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Two friends, p.25
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       Two Friends, p.25

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  to avoid making noise. I closed my eyes again, feigning sleep, and watched as she went back and forth, undressing quickly, putting her clothes away in the closet—carefully, as always—and placing her slip, stockings, and shoes on a chair at the foot of the bed. When she was completely undressed, she went over to the vanity table, sat down on the narrow stool in front of the mirror, and began to comb her hair with quick, energetic strokes. From the bed I could see her torso, almost adolescent and boyish except where it widened and grew paler in the discreet but clearly feminine width of the hips. Her mane of red hair, tinged with a metallic hue in the light of the lamp, made her shoulders appear even more narrow and her arms more child-like as she brushed her hair. Every so often she turned her head slightly, energetically brushing the hair to one side, and I could see, beneath her outstretched, raised arm, the round, heavy, buttery whiteness of her breast with its pink tip. As I gazed at her, so chaste and innocent, it occurred to me that I loved her and that I was lucky to have such a lover. Then, as she got up from the stool and tiptoed over to the bed, I closed my eyes quickly. She put one knee on the bed and leaned over me, her breasts hanging over my face. I could smell her breath, innocently soaked in the ardent fragrance of alcohol. She whispered, “Are you asleep?” I pretended not to hear her, and she repeated the question one more time, in a slightly more audible voice: “Are you sleeping?” She clearly wanted to wake me, but at the same time wanted to let me sleep, a childish contradiction which suddenly made me smile. “No, I’m awake,” I said, rousing myself and putting my arms around her waist. “I thought you were sleeping,” she said, panting, pressing her cool, solid, smooth, slippery body against me. As I kissed her, I stretched out one arm to turn out the light and then embraced her more tightly, with both arms. She returned my embrace with infantile, awkward ardor, murmuring: “Do you love me? Do you love me?”

  After we made love we lay side by side, my arm still around her slender waist and her hand languidly resting on my groin. For a few moments, in the dark, it seemed that we were both remembering the events of

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  the evening. In fact, after a few minutes, Nella began to speak; her tone was that of a person who is unsure of her interlocutor’s reaction: “You remember that man, Moroni, who said he would find work for me in the movies? He was serious … He’s Maurizio’s partner … After you left, I went back downstairs and the two of them looked after me and told me that soon they will arrange a screen test for me.”

  “Well, I hope it goes well for you,” I mumbled in the dark, with a touch of sarcasm.

  She thought I was jealous, and immediately embraced me and planted a kiss on my cheek, saying quickly: “I’ll always love you, and only you … even if I become a movie star and make lots of money … I’ll give it all to you … You can do what you like with it. I won’t keep even a penny for myself.”

  “You want me to become a kept man,” I said, with the same sarcastic tone.

  “Don’t say that … I want you not to have to work for money, so you can focus on your studies … They both like you very much and, you know, Maurizio told me that deep down he more or less agrees with your political ideas.”

  She was clearly saying these things so that I would accept Maurizio’s favors, which, I suspected, were self-interested. She wanted to gain my consent. But I did not linger on Nella’s intentions. Instead I asked, eagerly, “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that he too is a Communist, even if he’s not an actual Party member. Aren’t you glad?”

  It was clear that she was attempting, with innocent feminine resolve, to render Maurizio more sympathetic to my eyes in order to convince me that the offer was an honorable one. Even with this knowledge, my mind had already set off in pursuit of yet another mirage. I asked Nella: “Are you sure that’s what he said?”

  “He definitely said it … Maybe he was drunk, but I don’t think so.”

  I was no longer listening. My mind was already lost

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  in myriad reflections, like following a scent in the forest and through fields. This tangle of thoughts became more obscure and dense as I lost myself in its possibilities. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep, lying next to Nella in silence as she continued to talk into the night.

  [VI]

  I awoke late the next morning with the firm intention of returning to Maurizio’s house to confront him man to man, without the distracting presence of guests or alcohol, and, I hoped, unburden myself of my feelings of inferiority. It was as if my mind had been hard at work through the night and had come to this decision without my knowledge. I had two new weapons, in addition to the ones I already knew of: his probable feelings for Nella—or at least his obvious interest in her—and his confessed sympathy for the Party. I would have to insert these new weapons or levers into a crack in his shield in order to destroy it completely. I intuited deep down that these were very powerful weapons, and, though I did not know exactly how I would use them, I had a feeling that I was on the right track and that if I was careful, I might finally attain my much-desired victory. It may seem strange, but the idea that Maurizio might also hold his own weapons, or even the same ones, did not occur to me. And yet I should have suspected that Nella and the Party could also be turned against me. But that is how we men are made: we see everything from our own point of view and have great difficulty imagining another perspective.

