Love in the Time of Cholera ( Chapter 42)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 42

That afternoon he left her at her school under a steady downpour just as the Angelus was ringing, after the two of them had watched the puppet show in the park, had lunch at the fried-fish stands on the jetties, seen the caged animals in the circus that had just come to town, bought all kinds of candies at the outdoor stalls to take back to school, and driven around the city several times with the top down, so that she could become accustomed to the idea that he was her guardian and no longer her lover. On Sunday he sent the automobile for her in the event she wanted to take a drive with her friends, but he did not want to see her, because since the previous week he had come to full consciousness of both their ages. That night he decided to write a letter of apology to Fermina Daza, its only purpose to show that he had not given up, but he put it off until the next day. On Monday, after exactly three weeks of agony, he walked into his house, soaked by the rain, and found her letter.

It was eight o’clock at night. The two servant girls were in bed, and they had left on the light in the hallway that lit Florentino Ariza’s way to his bedroom. He knew that his Spartan, bland supper was on the table in the dining room, but the slight hunger he felt after so many days of haphazard eating vanished with the emotional upheaval of the letter. His hands were shaking so much that it was difficult for him to turn on the overhead light in the bedroom. He put the rain-soaked letter on the bed, lit the lamp on the night table, and with the feigned tranquillity that was his customary way of calming himself, he took off his wet jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, he took off his vest, folded it with care, and placed it on top of the jacket, he took off his black silk string tie and the celluloid collar that was no longer fashionable in the world, he unbuttoned his shirt down to his waist and loosened his belt so that he could breathe with greater ease, and at last he took off his hat and put it by the window to dry. Then he began to tremble because he did not know where the letter was, and his nervous excitement was so great that he was surprised when he found it, for he did not remember placing it on the bed. Before opening it, he dried the envelope with his handkerchief, taking care not to smear the ink in which his name was written, and as he did so it occurred to him that the secret was no longer shared by two people but by three, at least, for whoever had delivered it must have noticed that only three weeks after the death of her husband, the Widow Urbino was writing to someone who did not belong to her world, and with so much urgency that she did not use the regular mails and so much secretiveness that she had ordered that it not be handed to anyone but slipped under the door instead, as if it were an anonymous letter. He did not have to tear open the envelope, for the water had dissolved the glue, but the letter was dry: three closely written pages with no salutation, and signed with the initials of her married name. He sat on the bed and read it through once as quickly as he could, more intrigued by the tone than by the content, and before he reached the second page he knew that it was in fact the insulting letter he had expected to receive. He laid it, unfolded, in the light shed by the bed-lamp, he took off his shoes and his wet socks, he turned out the overhead light, using the switch next to the door, and at last he put on his chamois mustache cover and lay down without removing his trousers and shirt, his head supported by two large pillows that he used as a backrest for reading. Now he read it again, this time syllable by syllable, scrutinizing each so that none of the letter’s secret intentions would be hidden from him, and then he read it four more times, until he was so full of the written words that they began to lose all meaning. At last he placed it, without the envelope, in the drawer of the night table, lay on his back with his hands behind his head, and for four hours he did not blink, he hardly breathed, he was more dead than a dead man, as he stared into the space in the mirror where she had been. Precisely at midnight he went to the kitchen and prepared a thermos of coffee as thick as crude oil, then he took it to his room, put his false teeth into the glass of boric acid solution that he always found ready for him on the night table, and resumed the posture of a recumbent marble statue, with momentary shifts in position when he took a sip of coffee, until the maid came in at six o’clock with a fresh thermos.

Florentino Ariza knew by then what one of his next steps was going to be. In truth, the insults caused him no pain, and he was not concerned with rectifying the unjust accusations that could have been worse, considering Fermina Daza’s character and the gravity of the cause. All that interested him was that the letter, in and of itself, gave him the opportunity, and even recognized his right, to respond. Even more: it demanded that he respond. So that life was now at the point where he had wanted it to be. Everything else depended on him, and he was convinced that his private hell of over half a century’s duration would still present him with many mortal challenges, which he was prepared to confront with more ardor and more sorrow and more love than he had brought to any of them before now, because these would be the last.

When he went to his office five days after receiving the letter from Fermina Daza, he felt as if he were floating in an abrupt and unusual absence of the noise of the typewriters, whose sound, like rain, had become less noticeable than silence. It was a moment of calm. When the sound began again, Florentino Ariza went to Leona Cas-siani’s office and watched her as she sat in front of her own personal typewriter, which responded to her fingertips as if it were human. She knew she was being observed, and she looked toward the door with her awesome solar smile, but she did not stop typing until the end of the paragraph.

“Tell me something, lionlady of my soul,” asked Florentino Ariza. “How would you feel if you received a love letter written on that thing?”

Her expression–she who was no longer surprised at anything–was one of genuine surprise.

“My God, man!” she exclaimed. “It never occurred to me.”

For that very reason she could make no other reply. Florentino Ariza had not thought of it either until that moment, and he decided to risk it with no reservations. He took one of the office typewriters home, his subordinates joking good-naturedly: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Leona Cassiani, enthusiastic about anything new, offered to give him typing lessons at home. But he had been opposed to methodical learning ever since Lotario Thugut had wanted to teach him to play the violin by reading notes and warned him that he would need at least a year to begin, five more to qualify for a professional orchestra, and six hours a day for the rest of his life in order to play well. And yet he had convinced his mother to buy him a blind man’s violin, and with the five basic rules given him by Lotario Thugut, in less than a year he had dared to play in the choir of the Cathedral and to serenade Fermina Daza from the paupers’ cemetery according to the direction of the winds. If that had been the case at the age of twenty, with something as difficult as the violin, he did not see why it could not also be the case at the age of seventy-six, with a one-finger instrument like the typewriter.

He was right. He needed three days to learn the position of the letters on the keyboard, another six to learn to think while he typed, and three more to complete the first letter without errors after tearing up half a ream of paper. He gave it a solemn salutation-Señora–and signed it with his initial, as he had done in the perfumed love letters of his youth. He mailed it in an envelope with the mourning vignettes that were de rigueur for a letter to a recent widow, and with no return address on the back.

It was a six-page letter, unlike any he had ever written before. It did not have the tone, or the style, or the rhetorical air of his early years of love, and his argument was so rational and measured that the scent of a gardenia would have been out of place. In a certain sense it was his closest approximation to the business letters he had never been able to write. Years later, a typed personal letter would be considered almost an insult, but at that time the typewriter was still an office animal without its own code of ethics, and its domestication for personal use was not foreseen in the books on etiquette. It seemed more like bold modernity, which was how Fermina Daza must have understood it, for in her second letter to Florentino Ariza, she began by begging his pardon for any difficulties in reading her handwriting, since she did not have at her disposal any means more advanced than her steel pen.

Florentino Ariza did not even refer to the terrible letter that she had sent him, but from the very beginning he attempted a new method of seduction, without any reference to past loves or even to the past itself: a clean slate. Instead, he wrote an extensive meditation on life based on his ideas about, and experience of, relations between men and women, which at one time he had intended to write as a complement to the Lovers’ Companion. Only now he disguised it in the patriarchal style of an old man’s memories so that it would not be too obvious that it was really a document of love. First he wrote many drafts in his old style, which took longer to read with a cool head than to throw into the fire. But he knew that any conventional slip, the slightest nostalgic indiscretion, could revive the unpleasant taste of the past in her heart, and although he foresaw her returning a hundred letters to him before she dared open the first, he preferred that it not happen even once. And so he planned everything down to the last detail, as if it were the final battle: new intrigues, new hopes in a woman who had already lived a full and complete life. It had to be a mad dream, one that would give her the courage she would need to discard the prejudices of a class that had not always been hers but had

become hers more than anyone’s. It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.

He had the good sense not to expect an immediate reply, to be satisfied if the letter was not returned to him. It was not, nor were any of the ones that followed, and as the days passed, his excitement grew, for the more days that passed without her letters being returned, the greater his hope of a reply. In the beginning, the frequency of his letters was conditioned by the dexterity of his fingers: first one a week, then two, and at last one a day. He was happy about the progress made in the mail service since his days as a standard-bearer, for he would not have risked being seen every day in the post office mailing a letter to the same person, or sending it with someone who might talk. On the other hand, it was very easy to send an employee to buy enough stamps for a month, and then slip the letter into one of the three mailboxes located in the old city. He soon made that ritual a part of his routine: he took advantage of his insomnia to write, and the next day, on his way to the office, he -would ask the driver to stop for a moment at a corner box, and he would get out to mail the letter. He never allowed the chauffeur to do it for him, as he attempted to do one rainy morning, and at times he took the precaution of carrying several letters rather than just one, so that it would seem more natural. The chauffeur did not know, of course, that the additional letters were blank pages that Florentino Ariza addressed to himself, for he had never carried on a private correspondence with anyone, with the exception of the guardian’s report that he sent at the end of each month to the parents of América Vicuña, with his personal impressions of the girl’s conduct, her state of mind and health, and the progress she was making in her studies.

After the first month he began to number the letters and to head them with a synopsis of the previous ones, as in the serialized novels in the newspapers, for fear that Fermina Daza would not realize that they had a certain continuity. When they became daily letters, moreover, he replaced the envelopes that had mourning vignettes with long white envelopes, and this gave them the added impersonality of business letters. When he began, he was prepared to subject his patience to a crucial test, at least until he had proof that he was wasting his time with the only new approach he could think of. He waited, in

fact, not with the many kinds of suffering that waiting had caused him in his youth, but with the stubbornness of an old man made of stone who had nothing else to think about, nothing else to do in a riverboat company that by this time was sailing without his help before favorable winds, and who was also convinced that he would be alive and in perfect possession of his male faculties the next day, or the day after that, or whenever Fermina Daza at last was convinced that there was no other remedy for her solitary widow’s yearnings than to lower the drawbridge for him.

Meanwhile, he continued with his normal life. In anticipation of a favorable reply, he began a second renovation of his house so that it would be worthy of the woman who could have considered herself its lady and mistress from the day of its purchase. He visited Prudencia Pitre again several times, as he had promised, in order to prove to her that he loved her despite the devastation wrought by age, loved her in full sunlight and with the doors open, and not only on his nights of desolation. He continued to pass by Andrea Varón’s house until he found the bathroom light turned off, and he tried to lose himself in the wildness of her bed even though it was only so he would not lose the habit of love, in keeping with another of his superstitions, not disproved so far, that the body carries on for as long as you do.

His relations with América Vicuña were the only difficulty. He had repeated the order to his chauffeur to pick her up on Saturdays at ten o’clock in the morning at the school, but he did not know what to do with her during the weekends. For the first time he did not concern himself with her, and she resented the change. He placed her in the care of the servant girls and had them take her to the afternoon film, to the band concerts in the children’s park, to the charity bazaars, or he arranged Sunday activities for her and her classmates so that he would not have to take her to the hidden paradise behind his offices, to which she had always wanted to return after the first time he took her there. In the fog of his new illusion, he did not realize that women can become adults in three days, and that three years had gone by since he had met her boat from Puerto Padre. No matter how he tried to soften the blow, it was a brutal change for her, and she could not imagine the reason for it. On the day in the ice cream parlor when he told her he was going to marry, when he revealed the truth to her, she had reeled with panic, but then the possibility seemed so absurd that she forgot about it. In a very short while, however, she realized that he was behaving with inexplicable evasiveness, as if it was true, as if he were not sixty years older than she, but sixty years younger.

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