We won’t be going to the Rosaria IslandsBy Frédéric VITOUX Sofitel Santa Clara Carthagène
Hélène and Robert came down to have dinner in their hotel, seated in the gallery of a former cloister lined with stone arches.
In the center of the cloister, spotlights illuminated what appeared to be a dense tropical forest, resplendent with giant palm trees and the more graceful Manila palms, as well as with hibiscus, frangipani and a variety of other plants that they would have been hard-pressed to name. A giant black woman was lounging opulently in a bed of ferns, naked and holding some fruit. They had no trouble identifying her: She was a Fernando Botero bronze.
The night was punctuated by the sharp two-toned cries of unseen birds.
They soon learned, however, that these were not birds at all, but tiny frogs, only one and a half centimeters long, who buried themselves in the earth during the day and then emerged at night, issuing their loud cries. They were called coquís.
More power to the coquís! The little frogs delighted them, as melodious as the cicadas invisibly lacing hot summer in Provence with their night music.
An American couple sat down at the next table. The woman was fortysomething, with short, auburn hair; the man was a bit older, his hair beginning to gray. Each seemed to be as self-assured as the other.
“Do you remember them?” Hélène whispered.
The Americans had been on their flight from Bogotá that morning, but Hélène and Robert had not noticed them until they were all at
the baggage carousel at the airport in Cartagena.
The passengers were all waiting for their belongings with varying degrees of impatience and apprehension, as if hoping for the jackpot or the miraculous catch of the day. The suitcase that the American grabbed, a red Samonsite, was battered and its zipper was half open. The contents were threatening to spill out. At the sight of the bag, the woman screamed as she were on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the man, on his knees struggling to shove the sweaters and shirts back inside, snapped back with irritated impatience.
What a scene they were making!
Robert and Hélène had smiled. They had decided that the tone of their trip, the first long journey they had taken since retiring, would be comic. It was getting off to a fine start. They left the couple there, doing battle with their damaged suitcase, and headed to their hotel…
But now, the Americans seemed to be in a completely different mood. They were like perfect lovebirds, sipping mojitos as the woman flipped nonchalantly through the menu. The man got up and walked around the table to kiss her, savoring the cocktail’s lime and mint on her lips. The woman laughed gregariously.
What had he whispered in her ear? She threw her head back.
Breasts that had most certainly been visited by plastic surgery bounced under her pale blue blouse.
A bit later, after duck with mango and a perfectly suitable bottle of Argentine Malbec, Robert and Hélène turned their attention to the couple again.
The woman was talking incessantly, in a nasally voice with abrupt, loud inflections, the vocal equivalent of wearing too much makeup. But this was of no consequence. Her husband was clearly thinking about something else. Unlike the coquís, who were croaking away out of sight in the garden, the American could see his wife but he didn’t hear her.
At one point, Robert noticed a spot of grease gleaming above the woman’s lip. It unfortunately skewed the whole picture – the low-cut blouse, auburn hair, hazel eyes enhanced by mascara. It was impossible to take your eyes off the grease spot.
After a while, her partner leaned across the table and, with his napkin, delicately wiped away the spot of grease. The woman, taken aback, was cut short. What had possessed him?
Robert recalled that the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman had told of ceasing to love a woman one day when, during a meal, he had noticed a tiny breadcrumb stuck on her lip, a ridiculous, measly crumb. After that, he had never been able to see anything but that – only the ridiculousness of the crumb – not the face nor the presence of the woman whom only a minute before he had idealized.
Robert had never forgotten that story. Would his American neighbor be able to see beyond the breadcrumb – or the spot of grease, it was the same thing! – above his companion’s lips?
Would they grow old together? Perhaps that’s the secret to couples that last, he thought: overcome the breadcrumb test, or, rather, allow yourself to be moved by the breadcrumb stuck on the lips of the one who shares your life.
Early the next morning, Hélène and Robert set off from the hotel, the Santa Clara, which had been built in the 17th century to house a convent and which a friend in Paris had recommended to them, with tears in his eyes. They wandered through the old fortified Spanish city. They would have the chance to explore it more thoroughly later. For now, they were content to get a feel for the place, taking in fleeting impressions, the sounds and colors and humid heat of the southern Caribbean coast.
There were little one-story colonial houses painted royal blue, canary yellow and blood red, their wooden balconies hung with hammocks – the hammock, that sublime invention worthy of highly civilized countries! – along narrow streets made even narrower by purple bougainvillea blooming under the cornices. On the worn asphalt, the hoofs of docile horses resonated as they pulled carriages bearing tourists, no doubt travelling just as the city’s notables had in past centuries… All of this made a first impression on them, as did the thickness of the air.
