Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 49)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Long before he became President of the R.C.C., Florentino Ariza had received alarming reports on the state of the river, but he barely read them. He would calm his associates: “Don’t worry, by the time the wood is gone there will be boats fueled by oil.” With his mind clouded by his passion for Fermina Daza, he never took the trouble to think about it, and by the time he realized the truth, there was nothing anyone could do except bring in a new river. Even in the days when the waters were at their best, the boats had to anchor at night, and then even the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. Most of the passengers, above all the Europeans, abandoned the pestilential stench of their cabins and spent the night walking the decks, brushing away all sorts of predatory creatures with the same towel they used to dry their incessant perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and swollen with bites. An English traveler at the beginning of the nineteenth century, referring to the journey by canoe and mule that could last as long as fifty days, had written: “This is one of the most miserable and uncomfortable pilgrimages that a human being can make.” This had no longer been true during the first eighty years of steam navigation, and then it became true again forever when the alligators ate the last butterfly and the maternal manatees were gone, the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone: everything was gone.
“There’s no problem,” the Captain laughed. “In a few years, we’ll ride the dry riverbed in luxury automobiles.”
For the first three days Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza were protected by the soft springtime of the enclosed observation deck, but when the wood was rationed and the cooling system began to fail, the Presidential Suite became a steam bath. She survived the nights because of the river breeze that came in through the open windows, and she frightened off the mosquitoes with a towel because the insecticide bomb was useless when the boat was anchored. Her earache had become unbearable, and one morning when she awoke it stopped suddenly and completely, like the sound of a smashed cicada. But she did not realize that she had lost the hearing in her left ear until that night, when Florentino Ariza spoke to her on that side and she had to turn her head to hear what he was saying. She did not tell anyone, for she was resigned to the fact that it was one of the many irremediable defects of old age.
In spite of everything, the delay had been a providential accident for them. Florentino Ariza had once read: “Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity.” The humidity in the Presidential Suite submerged them in an unreal lethargy in which it was easier to love without questions. They spent unimaginable hours holding hands in the armchairs by the railing, they exchanged unhurried kisses, they enjoyed the rapture of caresses without the pitfalls of impatience. On the third stupefying night she waited for him with a bottle of anisette, which she used to drink in secret with Cousin Hildebranda’s band and later, after she was married and had children, behind closed doors with the friends from her borrowed world. She needed to be somewhat intoxicated in order not to think about her fate with too much lucidity, but Florentino Ariza thought it was to give herself courage for the final step. Encouraged by that illusion, he dared to explore her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armored in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their aging veins. She accepted with pleasure, her eyes closed, but she did not tremble, and she smoked and drank at regular intervals. At last, when his caresses slid over her belly, she had enough anisette in her heart.
“If we’re going to do it, let’s do it,” she said, “but let’s do it like grownups.”
She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress without false modesty. Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his back and trying to regain control, once again not knowing what to do with the skin of the tiger he had slain. She said: “Don’t look.” He asked why without taking his eyes off the ceiling.
“Because you won’t like it,” she said.
Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s. She covered her chest with the blouse she had just taken off, and she turned out the light. Then he sat up and began to undress in the darkness, throwing everything at her that he took off, while she tossed it back, dying of laughter.
They lay on their backs for a long time, he more and more perturbed as his intoxication left him, and she peaceful, almost without will, but praying to God that she would not laugh like a fool, as she always did when she overindulged in anisette. They talked to pass the time. They spoke of themselves, of their divergent lives, of the incredible coincidence of their lying naked in a dark cabin on a stranded boat when reason told them they had time only for death. She had never heard of his having a woman, not even one, in that city where everything was known even before it happened. She spoke in a casual manner, and he replied without hesitation in a steady voice:
“I’ve remained a virgin for you.”
