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Two friends, p.16
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       Two Friends, p.16

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  Sergio said that he too would like to lie down. Maurizio took a book from a small bookcase in the sitting room and said he would read. They did not have to ask twice. Attentive, ceremonious, and kind, and still contrite, Moroni led them up to the second floor. There were three rooms, one for Lalla in the middle, with a room on either side for each of the men. Moroni wished them a good rest and went off. Maurizio rushed into his room, book in hand. Lalla pretended to go into her room, and then slipped into Sergio’s through a door connecting the two rooms.

  Sergio was lying on one of two large walnut beds.

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  The room was small and filled with large, heavy furniture. Lalla sat down next to him. Raising his head slightly, he saw that she seemed close to tears. After a moment, she took his hand awkwardly. “How do you feel?” she asked.

  “Fine.”

  “Are you angry with me?” she asked, surprised by his curtness.

  “Not in the least.”

  As if trying to start a conversation, she said: “I feel so sorry for Moroni … Imagine, after spurning his wife while she was alive, now that she’s gone, he loves her so much … It must be terrible … like what one feels after committing a terrible crime.”

  “Yes,” Sergio said, indifferently, “it must be terrible.”

  After a moment, she continued: “I’m sure that if he remarries, he will love his wife and be an ideal husband … I’m sure of it.”

  “You’re probably right,” Sergio said. Then, after a moment: “He seems set on you … Why don’t you marry him?”

  “You must be joking,” she said, adding in a tremulous voice: “Do you know what I was thinking as he spoke? That his experience could be a lesson for anyone … People should love each other when they are together, because afterward it’s too late.”

  “You’re saying this for my benefit, of course.”

  “Yes,” she admitted, frankly, “because you are ruining our love with your resentment and complications. Why don’t you just relax, Sergio, why don’t you just love me, simply, as Moroni would love a new wife if he had one?” She began to cry and held Sergio’s hand, bringing it to her lips and kissing it repeatedly.

  Sergio did not withdraw his hand. “But I do love you.”

  “Maybe you do,” she answered, “but you don’t show it. You treat me horribly. That day you were drunk, you made a proposal that I don’t even want to repeat. I haven’t answered you, as you might have noticed … and I’ve been trying to forget it. But you should never have made it, if you love me.”

  “What proposal?” Sergio asked, surprised. He did

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  not remember being drunk, and did not understand what she was referring to.

  “You said I should become Maurizio’s lover … so that he would join the Communist Party.”

  Sergio knew he was blushing. He was annoyed with himself. He said, drily: “I wasn’t drunk … and that proposal was serious. I’m still waiting for your answer.”

  “I refuse to answer,” she said, still crying, “and you are a better person than you pretend to be. I truly hope that we will love each other and that our relations will improve. After all, it was all just a question of money. I was unhappy about being so poorly dressed and you were irritated by my complaining. But now you’re making money and you’ve shown your love by giving me money from your advance. My love, if you really love me, why does it displease you so much to show it?”

  At first, he did not respond. Then all of a sudden, and almost despite himself, the words poured out: “It was all a lie … It’s not true that I’m writing a screenplay … It’s not true that I’m still expecting a second payment … Do you know who gave me that money?”

  She stared at him, her eyes wide open, as if she couldn’t see him: “What do you mean, it’s not true?” She pulled her hand away and touched her own face.

  He hesitated, and Lalla said: “Whoever it is, why are you telling me?”

  “Because I don’t feel like lying. The truth,” he began, sitting up and looking over at her, “is that Maurizio gave me that money … I went to him to ask for a small loan of twenty-thousand Lire so I could buy you a dress … and he offered me two hundred thousand, saying that it was shameful for a beautiful woman like you to go around so poorly dressed. And I accepted … but I don’t want to brag, he’s the one who gave me the money and suggested the story about the screenplay. You owe your new clothes to him. I don’t make any money and I’m still the same miserable soul I’ve always been.”

  Lalla sat motionless, watching him. She seemed almost happy at the revelation: “So Maurizio made up the story about the screenplay …”

  “Yes.”

  “But why? Wasn’t it simpler to just tell the truth?”

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  “He didn’t want you to know.”

  “He loves me too,” she said, in a reflective tone, looking at Sergio. “If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been so circumspect.” She caressed her dress: “So I owe all of this to Maurizio.”

  Sergio remembered what she had said earlier: “I’m a whore … If someone gives me presents and treats me well, I can’t help loving him.” And suddenly he became furious; he was overwhelmed by a wave of contempt and a powerful desire to hurt her. He shouted: “Yes, you owe it all to him! So now you will love him, you can’t help it! You said it yourself, you can’t help loving a man who gives you presents … Go ahead and love him, you whore …” He leaned over and grabbed Lalla’s arm, slapping her several times. He kept repeating “whore,” and striking her again and again. Lalla tried to protect herself, but at the same time she seemed to offer her face for him to slap. After two more blows, she turned away on the pillow. Sergio began to pace up and down.

  Lalla continued to cry. Then she got up and stood in front of the mirror on the dresser. Sergio was surprised to see that she did not come to him and try to gain his forgiveness for a crime she had not committed. “The other day,” she began, slowly, “you asked me to do something and I chose to try to forget and never bring up the subject again. But after the way you’ve treated me … I’ve decided that I’m going to go to Maurizio’s room and do as you ask … Afterward, you can make a deal with Maurizio, he can join the Party, or not … but if I go, I won’t come back … Maurizio gave me these clothes, he loves me, he’ll treat me well. Why should I stay with you?” As she said this firmly, she walked toward Maurizio’s door.

  Sergio watched her with a bitter feeling of impotence and jealous rage. He wanted to stop her, to tell her that it wasn’t true, that he loved her and did not want her to give herself to Maurizio. But he found that he could not utter a single word. Perhaps Lalla

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  expected, or even hoped, that he would call her back.

  So it seemed to him from the lassitude with which she walked toward the door. Sergio swallowed hard but remained silent. Lalla slowly opened the door, and Sergio could hear Maurizio’s surprised voice asking, “Who is it?” The door closed behind her.

  Sergio waited a few moments, almost hoping that she would return. Now that Lalla had done what he had asked, he felt an anguish very much like jealousy. It was an acute, impatient anxiety that came in waves, like the edge of a saw against a tree trunk, or a pendulum: for a moment it would become overpowering, then less intense—a kind of torpor, but still painful. Then another pang, like a loud noise ringing out in the silence, or a wisp of fog lifting to reveal a forest; the pain would rise again, and then die down. He realized that perhaps for the first time in his life, and certainly for the first time with Lalla, he was jealous; until then he had considered her a kind of object, contemptible and without value. He was surprised at his emotions, so unlike the pattern of his relations with her. He could not admit to himself that his jealousy was quite natural, almost humiliatingly so. What disturbed him most was the idea of the sexual act, the notion that the most intimate, hidden part of Lalla’s body was now at Maurizio’s disposal, revealed for his pleasure. Like all betrayed husbands a
nd lovers, the furor of his jealousy was focused upon the sexual act, upon the cavity that Lalla would offer up to Maurizio’s sex. This coarse, objective, barbaric fetishism was unpleasant to him, but he could do nothing to control it: the act, the sexual coupling, tormented him. He was like other men: farmers, workmen, the simplest of people. As he lost himself in these reflections and images, he strained to hear what was happening in the next room. As yet, he had heard no sighs, no creaking springs, nor any other sound that might accompany lovemaking. Almost involuntarily, he got up and pulled a revolver from one of the pockets

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  of his overcoat, where he had put it that morning. Like a sleepwalker, he opened the door to Maurizio’s room.

  He expected to see them naked on the bed in an embrace. Instead, the room was bathed in a white, tranquil light that streamed in through the window, which was filled with the white afternoon sky. Maurizio sat in his shirtsleeves, completely dressed, on the bed next to the dresser, smoking. He barely raised his eyes toward Sergio as he entered the room. “What’s wrong?” he asked, calmly.

  “Lalla’s not here,” Sergio muttered.

  “No, clearly, she’s not,” Maurizio answered, simply. “Unless she’s hiding in one of the closets … You may look if you like.” His tone was sarcastic; it was clear from his expression that he knew what had happened between Sergio and Lalla.

  Sergio felt ridiculous. The revolver, symbol of his conventional, vulgar jealousy, weighed heavily in his pocket. He sat down. “Wasn’t she here?”

  “She came in for a moment, but then she ran off.”

  Maurizio paused before going on: “I could hardly believe it but she did what you promised … She came in here to offer herself to me … just as we had agreed.”

  “She offered herself to you?”

  “Yes,” Maurizio answered, with a kind of cruelty, “she sat right here on the bed, embraced me, and offered me her lips … just like that.”

  Sergio bit his lip: “What did you do?”

  Maurizio laughed. “I’ll tell you … I hadn’t expected her to come so soon, or perhaps I just wasn’t ready … but I turned her away.”

  “You turned her away?”

  “Yes, I felt that my freedom was worth more than her love or her person … Faced with the choice of possessing her and becoming a Communist, on the one hand, or not joining the Party and giving her up,

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  I chose the latter.”

  Sergio observed him in silence. He felt like a man who has long desired an object and decides to buy it at any price, but then overhears another customer who declares it to be of no value; suddenly Lalla, who a moment earlier had seemed irreplaceable, lost all her value and uniqueness. He felt his image of Lalla deflating, losing weight, becoming hollow and deconsecrated; she became a valueless object, like before. As the scale tipped away from his love for Lalla, it tipped more and more toward his political beliefs and Maurizio’s conversion. Lalla had been turned away, and Maurizio would not join the Party; Sergio would once again feel inferior to his friend. This thought loomed over him. He remembered the feeling of insecurity and impotence that had taken hold during his first conversations with Maurizio, and his desperate will to overcome his friend’s arguments. He saw everything clearly now: on the one hand, there was Lalla, a woman like any other who had been willing to give her body to the dancer at Moroni’s party, who was insufferably sentimental, and whose beauty meant nothing, like everything that is not the product of reason; on the other hand, everything he had fought and struggled for. Suddenly he said, in a trembling voice: “But you said you loved her.”

  Maurizio said calmly: “I did love her … or rather I desired her intensely … I still do.”

  “So why did you turn her away?”

  “No reason.”

  “No reason is not an answer.”

  “Well, it seemed to me that you were getting the better deal.”

  “Why?” Sergio asked, sincerely intrigued.

  Maurizio spoke calmly and slowly: “I’ll explain it to

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  you … I desire Lalla … but if you look closely, what is Lalla? A woman like so many others … I have a strong desire to make love to her … but this love is not so different from what I could experience, for example, in a brothel … I would make love to her on this bed, and then she would get up, return to you, and I would be left with the memory of an embrace which was no different from any other. We’re no longer children … only children believe that women are irreplaceable … But the truth is that women are all interchangeable.” He laughed, adding: “I remember something that happened long ago … I went to a brothel … I was eighteen … My cheeks were burning, with a mixture of shame and desire, and I was as nervous as if it had been a romantic assignation. It was the first time I had been to such a place, and I felt intimidated … Perhaps because of this, I turned away one woman after another; none of them lived up to my expectations … Finally, the madame came over and said, almost affectionately: ‘Women are all the same, one is just as good as the next … Take it from me, my boy, they’re all the same.’ I remember she said this with deep conviction, and after that I no longer had the courage to refuse and took the next one who came along … I can’t remember whether or not I was satisfied with my choice.”

  “What are you trying to say?”

