Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 43)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 43

One Saturday afternoon, Florentino Ariza found her trying to type in his bedroom, and she was doing rather well, for she was studying typing at school. She had completed more than half a page of automatic writing, but it was not difficult to isolate an occasional phrase that revealed her state of mind. Florentino Ariza leaned over her shoulder to read what she had written. She was disturbed by his man’s heat, by his ragged breathing, by the scent on his clothes, which was the same as the scent on his pillow. She was no longer the little girl, the newcomer, whom he had undressed, one article of clothing at a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby bear, then this little chemise for the little puppy dog, next these little flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her papa’s delicious little dickey-bird. No: now she was a full-fledged woman, who liked to take the initiative. She continued typing with just one finger of her right hand, and with her left she felt for his leg, explored him, found him, felt him come to life, grow, heard him sigh with excitement, and his old man’s breathing became uneven and labored. She knew him: from that point on he was going to lose control, his speech would become disjointed, he would be at her mercy, and he would not find his way back until he had reached the end. She led him by the hand to the bed as if he were a blind beggar on the street, and she cut him into pieces with malicious tenderness; she added salt to taste, pepper, a clove of garlic, chopped onion, lemon juice, bay leaf, until he was seasoned and on the platter, and the oven was heated to the right temperature. There was no one in the house. The servant girls had gone out, and the masons and carpenters who were renovating the house did not work on Saturdays: they had the whole world to themselves. But on the edge of the abyss he came out of his ecstasy, moved her hand away, sat up, and said in a tremulous voice:

“Be careful, we have no rubbers.”
She lay on her back in bed for a long time, thinking, and when she returned to school an hour early she was beyond all desire to cry, and she had sharpened her sense of smell along with her claws so that she could track down the miserable whore who had ruined her life. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, made another masculine mis-judgment: he believed that she had been convinced of the futility of her desires and had resolved to forget him.

He was back in his element. At the end of six months he had heard nothing at all, and he found himself tossing and turning in bed until dawn, lost in the wasteland of a new kind of insomnia. He thought that Fermina Daza had opened the first letter because of its appearance, had seen the initial she knew from the letters of long ago, and had thrown it out to be burned with the rest of the trash without even taking the trouble to tear it up. Just seeing the envelopes of those that followed would be enough for her to do the same thing without even opening them, and to continue to do so until the end of time, while he came at last to his final written meditation. He did not believe that the woman existed who could resist her curiosity about half a year of almost daily letters when she did not even know the color of ink they were written in, but if such a woman existed, it had to be her. Florentino Ariza felt that his old age was not a rushing torrent but a bottomless cistern where his memory drained away. His ingenuity was wearing thin. After patrolling the villa in La Manga for several days, he realized that this strategy from his youth would never break down the doors sealed by mourning. One morning, as he was looking for a number in the telephone directory, he happened to come across hers. He called. It rang many times, and at last he recognized her grave, husky voice: “Hello?” He hung up without speaking, but the infinite distance of that unapproachable voice weakened his morale.

It was at this time that Leona Cassiani celebrated her birthday and invited a small group of friends to her house. He was distracted andspilled chicken gravy on himself. She cleaned his lapel with the corner of his napkin dampened in a glass of water, and then she tied it around his neck like a bib to avoid a more serious accident: he looked like an old baby. She noticed that several times during dinner he took off his eyeglasses and dried them with his handkerchief because his eyes were watering. During coffee he fell asleep holding his cup in his hand, and she tried to take it away without waking him, but his embarrassed response was: “I was just resting my eyes.” Leona Cassiani went to bed astounded at how his age was beginning to show. On the first anniversary of the death of Juvenal Urbino, the family sent out invitations to a memorial Mass at the Cathedral. Florentino Ariza had still received no reply, and this was the driving force behind his bold decision to attend the Mass although he had not been invited. It was a social event more ostentatious than emotional. The first few rows of pews were reserved for their lifetime owners, whose names were engraved on copper nameplates on the backs of their seats. Florentino Ariza was among the first to arrive so that he might sit where Fermina Daza could not pass by without seeing him. He thought that the best seats would be in the central nave, behind the reserved pews, but there were so many people he could not find a seat there either, and he had to sit in the nave for poor relations. From there he saw Fermina Daza walk in on her son’s arm, dressed in an unadorned long-sleeved black velvet dress buttoned all the way from her neck to the tips of her shoes, like a bishop’s cassock, and a narrow scarf of Castilian lace instead of the veiled hat worn by other widows, and even by many other ladies who longed for that condition. Her uncovered face shone like alabaster, her lanceolate eyes had a life of their own under the enormous chandeliers of the central nave, and as she walked she was so erect, so haughty, so self-possessed, that she seemed no older than her son. As he stood, Florentino Ariza leaned the tips of his fingers against the back of the pew until his dizziness passed, for he felt that he and she were not separated by seven paces, but existed in two different times.