She would not have believed it in any event, even if it had been true, because his love letters were composed of similar phrases whose meaning mattered less than their brilliance. But she liked the spirited way in which he said it. Florentino Ariza, for his part, suddenly asked himself what he would never have dared to ask himself before: what kind of secret life had she led outside of her marriage? Nothing would have surprised him, because he knew that women are just like men in their secret adventures: the same stratagems, the same sudden inspirations, the same betrayals without remorse. But he was wise not to ask the question. Once, when her relations with the Church were already strained, her confessor had asked her out of the blue if she had ever been unfaithful to her husband, and she had stood up without responding, without concluding, without saying goodbye, and had never gone to confession again, with that confessor or with any other. But Florentino Ariza’s prudence had an unexpected reward: she stretched out her hand in the darkness, caressed his belly, his flanks, his almost hairless pubis. She said: “You have skin like a baby’s.” Then she took the final step: she searched for him where he was not, she searched again without hope, and she found him, unarmed. “It’s dead,” he said.
It had happened to him sometimes, and he had learned to live with the phantom: each time he had to learn again, as if it were the first time. He took her hand and laid it on his chest: Fermina Daza felt the old, untiring heart almost bursting through his skin, beating with the strength, the rapidity, the irregularity of an adolescent’s. He said: “Too much love is as bad for this as no love at all.” But he said it without conviction: he was ashamed, furious with himself, longing for some reason to blame her for his failure. She knew it, and began to provoke his defenseless body with mock caresses, like a kitten delighting in cruelty, until he could no longer endure the martyrdom and he returned to his cabin. She thought about him until dawn, convinced at last of her love, and as the anisette left her in slow waves, she was invaded by the anguished fear that he was angry and would never return.
But he returned the same day, refreshed and renewed, at the unusual hour of eleven o’clock, and he undressed in front of her with a certain ostentation. She was pleased to see him in the light just as she had imagined him in the darkness: an ageless man, with dark skin that was as shiny and tight as an opened umbrella, with no hair except for a few limp strands under his arms and at his groin. His guard was up, and she realized that he did not expose his weapon by accident, but displayed it as if it were a war trophy in order to give himself courage. He did not even give her time to take off the nightgown that she had put on when the dawn breeze began to blow, and his beginner’s haste made her shiver with compassion. But that did not disturb her, because in such cases it was not easy to distinguish between compassion and love. When it was over, however, she felt empty.
It was the first time she had made love in over twenty years, and she had been held back by her curiosity concerning how it would feel at her age after so long a respite. But he had not given her time to find out if her body loved him too. It had been hurried and sad, and she thought: Now we’ve screwed up everything. But she was wrong: despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed. Captain Samaritano, who uncovered by instinct any secret that anyone wanted to keep on his ship, sent them a white rose every morning, had them serenaded with old waltzes from their day, had meals prepared for them with aphrodisiac ingredients as a joke. They did not try to make love again until much later, when the inspiration came to them without their looking for it. They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.
They would not have thought of leaving the cabin if the Captain had not written them a note informing them that after lunch they would reach golden La Dorada, the last port on the eleven-day journey. From the cabin Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza saw the promontory of houses lit by a pale sun, and they thought they understood the reason for its name, but it seemed less evident to them when they felt the heat that steamed like a caldron and saw the tar bubbling in the streets. Moreover, the boat did not dock there but on the opposite bank, where the terminal for the Santa Fe Railroad was located.
They left their refuge as soon as the passengers disembarked. Fermina Daza breathed the good air of impunity in the empty salon, and from the gunwale they both watched a noisy crowd of people gathering their luggage in the cars of a train that looked like a toy.
One would have thought they had come from Europe, above all the women, in their Nordic coats and hats from the last century that made no sense in the sweltering, dusty heat. Some wore beautiful potato blossoms in their hair, but they had begun to wither in the heat. They had just come from the Andean plateau after a train trip through a dreamlike savannah, and they had not had time to change their clothes for the Caribbean.
