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Florentino nearly tells Leona about his secret romance with Fermina when Dr. Urbino seeks refuge from a cyclone in Florentino's office. Again, Florentino feels inferior to the Doctor. The men make strained conversation, and when Urbino mentions his wife, it occurs to Florentino that he and Urbino are victims of the same passion. Florentino cannot bear the thought that Urbino must die before he can be happy. When Urbino departs, Florentino wants to tell his story to Leona, but he refrains, realizing that he wants to keep his secret until he can be with Fermina.
Florentino does not win a prize in the city's Poetic Festival, which is arranged by Dr. Urbino, but he does get a glimpse of Fermina, whose job it is to announce the winners. A sensation is created when a Chinese immigrant wins the Golden Orchid, the most sought-after prize for poetry in the nation. A well-dressed woman, Sara Noriega sits behind Florentino at the Festival, and offers her condolences for his loss; she knows he is a losing competitor because of how the flower on his lapel trembles. Wisely, Sara had removed hers. She invites Florentino to her home and they make love (during which she likes to suck on a pacifier). The affair, conducted with the utmost secrecy, continues for five years, and eventually, he realizes, at thirty, that he loves Sara, an older woman approaching the pinnacle of her years.
Sara submits another poem to the Poetic Festival, and when she loses, is convinced that Fermina, whom she calls a "whore" who has married not for love but for money, has plotted against her. Florentino defends Fermina, careful not to expose himself. When he sees Fermina for the first time in several years, it is evident that she has aged, and shattered is Florentino's illusion that everything but Fermina has changed. He realizes that he is also aging, and that their lives are passing while he waits, idle. Florentino also notices that Sara is aging; for she is "yesterday's flower." After a lover's quarrel, Sara rejects Florentino's attempt to make up, the first time he has been rejected since being spurned by Fermina Daza.
Fermina rejected Florentino in a sudden flash of maturity, and though she does not regret her decision, she is plagued by guilt, the one emotion she cannot bear. Dr. Urbino, a militant Catholic, can only offer her security and comfort, as he had vowed to, but not love. In the first months after her marriage, Fermina often thinks longingly of Florentino, and allows a "field of poppies" to grow in place of him in her memory. Her misery turns worse after she returns from the honeymoon, for she feels like a prisoner in her own home, slave to her bitter mother-in-law, Dona Blanca who serves nothing but eggplant, which Fermina detests and refuses to eat. Dona Blanca forces Fermina to learn to play the harp. Despite his wife's pleas, the Doctor will not stand up to his mother, and Fermina concludes that the institution of matrimony is "absurd" and "against all scientific reason." The birth of her son gives Fermina some relief, though she feels no initial attachment to him.
During these miserable years, the unlawful dealings of Lorenzo Daza are revealed to Fermina, though they are kept from the public by Urbino, who uses his power to cover up the scandal and ship Lorenzo out of the country. Despite their private misery, in public they are regarded as the city's happiest couple. Fermina takes refuge from her troubles in her father's old house, and one day sees, from the balcony, Florentino reading on the park bench outside. She fears the vision is an omen of death, and wonders if she would have been happier with Florentino. Dr. Urbino insists that he and Fermina and their son revisit Europe to revive their marriage. Florentino witnesses their departure, and is greeted by Dr. Urbino. Fermina merely nods in acknowledgement of him, "a shadow of someone she has never met."
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