Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 44)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Audible Chapter 14)
Two days later she received a different kind of letter from him: handwritten on linen paper and his complete name inscribed with great clarity on the back of the envelope. It was the same ornate handwriting as in his earlier letters, the same will to lyricism, but applied to a simple paragraph of gratitude for the courtesy of her greeting in the Cathedral. For several days after she read the letter Fermina Daza continued to think about it with troubled memories, but with a conscience so clear that on the following Thursday she suddenly asked Lucrecia del Real del Obispo if she happened to know Florentino Ariza, the, owner of the riverboats. Lucrecia replied that she did: “He seems to be a wandering succubus.” She repeated the common gossip that he had never had a woman although he was such a good catch, and that he had a secret office where he took the boys he pursued at night along the docks. Fermina Daza had heard that story for as long as she could remember, and she had never believed it or given it any importance. But when she heard it repeated with so much conviction by Lucrecia del Real del Obispo, who had also been rumored at one time to have strange tastes, she could not resist the urge to clarify matters. She said she had known Florentino Ariza since he was a boy. She reminded her that his mother had owned a notions shop on the Street of Windows and also bought old shirts and sheets, which she unraveled and sold as bandages during the civil wars. And she concluded with conviction: “He is an honorable man, and he is the soul of tact.” She was so vehement that Lucrecia took back what she had said: “When all is said and done, they also say the same sort of thing about me.” Fermina Daza was not curious enough to ask herself why she was making so passionate a defense of a man who had been no more than a shadow in her life. She continued to think about him, above all when the mail arrived without another letter from him. Two weeks of silence had gone by when one of the servant girls woke her during her siesta with a warning whisper: “Señora,” she said, “Don Florentino is here.”
He was there. Fermina Daza’s first reaction was panic. She thought no, he should come back another day at a more appropriate hour, she was in no condition to receive visitors, there was nothing to talk about. But she recovered instantly and told her to show him into the drawing room and bring him coffee, while she tidied herself before seeing him. Florentino Ariza had waited at the street door, burning under the infernal three o’clock sun, but in full control of the situation. He was prepared not to be received, even with an amiable excuse, and that certainty kept him calm. But the decisiveness of her message shook him to his very marrow, and when he walked into the cool shadows of the drawing room he did not have time to think about the miracle he was experiencing because his intestines suddenly filled in an explosion of painful foam. He sat down, holding his breath,hounded by the damnable memory of the bird droppings on his first love letter, and he remained motionless in the shadowy darkness until the first attack of shivering had passed, resolved to accept any mishap at that moment except this unjust misfortune.
He knew himself well: despite his congenital constipation, his belly had betrayed him in public three or four times in the course of his many years, and those three or four times he had been obliged to give in. Only on those occasions, and on others of equal urgency, did he realize the truth of the words that he liked to repeat in jest: “I do not believe in God, but I am afraid of Him.” He did not have time for doubts: he tried to say any prayer he could remember, but he could not think of a single one. When he was a boy, another boy had taught him magic words for hitting a bird with a stone: “Aim, aim, got my aim-if I miss you I’m not to blame.” He used it when he went to the country for the first time with a new slingshot, and the bird fell down dead. In a confused way he thought that one thing had something to do with the other, and he repeated the formula now with the fervor of a prayer, but it did not have the desired effect. A twisting in his guts like the coil of a spring lifted him from his seat, the foaming in his belly grew thicker and more painful, it grumbled a lament and left him covered with icy sweat. The maid who brought him the coffee was frightened by his corpse’s face. He sighed: “It’s the heat.” She opened the window, thinking she would make him more comfortable, but the afternoon sun hit him full in the face and she had to close it again. He knew he could not hold out another moment, and then Fermina Daza came in, almost invisible in the darkness, dismayed at seeing him in such a state.
“You can take off your jacket,” she said to him.
He suffered less from the deadly griping of his bowels than from the thought that she might hear them bubbling. But he managed to endure just an instant longer to say no, he had only passed by to ask her when he might visit. Still standing, she said to him in confusion: “Well, you are here now.” And she invited him to the terrace in the patio, where it was cooler. He refused in a voice that seemed to her like a sigh of sorrow.
“I beg you, let it be tomorrow,” he said.
She remembered that tomorrow was Thursday, the day when Lucrecia del Real del Obispo made her regular visit, but she had the perfect solution: “The day after tomorrow at five o’clock.” Florentino Ariza thanked her, bid an urgent farewell with his hat, and left without tasting the coffee. She stood in the middle of the drawing room, puzzled, not understanding what had just happened, until the sound of his automobile’s backfiring faded at the end of the street. Then Florentino Ariza shifted into a less painful position in the back seat, closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles, and surrendered to the will of his body. It was like being reborn. The driver, who after so many years in his service was no longer surprised at anything, remained impassive. But when he opened the door for him in front of his house, he said: “Be careful, Don Floro, that looks like cholera.”
But it was only his usual ailment. Florentino Ariza thanked God for that on Friday, at five o’clock sharp, when the maid led him through the darkness of the drawing room to the terrace in the patio, where he saw Fermina Daza sitting beside a small table set for two. She offered him tea, chocolate, or coffee. Florentino Ariza asked for coffee, very hot and very strong, and she told the maid: “The usual for me.” The usual was a strong infusion of different kinds of Oriental teas, which raised her spirits after her siesta. By the time she had emptied the teapot and he the coffeepot, they had both attempted and then broken off several topics of conversation, not so much because they were really interested in them but in order to avoid others that neither dared to broach. They were both intimidated, they could not understand what they were doing so far from their youth on a terrace with checkerboard tiles in a house that belonged to no one and that was still redolent of cemetery flowers. It was the first time in half a century that they had been so close and had enough time to look at each other with some serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren. She thought that he would at last be convinced of the unreality of his dream, and that this would redeem his insolence.
In order to avoid uncomfortable silences or undesirable subjects, she asked obvious questions about riverboats. It seemed incredible that he, the owner, had only traveled the river once, many years ago, before he had anything to do with the company. She did not know his reasons, and he would have been willing to sell his soul if he could have told them to her. She did not know the river either. Her husband had an aversion to the air of the Andes that he concealed with a variety of excuses: the dangers to the heart of the altitude, the risks of pneumonia, the duplicity of the people, the injustices of centralism. And so they knew half the world, but they did not know their own country. Nowadays there was a Junkers seaplane that flew from town to town along the basin of the Magdalena like an aluminum grasshopper, with two crew members, six passengers, and many sacks of mail. Florentino Ariza commented: “It is like a flying coffin.” She had been on the first balloon flight and had experienced no fear, but she could hardly believe that she was the same person who had dared such an adventure. She said: “Things have changed.” Meaning that she was the one who had changed, and not the means of transportation.
At times the sound of airplanes took her by surprise. She had seen them flying very low and performing acrobatic maneuvers on the centenary of the death of The Liberator. One of them, as black as an enormous turkey buzzard, grazed the roofs of the houses in La Manga, left a piece of wing in a nearby tree, and was caught in the electrical wires. But not even that had convinced Fermina Daza of the existence of airplanes. In recent years she had not even had the curiosity to go to Manzanillo Bay, where seaplanes landed on the water after the police launches had warned away the fishermen’s canoes and the growing numbers of recreational boats. Because of her age, she had been chosen to greet Charles Lindbergh with a bouquet of roses when he came here on his goodwill flight, and she could not understand how a man who was so tall, so blond, so handsome, could go up in a contraption that looked as if it were made of corrugated tin and that two mechanics had to push by the tail to help lift it off the ground. She just could not get it through her head that airplanes not much larger than that one could carry eight people. On the other hand, she had heard that the riverboats were a delight because they did not roll like ocean liners, although there were other, more serious dangers, such as sandbars and attacks by bandits.
Florentino Ariza explained that those were all legends from another time: these days the riverboats had ballrooms and cabins as spacious and luxurious as hotel rooms, with private baths and electric fans, and there had been no armed attacks since the last civil war. He also explained, with the satisfaction of a personal triumph, that these advances were due more than anything else to the freedom of navigation that he had fought for and which had stimulated competition: instead of a single company, as in the past, there were now three, which were very active and prosperous. Nevertheless, the rapid progress of aviation was a real threat to all of them. She tried to console him: boats would always exist because there were not many people crazy enough to get into a contraption that seemed to go against nature. Then Florentino Ariza spoke of improvements in mail service, transportation as well as delivery, in an effort to have her talk about his letters. But he was not successful.
Soon afterward, however, the occasion arose on its own. They had moved far afield of the subject when a maid interrupted them to hand Fermina Daza a letter that had just arrived by special urban mail, a recent creation that used the same method of distribution as telegrams. As always, she could not find her reading glasses. Florentino Ariza remained calm.
“That will not be necessary,” he said. “The letter is mine.”
And so it was. He had written it the day before, in a terrible state of depression because he could not overcome the embarrassment of his first frustrated visit. In it he begged her pardon for the impertinence of attempting to visit her without first obtaining her permission, and he promised never to return. He had mailed it without thinking, and when he did have second thoughts it was too late to retrieve it. But he did not believe so many explanations were necessary, and he simply asked Fermina Daza please not to read the letter.
“Of course,” she said. “After all, letters belong to the person who writes them. Don’t you agree?”
He made a bold move.
“I do,” he said. “That is why they are the first things returned when an affair is ended.” She ignored his hidden intentions and returned the letter to him, saying: “It is a shame that I cannot read it, because the others have helped me a great deal.” He took a deep breath, astounded that she had said so much more than he had hoped for in so spontaneous a manner, and he said: “You cannot imagine how happy I am to know that.” But she changed the subject, and he could not manage to bring it up again for the rest of the afternoon.
