its colonial customs, and funeral rites became so expensive that only the wealthiest could pay for them. When Archbishop Dante de Luna died, bells all over the province tolled unceasingly for nine days and nine nights, and the public suffering was so great that his successor reserved the tolling of bells for the funeral services of the most illustrious of the dead. Therefore, when Florentino Ariza heard the Cathedral bells at four o’clock in the afternoon on a Pentecost Sunday, he felt as if he had been visited by a ghost from his lost youth. He never imagined they were the bells he had so longed to hear for so many years, ever since the Sunday when he saw Fermina Daza in her sixth month of pregnancy as she was leaving High Mass. “Damn,” he said in the darkness. “It must be a very big fish for them to ring the Cathedral bells.”
América Vicuña, completely naked, had just awakened. “It must be for Pentecost,” she said.
Florentino Ariza was in no way expert in matters pertaining to the Church, and he had not gone to Mass again since he had played the violin in the choir with a German who also taught him the science of the telegraph and about whose fate he had never been able to obtain any definite news. But he knew beyond any doubt that the bells were not ringing for Pentecost. There was public mourning in the city, that was certain, and that is what he knew. A delegation of Caribbean refugees had come to his house that morning to inform him that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had been found dead in his photography studio. Although Florentino Ariza was not an intimate friend of his, he was close to many other refugees who always invited him to their public ceremonies, above all to their funerals. But he was sure that the bells were not tolling for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who was a militant unbeliever and a committed anarchist and who had, moreover, died by his own hand.
“No,” he said, “tolling like that must be for a governor at least.” América Vicuña, her pale body dappled by the light coming in through the carelessly drawn blinds, was not of an age to think about death. They had made love after lunch and they were lying together at the end of their siesta, both of them naked under the ceiling fan, whose humming could not hide the sound like falling hail that the buzzards made as they walked across the hot tin roof. Florentino Ariza loved her as he had loved so many other casual women in his long life, but he loved her with more anguish than any other, because he was certain he would be dead by the time she finished secondary school.
The room resembled a ship’s cabin, its walls made of wooden laths covered by many coats of paint, as were the walls of boats, but at four o’clock in the afternoon, even with the electric fan hanging over the bed, the heat was more intense than in the riverboat cabins because it reflected off the metal roof. It was not so much a formal bedroom as a cabin on dry land, which Florentino Ariza had built behind his office in the R.C.C. with no other purpose or pretext than to have a nice little refuge for his old man’s loves. On ordinary days it was difficult to sleep there, with the shouts of the stevedores, and the noise of the cranes from the river harbor, and the enormous bellowing of the ships moored at the dock. For the girl, however, it was a Sunday paradise.