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       Boredom, p.13

           Alberto Moravia

  “Then write me a check. You must certainly have your checkbook here.”

  Oddly enough, she changed her mind at this perfectly reasonable suggestion. “No,” she said, “I’ll give it to you in cash after all, because I came to the end of my checkbook yesterday. Come upstairs.”

  She rose and I followed her out of the study, wondering at the reason for this sudden change in the method of payment. I did not have long to wait to discover it. While we were going upstairs my mother, who was in front of me, said without turning around: “I’ll give you a first installment—a hundred thousand lire. The rest I’ll give you tomorrow. I can’t give you any more now because it’s all I have.”

  So my mother had changed her mind because, while she could not have avoided making out a check for the whole amount, in cash she could give me only half, with the excuse that it was all she had. Why this sudden avarice? Probably, I thought, so as not to lose control over me and so as to obtain at the same time something in exchange for the money. I said nothing, but followed her up the stairs and into her bedroom. It was a large, very comfortable room, modernly styled in various shades of gray and white, with carpets and hangings and curtains in such profusion as to give the rather suffocating impression that there was not a single inch of floor or wall that was not covered with material. In the subdued light which lent an air of mysterious and almost guilty complicity to the reflections of our two figures in the mirrors, my mother went to the door of the bathroom, at the further end of the room, and opened it. I remained standing where I was. “Why do you stand there?” said my mother. “Come along, I’ve no secrets from you.”

  “You’ve no secrets,” I said, “because you know that I don’t want your money. If I did, you’d have plenty.”

  “What nonsense,” she replied. “You’re my son, aren’t you?” And she went in front of me into the bathroom. This was a very large room, with the ostentatious, wasteful, useless spaciousness which, in the houses of the rich, is characteristic of places devoted to the care of the body. Between the bath and the wash-basin there were at least four yards of marble floor, and between the basin and the toilet as many of tiled wall. I watched my mother as she went over to the wall, took hold of one of those hooks that are used for hanging towels on, turned it from left to right and then pulled it toward her. Four white tiles opened like a small door, exposing the neat gray surface of a steel safe. “Now let’s see,” said my mother with school-teacher complacency, “let’s see you try and open it with the secret combination.”

  My mother had taught me the combination of the safe, and I had learned it almost against my own will, perhaps merely because I had a good memory; but I was most unwilling to make use of it, especially in her presence—rather as one is unwilling to take part in the rites of a religion in which one does not believe. “Why?” I said. “You open it; what’s it got to do with me?”

  “I wanted to see if you remembered it,” said my mother gaily. Rapidly, with her nervous white hand laden with massive rings, she turned some dials on the quadrant of the safe and then opened it. I had a glimpse of some rolls of stock certificates and a number of white and yellow envelopes lying in confusion inside the deep recess. My mother, changing suddenly from gaiety to suspiciousness, threw me a mistrustful glance. I lowered my eyes in embarrassment. I saw, lying stranded on the porcelain bowl of the toilet, a wad of cotton; I put out my hand and pressed down the lever, and the water came gushing out. When I looked up again, my mother had taken a bulging white envelope out of the safe and was pushing the white tiles back into place. Turning back into the room, she said: “I’ll give you fifty thousand lire for today. I’ve remembered that I need the other fifty thousand to pay a tradesman’s bill.”

  Thus the sum I had asked for was again reduced. I had counted on giving Cecilia a present to the value of two hundred thousand lire; I had resigned myself to accepting a hundred thousand; but fifty thousand seemed to me really a very small amount to alleviate the pain of our parting. I protested firmly. “I need a hundred thousand lire today,” I said. “You can pay the tradesman some other time.”

  “No, I can’t.” My mother went over to a tall, antique chest-of-drawers and, turning her back upon me, opened the envelope—as far as I could see—on the marble top. Without moving from the middle of the room, I said to her: “In that envelope there are certainly more than fifty thousand lire, perhaps more than three hundred thousand. In that envelope you probably have at least half a million, so why do you tell me all these stories?”

