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Two friends, p.13
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       Two Friends, p.13

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  Sergio’s heart was beating fast. “What is the right argument, then?” he asked, softly.

  “I thought you already knew.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Maurizio removed a cigarette from the pack and played with it, leaning forward. “Well, there’s no use beating about the bush. It’s Lalla … If you let me take her to bed, I’ll sign up the next day. I’ll become a Communist for good.”

  Sergio’s heart stopped racing. He felt completely calm and coolheaded. It was just as he had thought. The reality of knowing what argument would convince Maurizio, in other words discovering Maurizio’s weakness, changed everything; instead of feeling unsure of himself and inferior to Maurizio, he now felt confident and superior. Suddenly he was happy and completely lucid. Finally, he said to himself, Maurizio was in his power, after their many enervating

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  arguments in which he had always—rightly or wrongly—come up short. “I already knew,” he said, after a brief silence. “I saw you two, or rather I saw how you grabbed her hand the other day.”

  “I knew you saw us.”

  “And now,” Sergio continued, still calm, “I should get up, insult you, and leave.”

  “But you won’t,” Maurizio answered, calmly.

  “No, I won’t,” Sergio said, trying hard to emulate his calm demeanor. “Why would you want such a thing?”

  “It’s simple,” Maurizio said, and for the first time since Sergio had known him, he became agitated. “I feel, shall we say”—and here his voice became a whisper, as if oppressed by the weight of his feeling—“I feel a very strong attraction to Lalla … I desire her violently, that’s all … It’s stupid, but there it is … I’m attracted to her, it’s in my blood. I’m completely contaminated by this feeling and I can’t stop desiring her … I even offered to marry her.”

  “She told me.”

  “Since she doesn’t want to marry me, I don’t see any other way to get what I want …”

  “But why do you desire her so much?” Sergio said, knowing that it was a stupid question.

  “I just do.”

  Sergio pondered the question for a moment, or rather pretended to. This feeling of power—after being powerless for so long—made his head swim, and it was difficult to formulate precise thoughts. “Why do you think I can get something from her that she has already refused? She’ll refuse me as well.”

  “She won’t refuse. If you tell her, ‘I want you to go to Maurizio and do what he asks,’ she’ll do it.”

  “You’re a creep, you know that?”

  Maurizio answered calmly: “Why do you feel the need to insult me? I’m not forcing you … There’s nothing reprehensible about my feelings for Lalla … You can simply turn down my offer and I’ll never mention it again.”

  Turn down the offer? Nothing would be simpler,

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  Sergio reflected. But that was not what he wanted. In a certain sense that was his least attractive option. Turning down Maurizio’s offer would mean returning to his earlier, primitive state of insecurity and mistrust. He already had Lalla’s love, but it was no good to him. Holding on to that love, refusing Maurizio’s offer out of love for that love, would not help his situation. He needed to overcome Maurizio’s resistance, to convince him, to make him do what he wanted. “If I were to do what you ask … and I’m not saying I will … would you then do what I want?”

  “Immediately … The next day, I’d request my Party membership.”

  “But can’t you see,” Sergio said, realizing that the question was directed more to himself than to Maurizio, “that if I did this, your Party inscription would lose much of its value? Or even all of it?”

  “Why?” Maurizio smiled. “What connection is there between Communism, which is a sociopolitical and economic theory, and my love for Lalla? None …”

  “Your conversion would be neither spontaneous nor disinterested.”

  Maurizio laughed. “Perhaps it would no longer be spontaneous, but is there really such a thing as a disinterested conversion? There is always a motivating interest of some sort.”

  “And what if I refuse?”

  “Then it would mean that Lalla matters more to you than the Party … in other words, you would be a bad Communist.”

  “According to whom?”

  “According to you Communists,” Maurizio added, harshly. “You’re just like the Christians. Christ said one should leave one’s family and follow him.”

  “What would you think of me if I refused?”

  “That you’re a bad Communist but a good lover.”

