Love in the Time of Cholera … Garcia Marquez

 

Gabriel García Márquez

 

 

LOVE in the

 

TIME of

CHOLERA

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

                                                                     ( 3)

 

Dr. Urbino found her sitting at her dressing table under the slow blades of the electric fan, putting on her bell-shaped hat decorated with felt violets. The bedroom was large and bright, with an English bed protected by mosquito netting embroidered in pink, and two windows open to the trees in the patio, where one could hear the clamor of cicadas, giddy with premonitions of rain. Ever since their return from their honeymoon, Fermina Daza had chosen her hus band’s clothes according to the weather and the occasion, and laid them out for him on a chair the night before so they would be ready for him when he came out of the bathroom. She could not remember when she had also begun to help him dress, and finally to dress him, and she was aware that at first she had done it for love, but for the past five years or so she had been obliged to do it regardless of the reason because

 

he could not dress himself. They had just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, and they were not capable of living for even an instant without the other, or without thinking about the other, and that capacity diminished as their age increased. Neither could have said if their mutual dependence was based on love or convenience, but they had never asked the question with their ha nds on their hearts because both had always preferred not to know the answer. Little by little she had been discovering the uncertainty of her husband’s step, his mood changes, the gaps in his memory, his recent habit of sobbing while he slept, but she did not identify these as the unequivocal signs of final decay but rather as a happy return to childhood. That was why she did not treat him like a difficult old man but as a senile baby, and that deception was providential for the two of them because it put them beyond the reach of pity.

 

Life would have been quite another matter for them both if they had learned in time that it was easier to avoid great matrimonial catastrophes than trivial everyday miseries. But if they had learned anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good. For years Fermina Daza had endured her hus band’s jubilant dawns with a bitter heart. She clung to the last threads of sleep in order to avoid facing the fatality of another morning full of sinister premonitions, while he awoke with the innocence of a newborn: each new day was one more day he had won. She heard him awake with the roosters, and his first sign of life was a cough without rhyme or reason that seemed intended to awaken her too. She heard him grumble, just to annoy her, while he felt around for the slippers that were supposed to be next to the bed. She heard him make his way to the bathroom, groping in the dark. After an hour in his study, when she had fallen asleep again, he would come back to dress, still without turning on the light. Once, during a party game, he had been asked how he defined himself, and he had said: “I am a man who dresses in the dark.” She heard him, knowing full well that not one of those noises was indispensable, and that he made them on purpose although he pretended not to, just as she was awake and pretended not to be. His motives were clear: he never needed her awake and lucid as much as he did during those fumbling moments.

 

There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead, but there was also no one more ferocious when anyone disturbed the sensuality of her thinking she was still asleep when she no longer was. Dr. Urbino knew she was waiting for his slightest sound, that she even would be grateful for it, just so she could blame someone for waking her at five o’clock in the morning, so that on the few occasions when he had to feel around in the dark because he could not find his slippers in their customary place, she would suddenly say in a sleepy voice: “You left them in the bathroom last night.” Then right after that, her voice fully awake with rage, she would curse: “The worst misfortune in this house is that nobody lets you sleep.”

 

Then she would roll over in bed and turn on the light without the least mercy for herself, content with her first victory of the day. The truth was they both played a game, mythical and perverse, but for all that comforting: it was one of the many dangerous pleasures of domestic love. But one of those trivial games almost ended the first thirty years of their life together, because one day there was no soap in the bathroom.

It began with routine simplicity. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had returned to the bedroom, in the days when he still bathed without help, and begun to dress without turning on the light. As usual she was in her warm fetal state, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow, that arm from a sacred dance above her head. But she was only half asleep, as usual, and

 

he knew it. After a prolonged sound of starched linen in the darkness, Dr. Urbino said to himself:

 

“I’ve been bathing for almost a week without any soap.”

