Two Friends, p.23Alberto Moravia
“Why is that?” he asked, smiling slightly.
“Because after being the weaker combatant for a long time, I am now in a position of strength, that’s why … Because you insist on untenable positions, while I have the courage to overcome them … Because I am no longer the useless little intellectual that you used to make fun of … I am a new man, and you are a relic of the past, like all the people you know. Everything around you is old … this house, the furniture, the fabrics, the chairs … the people … everything is old … and if you don’t watch out, you’ll suffer the same fate … you’ll die.”
“Everyone dies,” he said, lightly.
“Don’t pretend you don’t understand,” I said, violently; “you’re an intelligent man, Maurizio, very intelligent, and you know better than I do what I mean … Don’t pretend not to.”
He peered at his cigarette and then flung it into the bushes. “Let’s go inside,” he said, “it’s time.”
“But, Maurizio,” I cried out, running after him and grabbing his sleeve, “why don’t you answer me? Why can’t you be honest? I’ve been open with you.”
He stopped. “You have been honest with me,” he said, uttering each syllable clearly, “and you’ve told me that there is a silent, wordless war between us … Well, thank you for the warning … I suppose we will continue to do battle.”
I don’t know what I had expected: perhaps that he would strike me, or concede defeat and pronounce himself ready to join the Party. “That’s it,” he said with a smile, “and it’s already quite a lot … I didn’t know that you were my enemy.”
“But, Maurizio, why do you say ‘enemy’? Why do you pretend not to understand?”
“And I will act accordingly.”
I grabbed his sleeve desperately. “How can you call me your enemy? Only a friend, a true friend, could speak to you as I have.”
He began to laugh, almost like a child. “Of course,” he said, tapping me on the face almost affectionately, “what do you think I am, a fool? I understand … We’re friends, all right? And you’re drunk, that’s also a fact.”
I did not have the strength to react. He walked off, leaving me standing there as he receded from view. Once he was gone, I sat down on the bench mechanically. I realized I had behaved like a fool. What had I done since arriving at that house? Not only had I let myself blurt out an absurd, ridiculous declaration—almost a declaration of love—but I had spoken of our
struggle and my plans to vanquish him, to achieve a final victory. Now I was ashamed, and I understood that once again I had surrendered to my drunken state and, more important, to my ever-present sense of inferiority. For a moment I felt such regret and anger that I almost gave in to the impulse to run after Maurizio, strike him, and say, “This is what you deserve … This is how I really feel about you.” But I realized that such a scene would be inopportune at the very least. Since there was no question of taking back my words and repairing the gravely compromised situation between us, I could only hope to put them in the context of a new plan of action. I felt comforted by the thought that he had admitted to feeling contempt toward the people at his party, and had almost promised to continue our conversation in the future with the words “We’ll discuss it another time.” I reassured myself with the thought that perhaps my drunken honesty had not yet ruined everything, and that I might return to battle with weapons that were not yet completely blunted.
Meanwhile, despite my thoughts of regrouping and second rounds, I was still drunk and I knew that my drunkenness would not pass anytime soon and might still lead me to say or do something regrettable. I decided it was time to leave the party which inspired such contempt in me and where I had managed to behave so contemptibly. I headed down the path toward the villa. I was very drunk and realized that I could neither walk straight nor think clearly. My drunkenness insinuated itself into my thoughts, clouding them with the very idea that I was drunk. I walked a bit farther until suddenly I found myself in front of the wall with the little fountain and the mask spitting water from its mouth, beneath the light of the moon. Instead of walking toward the house, I had gone in the opposite direction, toward the back of the garden. The mask seemed to jeer at my deflated, unhappy state and my sense of defeat after so many dreams of victory. I dunked my head in the cool water and held my breath for as long as I could. I came up to draw a breath and dunked my head again. I did this several times until I was convinced that I felt more clearheaded, and then began to walk quickly toward the villa.
This time I found my way without difficulty. The
first thing I saw on the terrace in front of the French doors was Nella, dancing with Maurizio. I went up to her with a decided step and took her arm abruptly. They stopped dancing and stared quizzically at me. “We have to leave,” I said, suddenly realizing that my tongue, blunted by alcohol, was moving with difficulty: “We’ve got to go now.”
“But I’m dancing,” Nella said. I looked into her face and realized that she too was drunk. Her hair was messy and her eyes more beautiful than ever, filled with the vague, drowsy, uncertain, tremulous beauty of drink. Despite her naïveté she wore a somewhat infatuated expression on her flushed face: “I’m dancing,” she repeated uncertainly, her voice plaintive as she looked toward Maurizio, pleading for his help.
Maurizio intervened: “Yes, we have to finish this dance,” he said, once again taking her in his arms. “Come on, Sergio, be nice, sit on that chair,” he said, pointing to a small wicker chair against the wall and preparing to continue dancing.
I felt a stubborn, drunken desire to have my way: “I want you to come with me now,” I said angrily to Nella.
Nella faced me: “You go … I’ll catch up with you,” she said, quite seriously, and not a little drunk.
“But you’re drunk,” I retorted angrily, trying to grab her arm.
