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       Boredom, p.14

           Alberto Moravia
 

  Nevertheless, the first thought that came into my mind was: “Well, aren’t you pleased? You wanted to get rid of her and she hasn’t come. So much the better, surely?” But this thought was an ironical one; for I realized to my astonishment that Cecilia’s lateness not only gave me no pleasure but seriously troubled me.

  I went back and sat down on the divan and started thinking. Why did Cecilia’s lateness upset me? I saw that, whereas she had hitherto been nothing to me, as I have already said, her lateness caused her to become something. Furthermore this “something,” at the very moment when it was acquiring substance, eluded me in a painful fashion, for after all Cecilia had not come. And so it seemed to me that when she was in the studio and clinging to me, Cecilia was absent; now, when she was not there and when I knew she would not come, I felt her to be poignantly, obscurely present.

  I tried to think with greater clearness, although I found it difficult to do so because I was suffering. Cecilia had not come, she had not even taken the trouble to justify herself, therefore she no longer loved me, or anyhow not enough to be punctual or to let me know she was not coming—in other words, she loved me very little. Then suddenly I remembered, with some astonishment, that during the two months that our relationship had lasted Cecilia had never told me that she loved me and I had never asked her. Certainly the fact that she had given herself to me and had shown that she found pleasure with me might be equivalent to a declaration of love. But it was also possible, as I at once realized, that it meant nothing at all.

  In any case, the very slight importance that Cecilia gave to this surrendering of her body seemed to prove that it had no meaning. Some things are simply a matter of feeling: Cecilia had given me her body with the same barbaric, naïve indifference with which a savage presents a rapacious explorer with the amulet of precious stones that he wears around his neck. It was, in fact, as though she had never had any wooers to make her understand how desirable a woman’s body can be. Balestrieri, it is true, had adored her and had died of his adoration; but Cecilia appeared still to be surprised at it, as at something that seemed to her utterly unjustified.

  Suddenly I felt a pang at my heart, and I started violently so that my whole body shook. The thought that had pierced my heart was this: “I can think whatever I like, but in the meantime she hasn’t come,” and it aroused in me an almost physical feeling of the vanity of any sort of reflection in face of the reality of her absence. I looked at the clock and saw that more than half an hour had passed since I had woken up: certainly Cecilia would not be coming now. And I no longer had any desire to prove to myself that her absence left me indifferent.

  I thought she might not be feeling well—the only reason that could explain her conduct without causing me to be suspicious of her—and I got up from the divan to go to the telephone. And then I recollected, with the feeling that I was making a discovery, that I had never, not even once, telephoned to Cecilia. It was she who had telephoned me, every day; I had never telephoned her because I had never felt the need of it. This lack of curiosity on my part seemed to me significant. I had never bothered to telephone Cecilia, in the same way that I had never sought to establish any real contact with her. And so our relationship had been nothing, and boredom had easily corroded it, and I, in the end, had made up my mind to break it.

  After I had dialed the number Cecilia’s telephone went on ringing for a long time in a mysterious silence. To be more precise, I felt that the silence was mysterious inasmuch as Cecilia, who was in the background of this silence, had from the moment when she failed to arrive become mysterious to me, like an animal which had taken refuge in the depths of its lair. However, although it was mysterious, this silence was not entirely negative. In an insecure sort of way, like a gambler who after many losses still deceives himself into thinking he is going to win, I hoped that Cecilia’s voice would become audible. Instead of that a strange thing happened: the ringing stopped, someone took off the receiver but no one spoke; or rather I seemed to hear heavy breathing, or a kind of whispering, at the other end of the line. I called out: “Hello, hello,” and several times I asked: “Who is speaking?” Finally I realized that the receiver at the other end had been replaced. In a rage I dialed the number again, was again answered with silence and with that mysterious sound of breathing, and again, finally, the receiver was replaced. The third time, the telephone rang for a long time but nobody replied.

