Boredom, p.17Alberto Moravia
I could go on in this way ad infinitum, but I think I have given a good example of what I have called Cecilia’s abstractness. It may perhaps be thought, at this point, that Cecilia was stupid or at least devoid of personality. But this was not so: the fact that I never heard her say stupid things was a proof, if nothing else, that she was not stupid; and as for personality, this, as I have already said, lay elsewhere than in her conversation, so that to report the latter without at the same time accompanying it with a description of her face and figure would be rather like reading an operatic libretto without music or a film script without the pictures on the screen. But I wished to give an example of conversation mainly in order to convey the idea that Cecilia’s way of speaking was thus formal and bloodless for the good reason that she herself was ignorant of the things about which I questioned her, just as much as I was and perhaps more so. In other words, she lived with her father and mother in a flat in Prati and had been Balestrieri’s mistress; but she had never paused to look at the people and things in her life and therefore had never truly seen them, still less observed them. She was, in fact, a stranger to herself and to the world she lived in; just as much as those who knew neither her nor her world.
In any case, my suspicion of Cecilia’s unfaithfulness, by making her mysterious and elusive and therefore real, finally aroused in me a desire to verify her vague scraps of information, if only in order to abolish at least that portion of mystery which lay outside our sexual relationship. One day I asked her to let me make the acquaintance of her family. I noticed with some surprise that my request did not embarrass her at all, in spite of the “grumblings” that she had put forward as an excuse to justify her intention of reducing the number of our meetings. “I had thought of that too,” she said. “My mother is always asking me about you.”
“Did you introduce Balestrieri to your family?”
“Did your parents ever get to know that you were Balestrieri’s mistress?”
“If they had known, what would they have done?”
“Did Balestrieri often come to your home?”
“What did he do there?”
“Nothing. He used to come to lunch or for coffee and then we’d go off together to his studio.”
“Did you ever make love, you and Balestrieri, at your home?”
“He always wanted to, but I didn’t, because I was afraid my parents would discover.”
“But why did he want to do it there, in your home?”
“I don’t know, he liked the idea.”
“But did you do it, or not?”
“Yes, we did sometimes.”
“I don’t remember now.”
“Try and remember.”
“Ah yes, we did it once in the kitchen.”
“In the kitchen?”
“Yes, Mother had gone out to buy something, and I had to mind the oven.”
“But couldn’t you have gone into your room, seeing that you were alone in the house?”
“If Balestrieri had a mind to make love, he did it wherever he was: he liked doing it in odd places.”
“I don’t know.”
“But how did you manage to do it, like that, in the kitchen?”
And so, one day, Cecilia brought me an invitation to lunch from her parents. That morning I changed my sweater and corduroy trousers for a dark suit, a white shirt and a sober tie, so as to look like the professor I was supposed to be, and went off shortly before one o’clock to Cecilia’s address, a street in Prati. To tell the truth, I felt intensely curious and almost excited at going to visit her at her home; this was because every discovery I made, or thought I made, about Cecilia now immediately assumed a sensual quality, as if in discovering aspects of her life that I did not know I had discovered her herself, in a material sense, or had stripped her naked.
I did not have much difficulty in finding the street, a quiet, bleak, straight street flanked by plane trees now leafless, and with rows of shops on the ground floors of the big gray and yellow buildings. The entrance door of Cecilia’s block of apartments led into a large courtyard in which a few palm trees planted in the middle of barren flower beds raised yellowed crests like plucked feathers to the garlands of washing hung out to dry from the top floors. There were various staircases marked with the letters A to F; the one leading to Cecilia’s flat was staircase E. An “Out of Order” notice hung on the grating of the ancient elevator, so I walked up many flights of stairs, in a wan, cold light, from one landing to another, scrutinizing at each floor the labels on the doors. Flats One, Two and Three; Flats Four, Five and Six; Flats Seven, Eight and Nine; Flats Ten, Eleven and Twelve. This was the staircase, I could not help thinking, as I arrived at last at Flat Thirteen on the fourth floor and pressed the bell, this was the staircase up and down which Cecilia went every day when she came to see me or returned home again. What would I have found out about this staircase if I had asked Cecilia? Nothing, less than nothing. She would have answered me, with characteristic tautology, that “the staircase was a staircase,” and that would have been the end of it. And yet upon this staircase she had left a part of her life, and this gray light, these white marble steps, these red tiles on the landings, these doors of dark wood, all these must have remained in her memory—just as others, more fortunate, retain a memory of the smiling landscapes among which they have passed their years of childhood and youth. As I was thinking these things I heard on the far side of the door a step which, though light, made a loud sound on the loose bricks of an old floor. The door opened and Cecilia appeared on the threshold. She was wearing the usual green, hairy sweater that came down below her waist, with the deep, triangular neckline allowing a glimpse of the beginning of her breasts; her short, tight black skirt was stretched in deep, concentric folds over her belly. As I greeted her, she leaned forward in the doorway and I was a bit surprised because I thought she was intending to kiss me, and it would not be like her to do so in such a place and at such a moment. Instead she whispered: “Remember it’s a lesson day today, and after lunch we go to your studio.” For some reason this unusual urgency made me almost suspicious, and it crossed my mind that Cecilia intended to make use of me and of our appointment in order to conceal some other engagement.
