Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Chapter 3)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
What could her name be? The owner hadn’t told me. When she talked about her to me she said only: the girl, la niٌa. And I had turned that into a given name, like girl of my dreams, or the smallest of the caravels. Besides, Rosa Cabarcas gave her employees a different name for each client. It amused me to guess their names from their faces, and from the beginning I was sure the girl had a long one, like Filomena, Saturnina, or Nicolasa. I was thinking about this when she gave a half-turn in bed and lay with her back to me, and it looked as if she had left a pool of blood the size and shape of her body. My shock was instantaneous until I confirmed that it was the dampness of her perspiration on the sheet.
Rosa Cabarcas had advised me to treat her with caution, since she still felt her terror of the first time. What is more, I believe the solemnity of the ritual heightened her fear and the dose of valerian had to be increased, for she slept with so much placidity that it would have been a shame to wake her without a lullaby. And so I began to dry her with a towel while I sang in a whisper the song about Delgadina, the king’s youngest daughter, wooed by her father. As I dried her she was showing me her sweaty flanks to the rhythm of my song: _Delgadina, Delgadina, you will be my darling love__. It was a limitless pleasure, for she began to perspire again on one side as I finished drying the other, which meant the song might never end. _Arise, arise, Delgadina, and put on your skirt of silk__, I sang into her ear. At the end, when the king’s servants find her dead of thirst in her bed, it seemed to me that my girl had been about to wake when she heard the name. Then that’s who she was: Delgadina.
I returned to bed wearing my shorts printed with kisses and lay down beside her. I slept until five to the lullaby of her peaceful respiration. I dressed in haste, without washing, and only then did I see the sentence written in lipstick across the mirror over the sink: _The tiger does not eat far away__. I knew it hadn’t been there the night before, and no one could have come into the room, and therefore I understood it as a gift from the devil. A terrifying clap of thunder surprised me at the door, and the room filled with the premonitory smell of wet earth. I did not have time to escape untouched. Before I could find a taxi there was a huge downpour, the kind that throws the city into chaos between May and October, for the streets of burning sand that go down to the river turn into gullies formed by the torrents that carry away everything in their path. During that strange September, after three months of drought, the rains could have been as providential as they were devastating.
From the moment I opened the door to my house I was met by the physical sensation that I was not alone. I caught a glimpse of the cat as he jumped off the sofa and raced out to the balcony. In his dish were the remains of a meal I hadn’t given him. The stink of his rancid urine and warm shit contaminated everything. I had devoted myself to studying him in the way I studied Latin. The manual said that cats scratch at the ground to hide their droppings, and in houses without a courtyard, like this one, they would scratch in flower pots or some other hiding place. From the very first day it was advisable to provide them with a box of sand to redirect this habit, which I had done. It also said that the first thing they do in a new house is mark out their territory by urinating everywhere, which might be true, but the manual did not say how to prevent it. I followed his tracks to familiarize myself with his original habits, but I could not find his secret hiding places, his resting places, the causes of his erratic moods. I tried to teach him to eat on schedule, to use the litter box on the terrace, not to climb into my bed while I was sleeping or sniff at food on the table, and I could not make him understand that the house was his by his own right and not as the spoils of war. So I let him do whatever he wanted.
At dusk I faced the rainstorm, whose hurricane-force winds threatened to blow down the house. I suffered an attack of sneezing, my skull hurt, and I had a fever, but I felt possessed by a strength and determination I’d never had at any age or for any reason. I put pots on the floor under the leaks and realized that new ones had appeared since the previous winter. The largest had begun to flood the right side of the library. I hurried to rescue the Greek and Latin authors who lived there, but when I removed the books I discovered a stream spurting at high pressure from a broken pipe along the bottom of the wall. I did what I could to pack it with rags to give me time to save the books. The deafening noise of the rain and the howling of the wind intensified in the park. Then a phantasmal flash of lightning and a simultaneous clap of thunder saturated the air with a strong sulfur odor, the wind destroyed the balcony’s window panes, and the awful sea squall broke the locks and came inside the house. And yet, in less than ten minutes, the sky cleared all at once. A splendid sun dried the streets filled with stranded trash, and the heat returned.
When the storm had passed I still had the feeling I was not alone in the house. My only explanation is that just as real events are forgotten, some that never were can be in our memories as if they had happened. For if I evoked the emergency of the rainstorm, I did not see myself alone in the house but always accompanied by Delgadina. I had felt her so close during the night that I detected the sound of her breath in the bedroom and the throbbing of her cheek on my pillow. It was the only way I could understand how we could have done so much in so short a time. I remembered standing on the library footstool and I remembered her awake in her little flowered dress taking the books from me to put them in a safe place. I saw her running from one end of the house to the other battling the storm, drenched with rain and in water up to her ankles. I remembered how the next day she prepared a breakfast that never was and set the table while I dried the floors and imposed order on the shipwreck of the house. I never forgot her somber look as we were eating: Why were you so old when we met? I answered with the truth: Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.
From then on I had her in my memory with so much clarity that I could do what I wanted with her. I changed the color of her eyes according to my state of mind: the color of water when she woke, the color of syrup when she laughed, the color of light when she was annoyed. I dressed her according to the age and condition that suited my changes of mood: a novice in love at twenty, a parlor whore at forty, the queen of Babylon at seventy, a saint at one hundred. We sang Puccini love duets, Agustin Lara boleros, Carlos Gardel tangos, and we confirmed once again that those who do not sing cannot even imagine the joy of singing. Today I know it was not a hallucination but one more miracle of the first love of my life at the age of ninety.
When the house was in order I called Rosa Cabarcas. Holy God! she exclaimed when she heard my voice, I thought you had drowned. She could not understand how I had spent another night with the girl and not touched her. You have the absolute right not to like her, but at least behave like an adult. I tried to explain, but with no transition she changed the subject: In any case, I have another one in mind for you who’s a little older, beautiful, and also a virgin. Her father wants to trade her for a house, but we can discuss a discount. My heart froze. That’s the last straw, I protested in horror, I want the same one, the way she always is, without failures, without fights, without bad memories. There was a silence on the line, and then the docile voice in which she said, as if talking to herself: Well, this must be what the doctors call senile dementia.
At ten that night I went there with a driver known for the unusual virtue of not asking questions. I took along a portable fan, a painting by Orlando Rivera–the beloved Figurita_–__and a hammer and nail to hang it on the wall. I stopped on the way to buy toothbrushes, toothpaste, scented soap, Florida Water, and licorice lozenges. I also wanted to bring a nice vase and a bouquet of yellow roses to exorcise the inanity of paper flowers, but nothing was open and I had to steal a bouquet of newborn alstroemerias from a private garden.
On the instructions of the owner, from then on I arrived by the back street that ran along the aqueduct so no one would see me enter by the orchard gate. The driver warned me: Be careful, scholar, they kill in that house. I replied: If it’s for love it doesn’t matter. The courtyard was in darkness, but there were lights burning in the windows and a confusion of music playing in the six bedrooms. In mine, at top volume, I heard the warm voice of Don Pedro Vargas, the tenor of America, singing a bolero by Miguel Matamoros. I felt as if I were going to die. I pushed open the door, gasping for breath, and saw Delgadina in bed as she was in my memory: naked and sleeping in holy peace on the side of her heart.
Before I lay down I arranged the dressing table, replaced the rusty fan with the new one, and hung the picture where she could see it from the bed. I lay down beside her and examined her inch by inch. It was the same girl who had walked through my house: the same hands that recognized me by touch in the darkness, the same feet with their delicate step that became confused with the cat’s, the same odor of sweat on my sheets, the same finger that wore the thimble. Incredible: seeing and touching her in the flesh, she seemed less real to me than in my me mor y.
There’s a painting on the opposite wall, I told her. Figurita painted it, a man we loved very much, the best brothel dancer who ever lived, and so good-hearted he felt sorry for the devil. He painted it with ship’s varnish on scorched canvas from a plane that crashed in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, with brushes that he made with hair from his dog. The woman he painted is a nun he abducted from a convent and married. I’ll leave it here so it will be the first thing you see when you wake up.
She hadn’t changed position when I turned off the light, at one in the morning, and her respiration was so faint I took her pulse so I could feel she was alive. Blood circulated through her veins with the fluidity of a song that branched off into the most hidden areas of her body and returned to her heart, purified by love.
Before I left at dawn I drew the lines of her hand on a piece of paper and gave it to Diva Sahibi for a reading so I could know her soul. She said: A person who says only what she thinks. Perfect for manual labor. She’s in contact with someone who has died and from whom she expects help, but she’s mistaken: the help she’s looking for is within reach of her hand. She’s had no relationships, but she’ll die an old woman, and married. Now she has a dark man, but he won’t be the man of her life. She could have eight children but will decide for just three. At the age of thirty-five, if she does what her heart tells her and not her mind, she’ll manage a lot of money, and at forty she’ll receive an inheritance. She’s going to travel a good deal. She has double life and double luck and can influence her own destiny. She likes to try everything, out of curiosity, but she’ll be sorry if she isn’t guided by her
Tormented by love, I had the storm damage fixed and also took care of many other repairs I had put off for years because of insolvency or indolence. I reorganized the library according to the order in which I had read the books. And I discarded the player piano as a historical relic, along with more than a hundred rolls of classical music, and bought a used record player that was better than mine, with high-fidelity speakers that enlarged the area of the house. I was on the verge of ruin but well-compensated by the miracle of still being alive at my age.