  I left the telephone and went back and sat on the divan. For some time, in astonishment, I thought of nothing. The only thing that was clear to me was that, on the very day when I had decided to announce the ending of our relationship, Cecilia, for some reason I still did not know, had for the first time missed an appointment, had in effect—even if only in a provisional way—provoked the separation which I had had in mind to suggest to her. I had the disagreeable sensation of someone who, going down a steep staircase in the dark, expects another step and encounters instead the flat surface of a landing and then loses his balance just because the step is not there.

  Deep in thought, I rose and went mechanically to the door, opened it and looked out into the corridor, toward the corner, almost hoping to see Cecilia appear there. I looked also in the opposite direction and my glance, traveling along the wall, came to a stop at the last door, which was that of Balestrieri’s studio. It occurred to me that Balestrieri himself must have put his head out into the corridor countless times to see if Cecilia, when she was late, might appear at the corner. I knew that his studio had not yet been let again; in fact it was said that his widow had the intention of going to live there herself. Now Cecilia on the day of our first meeting had left the key of the old painter’s studio on my table. She had never asked me for this key, and I had thrown it into the bottom of a drawer, with a presentiment that I might make use of it in the future. I had a sudden desire to look at the place in which Balestrieri had tormented himself through the same uncertainty from which I myself was suffering at that moment.

  I took the key, left the door ajar so that Cecilia, if she came, could get in, and went to Balestrieri’s studio. When the imitation candles of the central chandelier were lit, the studio looked to me gloomier than ever, with its sham antique furniture and red damask. I went up to the table, walking across the thick carpet and inhaling with distaste the stuffy, dusty, slightly malodorous air. It was a massive, Renaissance style table, its polished top now veiled with the dust of two months’ abandonment; the telephone was standing upon it, together with the directories and a green receipted bill. I reflected that the widow was perhaps really intending to come and live in the studio, since she was continuing to pay for the telephone; then my eye fell on a bound address book with a marbled cover: I picked it up and turned over the pages. Balestrieri’s handwriting, big and coarse and thick, made me think for some reason of his too-wide shoulders and his too-large feet. I was struck by the great number of women’s names without any surnames, on almost every page—Paola, Maria, Milly, Ines, Daniela, Laura, Sofia, Giovanna, etc. etc. Knowing Balestrieri’s habits, I had no doubt that they were the names of the accommodating girls who in the past, before his great love for Cecilia, had so often visited him. I went on turning the pages and looked at the letter C. There was Cecilia’s name, followed by the same telephone number that I had just been vainly ringing. I stood for a moment with my eyes fixed on this name and number, thinking of the very different feelings Balestrieri must have had on the day he wrote it down and then, successively, on each of the occasions when he went and looked at it before telephoning to Cecilia. No doubt in the end he would not have had to refer to the address book, as he would have known the number by heart, but all the same he would have taken a look, now and then, at the page with the letter C, to revive the memory of that first, fatal occasion when he had written down Cecilia’s name and number. All of a sudden the telephone on the table started ringing.

  I hesitated, then took up the receiver. I had a strange feeling of being not myself but Balestrieri; and that
I should hear Cecilia’s voice on the telephone. This feeling had an unexpected confirmation; I did, in fact, hear the well-known voice asking: “Is that you, Mauro?” (Balestrieri’s name was Mauro.) In a rush of anguish and nausea, my heart failed. So it really was Cecilia, and she was telephoning not to me but to Balestrieri, to a man who was dead and whom she knew to be dead.

  All this did not last more than an instant. In a scarcely audible voice I said: “No, it’s Dino,” and immediately the other voice, losing all resemblance to Cecilia’s and showing itself, in fact, to be very different—as though the resemblance had been created there and then simply by my anxiety—exclaimed in a tone of confusion: “Oh, I’m sorry, am I not speaking to Signor Balestrieri’s number?”

  “Yes.”

  “Is Signor Balestrieri not there? You see, I’ve been away from Rome for four months and I wanted to have a word with him. Are you a friend of his?”