The hall was furnished like a room of the same kind in an old-fashioned family boardinghouse at a resort: chairs and table of wickerwork, a rubber plant in one corner and a plaster statue of a nude woman in another. But the chairs and the table looked old and decrepit, the statue, wherever there was a curve or a hollow, was gray with dust and lacked a hand into the bargain, and the plant, of the species called ficus, was reduced to a couple of leaves at the end of a long stalk. The walls were white but with a suspicion of dust everywhere, a kind of old, sticky dust which seemed thicker in the corners of the ceiling, where there were little dark, dense cobwebs. It suddenly occurred to me that this was a house of which, rightly or wrongly, any ordinary girl would be ashamed, at a moment when she was bringing in her lover; any ordinary girl, but not Cecilia. Meanwhile she was leading me down a long, empty passage; then she opened a door and beckoned to me to follow her.
I saw a big, rectangular room with four windows, veiled by yellow curtains, in a row along one wall. The room appeared to be divided into two parts by a couple of steps and an arch; the larger part was the living room, and in it was the furniture which Cecilia had once described as being without color, that is, gilded. This furniture, actually, was imitation Louis XV style, as had been the fashion forty years ago, and it was arranged in ghostly groups around little circular tables and meager lamps with shades adorned with beads. With my first glance I noticed white patches where the gilded plaster had peeled off, dirty marks on the flower-patterned arms of the chairs, damp stains on the small pieces of tapestry depicting episodes of gallantr
Cecilia’s father rose with an effort from the armchair in which he was sitting listening to the radio and held out his hand to me without speaking, at the same time pointing to his throat as if to warn me that, owing to his disease, he was unable to talk. I recalled the strange whispering, breathing sound that I had heard on the telephone some days before and realized that it had been he who had answered me, or rather had tried in vain to answer me. I looked at him as he fell back into his old leather armchair that was all blackened and worn, and then as he bent forward and turned down the volume of the radio. He must have been what is generally called a handsome man, with that slightly vulgar kind of handsomeness that is to be found in some over-symmetrical faces. Of that handsomeness there was now nothing left. Disease had ravaged his face, causing it to swell in some places and contract in others, reddening it here and whitening it there. And there was death already, it seemed to me, in his black hair, which lay flat and lifeless and glued down by an unhealthy sweat upon his brow and temples; in the purplish color of his lips; and, above all, in his round eyes, with their expression of intense dismay. These eyes seemed to say things which his mouth, even if it had not been speechless, would have passed over in silence; and they brought to mind, not merely the dumbness produced by his disease, but, even more, the kind of forced helplessness of one who has been bound and gagged and left, alone and defenseless, to face a deadly peril.
Cecilia told her father to sit down, and she invited me to do the same and to keep her father company, as she had to go to the kitchen: she spoke in a loud voice, mentioning her father as if he were some inanimate object to be disposed of as one liked. I sat down, therefore, opposite the invalid, and, not knowing what to say, began talking in a flattering way about Cecilia’s artistic talent. Her father listened to me, rolling his terrified eyes as if, instead of talking to him about his daughter, I were hurling threats at him. From time to time he also talked, or rather tried to talk, as he had done on the telephone that day when he answered me; but the sounds that issued from his mouth, blown forth rather than articulated, were to me incomprehensible. Rather abruptly, without much ceremony and with the involuntary bad manners of the healthy when confronted with the sick, I said I must wash my hands, and I got up and left the room.