Through almost the entire ceremony, Fermina Daza stood in the family pew in front of the main altar, as elegant as when she attended the opera. But when it was over, she broke with convention and did not stay in her seat, according to the custom of the day, to receive the spiritual renewal of condolences, but made her way instead through the crowd to thank each one of the guests: an innovative gesture that was very much in harmony with her style and character. Greeting one guest after another, she at last reached the pews of the poor relations, and then she looked around to make certain she had not missed anyone she knew. At that moment Florentino Ariza felt a supernatural wind lifting him out of himself: she had seen him. Fermina Daza moved away from her companions with the same assurance she brought to everything in society, held out her hand, and with a very sweet smile, said to him:
“Thank you for coming.”
For she had not only received his letters, she had read them with great interest and had found in them serious and thoughtful reasons to go on living. She had been at the table, having breakfast with her daughter, when she received the first one. She opened it because of the novelty of its being typewritten, and a sudden blush burned her face when she recognized the initial of the signature. But she immediately regained her selfpossession and put the letter in her apron pocket. She said: “It is a condolence letter from the government.” Her daughter was surprised: “All of them came already.” She was imperturbable: “This is another one.” Her intention was to burn the letter later, when she was away from her daughter’s questions, but she could not resist the temptation of looking it over first. She expected the reply that her insulting letter deserved, a letter that she began to regret the very moment she sent it, but from the majestic salutation and the subject of the first paragraph, she realized that something had changed in the world. She was so intrigued that she locked herself in her bedroom to read it at her ease before she burned it, and she read it three times without pausing.

It was a meditation on life, love, old age, death: ideas that had often fluttered around her head like nocturnal birds but dissolved into a trickle of feathers when she tried to catch hold of them. There they were, precise, simple, just as she would have liked to say them, and once again she grieved that her husband was not alive to discuss them with her as they used to discuss certain events of the day before going to sleep. In this way an unknown Florentino Ariza was revealed to her, one possessed of a clear-sightedness that in no way corresponded to the feverish love letters of his youth or to the somber conduct of his entire life. They were, rather, the words of a man who, in the opinion of Aunt Escolástica, was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and this thought astounded her now as much as it had the first time. In any case, what most calmed her spirit was the certainty that this letter from a wise old man was not an attempt to repeat the impertinence of the night of the vigil over the body but a very noble way of erasing the past.

The letters that followed brought her complete calm. Still, she burned them after reading them with a growing interest, although burning them left her with a sense of guilt that she could not dissipate. So that when they began to be numbered, she found the moral justification she had been seeking for not destroying them. At any rate, her initial intention was not to keep them for herself but to wait for an opportunity to return them to Florentino Ariza so that something that seemed of such great human value would not be lost. The difficulty was that time passed and the letters continued to arrive, one every three or four days throughout the year, and she did not know how to return them without that appearing to be the rebuff she no longer wanted to give, and without having to explain everything in a letter that her pride would not permit her to write.

That first year had been enough time for her to adjust to her widowhood. The purified memory of her husband, no longer an obstacle in her daily actions, in her private thoughts, in her simplest intentions, became a watchful presence that guided but did not hinder her. On the occasions when she truly needed him she would see him, not as an apparition but as flesh and blood. She was encouraged by the certainty that he was there, still alive but without his masculine whims, his patriarchal demands, his consuming need for her to love him in the same ritual of inopportune kisses and tender words with which he loved her. For now she understood him better than when he was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he felt to find in her the security that seemed to be the mainstay of his public life and that in reality he never possessed. One day, at the height of desperation, she had shouted at him: “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.” Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she had attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them both so many happy hours.

