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Two friends, p.21
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       Two Friends, p.21

           Alberto Moravia
 
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“You go … I’m not coming.”

  I realized that I would get nowhere with this indulgent tone, and instinctively switched to a more heavy-handed approach. I leaned over the bed where she lay with her head resting on one arm, and grabbed her by the hair, demanding, in an irritated tone: “Why are you being so stubborn?”

  Now she seemed to realize that she would have to give me an explanation for this mysterious attitude. She broke free, jumped up from the bed, and walked, barefoot, to the closet containing her few clothes. She opened it and pulled out a hanger with a dress, practically throwing it in my face: “This is the only thing I have to wear to your friend Maurizio’s party … a dress from before the war … Look, the armpits are discolored by sweat … It’s been mended many times over and it’s completely out of style. I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the women who will be at the party, dressed up in new clothes. I’d rather stay at home … that’s why I’m being so stubborn.” She said this in a tone of almost painful relief. Then she pulled up her slip and showed me her leg: “Look at these stockings … They’re full of runs … It’s the only pair I own, or rather I have another pair but they’re in even worse condition … They’ll all laugh at me … No thanks … I’d rather stay home.”

  She said these words in a childishly spiteful voice which would have made me laugh if I had not already been so irritated with her. She came back and placed one knee on the bed, as if she was about to climb in. This obstinate gesture pushed me over the edge.

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  Once again I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her toward me. “You’re coming,” I said, furious.

  She twisted her face, staring at me angrily, as I held her in an uncomfortable position, twisted sideways. “No, I’m not,” she said.

  “Yes, you are.”

  “I won’t go,” she repeated, still talking out of one side of her mouth as I pulled her uncomfortably toward me. “You want to humiliate me … That’s your aim … You want to humiliate me in front of your friend by making me look like a beggar at his party. I won’t go.”

  I don’t know why, but this trumped-up accusation made me even more furious. As I reflected later on the scene, I realized that there was a grain of truth to what she said. My aim was not so much to humiliate her but rather to use our poverty—so clearly denoted by our clothes, especially hers—as a challenge and rebuke to Maurizio’s wealth. But I did not realize this fully at the time. To the contrary: I felt the accusation to be completely false. “You idiot!” I yelled, “why would I want to humiliate you? What would be the point?”

  “I don’t know … but you do, you want to humiliate me and you don’t realize that it will be worse for you if I come … People will think that you don’t care about me when they see that you let me walk around dressed like this.”

  “What do I care what they think? You know it isn’t true … I can’t make any more money than I do now … and that’s all there is to it.”

  For some reason, I was filled with a terrible rage. Deep down I admitted to myself that, just like my inscription in the Communist Party, I saw Nella as another weapon in the arsenal I was building against Maurizio. She reinforced my position by loving me, and sustained my presence with hers. Now she was denying me this weapon. But it is possible that my rage contained a premonition of what would come later, that my consciousness was playing a kind of trick to keep me from offering Nella to Maurizio in exchange for … his defeat. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All I know is that, in the grip of rage—and at the same time ashamed of this rage—I raised my hand and struck her face, which was turned toward me as I pulled her head by the hair toward my knees. I hit her once, twice, striking the hand she had raised

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  to shield herself. I struck her again, trying unsuccessfully to reach her other cheek; then, disgusted and still furious, I wrenched her body to the ground, still holding her by the hair. She fell onto the rug at my feet, her head in her hands, moaning deeply in a tone that sounded more pleasurable than aggrieved. With renewed fervor I kicked her back and her flank, violently at first and then more weakly, already repentant, surprised at the soft, delicate pliancy of her flesh. Then I got up and began to walk almost mechanically around the room. She remained where she had fallen, curled up with her face turned toward the bed and buried in her delicate hands, as strands of her great mane of shiny red hair escaped between her fingers. I could see the light copper-colored fuzz on her neck, against the diaphanous skin, and suddenly felt a wave of tenderness. In order to avoid having to look at her, I went to sit at my table in front of the window with my back to the room.

  I was disgusted with myself. I had behaved in a brutal, cruel manner and I felt ashamed. But the darker, more profound reasons for my behavior—which I did not completely comprehend, nor want to—disgusted me even more, and disconcerted me deeply. I knew that Maurizio was the real source of my anger, and that I had become angry at Nella only because the situation involved Maurizio. If she had complained about our financial situation and her lack of decent clothes in other circumstances, I would probably have been hurt and mortified, but I would

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  not have become so infuriated. I would have been able to see that after all, she wasn’t completely mistaken; women like to be well dressed, even ones who live with Communists. The reason I had struck her in this brutal, savage manner was that Maurizio was involved, and, though I could not yet make out the exact cause, I sensed that it did not put me in a good light. This brutality seemed to belie a kind of jealousy, as if I had been upset that Nella wanted to dress up for Maurizio. But at the same time I realized that beyond this jealousy lay the same feeling of social inferiority I had always suffered in Maurizio’s company. I had beaten Nella because on some level I felt that her behavior reflected my own hated weakness. But there was something more: when I had struck her and ordered her to go to Maurizio’s party even though she had no decent clothes, I had felt a kind of disgust with myself, almost as if I had wanted not merely to force Nella to take part in a banal cocktail party, but rather to gratify Maurizio in some other, deeper, more unmentionable way. Like everything else, this suspicion led back to my sense of social inferiority. I was almost like a man who feels so inferior and is so hard-pressed to make a good impression that he is willing to throw his wife in another man’s arms, just to please him. I also felt, in some vague and undeveloped way, that my relations with Nella, and the very existence of Nella—in other words the fact that I had a lover—placed me in a position of strength in relation to Maurizio and supplied me with a weapon in my struggle against him. So no matter how I looked at the situation, Maurizio was involved, and this disgusted me, humiliated me, and made me feel angry.

  I sat on my little chair lost in thought and staring obstinately out of the window with the shutters ajar. Finally, I decided that the only way to mitigate the feelings of disgust and shame that were washing over me was to apologize to Nella, to admit that I had been wrong, and perhaps even to tell her that I understood her concerns and no longer wanted to go to Maurizio’s party if she didn’t want to go. This decision immediately improved my mood; suddenly I wondered why I had ever felt so strongly about going to the party. I had behaved like a fool. Nella and her love were worth more than all the parties in the world, and my main priority was to protect this love; nothing else mattered. These thoughts gave

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  me a sense of relief, like a man who has climbed a mountain and gazes down at the mire where he had once struggled for survival. From this perspective I could survey the person I had been and the actions I had taken just a few minutes earlier with a certain understanding and compassion. But my sense of well-being did not last; at the very moment I was preparing to go to her, to take her in my arms and say, “You were right … we won’t go to the party,” two bare, child-like arms encircled my shoulders. Nella’s hair and cheek were pressed against my face, and her submissive, imploring voice said the words I had heard so many times before: “Why are you so cr
uel to me?” Then she said, “I’ll get dressed and we’ll go to Maurizio’s … It’s all right, we’ll go.” I could still save the situation by answering, “No, no, I don’t want to go anymore … You’re right … Let’s stay home.”

  But the gratitude I felt at her sudden capitulation kept me from speaking. I realized that despite the loving, clearheaded conclusions I had come to just moments earlier, what I truly wanted was for her to give in and agree to go to Maurizio’s. Now that she had agreed, I felt no desire to dissuade her. I did not have time to dwell on this new change of heart. Nella’s mouth sought mine and soon her sweet, insatiable lips were on mine. We embraced and then Nella broke free with a laugh: “I have to get dressed or we’ll be terribly late.” Feeling flustered, I turned my chair to face the room.

  She went over to the bed, still wearing nothing but her little slip, and sat down. With her curly head bent forward in the weak light of the ceiling lamp, she sewed two patches under the armpits of her old brown silk tea dress. I watched her with a mixture of guilt and satisfaction. Guilt over the brutal scene that had just ended, but satisfaction at having reaffirmed my will over her and bent her to my wishes. She sewed happily, lightheartedly, making large, loose stitches, as if in a hurry to leave for Maurizio’s. Her demeanor had changed completely, and once again I

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  felt a prick of jealousy and was tempted to say that I no longer wanted to go out and would rather stay at home. As a precaution, I asked: “Earlier, you didn’t want to go to the party … Now, it seems as if you’re almost happy to …”