“Do you remember that little American movie from the ‘40s with Ava Gardner that was set in a South American city like this, on the Caribbean and with heat like this?’’ Robert asked Hélène. “Ava Gardner and Robert Taylor?”
“She was never more beautiful than at that time, when her face still had something of the soft roundness of adolescence.”
The two of them had met in the ‘60s, at the Chaillot cinematheque in Paris. She was studying Spanish, preparing for her final exams.
He was about to begin an internship in a law firm specializing in international and copyright law.
They were both unrepentant film buffs at the time – and they still were.
It was almost noon. The sun was beating down. In a large square that had once been a slave market, Hélène haggled with a vendor, paying 50,000 pesos for a Panama hat for Robert and a straw Colombian one for herself. They were not luxurious.
“I think it was ‘The Bribe,’ directed by Robert Z. Leonard – and please don’t forget the Z.!” she said later. “But I think the sets were typically Hollywood, like in a B movie from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”
After lunch, after the siesta, while Hélène lingered in their room, making notes of what they had seen and writing her first postcards, Robert went down to the Santa Clara’s swimming pool, where he found the American, alone, lounging on a mattress and talking on his iPhone.
They introduced themselves. The man was a gynecologist who lived in Carmel, California. His wife’s name was Pamela Stuart.
“…But you probably recognized her,” he added.
Robert was perplexed.
“Pamela Stuart, the heroine of the series Love from Malibu?” the American said.
Robert apologized. He rarely watched television or American series.
“It was in 1990, I know,” the gynecologist added. “ For Pamela, Love from Malibu was her crowning role.”
“Really? And after?”
The gynecologist hesitated a moment before continuing – he was in fact skeptical about the talent and career of his actress-wife.
“In 2007, her agent asked her to come to Cartagena for the filming of a movie based on a book by some famous guy, Love When Cholera Comes, or something like that. They needed her to urgently replace an ailing actress who was supposed to play a singer, one of the hero’s mistresses. A small role, of course, but…
Then her trip was cancelled at the last minute. The ailing actress was no longer ailing.”
“Too bad!” Robert said, politely.
“In any case, Pamela was bitter about it, so I promised that we would go to Cartagena someday, together. We also wanted to see the Caribbean, and the Rosario Islands, which everybody always talks about and which are supposed to be so romantic, right?”
Before their departure, Hélène and Robert had found pictures on the Internet of the famous islands, which were only about a two-hour boat ride from Cartagena: There was clear turquoise water, endless white sand beaches, coconut trees planted as if by design, bungalows and huts, coral reefs, sharks and dolphins that were more or less tame – it was all postcard-perfect, images that had become commonplace because they were exceptional, the dream of fishermen, scuba divers and swimmers. They had themselves considered visiting the islands, even if they were not fishermen, scuba divers… and certainly not swimmers!
“The day after tomorrow, after we go to the islands,” the American added, “I’ve got a surprise for Pamela: a dinner in the convent’s old chapel, just for the two of us. It’s our 10th wedding anniversary, you see.”
Robert saw. “Congratulations,” he said, with little conviction.
“For the moment, she’s preparing.
He gestured with his iPhone toward the pavilion to the left of the pool, where the hotel’s spa was.
Robert wondered what she could be preparing herself for under the merciful fingers of the masseuses. Getting ready for the trip to the Rosario Islands? Trying to revive the seductive powers of the starlet whose moment of glory had come a quarter of a century ago in a soap opera? Or the sensual opulence of the actress who might have been in the English film based on Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera? Behind Robert and the American, orchids were clinging to the trunks of the ebony trees. Maria mulata birds, like slim black magpies, were playing in the little basin, bathing and shaking themselves dry – and there was every indication that they were happy.
The next day, a Sunday, Hélène and Robert went to Mass at 11:30 in the San Pedro Claver church, which in their opinion was the city’s most beautiful. When they were abroad, they liked to attend a service and mix with the local population.
In his homily, the young priest passionately evoked the spiritual authority that Jesus held over his disciples. He then invited people to come to the altar and share with the congregation (the church was packed) what he or she believed to be a just conception of authority. A woman walked up the central aisle, turned to the congregation, and then in simple language (Hélène was translating for Robert) said that, in her house, it was her husband, the head of the family, who held the authority and that this was all very well…
After the service, Hélène and Robert settled at a table in a restaurant on the square facing the church. The chef specialized in Colombian
food with Japanese influences. They ordered chicken cooked in mandarin orange juice.
“I wonder who’s the boss in that American couple?” Hélène asked.
“You’re really wondering that?”
They both ordered coffee. Colombian, of course.
