Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Chapter 5)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
As I was reading The Ides of March, I ran across an ominous sentence that the author attributes to Julius Caesar: In the end, it is impossible _not to become what others believe you are__. I could not confirm its real origin in the writing of Julius Caesar himself or in the works of his biographers, from Suetonius to Carcopinus, but it was worth knowing. Its fatalism, applied to the course of my life in the months that followed, gave me the determination I needed not only to write these memories but to begin them without diffidence, with the love of Delgadina.
I did not have a moment’s peace, I almost stopped eating, and I lost so much weight my trousers were loose around my waist. I had erratic pains in my bones, my mood would change for no reason, I spent my nights in a dazzled state that did not allow me to read or listen to music, while I wasted the days nodding in a stupefied somnolence that did not lead to sleep.
Relief came from out of the blue. On the crowded Loma Fresca bus, a woman sitting next to me, whom I didn’t see get on, whispered in my ear: Are you still fucking? It was Casilda Armenta, an old love-for-hire who had put up with me as an assiduous client from the time she was a haughty adolescent. When she retired, ailing and without a cent, she married a Chinese vegetable farmer who gave her his name and support, and perhaps a little love. At the age of seventy-three she weighed what she always had, was still beautiful, had a strong character, and maintained intact the audacious speech of her trade.
She took me to her house, on a farm of Chinese laborers on a hill along the highway to the ocean. We sat on beach chairs on the shaded terrace, surrounded by ferns and the foliage of alstroemerias, and birdcages hanging from the eaves. On the side of the hill one could see the Chinese farmers in cone-shaped hats planting vegetables in the blazing sun, and the gray waters of the Bocas de Ceniza with the two dikes made of rocks that channel the river for several leagues into the sea. As we talked we saw a white ocean liner enter the outlet, and we followed it in silence until we heard its doleful bull’s bellow at the river port. She sighed. Do you know something? In more than half a century, this is the first time I haven’t received you in bed. We’re not who we were, I said. She continued without hearing me: Every time they say things about you on the radio, applaud you for the affection people feel for you, call you the maestro of love, just imagine, I think that nobody knew your charms and your manias as well as I did. I’m serious, she said, nobody could have put up with you better.
I could not bear it any more. She sensed it, saw my eyes wet with tears, and only then must have discovered I was no longer the man I had been, and I endured her glance with a courage I never thought I had. The truth is I’m getting old, I said. We already are old, she said with a sigh. What happens is that you don’t feel it on the inside, but from the outside everybody can see it.
It was impossible not to open my heart to her, and so I told her the complete story burning deep inside me, from my first call to Rosa Cabarcas on the eve of my ninetieth birthday to the tragic night when I smashed up the room and never went back. She listened to me unburden myself as if she were living through it herself, pondered it without haste, and at last she smiled.
“Do whatever you want, but don’t lose that child,” she said. “There’s no greater misfortune than dying
We went to Puerto Colombia in the little toy train as slow as a horse. We had lunch across from the worm-eaten wooden dock where everyone had entered the country before the Bocas de Ceniza was dredged. We sat under a roof of palm where large black matrons served fried red snapper with coconut rice and slices of green plantain. We dozed in the dense torpor of two o’clock and continued talking until the immense fiery sun sank into the ocean. Reality seemed fantastic to me. Look where our honeymoon has ended up, she mocked. But then she was serious: Today I look back, I see the line of thousands of men who passed through my beds, and I’d give my soul to have stayed with even the worst of them. Thank God I found my Chinaman in time. It’s like being married to your little finger, but he’s all mine.
She looked into my eyes, gauged my reaction to what she had just told me, and said: So you go and find that poor creature right now even if what your jealousy tells you is true, no matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had. But one thing, no grandfather’s romanticism. Wake her, fuck her brains out with that burro’s cock the devil gave you as a reward for cowardice and stinginess. I’m serious, she concluded, speaking from the heart: Don’t let yourself die without knowing the wonder of fucking with love.
My hand trembled the next day when I dialed the number, as much because of the tension of my reunion with Delgadina as my uncertainty as to how Rosa Cabarcas would respond. We’d had a serious dispute over her abusive billing for the damage I’d done to her room. I had to sell one of the paintings most loved by my mother, estimated to be worth a fortune but at the moment of truth not amounting to a tenth of what I had hoped for. I increased that amount with the rest of my savings and took the money to Rosa Cabarcas with an unappealable ultimatum: Take it or leave it. It was a suicidal act, because if she had sold just one of my secrets she could have destroyed my good name. She did not dig in her heels, but she kept the paintings she had taken as security on the night of our argument. I was the absolute loser in a single play: I was left without Delgadina, without Rosa Cabarcas, and without the last of my savings. However, I listened to the phone ring once, twice, three times, and at last she said: Yes? My voice failed me. I hung up. I lay down in the hammock, trying to restore my serenity with the ascetic lyricism of Satie, and I perspired so much the canvas was soaked through. I did not have the courage to call again until the next day.
“All right, woman,” I said in a firm voice. “Today’s the day.”
Rosa Cabarcas, of course, was above everything. Ah, my sad scholar, and she sighed with her invincible spirit, you disappear for two months and only come back to ask for illusions. She told me she hadn’t seen Delgadina for more than a month, that the girl seemed to have recovered so well from her fright at my destructiveness that she didn’t even mention it or ask for me, and was very happy in a new job, more comfortable and better-paid than sewing on buttons. A wave of living fire burned me inside. She can only be working as a whore, I said. Rosa replied without batting an eye: Don’t be stupid, if that were true she’d be here. Where would she be better off? The rapidity of her logic made my doubts worse: And how do I know she isn’t there? If she is, she replied, it’s better for you not to know. Isn’t that right? Once again I hated her. She was impervious and promised to track her down. Without much hope, because the neighbor’s telephone where she used to call her had been turned off and she had no idea where the girl lived. But that was no reason to die, what the hell, she said, I’ll call you in an hour.
It was an hour that lasted three days, but she found the girl available and healthy. I returned, mortified, and kissed every inch of her, as penitence, from twelve that night until the roosters crowed. A long forgive-me that I promised myself I would continue to repeat forever, and it was like starting again from the beginning. The room had been dismantled, and hard usage had done away with everything I had put in it. Rosa Cabarcas had left it that way and said I would have to take care of any improvements as payment for what I still owed her. My economic situation, however, had touched bottom. The money from my pensions covered less and less. The few salable items left in the house–except for my mother’s sacred jewels–lacked commercial value, and nothing was old enough to be an antique. In better days, the governor had made me a tempting offer to buy en bloc the books of Greek, Latin, and Spanish classics for the Departmental Library, but I didn’t have the heart to sell them. Later, given political changes and the deterioration of the world, nobody in the government thought about either arts or letters. Weary of searching for a decent solution, I put the jewels that Delgadina had returned to me in my pocket and went to pawn them in a sinister alley that led to the public market. With the air of a distracted scholar I walked back and forth along that hellhole crowded with shabby taverns, secondhand bookstores, and pawn-shops, but the dignity of Florina de Dios blocked my way: I did not dare. Then I decided to sell them with head held high at the oldest and most reputable jewelry store.
The salesman asked me a few questions as he examined the jewels with his loupe. He had the awe- inspiring demeanor and style of a physician. I explained that they were jewels inherited from my mother. He acknowledged each of my explanations with a grunt, and at last he removed the loupe.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but they’re the bottoms of bottles.”
Seeing my surprise, he explained with gentle commiseration: Just as well that the gold is gold and the platinum platinum. I touched my pocket to make certain I had brought the purchase receipts, and without querulousness I said: “Well, they were purchased in this noble house more than one hundred years ago.”
His expression did not change. It tends to happen, he said, that in inherited jewels the most valuable stones keep disappearing over time, replaced by wayward members of the family or criminal jewelers, and only when someone tries to sell them is the fraud discovered. But give me a second, he said, and he took the jewels and went through a door in the rear. After a moment he returned, and with no explanation indicated that I should take a seat, and he continued working.
I examined the shop. I had gone there several times with my mother, and I remembered a recurring phrase: _Don’t tell your papa__. All at once I had an idea that put me on edge: wasn’t it possible that Rosa Cabarcas and Delgadina, by mutual agreement, had sold the legitimate stones and returned the jewels to me with fake ones?
I was burning with doubts when a secretary asked me to follow her through the same door in the rear, into a small office with long bookshelves that held thick volumes. A colossal Bedouin at a desk on the far side of the office stood and shook my hand, calling me _tْ__ with the effusiveness of an old friend. We were in secondary school together, he said by way of greeting. It was easy to remember him: he was the best soccer player in the school and the champion in our first brothels. I had lost track of him at some point, and I must have looked so decrepit to him that he confused me with a classmate from his childhood.
Lying open on the glass top of the desk was one of the hefty tomes from the archive that contained the memory of my mother’s jewelry. A precise account, with dates and details of how she in person had changed the stones of two generations of beautiful and worthy Cargamantos, and had sold the legitimate ones to this same store. It had occurred when the father of the current owner was at the front of the jewelry store and he and I were in school. But he reassured me: these little tricks were common practice among great families in difficult times to resolve financial emergencies without sacrificing honor. Faced with crude reality, I preferred to keep them as a memento of another Florina de Dios whom I never had known.
