Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Chapter 4)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At the beginning of the new year we started to know each other as well as if we lived together awake, for I had discovered a cautious tone of voice that she heard without waking, and she would answer me with the natural language of her body. Her states of mind could be seen in the way she slept. Exhausted and unpolished at first, she was approaching an inner peace that beautified her face and enriched her sleep. I told her about my life, I read into her ear the first drafts of my Sunday columns in which, without my saying so, she and she alone was prese nt.
During this time I left on her pillow a pair of emerald earrings that had belonged to my mother. She wore them to our next rendezvous but they didn’t look good on her. Then I brought a pair better suited to her skin color. I explained: The first ones I brought weren’t right for your type and your haircut. These will look better. She didn’t wear any earrings at all to our next two meetings, but for the third she put on the ones I had suggested. In this way I began to understand that she did not obey my orders but waited for an opportunity to please me. By now I felt so accustomed to this kind of domestic life that I no longer slept naked but wore the Chinese silk pajamas I had stopped using because I hadn’t had anyone to take them off for.
I began to read her _The Little Prince__ by Saint-Exupéry, a French author whom the entire world admires more than the French do. It was the first book to entertain her without waking her, and in fact I had to go there two days in a row to finish reading it to her. We continued with Perrault’s _Tales, Sacred History__, the _Arabian Nights__ in a version sanitized for children, and because of the differences among them I realized that her sleep had various levels of profundity depending on her interest in the readings. When I sensed she had touched the deepest level I turned out the light and slept with my arms around her until the roosters crowed.
I felt so happy that I would kiss her eyelids with very gentle kisses, and one night it happened like a light in the sky: she smiled for the first time. Later, for no reason at all, she rolled over in bed, turned her back to me, and said in vexation: It was Isabel who made the snails cry. Excited by the hope of a dialogue, I asked in the same tone: Whose were they? She didn’t answer. Her voice had a plebeian touch, as if it belonged not to her but to someone else she carried inside. That was when the last shadow of a doubt disappeared from my soul: I preferred her asleep.
My only problem was the cat. He would not eat and was unsociable and spent two days in his habitual corner without raising his head, and he clawed at me like a wounded beast when I tried to put him in the wicker basket so that Damiana could take him to the veterinarian. It was all she could do to control him, and she carried him there, protesting, in a burlap sack. In a while she called from the shelter to say that he had to be put down and they needed my authorization. Why? Because he’s very old, said Damiana. I thought in a rage that they could also roast me alive in an oven filled with cats. I felt caught between two fires: I had not learned to love the cat, but neither did I have the heart to order him killed just because he was old. Where did the manual say that?
The incident disturbed me so much that I wrote the Sunday column with a title usurped from Neruda: “Is the Cat a Minuscule Salon Tiger?” The column gave rise to a new campaign that once again divided readers into those who were for and those who were against cats. After five days the prevailing thesis was that it might be legitimate to put down a cat for reasons of public health but not because it was old.
After the death of my mother, I would be kept awake by my terror that someone might touch me while I was sleeping. One night I felt her touch, but her voice restored my serenity: _Figlio mio poveretto__. I felt the same thing late one night in Delgadina’s room, and I twisted with delight, believing she had touched me. But no: it was Rosa Cabarcas in the dark. Get dressed and come with me, she said, I have a serious problem.
She did, and it was more serious than I could have imagined. One of the house’s important clients had been stabbed to death in the first room in the pavilion. The killer had escaped. The enormous corpse, naked but with shoes on, had the pallor of steamed chicken in the blood-soaked bed. I recognized him as soon as I walked in: it was J. M. B., an important banker, famous for his elegant bearing, his good nature, his fine clothes, and above all for the smartness of his home. On his neck he had two purple wounds like lips, and a gash on his belly was still bleeding. Rigor had not yet set in. More than his wounds, what struck me was that he wore a condom, to all appearances unused, on his sex that was shrunken by death.
