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Two friends, p.19
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       Two Friends, p.19

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  As I’ve said, I had very little money and was terribly conscious of my poverty. In fact, I was almost obsessed by it. Walking next to Nella I could not help but notice how shabby she looked. She wore little faded blouses like a child, with sweat stains under the arms, and flimsy skirts, deformed and worn-out with use; her stockings had long runs in them like scars, mended with needle and thread. Her shoes were ragged, with worn-out heels that tilted inward or outward. Nella seldom complained, but when she did, it was with a painful intensity that carried the echoes of endless sacrifice. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of her standing in front of a shop window in dreamy silence, gazing at a blouse, a handkerchief, or a skirt. It pained me to see her so poorly dressed, but at the same time it annoyed me slightly when she complained or drew attention to the state of her wardrobe. I was even more disheveled than she; women have a mysterious talent for making clothes look presentable. My trousers were always shapeless and frayed, my jackets had grease spots, and my shirts were filthy and covered in stains. It was just

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  after the war and clothes were hard to come by. I did not have an overcoat; instead I wore several sweaters under a dirty raincoat. Nella had her threadbare little coat. Whenever we passed an elegant shop window and I caught a glimpse of our reflection in the glass, I thought, “There go a couple of bums.”

  My lack of funds was a constant torment, like a thorn in my flesh that I could not dig out. When we went out to eat, it became a cruel nuisance, not so much because I wanted to spend more, but because it forced me to make humiliating choices: If Nella ordered this or that item, would I be able to order fruit? Could we afford two main dishes? I must say that Nella always tried to spend as little as possible. But her restraint also felt like a complaint or a reproach. It would almost have been a relief to have her order what she really wanted instead of worrying about whether I would be able to pay.

  We ate at very modest trattorias, frequented by other people like us—in other words, to use the term I detest, intellectuals, as well as factory workers and lowly office employees. As we sat across from each other at a table lined with paper, with worn-out cutlery and simple earthenware dishes, Nella would smile at me tenderly and happily, holding my hand in hers. I could sense that she knew how to fully enjoy the good moments in life, as well as how to forget life’s challenges and the larger questions that make us suffer deprivation even more intensely. I envied her and told myself that I should try to imitate her, but I simply couldn’t. I could always feel something hard, painful, irremovable coming between me and happiness: lack of money, or the Party and my lack of purpose, or the fact that Nella did not understand me and never would, beyond the basic level of love and tenderness. I sulked in silence, scowling, unresponsive to her touch, irritated with myself and with her. She would ask what was wrong, why I was so preoccupied, and I would give vague, insincere answers, mumbling something about work, or being tired, or anything else that came to mind. She believed me, or pretended to, realizing perhaps that she would not be

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  able to penetrate the real reasons for my ill humor. Then the waiter would bring our food and we would eat in silence.

  After lunch we would walk home slowly down the narrow, ancient streets of central Rome. She threw herself on the bed and I lay down beside her. We slept in each other’s arms, Nella relaxed as always, and I, as usual, beset by the nagging sense that such intimacy was a betrayal of my true self and my goals. But who was I, and what were these goals? At the time I did not know, and even now I could never admit it openly, but my main goal consisted simply of rejecting the present, including my love for Nella, and my fixation with underlining the impermanent, incidental nature of my circumstances. I never let myself go completely; even in moments of abandon, a part of me kept its distance, observing the scene, holding back. This constant effort, the irrepressible impulse not to give myself to Nella in the way that she gave herself to me, was so clear that even she, so blinded by her love, eventually noticed. “Why can’t you just love me as I love you? You don’t want to love me, that’s the truth … You can’t let yourself go.” I would assure her it wasn’t true, but I knew I was lying. She would sigh with resignation and almost a kind of foreboding: “One day you’ll realize that you’ve ruined everything … but it will be too late.”