  “And if I accepted?”

  “That you are a bad lover but an excellent Communist.”

  “And why would that make me a bad lover?”

  “I think it’s obvious … What kind of question is that? What you want is reassurance.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You want me to say that you can be both a good

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  lover and a good Communist.”

  “Go to hell.”

  Once again, Sergio was annoyed. He needed something to help him regain his feeling of superiority. “Sorry … You may not believe me, given the subject of our discussion at this little café table, but I love Lalla.”

  “I don’t doubt it,” Maurizio answered, completely serious.

  “I find it hard to control my feelings.”

  “I can understand that.”

  “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Sergio asked, abruptly. Then, realizing how naïve his question sounded: “No, don’t answer me. It’s a silly question.”

  “Why do you think it’s silly? I can say that since I’m not a Communist, the conflict does not present itself. I don’t have to choose.”

  “There are other factors that might force you to choose.” Sergio wanted to discuss the matter further: “For example, I don’t know, your fortune, your inheritance.”

  “Money means nothing to me … I wouldn’t give a square inch of a woman I love for all the wealth in the world.”

  “Your freedom, then.”

  Maurizio laughed. “Don’t you see that, not being a Communist, the question simply doesn’t apply, unless I was a coward or a miser or some other despicable being? Unless Communism is the prize, one simply is what one is by not giving up Lalla, even for a good cause … You Communists have invented the reason for giving her up, it is a reason created by you Communists over the course of the last fifty or one hundred years … or at least that is what you believe, and what you have convinced yourselves of. By which I mean a reason that does not put those who adopt it in an unfavorable light.”

  “What you’re saying is that it would not be judged unfavorably,” Sergio said bitterly, “if I were to say to Lalla: spread your legs and let Maurizio have his way with you.”

  Maurizio laughed. “Why do you have to put it

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  that way? But no, you would not be judged unfavorably … at least not by me.”

  There was a long silence. Maurizio observed Sergio with his bright, alluring eyes. Finally, he said: “I want you to know that I understand … listen … Are you listening to me?”

  “Yes.”

  “All right, listen … You yourself said that bringing even a single person to the cause is an important achievement. Especially if that person is worthy of respect, staunch, and mature … So, on the one hand you have nothing less than Communism, the greatest dream of freedom and happiness man has ever conceived, a dream that the Communists are dedicated to realizing, in order to ensure the well-being of millions of human beings, the betterment of their lives, to give them the capacity to express themselves, to free their minds and fulfill their destinies. And on the other hand? Not much … a woman, like so many others, an ordinary woman, who has the misfortune of being desired by me … a human body that I desire … and yes, I want, as you said, for her to open her legs, as all women do, for love, stupidity, money, an
d for millions of other reasons … There is no comparison between these two things … Tell me if I’m wrong.”

  “No,” Sergio said, quietly, “you’re right.” He was struck by Maurizio’s inspired, sincere lyricism when he spoke of the Communist cause. He would have liked to sound like that.

  “If I’m right,” Maurizio continued, now with a slight tremor in his voice, “then why do you hesitate?”

  That was the long and short of it: he wanted Lalla, Sergio could not help thinking. His whole being was contaminated by this desire. Sergio abruptly got up. “That’s enough, I’m leaving. I’ll make a decision soon.”

  “You’ll make a decision?”

  “Yes,” he answered, with a hint of rage, “don’t I have to?”

  “In a sense, yes,” Maurizio said.

  “What do you mean ‘in a sense’?”

  “Well, you don’t really have to.”

  “What do you mean?” Sergio said, hopefully.

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  “Well,” Maurizio said, quite deliberately, “you could ask Lalla what she wants.”

  Sergio looked over at Maurizio. “Lalla isn’t a Communist … she doesn’t really believe in the cause … so it’s obvious what her answer would be.”

  “Meaning?”

  “Meaning that she would say no.”

  “True. But if she were to say yes, then you would not be involved.”