  She answered hastily, without turning around: “No, there are only a hundred thousand lire in this envelope.”

  “Let me see, then.”

  She turned abruptly, with an unexpected movement, hiding the money with her shoulders and showing me a face which, beneath its usual withered dryness, had in it a trace of emotion. “Dino,” she said, “why don’t you want to come and live with your mother again? If you were here, you’d have all the money you want.”

  Such, then, was the bargain that my mother asked of me, and it mattered little that instead of confronting me with a clearcut dilemma, as she would have done with an insolvent debtor, she presented her proposal in the form of a pathetic appeal. I asked her, in my turn: “What’s that got to do with it?”

  “I can’t help noticing that you’ve come to see me simply in order to ask me for money, after I’ve not seen you for two months.”

  “I’ve already told you that I’ve been busy.”

  “If you came here, you could do just as you like. I wouldn’t interfere in your life in any way at all.”

  “Oh well, give me the money and don’t let’s speak of it any more.”

  “You could come and go, stay out late at night, invite anyone you wanted, see all the women you wanted.”

  “But I’ve no need to see anybody.”

  “You ran away that day because you perhaps had the impression that I should have prevented you from having a relationship with Rita. You’re wrong: provided you had observed the decencies, I should not have prevented anything.”

  This left me truly astonished. So my mother had noticed that there was something between me and Rita; but she had held her tongue, hoping, evidently, that an intrigue between the girl and myself would have strengthened my ties with the villa and therefore with her as well. And when had she noticed it? During luncheon? Or later? I had a sudden, unpleasant feeling of guilt, a familiar feeling, as though I were a little boy again and my mother had the right to put me in disgrace. I managed to get the better of it by reflecting that, after all, my feeling of attraction toward Rita had its origin in the sense of despair which a visit to my mother never failed to arouse in me. Looking her straight in the face, I answered, in a tone of resentment: “No, it wasn’t because of Rita that I ran away, but because of you.”

  “Because of me? Why, I even pretended not to notice how you were laying hands on her during luncheon.”

  This remark and, even more, the tone in which it was spoken, made me furious. “Exactly; and it was entirely because of you that I laid hands on her, as you call it.”

  “Why, how do I come into it? Now it’s my fault, is it, if you annoy the maids?”

  “I laid hands on her because you put your feet on me.”

  “Feet—what ever d’you mean?”

  “By telling me not to talk about money affairs in front of servants. And also, let me tell you”—I had moved close to her now and was talking right into her face—“let me tell you, once and for all: all the stupid things I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve done because of you.”

  “Because of me?”

  “I spent whole years of my youth,” I suddenly shouted, overcome by a terrible rage, “dreaming of being a thief, a murderer, a criminal, just so as not to be what you wanted me to be. And you can thank heaven I didn’t become one, for lack of opportunity. And all this because I lived with you, in this house.”

  This time my tone of voice seemed really to frighten my mother, who, as lon
g as it was a question of words, generally showed herself adept in the game of give and take. But now, with a bewildered look on her face, she started shaking her head from side to side in a frightened way. “Oh well,” she stammered, “if it’s like that, don’t come and see me any more, don’t come again to this house.”

  Suddenly I grew calm again. “No,” I said, “I’ll come to the house again, but don’t ask me to love it.”

  “What is it that’s so odious about this house? Isn’t it just like any other house?”

  “On the contrary, it’s a more beautiful and more comfortable house than a great many.”

  “Well, then?”

  I saw that she now appeared a little relieved at my not attacking her more directly. I answered her with a question: “My father didn’t like living in this house, either. Why was that?”

  “Your father liked traveling.”

  “Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that he traveled because he didn’t like living here?”

  “Your father was your father, you are you.”

  It was not the first time that arguments of this kind had taken place between me and my mother. I might shout and I might hurt her, but I always came to a stop in face of the real truth: that the house was repugnant to me because it was the house of a rich person. On the other hand my mother, by provoking and almost defying me, drove me to the revelation of this truth; yet in reality she did not want me to reveal it and there always came a moment when she drew back and changed the course of the conversation. And so it was now. I was on the point of answering her when she went on, rather nervously: “Say rather that you want to live on your own so as to have more freedom. You’re making a mistake, but it doesn’t matter. Here you are, then, here are your hundred thousand lire.”

  She held out the money toward me, but only halfway; as I put out my hand, she drew it back again, as though she had realized that I was giving her nothing in exchange; and she added: “By the way, do stay to lunch, anyhow.”

  “I can’t.”

  “I’ve invited a few people to lunch. There’s the Minister, Triolo, and his wife. A charming, intelligent, energetic man.”

  “A Minister? How ghastly! Come on, give me this money.”

  This time she gave me the money, but with a gesture that was both angry and hesitant, as if she wished to take it back at the very moment when she was handing it to me. “Then come to lunch tomorrow,” she said. “There’ll be no one but you and me. Then I can give you the rest of the amount. If it’s really true that you’re going to Cortina...”

  “Why? Do you doubt it?”

  “With you one never knows.”

  My mother appeared now to be fairly well satisfied. I saw this from the way in which she walked downstairs in front of me, holding her head high and placing her hand on the brass rail. Perhaps she was satisfied, I thought, because she had succeeded once again in avoiding the great explanation between myself and her, the explanation that no one who is rich wants ever to take place, or else he could never again enjoy his wealth in peace. Her satisfaction was so great that, forgetting my recent refusal, she suggested to me when we were in the hall: “Why don’t you stay until the Minister arrives? You could have a drink with him and then go away. He’s an influential man, he might always be useful.”

  “Not to me, unfortunately,” I said with a sigh. “Besides, I really must run along.”

  My mother did not insist; she opened the front door and went out onto the doorstep and stood facing the drive, putting her hands under her armpits and shivering in the damp autumn air. “If it goes on raining like this,” she said, looking up at the cloudy sky, “it will be the end of my poor flowers.”

  “Good-bye, Mother,” I said, and stooping down I deposited the dry ritual kiss on the no less dry cheek. Then I ran off hastily to my car: I had seen another car appear suddenly at the far end of the drive and turn up toward the villa and I wanted, at all costs, to avoid an encounter with my mother’s guests. I sat down at the wheel at the moment when this other car swung around to the open space in front of the house and stopped. My mother was now standing at the front door in an attitude of readiness for the reception of her important guests. I started my engine and went off—just in time to see a chauffeur in a braided uniform get out and open the door of the car, at the same time taking off his cap and bowing, but not in time to see the owner of the black-shod masculine foot protruding from the doorway and feeling for the ground.

  It was nearly one o’clock; I drove fast all the way along the Via Appia and reached the Piazza di Spagna shortly before the shops closed. I knew where to go to buy Cecilia’s farewell present—to a shop in Via dei Condotti where they sold bags and umbrellas. It was full of smart women shoppers, who drew aside with a faint look of surprise at my appearance. Then, while I was hurriedly choosing an alligator bag, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and understood the reason for their glances. I looked like a tramp, and a rather alarming tramp at that: bald pate encircled with curly fair hair that badly needed cutting, a blur of reddish beard on the cheeks, charcoal-colored sweater showing a shirt without a tie, shapeless, worn-out, olive-green corduroy trousers. Tall, too, very tall in relation to the very low ceiling of the shop, with a forehead that looked like a vizor lowered over blue, bloodshot eyes, a short nose and a prominent mouth: a big ape, in fact. At the same time I realized, as I looked at myself, what a great proof of affection my mother had given me in inviting me to lunch, dressed as I was, in company with the Minister and her other guests. But then I reflected that my mother, with her sensitivity to what she called “good form,” must have felt that I was dressed like a painter, that is, I was wearing a kind of uniform which indicated my position, a by no means dishonorable position in a social circle such as hers, where a man had as much right to wear an artist’s sweater as a minister’s double-breasted jacket. I was startled out of these thoughts by the voice of the shop assistant as she handed me the bag. I paid, took the parcel and went out.

