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Two friends, p.12
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       Two Friends, p.12

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  She answered in a measured tone: “Yes, that is what you Communists are fighting for … it’s true … but by the time you reach your goal, I’ll be long gone.”

  “Don’t you believe in us?”

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  “How can you say that, after I’ve chosen to stay with you rather than accept Maurizio’s offer?”

  She sat up on the bed and removed the wet cloth from her forehead, dropping it on the floor. She looked over at Sergio. “So, shall we go down for our usual half portion, or shall we just stay here and continue humiliating each other?”

  “Let’s go,” he said.

  She looked at him. “Come here. Kiss me.”

  He leaned forward and his lips touched hers. She smelled of alcohol, and it was clear that she was still drunk. They kissed. “Love matters to me,” she said, “more than a house, money, or anything else … Don’t you know that?”

  “Yes,” he said quietly, looking down.

  “Let’s go.”

  [IV]

  For about a week they did not see Maurizio. As their visit receded into the past, Sergio began to feel increasingly unsure of his love for Lalla, and more obsessed by the idea of getting his revenge by convincing Maurizio to convert to Communism. His feelings were complex and difficult to explain. On the one hand, he felt something like contempt for this woman whom he possessed and who loved him; on the other, he felt a strong attraction toward his friend, whom he had not been able to win over and who seemed to be slipping through his fingers. He was also afflicted by a more recent and deeper crisis of self-confidence. He felt excessively ambitious, neurotic, like a mediocre salesman who, after a touch of whiskey, becomes excited about his dreams, while his friend, Maurizio, remained calm and sure of himself, lucid, unmoved. He often thought back to their visit and realized that he could not remember it without feeling an unpleasant, burning sense of humiliation. He was ashamed of his earnestness, of his candor, and of his zeal, which now seemed weak and cowardly. He wanted to prove to Maurizio—but

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  mainly to himself—that he still held some cards, perhaps the best ones. He felt that they were fighting a duel, though a hidden one, undertaken with non-lethal weapons. He could not shake off the shame of having lost the first round. For some reason, the fact that Lalla had chosen him over Maurizio and his flattering, seductive offer did not console Sergio in the least. In truth, Lalla was superfluous, insignificant to his struggle, which was not about love but about politics. In the realm of love, he was victorious, at least for now, but this victory meant nothing. In the realm of politics, he had been defeated, and he was unable to conceal the sting of this defeat.

  His relations with Lalla had not improved; to the contrary, they had eroded even further. She still complained about their lack of money; in fact, her grumbling had become more bitter than ever. She seemed increasingly mortified and angered by their precarious financial condition. This real, concrete inability to satisfy his lover made him hate her at times, as if she had become the personification of his impotence and his inability to take control of the situation. When he had been drunk at Maurizio’s, he had imagined that he knew what would happen and felt that he held the strings, controlling his own destiny and that of others. Now he realized that he was just a poor wretch, incapable of making a living or of imposing his will on others. He had believed himself to be a maker of destinies, but instead he was simply a man without a job, though still a Communist. His political beliefs seemed to him the sole positive element in his life, but even this required some sort of proof, a victory, a confirmation of his self-esteem. In other words, even this positive could become a negative if he was unable to accomplish that which had become his constant obsession: Maurizio’s conversion to Communism.

  He did not mention any of this to Lalla. She had never been privy to his innermost thoughts, and now less than ever. She knew that he wanted to convert Maurizio, but she did not know—nor did he want her to—just how important this conversion had become. It was a constant, vital, irrepressible need. Reflecting on how much he concealed from Lalla—and how little he revealed—he realized that in fact he considered her an inferior being and treated her accordingly; to him, she was a beautiful, lovable object. He knew that

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  this was a cruel attitude, filled with contempt and indifference. Sergio could see this clearly, but it never occurred to him to modify his behavior by opening up to Lalla partly or even completely. The truth was that, while he made his plans to convince Maurizio and thus to control him, his relationship with Lalla, despite its one-sidedness, gave him a certain sense of power and superiority. But he did not know how to use this superiority, because it lay in the arena of love, which he considered unimportant and unworthy, rather than that of politics, the only arena that counted. And yet, it was still a kind of superiority.

  As these thoughts went through his mind, he continued to live the same unhappy existence which was so repugnant to him. One morning, after eating at a simple trattoria in the neighborhood, Sergio and Lalla returned to their room. As she led him up the stairs, she asked, “What shall we do today?”

  It was Sunday. Sergio hated Sundays, and was annoyed by his hatred for them. He hated the fact that the city was crowded with poor people ambling slowly down the streets, staring at the windows of the closed shops. But these were the very masses he was supposed to love, and so he did not like to admit his aversion, even to himself. “I’m staying in,” he said in an irritated tone.

  “All day?” she asked, dubiously.

  “Until the evening.”

  Lalla did not seem unhappy at the idea. For some time, almost as if her renunciation of Maurizio had increased her love for Sergio, she had seemed happy whenever he planned to spend time with her. This attitude caused him a slight, insinuating irritation: “There you have it,” he thought, “women can think only of this animalistic emotion called love, and are not interested in anything else.” He was silent as they went up the stairs. When they reached the top, she stealthily took his hand and almost furtively brought it to her lips and kissed it. “Do you love me?” she asked softly, passionately.

