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Two friends, p.18
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       Two Friends, p.18

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  [II]

  I’ve gone on long enough about the first important

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  event in my life during the postwar period. Now I’ll move on to the second. Up to that point I had never experienced a great love, only brief affairs with girls I met here and there, whom I did not love and who did not love me. But as soon as I returned to Rome from the countryside where I had been hiding—at the time, half of Italy was still occupied by the Germans and the front lay somewhere near Florence—I met a woman whom I believed myself to be in love with, and who certainly loved me. Her name was Nella and we were almost the same age—I was twenty-seven, and she twenty-three. I met her at Allied Headquarters, where I had gone to inquire about work. Nella was a typist there. The moment I entered, I was struck by her appearance. She had a large head with a great mane of shiny red hair, pale skin with freckles, large golden-brown eyes the color of chestnuts, a small button nose, and a wide mouth. Her arms and shoulders were narrow, like a young girl’s, but she had firm, upturned breasts, well pronounced beneath her thin dress, like an ancient statue. I was struck by her appearance, but what intrigued me even more was a certain quality about her that I noticed right away: her shyness. This shyness was as evident as innocence on the face of a six-year-old; it revealed itself in the apprehensive, almost alarmed look in her eye, in the care with which she sat at her small desk in front of a typewriter, and in the embarrassment, even discomfort with which she responded to my simple questions. She kept repeating, “I don’t know, I really can’t say, I have no idea,” after which she would turn away to face her typewriter, though her body remained slightly turned in my direction and she lacked the courage to actually go back to work. Finally I said, somewhat impatiently: “Signorina, I see that you are not able to answer my questions, but could you please let your boss know that I’m here?” She hesitated. “The major told me that he should not be disturbed.” I responded, somewhat aggressively: “The major and his orders can go to hell; I was told to come here, and I want to speak to someone.” She blushed deeply, got up without a word, and walked to the door of the British major’s office. I could see now that she was quite petite, almost like a young girl, except for her well-developed, womanly chest. Her hips and legs were girlish and thin, and she wore childlike, low-heeled shoes. She traversed the room, went

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  to the major’s door, and knocked lightly. The sound of her knuckles against the wood was almost like a bird scratching in its cage. She listened for a moment and knocked again, more loudly now, then disappeared behind the door. A moment later she returned, looking relieved and almost sympathetic. “He will receive you in just a moment,” she said with her head down as she returned to her desk. I sat across from her. As she was about to return to her task, I reached across the typewriter and touched her cheek, driven by some unknown demon and strangely attracted by her intense shyness. She sat completely still, staring at me, lips trembling slightly. Meanwhile, I could see that she was blushing from the nape of the neck, up over her pale cheeks, and up to her forehead; the blush shifted like the shadow of a cloud passing above the earth. She continued to sit perfectly still. I reached out to touch her eyes with my hand and felt them beneath my palm, her eyelashes fluttering with a willing, submissive gentleness. Then I touched her forehead and dug my hand into her thick mane. I pulled her head toward me over the typewriter until our lips met. At first she resisted, then, after I held her insistently, she gave in with a moan, her shapely chest pressing against the typewriter keys. Her mouth was slightly ajar and eager, her eyes wide open and filled with a look of anxious, unhappy submission. She looked like a small animal, silent despite my strange, almost violent behavior. I took my time before kissing her, watching her watching me, breathlessly, torso pressed against the typewriter, her head twisted uncomfortably to one side. Her enormous brown eyes looked overwhelmed by this wait, beseeching me as she breathed heavily; more than ever she looked like an innocent, timid animal caught in a trap, waiting anxiously for the coup de grâce. I observed her for a moment longer, deriving an almost cruel satisfaction from her expectant attitude, and then finally I kissed her. At first she struggled, but then her dry, tight mouth relaxed and softened; she separated her lips and returned my kiss with a passion and intensity that amazed me. It was truly as if she had been waiting for this kiss for years, expecting it despite the fact that she had never laid eyes on me before that day. Her impulsiveness

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  revealed a powerful force capable of overcoming her shyness, and something else that I could not quite identify but which moved me intensely: a kind of anxious unhappiness, a tenderness assuaged, a total, passionate devotion. As we kissed, the door behind me opened. The British major’s voice rang out; breathlessly, we pulled apart. Calmly, he announced, “Signorina, your services will no longer be required.” Then he closed the door.

  Nella got up from her chair and I followed, feeling dejected and embarrassed. She gathered her belongings in silence: a threadbare purse in which she placed a half-empty pack of cigarettes and some matches, an umbrella no larger than a fan, and a wide straw hat. Apologetically, I said, “I’m so sorry,” to which she responded, “It doesn’t matter,” without looking up. She said this shyly, without the slightest impudence, and yet, there was an almost victorious note in her voice. As I stood there, unsure of what to do, she said simply: “Let’s go.” She walked beside me, head down, hat in hand. Then she looked up and said: “There is some lipstick on your lips … come here, I’ll wipe it off.” She led me to a half-open door. It was the bathroom; as she closed the door behind her, she went over to the mirror and peered at her reflection. Then she turned around, with the water running, and said, “Come here, let me wipe that off.” She pulled a handkerchief out of her bag, moistened it, and, standing on her tiptoes, gently rubbed my lip. I pulled her toward me, and we kissed a second time. I grabbed a corner of her dress and violently yanked it up above her knee. She pulled away, as if trying to break free, but without removing her lips from mine. The anxious, submissive unhappiness I had seen on her face during our first kiss had spread to her whole body, which twisted and pulled in vain as she tried to liberate herself from my grasp. In the end she gave in, as she had before. I turned her around so that her back was to me, and pushed her head down toward the sink, as if to wash her face. I pulled up her dress and took her from behind, standing up, just as a bull takes a cow or a stallion penetrates a mare, except that we were not standing in the middle of a beautiful field, but rather in a narrow space in front of

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  the sink; instead of the sun shining overhead, there was a lightbulb above the mirror; instead of a bubbling brook, the gurgling of pipes. But the feeling was the same: an irresistible, blind, full-bodied impulse, more animal than human. I remember that, as I penetrated her, holding her firmly and pushing up against her back, I pulled her hair and kissed her face and neck with an animal-like gratitude and tenderness, just as I imagine a horse licks its mare while mounting her. Afterward, we ended up in the street almost without knowing how we had arrived there, as if the cloud of desire that had overcome us had also borne us through the building’s thick walls and deposited us on the sidewalk, far from the place where our encounter had occurred.

  I have described this first encounter in some detail, not in order to indulge in the questionable pleasure of describing such a scene, but to point out something, an aspect which subsequently became an important element of our relationship: contempt. Nella was shy, sweet, chaste, and lacking in vulgarity or impurity, and yet, mixed with my desire, I felt something for her that was very close to contempt. It was this contempt that led me to take her in this manner, in these circumstances, without consideration, respect, or even pity, as if wishing to hurt her rather than love her. Why did I feel this way? I did not know at the time, and have never been able to understand it fully. My contempt had no justification, either in her physical person or in her personality as I came to know it. This mysterious, inhuman,
blind emotion, so profoundly unsympathetic, poisoned our relationship from the start and kept me from loving her with the same abandon with which she loved me. When all is said and done, the story I intend to tell is the story of this contempt.

  [III]

  I accompanied Nella to her room in a modest boardinghouse,

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  and then returned to my own furnished room downtown. Once I was alone, I reflected on what had happened, but after only ten minutes, an impulse drove me to leave my bed and telephone Nella. Without hesitating I told her that since I had caused her to lose her job, it was only right for me to try to repair the damage. Why didn’t she come and stay with me, live with me? Timidly, hesitantly, she asked whether I wanted her to come right away. Not only had she accepted my offer, but I could tell that she feared I might change my mind. This humble, submissive, and anxious eagerness moved and excited me. As I stood in the hallway speaking to her on the telephone I felt the same powerful, animal-like desire that had led me to make love to her in the bathroom. I answered that yes, of course, this was what I desired, and that she should pack her clothes in a suitcase and come as soon as she could. “I’ll be right there,” she answered, her voice so happy that even her shyness seemed to evaporate. I went back to my room to wait for her, and as the minutes passed, my excitement and desire grew. After a wait that at times seemed almost unbearable, the door opened and Nella appeared wearing her wide-brimmed straw hat and carrying a fiberboard suitcase. I took her by the waist and threw her down on the bed. She struggled to remove the hat which, like a child’s bonnet, was attached with an elastic under the chin. But I simply couldn’t wait and took her again then and there, with her head arched back in the straw halo of her hat, like a modern saint. She entreated me quietly not to hurt her. I collapsed on top of her, my cheek against hers, and slowly removed the hat and spread her red hair on the pillow, kissing her ardently. She stared at me with her big brown eyes full of tenderness, and said nothing. Finally she broke free and began to put away her few belongings, coming and going quietly, diligently, in a way that was both childlike and domestic. Thus began our life together.

  We were poor, so poor that after paying the rent

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  or buying something to wear there was practically nothing left over for food. No matter how hard Nella looked for work as a typist, she found nothing, and I had to support both of us with the scarce income from my obscure journalistic efforts. In those tumultuous, miserable years, newspapers popped up and disappeared like mushrooms after the rain and I went from one publication to the next, always searching for work, indifferent to political affiliations. The deep division between the Communists and other political groups had not yet taken hold. I performed the most diverse tasks, from writing for the crime pages to correcting proofs or, most often, writing film reviews. I became the movie critic for a morning daily, which meant that I had to stay up late into the night writing reviews after a premiere. My life became more ordered, though this regularity felt false and unwelcome because I did not love my work and considered it merely temporary. But temporary in comparison to what? This was a question I could not answer; I did not realize at the time that my feeling of transience was an extension of my intellectual nature. And my work was not the only thing I considered temporary; so too my living conditions, my daily routine, and, more than anything, my relationship with Nella. The only thing that felt definitive was my Party affiliation, which was merely symbolic after all and had caused no real change in my life or even altered my manner of thinking or my anxieties in any way. I had expected more, perhaps a kind of complete renewal, but was forced to accept that everything had remained the same and, furthermore, seemed inalterable. This idea disillusioned and tormented me. I told myself that sooner or later I would have to do something to prove that I had become a real Communist, not only by affiliation, but also in spirit. But what? I had no answer,

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  at least for the moment.