 

Then, fully awake, she remembered, and tossed and turned in fury with the world because in fact she had forgotten to replace the soap in the bathroom. She had noticed its absence three days earlier when she was already under the shower, and she had planned to replace it afterward, but then she forgot until the next day, and on the third day the same thing happened again. The truth was that a week had not gone by, as he said to make her feel more guilty, but three unpardonable days, and her anger at being found out in a mistake maddened her. As always, she defended herself by attacking.

 

“Well I’ve bathed every day,” she shouted, beside herself with rage, “and there’s always been soap.”

 

Although he knew her battle tactics by heart, this time he could not abide them. On some professional pretext or other he went to live in the interns’ quarters at Misericordia Hospital, returning home only to change his clothes before making his evening house calls. She headed for the kitchen when she heard him come in, pretending that she had something to do, and stayed there until she heard his carriage in the street. For the ne xt three months, each time they tried to resolve the conflict they only inflamed their feelings even more. He was not ready to come back as long as she refused to admit there had been no soap in the bathroom, and she was not prepared to have him back until he recognized that he had consciously lied to torment her.

 

The incident, of course, gave them the opportunity to evoke many other trivial quarrels from many other dim and turbulent dawns. Resentments stirred up other resentments, reopened old scars, turned them into fresh wounds, and both were dismayed at the desolating proof that in so many years of conjugal battling they had done little more than nurture their rancor. At last he proposed that they both submit to an open confession, with the Archbishop himself if necessary, so that God could decide once and for all whether or not there had been soap in the soap dish in the bathroom. Then, despite all her self-control, she lost her temper with a historic cry:

 

“To hell with the Archbishop!”

 

The impropriety shook the very foundations of the city, gave rise to slanders that were not easy to disprove, and was preserved in popular tradition as if it were a line from an operetta: “To hell with the Archbishop!” Realizing she had gone too far, she anticipated her husband’s predictable response and threatened to move back to her father’s old house, which still belonged to her although it had been rented out for public offices, and live there by herself. And it was not an idle threat: she really did want to leave and did not care about the scandal, and her husband realized this in time. He did not have the courage to defy his own prejudices, and he capitulated. Not in the sense that he admitted there had been soap in the bathroom, but insofar as he continued to live in the same house with her, although they slept in separate rooms, and he did not say a word to her. They ate in silence, sparring with so much skill that they sent each other messages across the table through the children, and the children never realized tha t they were not speaking to each other.

 

Since the study had no bathroom, the arrangement solved the problem of noise in the morning, because he came in to bathe after preparing his class and made a sincere effort not to awaken his wife. They would often arrive at the bathroom at the same time, and

 

then they took turns brushing their teeth before going to sleep. After four months had gone by, he lay down on their double bed one night to read until she came out of the bathroom, as he often did, and he fell asleep. She lay down beside him in a rather careless way so that he would wake up and leave. And in fact he did stir, but instead of getting up he turned out the light and settled himself on the pillow. She shook him by the shoulder to remind him that he was supposed to go to the study, but it felt so comfortable to be back in his great- grandparents’ featherbed that he preferred to capitulate.

 

“Let me stay here,” he said. “There was soap.”

 

When they recalled this episode, now they had rounded the corner of old age, neither could believe the astonishing truth that this had been the most serious argument in fifty years of living together, and the only one that had made them both want to abandon their responsibilities and begin a new life. Even when they were old and placid they were careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday.

 

He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound of his stallion’s stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a .fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: “The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.” He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: “This stinks like a rabbit hutch.” On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.

By this time he could do very little for himself, and the possibility of a fatal slip in the tub put him on his guard against the shower. The house was modern and did not have the pewter tub with lion’s-paw feet common in the mansions of the old city. He had had it removed for hygienic reasons: the bathtub was another piece of abominable junk invented by Europeans who bathed only on the last Friday of the month, and the n in the same water made filthy by the very dirt they tried to remove from their bodies. So he had ordered an outsized washtub made of solid lignum vitae, in which Fermina Daza bathed her husband just as if he were a newborn child. Waters boiled with mallow leaves and orange skins were mixed into the bath that lasted over an hour, and the effect on him was so sedative that he sometimes fell asleep in the perfumed infusion. After bathing him, Fermina Daza helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his undershorts with as much

 

love as if they had been a diaper, and continued dressing him, item by item, from his socks to the knot in his tie with the topaz pin. Their conjugal dawns grew calm because he had returned to the childhood his children had taken away from him. And she, in turn, at last accepted the domestic schedule because the years were passing for her too; she slept less and less, and by the time she was seventy she was awake before her husband.

