Two Friends, p.15Alberto Moravia
Maurizio’s check from his wallet and grabbed Lalla’s hair, pulling it until she was sitting upright. “Here’s your money, look at it. Two hundred thousand lire.”
She stared at the check in astonishment. Despite his rage, Sergio took care to conceal Maurizio’s signature on the check with his thumb. “Now you can buy clothes and everything else you want … I signed a contract to write a screenplay for two hundred thousand lire … Later I’ll get another eight hundred … so you can stop complaining about how poor we are.”
He put the check back in his wallet and pulled Lalla toward him, until their faces were almost touching, and stared into her eyes: “Listen to me … you were about to sleep with that lout just because you had a few drinks in you … so it seems that such things are not difficult for you. Now, listen to me … Maurizio is planning to join the Party within the next month … Do you hear me? He’s going to sign up. But in return, he wants you … Listen, now … I want you to do what you were about to do with that dancing monkey for nothing, you whore, but with Maurizio instead, to ensure that he keeps his promise. Do you understand me?”
She stared at him, bewildered. “You want me to become Maurizio’s lover?” she said, finally.
“Yes,” Sergio answered angrily, although with less conviction.
“Do you know what you’re asking?”
“Of course … I’m asking you to do this for a good cause, instead of doing it for no reason at all.”
She touched her face and said in a muted tone: “I feel awful … I really drank too much.”
She said those words in a languid voice. She got
up from the bed, walked to the door shakily, and disappeared. Sergio remained on the bed, still furious, wallet in hand.
Lalla was gone for a long while. Finally, when she returned, she closed the door behind her and went over to the mirror. Sergio stared, waiting for an answer and hating himself for it. The answer never came. Lalla undressed, walked around in the nude for a few minutes, put on her tattered old nightgown, and returned to the bed, without a word. Sergio wanted to press her for an answer, but could not find the strength. Meekly, Lalla said, “Move over so I can get in.” He got up and she climbed into bed. He too undressed and climbed under the covers, suddenly exhausted, and fell asleep at once. During the night, he thought he saw a light and the outline of Lalla leaning on one elbow, one breast visible through the holes in her nightshirt, with a lock of hair dangling in her face as she contemplated him in silence. But perhaps, he reflected the following morning, it had all been a dream.
A few days later, the three of them decided to go to Olevano. Maurizio had a dilapidated old car that he hardly ever brought out of the garage where it sat rusting away. Moroni, Lalla’s pupil, was expecting them. Sergio and Lalla had not returned to the subject of Maurizio’s political conversion and the condition he had placed for it. Lalla’s silence was so ambiguous that Sergio sometimes had the strange feeling that the subject had never been broached at all. Other times, he felt that the issue hung in the air and that even though none of them mentioned it, they were all thinking about it. It was present in their spirits if not on their lips, fermenting, growing, becoming increasingly real. But none of them discussed it. Sergio felt that one day it would explode, like an illness lying dormant in an apparently healthy body.
They left early. Lalla sat in the front next to Maurizio,
with Sergio in the back. During the trip they laughed and joked, intoxicated by the thrill of the road, the beautiful spring weather, and the change of scenery after so many months in the city. Lalla was, it seemed to Sergio, particularly affectionate toward him. She was wearing a new skirt, a new blouse, and new silk stockings, all bought with Maurizio’s money. She glanced back at Sergio several times and said: “Sergio is making money now … Maurizio, you wouldn’t believe it … everything I’m wearing, from my hat to my shoes, was bought with Sergio’s money.” Maurizio answered calmly: “How lovely … So what happened?” “Sergio is writing a screenplay,” she said proudly; “the hard times are over.” Her happiness and the new clothes made her look even prettier. Every so often she turned to Sergio, gazing at him affectionately with her large, dark eyes or quickly caressing his hand, which lay on his knee. Sergio felt a strange emotion, a combination of guilt and surprise: Could she really still love him after his proposal? How could she not realize that he did not love her and considered her an object, precious perhaps, but inanimate, to be used as a means to an end? He knew of course that she could not have forgotten his proposal. And he wondered, almost cruelly, what her decision would be now that the problem was in her hands, with all its humiliating weight and mortifying ambiguity.
They drove for a long time through the countryside in the warm spring sun. After they passed Zagarolo and were driving through terraced hills and small forests, the car suddenly came to a stop. “Something must be wrong with the motor,” Maurizio said; “this damned car is always breaking down.” He got out and invited the others to do so as well. While Maurizio peered at the motor, Sergio and Lalla began to walk down the empty, sunny road.
It was a beautiful day. Lalla pointed out a few tiny white clouds, clearly delineated against the pure, luminous blue sky. Sergio suddenly turned to her: “Why did you tell Moroni that we were getting married this year?”
“How do you know?”
“He told me.”
“I know we’ll probably never get married, but I love you … Perhaps you won’t understand this, but a woman always hopes to marry the man who loves her. I’m a woman just like any other. I would like to be your wife.”
“But I don’t want to be your husband,” he said, harshly.
Without seeming to notice his tone, she took his arm. “Let me at least have my illusions … Why are you so cruel? What have I done to you?”