The house rose from its ashes and I sailed on my love of Delgadina with an intensity and happiness I had never known in my former life. Thanks to her I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by. I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.
I became another man. I tried to reread the classics that had guided me in adolescence, and I could not bear them. I buried myself in the romantic writings I had repudiated when my mother tried to impose them on me with a heavy hand, and in them I became aware that the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love. When my tastes in music reached a crisis, I discovered that I was backward and old, and I opened my heart to the delights of chance.
I ask myself how I could give in to this perpetual vertigo that I in fact provoked and feared. I floated among erratic clouds and talked to myself in front of the mirror in the vain hope of confirming who I was. My delirium was so great that during a student demonstration complete with rocks and bottles, I had to make an enormous effort not to lead it as I held up a sign that would sanctify my truth: _I am mad with love.__
Disoriented by the merciless evocation of Delgadina asleep, with no malice at all I changed the spirit of my Sunday columns. Whatever the subject, I wrote them for her, laughed and cried over them for her, and my life poured into every word. Rather than the formula of a traditional personal column that they always had followed, I wrote them as love letters that all people could make their own. At the paper I proposed that instead of setting the text in linotype it be published in my Florentine handwriting. The editor in chief, of course, thought it was another attack of senile vanity, but the managing editor persuaded him with a phrase that is still making the rounds: “Make no mistake: peaceful madmen are ahead of the future.”
The response of the public was immediate and enthusiastic, with numerous letters from readers in love. Some columns were read on radio newscasts along with the latest crises, and mimeographs or carbon copies were made and sold like contraband cigarettes on the corners of Calle San Blas. From the start it was evident that the columns obeyed my longing to express myself, but I developed the habit of taking that into account when I wrote, always in the voice of a ninety-year-old who had not learned to think like an old man. The intellectual community, as usual, showed itself to be timid and divided, and even the most unexpected graphologists engaged in controversies regarding their inconsistent analyses of my handwriting. It was they who divided opinions, overheated the polemic, and made nostalgia popular.
Before the end of the year I had arranged with Rosa Cabarcas to leave in the room the electric fan, the toilet articles, and whatever else I might bring in the future to make it livable. I would arrive at ten, always with something new for her, or for both of us, and spend a few minutes taking out the hidden props to set up the theater of our nights. Before I left, never later than five, I would secure everything again under lock and key. Then the bedroom returned to its original squalor for the sad loves of casual clients. One morning I heard that Marcos Pérez, the most listened-to voice on radio after daybreak, had decided to read my Sunday columns on his Monday newscasts. When I could control my nausea I said in horror: Now you know, Delgadina, that fame is a very fat lady who doesn’t sleep with you, but when you wake she’s always at the foot of the bed, looking at us.
One day during this time I stayed to have breakfast with Rosa Cabarcas, who was beginning to seem less decrepit to me in spite of her rigorous mourning and the black bonnet that concealed her eyebrows. Her breakfasts were known to be splendid, and prepared with enough pepper to make me cry. At the first fiery bite I said, bathed in tears: Tonight I won’t need a full moon for my asshole to burn. Don’t complain, she said. If it burns it’s because you still have one, thanks be to God.
She was surprised when I mentioned the name Delgadina. That isn’t her name, she said, her name is… Don’t tell me, I interrupted, for me she’s Delgadina. She shrugged: All right, after all, she’s yours, but to me it sounds like a diuretic. I mentioned the message about the tiger that the girl had written on the mirror. It couldn’t have been her, Rosa said, she doesn’t know how to read or write. Then who was it? She shrugged: It could be from somebody who died in the room.
I took advantage of those breakfasts to unburden myself to Rosa Cabarcas, and I requested small favors for the well-being and good appearance of Delgadina. She granted them without thinking about it, and with the mischievousness of a schoolgirl. How funny! she said at the time. I feel as if you were asking me for her hand. And speaking of that, she said in a casual way, why don’t you marry her? I was dumbfounded. I’m serious, she insisted, it’ll be cheaper. After all, at your age the problem is whether you can or can’t, but you told me you have that problem solved. I cut her off: Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.
She burst into laughter. Ah, my scholar, I always knew you were a real man, you always were and I’m glad you still are while your enemies are surrendering their weapons. There’s a reason they talk so much about you. Did you hear Marcos Pérez? Everybody hears him, I said, to change the subject. But she insisted: Professor Camacho y Cano, too, on _The Little Bit of Everything Hour__, said yesterday that the world isn’t what it once was because there aren’t many men like you left.
That weekend I found that Delgadina had a fever and cough. I woke Rosa Cabarcas to ask for a household remedy, and she brought a first-aid kit to the room. Two days later Delgadina was still prostrate and had not been able to return to her routine of attaching buttons. The doctor had prescribed a household treatment for a common grippe that would be over in a week, but he was alarmed by her general malnourished state. I stopped seeing her, felt how much I missed her, and used the opportunity to arrange the room without her in it.