  “And?”

  “And then it would be a matter between Lalla and me … and I wouldn’t have to join the Party. I would marry her, or she would simply become my lover.”

  Sergio once again stood up. He was irritated. “In other words, you’ll only join the Party if I am the one who forces Lalla to sleep with you and she accepts out of love for me …”

  “That’s right.”

  “Well in that case you wouldn’t be signing up because you desire Lalla, but rather because you want to obtain her consent through my efforts … That’s a different matter altogether.” Satisfied with the subtlety of his reasoning, Sergio sat down again.

  Maurizio seemed perfectly calm. “Perhaps I’m a degenerate … Perhaps I can only derive pleasure from obtaining Lalla through your efforts … What difference does it make?”

  It appeared that Maurizio had an answer for everything. “But you’re not a degenerate,” Sergio retorted.

  “How do you know? There are men who are attracted to little girls … Maybe I’m attracted to women who love Communists and give themselves out of love for their Communist lovers, in other words, out of love for Communism … so what?”

  “That’s a very modern kind of perversion.”

  “Precisely … Who says that love doesn’t change through time?”

  Sergio got up again, intending to leave. “Good-bye,” he said, holding out his hand.

  “Good-bye.”

  After this meeting, Sergio sank into a kind of oblivion.

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  It was like the theater, when the curtain falls at the end of an act, and the audience has no idea what is going on backstage. He was a spectator, watching himself from the outside. This feeling of oblivion distanced him from the darkest zones of his own conscience so that he had no idea what was going on there. At first he decided to discuss Maurizio’s proposal with Lalla, but then, for reasons he did not fully understand, the whole matter slipped from his mind. From time to time he sensed an encumbrance where before he had felt only emptiness; but this encumbrance, which was caused by the decision that loomed before him, remained obscure and unspoken, though at times he felt oppressed by it. But he continued to do the same things as before, aided by his feeling of oblivion.

  They continued to see Maurizio; now that spring had arrived, he often picked them up in his car and they drove to Ostia or into the countryside for lunch. Deep down, what surprised Sergio was that Maurizio did not seem to remember his bold proposal. He was as courteous, irreproachably friendly, and thoughtful as ever, almost ceremonious in fact, and it seemed to Sergio that their rapport had returned to its previous ease, when neither he nor Lalla, nor even Maurizio, knew that both of them desired Lalla.

  One day in March, Lalla told Sergio that she needed a new dress. She stood in front of the armoire in her bathrobe, pointing at the only summer dress she had from the previous year. Sergio could see that it was worn and threadbare, and discolored under the arms. But he had no money. “I can’t do anything about it … I won’t get paid until the end of the month.” Lalla said that she would rather stay at home in bed despite the increasingly sunny weather than go out in such a dress. Now in a bad mood, Sergio told her to do as she pleased, and went out.

  As soon as he was in the street he thought of

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  Maurizio and decided to ask his friend for a loan so he could buy Lalla a dress. On some level, he sensed that there was a connection between this decision and the one he still had to make regarding Lalla and Maurizio, but he refused to follow this line of thinking. He called Maurizio and told him that he wanted to meet, and Maurizio, in his usual polite manner, said Sergio could come over whenever he liked.

  Sergio did not wait long in Maurizio’s sitting room. It looked shabbier than ever in the morning light, with the sun streaming in through the curtains. As soon as his friend appeared, he said: “Listen, I need to ask you a favor.”

  “Please have a seat,” Maurizio said. “What can I do for you?”

  After a pause, Sergio continued: “I’m broke … Lalla desperately needs a new dress … Could you please lend me the money? I’ll pay you back in a month.”

  Maurizio betrayed no emotion. “How much do you need?” he asked, in a calm voice.

  “Twenty thousand lire.”

  “That will only buy a very modest dress,” Maurizio said, fixing him with his gaze.

  “Well, we’re modest people,” Sergio said, almost angrily, “and we dress modestly.”