I was urged to do this by the same curiosity that had made me ask Cecilia to introduce me to her parents. In the passage I went, at random, to the first of the four doors leading from it, and opened it. A little bedroom of a chilling poverty met my eyes; the cold, subdued light came from the courtyard through the panes of curtainless windows. A black-painted iron bedstead with a consecrated olive-branch tied to its bars and a red coverlet well tucked in under a thin mattress, two kitchen chairs with yellow straw seats, and a small wardrobe of rough wood, constituted the furniture. I was at once sure that this almost empty little room must be Cecilia’s; I knew it from the smell that hung in the air, a rather sharp, unsophisticated feminine smell that I had encountered in her hair and on her skin. I opened the cupboard to make more sure, and there I saw on their hangers the few clothes, so well known to me, of which Cecilia’s wardrobe consisted—the little ballet skirt she had worn during the summer when I first met her, a two-piece suit of gray wool which she put on in cold weather, a black coat which she wore in the evening, a black dress of the kind known, I believe, as semi-evening dress. On a shelf lay something wrapped in white tissue paper—the bag I had given her on the day that should have been the day of our parting. I closed the cupboard again and looked around, trying to define to myself the feeling which the room inspired in me, and finally I understood: the room was bare and squalid, but its bareness and its squalor were natural and as it were untamed, like those of a place—of some hollow or cave—lived in by wild beasts. It was the bareness, in a word, not so much of a poverty-stricken house as of a lair.
I tiptoed out and opened the next door. Here the darkness was almost complete, but from the vague outline of a big double bed and from a stuffy smell very different from that in Cecilia’s room, heavier and less healthy, I concluded it was her parents’ bedroom. I closed this door and opened the third.
This was the bathroom, more like a long, narrow passage than a room, with the window and the half-closed shutters at the opposite end to the door. In a row along one wall stood the bath, the bidet, the washbasin and the toilet. The bath was old-fashioned in shape, with deposits of rust on its yellowed enamel, the washbasin was crisscrossed with thin black cracks, the bidet had a gray, greasy patina at the bottom of it, and finally my eye, jumping with increasing disgust from one to another of these tarnished instruments of sanitation, detected on the inside rim of the toilet something fresh and dark and shining which had obviously resisted the insufficient rush of water from the antiquated flushing apparatus. I went to the basin, took a tiny piece of soap from the dish and started washing my hands. While I was washing I recalled all the questions I had put to Cecilia about her home and the answers I had received, those formal, abstract answers; and this confirmed what I had previously supposed: Cecilia had not been able to tell me anything about her home because, in point of fact, she had never seen it. Then the door opened and Cecilia herself came in.
“Ah, you’re here,” she said, without showing any sign of surprise that I was not keeping her father company in the living room, as she had asked me to do. She walked behind me, straight to the toilet and, pulling up her skirt with both hands, sat down and made water. As I saw her sitting like that, her knees bent and her legs apart, her bust thrown forward and her face turned toward me—seeing, especially, her beautiful, dark, expressionless eyes fixed upon me with an innocence like that of an animal which, unconscious of the man watching, quietly relieves the needs of nature—the idea of the wild creature’s lair, which had occurred to me shortly before when I was in her room, came back to me again. Yes, I said to myself, this flat made one’s heart ache if one considered it as being inhabited by human beings; but the moment one imagined a wild animal living there, a small, graceful animal such as a fox, a stone marten, an otter, it became normal and acceptable. Cecilia by now had finished. She transferred her bare buttocks from the toilet to the bidet, squatted down and washed herself thoroughly with one hand. Then she got up again and, spreading her legs wide apart, wiped herself vigorously with a towel. Finally, pulling down her skirt, she said: “Out of the way a moment, I want to comb my hair.”
I stood aside, and she took from the shelf a brush that had lost most of its bristles and a dirty comb from which several teeth were missing, and began energetically doing her hair. I said casually: “Y
“What d’you mean?”
“That he hasn’t long to live.”
“Yes, I know.”
“How will you manage?”
“How will we manage what?”
“When he’s dead.”
“In what sense?”
“What will you live on?”
She answered hurriedly, passing a lipstick over her mouth: “We’ll manage as we’ve always done.”
“And how have you managed?”
“We have a shop. That’s what we live on.”
“A shop? You never told me.”
“You never asked.”
“What do you sell in the shop?”
“Umbrellas, suitcases, bags, leather goods.”
“And who is there in the shop?”
“My mother and my aunt.”
“Does this shop pay well?”
She finished painting her lips, then answered conclusively: “No, it pays very little.”
I put my arm around her waist and pressed myself against her, my belly close against her back. She threw me a brief glance, whether of understanding or of surprise I could not tell; then she took a black pencil and began touching up her eyebrows. “D’you ever think of death?” I asked her.
I was clasping her tightly and she started moving her hips, slowly and vigorously, from right to left. “No,” she said, “I never think about it.”
“Not even when you see your father in such a bad state?”
“Surely anyone in your position would think about it.”
“I’m quite well; why should I think about death?”
“But there are other people.”
“So they say.”
“Why, aren’t you sure?”
“No, I was only talking.”
“And your father—do you imagine he thinks about death?”
“Yes, he does.”
“Is your father afraid of dying?”
Boredom by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes