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Two friends, p.22
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       Two Friends, p.22

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  say, I felt almost a sense of victory as the decadence and modesty of Maurizio’s home were revealed to my eyes, as if I hoped to find the same qualities in him, a decadence and modesty which would render him less formidable. I hoped that he would no longer carry the air of superiority which in the past had so tormented me.

  The first two rooms were empty, and the doors and windows were all open to let in the night air from the garden. We could hear music coming from a smaller drawing room at the rear of the villa; as we entered we saw that most of the guests were in this room, crowded around a bar near the far wall. There was a radio playing and some of the guests were dancing, both inside and also on the terrace outside. There were about thirty guests and they were exactly the kind of people I had expected to find: men and women belonging to the Roman bourgeoisie, many of the men in blue suits, neither young nor old, a bit corpulent, a bit bald, dressed to the nines with pomaded hair and clean-shaven cheeks, and wearing an expression, also typical of their class, that seemed to combine contentment, skepticism, and irony. The women were not terribly young, and I noticed that most of them were attractive and dressed with a kind of fussy elegance, with lots of bracelets and jewelry and a profusion of color; they seemed vivacious, excited, enthusiastic. In the small crowd, I could make out a few brown and green uniforms, and the stolid faces and blond hair of Allied officers. I also noticed that among these bejeweled ladies—who with their high heels and fancy clothes reminded me of festive statues of the Madonna—Nella looked like a little servant girl who had wandered in from the kitchen to ask the master a question. Her simple, ankle-length

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  dress and low shoes made her look small, and the lack of jewels or décolleté added a modest air that made her look even smaller. Only her hair, which in the semi-darkness of the room was tinged with copper and gold from the light of the few lamps, looked precious. It seemed to reveal an equally precious moral quality, a naïveté, a purity, and a child-like simplicity.

  No one there knew us, and we knew no one. Paying no heed to Nella, I navigated among the groups sitting and standing around the room, talking, laughing, and dancing. I was looking for Maurizio. Nella followed my footsteps with a tenacious fidelity that I found both irritating and touching, without leaving me for a moment, her steps matching my own. She seemed intimidated by the small crowd of elegant strangers and for some reason I became annoyed with her and whispered: “Don’t make that face.” “What face?” she asked, surprised. “Stop looking so bashful … Your toenail is worth more than all of them combined.” She stared at me again and said: “I don’t feel the least bit intimidated … It’s just that I don’t know anyone.” “I don’t either,” I said, “what of it?” We had reached the bar. I climbed onto one of the stools, feigning an awkward ease, and invited Nella to do the same. She obeyed, but perhaps because she was too petite, or because she was not accustomed to being perched on a stool, she slid off the first time and was able to climb back on only after pulling her dress up over her knee. Once again I felt annoyed by her awkwardness. Attempting to hide my ill humor, I asked if she wanted something to drink.

  “I don’t know … I suppose so … Whatever you say,” she said, unsure of herself.

  Behind the tiny bar, a chubby, indolent-looking young man was amusing himself serving drinks to his friends, imitating the gestures of a bartender. Smiling, he said, “At your service … What can I get you?

  Brusquely, as if he were really a bartender, I said, “A whisky for me … Nella, what do you want?”

  “I …,” she said, vaguely, “I’ll have whatever you say.”

  “Whatever you say.” This was invariably her answer when I asked her “What do you want?” no matter what the subject.

  I repressed my irritation at her passivity and said,

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  “Another whiskey for the signorina.”

  The young man was no longer smiling, and stared at me with a look that was both mocking and annoyed. Nevertheless, he picked up a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, poured some liquid, held out the glasses, and said: “Here are your drinks … but just to be clear … I’m not really a bartender.”

  I felt myself blush and grew even more irritated. I held out my hand across the bar and said: “Please excuse me … The name is Maltese.”

  He held out his hand: “Giacinti.” And then, looking at Nella, “and the signorina?”

  “Nella,” I said.

  “Just Nella?”

  For some reason I wanted to say, “Yes, just Nella.” But instead I muttered: “Nella Ciocchi.”

  Some dance music came on the radio. Giacinti put the bottle back on the bar and turned to Nella. “Would you like to dance?”

  Again I felt a surge of irritation as Nella turned to me before accepting his invitation. “Go ahead,” I said, “that’s what we’re here for.”

  With the same docility as before, she reached toward the young man as he approached her. For a moment I watched them dance. The young man was stiff and upright, smartly dressed in his blue suit, like a mannequin; every so often, he moved his shoulders in a way that seemed both ridiculous and typical of a man of his particular social circle. As I watched I realized that it hurt me to see Nella, usually so awkward and unskillful, pressed up against him, her chest against his chest, her belly against his belly. It wasn’t exactly jealousy, I thought, but almost a feeling of profanation and absurdity. I gulped down my drink, still watching the two of them, then drank Nella’s as well. The dance concluded, and another began. Nella glanced over at me with an anxious expression as she accepted another dance in Giacinti’s arms. Now, feeling uncontrollably nervous but trying to simulate calm, I stepped around the bar and stood in the bartender’s spot. First, I poured myself another glass of

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  whiskey, twice as much as before. But soon a couple came up to the bar and said, as if speaking to a bartender, “Two whiskeys, please.”