  “You know I love you,” he answered, with bittersweet sincerity.

  She kissed his hand again and they went inside. They walked straight through to their room. Lalla closed the door and began to undress. She always did this, mainly to protect her clothes, but on that day Sergio felt that there was another reason, one that

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  vaguely annoyed him, a kind of obscure erotic impulse. Silently, he sat down in the armchair next to the window. Lalla undressed completely and put on her dressing gown, which had once been Sergio’s.

  She completed a few tasks, with a calm, serious air: she combed her hair, removed her lipstick with a handkerchief, pulled down a window shade, and smoothed the bedcovers, which were still messy from the morning. Then she came over to where he was sitting and asked, awkwardly, “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

  She did not notice his irritated tone and carefully sat on the armrest of his chair, with her legs across Sergio’s chest. The robe hung open, and Sergio could see her breasts pressing against the deep crease in her belly. It excited him but at the same time, for some reason, he felt irritated by his feeling of arousal. As she often did, Lalla began to touch his face with her large hand. She caressed his face slowly, pausing at the temples, and then, still slowly, ran her fingers through his hair. Then, with a graceful, hungry gesture, as if leaning down to take a bite of a piece of fruit dangling from a tree without pulling it off the branch, she kissed him on the mouth. They began to kiss, and Sergio felt the burning heat of her love melting the stingy, hard metal of his repulsion. He also noticed that her love diminished his feelings of frustration and impotence, and this too vexed him. But still, he responded to her kiss. Every so often she interrupted the long kiss and began to cover his face with tiny, dry kisses that tickled pleasantly and made him smile, almost despite himself. Th
en she would once again begin kissing him on the mouth, with the same inextinguishable avidity and quiet fervor. Their mouths continued to twist and overlap, passing in and out of each other, biting, rubbing, sucking, opening and closing. Their faces were bathed in saliva as their desire grew stronger. They had stopped speaking, and Lalla began to remove her lover’s clothes, with the clumsy eagerness typical of women in such

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  moments. Now she was undoing his tie, unbuttoning his collar, and introducing her hand into his shirt, placing her palm against his chest. Now the hand moved downward, unfastening his belt, unbuttoning his trousers and his underwear. His clothes were completely undone from his neck to his groin; he sat, with his legs open, head tilted backward. Lalla kneeled on the floor and kissed his belly.

  He did not know how much time passed. The room was silent and steeped in shadows as they embraced, switching positions every so often. Lalla sat on his knees, then on the ground with her head against his groin, then on an armrest, leaning sideways to kiss him, then on both armrests, then again on his knees, heavy and full of desire. Sergio realized that as time dissolved, so too did his anxieties: his sense of inferiority, his irritation, his repugnance, rage, feelings of impotence and frustration. But even though they dissolved almost magically beneath the prodigious caresses and tenderness of her powerful, indefatigable body, he realized that it was only an illusion: his anxieties did not disappear, they were simply pushed aside. As he thought this, he returned her kisses and caresses until he found himself lying naked on the bed with his lover. “I love you so much,” she whispered as she pressed herself against him. “What else matters if we love each other?”

  He did not respond, realizing that if he spoke he would reveal his dissatisfaction at this carnal, affectionate resolution. He held her close. But at the same time he knew that he was not satisfied; he knew that they would make love and that after their embrace

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  Lalla would press herself against him and fall asleep, content. And that later, still tired and lazy, they would get out of bed, wash, dress, and go out. And that the streetlamps would shine on them as they walked side by side to their usual café, down the muddy streets of their neighborhood. This predictability cast a bitter pall over their embrace, and yet, as Lalla had said, what else were they to do? Lalla led his movements, pressing her body against his, trapping his legs between hers, teasing and tormenting him with her tireless, restless hands. “It’s still early,” he thought, “I need to slow things down, otherwise what will we do later?” This thought seemed to capture their situation more completely than all his subtle, complex conjectures. He was like a man with only a few coins in his pocket; once they were spent, there would be nothing left. “Not yet, Lalla, wait,” he said.

  She did not respond, pressing against him even more tightly, breathing heavily through her nose and mouth. For a long time, they remained locked in a tight embrace. Then she began to move again, rubbing her body against his restlessly and insistently. Believing enough time had passed, Sergio decided to take her, as Lalla clearly desired. They drew out their lovemaking as long as possible—they embraced, rolled around, intermingled on the bed. Finally, he moaned deeply. She responded from the shadows, with a long, satisfied, loving, dolorous moan. They lay there in a heap, one on top of the other, and then, like two lifeless bodies separated by frost, fell away from each other and lay side by side on the bed.