In the middle of the bustling market, a very old man with an inconsolable expression on his face was pulling chicks out of the pockets of his beggar’s coat. He had appeared without warning, making his way through the crowd in a tattered overcoat that had belonged to someone much taller and heavier than he. He took off his hat, placed it brim up on the dock in case anyone wanted to throw him a coin, and began to empty his pockets of handfuls of pale baby chicks that seemed to proliferate in his fingers. In only a moment the dock appeared to be carpeted with cheeping chicks running everywhere among hurried travelers who trampled them without realizing it. Fascinated by the marvelous spectacle that seemed to be performed in her honor, for she was the only person watching it, Fermina Daza did not notice when the passengers for the return trip began to come on board. The party was over: among them she saw many faces she knew, some of them friends who until a short while ago had attended her in her grief, and she rushed to take refuge in her cabin. Florentino Ariza found her there, distraught: she would rather die than be seen on a pleasure trip, by people she knew, so soon after the death of her husband. Her preoccupation affected Florentino Ariza so much that he promised to think of some way to protect her other than keeping her in the cabin.
The idea came to him all at once as they were having supper in the private dining room. The Captain was troubled by a problem he had wanted to discuss for a long time with Florentino Ariza, who always evaded him with his usual answer: “Leona Cassiani can handle those problems better than I can.” This time, however, he listened to him. The fact was that the boats carried cargo upriver, but came back empty, while the opposite occurred with passengers. “And the advantage of cargo is that it pays more and eats nothing,” he said. Fermina Daza, bored with the men’s enervated discussion concerning the possibility of establishing differential fares, ate without will. But Florentino Ariza pursued the discussion to its end, and only then did he ask the question that the Captain thought was the prelude to a solution:
“And speaking hypothetically,” he said, “would it be possible to make a trip without stopping, without cargo or passengers, without coming into any port, without anything?”
The Captain said that it was possible, but only hypothetically. The R.C.C. had business commitments that Florentino Ariza was more familiar with than he was, it had contracts for cargo, passengers, mail, and a great deal more, and most of them were unbreakable. The only thing that would allow them to bypass all that was a case of cholera on board. The ship would be quarantined, it would hoist the yellow flag and sail in a state of emergency. Captain Samaritano had needed to do just that on several occasions because of the many cases of cholera along the river, although later the health authorities had obliged the doctors to sign death certificates that called the cases common dysentery. Besides, many times in the history of the river the yellow plague flag had been flown in order to evade taxes, or to avoid picking up an undesirable passenger, or to elude inopportune inspections. Florentino Ariza reached for Fermina Daza’s hand under the table. “Well, then,” he said, “let’s do that.”
The Captain was taken by surprise, but then, with the instinct of an old fox, he saw everything clearly.
“I command on this ship, but you command us,” he said. “So if you are serious, give me the order in writing and we will leave right now.” Florentino Ariza was serious, of course, and he signed the order. Àter all, everyone knew that the time of cholera had not ended despite all the joyful statistics from the health officials. As for the ship, there was no problem. The little cargo they had taken on was transferred, they told the passengers there had been a mechanical failure, and early that morning they sent them on their way on a ship that belonged to another company. If such things were done for so many immoral, even contemptible reasons, Florentino Ariza could not see why it would not be legitimate to do them for love. All that the Captain asked was that they stop in Puerto Nare to pick up someone who would accompany him on the voyage: he, too, had his secret heart.
So the New Fidelity weighed anchor at dawn the next day, without cargo or passengers, and with the yellow cholera flag waving jubilantly from the mainmast. At dusk in Puerto Nare they picked up a woman who was even taller and stouter than the Captain, an uncommon beauty who needed only a beard to be hired by a circus. Her name was Zenaida Neves, but the Captain called her “my wild woman”: an old friend whom he would pick up in one port and leave in another, and who came on board followed by the winds of joy. In that sad place of death, where Florentino Ariza relived his memories of Rosalba when he saw the train from Envigado struggling to climb the old mule trail, there was an Amazonian downpour that would continue with very few pauses for the rest of the trip. But no one cared: the floating fiesta had its own roof. That night, as a personal contribution to the revelry, Fermina Daza went down to the galley amid the ovations of the crew and prepared a dish for everyone that she created and that Florentino Ariza christened Eggplant al Amor.