Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Chapter 2)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I am writing these memories in the little that remains of the library that belonged to my parents, and whose shelves are about to collapse as a result of the patience of bookworms. When all is said and done, for what I still have left to do in this world, I’d be satisfied with my many kinds of dictionaries, the first two series of the _Episodios nacionales__ by Don Benito Pérez Galdَs, and _The Magic Mountain,__which taught me to understand my mother’s moods, distorted by consumption.
Unlike the rest of the furniture, and unlike me, the large table on which I am writing seems to grow healthier with the passage of time, because my paternal grandfather, a ship’s carpenter, fashioned it from noble woods. Even when I don’t have to write, I arrange it every morning with the pointless rigor that has made me lose so many lovers. Within reach I have the books that are my accomplices: the two volumes of the _Primer diccionario ilustrado__ of the Royal Academy, dated 1903; the _Tesoro de la lengua castellana o espaٌola__ of Don Sebastian de Covarrubias; Don Andrés Bello’s grammar, essential in the event I have a semantic question; the innovative _Diccionario ideolَgico__ by Don Julio Casares, in particular for its antonyms and synonyms; the _Vocabolario della lingua italiana__, by Nicola Zingarelli, to help me with my mother’s language, which I learned in the cradle; and a Latin dictionary: since it is the mother of the other two, I consider it my native tongue.
On the left side of the writing table I always keep five sheets of office-size rag paper for my Sunday column, and the horn with sand to dry the ink, which I prefer to the modern pad of blotting paper. On the right are the inkwell and holder of light balsa wood with its gold pen, for I still write in the romantic hand that Florina de Dios taught me so I would not adopt the functionary’s handwriting of her husband, who was a public notary and certified accountant until he drew his final breath. Some time ago the newspaper ordered everyone to type in order to improve estimates of the text in the linotype’s lead and achieve greater accuracy in typesetting, but I never adopted that bad habit. I continued to write by hand and to transcribe on the typewriter with a hen’s arduous pecking, thanks to the unwanted privilege of being the oldest employee. Today, retired but not defeated, I enjoy the sacred privilege of writing at home, with the phone off the hook so that no one can disturb me, and without a censor looking over my shoulder to see what I am writing.
I live without dogs or birds or servants, except for the faithful Damiana who has rescued me from the most unexpected difficulties, and who still comes once a week to take care of whatever there is to do, even in the state she is in, losing her sight and her acumen. My mother on her deathbed asked me to marry a fair-skinned woman while I was young and have at least three children, one of them a girl with her name, which had also been her mother’s and grandmother’s. I intended to comply with her request, but my notion of youth was so flexible I never thought it was too late. Until one hot afternoon when I opened the wrong door in the house of the Palomar de Castro family in Pradomar and saw Ximena Ortiz, the youngest of the daughters, naked as she took her siesta in the adjoining bedroom. She was lying with her back to the door, and she turned to look at me over her shoulder with a gesture so rapid it didn’t give me time to escape. Oh, excuse me, I managed to say, my heart in my mouth. She smiled, turned toward me with the grace of a gazelle, and showed me her entire body. The whole room felt saturated with her intimacy. Her nakedness was not absolute, for like Manet’s _Olympia__, behind her ear she had a poisonous flower with orange petals, and she also wore a gold bangle on her right wrist and a necklace of tiny pearls. I imagined I would never see anything more exciting for as long as I lived, and today I can confirm that I was right.
I slammed the door shut, embarrassed by my blundering and determined to forget her. But Ximena Ortiz prevented that. She sent me messages with mutual friends, provocative notes, brutal threats, while she spread the rumor that we were mad with love for each other though we hadn’t exchanged a word. She was impossible to resist. She had the eyes of a wildcat, a body as provocative with clothes as without, and luxuriant hair of uproarious gold whose woman’s smell made me weep with rage into my pillow. I knew it would never turn into love, but the satanic attraction she held for me was so fiery that I attempted to find relief with every green-eyed tart I came across. I never could put out the flame of her memory in the bed at Pradomar, and so I surrendered my weapons to her with a formal request for her hand, an exchange of rings, and the announcement of a large wedding before Pentecost.
The news exploded with greater impact in the Barrio Chino than in the social clubs. At first it was met with derision, but this changed into absolute vexation on the part of those erudite women who viewed marriage as a condition more ridiculous than sacred. My engagement satisfied all the rituals of Christian morality on the terrace, with its Amazonian orchids and hanging ferns, of my fiancée’s house. I would arrive at seven in the evening dressed all in white linen, with a gift of handcrafted beads or Swiss chocolates, and we would talk, half in code and half in seriousness, until ten, watched over by Aunt Argénida, who fell asleep in the blink of an eye, like the chaperones in the novels of the day.
Ximena became more voracious the better we got to know each other, she would loosen her bodices and petticoats as the sultry heat of June increased, and it was easy to imagine the devastating power she would have in the dark. After two months of being engaged we had nothing left to talk about, and without saying anything she brought up the subject of children by crocheting little boots for newborns from raw wool. I, the agreeable fiancé, learned to crochet with her, and in this way we passed the useless hours until the wedding: I crocheted little blue booties for boys and she crotcheted pink ones for girls, we’d see who guessed right, until there were enough for more than fifty babies. Before the clock struck ten, I would climb into a horse-drawn carriage and go to the Barrio Chino to live my night in the peace of God.
The tempestuous farewells to bachelorhood that they gave me in the Barrio Chino were the opposite of the oppressive evenings at the Social Club. A contrast that helped me find out which of the two worlds in reality was mine, and I hoped that both were, each at its proper time, because from either one I would watch the other moving away with the heartrending sighs of two ships passing at sea. On the night before the wedding, the dance at El Poder de Dios included a final ceremony that could have occurred only to a Galician priest foundering in concupiscence, who dressed the entire female staff in veils and orange blossoms so that all of them would marry me in a universal sacrament. It was a night of great sacrileges in which twenty-two women promised love and obedience and I reciprocated with fidelity and support for as long as we lived.
I could not sleep because of a presentiment of something irremediable. In the middle of the night I began to count the passage of the hours on the cathedral clock, until the seven dreadful bells when I was supposed to be at the church. The telephone began to ring at eight, long, tenacious, unpredictable rings for more than an hour. Not only did I not answer: I did not breathe. A little before ten someone knocked at the door, first a fist pounding and then the shouting of voices I knew and despised. I was afraid they would push down the door in some serious mishap, but by eleven the house was left in the bristling silence that follows great catastrophes. Then I wept for her and for me, and I prayed with all my heart never to see her again in all my days. Some saint half- heard me, because Ximena Ortiz left the country that same night and did not return until twenty years later, married and with seven children who could have been mine.
It was difficult for me to keep my position and my column at _El Diario de La Paz__ after that social affront. It wasn’t because of this, however, that they relegated my columns to page eleven, but because of the blind impetus with which the twentieth century came on the scene. Progress became the myth of the city. Everything changed; planes flew, and a businessman tossed a sack of letters out of a Junker and invented airmail.
The only things that remained the same were my columns in the newspaper. Younger generations launched an attack against them as if they were assaulting a mummy from the past that had to be destroyed, but I maintained the same tone and made no concessions to the winds of renovation. I remained deaf to everything. I had turned forty, but the young staff writers named it the Column of Mudarra the Bastard. The editor at the time called me into his office to ask me to conform to the latest currents. In a solemn way, as if he had just thought of it, he said: The world is moving ahead. Yes, I said, it’s moving ahead, but it’s revolving around the sun. He kept my Sunday column because he could not have found another cable editor. Today I know I was right, and I know why. The adolescents of my generation, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia. My Sunday columns were there, like an archeological relic among the ruins of the past, and they realized they were not only for the old but also for the young who were not afraid of aging. Then the column returned to the editorial section and, on special occasions, to the front page.
Whenever someone asks I always answer with the truth: whores left me no time to be married. Still, I should acknowledge that I did not come up with this explanation until the day of my ninetieth birthday, when I left Rosa Cabarcas’s house determined never again to provoke fate. I felt like a different man. My mood was upset by the disreputable mob I saw leaning against the metal railings around the park. I found Damiana washing the floor, on all fours in the living room, and the youthfulness of her thighs at her age revived in me a tremor from another time. She must have sensed it because she covered herself with her skirt. I could not resist the temptation to ask: Tell me something, Damiana: what do you recall? I wasn’t recalling anything, she said, but your question makes me remember. I felt a weight in my chest. I’ve never fallen in love, I told her. She replied without hesitation: I have. And she concluded, not interrupting her work: I cried over you for twenty-two years. My heart skipped a beat. Looking for a dignified way out, I said: We would have made a good team. Well, it’s wrong of you to say so now, she said, because you’re no good to me anymore even as a consolation. As she was leaving the house, she said in the most natural way: You won’t believe me but thanks be to God, I’m still a virgin.
A short while later I discovered that she had left vases filled with red roses all over the house, and a card on my pillow: _I hope you reach a hunnert__. With this bad taste in my mouth I sat down to continue the column I had left half-finished the day before. I completed it without stopping in less than two hours and had to “twist the neck of the swan,” as the Mexican poet said, to write from my heart and not have anyone notice my tears. In a belated moment of inspiration, I decided to finish it with the announcement that with this column I was bringing to a happy conclusion a long and worthy life without the sad necessity of having to die.