  “Yes, I’m a friend of his. And you—who are you?”

  “I’m Milly,” answered the girl, in a pathetic, hopeful tone of voice which somehow suggested her intimacy with the old painter.

  “Signorina Milly, Signor Balestrieri has...has gone away.”

  “He’s gone away? And you don’t know when he’s coming back?”

  “No.”

  “Oh well, tell him, when you see him, that Milly telephoned.”

  I put down the receiver again and stayed quite still for a time, brooding over the vague, unpleasant feeling that this telephone call had aroused in me. Then I became conscious that it was cold in the studio and that the cold was getting right into my bones. It was a special sort of cold, at the same time both unclean and sepulchral, the cold of a tomb which is also an alcove, or an alcove which is also a tomb. I had sat down to answer the telephone, overcome, it may be, by my agitation when I thought I heard Cecilia’s voice. I rose and went out into the corridor.

  Back in my studio I looked at the clock and, since I knew I was no longer expecting anybody, I realized that I was looking at it to see how long it was before Cecilia telephoned me in the morning, as she always did. I reflected that it was the first time I had had such a thought; and I knew that henceforward such thoughts would visit my mind more and more frequently.

  5

  NEXT MORNING, THINKING over Cecilia’s failure to arrive, I was convinced, or rather I tried to convince myself, that her absence was due to causes which had nothing to do with our relationship. I still wanted to break with Cecilia, but the Cecilia I wanted to break with was the Cecilia who was in love with me, or whom I imagined to be in love with me, not the Cecilia who no longer loved me and who missed her appointments. This was not a case of that special, perverse kind of love which makes us love someone who does not love us and dislike anyone who does love us; it was because the Cecilia who loved me had proved boring, and therefore unreal, whereas the Cecilia who did not love me seemed, on the contrary, by the very fact of not loving me, to acquire a steadily increasing semblance of reality in my eyes. Nevertheless I preferred to think that Cecilia loved me and that consequently I did not have to alter my decision to get rid of her, because, as I have already hinted, the idea that she had ceased to bore me, in other words that she was becoming real, filled me, fundamentally, with a kind of fear, as though I were confronting a trial that I did not feel able to face.

  In the meantime, however, there was a problem, a small but painful problem: should I be the first to telephone, or should I wait for her to telephone me? Cecilia was in the habit of telephoning me every day, always at the same time, about ten o’clock in the morning, to greet me and confirm our appointment for the afternoon. I could therefore certainly expect her to telephone that day as usual, but at the same time I was afraid lest she might not do so and might go out, in which case, by the time I made up my mind to telephone myself, she would not be there and I should have to spend the whole day in uncertainty as to whether she was coming—an uncertainty which without any doubt had by now become extremely painful. And furthermore I realized that in this affair of the telephone the terms of my greater problem were being repeated in an identical way: I wanted Cecilia to telephone me first so that I could continue to consider her dispensable and therefore non-existent; whereas, if it were I who telephoned, I should have to think of her as of something problematical and elusive and therefore real. At three in the afternoon I was still immersed in these reflections when I heard the telephone ringing repeatedly over at the far end of the studio—gently, querulously, ironically, as if to tell me that the thing that mattered was not my thoughts, however lucid, but its own ringing. I went over and took up the receiver and at once heard Cecilia’s voice saying: “At last! Where were you?”

  I answered in a very low voice: “I was in the studio, but I hadn’t heard you.”

  There was a moment’s silence and then she said: “I didn’t ring you this morning because the telephone was out of order. See you today at the usual time, then.”

  I could not help exclaiming somewhat sharply: “But why didn’t you come yesterday?”

  I expected her reply, whether sincere or untruthful, to be anyhow precise. Instead, these disconcerting words reached my ears: “Because I couldn’t.”

  “Why couldn’t you?”

  “Because I had things to do.”

  “Very well,” I said angrily, recognizing, in these answers, Cecilia’s characteristic capacity at the same time to avoid both telling the truth and telling a lie. “Very well then. See you soon.”

