Love in The Time of Cholera ( Chapter 41)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Her persistent memory of him increased her rage. When she awoke thinking about him on the day after the funeral, she succeeded in removing him from her thoughts by a simple act of will. But the rage always returned, and she realized very soon that the desire to forget him was the strongest inducement for remembering him. Then, overcome by nostalgia, she dared to recall for the first time the illusory days of that unreal love. She tried to remember just how the little park was then, and the shabby almond trees, and the bench where he had loved her, because none of it still existed as it had been then. They had changed everything, they had removed the trees with their carpet of yellow leaves and replaced the statue of the decapitated hero with that of another, who wore his dress uniform but had no name or dates or reasons to justify him, and who stood on an ostentatious pedestal in which they had installed the electrical controls for the district. Her house, sold many years before, had fallen into total ruin at the hands of the Provincial Government. It was not easy for her to imagine Florentino Ariza as he had been then, much less to believe that the taciturn boy, so vulnerable in the rain, was the moth-eaten old wreck who had stood in front of her with no consideration for her situation, or the slightest respect for her grief, and had seared her soul with a flaming insult that still made it difficult for her to breathe.
Cousin Hildebranda Sánchez had come to visit a short while after Fermina Daza returned from the ranch in Flores de María, where she had gone to recuperate from the misfortune of Miss Lynch. Old, fat, and contented, she had arrived in the company of her oldest son who, like his father, had been a colonel in the army but had been repudiated by him because of his contemptible behavior during the massacre of the banana workers in San Juan de la Ciénaga. The two cousins saw each other often and spent endless hours feeling nostalgia for the time when they first met. On her last visit, Hildebranda was more nostalgic than ever, and very affected by the burden of old age.
In order to add even greater poignancy to their memories, she had brought her copy of the portrait of them dressed as old-fashioned ladies, taken by the Belgian photographer on the afternoon that a young Juvenal Urbino had delivered the coup de grace to a willful Fermina Daza. Her copy of the photograph had been lost, and Hildebranda’s was almost invisible, but they could both recognize themselves through the mists of disenchantment: young and beautiful as they would never be again.
For Hildebranda it was impossible not to speak of Florentino Ariza, because she always identified his fate with her own. She evoked him as she evoked the day she had sent her first telegram, and she could never erase from her heart the memory of the sad little bird condemned to oblivion. For her part, Fermina had often seen him without speaking to him, of course, and she could not imagine that he had been her first love. She always heard news about him, as sooner or later she heard news about anyone of any significance in the city. It was said that he had not married because of his unusual habits, but she paid no attention to this, in part because she never paid attention to rumors, and in part because such things were said in any event about men who were above suspicion. On the other hand, it seemed strange to her that Florentino Ariza would persist in his mystic attire and his rare lotions, and that he would continue to be so enigmatic after making his way in life in so spectacular and honorable a manner. It was impossible for her to believe he was the same person, and she was always surprised when Hildebranda would sigh: “Poor man, how he must have suffered!” For she had seen him without grief for a long time: a shadow that had been obliterated.
Nevertheless, on the night she met him in the movie theater just afterher return from Flores de María, something strange occurred in her heart. She was not surprised that he was with a woman, and a black woman at that. What did surprise her was that he was so well preserved, that he behaved with the greatest self-assurance, and it did not occur to her that perhaps it was she, not he, who had changed after the troubling explosion of Miss Lynch in her private life. From then on, and for more than twenty years, she saw him with more compassionate eyes. On the night of the vigil for her husband, it not only seemed reasonable for him to be there, but she even understood it as the natural end of rancor: an act of forgiving and forgetting. That was why she was so taken aback by his dramatic reiteration of a love that for her had never existed, at an age when Florentino Ariza and she could expect nothing more from life.
The mortal rage of the first shock remained intact after the symbolic cremation of her husband, and it grew and spread as she felt herself less capable of controlling it. Even worse: the spaces in her mind where she managed to appease her memories of the dead man were slowly but inexorably being taken over by the field of poppies where she had buried her memories of Florentino Ariza. And so she thought about him without wanting to, and the more she thought about him the angrier she became, and the angrier she became the more she thought about him, until it was something so unbearable that her mind could no longer contain it. Then she sat down at her dead husband’s desk and wrote Florentino Ariza a letter consisting of three irrational pages so full of insults and base provocations that it brought her the consolation of consciously committing the vilest act of her long life. Those weeks had been agonizing for Florentino Ariza as well. The night he reiterated his love to Fermina Daza he had wandered aimlessly through streets that had been devastated by the afternoon flood, asking himself in terror what he was going to do with the skin of the tiger he had just killed after having resisted its attacks for more than half a century. The city was in a state of emergency because of the violent rains. In some houses, half-naked men and women were trying to salvage whatever God willed from the flood, and Florentino Ariza had the impression that everyone’s calamity had something to do with his own. But the wind was calm and the stars of the Caribbean were quiet in their places. In the sudden silence of other voices, Florentino Ariza recognized the voice of the man whom Leona Cassiani and he had heard singing many years before, at the same hour and on the same corner: I came backfrom the bridge bathed in tears. A song that in some way, on that night, for him alone, had something to do with death.