 

On Pentecost Sunday, when he lifted the blanket to look at Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s body, Dr. Urbino experienced the revelation of something that had been denied him until then in his most lucid peregrinations as a physician and a believer. After so many years of familiarity with death, after battling it for so long, after so much turning it inside out and upside down, it was as if he had dared to look death in the face for the first time, and it had looked back at him. It was not the fear of death. No: that fear had been inside him for many years, it had lived with him, it had been another shadow cast over his own shadow ever since the night he awoke, shaken by a bad dream, and realized that death was not only a permanent probability, as he had always believed, but an immediate reality. What he had seen that day, however, was the physical presence of something that until that moment had been only an imagined certainty. He was very glad that the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming revelation had been Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, whom he had always considered a saint unaware of his own state of grace. But when the letter revealed his true identity, his sinister past, his inconceivable powers of deception, he felt that something definitive and irrevocable had occurred in his life.

Nevertheless Fermina Daza did not allow him to infect her with his somber mood. He tried, of course, while she helped him put his legs into his trousers and worked the long row of buttons on his shirt. But he failed because Fermina Daza was not easy to impress, least of all by the death of a man she did not care for. All she knew about him was that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was a cripple on crutches whom she had never seen, that he had escaped the firing squad during one of many insurrections on one of many islands in the Antilles, that he had become a photographer of children out of necessity and had become the most successful one in the province, and that he had won a game of chess from someone she remembered as Torremolinos but in reality was named Capablanca.

 

“But he was nothing more than a fugitive from Cayenne, condemned to life imprisonment for an atrocious crime,” said Dr. Urbino. “Imagine, he had even eaten human flesh.”

 

He handed her the letter whose secrets he wanted to carry with him to the grave, but she put the folded sheets in her dressing table without reading them and locked the drawer with a key. She was accustomed to her husband’s unfathomable capacity for astonishment, his exaggerated opinions that became more incomprehensible as the years went by, his narrowness of mind that was out of tune with his public image. But this time he had outdone himself. She had supposed that her husband held Jeremiah de Saint-Amour in esteem not for what he had once been but for what he began to be after he arrived here with only his exile’s rucksack, and she could not understand why he was so distressed by the disclosure of his true identity at this late date. She did not comprehend why he thought it an abomination that he had had a woman in secret, since that was an atavistic custom of a certain kind of man, himself included, yes even he in a moment of ingratitude, and besides, it seemed to her a heartbreaking proof of love that she had helped him carry out his decision to die. She said: “If you also decided to do that for reasons as serious as his, my duty would be to do what she did.” Once again Dr. Urbino

 

found himself face to face with the simple incomprehension that had exasperated him for a half a century.

 

“You don’t understand anything,” he said. “What infuriates me is not what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us for so many years.”

 

His eyes began to fill with easy tears, but she pretended not to see.

 

“He did the right thing,” she replied. “If he had told the truth, not you or that poor woman or anybody in this town would have loved him as much as they did.”

 

She threaded his watch chain through the buttonhole in his vest. She put the finishing touches to the knot in his tie and pinned on his topaz tiepin. Then she dried his eyes and wiped his teary beard with the handkerchief sprinkled with florida water and put that in his breast pocket, its corners spread open like a magnolia. The eleven strokes of the pendulum clock sounded in the depths of the house.

“Hurry,” she said, taking him by the arm. “We’ll be late.”