  I said earlier that this was a difficult period in my life, but in truth it was probably the happiest time I had known up to that point. As is often the case I was quite unconscious of my happiness. In fact, I considered myself to be deeply unhappy. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I was mistaken, and can even describe the source of my happiness, a happiness I have never felt since that period. Principally, it was a product of the very poverty that afflicted me, of the challenges in my daily life and the bitterness of my struggle. My happiness consisted in being in touch with myself, bound to myself in the way that soldiers are bound to one another in battle. Solidarity exists not only between two different people, but also within oneself. Well, in those days, I felt in full solidarity with myself. I was in touch with the essential and most intimate part of my being, the part that life, fortune, and comfort tend to lead us away from until we lose awareness of it completely. I lacked purpose and hoped that this purpose would be provided sooner or later by the Party and that one day, when I could clearly grasp the purpose of my life, I would find happiness. I didn’t realize that, quite to the contrary, the purpose of life is to be close to oneself, united and in touch with the truth about oneself, and that even the Party, with all its means, could not provide me, or anyone else for that matter, with another purpose than that. Accidentally, I had already attained my aim in life, but I did not know it.

  My happiness, which I have only recently become aware of, had another, less inward source. It was also derived from my relations with Nella, relations which from the beginning had been tinged with contempt. My contempt for Nella’s clumsy and submissive nature not only impeded me from seeing her many qualities, but also inhibited me from understanding that we were actually very close, that we loved each other. Alas, man spends his life chasing shadows;

  like the dog in the fable, we often drop a slab of meat already in our possession in order to chase its reflection. My first encounter with Nella at the offices of the Allied radio service had been a rare occurrence: a complete and instant physical understanding, but I was unable to see this and instead considered it a

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  vulgar, easy encounter which under different circumstances would have had no consequence. Our relations continued in the same manner, but I insisted on seeing them as a kind of mortifying, disheartening situation to which I submitted out of weakness and which I hoped to liberate myself from at the earliest opportunity. My wrongheadedness blinded me to the true nature of our relations, which in fact grew out of a pure and healthy love, so seldom experienced in life, and the synonym of happiness.

  Our life was monotonous and I remember that this monotony also tormented me. I dreamed of a more varied existence. Later, I realized that boredom and routine constitute the solid, regular backdrop upon which we embroider our actions. We lived in a large, squalid furnished room looking out over a dingy alley in the old quarter. I was always the first to get up in the morning and after washing and dressing as best I could, I would sit down at a table in front of the window, with my back to the room. There, I would work on various translations, mostly from English, boring, ill-paid work with which I rounded out my small income as a film critic. Nella stayed in bed; she needed many hours of sleep and it was not unusual for her to sleep through the morning. I worked in silence, with the book on one side, the typewriter in front, and the dictionary on the other side. The room was quiet and Nella slept. With the windows closed I could barely hear the street noise—voices from a nearby market, a few cars, the sputter of a motorbike. I worked without pleasure, with a feeling of impermanence and an exaggerated disgust for this impermanence. I worked, I reflected angrily, just to get by. In the late morning I would finally hear Nella’s sleepy voice wishing me a good morning, and I would answer her casually, without bothering to turn around. I kept working as I heard her rise from the bed, yawn—I imagined she was stretching—and walk around the room picking up clothes, brush her hair in front of the mirror, step out of the room to the bathroom, and return. Finally, I would see
a bare arm reaching around my shoulders and her loving eyes would appear, sparkling and

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  tender, beneath a mane of messy hair. She offered me her lips, saying “You haven’t kissed me yet today.” I kissed her and with that my morning would come to an end, because one kiss would lead to another and another until finally, almost despite myself and not without a certain sense of annoyance, I ended up back on the bed with her. Nella was always willing to make love, at any time of day; but the morning, after she had taken a shower and was still fresh from the soap and water, her body vigorous after ten hours of sleep, was perhaps her favorite. Her childlike face still free of lipstick or powder, her hair still frizzy from vigorous brushing, her naked body solid, muscular, smooth, and clean, she made love with a strong appetite, as if eating a piece of freshly baked bread. Despite the stuffiness of the room and the threadbare, ugly furniture and messy sheets, her cool, healthy body reminded me of the countryside, touched by the spring sun, leaves covered with dew, earth still moist, bathed in the fragrance of stonecrop and mushrooms. We made love for a long time on the cold, messy bed, and then Nella returned to the bathroom, followed by me, after which we usually went out for lunch.

 
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