  Later, Sergio shook off the somnolence brought on by their lovemaking and got up. Lalla was asleep, or so it seemed, but the shadows made it impossible to see whether her eyes were open or closed. He looked over at the clock on the dresser: six thirty. Four hours had passed. Four hours, he could not help thinking, that another man might have spent going to the movies or the theater or the stadium. He remembered what Lalla had said: “Love is our entertainment … like all poor people,” and he could not help thinking that she was right. Making as little noise as possible, he quickly got dressed, still ruminating on her words. He asked himself whether he really loved Lalla, and could not help thinking that if love means creating an idealized transfiguration of the beloved, then what he felt was certainly not love. Sergio had very precise

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  notions about love; one could even say he had a theory. To his mind, every epoch had a central concept, an idea upon which man focused his attention. In the past, love had been the focus, and for this reason it had been imbued with man’s best most varied qualities. Like a flood, love had spilled into areas that were not, strictly speaking, its purview: politics, art, death, war, and peace. But now the central idea of life was politics; love, deprived of its embellishments, reduced to its essence, and humbled, had wasted away, lost its mystery and richness, and been reduced to its barest form: the sexual encounter. Nothing could be done about this, he thought as he watched Lalla sleeping. Man’s imagination, intelligence, and fervor had moved elsewhere, and what had once formed the very fabric of life had been reduced to an isolated decoration laid over a pattern of an altogether different nature. “I’m going out,” he said, softly. Lalla moaned in assent. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Another moan. He left.

  The street was already dark. He went directly to a bar nearby and, almost automatically, dialed Maurizio’s number. He had not planned to make this phone call; in fact, when he entered the bar he had no idea he would go to the phone. He had planned to have a coffee. The telephone had drawn him like a magnet, and that was it. Like an automaton, he heard himself responding to Maurizio’s greeting, “I need to speak to you right away.” Maurizio answered that he could meet him wherever he liked. After agreeing to meet at a café downtown, Sergio slammed down the phone.

  What an amusing spectacle, Sergio thought as he walked toward the café. He did not know what he needed to discuss with Maurizio but was sure that as soon as he saw him, the words would come spontaneously, just as the desire to call him had come. He realized that, had he wanted to, he would have easily deciphered the reason for this meeting, but he did not want to analyze his reasoning too closely. The spontaneity of his actions made them feel more inevitable than any dogged analysis and planning could.

  He waited for Maurizio at the café, an old place

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  frequented by writers and painters. It was crowded as usual. But in the back, down a corridor lined with Empire-style divans upholstered in red velvet, there was a newer room, sparsely furnished and somewhat cold, and usually quite empty. Sergio sat down at a table in the back and ordered some tea. He did not wait long. Soon, Maurizio appeared and strode over to his table.

  Sergio realized that once again his heart was racing. As before, he asked himself: “Why did I ask him to meet me here? What do I want to say to him?” He did not know exactly what he would say, and Maurizio’s calm, controlled, self-assured expression as he removed his coat, hung it on the coatrack, and sat down at the table, slightly pulling up his trousers as he bent his legs, deeply disconcerted him. How could Maurizio, who was not a Communist and had come quite unprepared, be so calm while he, who was a Communist and should have known in advance how the meeting would end, was in such a state? Maurizio did not give him a chance to gather his thoughts. As soon as he had ordered some tea, he confronted the issue at hand: “Can you explain to me why the devil you are so adamant about my becoming a Communist?”

  Somewhat taken aback, Sergio was barely able to mumble: “I gave you my reasons the other day.”

  “Yes, and they were very convincing … I mean, they make perfect sense. But I don’t think they are your true reasons.”

  “And what do you think my true reasons are?”

  “It’s simple: you want me to become a Communist because you are one,” he said, with some brutality.

  “So?”

  “So, according to your own words, since you hold me in high esteem … it bothers you that someone whom you esteem could prefer not to be a Communist … To you, the fact that a person might be worthy of esteem without being a Communist is a
rebuke, an insult.”

  “I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

  “It’s obvious,” Maurizio said, “we all want to improve, perhaps even become the best version of ourselves … but the Communists believe that it is impossible to

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  improve without joining their cause … The fact that I—a person whom you hold in high esteem—am not a Communist makes you question your own faith … It feels like a contradiction. You’ve admitted as much yourself. You say: we want the best people to join us, so that only the dregs, the refuse, will be left behind. Since you don’t consider me to be the dregs, you want me to become a Communist … If I don’t, you might begin to wonder whether in fact it is true that Communism contains an infallible truth … In other words, my very existence as a man worthy of esteem who does not embrace Communism could foment doubts which you fear more than anything and would like to avoid at any cost.”

  Sergio drew a deep breath. After all, Maurizio was a reasonable man, and it should be possible to have a discussion without becoming overly excited. He said: “Perhaps you’re right … but from my perspective it simply means that I want to illuminate you and show you the error of your ways, or rather help you take the leap and make up your mind.”

  “Thank you,” Maurizio said with an odd look, adding: “Actually, I’m prepared to take the leap and sign on to the cause if you are willing to employ an irrational argument, as I mentioned the other day … Rational arguments won’t win me over. But we are made of flesh and blood and where rational arguments fail, irrational ones can drive us to action. Signing up is not simply a question of being convinced, it’s a call to action … therefore if you employ the right argument I’ll sign up.”

 
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