“You see? So why not just let me say whatever I like? Another person might say that they hope to win the lotto, and I say that I would like to marry you … What harm is there? There was a good reason for me to say it.”
“What was that?”
“Moroni is in love with me. He says that I look exactly like his dead wife. He has asked me to marry him several times. So, just to shut him up, I told him we were engaged.”
Sergio said nothing.
“Sergio, why are you always so cruel with me? I had started to hope, these last few days after you gave me all these gifts … but now you’ve reverted to your cruel ways.”
Maurizio called out: “Shall we go?”
“Let’s go back,” Sergio said; “we can discuss this later.” Lalla followed him in silence.
They were not far from Olevano; the town was visible on the horizon, at the summit of a rocky hill. When they reached it, they caught a glimpse of a man leaning against the parapet of a bridge over a small stream, beneath the shade of a leafy tree. He walked toward them, indicating that they should stop. It was Moroni. He went over to the car, exclaiming, in his loud, boisterous voice: “Welcome! Welcome to my town, signorina.” He stepped onto the running board of the car and guided them toward his home, which was built on a terrace cut into the hill, below street level. The car descended a narrow road with vineyards on either side and finally came to a stop in a courtyard in front of the simple, square façade of a white three-story house with green shutters. Moroni helped
Lalla out of the car. When they had all emerged, he asked: “No bags?”
“Why should we have bags with us?” Sergio asked.
“I was hoping you would stay today and tomorrow, Sunday, and perhaps even Monday,” Moroni said, clearly disconcerted. Lalla laughed: “It’s true, he told me, but I forgot.”
Sergio was intensely irritated, though he was unsure why. The place was pleasant, and he was tired of the city. The idea of spending three days in the country pleased him. Furiously, he turne
“Don’t worry,” Maurizio said in a conciliatory tone, “Moroni can give us some soap … We’ll make the best of it. Perhaps we could even stay tomorrow night as well.” Lalla did not seem happy about this solution, but did not contradict him. They followed Moroni into the house.
It was lunchtime, and Moroni invited them into the dining room without delay. Even though the house was bathed in sunlight because of its position on the side of a hill overlooking a vast, sun-baked valley, it was still cold inside, as country houses with no other heating but a fireplace tend to be. A chaste, stale smell of dusty worm-eaten furniture and simple cooking filled the shady rooms, decorated in a heavy, rustic style tinged with bourgeois pretensions. The house had been built in the nineteenth century, Moroni explained, and no changes had been made since then. This was obvious from the large, dark furniture and the heavy drapes, the oval mirrors framed in walnut, the chairs upholstered in ribbed fabric. Their little group sat down at the dining table, and a servant—a local peasant woman with red cheeks and frizzy hair—carried in an enormous platter of pasta. There were several carafes of wine on the table, enough for a much larger group to become drunk. Everything was abundant, heavy, and countrified. They ate in an uncomfortable silence. Maurizio,
who seemed to be in a good mood, served himself an ostentatiously large portion, but Sergio and Lalla barely touched their food. Sergio was still annoyed about the suitcases, and Lalla explained that pasta was fattening and that she had to “watch her figure.” Their host, who had served himself a large portion, observed: “I had forgotten that women today never eat pasta. Of course, my wife ate everything.”
“When did she pass away?” Sergio asked, almost distractedly.
Moroni looked at Sergio. “Less than a year ago,” he answered simply.
“Oh, so it’s still very recent.”
“Yes,” Moroni said, putting down his fork and looking straight ahead. “Very recent … and nothing has changed,” he sighed, adding: “If it were just the house, that would not be a problem … but nothing has changed in me either. Everything has stayed exactly the same.” He seemed upset as he said this, and did not pick up his fork again. But it was also clear that he did not mind discussing his pain, and even that he needed to discuss it. Sergio asked: “What do you mean when you say that nothing has changed?”
“Nothing,” he repeated, looking unhappy. “A deep love like the one I felt for Laura does not go away from one day to the next … I feel that something which occupied an enormous place in my life has disappeared, but at the same time I’m living as if it were still here.”
“You and your wife had a good marriage,” Maurizio said, looking up at him.
Moroni shook his head. “Quite to the contrary.” He began to eat again, and then pushed away his plate and poured himself a glass of wine. “We didn’t get along at all … Laura was a difficult woman … or perhaps I was the difficult one … Our life together, at least while she was alive, felt like a torment.”
Sergio, who had not expected this response and had until then taken Moroni for a typical inconsolable widower, began to pay closer attention. Maurizio
asked: “Why didn’t you get along?”
The peasant woman returned with clean plates. Moroni drank some more wine and then dried his mouth. “Why? It would take too long to explain … but we just didn’t see eye to eye … We fought almost every day. If I said white, she said black, and vice versa.” Moroni looked at each of his guests in turn. “You won’t believe me, but many times I wished, not that she would die, but that she would go away and leave me to my own devices.”
“Well,” Sergio said, with a slightly mocking tone, “that’s what happened … You should be glad.”
