The Empty Canvas, p.20Alberto Moravia
I waited thus for ten minutes beyond the hour, and then for another ten, because at twenty minutes past four, as I knew, Cecilia's mother went off to the shop which was not far away and which opened at half past four, and Cecilia sometimes waited to go out until her mother had gone. But at a quarter past four, quite suddenly, as though my muscles had given an involuntary jerk, without thinking, I started the car and moved away. I did not go far, however. At the bar at the corner I stopped, got out, went in and telephoned. 'She must have gone out,' replied Cecilia's mother in an uncertain tone; 'I've been in the kitchen and I haven't seen her. She may have gone out five minutes ago, or perhaps half an hour ago.' I rushed out of the bar, jumped into the car again and went very fast up and down that street and the adjacent streets, pressing on as far as the bus stop where I knew Cecilia used to wait for her bus, but I found nothing. Evidently her mother had been wrong and Cecilia had not gone out five minutes or half an hour before, but only a minute or so, and thus had come out through the entrance door of the building at the very moment when I was looking for her in the neighbouring streets; unless possibly she had come halfway downstairs and then gone back again, for some reason of her own that I could not imagine, and so was now back again in the flat. But I had no desire to make any more telephone experiments; so I decided to go and lie in wait in front of the house in which Luciani lived. This was in the Pariolo district, in Via Archimede, a narrow, winding street which circles round the hill between two rows of modern houses. I had already explored this street some days previously, not so much with the purpose of spying as to see the place where I knew Cecilia so often went nowadays; and I seemed to remember that, right opposite the actor's house, there was a bar from which it would be easy to watch it. And indeed, when I got out of the car and looked into the bar, I found I was not mistaken: in the window there were two or three little tables from which, looking between bottles and boxes of sweets, I could easily watch the door of the house opposite without being observed.
I sat down, ordered coffee and began my spying—an occupation which already, by this time, I hated with my whole heart. The door of the house in which the actor lived was framed in black marble and stood out against the white façade like an obituary notice on the page of a newspaper; but I immediately discovered that a bottle of spirits displayed in the window concealed at least half of it. Now it was quite possible that Cecilia might slip into or out of the house, without my being aware of it, through the half of the door that I could not see. I tried moving my chair; but then I could not see the door at all because it was completely hidden by a large box of English biscuits. I wondered whether I could possibly put out my hand and remove the bottle; but I saw I could not do so without making the barman suspicious. In the end I decided to get rid of the embarrassing object by acquiring it. It was true that the barman might well have a similar bottle in reserve and would therefore not give me the one from the window, but anyhow I had no other means of achieving my aim. I called out: 'I -want that bottle there.'
He came over at once, a young, tough-looking man, thin and very pale, with one noticeable feature—a hare lip which was ill concealed beneath a drooping black moustache. He asked, in a deep confidential tone of voice: 'The bottle of Canadian whisky?'
'Yes, that one.'
He bent forward, cautiously took the bottle from the window and appeared to be making a move to replace it with another standing near it. I said hastily, in a commanding voice: 'Let me see it.'
Slightly surprised, he handed me the bottle and I pretended to examine it at leisure, in the hope that he would forget the empty place in the window. Fortunately, at that moment a customer came in; the barman left me and went back behind the counter. After a little he brought me my coffee, but he did not put any other bottle in place of the one he had given me. I breathed freely again and set myself to the task of watching the door which was now entirely visible.
I calculated that Cecilia would have taken the bus because I knew she had no money and, furthermore, that she was never in too much of a hurry to get to her appointments. Now it took at least twenty minutes to go by bus from Cecilia's home to the Pariolo district. All this, of course, depended upon whether Cecilia had really gone out a minute before my telephone call and whether she had really gone to see Luciani. I decided—provisionally, at least—that these two suppositions were correct, and therefore spent about twenty minutes in tolerable ease, though without for one instant taking my eyes off the door.
When these first twenty minutes were over, I waited patiently for a further ten, and then found myself confronted with this dilemma: either Cecilia had arrived before me by taxi (this was not improbable: I had had to stop at three sets of traffic lights), or she had not arrived at all. What ought I to do? Wait for her to come out or go away? I was so sure that Cecilia had gone to see Luciani that day that, in the end, I decided to wait. Furthermore, I said to myself, if Cecilia had arrived, say, five minutes before me, I should anyhow have thirty-five minutes less to wait.
