Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 45)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
His visits soon began to acquire an awkward familial amplitude, for Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife would sometimes appear as if by accident, and they would stay to play cards. Florentino Ariza did not know how to play, but Fermina taught him in just one visit and they both sent a written challenge to the Urbino Dazas for the following Tuesday. The games were so pleasant for everyone that they soon became as official as his visits, and patterns were established for each person’s contribution. Dr. Urbino and his wife, who was an excellent confectioner, brought exquisite pastries, a different one each time. Florentino Ariza continued to bring delicacies from the European ships, and Fermina Daza found a way to contribute a new surprise each time.
They played on the third Tuesday of every month, and although they did not wager with money, the loser was obliged to contribute something special to the next game.
There was no difference between Dr. Urbino Daza and his public image: his talents were limited, his manner awkward, and he suffered from sudden twitching, caused by either happiness or annoyance, and from inopportune blushing, which made one fear for his mental fortitude. But it was evident on first meeting him that he was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, what Florentino Ariza most feared people would call him: a good man. His wife, on the other hand, was vivacious and had a plebeian spark of sharp wit that gave a more human note to her elegance. One could not wish for a better couple to play cards with, and Florentino Ariza’s insatiable need for love overflowed with the illusion of feeling that he was part of a family.
One night, as they were leaving the house together, Dr. Urbino Daza asked him to have lunch with him: “Tomorrow, at twelve-thirty, at the Social Club.” It was an exquisite dish served with a poisonous wine: the Social Club reserved the right to refuse admission for any number of reasons, and one of the most important was illegitimate birth. Uncle Leo XII had experienced great annoyance in this regard, and Florentino Ariza himself had suffered the humiliation of being asked to leave when he was already sitting at the table as the guest of one of the founding members, for whom Florentino Ariza had performed complex favors in the area of river commerce, and who had no other choice but to take him elsewhere to eat.
“Those of us who make the rules have the greatest obligation to abide by them,” he had said to him.
Nevertheless Florentino Ariza took the risk with Dr. Urbino Daza, and he was welcomed with special deference, although he was not asked to sign the gold book for notable guests. The lunch was brief, there were just the two of them, and its tone was subdued. The fears regarding the meeting that had troubled Florentino Ariza since the previous afternoon vanished with the port he had as an aperitif. Dr. Urbino Daza wanted to talk to him about his mother. Because of everything that he said, Florentino Ariza realized that she had spoken to her son about him. And something still more surprising: she had lied on his behalf. She told him that they had been childhood friends, playmates from the time of her arrival from San Juan de la Ciénaga, and that he had introduced her to reading, for which she was forever grateful. She also told him that after school she had often spent long hours in the notions shop with Tránsito Ariza, performing prodigious feats of embroidery, for she had been a notable teacher, and that if she had not continued seeing Florentino Ariza with the same frequency, it had not been through choice but because of how their lives had diverged.
Before he came to the heart of his intentions, Dr. Urbino Daza made several digressions on the subject of aging. He thought that the world would make more rapid progress without the burden of old people. He said: “Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest.” He foresaw a more humanitarian and by the same token a more civilized future in which men and women would be isolated in marginal cities when they could no longer take care of themselves so that they might be spared the humiliation, suffering, and frightful loneliness of old age. From the medical point of view, according to him, the proper age limit would be seventy. But until they reached that degree of charity, the only solution was nursing homes, where the old could console each other and share their likes and dislikes, their habits and sorrows, safe from their natural disagreements with the younger generation. He said: “Old people, with other old people, are not so old.” Well, then: Dr. Urbino Daza wanted to thank Florentino Ariza for the good companionship he gave his mother in the solitude of her widowhood, he begged him to continue doing so for the good of them both and the convenience of all, and to have patience with her senile whims. Florentino Ariza was relieved with the outcome of their interview. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I am now four years older than she is, and have been since long, long before you were born.” Then he succumbed to the temptation of giving vent to his feelings with an ironic barb.
“In the society of the future,” he concluded, “you would have to visit the cemetery now to bring her and me a bouquet of arum lilies for lunch.”