He left well after six o’clock, as they were beginning to turn on the lights in the house. He felt more secure but did not have many illusions, because he could not forget Fermina Daza’s fickle character and unpredictable reactions at the age of twenty, and he had no reason to think that she had changed. Therefore he risked asking, with sincere humility, if he might return another day, and once again her reply took him by surprise.
“Come back whenever you like,” she said. “I am almost always alone.” Four days later, on Tuesday, he returned unannounced, and she did not wait for the tea to be served to tell him how much his letters had helped her. He said that they were not letters in the strict sense of the word, but pages from a book that he would like to write. She, too, had understood them in that way. In fact, she had intended to return them, if he would not take that as an insult, so that they could be put to better use. She continued speaking of how they had helped her during this difficult time, with so much enthusiasm, so much gratitude, perhaps with so much affection, that Florentino Ariza risked something more than a bold move: it was a somersault.
“We called each other tú before,” he said.
It was a forbidden word: “before.” She felt the chimerical angel of the past flying overhead, and she tried to elude it. But he went even further: “Before, I mean, in our letters.” She was annoyed, and she had to make a serious effort to conceal it. But he knew, and he realized that he had to move with more tact, although the blunder showed him that her temper was still as short as it had been in her youth although she had learned to soften it.
“I mean,” he said, “that these letters are something very different.” “Everything in the world has changed,” she said.
“I have not,” he said. “Have you?”
She sat with her second cup of tea halfway to her mouth and rebuked him with eyes that had survived so many inclemencies.
“By now it does not matter,” she said. “I have just turned seventy-two.”
Florentino Ariza felt the blow in the very center of his heart. He would have liked to find a reply as rapid and well aimed as an arrow, but the burden of his age defeated him: he had never been so exhausted by so brief a conversation, he felt pain in his heart, and each beat echoed with a metallic resonance in his arteries. He felt old, forlorn, useless, and his desire to cry was so urgent that he could not speak. They finished their second cup in a silence furrowed by presentiments, and when she spoke again it was to ask a maid to bring her the folder of letters. He was on the verge of asking her to keep them for herself, since he had made carbon copies, but he thought this precaution would seem ignoble. There was nothing else to say. Before he left he suggested coming back on the following Tuesday at the same time. She asked herself whether she should be so acquiescent.
“I don’t see what sense so many visits would make,” she said. “I hadn’t thought they made any sense,” he said.
And so he returned on Tuesday at five o’clock, and then every Tuesday after that, and he ignored the convention of notifying her, because by the end of the second month the weekly visits had been incorporated into both their routines. Florentino Ariza brought English biscuits for tea, candied chestnuts, Greek olives, little salon delicacies that he would find on the ocean liners. One Tuesday he brought her a copy of the picture of her and Hildebranda taken by the Belgian photographer more than half a century before, which he had bought for fifteen centavos at a postcard sale in the Arcade of the Scribes. Fermina Daza could not understand how it had come to be there, and he could only understand it as a miracle of love. One morning, as he was cutting roses in his garden, Florentino Ariza could not resist the temptation of taking one to her on his next visit. It was a difficult problem in the language of flowers because she was a recent widow. A red rose, symbol of flaming passion, might offend her mourning. Yellow roses, which in another language were the flowers of good fortune, were an expression of jealousy in the common vocabulary. He had heard of the black roses of Turkey, which were perhaps the most appropriate, but he had not been able to obtain any for acclimatization in his patio. After much thought he risked a white rose, which he liked less than the others because it was insipid and mute: it did not say anything. At the last minute, in case Fermina Daza was suspicious enough to attribute some meaning to it, he removed the thorns.
It was well received as a gift with no hidden intentions, and the Tuesday ritual was enriched, so that when he would arrive with the white rose, the vase filled with water was ready in the center of the tea table. One Tuesday, as he placed the rose in the vase, he said in an apparently casual manner:
“In our day it was camellias, not roses.”
“That is true,” she said, “but the intention was different, and you know it.”
That is how it always was: he would attempt to move forward, and she would block the way. But on this occasion, despite her ready answer, Florentino Ariza realized that he had hit the mark, because she had to turn her face so that he would not see her blush. A burning, childish blush, with a life of its own and an insolence that turned her vexation on herself. Florentino Ariza was very careful to move to other, less offensive topics, but his courtesy was so obvious that she knew she had been found out, and that increased her anger. It was an evil Tuesday. She was on the point of asking him not to return, but the idea of a lovers’ quarrel seemed so ridiculous at their age and in their circumstances that it provoked a fit of laughter. The following Tuesday, when Florentino Ariza was placing the rose in the vase, she examined her conscience and discovered to her joy that not a vestige of resentment was left over from the previous week.