  They had mistaken me for a bartender. For some reason, a little devil led me to try to imitate the much more self-possessed Giacinti. I poured two glasses of whiskey, added some soda water from a siphon, and was about to offer the drinks to the two guests. The young man, who was sitting sideways at the bar and talking, said, without looking at me: “Some ice, please.”

  My head was spinning. I could feel the whiskey I had drunk rising to my cheeks with an unpleasant ardor and my eyes clouding over with its fumes. I

  managed to find a bucket of ice at my feet, dropped two cubes in each glass, and placed them on the bar, just as Giacinti had done: “Here are your drinks … but I just want to make something clear … I’m not the bartender.”

  But here things took a confusing turn. Instead of introducing himself, the young man stared at me for a moment, surprised or perhaps simply distracted, after which he took the glasses and placed them between him and the young woman and went on talking as if nothing had happened.

  I forced myself to put out my hand: “Allow me to introduce myself … Maltese.”

  This time, the young man behaved with more propriety. Coldly, with a hint of annoyance, he introduced himself and his companion. I can’t remember their names, and perhaps I did not even hear them; by then I was feeling bleary, irritated, and scattered—in other words, drunk. After this quick introduction, the young man went back to his conversation. Desperately, I leaned over the bar and repeated Giacinti’s move: “Excuse me, signorina, may I have this dance?”

  She was quite young, very thin and pale, wearing

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  a red velvet dress. She had a long neck, a small, bird-like head, round eyes, and a small mane of frizzy hair. She stared at me for a moment and then, without looking to her companion as Nella had, answered coldly: “Thank you, but I don’t dance.”

  I felt my face burning with a sudden, absurd wave of embarrassment. I knew I had a disconcerted look on my face, and with much effort I tried to modify it with a smile that attempted to be slightly ironic and at the same
time indifferent. But I realized that my efforts were unsuccessful and that I had managed only to render the stiff, embarrassing mask of bitterness and awkwardness on my face even more uncomfortable. The two went on talking, the radio went on playing dance music, and I began to look around for Nella, unsuccessfully. Was it the whiskey that clouded my eyes or my sense of embarrassment that obscured my sight and ability to reason clearly, making me feel drunk? In order to regain my dignity, I turned toward the bar and once again filled my glass—which I had already emptied four times—and then walked around the room with unsteady steps, as if looking for someone. Finally, I headed toward the French doors that led out into the garden, which were wide open.

  I say “as if looking for someone,” and in fact that was precisely what I had been doing from the moment of our arrival. I was looking for Maurizio. As I walked toward the garden, I thought vaguely that I might find him outside, given that I had not seen him in the house. I now realized clearly that I was drunk, and that this drunkenness had unleashed, as the saying goes, my “true self”: the scene at the bar, my awkwardness, my sense of shame, all revealed, more powerful than ever, my old inferiority complex. For a moment, I had felt free. Yes, I thought as I walked unsteadily out of the sitting room, I was still the same person I had been ten years earlier, at least where Maurizio was concerned. The intervening years, my Party membership, my relationship with Nella, and my resolution to be strong and aggressive

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  had all come to nothing.

  Stopping every so often to take a sip from my glass, I affected a blasé, worldly attitude as I stepped through the French doors onto the terrace. Outside, there was a paved courtyard surrounded by trimmed hedges with lights hidden inside, illuminating the open space. A few couples danced, others sat on benches, iron chairs, or on the low garden walls. Beyond the hedges one could make out the soaring silhouettes of tall, leafy trees, rising up toward the limpid May sky. The garden, which from the road looked like little more than a slender strip, was in fact quite large. After gazing at the couples and small groups to see if I could identify Maurizio, I began to walk down a small lateral path in the garden. My glass was almost empty, and suddenly I felt very silly walking through the garden clutching an empty glass. My drunken state, however, kept me from carrying this observation further. I continued down one path, took another, walked a good distance, and found myself standing in front of a small fountain consisting of a small basin and a mask which spat out a small dribble of water. The fountain was built into the garden wall and illuminated by the moon; the path ended there, and I was forced to turn back. I took another path. I reflected that if I met Maurizio, I would take the offensive; I would tell him exactly what I thought of him, of his house, of the people he frequented, and I would remind him once again, but this time more brutally, that he and the class he belonged to were doomed and destined to imminent destruction at the hands of the revolution. Meditating on the “writing on the wall” with which I hoped to confront Maurizio once and for all, I was filled with a violent hostility and an aggressive desire for victory. As I walked down another long, meandering path, I suddenly came to an abrupt stop. I could see Nella and Maurizio sitting on a nearby bench in a twist in the path. They were talking; Nella was closer to me, with her back turned, but I could see Maurizio’s face. Nella stood up and said, in a clear voice: “I’m going home,” and walked away. She seemed unsteady, and it occurred to me that she too was drunk. Maurizio was still sitting on the bench, smoking, staring straight ahead. As I approached him, I said, “Ah, there you are … I was looking for you.”

  He said nothing as I approached him unsteadily. I

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  thought I noticed a look on his face that I had never seen before, one of boredom, disgust, and irritation which, for some reason, I attributed to the party. As I said earlier, I was moved by the aggressive desire to attack and defeat him with a few cutting words. But when I saw the look on his face, I thought: “He knows that the people he has invited to his party are stupid and contemptible … He knows that his social circle is doomed … He is better than they are … He could be one of us.” All of a sudden, my hostility disappeared, replaced by an unexpected, intoxicating feeling of affection and solidarity. As I sat on the bench beside him I asked almost timidly, “Am I disturbing you?”

  He started, looking up at me as if seeing me for the first time. “Not at all …”

  “What are you doing here, all alone in the garden?” I asked. “I thought you were dancing.”

  He looked at me and said, slowly, “I’m smoking a cigarette … as you can see.”

  “You’re bored …,” I said, my voice full of hope and understanding. “You needed a break …”

  He looked at me again with some surprise. “I was dancing with Nella,” he said curtly, “and then we came here to talk for a moment.”

  I noticed that he said her name casually, and also that he mentioned her before I did, as if to protect himself. But strangely, perhaps because of my drunken state, this observation did not inspire any particular reflections. At that moment, Nella was the furthest thing from my mind; even if I had caught her kissing Maurizio, I would not have reacted in any way. Making no reference to his response, I said, “Maurizio, why can’t you be sincere for once in your life?”

  He shuddered and stared at me in silence. Then, slowly, cautiously, he said, “What do you mean?”

  I told him I was drunk. Up to that moment my

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  drunkenness had manifested itself only physically: an unsteady walk, clouded vision, confused logic. But as soon as I opened my mouth I realized that my drunkenness would also be revealed in my speech. As usual, this knowledge did not stop me; quite the contrary: “Even if you refuse to be honest with me,” I said, vehemently, “I’ll be honest with you … The time has come to speak openly.”

  I wanted to shock him, but at the same time, because of the typical confused logic brought on by drink, I also thought that what I said was true and just, and that what I was about to say was even more so. “There is a kind of silent, wordless war going on between us,” I said, stumbling over my words with a fiery impulsiveness, “I know it and you know it … but at least I have the courage to admit it.”

  “A silent … wordless war?”

  “For as long as we’ve known each other,” I went on, unflinching, “we’ve been engaged in a battle, and each of us wants to declare victory over the other … One could say that our struggle began on the day we first laid eyes on each other … I don’t know why, really … Perhaps because of the social chasm between us … You’re rich and I’m poor, you come from an established family, and my roots are obscure … Or perhaps the real reason is that you feel more powerful and want to impose your strength, and I cannot help but react to this imposition … But at the same time,” I continued in a triumphant tone, “even though we hate each other, we also love each other … It’s useless to deny it … I am mysteriously drawn to you, and you to me … We avoid each other and seek each other out … I don’t know what you feel, but I know very well what I feel.”

  “What do you feel?” he asked slowly. If I had been less over-excited and more sober, I might have noticed a sudden coldness in his voice, almost like a clinical curiosity.

  “I feel a sort of attraction,” I said, “and I know why … I consider you to be an extraordinary person, highly intelligent, with great charm. These are rare qualities … At the same time I hate to see these qualities go to waste, not be put to any good purpose … You lead a useless life, among useless, or worse, contemptible, people”—I made a vague gesture in the direction of the house—“and you don’t

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  realize that your strength, which is already considerable, would be increased many times over if it were put to use.”

  “By becoming a Communist?” he asked, quite serious and without the slightest touch of irony, now observing me with real curiosity.

  “That’s right,” I said confidently, “
why not become a Communist, like me?” As I said this I put my hand on his arm. “Don’t deny it, you know that the people here tonight are empty, contemptible, awful … You know that the social class you belong to is doomed … You know it … so why don’t you draw the logical conclusion?”

  He was studying me closely. With a slight effort, he said, “Yes, I know … What about it?”

  If I had been less drunk, I would have noticed that he was not looking directly at me but rather above my head, dreamily, at the trees. His distracted state was significant. I noted it without reflecting on its significance. I went on, ardently: “If you already know this, then why, why …”

  “Why don’t I follow your example?” he said, casually finishing my sentence.

  “Yes, why?”

  He was quiet for a moment. “We’ll discuss it another time … Tell me more about this battle we’ve been waging … How do you see it?”

  I felt a wave of aggravation and anger, and yelled out: “See? You don’t have the courage to look squarely at the logical conclusions of your feelings and thoughts … Nevertheless, the battle between us will end with my victory …”

 
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