Rosa Cabarcas did not know whom he had been with because he too had the privilege of coming in by the orchard entrance. The suspicion was not discounted that his companion might have been another man. The only thing the owner wanted from me was help in dressing the body. She was so steady that I was disturbed by the idea that, for her, death was a mere kitchen matter. There’s nothing more difficult than dressing a dead man, I said. I’ve done it more than once, she replied. It’s easy if somebody holds him for me. I pointed out: Who do you imagine is going to believe that a body sliced up by stab wounds is inside the undamaged clothes of an English ge nt le ma n?
I trembled for Delgadina. The best thing would be for you to take her with you, said Rosa Cabarcas. I’d rather die first, I said, my saliva icy. She saw this and could not hide her disdain: You’re trembling! For her, I said, though it was only half true. Tell her to leave before anybody comes. All right, she said, though as a reporter nothing will happen to you. Or to you either, I said with a certain rancor. You’re the only liberal with power in this
The city, so sought-after for its peaceful nature and congenital safety, was degraded by the misfortune of a scandalous, brutal murder every year. This one wasn’t it. The official news report, with headlines that were too big and details that were too scant, said the young banker had been attacked and stabbed to death for unknown reasons on the Pradomar highway. He had no enemies. The government communiqué indicated that the presumed killers were refugees from the interior of the country who were unleashing a crime wave foreign to the civic spirit of the city’s residents. In the first few hours more than fifty arrests were made.
Scandalized, I turned to the legal reporter, a typical newspaperman from the twenties who wore a green eyeshade and elastic bands on his sleeves and took pride in anticipating the facts. He, however, knew only a few stray threads of the crime, and I filled him in as much as prudence would allow. And so with four hands we wrote five pages of copy for an eight-column article on the front page, attributed to the eternal phantom of reliable sources in whom we had complete confidence. But the Abominable No-Man–the censor–did not hesitate to impose the official version that it had been an attack by liberal outlaws. I purified my conscience with a scowl of mourning at the most cynical and well-attended funeral of the century.
When I returned home that night I called Rosa Cabarcas to find out what had happened to Delgadina, but she did not answer the phone for four days. On the fifth I went to her house with clenched teeth. The doors were sealed, not by the police but by the health department. Nobody in the area knew anything about anything. With no sign of Delgadina, I began a furious and at times ridiculous search that left me gasping for breath. I spent entire days observing young female cyclists from the benches in a dusty park where children at play climbed to the top of the peeling statue of Simَn Bolivar. They pedaled past like doe: beautiful, available, ready to be caught in a game of blindman’s bluff. When I had no more hope I took refuge in the peace of boleros. That was like a lethal potion: every word was Delgadina. I always had needed silence to write because my mind would pay more attention to the music than to my writing. Now it was the reverse: I could write only in the shade of boleros. My life became filled with her. The columns I wrote during those two weeks were models in code for love letters. The managing editor, annoyed by the avalanche of responses, asked me to moderate the love while we thought of a way to console so many lovelorn readers.
The lack of serenity put an end to the precision of my days. I woke at five but stayed in the darkened room imagining Delgadina in her unreal life as she woke her brothers and sisters, dressed them for school, gave them breakfast if there was any food, and bicycled across the city to serve out her sentence of sewing buttons. I asked myself in astonishment: What does a woman think about while she attaches a button? Did she think of me? Was she also looking for Rosa Cabarcas to find out about me? For a week I did not take off my mechanic’s coverall day or night, I did not bathe or shave or brush my teeth, because love taught me too late that you groom yourself for someone, you dress and perfume yourself for someone, and I’d never had anyone to do that for. Damiana thought I was sick when she found me naked in the hammock at ten in the morning. I looked at her with eyes clouded by desire and invited her to a naked roll in the hay. She, with some scorn, said: “Have you thought about what you’ll do if I say yes?”
In this way I learned how much my suffering had corrupted me. I did not recognize myself in my adolescent’s pain. I did not go out, so as not to leave the phone unattended. I wrote without taking it off the hook, and at the first ring I would rush to answer it, thinking it might be Rosa Cabarcas. I kept interrupting whatever I was doing to call her, and I repeated this for days on end until I realized it was a phone without a heart.