  Maurizio reflected for a moment: “Modesty is fine of course … but if I may be frank, Lalla dresses like a beggar.”

  Sergio pressed his lips together, offended. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because it’s true,” Maurizio said, with a cruel calm. “She wears rags … shapeless skirts, worn-out shoes … Her gloves are dirty and full of holes … The other day she was wearing a blouse that was discolored under the arms from sweat … Her stockings are darned … Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but she looks like a beggar. If I were you I would be ashamed to go out with her.”

  Sergio was so disconcerted by this attack that he did not respond immediately. His heart was heavy. After a long pause, Maurizio continued: “Listen, instead of twenty thousand, I’ll lend you two hundred thousand … It’s very little, even for a woman who dresses moderately well, and almost nothing for Lalla, who owns no clothes at all. At least she’ll be able to buy a dress, stockings, a blouse, some shoes, and maybe a few other things … like a slip or a camisole;

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  I’m sure hers are in a terrible state, if she has them.”

  As he calmly said these words, he pulled a checkbook and a pen out of his pocket. He wrote out the check, saying, “Don’t worry, you can pay me whenever you like.”

  “But I …,” Sergio began, still taken aback.

  “Don’t worry,” Maurizio said, holding up his hand, “and anyway, you can’t deny her these things that will make her so happy. It makes her deeply unhappy, as it would any woman, to go about dressed in rags.

  After all,” he said, staring at Sergio, “I’m happy to give you this money … I’m very attached to Lalla, as you know, so it gives me pleasure.”

  Without paying any more attention to Sergio, he finished writing the check. Sergio watched him, staring at the dark, shiny hair on his head, the head of a courteous, well-brought-up man bent over the checkbook at the small table. He wanted to protest, to stop him, but he knew that he would not, though he was not sure why. He had a strange feeling, a kind of gratitude mixed with humiliated attraction, and at the same time, a bitter sense of
powerlessness, of irredeemable inferiority. Once again Maurizio had shown him up and was imposing his will; he towered over him with his money, as he had before with his intelligence. Sergio felt a violent desire for revenge, though he was not sure what form this revenge would take. He saw his hand reaching for the check, bathed in a ray of sunlight that came in through one of the windows. As in a dream, he heard himself say “Thank you.” He peered at the check. It was in his name, and suddenly it occurred to him: “He doesn’t want Lalla to know … This is between Maurizio and me … Either he really loves her, or he wants to humiliate me, or both.”

  As if hearing his thoughts, Maurizio said nonchalantly, “Of course you shouldn’t tell Lalla that I gave you the money … Tell her you were paid to write a screenplay or something along those lines … You’ve written for the movies in the past, haven’t you?”

  “No.”

  “Well, think of something … then after a while

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  I’ll give you more money … for the next installment of your screenplay … That way Lalla will be happy … Clothes are important to women.”

  “But I’ll never be able to pay you back.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Maurizio said.

  Without knowing why, Sergio blurted out, “You think that, with the excuse of this lie about a screenplay, I’ll accept more money from you.”

  “Well,” Maurizio said, shrugging, “if you are willing to take this money I don’t see why you wouldn’t take more.”

  “Have I accepted?”

  “Well, you put the check in your wallet.”

  “And how much will you give me later?”

  “As much as you need,” Maurizio said, calmly, “so that Lalla can dress decently.”

  “And you’re happy to give me this money?”

  “Yes, very … As I said, I feel great affection for Lalla.”

  “Or is it because you want to humiliate me?”

  Maurizio pretended not to hear his rebuke. He walked over to a small bar on wheels and asked, invitingly: “Would you like an aperitif … a cocktail?”

  “Yes, thanks.”

  “A martini, then,” Maurizio said. He mixed the gin and vermouth in a large glass, then rang a bell and asked the butler for some ice. As soon as the butler left the room, he asked, in the same calm voice as before: “Regarding our earlier conversation … have you come to a decision?”

 
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