  “Yes, soon. Good-bye.”

  I realized immediately afterward that the fact that it had been she who telephoned first did not bring me the relief I had hoped for. She had indeed telephoned first, but had contrived by her secretiveness to remain just as elusive and mysterious as if she had not done so. Her action in telephoning me, which ought to have meant that I had it in my power to dispose of her, that she was dependent upon me and therefore could be discarded, had in reality meant nothing. And I still had to get rid of her, as I had decided.

  In the meantime I had to go on living, by which I mean I had to while away the two hours that still lay between me and the moment when Cecilia would appear in my studio. To give some idea of my impatience I can say that, not knowing what to do, I even took it into my head to start painting, after an interval of more than two months during which I had not touched a brush. I said to myself that if I could perhaps manage to cover the canvas that still stood prominently on my easel I would have, if nothing else, a further reason for parting from Cecilia; I knew, in fact, that painting and painting alone could fill the void in my life which the ending of our relationship would leave. But I only had to look at the canvas standing there on the easel to know that I would be incapable, not merely of painting, but even of lifting my hand to make any kind of a mark upon it. In reality I had at that moment only one relationship—and that a problematical one—with any object of any kind, and that was my relationship with Cecilia, which in any case I was preparing to break off. How the devil, then, could I paint on that canvas, which on the day of my first meeting with Cecilia I had signed as if to underline the fact that painting, as far as I was concerned, was finished? To comfort myself, I reread something that Kandinski had written on this very subject. “The empty canvas. In appearance—really empty, silent, indifferent. Stunned, almost. In effect—full of tensions, with a thousand subdued voices, heavy with expectation. A little frightened because it may be violated. But docile. It does willingly whatever is asked of it, it only begs for mercy. It can lead to anything, but cannot endure everything. A wonderful thing is the empty canvas, more beautiful than many pictures....” Suddenly I hurled the book on the floor and almost ran out of the studio.

  I knew what direction I would take, not so much with my mind as by an instinct like that of a sporting dog following a scent through a wood or across a heath. Thus I turned out of Via Margutta, came into Via del Babuino and walked in the direction of the Piazza di Spagna, hurrying along quickly past the shops and thr
ough people who knocked against me, just as though I were afraid of arriving late for some appointment. I went on for a hundred yards or so, and then in front of me I saw Cecilia. She too was walking quickly, like a person who knows where he is going and is in a hurry to get there. After thinking for a moment of catching up with her, I slackened my pace and followed her; I had suddenly realized that never had she seemed so real to me as now when I was intending to part from her, and I wanted to enjoy this feeling of reality and at the same time to understand why in the world it had become perceptible to me at this particular moment. So I looked at her attentively and realized that it was as though I were seeing her for the first time in my life, in an atmosphere as fresh as that of the first day of Creation. The details of her figure seemed by some miracle to be more visible than usual, in fact to be visible on their own account—visible, that is, even if I did not look at them and examine them—the light, crisp, brown mass of her hair, more like the intricate, untamed fleece of the groin than a combed head of hair; the motion of her neck, which could not be seen because it was hidden, but which could be felt, at the same time querulous and graceful; the movement of her long, loose, hairy green sweater around the bust which I knew to be naked underneath it, with the full, firm breasts and their delicate points exposed to the friction of the rough wool; her short, narrow black skirt which displayed the rotundities of her hips, shifting and undulating at every step; her whole body, in fact, seemed to attract and swallow up my glances with the avidity with which the dry earth swallows the rain. But beyond these outward appearances which leaped to my eye, I realized that for the first time after a long period I was enabled to perceive a reality—how shall I describe it?—a reality of second degree, that is, something which gave a soul to these vivid, emphatic forms. Finally I understood what this reality was: in every part of that body in movement there was, as it were, an unconscious, involuntary force that seemed to urge Cecilia forward, as if she were a sleepwalker with closed eyes and darkened mind. This force drew her away from me and consequently made her real to me.

 
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