  Later I would get up and return to my table, to my translation work. Nella would stay in bed a bit longer, dozing, or pick up a book and read, resting on one elbow. Every so often she would stop and say something, as if to reassure herself that I hadn’t forgotten her. It was difficult for her to resist coming over to kiss or caress me. After a while she could no longer hold back; she would come up behind me and ask: “Haven’t you finished yet?” in a sulky, unhappy voice. Or she would tiptoe up and kiss me hard, making my ear buzz for the next five minutes. “Don’t you know that you have to leave me in peace when I’m working?” I would say, roughly. “I’m sorry,” she would say, humbly, “but I couldn’t resist.” Then she would climb

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  back onto the bed and read while I continued with my work. Later, she would get up and begin to carefully prepare her toilette. Finally, when her patience had run out, she would say, “I’m going down to the café,” and disappear. I breathed a sigh of relief—somewhat insincere, I knew—and worked for another half hour. Then I too went out.

  I would meet her at the café, a squalid little back room at a neighborhood spot. Sometimes she would be there alone, sitting in front of an espresso, more often she was joined by friends and acquaintances, intellectuals and their girlfriends. They passed the time discussing, debating, and commenting on the day’s events, until dinnertime. In the evening at the trattoria, I felt the same anxiety and ill humor as I had earlier at lunchtime. We did not eat much in the evening, and sometimes we skipped dinner altogether and ate sandwiches and beer at the bar on our street. When I had money, Nella accompanied me to the movies, otherwise she would go home and I would go to the movies alone. I sat and watched the film with a growing sense of futility, frustration, and irritation: nine times out of ten the movie was a worthless waste of time. Even so, I had to write a review, if only to point out its shortcomings. I would run to the newspaper offices and quickly scribble a review on any available surface. Then I went home, where I would find Nella half-asleep on the bed with her thick mane of hair spread out over the pillow and her slender shoulders. I undressed quickly and climbed under the covers, and she immediately turned over and pressed herself against me with all the strength of her youthful, fresh body. That was the moment when I loved her the most, or rather gave myself most fully to my love. I was tired, worn out, disgusted with myself, more uncertain than ever about my future, and sickened by my work. These embraces were like a refuge and a consolation after an absurd, hopeless day. In the dark, I encircled her tightly in my arms, dug my face into the firm, feverish tenderness of her breasts; I bit her and caressed her with a feeling of sweetness mixed with rage. It felt as if by embracing her I became a child again and found a lingering trace of maternal consolation in her trembling, exposed flesh. Sometimes as I embraced her my eyes welled up with tears; I was thankful that the darkness concealed my weakness. With those tears I expressed the

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  bitterness accumulated throughout the day. With a sort of sixth sense, Nella often asked me, tenderly: “Why are you crying? Why are you crying?” Then she would hold me tightly in her child-like arms, pressing my face against her soft, womanly breast. After a long pause, when she felt she had consoled me, she would turn around and press her hips against my groin; I would encircle her waist with one arm and her chest with the other, and penetrate her slowly in the dark. I remained inside of her, pacified, and fell asleep. We stayed there like this, locked in an embrace, until morning.

  I have described in detail a day in my life in order to paint a picture of my daily existence at the time; every day was the same, and this monotony was one of the reasons for my unhappiness and my dissatisfaction. As I
have mentioned, at the time I was waiting for something to change, even, if necessary, for the worse, but I did not know what, and I had the vague suspicion that nothing would change if I did not decide to take action. But why and how was I supposed to act? I did not have the answer, and so I waited. As I said before, my sense of expectation gave me a false impression of my life and hid its true, positive reality: Nella, my love for her, her love for me. I was fascinated by the mirage of a remote oasis where I would finally be able to drink from a bubbling but as yet unreal spring, and I did not realize that I was already standing in a corner of this oasis, with palm trees all around, surrounded by cool shade and with a spring at my feet, full of limpid, cool water.