  She did not look up from her sewing: “I don’t care at all whether we go to your friend’s party or not … I’m just happy that I was able to overcome my resistance and make a sacrifice for you, to do what you want me to … I’m happy because I know that you’re happy, and I’m happy to be happy that you’re happy …”

  Her answer disarmed me completely. I watched in silence as she finished sewing and got dressed. She was wearing a greenish slip, mended in several places, under which her pale white breasts blossomed tenderly, with childish, innocent sweetness. Beneath the frayed hem, her legs were as thin as a child’s; her arms too were thin and pale, as was the top of her bony chest. Her skin was pale, with freckles here and there like most redheads, and more freckles on her face, giving her a slightly impish air, despite her innocent expression. But it was the impish look of a child who is fundamentally naïve and innocent, not that of a devious full-grown woman. I watched her with a mixture of affection and shame, remembering that just a moment earlier I had struck those freckled cheeks, brought tears to those eyes, and kicked her slender, graceful back. Nella came and went, carefully inspecting many pairs of stockings in a drawer, all of them with runs repaired many times over. Two were in slightly better condition. She pulled her dress over her head, emerging with messy hair and glancing over at me for the first time. Finally, she put on her shoes, hopping up and down in front of the mirror on the armoire. The dress was old-fashioned and had long ago lost any shape it might once have had. She looked tattered but still fresh and desirable, despite everything. I was happy to be going to Maurizio’s, and this time my motivations were quite natural and good-natured: Nella was beautiful and I was proud

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  of her beauty and wanted Maurizio to see her and admire her as I myself admired her.

  Finally we left the house and climbed onto a jeep transport to go to Maurizio’s. It was still the early days of the Liberation, and public transportation did not yet run regularly in Rome. On the jolting platform on the back, exposed to the wind, Nella tried to stand next to me despite the crowd pushing from all directions. I stood still, holding on to the simple iron railing that could barely contain the crowd of passengers, like a string holding a bundle of asparagus. Nella, in her innocent, provocative way, pressed her back against me, and every so often she would shoot a loving, malicious glance over her shoulder. As I’ve said before, she had a young, fresh, solid, muscular body, and she knew that her body pleased me, and that I could not help being excited by it. It was obvious that she was trying to obtain forgiveness, or at the very least to win me over through the warm contact with her body. In other words, even as I regretted my brutal, insensitive behavior toward her, she feared that I was still angry and was trying to obtain my forgiveness with this innocent, sensual provocation. She wanted to be near me and to press her body against mine, with the insatiable ardor of her love, an ardor that had been awakened from the moment our eyes met on that day at the offices of the Allied Forces and which had continued to grow, despite my coldness, brutality, and lack of sensitivity. Excited by her innocent, tenacious passion—even more than by the warm contact of her body—I stood perfectly still as she mischievously took advantage of each jolt of the jeep to press her solid, bold, youthful body against my chest, belly, and legs. Finally, pressing against me even more closely, she whispered, “Do you love me?” As she said this she gave me one of her most intense, radiantly moist glances. For once I was won over; I put my arm around her waist and pulled her close.

  The jeep rushed recklessly through the streets

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  in the refreshing summer breeze. At each stop the young man in short sleeves who was driving would announce the name of the street in a hoarse voice. My earlier disgust and ill humor completely forgotten, I held Nella in an amorous embrace as I so seldom did even in the intimacy of our room. Our argument had dissolved, and I realized, with a shadow of annoyance, that in a way Nella had won with her tenaciousness and the intensity of her passion. Because of the internal conflict I felt between my passion and the impulse not to give in to this passion, I was at a disadvantage to Nella, whose strength was like that of a child or an animal. A small child or an animal is able to devote all its energies to overcoming a man’s doubts; for this reason, an infuriated child or an enraged cat can inspire fear in grown men. Like a child, or an animal, Nella was capable of only one feeling at a time, to which she would give herself completely, without hesitation or reserve. At this moment, she was filled with love for me. Normally such thoughts would have made me reject her insistent physical presence—innocent and sensual, naïve and mischievous—which so doggedly sought out my own. But perhaps because of the warm breeze, or the strange and awkward circumstances that imbued our proximity with a sense of adventure, or my slight remorse for my earlier behavior, I felt at that moment that I loved her almost in the same way that she loved me, in other words without reserve or fear, with total abandon.

