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Two friends, p.24
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       Two Friends, p.24

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  Once again I felt ashamed; in fact, I had never felt

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  so mortified, and for so many reasons, as that night at Maurizio’s party. Moroni watched us, not, as I would have thought, with embarrassment or distaste, but with a clear expression of benevolent, almost affectionate envy. Finally, he said, “Signorina, you are right to love him … and your sincerity does you honor … many men would be proud to have their lady friend make such declarations, even after a few glasses of wine … but please excuse me, I must go … pleased to meet you, Mr. Maltese … remember, signorina,

  the name is Moroni, at your service.” He got up and walked away slowly and, I thought, with some regret, as if sorry to leave us.

  Nella and I were alone again, sitting on the deep velvet couch in the darkened sitting room. “You’ve said enough silly things,” I berated her, angrily; “I think it’s time for us to go home.”

  She put her arms around me. “Are you angry with me?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  “There are things one doesn’t talk about in front of strangers.”

  Still embracing me, she looked at me with a serious air. “I said those things because Moroni was teasing me, treating me as if I were someone to be taken lightly … I wanted him to know that I love you and only you … What do you think? Do you think I really believe that he will offer me work in the movies? He only said that in order to entice me.”

  I was struck by how serious she seemed, despite

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  her drunk, exalted tone. “But you also told him that I joined the Communist Party because I don’t have any money,” I said.

  She held me even more tightly. “I said that just to make you angry … I know it’s not true.”

  “And why,” I asked, won over by her tenderness, “do you want to make me angry?”

  “For no reason … because I’m silly … Forgive me.”

  She held me in a tenacious, violent embrace that seemed to emanate not from her thin, child-like arms, but from the very source of her passion. I could not help but give in, but even at that moment I felt the contempt which I now know was the thing that ruined the best moments of our love. I kissed her and she returned my kiss with tumultuous avidity, her passion rendered almost chaste by her ardor and the fragrance of alcohol on her breath, usually so fresh and pure. As we kissed, I heard a familiar voice: “How they love each other, those two.” Instinctively, I pulled away.

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  Nella, who was less modest, barely moved or even turned her head.

  Maurizio was standing in front of us and an Allied officer stood next to him, observing us with his hands in his pockets. I noticed the officer’s quizzical expression. Slightly irritated, I got up and said: “Yes, we do love each other … what about it?”

  Maurizio did not answer, and instead approached Nella and said, in a gently ceremonious voice, “I just wanted to tell you that if you’d like something to eat, a cold supper has been served in the dining room.”

  “With pleasure,” Nella said, jumping up and taking Maurizio’s arm with a spontaneity that surprised me. “Let’s go, I’m terribly hungry.” She turned toward the officer and said, “Are you coming too, Major Parson?” and without waiting for a response, led us into the next room. Involuntarily, I wondered how she could possibly know the officer’s name, and came to the conclusion that she must have danced with him earlier in the evening. The officer turned and followed them, and I tailed behind, feeling unhappy and vaguely insecure.

  The dancing had stopped and the guests crowded into a small room I had not noticed before, adjoining the room with the bar. It contained only a long table, which was covered with food, served by three waiters. Gisella had been right, I thought, when she said that Maurizio was a generous host and a real gentleman. This buffet froid was truly magnificent, not only for the stomach but also for the eyes, with a variety of colorful and fragrant food laid out elegantly on a beautiful embroidered tablecloth, with china plates and crystal glasses. I wasn’t hungry, however, and after watching Maurizio prepare a plate for Nella I made my way through the crowd to the bar. The only other person at the bar was Major Parson—the Allied officer Nella had spoken to earlier in a familiar tone—who sat there drinking with one foot resting on the brass railing. Staring into his pink, stolid face, which was almost repulsively virile, with two reddish whiskers like tiny brushes, I suddenly realized where

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  I had seen him before, and why his expression had seemed so strange when he saw me kissing Nella. He was the Allied officer who had caught us kissing that day long ago at the offices of the Allied Command, and who had fired Nella on the spot. I felt a violent wave of aggression; I had often hoped to cross paths with him one day and give him a piece of my mind. With a trembling hand, I picked up a glass, poured myself some whiskey, and said, trying to sound very calm, “I believe we’ve met.”