  It was one o’clock. The appointment was at five. Strange to say, although I had never been conscious of waiting for Cecilia on other days, when I knew that our relationship was going to continue, now that I had made up my mind to break with her I found that the waiting dismayed me. I therefore did all the things I could find to do until five o’clock as slowly as possible, hoping in this way to make the time pass imperceptibly and painlessly. I had lunch in a nearby restaurant and pretended to enjoy the food and to meditate between one mouthful and the next; I went into a bar and, after drinking a cup of coffee, hung about listening to songs on the juke box; I had a second cup of coffee in another bar and, perched on a stool, read a newspaper from beginning to end; I stood on the pavement for about twenty minutes conversing with a young painter whose name I did not know, pretending to be interested in his long diatribe on the subject of awards and exhibitions. But I succeeded, in this way, in whiling away only two of the four hours until the time of the appointment. In the end, with an aching heart, I went back to the studio.

  There, filtering through the white curtain, came a mild, clean, clear light which was very familiar to me, that same light in which it seemed to me that my boredom—the lack of contact between myself and external things—assumed an aspect of supreme normality, although it was none the less painful for that; in fact, perhaps precisely on that account, more painful than ever. When I entered the studio and sat down in the armchair in front of the empty canvas which still glimmered white upon the easel, I said to myself: “I am here and they are there.” By “they” I meant the objects around me—the canvas on the easel, the round table in the middle, the screen in the corner to the left behind which the bed was concealed, the terra cotta stove with its pipe going up into the ceiling, the chairs with notebooks lying on them, the bookshelf and the books. They were there and I was here, and between them and me there was nothing, truly nothing, just as, perhaps, in the interstellar spaces, there is nothing between the stars, millions of light-years distant from each other

  I repeated to myself: “I am here and they are there,” and then I remembered Cecilia lying the day before on the divan, with her eyes closed and her head thrown back on the cushion, her belly thrust forward and offered in the most explicit, literal manner, like an object with no will of any sort beyond that of being possessed. I remembered also that as I went to her I had thought, as I was thinking today: “She is there and I am here,” and I had felt that between her and me there was nothing, and that I had to penetrate, to cross, in fact to fill, that void with the movement of my body throwing itself upon hers. And as I recalled the effort, like the breaking of a barrier, that I had made in order to embrace and possess her, I suddenly realized that my decision to leave her was in reality nothing else than the official confirmation, so to speak, of a situation that already existed. Yes, I would break with Cecilia, but I had in effect left her a long time before—if indeed I had ever had any contact with her.

  In the midst of these reflections I began to feel sleepy; I got up from the armchair and threw myself on the divan. I fell asleep almost at once and with such a rush that I had, in my sleep, a sensation of hurtling downward, fists and teeth clenched and all huddled up, into an infinity of space, and the longer my fall continued the more did the weight of my body increase. Then suddenly I awoke, with a taste of iron in my mouth as though I had been gripping a metal bar between my teeth. The studio was almost in darkness, and the objects in it had turned black in the gray half-light. I jumped up from the divan and turned on the light. Immediately it was night at the window. Then I looked at the clock on the table and saw that it was past six: Cecilia was to have come at five.

  It did not require a great effort of imagination to realize that her lateness was not a matter of chance and that it was indeed now very probable that she would not come that day. But this was not a normal fact that could be accepted with tranquillity. By one of the many contradictions in her character, even though she seemed incapable of the feelings which prompt us not to cause suffering to the people who love us, Cecilia was always extremely punctual, just as if she had really loved me; and when, for some reason, she could not help being late, she always found means of letting me know in time. Her lateness therefore was abnormal and could only be explained in one way—by some event more important than our appointment, so important that it not merely prevented her from coming but also from letting me know that she would not come.

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