  The jeep came to an abrupt stop and the same coarse, breathless voice announced: “Via Bertoloni.” At that moment, without warning, all the excitement, desire, and love I had been feeling disappeared, as if a charm had been broken. I knew that in a moment I would be in Maurizio’s company, not only physically—not such an ominous prospect—but in the sense of our struggle, which would inevitably begin again. Our battle, which had been suspended for many years, would be fought even more ardently than before. I was excited, not by love or desire but rather by a pugnacious and troubling fear of not being up to the challenge. I felt that Nella’s flirtatiousness

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  in the jeep had disarmed me and distracted me from my struggle with Maurizio and the means by which I meant to overcome him, and from the results I so desired. Suddenly, like a boy on his way to an exam who has been momentarily distracted by the traffic or the spectacle of nature and then is forced to come back to reality at the sight of the schoolyard, I felt almost a sense of panic. I tried to assemble in my mind all the points of contrast between Maurizio and myself: my membership in the Communist Party, his association with a class of people whom I considered doomed, my firm belief in the imminence of revolution, my desire to turn my inferiority complex into a lasting and powerful sense of superiority … As I went through this list in my mind, I tried to recover my earlier aggressive, decisive mood, which I considered more favorable to the execution of my plan. I could feel that my heart had begun to flutter and that I was out
of breath. I saw a gate with the number sixty-four and whispered to Nella, “We’re here.”

  It was a large gate with two pilasters topped by two massive pots filled with luxuriant ivy. I felt so overexcited that I decided to pause for a moment to look around before pressing the bell. We were on a pleasant street in an elegant, almost deserted neighborhood lined with gardens. Behind the garden walls, one could make out leafy trees and the aging façades of mansions and large houses. There were cars parked on both sides of the street, many of them luxury models. Many probably belonged to Maurizio’s guests. Nella peered at me, surprised by my hesitation. “What’s wrong? You look pale … Don’t you feel well?”

  I answered steadily, “I’m fine.”

  “Why don’t you ring the bell?”

  “Yes, of course,” I said, pressing the brass button on the pilaster.

  The gate opened, and a butler in a striped jacket

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  appeared and invited us in. We followed him through the garden and to the door, which was set on one side of the house, protected by an old glass-and-iron roof. Ten years earlier I had often visited Maurizio’s house, and I suddenly realized that everything looked smaller, more modest, older, and less luxurious than I remembered it. In those now distant days, I had always felt an intimidating impression of luxury and wealth whenever I entered that house. Now I realized that this luxury and immense wealth had existed only in my imagination. Of course it was a large, comfortable house, I said to myself, looking around as we passed through the foyer and an anteroom leading to the main rooms of the ground floor, but nothing more. The décor was nothing special, without style or taste; one could even call it nondescript. Everything that had seemed so impressive ten years earlier was now revealed to be much less so to my cold, informed eye: the shabbiness of the furniture, which was old but not valuable, of the kind one finds at secondhand stores; the ugliness and excessive profusion of vases, firearms, and knickknacks distributed on every table and cabinet; the old-fashioned tapestries made out of simulated damask silk on the walls, and the dark, heavy curtains that obscured the windows. The house, I saw immediately, was poorly maintained; it was clear that an insufficient staff cleaned those vast, poorly lit sitting rooms, and did so only superficially. There was the sense of debris left in dark corners, of unwaxed floors hidden beneath ragged carpets, and of dust spreading like an impalpable veil over everything. I also saw that nothing had been replaced in the last ten years and that everything looked visibly worn: the velvet couches were stained and tatty, the damask on the walls was faded, the curtains were dusty and limp. This tired quality struck me as a concrete symbol of a moral condition: that house was, as they say, stale; nothing had been renovated or improved upon for many years, just as ideas, convictions, feelings, and taste grows old; in other words the entire inheritance of the family that lived in that house, and more generally of the social class to which this family belonged, was antiquated and tired. Needless to

 
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