  He looked up with his blue eyes and peered into my face, “I don’t believe so, at least as far as I can remember.”

  Somehow he and Maurizio had merged into one. I felt that if I had the courage to confront the officer, I would also know how to vanquish Maurizio. I realized fuzzily that the greatest obstacle I faced was a certain superiority they both had, a physical magnetism and self-assurance that I lacked. They were made of the same cloth, while I, despite my intellectual and moral superiority, felt fragile and yielding in comparison. With barely contained aggression I said: “Six months ago, you saw us, Miss Poggi and myself, in your office.”

  “Ah yes,” he said. He spoke Italian slowly but correctly. “I remember. The two of you often kiss in public, I see?”

  With an effort to sound forceful, I said, “You did not behave very honorably on that occasion …”

  Something completely unexpected happened. Instead of reacting aggressively to my aggression, the officer put his arm around my shoulder almost affectionately and said, in a warm, almost imploring tone of voice: “Let’s not mention that deplorable incident … I assure you that I was very sorry to do what I did to Signorina Nella … But my hands were tied … I caught you in the act, and certain things which in another context would be inoffensive are simply not permissible … Let’s not speak of it again … To your health.” He held out his glass for a toast to our reconciliation.

  I felt at first that I should respond aggressively, rejecting

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  his conciliatory gestures, perhaps by throwing my drink in his face, as I often had in my revenge dreams. But my thoughts were slower than my actions; I had already raised my glass and clicked it against the major’s. Almost automatically, I said, “To your health … and to the Allies.”

  “To your health,” he said in a cordial, sincere tone.

  I had nothing left to say; in my drunken state, I

  could now see two Major Parsons, with two noses, two mustaches, and four eyes. But perhaps the second face was not Parson’s but Maurizio’s … In fact, I now saw that the second face was pale, with dark eyes and a dark mustache. Suddenly I realized that indirectly and by proxy, Maurizio had once again scored an easy victory, taking advantage of my weakness. Brusquely, I said: “Excuse me, major … I need to go see what Nella is up to,” and without waiting for his response I ambled off, “like a whipped dog,” I reflected, with my tail between my legs.

  The crowd in the dining room had thinned and Nella was gone. I went back to the sitting room: no sign of Nella. I went out into the garden, scanned the terrace and the adjacent paths, but she was nowhere to be seen. As I returned toward the bar, Gisella, the woman who was in love with Maurizio, grabbed my arm: “Are you looking for your girlfriend?” she asked.

  “Yes.”

  “Well then, no use looking for her on the ground floor; you should check upstairs … in Maurizio’s bedroom.”

  I took her response squarely, like a slap in the face; and just as if she had struck me, I was stunned for a moment, my mind blank. The meaning of her words was clear, and
yet I was incredulous. Then I remembered that Maurizio had accepted the challenge I had foolishly made in my drunken confession, and I realized that he intended to humiliate me by courting Nella and stealing her away from me. It was coarse and vulgar to attack me in the private realm, since he could not do so on an ideological level. And though I knew that Maurizio was neither coarse nor vulgar, I

  also knew that he would not have hesitated to stoop to such measures to humiliate me. Cuckoldry, I thought

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  with little reflection, was one of the preferred methods for proving one’s strength in bourgeois society. It seems strange to say, however, that even as I thought this I felt no pangs of jealousy. While Maurizio perhaps hoped to humiliate me by stealing Nella, I perceived in this cuckoldry an opportunity to humiliate him. In other words, though I did not yet know when or how, Maurizio’s potential desire for Nella was a possible point of weakness which might lead to my victory. I thought this as I climbed the stairs in the front of the house up to the second floor. Once I was upstairs, I did not hesitate: one of the doors was open, and I was convinced that it was the bedroom Gisella had alluded to so maliciously.

  The room was almost dark, except for a small lamp next to a large, low bed that almost filled the room. I could just make out a figure lying on the bed—Nella—in the light of a small lamp which illuminated her chest and arms. Maurizio was not lying next to her, as Gisella’s jealous words had implied. He was sitting beside the bed and pressing a white towel, probably moist, to her forehead. I realized immediately what was going on and said in an unsteady voice: “What happened? Are you feeling sick?”

  Without looking up, Maurizio said: “It’s nothing … she just drank too much.”

  Out of the darkness, where her head lay buried in the pillow, I heard Nella’s hesitant, halting voice: “I thought I was hungry … but as soon as I ate I felt sick.”

  Once again I felt ashamed: for having thought ill of Maurizio and for having assumed that he had behaved basely. But I still suspected him of attempting to turn the tables in order to make me appear ignoble. Drawing closer, I said, “What a disastrous evening …”

  “Why?” Maurizio asked, now looking up at me. “Are you bored?”

  “Quite to the contrary … but Nella and I both got drunk, and we’ve made fools of ourselves.”

  Maurizio said nothing. Nella’s voice rang out: “I feel better now … I want to go home.”

  As she said this she tried to sit up, but as soon as

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  she did so she emitted a groan and fell back on the pillow. “Uff, I feel awful.”

  Maurizio, now standing, said to me, across the bed: “I think it’s better if we leave her alone for a moment.”

  I reflected on the evening, which I had described a moment earlier to Maurizio as disastrous; I thought back to the downstairs rooms, filled with odious party guests. And suddenly I said, quite forcefully, looking at the clock: “I want to leave … It’s terribly late.”

  “You go,” Nella moaned, “I’ll come later … as soon as I feel a bit better.”

  “All right,” I said, almost shocked at my own words, “I’ll go … Maurizio will bring you home.” I felt sincere. I truly could not stand to stay at the party, or in Maurizio’s house, one minute longer. Maurizio walked around the bed and pushed me gently toward the door: “Let’s leave her alone … Listen, if you need anything, just ring this bell.” He said these last words in a gentle, quiet voice, and then, still pushing my arm slightly, led me out of the room.

  “So you’ll bring her home?” I asked, uneasily.

  “Don’t worry.”

  We returned downstairs. For some reason, when we reached the ground floor, I turned to Maurizio and said, “We need to talk, the two of us.”

  “Whenever and as often as you like,” he answered. We shook hands and I left, walking with determination.

  As soon as I was outside, my self-assurance abandoned

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  me. I felt lost. As I walked down the street, the events of the evening returned to me, like a row of disheveled actors in the glare of the footlights. I saw myself ringing the doorbell, aggressive and convinced of my inevitable victory; and later, at the party, careening between the extremes of my own suspicion and the unpleasantness of others, uncertain, angry, and awkward, thrown about like a cork in the tempestuous seas. Once again I told myself that I had gone to Maurizio’s house planning to make him dance to my tune, but instead had been played. As I examined everything I had done that evening I realized angrily that there was not a single action I was not ashamed of. In addition, every action was connected to the one that came before and the one that followed by a common thread, a common theme: my own confusion, impotence, and inescapable sense of inferiority. This was particularly notable given that in every case I had been the one to become enraged and to take action, but each time my actions had been misguided. Meanwhile Maurizio, the undisputed victor, had not become the slightest bit upset nor been pushed to act in any way; he had simply behaved like a polite, generous host. In other words by doing nothing he had come out victorious, while I had spent the evening running around and growling like a nervous, unhappy dog, accomplishing nothing. I became even more dejected; this was the reason why I considered Maurizio to be superior, though his superiority was neither moral, intellectual, nor rational, but rather something physical and truly inalterable, something that seemed to emanate not from his humanity, but from his very nature, something, in other words, which I sensed but could not explain, just as one can feel the power of an animal even before seeing it, or feel the magnetism of a particular personality without understanding its cause. Had this superiority been merely a social, moral, or intellectual issue, I would have felt calmer and would have been able to blame my defeat on the alcohol I had consumed. I had faith in the revolution; I was convinced of Maurizio’s ethical weakness; I felt intellectually superior. I understood, however, that Maurizio’s superiority was a material question; despite his defects, his unpleasant social position, and his intellectual limitations he was

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  made of sturdier metal than I, and that was the long and short of it. To extend the metaphor, he was made of tempered steel, like a sword, while I had been fashioned out of vulgar cast iron, the kind that stoves are made of and that breaks under a heavy blow.

  As I’ve said, this sense of irredeemable and ineffable inferiority caused me great suffering. I did not know why this ancient rivalry had now become mixed with my political aspirations, intellectual ambitions, and moral hopes, but it seemed to me, deep down, that if I could not triumph over Maurizio, then the revolution too would fail; I would continue my life as a miserable, mediocre intellectual, and all my actions would continue in the same negative, abnormal vein as they now seemed to. Maurizio was the symbol of everything I sought to defeat within and outside of myself, and our struggle was the testing ground, as they say, of my personal strength and of all the ideas and principles I embraced. I don’t know which made me more unhappy: my awareness of the fact that we were built from different metals, or the importance I attributed to my stake in this after all quite modest rivalry. I knew that I suffered as only an impotent man can suffer, like a man who leaves a woman he has intended to deflower intact on the bed, sheets crumpled in vain.

  Immersed in such bitter reflections, I walked mechanically in the darkness to the end of Maurizio’s street. Mechanically—almost without realizing it—I boarded a bus, got off at my stop, walked the rest of the way, climbed the stairs, entered the boardinghouse, and shut the door. Perhaps shaken by the sight of the empty room, a silent yet eloquent witness of my defeats and torments, I felt a sudden wave of rebellion well up inside me. Yes, it was true that Maurizio was made of a harder metal than I, but it was only partly true, and only in a world where men were judged as metal bars or cogs in a machine. In the real, human world, and beyond all poetic metaphors, this question of metals meant nothing, and the truth remained that Maurizio was
a man like me and like many others; in other words, his strength lay only in my weakness. It was only because I thought

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  or felt, or in any case had convinced myself, that Maurizio was stronger, that he in fact acquired this strength. I could now see that what I had to do was convince myself of the contrary, in other words arrive at the inalterable conviction that in reality Maurizio was weak, very weak, and that I, for a host of reasons, was vastly stronger. I had already expressed this conviction in abstract form, theoretically, by objectively examining Maurizio’s situation and establishing its weakness in comparison to my own. When he and I had spoken in the garden, I had argued: “I am the new man, and you are a relic of the past.” But even as I had exclaimed these precise, true words, I had felt that Maurizio, despite belonging to the past, was still superior. Why? Now I realized that it was because I believed in this new man only with my head, but not with the deepest fibers of my being, the part of us that allows us to hold and return the gaze of a rival, that lends authority to our voice and decisiveness to our gestures, and forms the basis of the true strength of powerful men. I needed to release this conviction from the antechamber of my mind and send it to the deepest recesses of my being, into my blood, my flesh, my true matter. But I realized that by a circuitous route I had returned to the question of matter, to the evaluation of man as metal, substance, chemical makeup. In desperation, and still drunk, I turned out the light and threw myself facedown on the bed fully dressed.

  I’m not sure how long I lay like this, with my mouth pressed into the pillow and my body spread across the bed. I must have slept for about an hour, a sleep without dreams, dark and deep. When I awoke, my hand went automatically to the light switch; I saw that the clock on the dresser said it was four in the morning and realized that Nella had not yet returned. It occurred to me that perhaps she was really sick, to the point that she could not leave Maurizio’s villa, but then it occurred to me that her sickened state might only have been an excuse to spend the night at the villa. I did not have any deeper thoughts on the issue; this final hypothesis did not awaken worry, jealousy, or any other particular feeling. I began to undress, pulling off my clothes and throwing them on the floor far from the bed. I climbed under the covers and once again turned out the light. I think I fell asleep almost immediately, but this time my slumber did not last long. Little more than a quarter of an hour had passed when a light came on and I caught a glimpse of Nella between half-open lids swollen with sleep as she entered the room carefully, on tiptoe, trying

 
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