“I imagined,” Moroni continued, without acknowledging Sergio’s interruption, “that once she was gone, or dead, I would feel as if a great weight had been lifted and I had recovered the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I imagined that day as the most beautiful day of my life. But instead …”
“Instead?” Maurizio asked.
“Nothing … Not only did I not feel liberated, but I realized that I loved her and that I couldn’t live without her.” Moroni made a desperate gesture with his hand and then served himself some meat from the platter the servant had brought in.
The topic was so intimate that there was nothing to do but wait for Moroni to go on. After eating a piece of meat, he continued: “For you to understand, I would have to explain many things …”
Lalla said affectionately, “Go ahead, why not?”
The other two also insisted, assuring him that they would not be bored. Moroni was convinced. He drank some more wine and continued: “To explain what I feel, I must say first of all that I still love my wife and that I now realize that I was always in the wrong. But in order to understand this, I must tell you about myself.”
“Go ahead,” Lalla said.
Moroni hesitated, then proceeded: “I was born right here in Olevano. My family was large, we were three boys and two girls. We own land and several houses in town. We’re not rich, but well off. No need to describe what my family is like, what would be the point. Let’s just say, they’re typical of their social class and background. As insensitive and unsympathetic as they come.”
He spoke with vehemence. After a short silence, he continued: “My grandfather was a farmer and worked hard to be able to stop laboring in the fields. My father was not wealthy, but he earned his fortune through hard work. They’re farmers. Behind my life of comfort lie centuries of working the land. We all know what such families are like: mean, hard-hearted, stingy, selfish, insensitive, ignorant … You get the idea.”
“That’s not always true,” Maurizio said. “I have known farming families who did not have these defects.”
“Perhaps,” Moroni said quickly, “but my family had all of them and I was no exception. I was mean, hard-hearted, selfish, ignorant … and I continued to be this way for as long as I lived with my family … In other words until the day I got married.”
“What was your wife like?” Lalla asked.
“She was the daughter of a government employee from Rome … well-educated, with a diploma in music. She was studying to be a pianist … Then she gave up music, and for the last few years she stopped playing altogether. But there’s no point in my talking about my wife,” he exclaimed, his voice strained.
“Why?” Sergio asked, surprised.
“Because she’s dead, and telling you what she was like explains nothing … Any woman would have been unhappy with me, that’s the truth … no matter what her origins. Simply because she was a woman, that would have been enough. And it’s true, she was unhappy with me.”
Sergio asked, “But did she love you?”
“Yes, of course,” Moroni said, almost offended, “otherwise she wouldn’t have married me … In my coldhearted way, I sometimes accused her of marrying me for my money. But it wasn’t true, and I knew it.”
“Was she poor?” Sergio insisted.
“Very poor,” Moroni said. He was quiet for a moment, and then continued in his strangely afflicted, contrite tone: “When she was alive, I believed that I was in the right … Sometimes I even hated her because I thought she dragged me down … Then, as soon as she died, I realized that I had always been in the wrong, always, every moment of our life together … and I realized that by fighting against my mean-spiritedness, stinginess, and ignorance, she had changed me … I was no longer mean, ignorant, or stingy, or at least I had become less so … But by the time the transformation was complete, she had died, perhaps because she had depleted her strength in her effort to change me … and I was left alone. I realized too late how she needed to be loved. If only I had not been such a monster.”
There was an embarrassing silence. The private subject matter and Moroni’s sincere, emot
“But she did die,” Moroni said, bitterly, shaking his head.
“But what if by some miracle she could come back to life?”
Moroni stared at her. “I would treat her differently,” he said, very seriously; “I would shower her with the affection I now feel, too late. Love, passion … She would be the most beloved woman in the world.”
“Are you sure?”
After another pause, Lalla added: “What a shame that she’s gone. She did not get to reap the benefits of her efforts.”
“So now you would truly love her, for the first time,”
Lalla insisted as if to convince herself of Moroni’s sincerity and seriousness.
“Yes, I would love her … No one has ever loved a woman as I would love her if she came back to me.”
There was a long silence. Finally Maurizio asked, cautiously: “Why have you told us these intimate things? We barely know each other.”
Moroni’s response was disconcerting in its sincerity: “I told you this story because of the young lady,” he said, looking at Lalla, “because she looks so much like my wife that when I’m with her I can’t help talking about her. Please forgive me … I’ve burdened you with my personal suffering. I’m a bad host.”
Lalla said in a gentle tone: “Not at all. To the contrary, it was very interesting … If we hadn’t talked about this, what would we have talked about? This and that, as they say.”
Lunch was finished. They went to the sitting room, which was decorated in a very similar style to the dining room. A sense of abandonment and widowhood seemed to emanate from the very slipcovers on the furniture. Moroni was contrite and slightly ashamed of what he had revealed at the table. He circled around his guests, showing an almost overwhelming attentiveness, offering coffee, liqueur, and cigarettes, and asking again and again if his guests needed anything. After finishing her coffee, Lalla said, “I think I’ll take a nap. Since we’re not leaving until tomorrow … I think I’d like to lie down for a moment.”
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