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       Boredom, p.24

           Alberto Moravia
 

  At first, as I have said, I gave her from five to thirty thousand lire, wishing to see whether she would react in any way to these varying sums. I felt that if she said to me: “Last time you gave me twenty thousand lire, today you’ve given me only five—why is that?” I should have more than sufficient reason to consider that she was venal. But she never showed that she noticed whether the notes I put in her hand were single or double, green or red, as though the gesture of paying her had no particular significance but was simply one of the many gestures I made when I was with her, which I might have made in a different way or not at all, without our relationship being altered on that account. Then I decided to see what would happen if I stopped giving her money. Strange to say, I set about this experiment with a beating of the heart. I did not openly admit it to myself, but since I was almost convinced that these banknotes which I slipped furtively into Cecilia’s hand now constituted the chief grounds for our relationship, I was afraid of losing her at the very moment when I hoped to prove to myself that, in losing her, I had nothing to lose.

  One day, therefore, I did not put anything into her hand. To my astonishment Cecilia, far from showing disappointment, did not even appear to have noticed the change that had occurred in the customary love ritual. In the clasp of the fingers that received my empty hand there was no feeling of surprise or dissatisfaction; it was exactly the same handclasp with which, on the previous days, she had announced to me after receiving the money that she was ready to give herself to me. That day she behaved during our lovemaking in the same way as on the days when I paid her; and she went away without alluding in any way to the fact that I had not paid her. I did the same thing two or three times, but Cecilia, childishly impenetrable, again gave no sign of having noticed anything. So I found myself faced with three possibilities: either Cecilia was venal, but was sufficiently superior and elegant in her astuteness not to show it; or she was absent-minded, but with a highly mysterious kind of absent-mindedness—that is, she was as elusive as before and as always, in spite of the money; or again, she was completely disinterested, and in this case too she eluded me and withdrew herself from my possession. I turned over this problem in my mind for some time, and in the end decided to get her with her back to the wall. One day I again slipped two ten thousand lire notes into her hand and said to her: “Look, I’ve given you twenty thousand lire.”

  “Yes, I noticed you had.”

  “It’s the first time I’ve done it, after giving you nothing for a week. Did you notice that too?”

  “Of course.”

  “You weren’t annoyed?”

  “I imagined you hadn’t the money.”

  Cecilia, completely devoid of curiosity as she was, had never questioned me about my family and did not know that I was rich. She took me for what I appeared—a painter in a sweater and a pair of corduroy trousers, with a very untidy studio and a decrepit car. And so her reply was, as usual, the only one she could give. “It’s true,” I went on, “I didn’t have the money, but I thought you might be annoyed that I stopped giving you any.”

  “To be left without money is a thing that can happen to anyone,” she answered ambiguously.

  “Supposing that from now on I couldn’t give you any more—what would you do?”

  “You gave me some today; why think of the future?”

  This was one of Cecilia’s fundamental responses: past and future, for her, did not exist; only the most immediate present, in fact only the actual fleeting moment, seemed to her worthy of consideration. I went on insisting, however: “But suppose I didn’t give you anything more; would you go on seeing me?”

  She looked at me, and then finally replied: “Didn’t we see each other before you started giving me anything?” It was, I thought, the perfect answer. But her uncertain, dubious, questioning tone, as if she were not entirely sure of what she was saying, seemed to allow room for the supposition that if I did really stop paying her she would perhaps reconsider the whole question of our relationship. And yet even this was not certain. Cecilia, as I perceived, did not really know what she would do if I ceased to give her money; and this for the good reason that, being attached to the present and quite devoid of imagination, she could not foresee what feeling my financial shortcomings would arouse in her, and above all to what extent, once I had stopped paying her, she would feel the desire to make love with me, whether less or more or in the same way or in a different way or not at all. “Now listen,” I said, “I want to make a suggestion. Instead of my giving you sometimes five, sometimes ten, sometimes twenty, sometimes thirty thousand lire, as I do at present, we might agree on a fixed amount which I would give you once a month. What do you say to that?”

  She immediately protested, as though she were being asked to replace a cherished habit, slightly absurd but nevertheless poetical, with something more rational but prosaic. “No, no,” she said, “let’s go on like this, as we’ve done so far. You can give me what you like and when you like, from time to time, without any rules; anyhow, like that it’s a surprise every time.”

  Thus once again I failed to catch Cecilia in the trap of venality, and also failed to transform her from a creature of mystery and elusiveness into an ordinary, boring, mercenary woman. I came finally to the conclusion that the money one gives to a prostitute has, in reality, a possessive character because not only the one who gives it but also the one who receives it considers it as a recompense for certain very precise services. In other words, the prostitute’s client knows that, if he does not pay her, the woman will reject him; the woman, on her side, knows that if she accepts the money she is then obliged to give herself to him. But I was conscious that Cecilia gave herself to me for reasons that had nothing to do with money; and that she, on her side, appeared not to know that the money, once accepted, obliged her to give herself. I had proof of this ignorance one day when, after I had placed the banknotes in her hand as usual, I found myself being rejected with the following words: “Look, I don’t want to today; let’s be together like brother and sister”—words in which there was no trace of any sort of calculation but merely a quite ingenuous indifference. In the meantime, however, the notes were in her hand, and immediately afterward she put them into her bag. Thus the money which, as long as I had it in my pocket, might seem to me to be the symbol of possession, became the symbol of the impossibility of that same possession as soon as it passed into Cecilia’s bag.

  On the other hand, the knowledge that each time she visited me she would receive money did not appear to alter the insecure, irregular, unexpected, problematical character of these visits. Not merely did Cecilia now come to see me not more than two or three times a week, exactly as she had done when she was not receiving anything from me; but it also seemed clear to me, from the hesitations and uncertainties in her tone of voice when she telephoned me to arrange an appointment, that our meetings depended, as in the past, upon disinterested and mysterious obligations and opportunities that had nothing to do with money.

  The first effect of this frenzy of mine to possess Cecilia through the medium of venality was that, in order to meet the expense forced upon me by my experiment, I again approached my mother, from whom I had hitherto asked nothing more than what was strictly necessary to live on. I could have wished now that I had not been so contemptuous of her money; I was aware that I had accustomed her, by now, to a disinterestedness on my part which I would willingly have discarded and which obliged me to assume a character toward Cecilia which if not actually miserly, was at any rate parsimonious. But there it was: I had wished to be poor, without foreseeing that Cecilia would make me want to be rich, and now it was too late to change my mother’s ideas about me, all the more so since these ideas accorded all too well with her own natural inclination toward thrift. I knew, nevertheless, that my mother was prepared to give me a good deal more than she had so far given me; but I also knew that she was not prepared to give me anything without something in exchange. My mother held fast to her desire that I sho
uld go back and live with her, and I was not ignorant of the fact that the money which she had so often offered me in vain, and the money which she was now giving me in increasing amounts whenever I asked for it, had the same object always in view, that of putting herself in the position of being able to impose her will upon me. I tried to postpone the clash which I felt to be inevitable by treating my mother, in exchange for her unexpected generosity, with an assiduity and an affection to which I had certainly not accustomed her in the past. Then, seeing that she not only did not refuse me the money but even, apparently, encouraged me to go on asking for more, I suddenly realized that the relationship between her and me was, fundamentally, almost the same as that between myself and Cecilia: my mother, too, was seeking to get control over me by means of money. But here the resemblance ended, for I was not like Cecilia and, above all, my mother was not like me. Money, between Cecilia and me, owing to the lack of importance which we both for different reasons attached to it, seemed no longer to be money at all but a part of our sexual relationship; whereas between me and my mother, just because for her it was not, and could never be, anything but money, it preserved intact its original character. In other words, although my mother certainly loved me, she was not in the least disposed to sink money in me permanently, so to speak, simply because she was fond of me—that is, to do the only thing that could deprive the money itself of its accustomed significance.

  I had a confirmation of this difference one day when I asked her for a much larger sum on a pretext which, as will be seen, was extremely unfortunate. It was after lunch; and my mother, as usual, had lain down on her bed in her own room, one arm over her face and her legs dangling. I was sitting in an armchair at the foot of the bed, and asking her questions, I believe, about my father—one of the few subjects which we had in common and which never ceased to interest me. My mother answered more and more briefly and vaguely and appeared on the point of falling asleep. Suddenly, without any preparation, I said to her: “By the way, I’m in need of three hundred thousand lire.”

  I noticed that she drew her arm very slowly away from one of her eyes and looked at me for a moment with that eye only. Then, with a first sign of unpleasantness in the tone of her sleepy voice, she said: “I gave you fifty thousand on Saturday, and it’s only Tuesday now; what do you want all this money for?”

  In accordance with the plan I had previously worked out, I replied: “It’s only the first installment of the sum I shall have to spend. I’ve decided that I must renovate the studio, which is in a shameful state.”

  “And how much will the total expense amount to?”

  “At least three times as much. Apart from plastering and whitewashing, I shall have to redo the bathroom entirely, put up new curtains, repair the floor, and so on.”

  It had seemed to me a good plan. The studio was really in bad shape; I had good justification for touching my mother for a million or even a million and a half. Furthermore, I knew that my mother, owing to her aversion to my studio—a point of honor with her—would never make up her mind to come to Via Margutta in order to see how I was spending her money.

  I awaited her answer, therefore, with confidence. She was lying still now; she appeared really to have dropped off to sleep. Finally, however, from beneath the arm which covered her face, came a perfectly wide-awake voice: “This time I shall not give you the money.”

  “But why?”