My intention was to leave it with reception at the paper and return home. But I couldn’t. The entire staff was waiting for me in order to celebrate my birthday. The building was being renovated, and scaffolding and rubble were everywhere, but they had stopped work for the party. On a carpenter’s table were drinks for the toast and birthday presents wrapped in gift paper. Dazed by flashing cameras, I was included in every photograph taken as a memento.
I was glad to see radio newscasters and reporters from other papers in the city: _La Prensa__, the conservative morning paper, _El Heraldo__, the liberal morning paper, and _El Nacional__, the evening sensationalist tabloid that always tried to relieve tensions in the public order with serialized stories of passion. It wasn’t strange that they were together, for in the spirit of the city it was always considered good form to maintain friendships among the troops while the officers waged editorial war.
Also present, though not at his regular hours, was the official censor, Don Jerَnimo Ortega, whom we called the Abominable No-Man because he would arrive with his reactionary satrap’s blood-red pencil at nine sharp every night and stay until he was certain no letter in the morning edition went unpunished. He had a personal aversion to me, either because of my grammarian’s airs or because I would use Italian words without quotation marks or italics when they seemed more expressive than Spanish, which ought to be legitimate practice between Siamese languages. After enduring him for four years, we had come to accept him in the end as our own bad consc ie nce.
The secretaries brought in a cake with ninety lit candles that confronted me for the first time with the number of my years. I had to swallow tears when they sang the birthday song, and for no reason I thought about the girl. It wasn’t a flash of rancor but of belated compassion for a creature I had not expected to think about again. When the moment passed someone had placed a knife in my hand so that I could cut the cake. For fear of being laughed at, no one risked improvising a speech. I would rather have died than respond to one. To conclude the party, the editor in chief, whom I had never liked very much, returned us to harsh reality. And now, illustrious nonagenarian, he said to me: Where’s your column?
The truth is that all afternoon I had felt it burning in my pocket like a live coal, but emotion had pierced me in so profound a way I did not have the heart to spoil the party with my resignation. I said: On this occasion there is none. The editor in chief was annoyed at a lapse that had been inconceivable since the previous century. Understand just this once, I said, I had so difficult a night I woke up in a stupor. Well, you should have written about that, he said with his vinegary humor. Readers would like to know firsthand what life is like at ninety. One of the secretaries intervened. It must be a delicious secret, she said and gave me a mischievous look: Isn’t it? A burning flash flamed across my face. Damn it, I thought, blushing is so disloyal. Another radiant secretary pointed at me with her finger. How wonderful! You still have the elegance to blush. Her impertinence provoked another blush on top of the first. It must have been a phenomenal night, said the first secretary: How I envy you! And she gave me a kiss that left its painted mark on my face. The photographers were merciless. Bewildered, I gave the column to the editor in chief and told him that what I had said before was a joke, here it is, and I escaped, confused by the last round of applause, in order not to be present when they discovered it was my letter of resignation after half a century of galleys.
I was still apprehensive that night when I unwrapped the presents at home. The linotypists had miscalculated with an electric coffeepot just like the three I had from previous birthdays. The typographers gave me an authorization to pick up an angora cat at the municipal animal shelter. Management bestowed on me a symbolic bonus. The secretaries presented me with three pairs of silk undershorts printed with kisses, and a card in which they offered to remove them for me. It occurred to me that among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.
I never found out how I got a record of Chopin’s twenty-four Preludes played by Stefan Askenase. Most of the writers gave me best-selling books. I hadn’t finished unwrapping the gifts when Rosa Cabarcas called with the question I did not want to hear: What happened to you with the girl? Nothing, I said without thinking. You think it’s nothing when you didn’t even wake her up? said Rosa Cabarcas. A woman never forgives a man who treats her debut with contempt. I contended that the girl could not be so exhausted just from attaching buttons, and perhaps she pretended to be asleep out of fear of the perilous moment. The one thing that’s serious, said Rosa, is that she really believes you can’t anymore, and I wouldn’t like her to advertise it.
I didn’t give her the satisfaction of showing surprise. Even if that happened, I said, her condition is so deplorable she can’t be counted on either asleep or awake: she’s a candidate for the hospital. Rosa Cabarcas lowered her voice: The problem was how fast the deal was made, but that can be fixed, you’ll see. She promised to bring the girl to confession, and if appropriate oblige her to return the money, what do you think? Leave it alone, I said, nothing happened, in fact it showed me I’m in no condition for this kind of chasing around. In that sense the girl’s right: I can’t anymore. I hung up the phone, filled with a sense of liberation I hadn’t known before in my life, and free at last of a servitude that had kept me enslaved since the age of thirteen.