“Oh, and you’re not?” she answered, childishly. Maurizio began to laugh. “Come on, don’t be angry, wait for me,” she continued after a brief pause, stumbling a bit over her words. “I only have, let’s see, five dances left,” she said, looking at me tenderly, “one with Maurizio, and four more.”
“And then a last dance with me,” Maurizio added, clearly amused by my disgruntled air.
“And then a last dance with him.”
“But I don’t feel like staying,” I began, “I want to go home.”
Maurizio, who seemed to be enjoying himself, suddenly called out: “Gisella …” I turned in the direction
of his words. In the doorway of the sitting room stood a tall, shapely, and attractive girl, with a great mane of hair that descended from her small head down to her shoulders. She was watching us uncertainly. “Gisella,” Maurizio said again, “come dance with my friend Sergio … He’s dying to dance, and I can see that you are also looking for a partner.”
A word from Maurizio was all it took. As docile as a harem girl responding to her master’s instructions, the tall, shapely Gisella approached me and, with her arms extended, said, “Here I am, shall we dance?” and I found myself pressed against the elongated body of this horse-like girl, my nose buried in her hair. Over her shoulder, I looked at Nella. She too was watching me, and as soon as she saw that our gaze had crossed, she stuck her tongue out at me mischievously, like a street urchin, as if to say: “Serves you right.” Her gesture disarmed me, because once again it revealed Nella’s deep, inalterable innocence, which was perhaps the quality that most drew me to her. The tall Gisella was speaking: “You know, I have no idea who you are.”
“A poor wretch,” I said emphatically.
She peered at me and said: “You couldn’t possibly be as wretched as I am.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because I am in love with a man who does not love me,” she said, with impudent sincerity.
“Who is he?”
“That man over th
“We went to school together … So what do you see in him? He’s a hollow, selfish, arid, vain, heartless man … a useless person.”
As I said this, she observed me with her round, bird-like eyes. Suddenly she said: “Do you know why you say those things?”
“Out of envy.”
I blushed, knowing she was right. I said, violently, “And do you know why you say that?”
“Out of stupidity.”
She too blushed, but with anger. Pushing me away, she said: “Listen, I think we should stop dancing. I don’t feel like being insulted.” She began to walk down the path toward the little fountain. I ran after her, taking her arm: “Don’t be angry … I was just joking.”
“I don’t find that sort of thing amusing.”
“Come on … let’s dance.”
“I don’t feel like dancing anymore … It’s too hot … Let’s sit over there,” she said, no longer angry, but instead with a kind of flirtatiousness. She pointed at the bench where Maurizio and Nella had been sitting earlier.
We walked over to the bench, and the girl sat down. Fanning herself with a handkerchief, she said, “Tell me about yourself.”
For some reason, perhaps because of my drunken state, it occurred to me that she might be attracted to me and want to be alone with me. In an insinuating voice, I asked, “Why do you want to know?”
“No reason … because we’ve never been introduced.”
“It’s true … Well, my name is Sergio Maltese, and I’m a journalist and a film critic … and a Communist.”
This last word surprised her: “A Communist?”
“Let me warn you that I can’t stand Communists.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they want to eliminate rich people.”
“Are you rich?”
“No … but I like the idea that there are people out there who are.”
She said this with such an air of obtuseness and obstinate conviction that I could not help thinking, with equal conviction, “How stupid she is.” “Perhaps that is why you love Maurizio, because he’s rich,” I insinuated.
“That’s one of the reasons,” she said, with animal-like sincerity. “I don’t like poor people: they’re stingy and small-minded … You can tell Maurizio has always had money … Can’t you see how generous and gentlemanly he is?”
She was clearly a stupid woman. And yet it seemed to me that her vapid affirmations had more weight than all my well-formulated philosophical ideas about the coming revolution. With sudden aggression, I said, “People like you and Maurizio will soon be swept away … You won’t even have eyes to cry.”
She stared at me in complete bewilderment, eyes wide open. Only now did I realize that she too was quite drunk. Her round, sky-blue eyes seemed to wander and were filled with uncertainty. “What do you mean?”
“A revolution is coming,” I said, feeling twice as stupid as she, but unable to stop myself. “And all this,” I said, waving toward the house, the garden, and the young woman, “all this will be confiscated and placed at the service of the people.”
Something completely unexpected happened. The girl began to cry: “Oh no … please … please don’t hurt him,” she cried out, her head in her hands, “please don’t.”
And then, after a moment, she turned her anger toward me. “It’s all envy … People like you want a revolution because you’re envious … because you don’t have money and you prefer that nobody else have it if you can’t have it too … You’re just envious, that’s all.”
I felt defenseless, drunker than ever, and quite ridiculous. And yet I could not help defending myself: “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Oh yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t … and this time I really mean it: you are a stupid woman.”
I had stood up, and she looked me up and down. “Get out of here,” she said, angrily.
“I’m leaving,” I said, flustered; “it was you who brought me here.”
“Go away … Can’t you see I want to be alone?”