  “Because I don’t see any need for you to give the landlord a present of a million lire when you have the possibility of living in a villa on the Via Appia.”

  I saw how she intended to parry the blow and realized, too late, that the pretext I had devised to extract the money from her was the very one I should have avoided. Pretending to be surprised, however, I exclaimed: “What has that to do with it?”

  “You gave me to understand that you intended to come back and live here,” said my mother in a slow, hard, monotonous voice, “and I, as you may have noticed, had the tact to give you as long as you wished to decide. But now you are asking me for money to do up your studio. So I am forced to conclude that you have gone back on your promise.”

  “I never made any promise,” I said, irritated. “On the contrary, in fact, I’ve never concealed my repugnance at the idea of living with you.”

  “Well then, my dear Dino, you can hardly be surprised at my saying that this time I shall not give you the money.”

  Two days before, I had given Cecilia the last thirty thousand lire that I possessed, and Cecilia was to come and visit me in the afternoon. It was possible for me not to give her anything, as so often in the past; but I was suddenly conscious that I would now no longer be capable of that. This was not so much because I felt that by giving her money I possessed her, as for the opposite reason: the money now endowed Cecilia’s elusiveness with a new aspect which confirmed and complicated it—that of her disinterestedness. And just because she did not allow herself to be possessed through the medium of money, I now felt myself irresistibly urged to give it to her; in the same way that, just because I could not succeed in possessing her through the sexual act, I felt myself urged to repeat that same act over and over again. In reality, both the money and the sexual act gave me for a moment the illusion of possession, and I could now no longer do without that moment, although I knew that it was regularly followed by a feeling of profound disillusionment. I looked at my mother lying there flat on her back with her arm over her face, then I thought of Cecilia who, at the same moment that she closed her hand on my money, opened her mouth to my kiss, and I felt that I would be capable of committing a crime in order to have the money I needed. My attention was drawn especially to the hand which my mother held over her eyes; on each of its thin fingers were massive rings with precious stones in them; all I need do was to slip off one of these rings and I should be able to give Cecilia all the money I wanted, at any rate for some months. Then, for some reason, I remembered the favorable, if self-interested, behavior of my mother when I had made advances to the maid Rita; and I changed my plan. I got up and sat on the bed, and said with calculated gentleness: “Mother, I want to be honest with you. I don’t need this money for doing up the studio. I need it for another reason.”

  “And what reason is that?”

  “It would be better if you gave me the money without asking so many questions. There are things that it’s not easy to say.”

  “A mother has the right to know in what way her son spends her money.”

  “A son of sixteen, I daresay; but not a son of thirty-five.”

  “A mother is a mother, whatever age her son is.”

  “Well, I want this money for a woman.” After I had said this, I looked at my mother again. She was still motionless, and appeared once more to have fallen asleep. Then her voice came to me: “Some bad woman, no doubt.”

  “But, Mother, if she was a bad woman, do you think I should be asking you for three hundred thousand lire?”

  “A respectable woman doesn’t expect to be paid.”

  “But supposing this woman is in real need?”

  “Be careful, Dino, there are women who are capable of inventing all kinds of wonderful romances in order to get money.”

  “It’s not a case of romance, it’s a case of absolute necessities—food, rent, clothes.”

  “In fact, you have to keep her in every possible way?”

  “Not exactly; just to help her a little, for a certain time.”

  “A piece of riff-raff, I suppose,” said my mother. “How much better it would have been, Dino, if you had had a liaison with a married lady, someone of your own world, who would not have asked you for anything and would not have been a burden upon you in any way.”

  I replied, without irony: “My world is not the world in which ladies of that kind are to be found.”

  “Your world is my world,” said my mother. “Above all, Dino, do be careful; you can catch all sorts of diseases with these adventuresses who are going about nowadays.”

 
; “I haven’t caught anything yet, and I won’t catch anything in the future.”

  “How do you know who this woman goes with when you’re not there? I repeat, Dino, be careful. Of course you know that in some cases there are precautions that can and ought to be taken.”

  “You’ll be telling me next how I ought to conduct myself when I make love.”

  “No, but I want to put you on your guard. After all you are my son and your health is important to me.”

  “Well, Mother, to come to the point: are you going to give me this money?”

  My mother removed her hand from her eyes and looked at me. “And who is this woman?” she asked.

  I answered with a phrase worthy of Cecilia. “This woman is—a woman.”

  “You see—you want money, and then you don’t trust me.”

  “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but what does it matter to you whether she’s called Maria, or Clara, or Paola?”

  “I didn’t ask you her name, I asked you who she is—whether she’s unmarried or married, whether she works or does nothing or is a student, how old she is, what she looks like.”

  “What a lot you want for a miserable little three hundred thousand lire!”

  “You forget that, if we were to settle accounts and include what I have given you already, we should have to multiply these three hundred thousand lire that you despise so much, several times over.”

 
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