At seven that evening I was guest of honor at the concert in Bellas Artes by Jacques Thibault and Alfred Cortot, whose interpretation of the Sonata for Violin and Piano by César Franck was glorious, and during the intermission I listened to improbable praise. Maestro Pedro Biava, our gigantic musician, almost dragged me to the dressing rooms to introduce me to the soloists. I was so dazzled I congratulated them for a sonata by Schumann they hadn’t played, and someone corrected me in public in an unpleasant fashion. The impression that I had confused the two sonatas out of simple ignorance was sown on the local musical scene and made worse by the muddled explanation with which I tried to correct it the following Sunday in my review of the concert.
For the first time in my long life I felt capable of killing someone. I returned home tormented by the little demon who whispers into our ear the devastating replies we didn’t give at the right time, and neither reading nor music could mitigate my rage. It was fortunate that Rosa Cabarcas pulled me out of my madness by shouting into the telephone: I’m happy with the paper because I thought you were turning a hundred, not ninety. I answered in a fury: Did I look that fucked up to you? Not at all, she said, what surprised me was to see you looking so good. I’m glad you’re not one of those dirty old men who say they’re older so people will think they’re in good shape. And with no transition she changed the subject: I have your present for you. I was, in fact, surprised: What is it? The girl, she said.
I didn’t need even an instant to think about it. Thanks, I said, but that’s water under the bridge. She continued without pausing: I’ll send her to your house wrapped in India paper and simmered with sandalwood in the double boiler, all free of charge. I remained firm, and she argued with a stony explanation that seemed sincere. She said the girl had been in such bad condition on Friday because she had sewn two hundred buttons with needle and thimble. And it was true she was afraid of bloody violations but had already been instructed regarding the sacrifice. And during her night with me she had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and I was in such a deep sleep she thought it would be a shame to wake me, but I had already left when she woke again in the morning. I became indignant at what seemed a useless lie. Well, Rosa Cabarcas went on, even if that’s so, the girl is sorry. Poor thing, she’s right here in front of me. Do you want to talk to her? No, for God’s sake, I said.
I had begun writing when the secretary from the paper called. The message was that the editor wanted to see me the next day at eleven in the morning. I was punctual. The din of the renovation work did not seem bearable, the air was rarefied by the sound of hammers, the cement dust, and the steam from tar, but in the editorial room they had learned to think in that routine chaos. On the other hand, the editor’s offices, icy and silent, remained in an ideal country that was not ours.
The third Marco Tulio, with his adolescent air, got to his feet when he saw me come in but did not interrupt his phone conversation, shook my hand across the desk, and indicated that I should sit down. It occurred to me that there was no one on the other end of the line, that he was playing this farce to impress me, but I soon discovered he was talking to the governor and that it was in reality a difficult conversation between cordial enemies. I believe, too, that he took great pains to appear energetic in my presence, though at the same time he remained standing as he spoke to the official.
He had the notable vice of a smart appearance. He had just turned twenty-nine and knew four languages and had three international master’s degrees, unlike the first president-for-life, his paternal grandfather, who became an empirical journalist after making a fortune as a white slaver. He had easy manners, unusual good looks and poise, and the only thing that endangered his distinction was a false note in his voice. He was wearing a sports jacket with a live orchid in the lapel, and each article of clothing suited him as if it were part of his natural being, yet nothing was made for the climate of the street but only for the springtime of his offices. I, who had taken almost two hours to dress, felt the ignominy of poverty, and my rage increased.
Still, the mortal poison lay in a panoramic photograph of the staff taken on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the paper, on which a little cross had been marked above the heads of those who had died. I was third from the right, wearing a straw boater, a large-knotted tie with a pearl tiepin, my first civilian colonel’s mustache, which I had until I was forty, and the metal-rimmed glasses of a farsighted seminarian that I hadn’t needed after half a century. For years I had seen that photograph hanging in different offices, but it was only then that I became aware of its message: of the forty-eight original employees, only four were still alive, and the youngest of us was serving a twenty-year sentence for multiple homicide.