But, as though to deny me even this modest consolation, suddenly I saw, right in front of my eyes, the figure of a man in a green overcoat. It seemed to me that there was something familiar about his back; and when he moved to cross the street, I recognized him beyond doubt by his broad shoulders and, above all, by his artificial-looking, too-bright fair hair: it was the actor. I saw him go in at the door and vanish.
So my vigil was only just beginning. Either Cecilia had arrived before Luciani and had gone up to his flat to wait for him, or she had not come at all; but I, in order to make certain, would now have to wait for goodness knows how long. And the thirty minutes I had already spent in spying had been spent in vain.
I quickly realized that, if my wait in front of Cecilia's house had been painful, that in front of the actor's house was a hundred times more so. The fact was that, as I waited outside Cecilia's house, I had been waiting for her to finish eating or dressing or talking to her mother—all of them innocent things; but, as I waited outside Luciani's house, I was actually waiting for her to finish making love. Thus, whereas I had suffered, an hour earlier, from having to endure a shapeless, empty period of expectation which my imagination had not been able to fill, now, when I knew perfectly well why Cecilia was in Luciani's flat, I had to endure a period of waiting which contained the whole shape and rhythm of the sexual act. Now, in contrast to what had happened earlier, if I looked at my watch I could calculate to the minute what was going on in the actor's flat. 'At this moment Cecilia is pulling off her sweater over her head. At this moment, naked, she is going over to the bed, is getting on to it, is lying down. At this moment she is having her first orgasm, and after two or three violent jerks of her belly, she throws back her head and lies back exhausted.' All these imaginings, naturally, renewed the feeling I had of not possessing, of never having possessed her, since hitherto I had deceived myself into thinking I possessed her simply because I had possessed her body, and that body was now in the arms of Luciani.
Apart from all this, the feeling of Cecilia's elusiveness was further increased by my uncertainty as to whether she was in fact with Luciani in his flat. After all, there was a possibility that, for some reason which I did not know, they might not be seeing each other that day. In that case my imaginings became truly those of the most ordinary kind of jealous lover, who builds up a whole castle of hypotheses upon the foundation of a small and fallacious clue. Nevertheless, this did not in any way imply that Cecilia was not unfaithful to me; it merely meant that she was not being unfaithful on that particular day.
Finally I thought I would telephone to Luciani; I might possibly be able, by means of some sound or other, to detect Cecilia's presence in the flat. Luckily the telephone in the bar was near the door, so that I would be able to make the call without interfering with my watch on the street door opposite. I went over and dialled the number, then heard the actor's voice and pressed the button. I found that my calculations were not entirely wrong: while the actor was repeating,
I waited twenty minutes longer, and then had another proof of Cecilia's presence in Luciani's flat. The bar telephone rang, the barman went to it and listened and then said, in a stupid sort of military voice: 'Always at your service, Signor Luciani?' After a short time I saw the bar waiter, a red-faced youth, go out carrying a tray, at which I had time to glance: on it were a bottle of beer, some sandwiches wrapped in a napkin and a large glass filled with orange juice. I knew that Cecilia, after making love, was in the habit of quenching her thirst with the juice of three or four oranges. I followed the waiter with my eyes, saw him go into the house opposite and, after not more than a minute, come out again with the empty tray. The boy came back into the bar, and the barman said to him sardonically: 'What on earth is the matter? What did you see? Struck all of a heap, you look. But how many times have I told you—what you see in people's houses has nothing to do with you. Come on, quick—get these glasses washed!'; and I myself, at the same moment, as if propelled by a powerful spring—with the same kind of automatic jerk of the muscles as had caused me, a little earlier, to abandon my vigil in front of Cecilia's block of flats—put the money on the table, took my bottle of whisky and went out. I saw that to go away, after waiting so long, meant that all the efforts and sufferings of the afternoon would be thrown to the winds; yet I felt that, for that day anyhow, I was not capable of waiting any longer. Perhaps, as I thought later, I really wanted to put off the moment when, being completely assured of Cecilia's unfaithfulness, I should feel that I possessed her, inasmuch as I was enabled to judge her, and was consequently set free from her and no longer loved her. In any case, the final proof of her unfaithfulness was deferred, and with it the devaluation of Cecilia and the reduction of her from a creature of mystery to an insignificant little adultress.