On her many journeys through the world, Fermina Daza had bought every object that attracted her attention because of its novelty. She desired these things with a primitive impulse that her husband was happy to rationalize, and they were beautiful, useful objects as long as they remained in their original environment, in the show windows of Rome, Paris, London, or in the New York, vibrating to the Charleston, where skyscrapers were beginning to grow, but they could not withstand the test of Strauss waltzes with pork cracklings or Poetic Festivals when it was ninety degrees in the shade. And so she would return with half a dozen enormous standing trunks made of polished metal, with copper locks and corners like decorated coffins, lady and mistress of the world’s latest marvels, which were worth their price not in gold but in the fleeting moment when someone from her local world would see them for the first time. For that is why they had been bought: so that others could see them. She became aware of her frivolous public image long before she began to grow old, and in the house she was often heard to say: “We have to get rid of all these trinkets; there’s no room to turn around.” Dr. Urbino would laugh at her fruitless efforts, for he knew that the emptied spaces were only going to be filled again. But she persisted, because it was true that there was no room for anything else and nothing anywhere served any purpose, not the shirts hanging on the doorknobs or the overcoats for European winters squeezed into the kitchen cupboards. So that on a morning when she awoke in high spirits she would raze the clothes closets, empty the trunks, tear apart the attics, and wage a war of separation against the piles of clothing that had been seen once too often, the hats she had never worn because there had been no occasion to wear them while they were still in fashion, the shoes copied by European artists from those used by empresses for their coronations, and which were scorned here by highborn ladies because they were identical to the ones that black women bought at the market to wear in the house. For the entire morning the interior terrace would be in a state of crisis, and in the house it would be difficult to breathe because of bitter gusts from the mothballs. But in a few hours order would be reestablished because she at last took pity on so much silk strewn on the floor, so many leftover brocades and useless pieces of passementerie, so many silver fox tails, all condemned to the fire.

“It is a sin to burn this,” she would say, “when so many people do not even have enough to eat.”

And so the burning was postponed, it was always postponed, and things were only shifted from their places of privilege to the stables that had been transformed into storage bins for remnants, while the spaces that had been cleared, just as he predicted, began to fill up again, to overflow with things that lived for a moment and then went to die in the closets: until the next time. She would say: “Someone should invent something to do with things you cannot use anymore but that you still cannot throw out.” That was true: she was dismayed by the voracity with which objects kept invading living spaces, displacing the humans, forcing them back into the corners, until Fermina Daza pushed the objects out of sight. For she was not as ordered as people thought, but she did have her own desperate method for appearing to be so: she hid the disorder. The day that Juvenal Urbino died, they had to empty out half of his study and pile the things in the bedrooms so there would be space to lay out the body.

Death’s passage through the house brought the solution. Once she had burned her husband’s clothes, Fermina Daza realized that her hand had not trembled, and on the same impulse she continued to light the fire at regular intervals, throwing everything on it, old and new, not thinking about the envy of the rich or the vengeance of the poor who were dying of hunger. Finally, she had the mango tree cut back at the roots until there was nothing left of that misfortune, and she gave the live parrot to the new Museum of the City. Only then did she draw a free breath in the kind of house she had always dreamed of: large, easy, and all hers.

Her daughter Ofelia spent three months with her and then returned to New Orleans. Her son brought his family to lunch on Sundays and as often as he could during the week. Fermina Daza’s closest friends began to visit her once she had overcome the crisis of her mourning, they played cards facing the bare patio, they tried out new recipes, they brought her up to date on the secret life of the insatiable world that continued to exist without her. One of the most faithful was Lucrecia del Real del Obispo, an aristocrat of the old school who had always been a good friend and who drew even closer after the death of Juvenal Urbino. Stiff with arthritis and repenting her wayward life, in those days Lucrecia del Real not only provided her with the best company, she also consulted with her regarding the civic and secular projects that were being arranged in the city, and this made her feel useful for her own sake and not because of the protective shadow of her husband. And yet she was never so closely identified with him as she was then, for she was no longer called by her maiden name, and she became known as the Widow Urbino.

It seemed incredible, but as the first anniversary of her husband’s death approached, Fermina Daza felt herself entering a place that was shady, cool, quiet: the grove of the irremediable. She was not yet aware, and would not be for several months, of how much the written meditations of Florentino Ariza had helped her to recover her peace of mind. Applied to her own experiences, they were what allowed her to understand her own life and to await the designs of old age with serenity. Their meeting at the memorial Mass was a providential opportunity for her to let Florentino Ariza know that she, too, thanks to his letters of encouragement, was prepared to erase the past.

 

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