I walked away without arguing. I was angry and flustered, and even more ashamed of the way I had behaved over the course of that terrible evening. What had I been thinking, talking about Communism and revolution with that silly girl who could think only of Maurizio and her feelings of rejection? I had reduced these profound issues in my life to mere bourgeois chitchat at a bourgeois party, and for this I was terribly ashamed. I knew that all this had happened because I was drunk; but what was this drunkenness but an expression of my feelings of inferiority and weakness? I did not like to drink, nor did I enjoy being drunk; I had drunk only in order to have something to do and to overcome a moment of awkwardness and embarrassment. No matter what I did, I returned to the same point of departure: when I had planned to go to the party my intention, like a piper, had been to force Maurizio to dance to my tune, but instead it was I who had been played.
Still unsteady, and drunker than ever, I returned to the terrace. Couples were dancing on the paving stones in the light of the lamps tucked into the hedges. Nella and Maurizio were no longer there. Vaguely, I thought, “Maurizio is courting Nella … He wants to steal her away from me,” but as before, this thought did not elicit any particular reaction. Where Maurizio was concerned, I noticed, I was neither jealous nor suspicious. I went inside; here too couples were dancing, while others crowded around the bar. I saw Maurizio dancing with a slight girl with puffy hair, and felt something like disappointment, as if I had hoped rather than feared to find him courting Nella. Despite my drunkenness and confusion, I tried to decipher the reason behind this sense of disappointment as I stepped into the next room, which was almost empty. Nella was there, sitting on a couch with a man I did not know. The man, who looked to be in
his fifties, was large, with a wide chest, a big head of gray hair, and a striking, aristocratic face, with a pronounced nose, mouth, and chin, and sideburns down to the middle of his cheeks. When he stood up, however, he did not seem to grow any taller. In fact, he was quite short, with very short legs and tiny hands and feet. Drunkenly and without moving, Nella said: “This is Maurizio’s business partner … I’m sorry, what is your name?”
“Moroni,” he said, holding out his hand.
“He says I should be in the movies,” she said loudly; “he says I could make a lot of money … Isn’t that right, signor Moroni?”
“We would need to do a screen test,” he said, seriously, with a slight accent. “In truth, I’m not an expert, but at first blush I would say that the young lady is quite photogenic.”
“And I could make a lot of money, isn’t that right?” Nella asked loudly.
“Well of course, yes.”
“I could make lots of money and buy myself lots of clothes,” she said loudly, sounding very drunk. “Because we’re very poor, Signor Moroni … He can’t even buy me a pair of stockings … Just look at them,” she said, stretching out her leg and pulling up the hem of her dress to expose a white thigh; “look at how many times I’ve had to mend these stockings.”
Moroni, with a discretion for which I was quietly grateful, barely glanced at Nella’s shapely, tapered leg, though I could tell he would have liked to gaze at it for longer. “Yes, of course,” he said, with some embarrassment, “you could buy all the stockings you like.”
“And clothes too,” she said, loudly. “Do you know when I bought this dress? Ten years ago … Look how discolored it is under the arms … and how old-fashioned it is … I was ashamed to wear it, but then he slapped me.”
Moroni sat in embarrassed silence. Annoyed, I said:
She leaned toward me and took my hand: “But I love you … and I’m glad you slapped me … Bless your hand,” she said, kissing it fervently, “bless this hand, which slapped me over and over again!”
“Stop it,” I said, impatiently, trying to pull my hand
But Nella did not mean it in this way. “You know, Mr. Moroni, I love him, and I always will, even though he treats me terribly … I would do anything for him … Don’t you believe me?”
“Oh yes,” he said, without looking at her.
“I love him … but we’re poor, and I want to make money so I can support him … He’s a Communist because we’re poor … but if we had money, he would change his mind.”
Moroni looked at me with some curiosity. Suddenly angry, I said, “You’re saying stupid things, and to make matters worse, they aren’t even true … I already told you: my political loyalties and our private life are of no interest to Mr. Moroni.”
Moroni sat down again. “Are you,” he asked, turning to Nella, in a courteous, almost shy voice, “are you a Communist as well, signorina?”
“No … I mean yes,” she said loudly, “I am everything that Sergio, my love, wants me to be … I love him, and if tomorrow he asked me to kill you because you are a capitalist, I would do it without hesitating.”
“You’re drunk,” I said, contemptuously. Then, turning to Moroni: “Don’t pay her any mind … she’s had too much to drink.”
“What a coward you are,” she shouted. “I may be drunk, but I would say the same thing even if I were sober … It’s true, Mr. Moroni … I love him and I would do anything for him … anything.”
I expected Moroni to get up and leave, or at least to show embarrassment and irritation. But instead, much to my surprise, he said, with a sigh: “You are a lucky man, Mr. Maltese, to be loved in this way.”
“Yes, we love each other,” she said loudly. “Or at least I love him … we loved each other from the very beginning. He came to the office of the Allied Command, where I was working, and kissed me, and the British officer saw us kissing and fired me on the spot … so we left, and would you believe it, Mr. Moroni, we made love there, in the bathroom … not the most comfortable place to make love, is it, Mr. Moroni? And yet that’s how our love began.”
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