He needed Tránsito Ariza then as he never had before, he needed her wise words, her head of a mock queen adorned with paper flowers. He could not avoid it: whenever he found himself on the edge of catastrophe, he needed the help of a woman. So that he passed by the Normal School, seeking out those who were within reach, and he saw a light in the long row of windows in América Vicuña’s dormitory. He had to make a great effort not to fall into the grandfather’s madness of carrying her off at two o’clock in the morning, warm with sleep in her swaddling clothes and still smelling of the cradle’s tantrums.
At the other end of the city was Leona Cassiani, alone and free and doubtless ready to provide him with the compassion he needed at two o’clock in the morning, at three o’clock, at any hour and under any circumstances. It would not be the first time he had knocked at her door in the wasteland of his sleepless nights, but he knew that she was too intelligent, and that they loved each other too much, for him to come crying to her lap and not tell her the reason. After a good deal of thought as he sleepwalked through the deserted city, it occurred to him that he could do no better than Prudencia Pitre, the Widow of Two, who was younger than he. They had first met in the last century, and if they stopped meeting it was because she refused to allow anyone to see her as she was, half blind and verging on decrepitude. As soon as he thought of her, Florentino Ariza returned to the Street of the Windows, put two bottles of port and a jar of pickles in a shopping bag, and went to visit her, not even knowing if she was still in her old house, if she was alone, or if she was alive.
Prudencia Pitre had not forgotten his scratching signal at the door, the one he had used to identify himself when they thought they were still young although they no longer were, and she opened the door without any questions. The street was dark, he was barely visible in his black suit, his stiff hat, and his bat’s umbrella hanging over his arm, and her eyes were too weak to see him except in full light, but she recognized him by the gleam of the streetlamp on the metal frame of his eyeglasses. He looked like a murderer with blood still on his hands. “Sanctuary for a poor orphan,” he said.
It was the only thing he could think of to say, just to say something. He was surprised at how much she had aged since the last time he saw her, and he was aware that she saw him the same way. But he consoled himself by thinking that in a moment, when they had both recovered from the initial shock, they would notice fewer and fewer of the blows that life had dealt the other, and they would again seem as young as they had been when they first met.
“You look as if you are going to a funeral,” she said.
It was true. She, along with almost the entire city, had been at the window since eleven o’clock, watching the largest and most sumptuous funeral procession that had been seen here since the death of Archbishop De Luna. She had been awakened from her siesta by the thundering artillery that made the earth tremble, by the dissonances of the marching bands, the confusion of funeral hymns over the clamoring bells in all the churches, which had been ringing without pause since the previous day. From her balcony she had seen the cavalry in dress uniform, the religious communities, the schools, the long black limousines of an invisible officialdom, the carriage drawn by horses in feathered headdresses and gold trappings, the flag-draped yellow coffin on the gun carriage of a historic cannon, and at the very end a line of old open Victorias that kept themselves alive in order to carry funeral wreaths. As soon as they had passed by Prudencia Pitre’s balcony, a little after midday, the deluge came and the funeral procession dispersed in a wild stampede.
“What an absurd way to die,” she said.
“Death has no sense of the ridiculous,” he said, and added in sorrow: “above all at our age.”
They were seated on the terrace, facing the open sea, looking at the ringed moon that took up half the sky, looking at the colored lights of the boats along the horizon, enjoying the mild, perfumed breeze after the storm. They drank port and ate pickles on slices of country bread that Prudencia Pitre cut from a loaf in the kitchen. They had spent many nights like this after she had been left a widow without children. Florentino Ariza had met her at a time when she would have received any man who wanted to be with her, even if he were hired by the hour, and they had established a relationship that was more serious and longer-lived than would have seemed possible.
