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       Boredom, p.31

           Alberto Moravia
 

  The unexpected freshness of the summer night made me look up instinctively at the sky as I opened the door of the car: the storm which had been hanging over the city all day long had burst elsewhere; the sky had now cleared and stars were shining brightly, and here and there a few light clouds mingled their whiteness with the luminous whiteness of the Milky Way. Cecilia, I thought, would have fine weather for her trip to Ponza; and again I was conscious of jealousy gnawing at my anxious heart. Yes, I would be counting the days, the hours, the minutes and the seconds as I waited for her to come back, knowing all the time that during those same days and hours and minutes and seconds she would be joking, laughing, strolling about, going on a boat ride and making love with Luciani—eluding me, in fact. And when she came back, I should not be able to restrain myself from starting to run after her again, like Balestrieri, in whose footsteps, it seemed, I was condemned to follow.

  I do not think I spoke more than two or three times, and then more and more briefly, during our drive from my mother’s villa to Cecilia’s home. Once I asked her, stupidly, to write to me, although I was very well aware that Cecilia, so reticent in speech, must be utterly dumb in correspondence and so would not write anything, even a picture post card. We reached the street in which she lived. I stopped and she got out and I said good-bye to her, after kissing her lightly on the mouth. I watched her as she crossed the street and thought: “Let’s hope that at least she’ll turn around in the doorway and smile and wave to me.” But I was disappointed in my expectation. Cecilia crossed the threshold and disappeared without turning around.

  As soon as she was gone I realized that I had no desire to go to my studio or anywhere else. The only place I wished to go was Cecilia’s home: it seemed to me that I had not finished with her yet. I wanted to go up to the flat, ring the doorbell, go with her to her bedroom and go to bed with her for the third time that day. I knew that this was madness, that by having her again I should not be possessing her any more than I possessed her now—which meant not at all—and that the thing which eluded me was not indeed her almost too complaisant body, but something which had nothing to do with her body. And yet I felt that this was the only thing I wanted to do.

  I do not know how long I debated this problem, sitting in my car in the deserted street in front of Cecilia’s door. Finally I said to myself that Cecilia, after all, had almost insisted on our being together until midnight, and that therefore there would be nothing strange about it if I, regretting that I had left her so early, telephoned and suggested taking her out to dinner. Cecilia, as I knew, had almost unlimited patience, and when she refused to do something she never refused because she did not want to do it but merely because she could not do otherwise. Suddenly making up my mind, I quickly backed the car to the corner, got out and went into the bar.

  But the telephone was occupied by the type of person one could not expect to finish quickly—a modest-appearing girl, a servant girl, perhaps, who was speaking and answering in an extremely low voice and with the long, reflective pauses of one who is engaged in a sentimental conversation. I did not hesitate a moment, but went straight out again and walked resolutely back to Cecilia’s door. Why should I telephone? I would go up to the flat, find her there and hurry her into her bedroom.

  I ran all the way up the stairs, ran across to ring the bell, then stopped panting on the landing, waiting for the door to open so that I could rush into the flat. But it was not Cecilia who came to open the door; it was her mother, with a troubled expression on her worn, painted face. “Cecilia?” I inquired.

  She replied in a voice of distress: “Cecilia’s not here, Professor.”

  “What, she’s not here?”

  “She went out just two minutes ago.”

  “But where has she gone?”

  “She’s gone out to dinner.”

  “What time will she be back?”

  “She’s not coming back, Professor. She took her suitcase with her. She’s going with a girl friend to Ponza. She’s sleeping at her friend’s house tonight and she’ll be back in a fortnight.”

  Thus, while I had been debating whether it was advisable to telephone her, Cecilia had run up to the flat, fetched her already packed suitcase, gone out by the usual door which opened on to the other street and made her way to Luciani’s. I looked up at her mother’s face and saw that she was biting her handkerchief and that her eyes were filled with tears. “But what has happened?” I could not help asking.

  “Cecilia has gone away, and her father is dying. She’s left me alone in this empty house. My husband was taken off yesterday to the clinic, and there’s no hope now.”

  “There’s no hope?”

  “No, the doctors give him only two or three days to live.”

  “But isn’t Cecilia fond of her father?”

  “Ah, Cecilia’s not fond of anyone, Professor.”

  All at once I remembered how Cecilia had come to look for me on the very day on which Balestrieri died. “I’m sorry,” I said abruptly, “I’m truly sorry,” and after listening impatiently with a set face to a few further laments, I went away.

  As I walked back to the car, I realized that I could not endure the idea that Cecilia was with the actor at that very moment. I was faced with the usual impossibility of doing anything at all except what I felt I ought not to do; and this was confirmed and made even more hopeless by my recent disappointment. I jumped into the car and very soon became aware that I was driving in the direction of Via Archimede, where Luciani lived. I say I became aware because I was acting in an automatic manner, with the type of automatism which goes with extreme rage. When I reached Via Archimede, I drove at headlong speed down the narrow, winding street as far as the bar, where I stopped and looked across at Luciani’s windows. They were in darkness, and at once I was sure that the two lovers were not there. Nevertheless I got out of the car, entered the building, and rang the bell of the actor’s flat on the ground floor. I do not know what came into my mind as I listened to the prolonged ringing of the bell inside the empty flat; I only know that two minutes later I was in the bar dialing the telephone number of a procuress through whom, in the past, I had made contact with girls of easy virtue. When the woman came to the other end of the line, she told me there was a girl available at the usual place, a villa on the Via Cassia.

  Back in the car, I reflected that the girl whom I was now preparing to visit was the exact opposite of Cecilia: she was at my entire disposal for a sum of money and I should possess her completely, with no margins of independence or mystery, thanks to that same sum of money. What I had not succeeded in doing in the villa on the Via Appia, with a proposal of marriage and half a million lire, I should now achieve, at small expense, in the maison de rendez-vous on the Via Cassia. But the girl was not Cecilia; why, then, was I going to visit her?

  I realized to my astonishment, when I tried to answer this question, that at the back of my absurd telephone call to the procuress there was a strange, almost unbelievable hope. In the midst of my fury I hoped, I truly hoped that in the villa on the Via Cassia I should find Cecilia herself waiting for me, ready to give herself to me and to allow me, at last, full possession. I really do not know where this hope came from; partly, perhaps from the alluring words of the procuress who, like all her kind, had made marvelous promises of the very thing she could not possibly provide—that is, love; but partly also from the fact that all rational means of possessing Cecilia having proved vain, my only hope now lay in a miracle.

  With these thoughts in my head, or rather, in this raging, almost mystical state of mind, I drove out of the city and started along the Via Cassia. The villa was in the open country; I went on for about twenty minutes or so and then arrived at a rustic iron gate, wide open, with a rough lane leading up from it to the top of a hill upon which could be seen a white building. I drove quickly through the gate and up the road between little stunted trees that appeared to have been recently planted. Leaning forward on the steering wheel, I could see that a
ll the windows in the villa were dark; then one of these windows was lit up. The car came out on to an open, graveled space; I stopped and got out.

  The villa was a plain building, with two stories and three windows on each floor, and with an outside staircase going up to the first floor. The staircase led to a little balcony, on which a lantern suddenly appeared as I was getting out of the car. Then a small black figure was outlined against the yellow light of the lantern, a girl with luxuriant hair, a prominent bosom, a slim waist—in fact, I was sure of it, Cecilia.

  I thought: “It’s Cecilia!” and rushed up the staircase while the dark figure, leaning placidly with her elbows on the balustrade, watched me. When I reached the top, she straightened up and came forward to meet me, saying: “Good evening.”

  She was against the light and I could not see her face, but her voice seemed to me to be Cecilia’s and I took her in my arms. I saw, then, the pretty, plump face of a very young girl, a face covered with the fashionable livid, corpse-like powder, with lilac-painted lips, eyes encircled with black, and fair, straw-colored hair. She had Cecilia’s prominent bosom; her waist, around which I had put my arms, was as slim as Cecilia’s. But it was not Cecilia.

  But, in my stupefaction, I exclaimed: “Cecilia!”

  The girl smiled and replied: “My name isn’t Cecilia, my name’s Gianna.”

  “But I wanted Cecilia.”

  “I don’t know who Cecilia is, there’s no Cecilia here. Well, shall we go in?”

  I said: “Cecilia, I came for Cecilia,” then I tore myself away from the girl, ran down the stairs, crossed the open space and got back into my car. A moment later I was driving along the Via Cassia, not in the direction of Rome but out into the country.

  For some time now I had been conscious, when driving, of a frequent temptation to go off the road and rush at full speed into the first obstacle I encountered. This temptation, singularly hard to resist, was enticing and at the same time reassuring—like the temptation a child feels when he plays with his father’s revolver and from time to time raises it to his forehead. And yet I did not think of killing myself, the idea of suicide was never in my mind. The desire for death was, on the contrary, in my body, which was worn out with anguish, so that I often felt that my arm would very easily give the steering wheel the half-turn which was all that would be required to hurl the car against a boundary wall or a white-banded plane tree. It was an almost irresistible temptation, sweet and reassuring, and it made me think of the temptation to fall asleep which sometimes gets the better of us in spite of ourselves, causing us to dream that we are resisting sleep and are awake, when in reality we are already fast asleep. I knew in advance that if I killed myself in my car I would do it without realizing it and without intending it, just as though I had really followed an imaginary road different from the one along which I was driving, a road which took no account of boundary walls or trees or houses, and at the end of which was death.

  That evening, as I was driving in a haphazard way along the Via Cassia, out into the country, there flashed into my mind a remark I had once heard: “Humanity is divided into two main categories; those who, when faced with an insurmountable difficulty, feel an impulse to kill, and those who, on the contrary, feel an impulse to kill themselves.” I said to myself that I had tried the first horn of the dilemma and had failed in the attempt: I had been incapable of killing Cecilia, shortly before, on my mother’s bed. Now there was nothing left but to kill myself. It occurred to me that if I killed myself I should be behaving exactly like any other lover since the world began: Cecilia was going off to Ponza with Luciani and so I killed myself. But it was precisely this reflection upon the banality and normality of my position that inspired in me a destructive fury more intense than ever. At that moment I came on to a straight stretch of road bordered with trees; there was a slow-moving truck in front of me. I shifted gears in order to overtake it, and it was possibly this gear shifting, with its momentary slowing down, that saved my life. Immediately after shifting, just as though I had really seen another road on my left into which I wanted to turn, I drove the car into a plane tree.

  Epilogue

  IN FRONT OF the window of my room at the hospital to which I had been taken after the collision there was a great tree in the garden, a cedar of Lebanon, with long drooping branches of an almost blue green. I took to gazing at it for hours, my head turned sideways on the pillow as I lay on my back in bed—during all those hours, in fact, that were not occupied in sleeping or eating; for I was almost always alone, having let my mother and my few friends know the first day that I did not want to be visited. I gazed at the tree and experienced a feeling of absolute but calm and stabilized despair, such as one might well feel after passing through a crisis which, though not decisive, may yet be supposed to be the greatest that one can face. What for lack of a more appropriate term I must call my suicide had resolved nothing, but the fact of having attempted it had made me feel I had done all that was in my power; more than that I could not do. In other words, the fact that I had tried to kill myself confirmed the seriousness of my involvement. I was not dead, but at least I had proved to myself that, rather than go on living as I had lived previously, I should have preferred, and seriously preferred death. All this did not mitigate the feeling of despair that occupied my mind; but it introduced a certain kind of mournful, resigned serenity. I had indeed visited the dim purlieus of death, but I had returned; and now, although without hope, all that was left for me was to go on living.

  As I have said, I spent hours gazing at the tree, to the great surprise of the nuns and the servants in the hospital, who said they had never seen a quieter patient than me. In reality I was not quiet, merely I was closely occupied with the only thing that truly interested me at that moment, the contemplation of the tree. I had no thoughts, I simply wondered when and how I had recognized the reality of the tree, had recognized, in other words, its existence as an object which was different from myself, had no relationship with me, and yet was there and could not be ignored. Evidently something had occurred just at the moment when I hurled myself off the road in my car; something which, to put it plainly, might be described as the collapse of an insupportable ambition. I now contemplated the tree with infinite complacency, as though to feel it different from myself and independent of me were the only thing that gave me pleasure. But I knew that chance alone had willed that the tree would be the object of my contemplation; the plaster casing compelled me to lie on my back and forced me to look through the window of my room. Any other object, I realized, would have provided me with the same kind of contemplation, the same feeling of infinite complacency.

  And indeed, as soon as I began to think about Cecilia again, I was aware of the same thing happening to me as when I gazed at the tree through the window. Ten days had passed since my collision and Cecilia was certainly still at Ponza with Luciani; I took to thinking about her, therefore, at first cautiously and at rare intervals, then more often and with greater confidence. I realized then that I was able to imagine perfectly well, just as if I had been present, all the things she was doing while I was lying there in bed at the hospital. To say “imagine” is to say too little, for I could see her. As through the wrong end of a telescope, I saw the tiny, remote but brightly clear figures of Cecilia and the actor moving, running, embracing, walking, lying together, disappearing and reappearing in a hundred different attitudes against a background of blue sea and calm, luminous sky. I knew from experience that happiness is to be found with the person whom one loves and who loves one, in a lovely, peaceful place; I was sure that Cecilia, in her own economical, inexpressive way, was happy, and I was astonished to find that I was pleased. Yes indeed, I was pleased that she should be happy, but above all I was pleased that she should exist, away there in the island of Ponza, in a manner which was her own and which was different from mine and in contrast with mine, with a man who was not myself, far away from me. I was here in the hospital, I repeated to myself from time to t
ime, and she was at Ponza with the actor, and we were two different people and she had nothing to do with me and I had nothing to do with her, and she was apart from me, as I was apart from her. And finally I no longer desired to possess her but to watch her live her life, just as she was, that is, to contemplate her in the same way that I contemplated the tree outside my window. This contemplation would never come to an end for the simple reason that I did not wish it to come to an end, that is, I did not wish the tree, or Cecilia, or any other object outside myself, to become boring to me and consequently to cease to exist. In reality, as I suddenly realized with a feeling almost of surprise, I had relinquished Cecilia once and for all; and, strange to relate, from the very moment of this relinquishment, Cecilia had begun to exist for me.

  I wondered if possibly, in relinquishing Cecilia, I had also ceased to love her, in other words to experience toward her that same feeling, always delusive and always disappointed, that I had previously had, and which, for lack of a more appropriate term, I must call love. I was aware that that kind of love was dead, but that I loved her all the same, though with a love that was new and different. This new love might or might not be accompanied by a physical relationship, but it did not depend upon it, and in a way did not need it. When Cecilia came back we might or we might not resume our former relations, but I, in any case, would not cease to love her.

  At this point I must admit that my ideas became confused. I recalled that from the very beginning it had seemed to me that my relationship with Cecilia had differed in no way from my contact with reality; in other words, that my fundamental reasons for ceasing to paint had been the same as those for which I had attempted to kill myself. But now? In the end I said to myself that, for the moment, I had to remain in bed for more than a month and that it was too soon to come to any sort of decision. Once I was well, I would go back to the studio and try to start painting again. I say that I would try, because I was not at all sure that the connection I had seen for so long between Cecilia and my painting really existed; or that loving Cecilia in a new way would mean starting to paint again. Here again, only experience would be able to provide an answer.

 
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