The editor finished the phone call, caught me looking at the photograph, and smiled. I didn’t put in those little crosses, he said. I think they’re in very bad taste. He sat down behind his desk and changed his tone: Permit me to say that you are the most unpredictable man I have ever known. And seeing my surprise, he anticipated my response: I say this because of your resignation. I managed to say: It’s an entire life. He replied that just for that reason it was not an appropriate solution. He thought the column was magnificent, everything it said about old age was the best he had ever read, and it made no sense to end it with a decision that seemed more like a civil death. It was fortunate, he said, that the editorial page was already put together when the Abominable No- Man read the article and thought it was inadmissible. Without consulting anyone he crossed it out from top to bottom with his Torquemada’s pencil. When I found out this morning I had a note of protest sent to the government. It was my duty, but between us, I can say I’m very grateful for the censor’s arbitrariness. Which means I was not prepared to accept the termination of the column. I beg you with all my heart, he said. Don’t abandon ship in mid ocean. And he concluded in grand style: There is still a great deal left for us to say about music.
He seemed so resolute I did not have the heart to make our disagreement worse with a counter- argument. In fact, the problem was that even on this occasion I could not find a decent reason for abandoning the treadmill, and the idea of once again telling him yes just to gain time terrified me. I had to control myself so he wouldn’t notice the shameless emotion bringing tears to my eyes. And again, as always, after so many years we were still in the same place we always were.
The following week, prey to a state closer to confusion than joy, I passed by the animal shelter to pick up the cat the printers had given me. I have very bad chemistry with animals, just as I do with children before they begin to speak. They seem mute in their souls. I don’t hate them, but I can’t tolerate them, because I never learned to deal with them. I think it is against nature for a man to get along better with his dog than he does with his wife, to teach it to eat and defecate on schedule, to answer his questions and share his sorrows. But not picking up the typographers’ cat would have been an insult. Besides, it was a beautiful specimen of an angora, with a rosy, shining coat, bright eyes, and meows that seemed on the verge of being words. They gave him to me in a wicker basket, with a certificate of ancestry and an owner’s manual like the one for assembling bicycles.
A military patrol was verifying the identity of pedestrians before allowing them to walk through San Nicolas Park. I had never seen anything like it and could not imagine anything more disheartening as a symptom of my old age. It was a four-man patrol, under the command of an officer who was almost an adolescent. The soldiers were from the highland barrens, hard, silent men who smelled of the stable. The officer kept an eye on all of them with their bright-red cheeks of Andeans at the beach. After looking over my identification papers and press card, he asked what I was carrying in the basket. A cat, I told him. He wanted to see it. I uncovered the basket with as much caution as I could for fear it would escape, but a soldier wanted to see if there was anything else on the bottom, and the cat scratched him. The officer intervened. He’s a gem of an angora, he said. He stroked it and murmured something, and the cat didn’t attack him but didn’t pay any attention to him either. How old is he? he asked. I don’t know, I said, it was just given to me. I’m asking because you can see he’s very old, perhaps as old as ten. I wanted to ask how he knew, and many other things as well, but in spite of his good manners and flowery speech I didn’t have the stomach to talk to him. I think he’s an abandoned cat who’s gone through a good deal, he said. Observe him, don’t try to make him adapt to you, you adapt to him instead, and leave him alone until you gain his confidence. He closed the lid of the basket and asked: What kind of work do you do? I’m a journalist. How long have you done that? For a century, I told him. I don’t doubt it, he said. He shook my hand and said goodbye with a sentence that might have been either good advice or a threat: “Take good care of yourself.”
At noon I disconnected the phone in order to take refuge in an exquisite program of music: Wagner’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra, Debussy’s Rhapsody for Saxophone, and Bruckner’s String Quintet, which is an edenic oasis in the cataclysm of his work. And all at once I found myself enveloped in the darkness of the study. Under the table I felt something slip by that did not seem like a living body but a supernatural presence brushing past my feet, and I jumped up with a shout. It was the cat with its beautiful plumed tail, mysterious languor, and mythic ancestry, and I could not help shuddering at being alone in the house with a living being that was not human.
When the cathedral bells struck seven, there was a single, limpid star in the rose-colored sky, a ship called out a disconsolate farewell, and in my throat I felt the Gordian knot of all the loves that might have been and weren’t. I could not bear any more. I picked up the phone with my heart in my mouth, dialed the four numbers with slow deliberation in order not to make a mistake, and after the third ring I recognized her voice. All right, woman, I said with a sigh of relief: Forgive my outburst this morning. She was serene: Don’t worry about it, I was expecting your call. I told her: I want the girl to wait for me just as God sent her into the world, and with no paint on her face. She laughed her guttural laugh. Whatever you say, she said, but you lose the pleasure of undressing her one piece of clothing at a time, something old men love to do, I don’t know why. I do, I said: Because they keep growing older and older. She considered it settled.
“All right,” she said, “then tonight at ten sharp, before she has a chance to cool down.”