Early in July I felt my true distance from death. My heart skipped beats and I began to see and feel all around me unmistakable presentiments of the end. The clearest occurred at a Bellas Artes concert. The air- conditioning had broken down, and the elite of arts and letters was cooking in a bain-marie in the crowded hall, but the magic of the music created a celestial climate. At the end, with the Allegretto poco mosso, I was shaken by the stunning revelation that I was listening to the last concert fate would afford me before I died. I did not feel sorrow or fear but an overwhelming emotion at having lived long enough to experience it.
When at last, drenched with perspiration, I managed to make my way past embraces and photographs, to my surprise I ran into Ximena Ortiz, like a hundred-year-old goddess in her wheelchair. Her mere presence imposed its burden on me like a mortal sin. She had a tunic of ivory-colored silk as smooth as her skin, a three- loop strand of real pearls, hair the color of mother-of-pearl cut in the style of the 1920s, with the tip of a gull’s wing on her cheek, and large yellow eyes illuminated by the natural shadow of dark circles. Everything about her contradicted the rumor that her mind was becoming a blank through an unredeemable erosion of her memory. Petrified and in front of her without resources, I overcame the fiery vapor that rose to my face and greeted her in silence with a Versaillesque bow. She smiled like a queen and grasped my hand. Then I realized that this too was one of fate’s vindications, and I did not lose the opportunity to pull out a thorn that had bothered me for so long. I’ve dreamed of this moment for years, I said. She did not seem to understand. You don’t say! she said. And who are you? I never knew if in fact she had forgotten or if it was the final revenge of her life.
The certainty of being mortal, on the other hand, had taken me by surprise a short while before my fiftieth birthday on a similar occasion, a night during carnival when I danced an apache tango with a phenomenal woman whose face I never saw, heavier than me by forty pounds and taller by about a foot, yet who let herself be led like a feather in the wind. We danced so close together I could feel her blood circulating through her veins, and I was lulled by pleasure at her hard breathing, her ammoniac odor, her astronomical breasts, when I was shaken for the first time and almost knocked to the ground by the roar of death. It was like a brutal oracle in my ear: No matter what you do, this year or in the next hundred, you will be dead forever. She pulled away in fright: What’s the matter? Nothing, I said, trying to control my heart: “I’m trembling because of you.”
From then on I began to measure my life not by years but by decades. The decade of my fifties had been decisive because I became aware that almost everybody was younger than I. The decade of my sixties was the most intense because of the suspicion that I no longer had the time to make mistakes. My seventies were frightening because of a certain possibility that the decade might be the last. Still, when I woke alive on the first morning of my nineties in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus’ ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years.
I became a man of easy tears. Any emotion that had anything to do with tenderness brought a lump to my throat that I could not always control, and I thought about renouncing the solitary pleasure of watching over Delgadina’s sleep, less for the uncertainty of my death than for the sorrow of imagining her without me for the rest of her life. On one of those uncertain days, I happened to find myself on the very noble Calle de los Notarios, and I was surprised to discover nothing more than the rubble of the cheap old hotel where I had been initiated by force into the arts of love a short while before my twelfth birthday. It had been the mansion of shipbuilders, splendid like few others in the city, with columns overlaid in alabaster and gilded friezes around an interior courtyard and a glass cupola in seven colors that shone with the brilliance of a conservatory. For more than a century, on the ground floor with its gothic door to the street, the colonial notary’s offices had been located where my father worked, prospered, and was ruined throughout a lifetime of fantastic dreams. Little by little the historic families abandoned the upper floors, which came to be occupied by a legion of ladies of the night in straitened circumstances who went up and down the stairs until dawn with clients caught for a peso and a half in the taverns of the nearby river port.
I was almost twelve, still wearing short pants and my elementary-school boots, and I could not resist the temptation of seeing the upper floors while my father debated in one of his interminable meetings, and I encountered a celestial sight. The women who sold their bodies at bargain prices until dawn moved around the house after eleven in the morning, when the heat from the stained glass became unbearable, and they were obliged to live their domestic life walking naked through the house while they shouted observations on the night’s adventures. I was terrified. The only thing I could think of was to escape the way I had come in, when one of the naked women whose solid flesh was fragrant with rustic soap embraced me from behind and carried me to her pasteboard cubicle without my being able to see her, in the midst of shouts and applause from the bareskinned residents. She threw me face-up on her bed for four, removed my trousers in a masterful maneuver, and straddled me, but the icy terror that drenched my body kept me from receiving her like a man. That night, sleepless in my bed at home because of the shame of the assault, my longing to see her again would not allow me to sleep more than an hour. But the next morning, while night owls slept, I climbed trembling to her cubicle and woke her, weeping aloud with a crazed love that lasted until it was carried away without mercy by the violent wind of real life. Her name was Castorina and she was the queen of the house.