 

Aminta Dechamps, Dr. Lácides Olivella’s wife, and her seven equally diligent daughters, had arranged every detail so that the silver anniversary luncheon would be the social event of the year. The family home, in the very center of the historic district, was the old mint, denatured by a Florentine architect who came through here like an ill wind blowing renovation and converted many seventeenth-century relics into Venetian basilicas. It had six bedrooms and two large, well- ventilated dining and reception rooms, but that was not enough space for the guests from the city, not to mention the very select few from out of town. The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone fountain murmuring in the center and pots of heliotrope that perfumed the house at dusk, but the space among the arcades was inadequate for so many grand family names. So it was decided to hold the luncheon in their country house that was ten minutes away by automobile along the King’s Highway and, had over an acre of patio, and enormous Indian laurels, and local water lilies in a gently flowing river. The men from Don Sancho’s Inn, under the supervision of Señora de Olivella, hung colored canvas awnings in the sunny areas and raised a platform under the laurels with tables for one hundred twenty-two guests, with a linen tableclo th on each of them and bouquets of the day’s fresh roses for the table of honor. They also built a wooden dais for a woodwind band whose program was limited to contradances and national waltzes, and for a string quartet from the School of Fine Arts, which was Señora de Olivella’s surprise for her husband’s venerable teacher, who would preside over the luncheon. Although the date did not correspond exactly to the anniversary of his graduation, they chose Pentecost Sunday in order to magnify the significance of the celebration.

 

The preparations had begun three months earlier, for fear that something indispensable would be left undone for lack of time. They brought in live chickens from Ciénaga de Oro, famous all along the coast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of pure gold were found in their gizzards. Señora de Olivella herself, accompanied by some of her daughters and her domestic staff, boarded the luxury ocean liners and selected the best from everywhere to honor her husband’s achievements. She had anticipated everything except that the celebration would take place on a Sunday in June in a year when the rains were late. She realized the danger that very morning when she went to High Mass and was horrified by the humidity and saw that the sky was heavy and low and that one could not see to the ocean’s horizon. Despite these ominous signs, the Director of the

 

Astronomical Observatory, whom she met at Mass, reminded her that in all the troubled history of the city, even during the crudest winters, it had never rained on Pentecost. Still, when the clocks struck twelve and many of the guests were already having an aperitif outdoors, a single crash of thunder made the earth tremble, and a turbulent wind from the sea knocked over the tables and blew down the canopies, and the sky collapsed in a catastrophic downpour.

 

In the chaos of the storm Dr. Juvenal Urbino, along with the other late guests whom he had met on the road, had great difficulty reaching the house, and like them he wanted to move from the carriage to the house by jumping from stone to stone across the muddy patio, but at last he had to accept the humiliation of being carried by Don Sancho’s men under a yellow canvas canopy. They did the best they could to set up the separate tables again inside the house–even in the bedrooms–and the guests made no effort to disguise their surly, shipwrecked mood. It was as hot as a ship’s boiler room, for the windows had to be closed to keep out the wind-driven rain. In the patio each place at the tables had been marked with a card bearing the name of the guest, one side reserved for men and the other for women, according to custom. But inside the house the name cards were in confusion and people sat where they could in an obligatory promiscuity that defied our social superstitions on at least this one occasion. In the midst of the cataclysm Aminta de Olivella seemed to be everywhere at once, her hair soaking wet and her splendid dress spattered with mud, but bearing up under the misfortune with the invincible smile, learned from her husband, that would give no quarter to adversity. With the help of her daughters, who were cut from the same cloth, she did everything possible to keep the places at the table of honor in order, with Dr. Juvenal Urbino in the center and Archbishop Obdulio y Rey on his right. Fermina Daza sat next to her husband, as she always did, for fear he would fall asleep during the meal or spill soup on his lapel. Across from him sat Dr. Lácides Olivella, a well-preserved man of about fifty with an effeminate air, whose festive spirit seemed in no way related to his accurate diagnoses. The rest of the table was occupied by provincial and municipal officials and last year’s beauty queen, whom the Governor escorted to the seat next to him. Although it was not customary for invitations to request special attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary clothes. At each place was a menu printed in French, with golden vignettes.

 

 

 

 

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