“We really should have seen Love in the Time of Cholera when it came out in Paris,” Hélène said, wistfully.
“The reviews were so bad! And the original version in English must have been ridiculous.”
“Well, at least for the exterior sets…”
“Here they are, your exterior sets,” Robert said, indicating with a sweep of his arm the baroque church and the square in front of them.
That afternoon, at the hotel reception desk, they met the American, alone (was his wife still at the spa?), who asked whether they would like to join them the next day for the trip to the Rosario Islands.
Robert graciously declined the offer. They had other plans, he said.
The American did not insist and did not seem too curious, fortunately, because Robert would have had difficulty explaining exactly what it was that he and Hélène had in mind for the next day.
No, they really had no desire to share the turbulent intimacy (love in the time of nervous breakdowns) of the American gynecologist and his wife, who was most likely one of his former patients. They had no interest in finding themselves stuck with the couple on a small boat speeding toward the Rosario Islands, a paradise straight out of a Hollywood set – was that a pleonasm? – that was probably a perfect fit for the forgotten heroine of Love from Malibu.
They, meanwhile, whiled away the morning in a “hellish” setting:
at the Palace of Inquisition, in front of the equestrian statue of Simon Bolívar. The collection included numerous instruments of torture intended to elicit admissions of sin, pleas for repentance, or cries for salvation from the impious devil worshippers and other witches who had had the misguided idea to wander around in Colombia in the 16th and 17th centuries. There were metal helmets with vices to smash heads, gloves to crush fingers and sliding tables designed to tear bodies apart, among other highly ingenious horrors. But the shade was so cool in the large exhibition galleries on the ground floor! “I love countries where shade is a necessity,” Stendhal said.
Under the cloister’s arcades at the hotel, Hélène and Robert were dozing blissfully in rattan chairs, iced tea before them, when the American couple returned from the Rosario Islands.
It must have been about 5 p.m.
The gynecologist was limping, grimacing, his left foot wrapped in a voluminous bandage. The heroine from Love from Malibu seemed to be furious, her face blood-red like the little Cartagena houses, and she, too, was walking with difficulty, clinging to walls and tables with each step. They nonetheless had enough energy to insult each other, accusing one another of the vilest offenses and sending each other to hell. They would have been better off heading to the Palace of Inquisition, where all the necessary equipment was at their disposition.
The director of the hotel took the initiative of calling a doctor for them, but they hardly paid attention to the director. Escorted by a bellboy, they disappeared into their room.
A great calm returned to the Santa Clara, the ceiling fans humming away. Under the palm trees and the frangipani, the couquís had not yet awakened. Fernando Botero’s giant continued to laze placidly on her belly.
“It’s so easy to walk on a shell in the Rosario Islands and cut your foot open,” Hélène said indifferently.
“Or to be bitten by a crab.”
“A crab, now I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.
They took a sip of their iced tea.
“And sunstroke can happen quickly,” Robert added just as nonchalantly. “You can never be too careful under the sun in the tropics.’’
“Once you’re in the water, sunscreen is worthless.”
“You think so?”
They finished their iced tea, and they felt perfectly happy.
“The director of Love in the Time of Cholera, Mike Newell, made his name with the comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral,’’ Hélène said. “But here, it’s more like the funeral of a marriage, right?”
They took a walk before dinner along the city’s ramparts.
The trade winds were growing stronger. Along the shore, the few
remaining palm trees, nearly bald and bent by the wind, seemed
to have survived either out of obstinacy or habit.
Suddenly, the sun plunged into the sea. It fell straight down, like a ball that had been dropped. There wasn’t even time to catch your breath. First it was day. And then it was night. It was nothing like those patient twilights that color the sky in temperate lands. Night took you by surprise here. Robert had not been expecting such speed in the tropics, where he had imagined that everything would be slow, indolent, sensual – slowness being one of the most precious attributes of sensuality.
Back at the Santa Clara, they encountered the director at the reception desk.
“Are the Americans better?” they asked him.
“Nothing to worry about, according to the doctor.”
“And their romantic dinner tonight…?” Robert asked.
“No dinner, it’s all been cancelled.”
“So I suspected, but…”
Robert looked at Hélène, hoping for approbation, and then continued:
“I was wondering if… if we couldn’t, for our anniversary…”
She was about to interrupt him, but he went on quickly:
“There’s always an anniversary, always something to celebrate, and so I was wondering if we couldn’t organize a dinner for the two of us, something… exceptional, voilà, a festive dinner tonight, ours… would that be possible?”
The director of the hotel smiled.
“Yes, that could be possible.”
Hélène then added: “As for the Rosario Islands, on second thought, no, we won’t be going to the Rosario Islands.”