Until that moment Dr. Urbino Daza had not noticed the inappropriateness of his prognostications, and he became enmeshed in a long series of explanations that only made matters worse. But Florentino Ariza helped him to extricate himself. He was radiant, for he knew that sooner or later he was going to have another meeting like this one with Dr. Urbino Daza in order to satisfy an unavoidable social convention: the formal request for his mother’s hand in marriage. The lunch had been very encouraging, not only in and of itself but because it showed him how simple and well received that inexorable request was going to be. If he could have counted on Fermina Daza’s consent, no occasion would have been more propitious. Moreover, after their conversation at this historic lunch, the formality of a request was almost de trop.
Even in his youth Florentino Ariza climbed up and down stairs with special care, for he had always believed that old age began with one’s first minor fall and that death came with the second. The staircase in his offices seemed the most dangerous of all to him because it was so steep and narrow, and long before he had to make a special effort not to drag his feet, he would climb it with his eyes fixed on each step and both hands clutching the banister. It had often been suggested that he replace it with one that was less dangerous, but he always put off the decision until next month because he thought it was a concession to old age. As the years passed, it took him longer and longer to walk up the stairs, not because it was harder for him, as he himself hurried to explain, but because he used greater and greater care in the climb. Nevertheless, on the afternoon when he returned from lunch with Dr. Urbino Daza, after the aperitif of port and half a glass of red wine with the meal, and above all after their triumphal conversation, he tried to reach the third stair with so youthful a dance step that he twisted his left ankle, fell backward, and only by a miracle did not kill himself. As he was falling he had enough lucidity to think that he was not going to die of this accident because the logic of life would not allow two men, who had loved the same woman so much for so many years, to die in the same way within a year of each other. He was right. He was put into a plaster cast from his foot to his calf and forced to remain immobile in bed, but he was livelier than he had been before his fall. When the doctor ordered sixty days of convalescence, he could not believe his misfortune.
“Don’t do this to me, Doctor,” he begged. “Two months for me are like ten years for you.”
He tried to get up several times, holding his leg that was like a statue’s, with both hands, and reality always defeated him. But when at last he walked again, his ankle still painful and his back raw, he had more than enough reasons to believe that destiny had rewarded his perseverance with a providential fall.
The first Monday was his worst day. The pain had eased and the medical prognosis was very encouraging, but he refused to accept the fatality of not seeing Fermina Daza the following afternoon for the first time in four months. Nevertheless, after a resigned siesta, he submitted to reality and wrote her a note excusing himself. He wrote it by hand on perfumed paper and in luminous ink so that it could be read in the dark, and with no sense of shame he dramatized the gravity of his accident in an effort to arouse her compassion. She answered him two days later, very sympathetic, very kind, without one word extra, just as in the great days of their love. He seized the opportunity as it flew by and wrote to her again. When she answered a second time, he decided to go much further than in their coded Tuesday conversations, and he had a telephone installed next to his bed on the pretext of keeping an eye on the company’s daily affairs. He asked the operator to connect him with the three-digit number that he had known by heart since the first time he dialed it. The quiet voice strained by the mystery of distance, the beloved voice answered, recognized the other voice, and said goodbye after three conventional phrases of greeting. Florentino Ariza was devastated by her indifference: they were back at the beginning.
Two days later, however, he received a letter from Fermina Daza in which she begged him not to call again. Her reasons were valid. There were so few telephones in the city that all communication took place through an operator who knew all the subscribers, their lives, their miracles, and it did not matter if they were not at home: she would find them wherever they might be. In return for such efficiency she kept herself informed of their conversations, she uncovered the secrets, the best-kept dramas of their private lives, and it was not unusual for her to interrupt a conversation in order to express her point of view or to calm tempers. Then, too, that year marked the founding of Justice, an evening newspaper whose sole purpose was to attack the families with long last names, inherited and unencumbered names, which was the publisher’s revenge because his sons had not been admitted to the Social Club. Despite her unimpeachable life, Fermina Daza was more careful now than ever of everything she said or did, even with her closest friends. So that she maintained her connection to Florentino Ariza by means of the anachronistic thread of letters. The correspondence back and forth became so frequent and intense that he forgot about his leg and the chastisement of the bed, he forgot about everything, and he dedicated himself totally to writing on the kind of portable table used in hospitals to serve meals to patients.
They called each other tú again, again they exchanged commentaries on their lives as they had done once before in their letters, and again Florentino Ariza tried to move too quickly: he wrote her name with the point of a pin on the petals of a camellia and sent it to her in a letter. Two days later it was returned with no message. Fermina Daza could not help it: all that seemed like children’s games to her, most of all when Florentino Ariza insisted on evoking the afternoons of melancholy verses in the Park of the Evangels, the letters hidden along her route to school, the embroidery lessons under the almond trees. With sorrowing heart she reprimanded him in what appeared to be a casual question in the midst of other trivial remarks: “Why do you insist on talking about what does not exist?” Later she reproached him for his fruitless insistence on not permitting himself to grow old in a natural way. This was, according to her, the reason for his haste and constant blundering as he evoked the past. She could not understand how a man capable of the thoughts that had given her the strength to endure her widowhood could become entangled in so childish a manner when he attempted to apply them to his own life. Their roles were reversed. Now it was she who tried to give him new courage to face the future, with a phrase that he, in his reckless haste, could not decipher: Let time pass and we will see what it brings. For he was never as good a student as she was. His forced immobility, the growing lucidity of his conviction that time was fleeting, his mad desire to see her, everything proved to him that his fear of falling had been more accurate and more tragic than he had foreseen. For the first time, he began to think in a reasoned way about the reality of death.
Leona Cassiani helped him to bathe and to change his pajamas every other day, she gave him his enemas, she held the portable urinal for him, she applied arnica compresses to the bedsores on his back, she gave him the massages recommended by the doctor so that his immobility would not cause other, more severe ailments. On Saturdays and Sundays she was relieved by América Vicuña, who was to receive her teaching degree in December of that year. He had promised to send her to Alabama for further study, at the expense of the river company, in part to quiet his conscience and above all in order not to face either the reproaches that she did not know how to make to him or the explanations that he owed to her. He never imagined how much she suffered during her sleepless nights at school, during the weekends without him, during her life without him, because he never imagined how much she loved him. He had been informed in an official letter from the school that she had fallen from her perpetual first place in the class to last, and that she had almost failed her final examinations. But he ignored his duty as guardian: he said nothing to América Vicuña’s parents, restrained by a sense of guilt that he tried to elude, and he did not discuss it with her because of a well-founded fear that she would try to implicate him in her failure. And so he left things as they were. Without realizing it, he was beginning to defer his problems in the hope that death would resolve them.
The two women who took care of him, and Florentino Ariza himself, were surprised at how much he had changed. Less than ten years before, he had assaulted one of the maids behind the main staircase in the house, dressed and standing as she was, and in less time than a Filipino rooster he had left her in a family way. He had to give her a furnished house in exchange for her swearing that the author of her dishonor was a part-time, Sunday sweetheart who had never even kissed her, and her father and uncles, who were proficient sugarcane cutters, forced them to marry. It did not seem possible that this could be the same man, this man handled front and back by two women who just a few months earlier had made him tremble with love and who now soaped him above his waist and below, dried him with towels of Egyptian cotton, and massaged his entire body, while he did not emit a single sigh of passion. Each of them had a different explanation for his lack of desire. Leona Cassiani thought it was the prelude to death. América Vicuña attributed it to a hidden cause whose intricacies she could not decipher. He alone knew the truth, and it had its own name. In any case, it was unfair: they suffered more in serving him than he did in being so well served.
Fermina Daza needed no more than three Tuesdays to realize how much she missed Florentino Ariza’s visits. She enjoyed the friends who were frequent visitors, and she enjoyed them even more as time distanced her from her husband’s habits. Lucrecia del Real del Obispo had gone to Panama to have her ear examined because of a pain that nothing could ease, and after a month she came back feeling much better, but hearing less than she had before and using an ear trumpet. Fermina Daza was the friend who was most tolerant of her confusions of questions and answers, and this was so encouraging to Lucrecia that hardly a day went by that she did not stop in at any hour. But for Fermina Daza no one could take the place of her calming afternoons with Florentino Ariza.