I also brought in a pen-and-ink drawing by Cecilia Porras for _We Were All Waiting__, alvaro Cepeda’s book of short stories. I brought the six volumes of Romain Rolland’s _Jean Christophe__ to help me through my wakeful nights. And so, when Delgadina was able to return to the room, she found it worthy of a sedentary happiness: the air purified by an aromatic insecticide, rose-colored walls, shaded lamps, fresh flowers in the vases, my favorite books, my mother’s good paintings hung in a different way, according to modern tastes. I had replaced the old radio with a shortwave model that I kept tuned to a classical music program so that Delgadina would learn to sleep to Mozart’s quartets, but one night I found it tuned to a station that specialized in popular boleros. It was her preference, no doubt, and I accepted this without sorrow, for I had cultivated the same preference in my better days. Before returning home the next day, I wrote on the mirror with her lipstick: _Dear girl, we are alone in the world.__
During this period I had the strange impression that she was growing older before her time. I mentioned this to Rosa Cabarcas, who thought it was natural. She turns fifteen on December 5, she said. A perfect Sagittarius. It troubled me that she was real enough to have birthdays. What could I give her? A bicycle, said Rosa Cabarcas. She has to cross the city twice a day to sew on buttons. In the back room she showed me the bicycle Delgadina used, and the truth was it seemed a piece of junk unworthy of so well-loved a woman. Still, it moved me as a tangible proof that Delgadina existed in real life.
When I went to buy her the best bicycle, I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying it, and I rode it a few casual times along the ramp in the store. When the salesman asked me how old I was, I responded with the coquetry of age: I’m almost ninety-one. He said just what I wanted him to: Well, you look twenty years younger. I didn’t understand myself how I had retained that schoolboy’s skill, and I felt myself overflowing with a radiant joy. I began to sing. First to myself, in a quiet voice, and then at full volume, with the airs of the great Caruso, in the midst of the public market’s garish shops and demented traffic. People looked at me in amusement, called to me, urged me to participate in the Vuelta a Colombia bicycle race in a wheelchair. I responded with the salute of a happy mariner, not interrupting my song. That week, in tribute to December, I wrote another bold column: “How to Be Happy on a Bicycle at the Age of Ninety.”
On the night of her birthday I sang the entire song to Delgadina, and I kissed her all over her body until I was breathless: her spine, vertebra by vertebra, down to her languid buttocks, the side with the mole, the side of her inexhaustible heart. As I kissed her the heat of her body increased, and it exhaled a wild, untamed fragrance. She responded with new vibrations along every inch of her skin, and on each one I found a distinctive heat, a unique taste, a different moan, and her entire body resonated inside with an arpeggio, and her nipples opened and flowered without being touched. I was beginning to fall asleep in the small hours when I heard something like the sound of multitudes in the sea and a panic in the trees that pierced my heart. I went to the bathroom and wrote on the mirror: _Delgadina, my love, the Christmas breezes have arrived.__
One of my happiest memories was a disturbance I felt on a similar morning as I was leaving school. What’s wrong with me? The dazed teacher said: Ah, my boy, can’t you see it’s the breezes? Eighty years later I felt it again when I woke in Delgadina’s bed, and it was the same punctual December returning with its translucent skies, its sandstorms, its whirl-winds in the streets that blew the roofs off houses and lifted the skirts of schoolgirls.
This was when the city acquired a spectral resonance. On breezy nights, even in the neighborhoods in the hills, shouts from the public market could be heard as if they were just around the corner. It was not unusual for the December gusts to allow us to locate friends, scattered among distant brothels, by the sound of their voices.
The breezes, however, also brought me the bad news that Delgadina could not spend the Christmas holidays with me but would be with her family. If I detest anything in this world it is the obligatory celebrations with people crying because they’re happy, artificial fires, inane carols, crepe-paper wreaths that have nothing to do with the child born two thousand years ago in a poor stable. Still, when night came I could not resist my nostalgia and I went to the room without her. I slept well and woke next to a plush bear that walked on its hind legs like a polar bear, and a card that said: _For the ugly papa__. Rosa Cabarcas had told me that Delgadina was learning to read from the lessons I wrote on the mirror, and I thought her nice handwriting admirable. But the owner punctured my illusions with the awful news that the bear was her gift, and therefore on New Year’s Eve I stayed home and was in bed by eight, and fell asleep without bitterness. I was happy, because at the stroke of twelve, in the midst of the furious pealing of the bells, the factory and fire-engine sirens, the lamentations of ships, the explosion of fireworks and rockets, I sensed that Delgadina tiptoed in, lay down beside me, and gave me a kiss. So real that her licorice scent remained on my mouth.