  “I’m trying to say that you are like the Devil in an old fairy tale: you want to buy my soul with Lalla, who is beautiful, yes, but hardly unique … But my soul is truly unique, if perhaps not beautiful, and once I’ve sold it … that’s it … I don’t have another. The truth is, everything happened too quickly, but no matter, it just reinforces my conviction that Lalla holds little value compared to what you want in exchange … I refuse your offer.”

  “You refuse …,” Sergio mumbled.

  “Yes.”

  Sergio felt that he was going mad. “Don’t you realize

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  that you desire Lalla intensely? I warn you, you may regret your actions.”

  “Why should I?”

  “Because …” Sergio suddenly felt perfectly lucid and eloquent, despite his agitation. “I’ll explain that in a moment … You said that you were willing to join the Party, isn’t that so?”

  “Yes.”

  “And this hasn’t changed?”

  “No,” Maurizio said after a moment.

  “Well,” Sergio said, triumphantly, “I offered you the chance to join while gaining something for yourself, in other words Lalla … That way, you would become a respectable man, and to top that off, you would have the pleasure of possessing Lalla … But if you don’t accept, your desire to become a Communist goes unfulfilled, your disgust in your current lifestyle continues, and on top of everything else, you will have to live with the regret of letting Lalla slip through your fingers. Are you sure you’re making the right choice?”

  Sergio felt strong and lucid; he was convinced that he had Maurizio in a bind. He thought he saw a hint of worry in Maurizio’s eyes. His friend was silent for a moment, then asked: “What do you mean? I can change my mind?”

  “Whenever you like.”

  “If I were to ask you to call Lalla back to my room, you would do it?”

  “Yes,” Sergio answered, feeling almost drunk.

  Maurizio seemed to debate something in his mind. “All right,” he said in a low, hoarse voice, “call her.”

  Sergio did not hesitate. As if transported by a magical breeze, he floated out of Maurizio’s room and into Lalla’s. Maurizio’s analogy, equating Sergio to a Devil who expects a soul in exchange for earthly gifts, exalted him and freed him from his last remaining scruples; it endowed him with a kind of clear-sighted, demonic lucidity. “Yes, I want his soul; it is the most important thing in the world to me … What do I care about Lalla?” He burst into

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  her room and closed the door behind him. Lalla was in bed; only her head and one arm were visible above the covers. But she was awake
and she watched Sergio, her eyes open wide. “Come on,” Sergio said quickly, “go to Maurizio.”

  “Why?” she asked, surprised.

  “He has accepted the deal,” Sergio said, almost joyfully; “come on … he said yes.”

  She did not seem to understand. “What do you mean, he said yes?”

  “He will convert to Communism if you give yourself to him.”

  “And what about you?”

  “I want you to do it,” Sergio said. He paced around the room. Then, hurriedly: “No, don’t move … I’ll call Maurizio. I’ll have him come here, it’s better.” He had the impression that Lalla wanted to say something, but he didn’t give her the chance. He opened the connecting door and said to Maurizio, who was still sitting on the bed: “Please … come in.”

  Maurizio smiled slightly as he entered the room. Lalla stared at him, then at Sergio, and remained willfully silent, as if waiting to see what would happen next. Sergio said to Maurizio: “Go ahead … I’m leaving,” pointing at Lalla, who still lay under the covers with her eyes open wide and one bare arm next to her head. Still smiling, Maurizio went to the bed and slowly caressed Lalla’s face. Lalla watched him, still saying nothing. Sergio took a step toward the door, but Maurizio raised one hand and said, in a clear voice: “Don’t go.”

  Sergio felt his heart skip and stopped in his tracks, his hand still on the doorknob: “Why?”

  “I want to say something,” Maurizio said. “Sit there.” He pointed to a chair near the headboard.

  Sergio sat down. His heart was beating furiously, and his face was burning. “You fell for it,” Maurizio said, slowly.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You fell for it,” Maurizio repeated, sitting at the foot of the bed, his legs elegantly crossed: “I’ve been

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