  [IV]

  I had forgotten about Maurizio, or rather I never thought about him explicitly, but in the deepest corner of my consciousness I knew that our paths would cross sometime in the future and that the silent battle we had been fighting since childhood would continue.This certainty had become almost an unconfessed desire: the truth was that I wanted him to reappear and for our battle to resume. I felt that my membership in the Communist Party, which had been triggered mostly by feelings of inferiority, would reveal its

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  true meaning only when I had achieved victory over Maurizio, or at least engaged in a confrontation with him. As I’ve said, I still felt impotent, mortified, aimless, and uncentered, despite my Party membership. And I had a sneaking feeling that this impotence, mortification, aimlessness, and uncenteredness would be dispelled if I found someone or something to fight against. In theory, this was true, and perhaps not only in theory. Even those who, like me, were not activists and whose political activities were limited to joining up and socializing with other Party members, even we imagined a world in which the conflict between Communist ideals and the various forces that opposed them was a question of life or death. But we do not live on ideals alone; in any case, I could not do so. I felt that this struggle must become something personal and compelling, something direct and specific, in order to be truly transformative and constructive. I also felt, for some reason, that Maurizio embodied everything I was struggling against in this dark, challenging moment we were living. Perhaps it was my own strange and very human rivalry with Maurizio that led me to believe this. We will never know what comes first, the idea or the human impulse; this question does not intrigue me. I felt the struggle to be real, powerfully so, and that was enough for me.

  I did not seek him out. For some reason, I was sure that he would reappear, in the way that certain profound, important things in our life often do, at regular intervals. What was the basis for my certainty? The equally unspoken, hidden knowledge that without Maurizio I did not fully exist, that he was my other, negative and baleful half, without which everything that I considered positive and good for humanity could not exist, neither in myself nor in the world.

  One evening after dinner Nella and I went out to a

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  café where we usually met with our friends to engage in the same discussions until past midnight, night after night. But for some reason on that particular evening the café was empty; our friends had apparently made other plans. We stopped at two or three other cafés in the neighborhood, but they too were empty. I was in an especially surly mood—I can’t remember why—and Nella, who tended to react to my ill humor with tenderness and caresses, was getting on my nerves. Finally we sat down at a café with a few iron tables and chairs, illuminated with tubes of blinding neon light. We were the only people there. It was a small room with high ceilings, a dirty floor, and empty tables. After a mediocre coffee, I began to pick on Nella, as usual. The point of departure was always the same: for one reason or another, I would start talking about politics and the Communist Party, and my conviction that the Party would soon come to power. But instead of reacting enthusiastically to my revolutionary dreams, Nella received them, as usual, with innocent, uninformed indifference. I had convinced myself that a revolution was imminent. In my state of befuddlement, mortification, and impotence, this idea was the one source of light I could see for the country as well as for my own personal existence. It was practically impossible for me to accept that my conviction and sincere, almost mystical hope for change, inspired by my resentment toward the political leadership that had brought Fascism to power and forced Italy into war and catastrophe, was not shared by Nella. My noble ideals sailed right over her head, like a cannon shooting into the air. She, on the other hand, attached herself tenaciously to the only real thing that existed between us, our love, and, as was becoming increasingly clear, she could see nothing beyond this love. I tried to explain to her, with abundant ideological, psychological, moral, and political arguments, why revolution was inevitable and desirable, but I could see that she was distracted. Her attention was focused only on me, no matter what I said. If I had been discussing idle gossip rather than pouring out fervent arguments for revolution, it would have been exactly the same to her. I

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  could sense her lack of interest in the way she nodded, saying “yes, yes,” as one does to a child whom one loves and has no intention of contradicting. She did little things that revealed what really mattered to her at that moment: loving me, being close to me, living with me. As she assented to my arguments, she would take my hand and kiss it, still pretending to listen. Or she would gently provoke me by pressing her leg against mine, seeking a more intimate, distracting contact. I would exclaim: “You don’t care about what I’m saying.” To which she would answer, with almost mystical abandon: “I always agree with you, no matter what you say.” This irritated me even more. “Come on, Nella, what if I’m wrong? You have to contradict me if you disagree.” She would confess, humbly, “You are so much more intelligent than I am … of course you’re right.” “So you agree that the revolution is coming?” “Of course, if you think it is,” she would say, taking my hand and kissing it passionately. “Don’t kiss me … Why don’t you think for a moment?” “I’m sure it will come … and no matter what happens, I’ll always be beside you, always … I’ll never leave you.” “But that’s not the point!” I would finally exclaim, exasperated. “You have to reason, use your brain, think!” “I do, I think I love you.” “You’re an idiot, a stupid, silly thing,” I would say, brutally detaching my hand and pushing her away, “you’re nothing but a piece of meat, a sex, a being without dignity, without autonomy, without freedom.” “Don’t be angry with me,” she would implore; “why are you so cruel to me?” These last words were said in a strange, cloying voice tinged with surprise. Even now that we are no longer together, I can still hear her: “Why are you so cruel to me?”

  I remember that on that evening, as I was explaining for the hundredth time why I believed that a revolution was imminent, she took my hand and began to press it against her cheek, kissing my palm passionately from time to time and gazing up at me from beneath her red mane with her big brown eyes, full of love and admiration. It was clear that the emptiness of that little room excited her and awakened in her a desire to make love in some dark corner, just steps from the door. What irritated me even more was that I too was becoming excited at her touch and was beginning

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  to have trouble following my own complicated reasoning. Suddenly filled with fervor, I asked: “Don’t you agree?” She pressed my hand and put her face close to mine, saying, “To me, you’re always right … but now, kiss me …” Earlier, I described Nella as timid and passive, discreet, and extremely demure. But when it came to love she was brazen and quite unashamed, though her manner remained innocent and awkward. I must admit that these were the qualities I most admired in her, and which excited me the most. But at that moment, after the effort I had put into explaining my ideas to her, her insistent talk of love and kisses filled me with rage. “Enough!” I said, in a loud, trembling voice. “I try to talk to you and all you do is rub against me … Leave me alone … You’re like an animal … Leave me alone!” She held my hand tightly and
, not paying attention to my furious words, pulled me very close, offering her lips. At the same time, she slipped one leg on top of mine, almost climbing on my lap, revealing one knee and part of her thigh. As I pulled away, I slapped her, brutally giving release to the discontent I had felt on that and many other evenings. She stared at me in surprise, still holding my hand. Finally she let go, wide-eyed, but still rested her leg on mine. Two enormous tears appeared, filling her eyes and pouring down her cheeks. Now furious at myself for my brutal, stupid action, I tapped the plate with my spoon and called the waiter. Nella pulled away her leg but continued to cry quietly without drying her tears, sitting still and straight with her eyes wide open. After paying the astonished waiter I got up as if to leave. “I think it’s best if we go to bed,” I said curtly. She followed me in silence, still crying.

  As we walked out into the narrow street, just a few steps from our door, a slow-moving car almost hit us, and we were forced to step aside and press our backs against one of the buildings. As the car rolled by I turned to protest, still furious from the scene in the café, and the car came to a stop. It was a large model, old-fashioned but quite luxurious. A figure leaned out of the window. I heard a surprised voice: “Sergio, is that you?”

  I was still so angry that I found myself at a loss for

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  words. I stared in the direction of the voice; a man leaned his head out of the car but I didn’t recognize him and could barely make out his face. “Don’t you recognize me? It’s Maurizio,” he said, and suddenly, like a shipwreck victim who finally catches sight of a ship on the horizon after staring into an empty, pitiless sea, I called out, “Maurizio!” I don’t know if I felt happiness or relief, or something even more profound. In any case, my reaction was involuntary and automatic.

 
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