When I returned home one rainy afternoon I found the cat curled up on the front steps. He was dirty, battered, and so meek it filled me with compassion. The manual informed me he was sick, and I followed its rules for making him feel better. Then, all at once, while I was having a siesta, I was awakened by the idea that he could lead me to Delgadina’s house. I carried him in a shopping bag to Rosa Cabarcas’s shop, still sealed and showing no signs of life, but he twisted around so much in the bag that he managed to escape, jumped over the orchard wall, and disappeared among the trees. I banged on the door with my fist, and a military voice asked without opening it: Who goes there? A friend, I said, not to be outdone. I’m looking for the owner. There is no owner, said the voice. At least open up so I can get my cat, I insisted. There is no cat, it said. I asked: Who are you?
“Nobody,” said the voice.
I always had understood that dying of love was mere poetic license. That afternoon, back home again without the cat and without her, I proved that it was not only possible but that I myself, an old man without anyone, was dying of love. But I also realized that the contrary was true as well: I would not have traded the delights of my suffering for anything in the world. I had spent more than fifteen years trying to translate the poems of Leopardi, and only on that afternoon did I have a profound sense of them: _Ah, me, if this is love, then how it tor me nts.__
My going to the paper in a coverall and unshaven awoke certain doubts regarding my mental state. The remodeled offices, with individual glass cubicles and skylights, looked like a maternity hospital. The artificial climate, silent and comfortable, invited speaking in whispers and walking on tiptoe. In the lobby, like dead viceroys, were oil portraits of the three editors-for-life and photographs of illustrious visitors. The enormous main room was presided over by the gigantic photograph of the current editorial staff taken on the afternoon of my birthday. I could not avoid a mental comparison to the one taken when I was thirty, and once again I confirmed with horror that one ages more and with more intensity in pictures than in reality. The secretary who had kissed me on the afternoon of my birthday asked if I was sick. I was happy to respond with the truth so she would not believe it: Sick with love. She said: Too bad it’s not for me! I returned the compliment: Don’t be so sure.
The legal reporter came out of his cubicle shouting that two bodies of unidentified girls were in the city morgue. Frightened, I asked him: What age? Young, he said. They may be refugees from the interior chased here by the regime’s thugs. I sighed with relief. The situation encroaches on us in silence, like a bloodstain, I said. The legal reporter, at some distance now, shouted: “Not blood, Maestro, shit.”
Something worse happened to me a few days later, when a fast-moving girl carrying a basket the same as the cat’s passed like a shudder in front of the Mundo Bookstore. I followed her, elbowing my way through the crowd in the clamor of noon. She was very beautiful, with long strides and a fluidity in finding her way past people that made it difficult for me to catch up to her. At last I passed her and looked into her face. She moved me aside with her hand, not stopping and not begging my pardon. She was not who I had thought, but her haughtiness wounded me as if she were. I understood then that I would not be able to recognize Delgadina awake and dressed, nor could she know me if she had never seen me. In an act of madness, I crocheted twelve pairs of blue and pink infant’s booties in three days, trying to give myself the courage not to hear or sing or think about the songs that reminded me of her.
The truth was that I could not manage my soul, and I was becoming aware of old age because of my weakness in the face of love. I had even more dramatic proof of this when a public bus ran down a girl on a bicycle in the middle of the business district. She had just been taken away in an ambulance, and the magnitude of the tragedy could be seen in the scrap metal that the bicycle, lying in a pool of bright blood, had been reduced to. But I was affected not so much by the ruined bicycle as by the brand, model, and color. It had to be the one I had given De lgad ina.
The witnesses agreed that the injured cyclist was very young, tall and slim, with short curly hair. Stunned, I hailed the first taxi I saw and took it to the Hospital de Caridad, an old building with ocher walls that looked like a prison bogged down in quick-sand. It took me half an hour to get in and another half hour to get out of a courtyard fragrant with fruit trees where a woman in distress blocked my way, looked into my eyes, and exclaimed: “I’m the one you’re not looking for.”
Only then did I remember that this was where non-violent patients from the municipal asylum lived without restraints. I had to identify myself as a reporter to hospital management before a nurse would take me to the emergency ward. The information was in the admissions book: Rosalba Rios, sixteen, no known employment. Diagnosis: cerebral concussion. Prognosis: guarded. I asked the head of the ward if I could see her, hoping in my heart that he would say no, but I was taken to her, for they were delighted by the idea that I might want to write about the neglected state of the hospital.
We crossed a cluttered ward that had a strong smell of carbolic acid, and patients crowded into the beds. At the rear, in a single room, lying on a metal cot, was the girl we were looking for. Her skull was covered with bandages, her face indecipherable, swollen, and black-and-blue, but all I needed to see were her feet to know she wasn’t Delgadina. Only then did it occur to me to wonder: What would I have done if it had been?
Still entangled in the night’s cobwebs, the next day I found the courage to go to the shirt factory where Rosa Cabarcas had once told me the girl worked, and I asked the owner to show us his plant as a model for a continent-wide project of the United Nations. He was an elephantine, taciturn Lebanese who opened the doors to his kingdom in the illusory hope of being an example to the world.
Three hundred girls in white blouses with Ash Wednesday crosses on their foreheads were sewing buttons in the vast, illuminated nave. When they saw us come in they sat up straight, like schoolgirls, and watched out of the corners of their eyes as the manager explained his contributions to the immemorial art of attaching buttons. I scrutinized each of their faces, terrified that I would discover Delgadina dressed and awake. But it was one of them who discovered me with a frightening look of pitiless admiration: “Tell me, Seٌor, aren’t you the man who writes love letters in the paper?”
I never would have imagined that a sleeping girl could cause so much devastation in me. I escaped the factory without saying goodbye or even wondering if one of those virgins in purgatory was at last the one I was seeking. When I walked out, the only feeling I had left in life was the desire to cry.
Rosa Cabarcas called after a month with an incredible explanation: following the banker’s murder, she had taken a well-deserved rest in Cartagena de Indias. I didn’t believe her, of course, but I congratulated her on her good luck and allowed her to expatiate on her lie before asking the question boiling in my heart: “What about her?”
Rosa Cabarcas fell silent for a long time. She’s there, she said at last, but her voice became evasive: You have to wait a while. How long? I have no idea, I’ll let you know. I felt she was getting away from me and I stopped her cold: Wait, you have to shed some light on this. There is no light, she said, and concluded: Be careful, you can do yourself harm and, above all, you can do her harm. I was in no mood for that kind of coyness. I pleaded for at least a chance to approach the truth. After all, I said, we’re accomplices. She didn’t take another step. Calm down, she said, the girl’s all right and waiting for me to call her, but right now there’s nothing to do and I’m not saying anything else. Goodbye.
I was left holding the telephone, not knowing how to proceed, because I also knew her well enough to think I wouldn’t get anything from her unless she chose to give it. Later in the afternoon I made a furtive visit to her house, trusting more to chance than to reason, and I found it still locked, sealed by the health department. I thought Rosa Cabarcas had called from somewhere else, perhaps from another city, and the mere idea filled me with dark presentiments. But at six that evening, when I least expected it, she pronounced my own password on the telephone: “All right, today’s the day.”
At ten that night, tremulous and biting my lips to keep from crying, I arrived carrying boxes of Swiss chocolates, nougat, and candies, and a basket of fiery roses to cover the bed. The door was half-open, the lights turned on, and Brahms’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano was being diluted at half volume on the radio. In the bed, Delgadina looked so radiant and so different that it was hard for me to recognize her.
She had grown, but you could see this not in her stature but in an intense maturity that made her seem two or three years older, and more naked than ever. Her high cheekbones, her skin tanned by the suns of rough seas, her delicate lips, and her short curly hair imbued her face with the androgynous splendor of Praxiteles’ _Apollo__. But no equivocation was possible, because her breasts had grown so much they didn’t fit in my hand, her hips had finished developing, and her bones had become firmer and more harmonious. I was charmed by these achievements of nature but stunned by the artifice: false eyelashes, mother-of-pearl polish on the nails of her fingers and toes, and a cheap perfume that had nothing to do with love. Still, what drove me mad was the fortune she was wearing: gold earrings with clusters of emeralds, a necklace of natural pearls, a gold bracelet gleaming with diamonds, and rings with legitimate stones on every finger. On the chair was her evening dress covered with sequins and embroidery, and satin slippers. A strange vertigo rose from deep inside me.
“Whore!” I shouted.
For the devil breathed a sinister thought into my ear. And that was: on the night of the crime, Rosa Cabarcas could not have had the time or composure to warn the girl, and the police found her in the room, alone, a minor, with no alibi. Nobody like Rosa Cabarcas in a situation like that: she sold the girl’s virginity to one of her big-shot clients in exchange for being cleared of the crime. The first thing, of course, was to disappear until the scandal died down. How marvelous! A honeymoon for three, the two of them in bed, and Rosa Cabarcas on a deluxe terrace enjoying her happy impunity. Blind with senseless fury, I began smashing everything in the room against the wall: lamps, radio, fan, mirrors, pitchers, glasses. I did it without haste but also without pause, with great crashes and a methodical intoxication that saved my life. The girl gave a start at the first explosion of noise but did not look at me; instead, she turned her back and remained that way, showing intermittent spasms, until the crashing ended. The chickens in the courtyard and the late-night dogs added to the uproar. With the blinding lucidity of rage I had a final inspiration to set fire to the house when the impassive figure of Rosa Cabarcas, dressed in a nightgown, appeared in the door. She said nothing. She made a visual inventory of the disaster and confirmed that the girl was curled up like a snail, her head hidden between her arms: terrified but intact.
“My God!” Rosa Cabarcas exclaimed. “What I wouldn’t have given for a love like this!”
She looked at me from head to toe with a compassionate glance and commanded: Let’s go. I followed her to the house, she poured me a glass of water in silence, gestured for me to sit down across from her, and prepared to hear my confession. All right, she said, now behave like an adult and tell me what’s wrong.
I told her what I considered my revealed truth. Rosa Cabarcas listened to me in silence, without surprise, and at last she seemed enlightened. How wonderful, she said. I’ve always said that jealousy knows more than truth does. And then, without reticence, she told me the reality. In effect, she said, in her confusion on the night of the crime she had forgotten about the girl sleeping in the room. One of her clients, who was also the dead man’s lawyer, distributed benefits and bribes with a free hand and invited Rosa Cabarcas to stay at a quiet hotel in Cartagena de Indias until the scandal died down. Believe me, said Rosa Cabarcas, in all this time I never stopped thinking about you and the girl. I came back the day before yesterday and the first thing I did was call you, but there was no answer. On the other hand, the girl came right away, in such bad shape that I bathed her for you, dressed her for you, sent her to the hairdresser for you, and told them to make her as pretty as a queen. You saw how she looked: perfect. Her luxury clothes? One of the dresses I rent to my poorest girls when they have to go dancing with their clients. The jewels? They’re mine, she said: All you have to do is touch them to see that the stones are glass and the precious metals tin. So stop fucking around, she concluded: Go on, wake her, beg her pardon, and take charge of her once and for all. Nobody deserves to be happier than you two.
I made a superhuman effort to believe her, but love was stronger than reason. Whores! I said, tormented by the living flame burning in my belly. That’s what you are! I shouted: Damned whores! I don’t want to know any more about you, or about any other slut in this world, least of all her. From the door I made a gesture: goodbye forever. Rosa Cabarcas did not doubt it.
“Go with God,” she said, grimacing with sorrow, and she returned to her real life. “Anyway, I’ll send you a bill for the mess you made in my room.”