  This time I did not want Nella to know about my visit, so I did not share my plans with her. She was still asleep when I snuck out of the room to use the telephone in the vestibule of the rooming house. After

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  asking for my name and giving an ambiguous answer regarding Maurizio’s whereabouts, Maurizio’s butler went off to look for him. After a few minutes, I heard Maurizio’s voice on the line. I said drily that I wanted to see him, and he answered quickly that we could meet whenever and wherever I liked. We made an appointment for that afternoon at his house. Then I said impulsively, “Thank you for bringing Nella home last night.”

  “You should thank Moroni,” he answered; “he was the one who took her home.”

  “In that case, please thank him for me.”

  “I will.”

  Quietly, I returned to our room without awakening Nella, who was lost in a child-like slumber. I sat at my table and worked on my translation until almost two in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Nella had awoken. She said good morning as usual, coming up behind me and kissing me, taking me by surprise. She got dressed and we went to eat at the usual trattoria, where we paid on credit. Nella kept yawning and I too felt tired, but at the same time I was unnaturally awake, filled with nervous energy rather than physical vigor. When we returned home Nella threw herself on the bed. She said, “I’m going to sleep for a bit”; I had already picked up a book and was reading, stretched out on the armchair. She added, absentmindedly: “What are you going to do today?” For some reason I answered, “I’m going to see a producer … Maybe he’ll ask me to write a screenplay, who knows.” “That way we’ll both work in the movies,” she said, yawning. She fell asleep almost immediately. The appointment with Maurizio was not until the late afternoon, so I continued to read for a while longer. Then it occurred to me that it would be best not to show up at Maurizio’s tired and nervous, and I decided to take a nap. This again proved that I assigned a great importance to my meeting with Maurizio, yet another sign of my inferiority complex, which I was anxious to rid myself of at any cost. Ruminating on these thoughts, I stretched out on the bed, my feet against Nella’s shoulder and my face against her feet. I fell asleep almost immediately.

  I awoke suddenly with a heavy head and a bitter

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  taste in my mouth, as if I had not rested at all. As I sat up and looked around, I realized that Nella was no longer lying next to me, nor was she in the room. There was a piece of paper on the typewriter: “I had an appointment with Maurizio to discuss working in the movies … I’ll
be home early, before dinner.” I was taken aback; Maurizio had said nothing about this and he was not in the habit of hiding things. Of course, it would have been useless to hide Nella’s visit since I too was supposed to see him that afternoon. I reasoned that Nella must have called him and that Maurizio had invited her to his house at the same time I was supposed to be there. But why hadn’t Nella waited for us to go together? With these questions circulating in my head I quickly got dressed and left the rooming house.

  I was now in a rush to “surprise” Nella at Maurizio’s; this way, I reasoned, I would have yet another weapon to use against Maurizio. I could prove that he had hidden something from me, and this would be useful when I decided to confront him about his feelings for Nella. Deceptiveness and lying, whatever the reason, were signs of weakness, and I was glad that Maurizio had finally cracked. Reinvigorated by these thoughts, I decided to take a taxi to Maurizio’s house, and once there I did not hesitate to ring the bell; instead, I rang it with a kind of aggressive impatience.

  The butler came to the door and wordlessly led me into the largest sitting room. The house, which the night before had been crowded with people and full of light, was now silent and dark. There was no sign of Nella. I sat in an armchair and almost involuntarily thought that she was probably somewhere upstairs. This thought was surely caused by jealousy; I knew of course that the bedrooms were upstairs and that Nella could be there for only one reason,

  271*

  in other words if something had happened between her and Maurizio the night before and an amorous relation had begun between them. But, though jealousy was the cause of this train of thought, I did not feel the corresponding emotions. I was calm and almost hopeful. I was locked in a struggle with Maurizio, and if Maurizio wanted Nella that would give me the upper hand.

  A few minutes later the door opened and Maurizio walked in. Standing up, I asked, “Where is Nella?”

  I must have looked visibly perturbed, because Maurizio seemed almost alarmed. Calmly, he asked: “What do you mean?”

  “She told me she was coming here.”

  At first he looked surprised, but then he seemed to remember something and said in a measured tone: “I made an appointment with her, but not here, at the offices of Aquila Film, our production company … My partner, Moroni, will talk to her. I decided to stay here so that you and I could meet.”

  Once again I had betrayed myself and allowed my thoughts to lead me in a direction that did not fit my tortuous reality. I sat down, annoyed. “I’m sorry … I fell asleep and when I woke up I found a note from Nella saying that she had an appointment with you.”

  “That’s right.”

  He went about the room opening windows and shutters in order to allow in the late afternoon sun. I took advantage of this pause to pull myself together and watch him. Even though this was our third meeting, I had never observed him closely; I now had the opportunity to see whether he was still the Maurizio I had always known and against whom I felt compelled to do battle. Our recent meetings had taken place in exceptional circumstances which were not conducive to close observation. The first had been in the dark, in Maurizio’s car and in the square on the Gianicolo. The second was in a crowd of guests, after too much drink. I now observed him with great curiosity, as if

  272*

  seeing him for the first time.

  I was struck by a detail I had never noticed before: Maurizio had a limp. There was nothing disfiguring about this slight, halting movement; to the contrary, it gave him a mysterious, distinctive air. Comparing the man I had before me to my memories from five years earlier, I now saw that there were subtle changes. Back then, there had been something adolescent about him, whereas now one could say that he was almost too manly. He was tall, well built, with wide shoulders and big hands and feet; his face was pale but not wan, and rather full and well-fed; he had a bristling mustache beneath a pronounced nose and a willful chin and jaw. The overall impression was of physical strength; at first glance, he seemed hampered and embarrassed by it. He also seemed almost awkward or clumsy, as if he might knock over a table or step on someone’s toes at any moment. But as I observed him more closely I realized that this first impression was misleading. In truth, as he moved about the sitting room his gait and gestures revealed a singular skill, prudence, and agility. By analogy, it occurred to me that the apparent simplicity and coarseness of his personality might conceal a similar agility and cunning. His face, for example, radiated an air of great simplicity, without subtlety or indecision. His brow was square, his eyes clear and well-outlined, his nose pronounced and mouth completely lacking in sinuosity. But then, if one looked more closely, one could just make out a slight air of prudent, cautious concern. His mouth had a tight cast to it, his eyes were shaded and slightly evasive. Behind the somewhat brutal mask lay a clever, cautious spirit.

  He carefully regulated the position of the curtains

  273*

  so that the soft late afternoon light would shine evenly throughout the room. Then he came and sat down across from me. I felt much calmer and more lucid, as if this chance to observe him had reassured me. He asked: “Would you like something to drink … a whiskey, perhaps?”

  “No, thank you!” I said, with alacrity. “I think I drank enough last night to last me all year.”

  “As you like,” he said, serving himself half a glass from a bottle on a small table and then mixing it with mineral water. After a brief pause, I spoke: “Last night I drank far too much, and I’m afraid I behaved deplorably.”

  He said nothing. It occurred to me that silence was probably one of the tactics he used to embarrass people who, like me, were impatient and overly earnest. So I decided that I too would remain silent. I would say nothing until he spoke, even if this meant that we sat in silence until the end of my visit. I pulled a pack of cigarettes and some matches out of my pocket, slowly lit one, and began to smoke. I reasoned that if Maurizio had no hostile intentions toward me, he would be surprised by my silence, and after a few moments, he would say something, or at least point out my strange behavior. But if, as I believed, he was hostile toward me and was animated by the same rivalry that I felt, he would remain silent, in an attempt to force me to speak first. In that case it would be obvious that he too saw us as rivals and enemies, as two people locked in struggle, however unspoken and unspeakable that struggle might be. A few minutes passed. I smoked in silence. Every so often, Maurizio took a sip of his drink. After a while I glanced at my watch and saw that seven minutes had passed. I waited another three minutes, and still, neither of us spoke. Now I knew that I was right. Maurizio and

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  I saw things the same way; he did not consider us to be friends or acquaintances, but rivals, perhaps even enemies. This discovery encouraged me. The previous evening he had maintained a slippery, evasive attitude, hiding his intentions and leading me to wonder whether my interpretation of our rivalry might be simply the result of my own twisted logic and the fruit of my feelings of inferiority. But now I thought to myself: “So it’s true … you too have a desire to conquer me, to put me at a disadvantage, as they say.” This was a heartening thought: better a confessed enemy than a false friend. I decided to wait another five minutes, still hoping to make him talk. But after five minutes I had to confess that in this silent test of wills he was surely, if not necessarily the stronger party, at least the most disinterested. In other words, he emanated a complete indifference, whether sincere or excellently simulated I did not know. If I departed without speaking, I would be left with a nagging curiosity about what he might have said and how I might have responded. I would leave with the suspicion that he had nothing to say to me, and no desire to hear what I had to say. As I thought this, lucidly and objectively and in silence, I was once again forced to recognize that he was the stronger of the two. Suddenly I became annoyed and blurted out, in a cutting voice: “Fine, I’ll speak … I’ll speak first … but only to say that I can see your tactics; I know that by rema
ining silent you are presenting me with a kind of challenge, and I refuse to rise to the challenge. After all, we’re not children anymore … staring in silence and waiting to see who will crack … That’s a kid’s game.”

  “That may be true, but still, you spoke first.”

  Evidently he felt strongly about his methods and was congratulating himself on the results: he had forced me to break the silence. I pretended not to understand what he was insinuating and continued: “Why are you limping? I don’t remember you having a limp five years ago.”

  He answered indifferently: “I broke my leg fighting

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  with the partigiani … jumping off a boulder in the mountains.”

  There was another silence. I stared at him and finally gave voice to a thought that had been bouncing around in my head for a while: “You know, you’ve changed.”

  He looked at me with some curiosity: “In what way?”

  “You used to be more sure of yourself … and more arrogant, at least with me … Now you seem more prudent.”

  Almost with humility he confessed: “Yes, it’s true.”

 
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