The cubicles in the hotel cost a peso for transient loves, but very few of us knew they cost the same for up to twenty-four hours. Castorina also introduced me to her shabby world, where the women invited poor clients to their gala breakfasts, lent them their soap, tended to their toothaches, and in cases of extreme urgency gave them charitable love.
But in the afternoons of my final old age no one remembered the immortal Castorina, dead for who
knows how long, who had risen from the miserable corners of the river docks to the sacred throne of elder madam, wearing a pirate’s patch over the eye she lost in a tavern brawl. Her last steady stud, a fortunate black from Camagüey called Jonas the Galley Slave, had been one of the great trumpet players in Havana until he lost his entire smile in a catastrophic train collision.
When I left that bitter visit I felt the shooting pain in my heart that I had not been able to relieve for three days using every kind of household concoction. The doctor I went to as an emergency patient was a member of an illustrious family, the grandson of the doctor who had seen me when I was forty-two, and it frightened me that he looked the same, for his premature baldness, glasses of a hopeless myopic, and inconsolable sadness made him as aged as his grandfather had been at seventy. He made a meticulous examination of my entire body with the concentration of a goldsmith. He listened to my chest and back and checked my blood pressure, the reflexes in my knee, the depths of my eyes, the color of my lower lids. During pauses, while I changed position on the examining table, he asked me questions so vague and rapid I almost did not have time to think of the answers. After an hour he looked at me with a happy smile. Well, he said, I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you. What do you mean? That your condition is the best it can be at your age. How curious, I said, your grandfather told me the same thing when I was forty-two, and it’s as if no time has passed. You’ll always find someone who’ll tell you this, he said, because you’ll always be some age. Trying to provoke him into a terrifying sentence, I said: The only definitive thing is death. Yes, he said, but it isn’t easy to get there when one’s condition is as good as yours. I’m really sorry I can’t oblige you.
They were noble memories, but on the eve of August 29 I felt the immense weight of the century that lay ahead of me, impassive, as I climbed the stairs to my house with leaden steps. Then I saw my mother, Florina de Dios, in my bed, which had been hers until her death, and she gave me the same blessing she had given the last time I saw her, two hours before she died. In a state of emotional upheaval I understood this as the final warning, and I called Rosa Cabarcas to bring me my girl that very night, in the event that my hopes for surviving until the final breath of my ninetieth year went unfulfilled. I called her again at eight, and once again she repeated that it was not possible. It has to be, at any price, I shouted in terror. She hung up without saying goodbye, but fifteen minutes later she called back: “All right, she’s here.”
I arrived at twenty past ten and handed Rosa Cabarcas the last letters of my life, with my arrangements for the girl after my terrible end. She thought I had been affected by the stabbing and said with a mocking air: If you’re going to die don’t do it here, just imagine. But I told her: Say I was run down by the Puerto Colombia train, that poor, pitiful piece of junk that couldn’t kill anybody.
That night, prepared for everything, I lay down on my back to wait for my final pain in the first instant of my ninety-first birthday. I heard distant bells, I detected the fragrance of Delgadina’s soul as she slept on her side, I heard a shout on the horizon, the sobs of someone who perhaps had died a century earlier in the room. Then I put out the light with my last breath, intertwined my fingers with hers so I could lead her by the hand, and counted the twelve strokes of midnight with my twelve final tears until the roosters began to crow, followed by the bells of glory, the fiesta fireworks that celebrated the jubilation of having survived my ninetieth year safe and sound.
My first words were for Rosa Cabarcas: I’ll buy the house, everything, including the shop and the orchard. She said: Let’s make an old people’s bet, signed before a notary: whoever survives keeps everything that belongs to the other one. No, because if I die, everything has to be for her. It amounts to the same thing, said Rosa Cabarcas, I take care of the girl and then I leave her everything, what’s yours and what’s mine; I don’t have anybody else in the world. In the meantime, we’ll remodel your room and put in good plumbing, air-conditioning, and your books and music.
“Do you think she’ll agree?”
“Ah, my sad scholar, it’s all right for you to be old but not an asshole,” said Rosa Cabarcas, weak with laughter. “That poor creature’s head over heels in love with you.”
I went out to the street, radiant, and for the first time I could recognize myself on the remote horizon of my first century. My house, silent and in order at six-fifteen, began to enjoy the colors of a joyous dawn. Damiana was singing at the top of her voice in the kitchen, and the resuscitated cat twined his tail around my ankles and continued walking with me to my writing table. I was arranging my languishing papers, the inkwell, the goose quill, when the sun broke through the almond trees in the park and the river mail packet, a week late because of the drought, bellowed as it entered the canal in the port. It was, at last, real life, with my heart safe and condemned to die of happy love in the joyful agony of any day after my hundredth birthday.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Edith Grossman is the award-winning translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including alvaro Mutis, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, Julian Rios, and Miguel de Cervantes, as well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She lives in New York.