I have sought to describe in detail the first day of my starting to spy upon Cecilia, because it was identical, or almost identical, with many others that followed it, of which therefore I may spare myself any extensive description. The only difference was that on that first day I was still capable of acting with a certain method; whereas, as time went on and these wearing vigils were repeated, I did things more and more haphazardly and more and more stupidly. Actually, in order to be a competent spy, I ought, as I have said, to have had the cool, technical detachment of a detective, or the curiosity, for its own sake, of a busybody. Instead of which I was watching Cecilia with the anguished heart of a lover, and little did it matter that I was a lover who was not seeking to keep his own woman to himself but rather to get rid of her.
How many hours did I spend, during those days, sitting in my car in front of the building where Cecilia lived! How many hours in that bar, at the little table in the window! In order to show the degree of obtuseness to which I had been brought by jealousy, all I need to say is that, after a week of exhausting vigils, I discovered by chance that it was useless to watch Cecilia's block of flats because it had two doors, one on to the street where I had been mounting guard, and another on to a parallel, and more important, street along which the buses passed and where taxis could be found. Naturally Cecilia went out by the latter door, which was more convenient for her. This discovery appeared to me significant. I had become so stupid that it had taken me a week to notice a thing which I ought to have thought of from the very first moment.
After I had discovered this second door in Cecilia's building, I believed that my investigations, now confined merely to the house where the actor lived, would become much easier. But again I was wrong. Apparently, amongst all the minutes in the day, I always chose those that were never visible on Cecilia's little wrist-watch. Time, for Cecilia and her lover, was not the same as for me. Theirs was the calm, sure, regular time of love; mine the furious, uneven time of jealousy. And thus it happened that, in all probability, I took up my station in the bar when Cecilia had already gone into the actor's house, and went away when she had not yet come out. The truth was that I could not manage to overcome my repugnance for the act of spying, which I felt to be at the same time both degrading and deceptive. This repugnance made me sluggish when I was preparing to go to the bar and impatient when my period of waiting was drawing to a close.
Thus, during this whole time, although I made the most determined efforts to entrap her, I never once saw Cecilia coming out of, or going into, Luciani's house. This seemed to me an incredible thing, with something supernatural about it; so much so, that it sometimes occurred to me that Cecilia was downright invisible. And so indeed she was, to me at least; with the kind of invisibility of things that are apparent to the senses, yet elude the mind.
Cecilia's elusiveness was confirmed not only by the failure of my surveillance, but also by that of my investigations into her relationship with Luciani. Knowing well that I could not make a frontal attack upon her because she would be ready to he to me and would thus become even more elusive than she already was, I tried sometimes to make her talk about the actor in a general way, so as to see if her answers gave a glimpse of a feeling that was more than friendly. Here is an example of how I questioned her.
'Do you often see Luciani now?'
'Yes, I see him sometimes.'
'You know him well by now, then.'
'Oh yes, I know him a little.'
'Then tell me what you think of him.'
'What d'you mean—what do I think of him?'
'Well, what do you think of him, what is your opinion of him?'
'I haven't any opinion—why should I have?'
'No, I mean—what's your idea about him, how d'you find him?'
'He's very nice.'
'Is that all?'
'What d'you mean—is that all?'
'Well, yes, I think he's nice—that's all.'
'And you go out with him because he's nice and that's all.'
'But I'm nice, you're nice, your father's nice; to say that someone is nice means practically nothing.'
'What ought I to say, then?'
'Defects, qualities, good, bad, intelligent, stupid, mean, generous, and so on.'
This time she made no answer, replying to my words with a silence that was in no way hostile or offended, the silence, I couldn't help thinking, of an animal. 'Well, aren't you going to say anything?' I insisted.
'I've nothing to say. You want to know what Luciani is like, and I can't tell you anything, because I've never thought about it, and I don't know. I only know that I like being with him.'
'I'm told he's a very bad actor.'
'That may be so, I don't know anything about it.'
'Where does Luciani come from?'
'I don't know.'
'How old is he?'
'I've never asked him.'
'Is he younger or older than me?'
'Perhaps he may be younger.'
'Of course he is, at least ten years younger. Tell me—has he a father, a mother, brothers and sisters, a family in fact?'
'We've never talked about it.'
'What d'you talk about when you're together?'
'What, for instance?'
'How can you expect me to remember? We talk, that's all.'
'I remember almost all our conversations perfectly well.'
'I don't; I don't remember anything.'
'But tell me: if you had to describe Luciani, if you were forced to do so, if you couldn't avoid it, how would you describe him?'
She hesitated, then answered quite simply: 'No one is forcing me to, so I haven't any need to describe him.'
'Then I'll describe him to you: he's tall, athletic, broad-shouldered, with black eyes and fair hair, small hands and feet, and a fatuous expression.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes