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       Two Friends, p.4

           Alberto Moravia
 

  As he lay on his bed he tried to reflect on the situation.

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  It occurred to him that, given his family’s courageous resignation, the option of accepting Maurizio’s offer was not, after all, as contemptible as he had thought. But in truth he was not afraid of staying, and did not even know why he should be. His doubts were not born of a debate between courage and fear, but rather from his eternal feeling of inertia. As usual, he did not take action, or feel the impulse to take action. Maurizio, on the other hand, had taken action by inviting him to come to Capri with him, and this invitation forced Sergio to make a decision and to act. In other words, the choice was not between courage and fear, but rather between inertia and action. If he had not crossed Maurizio’s path, it would never have occurred to him to leave Rome, just as it did not occur to his family. Because of his lack of reflection, Maurizio had been able to do something that the vastly more introspective Sergio was incapable of: he had put the options on the table, forcing him to make a decision, no matter what it was. In other words, he was shaking Sergio out of his apathy and inertia.

  He realized that until bumping into Maurizio, he had simply followed his natural inclinations, without reacting in any way, and perhaps, deep down, this had given him a sense of self-satisfaction. But as soon as he saw his friend, everything changed. He could have simply rejected the offer out of hand, preferring his inertia. But this too would have been a decision, albeit one in consonance with his behavior up to that point. In any case, he had not done so; almost against his will, he had expressed his objections in terms of dignity and courage. His objection had replaced his previous state of inertia with something new, a choice between two temptations: cowardice and courage. In reality he was neither cowardly nor courageous but simply undecided. But because his response implied courage, it placed him in an awkward position. If he accepted Maurizio’s offer and revealed his objections to be false, he would be behaving like a coward.

  After much reflection, he came to the conclusion

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  that the one thing he was sure of was the fact that that his inertia could not last, and that when a man does not actively place himself at a crossroads which requires some kind of action, reality does it for him by confronting him with the need to act. In this case, the call to action had been Maurizio’s invitation to come with him to Capri. Sergio had not sought out his friend, and their meeting had been the fruit of chance. But the casual nature of their meeting, and Sergio’s lack of foresight, confirmed the impossibility of a continued inertia. Sergio was convinced that if Maurizio had not invited him to come along, something else would have presented itself, another external factor that would have forced him to make a choice: the Fascists, the Germans, the anti-Fascists, his family, or something else. Reality would not allow anyone to stand on the sidelines, even someone who was consumed by regret and anxiety. The time for intervention and action had arrived, inevitably.

  The trouble was that his response to Maurizio, with its allusions to courage and dignity, had come to him without any previous reflection or basis in any particular sentiment. It had poured out of him, probably as the result of a conventional manner of thinking which he had engaged in without reflection, almost automatically. The proof of this was that once he was alone he realized that he had spoken without conviction, as if playing the role of the person he wished to be but was not. In a way, the words were simply an extension of Maurizio’s, just as a color finds definition only when contrasted with another. Here, once again, was proof of how much stronger Maurizio was, in his careless way, than he. Either way the words meant little and did not represent any concrete reality, even one that was still imprecise and obscure.

  That said, the next twenty-four hours, conceded by

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  Maurizio—or rather accepted by Sergio—would have to lead to some sort of decision. Toward evening, just before dinner, a young man he had recently befriended came to visit. His name was Federico. He was delicate and very tall, with a wan face and red-rimmed eyes. Judging by his unhealthily purple cheeks, he might be suffering from tuberculosis. Unlike Sergio, he was, or at least seemed to be, enthusiastic and fully engaged in whatever subject concerned him at the moment. Although he stuttered nervously and lacked eloquence, Federico could communicate his ardor because of the vehemence and passion with which he expressed, or attempted to express, himself. When he arrived, Sergio was lying on his bed. Federico immediately confronted him with a proposal: he and a group of friends had taken over the offices of a minor Fascist publication and were planning to continue publishing a newspaper reflecting the new political reality of July 24. What he was proposing was to publish anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi propaganda, under the very nose of the Germans who were still fighting on the side of Italy and practically occupied the country. Sergio wrote with ease and eloquence, as demonstrated by his occasional articles, and they knew where his sympathies lay; why not write for this newspaper, which could have an enormous influence, especially on younger people? Stammering, coughing, and periodically becoming distracted as he described the particulars of the project, Federico concluded in a peremptory fashion: “Before you answer, let me warn you that you can’t say no. Otherwise, you’ll be playing into the hands of certain people—and they are in the majority—who say you are indecisive, or worse.”

  “What do you mean, worse?”

  “A coward,” Federico said, without hesitation.

  For a moment, Sergio considered trying to explain his inertia, his morbid fascination with ruin and decadence, and his inability to take vigorous, unambiguous action. But then he realized that such an explanation would have been interpreted as a pretext

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  to conceal that which his detractors called cowardice. Once again, reality had found him, taken him by the neck, and forced him to make a decision. “In essence,” Sergio reflected during the short silence that followed, “I find myself faced with two proposals, Federico’s and Maurizio’s, equally extreme, and equally extraneous to me. I have no reason—no solid, profound reason—to choose one over the other, and my choice will inevitably be determined by extraneous, impersonal factors. The only thing I am inclined to do is nothing at all, but if I say this I will be judged falsely by both Maurizio and Federico. The first will think that I refuse to act because, as I inadvertently implied earlier, I want to be a hero; the second will believe that if I do not accept his proposal it is because I am a coward. Neither coward nor hero, I am nevertheless forced to choose, because the only attitude that comes naturally to me has been compromised by my imprudent comment. And given that I would rather not follow Maurizio’s lead—though I’m not sure why—I am forced to do the opposite. Therefore, I will accept Federico’s proposal.”

  These reflections lasted only a few seconds. Then, with a slight feeling of falseness, Sergio said: “You don’t need to twist my arm … I accept, I’ll do it.”

  Federico threw his arms around Sergio’s neck, exclaiming that he had never believed that he would turn him down. The two young men immediately began to discuss ideas for Sergio’s articles; Sergio proposed a subject, which Federico approved with his usual enthusiasm. Sergio promised to bring the article to the offices by midnight and, bubbling over with enthusiasm, Federico left him to his task.

  As soon as he had left, Sergio went to the telephone to call Maurizio. He almost regretted his decision, which felt somewhat random.

  Maurizio did not let him finish: “You’ll come to regret

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  your decision, you’ll see … but do as you please, it’s your business after all.” But after saying good-bye and wishing his friend a good summer, Sergio noticed that he felt relieved. The fact that he had come to a decision, no matter how little conviction he felt, still came as a relief, even if it should turn out to be a temporary solution. In any case, the complications would come later, since every decision leads to innumerable others.

  After hanging up, he got down to work. The heat was suffoca
ting in the little room, and the smoke of many cigarettes hung in the air, even with the window open; the cloud of smoke seemed to be pushed inward by a mass of air even more dense and foul than the air inside. But at that moment, for some reason, Sergio felt almost stimulated by his uncomfortable circumstances. He sat down at his little table and began to write the article on a rickety old portable typewriter. As he typed, he became aware that he was thinking obsessively about Maurizio and his trip to Capri. He imagined the immense expanse of blue sea, luminous and overflowing with freedom; he could see his life on the island, protected from the surprises of the war, an oasis of calm amid the drama. The life he imagined was that of an idle spectator rather than a man of action. He realized that as he pictured each additional detail, the tone of his article darkened, his accusations becoming ever more uncompromising and decisive. He thought: at last he was reacting. As always it was the rivalry with Maurizio that drove him. Their meeting in the street and the way Maurizio lived his life, his offer of an escape to Capri, now felt like a distant memory. Maurizio’s ghost held out temptations to him which he had instinctively rejected—how else to explain his unaccountable, spiteful response? This idea calmed him, and after a pause, he continued to write without stopping until he had finished the article. Meanwhile, his sister had stopped in his doorway several times to ask, in the mournful, contrite tone his family always used with him, whether he would be joining them for dinner. Each time he told her that he was too busy.

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  Finally, he put the article in his pocket and went to the dining room, where the table was empty except for his place. His mother and sisters were waiting for him. As he sat down, he said: “I’ve decided that I’m not going to accept Maurizio’s invitation. I’m staying in Rome.”

  His sisters, who had barely been able to conceal their envy when he informed them of Maurizio’s invitation, did not seem dissatisfied with the news. But his mother, who feared for his safety, pleaded with him: “Sergio, why are you doing this? What will you do in Rome? You need rest. They say the English will arrive in a week or less. Go to Capri, and when you come back it will all be over.”

  When he looked down at his plate, he saw it contained some greens and a can of sardines. He could not help but reflect that Maurizio would not be reduced to such meals for long. He picked up a sardine and answered: “That’s precisely why I’m staying. In a week it will all be over.”

  “But what do you care? Go to Capri … Just this once, why don’t you listen to your mother, who loves you?”

  He looked at his mother, a small woman who resembled him in many ways. She had thick black eyebrows and a serious mouth that seemed designed for murmuring prayers in church, and her hair was gathered on top of her head. Suddenly he was irritated by her anxious expression, though he did not quite know why: “Do you really want to know why I’m staying? I’ll tell you.”

  He picked up another sardine and went on: “I’m staying because the invitation came from Maurizio … Do you know what Maurizio represents to me? Through no fault of his own, perhaps, he reminds me of all the people who desired Fascism, who were eager to enter this war on the side of the Germans and who now flee, when danger is near, leaving others, like Sandro, to fight and die on their behalf.”

  “Die … Don’t say such things, even lightly,” his mother pleaded, fearing for her son in distant Russia.

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  She had clasped her hands together, as if to invoke divine protection.

  “Others die, or, in any case, fight, on behalf of those who run off to Capri,” Sergio went on, angrily and with his mouth full. One of his sisters, the younger one, Gisella—a smaller and thinner, bird-like version of his elder sister, Carolina, who was shapely and tall but also had thick eyebrows and a pointy nose like a bird—observed: “It’s true, you know: all those young men from good families who were my classmates at university avoided military service or at the very least were allowed to stay in Italy. But poor wretches like Sandro were sent off to war.”

  “But, figlio,” his mother implored, “that may be true, but I already worry so much about Sandro … If I knew you were in Capri, it would reassure me … But instead …”

  “No,” Sergio said, taking the folded article out of his pocket. “I’m staying, and this is the first article I’ve written denouncing them … denouncing people like Maurizio and the Germans. I’m taking it down to the newspaper now. And I’ll keep writing.”

  His mother clasped her hands: “But if you write such things you’ll compromise yourself … What if the Fascists should return? Think about what you are doing, figlio mio.”

  “That is precisely what I’m doing,” he answered, with a slight feeling of falseness. “I’m thinking.” The

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  meal ended in silence. Then his mother and sisters, having given up trying to convince him to go to Capri, began to discuss the political situation as they often did, repeating neighborhood rumors and what was said in the papers. Now that he had rejected Maurizio’s offer, their comments sounded less frightened and anxious. Evidently, the three women were reassured by his presence. Sergio felt almost annoyed: he had committed himself, more deeply than he had in his offhanded comment to Maurizio in the street. He finished eating in silence and, after announcing that he was going to deliver his article to the newspaper, went out.

  Once he was in the street, he felt guilty for what he had said about Maurizio at the table. It was true that each day he felt more contemptuous of this easily defined group who, out of thoughtlessness, incompetence, avarice, selfishness, and corruption, had led Italy into catastrophe. They were the Fascist bosses, and the wealthy men of all stripes who supported them, along with their families and the society that for twenty years had allowed them to govern without opposition, doing exactly as they pleased. But now for some reason he felt that it was unfair to lump Maurizio with these people. Even today, almost two years after their argument, he felt attached to Maurizio by a strange emotion, a mix of infatuation and disapproval, of attraction and repulsion. For a few years Sergio had loved him above all others, with the strong, innocent, infatuated love of adolescence. Now, even though he was doing his best to destroy this love, enough of it remained to fill him with remorse and doubts about the truth of his accusations. He could not forget the time he had spent in Maurizio’s home: happy years, full of deep, irreplaceable intimacy. After they had gone their separate ways, he had been almost alone; no friend, no matter how estimable, had taken Maurizio’s place.

  He knew that he was still attached to Maurizio because of the surge of emotion he felt whenever he bumped into him on the street or in a public place. He felt an almost invincible impulse to embrace him, a physical sensation that required some effort to control.

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  Every time he saw Maurizio, his lips instinctually formed the question: “When can we spend some time together?” He had actually said this once, and Maurizio had stared back at him with an expression of surprise, responding evasively, without refusing entirely. Sergio had never again had the courage to repeat the question, but it was always on the tip of his tongue, ready to erupt at the slightest hint that his friend might accept.

  With these thoughts circling in his mind, he began to realize that the resentment he had expressed at the table had metamorphosed into a stirring affection, filled with gratitude for all the good things he had experienced because of his friendship with Maurizio. He felt guilty about his current attitude toward his friend. He began to think that he had heard a note of disappointment in his friend’s voice after he informed him that he would not accept his invitation. And he suddenly became aware of something he had not noticed before: by inviting him to Capri, Maurizio had taken the first step toward the reconciliation that Sergio had desired for so many years. After all, he had even offered to pay for the trip. This detail had escaped him until then, perhaps because it was so blatant and conspicuous. In other words Maurizio, after all those years, had shown himself to be a real friend, exhibit
ing the same generosity as when they were boys. In those days, Maurizio would bring out his toys, the toys of a rich boy, and say: “Take what you want … go ahead, choose.” How had he not noticed this before? Perhaps he had been too lost in his own worries to be able to see the people around him.

  He was moved by this realization and felt a touch

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  of remorse. The truth was that Maurizio had wanted to help him; his invitation had been disinterested and friendly. Sergio, on the other hand, had responded harshly and ungratefully, almost with contempt. Now he wanted to change his friend’s impression of him, and explain that he had refused not out of hatred—despite his earlier comments at the table—but for reasons that had nothing to do with Maurizio. Lost in these thoughts, Sergio had reached the headquarters of the newspaper. He decided that he would call Maurizio from the offices and ask him to come by before his departure so that they could say their good-byes.

 
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