Although she never even hinted at it, she would have sold her soul to the devil to marry him. She knew that it would not be easy to submit to his miserliness, or the foolishness of his premature appearance of age, or his maniacal sense of order, or his eagerness to ask for everything and give nothing at all in return, but despite all this, no man was better company because no other man in the world was so in need of love. But no other man was as elusive either, so that their love never went beyond the point it always reached for him: the point where it would not interfere with his determination to remain free for Fermina Daza. Nevertheless, it lasted many years, even after he had arranged for Prudencia Pitre to marry a salesman who was home for three months and traveled for the next three and with whom she had a daughter and four sons, one of whom, she swore, was Florentino Ariza’s.
They talked, not concerned about the hour, because both were accustomed to sharing the sleepless nights of their youth, and they had much less to lose in the sleeplessness of old age. Although he almost never had more than two glasses of wine, Florentino Ariza still had not caught his breath after the third. He was dripping with perspiration, and the Widow of Two told him to take off his jacket, his vest, his trousers, to take off everything if he liked, what the hell: after all, they knew each other better naked than dressed. He said he would if she did the same, but she refused: some time ago she had looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and suddenly realized that she would no longer have the courage to allow anyone–not him, not anyone–to see her undressed.
Florentino Ariza, in a state of agitation that he could not calm with four glasses of port, talked at length about the same subject: the past, the good memories from the past, for he was desperate to find the hidden road in the past that would bring him relief. For that was what he needed: to let his soul escape through his mouth. When he saw the first light of dawn on the horizon, he attempted an indirect approach. He asked, in a way that seemed casual: “What would you do if someone proposed marriage to you, just as you are, a widow of your age?” She laughed with a wrinkled old woman’s laugh, and asked in turn: “Are you speaking of the Widow Urbino?”
Florentino Ariza always forgot when he should not have that women, and Prudencia Pitre more than any other, always think about the hidden meanings of questions more than about the questions themselves. Filled with sudden terror because of her chilling marksmanship, he slipped through the back door: “I am speaking of you.” She laughed again: “Go make fun of your bitch of a mother, may she rest in peace.” Then she urged him to say what he meant to say, because she knew that he, or any other man, would not have awakened her at three o’clock in the morning after so many years of not seeing her just to drink port and eat country bread with pickles. She said: “You do that only “when you are looking for someone to cry with.” Florentino Ariza withdrew in defeat.
“For once you are wrong,” he said. “My reasons tonight have more to do with singing.” “Let’s sing, then,” she said.
And she began to sing, in a very good voice, the song that was popular then: Ramona, I cannot live without you. The night was over, for he did not dare to play forbidden games with a woman who had proven too many times that she knew the dark side of the moon. He walked out into a different city, one that was perfumed by the last dahlias of June, and onto a street out of his youth, where the shadowy widows from five o’clock Mass were filing by. But now it was he, not they, who crossed the street, so they would not see the tears he could no longer hold back, not his midnight tears, as he thought, but other tears: the ones he had been swallowing for fifty-one years, nine months and four days.
He had lost all track of time, and did not know where he was when he awoke facing a large, dazzling window. The voice of América Vicuña playing ball in the garden with the servant girls brought him back to reality: he was in his mother’s bed. He had kept her bedroom intact, and he would sleep there to feel less alone on the few occasions when he was troubled by his solitude. Across from the bed hung the large mirror from Don Sancho’s Inn, and he had only to see it when he awoke to see Fermina Daza reflected in its depths. He knew that it was Saturday, because that was the day the chauffeur picked up América Vicuña at her boarding school and brought her back to his house. He realized that he had slept without knowing it, dreaming that he could not sleep, in a dream that had been disturbed by the wrathful face of Fermina Daza. He bathed, wondering what his next step should be, he dressed very slowly in his best clothing, he dabbed on cologne and waxed the ends of his white mustache, he left the bedroom, and from the secondfloor hallway he saw the beautiful child in her uniform catching the ball with the grace that had made him tremble on so many Saturdays but this morning did not disquiet him in the least. He indicated that she should come with him, and before he climbed into the automobile he said, although it was not necessary: “Today we are not going to do our things.” He took her to the American Ice Cream Shop, filled at this hour with parents eating ice cream with their children under the long blades of the fans that hung from the smooth ceiling. América Vicuña ordered an enormous glass filled with layers of ice cream, each a different color, her favorite dish and the one that was the most popular because it gave off an aura of magic. Florentino Ariza drank black coffee and looked at the girl without speaking, while she ate the ice cream with a spoon that had a very long handle so that one could reach the bottom of the glass. Still looking at her, he said without warning:
“I am going to marry.”
She looked into his eyes with a flash of uncertainty, her spoon suspended in midair, but then she recovered and smiled.
“That’s a lie,” she said. “Old men don’t marry.” (378)