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       Two Friends, p.5

           Alberto Moravia
 

  [IV]

  As Sergio left the house the next day he could feel

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  that though the temperature had risen, the sky had finally cleared. There was a touch of freshness in the air, as if caressed by a sea breeze. Sergio went to the newsstand and bought a paper, with his article on the first page; it was the lead story, as they call it in journalistic circles. The previous evening, he had called Maurizio, just as he had promised himself he would; his friend had invited him to come by the house on the following morning. As he walked toward the villa, Sergio felt much happier and lighter, perhaps because he had decided to stay in Rome and write for the paper, or perhaps simply because of the slight breeze and less oppressive weather.

  He could see that the paper was filled with bad news, a familiar sight in the spiral toward disaster that had begun months earlier. But the city felt normal; people were out in the streets; the cars glided by, brass and nickel plating glistening in the sun; the striped awnings of the shops were lowered to protect the shop windows from the sun; the traffic police waved their arms at street corners, directing the cars. But as Sergio took a side street containing a morning market, he saw that there were only a few food stands selling meager provisions, a sign of the shortages to come. A bit farther down, a huge throng of women stood outside a grocer. A guard watched the crowd, the women yelled, and a shop boy inside the shop wearing a white smock surveyed the crowd indifferently. Sergio walked past the crowd at a brisk pace, his mood still light and slightly aggressive. For some reason, a song from the Risorgimento, about the fall of Venice to the Austrians, came into his head: “Il morbo infuria, il pan ci manca, sul ponte sventola bandiera bianca” (the plague rises, we’re short of bread / and over the bridge the white flag spreads). He had seen these words inscribed on a print that his father, faithful to the memory of the Risorgimento, had hung in their foyer. It depicted a bridge with a white flag fluttering in the wind and several uniformed men, some of them still fighting, amid groups of wailing women. Above the scene one could make out the profile of the city beneath a dark, scowling,

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  tempestuous sky. But this time, Sergio reflected, Fascist Italy would fall, defiantly waving its black flags with childish gold skulls, beneath the serene, joyful summer sky. There was not enough bread, and what little there was had an unpleasant taste, but the only plague rising was skepticism and rhetoric. The truth was that it was the regime, not Italy itself, that was falling, along with the society that had ushered it into power twenty years earlier. He once again felt a wave of hatred toward the people he considered responsible for Fascism, the war, and Italy’s defeat. And he was proud that he had published an article entitled “Who Is Responsible?” He would shake Maurizio’s hand, but he was also happy that his friend would see the article and know what he really thought of the society to which he belonged.

  Maurizio lived not far away, in a neighborhood of villas and gardens that, thirty years earlier, had been the newest and most elegant in the city. Now the wealthy families had emigrated to other, more outlying areas filled with houses built in the so-called Novecento style. Maurizio’s neighborhood, which by now had practically become part of central Rome, was a bit shabby, with its large, dreary nineteenth-century houses. Walking toward his friend’s house, where he had last set foot years earlier, Sergio suddenly felt a strange sensation, as if he were no longer himself but the poor boy who used to rush to his rich friend’s house each day after lunch. He had walked past these houses every day for years, and recognized the oleanders with their lush pink-and-white flowers, the garden gates, and the stolid façades of the houses. How promise-filled, luxurious, and mysterious those streets had seemed to him, coming from his miserable neighborhood of office workers; how melancholy, mediocre, and lacking in real elegance they seemed now, on the eve of a historical catastrophe. He remembered that at the time he had felt intimidated, fascinated, and attracted by the people he met in Maurizio’s villa, elegant women and girls and dignified, well-dressed men. He was sure that if he saw them now he would feel about them as he did about the streets of this neighborhood.

  He was beginning to feel a resurgence of the hostility

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  which he had experienced as a boy. At the time this sensation had been a mystery to him; he knew nothing of the people who lived in those houses, nor of why they lived there or how they were so different from his own family. The hostility had almost disappeared after meeting Maurizio, though part of it remained buried deep inside him, now transformed into a sense of unease and exclusion. He could see that in those distant years of his early childhood, he had had an accurate grasp of the relations between rich and poor, and that his friendship with Maurizio had been simply a parenthesis, after which Maurizio had returned to his world and he to his. In short, he had always been poor, with the thoughts and feelings of a poor man; only now was he becoming conscious of this important truth, which as a child he had perceived as an instinctive, obscure sensation.

  Sergio walked to the end of the street and came to Maurizio’s gate, which was ajar. On the sidewalk just outside sat a white angora cat. He knew the cat well, because, as a boy, he had seen Maurizio’s father bring it into the house as a gift. The cat had the annoying nickname Puffi, and in those days it had always been affectionate toward Sergio, always mewing when he arrived and rubbing itself against him. But this time the cat didn’t move; it sat perfectly still, on its hind legs, its fur shaggy, facing away from Sergio. He noticed that it had lost patches of hair and that beneath the dirty, ratty fur one could see its pink skin. Its expression was bewildered, almost blind. Sergio bent down, whispering the cat’s name, his heart filled with a sudden sadness. The cat turned its head and stood up as if to walk toward him. But after taking one step it tottered and then fell on its side, after which it settled once again in its original position. Without knowing exactly why, Sergio felt his eyes well with tears; the cat was obviously sick, perhaps dying. But what a strange way to die; not curled up under a piece of furniture but sitting on the sidewalk, facing the street, as if waiting for someone to arrive, its fur shaggy in the burning

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  sun. Sergio bent down, lightly caressed the cat—it did not move—and entered the garden.

  In his memory, the garden was large and full of trees; now it appeared to be a small rectangle with a few medium-sized trees and two or three flower beds surrounded by gravel paths. But the gravel was dirty and the flower beds had been invaded by weeds which had begun to turn yellow in the summer sun. The trees had grown wild, but no taller. He noticed an air of neglect and age, which he could not pinpoint in any single element but seemed to affect everything. Just as old age exacerbates certain characteristics, this air of neglect was neither poetic nor atmospheric; it was not the melancholy, charming neglect of an aging castle, but rather the casual indifference that clings to something that is neither beautiful nor ornate. It merely confirmed the stinginess and lack of rigor of those flower beds, the useless paths, the trees planted here and there. The Risorgimento hymn returned to his mind and with it the recognition of all that Italy had once been and which, even now, amid the decadence and carelessness, still remained tragically magnificent. Majestic houses, enormous gardens, fountains, paths, shaded bowers. But the society of their day would leave behind only tasteless, ugly houses, measly plots of land, ornaments made out of stucco and industrially reproduced.

  “What a shame, what a shame,” he mumbled as he rang the doorbell. “This too will end, but without glory.” These words, pronounced by the final secretary of the Fascist Party during a tearful proclamation, had stayed with him for days, like a refrain. Maurizio came to the door with a bright, open expression that surprised Sergio after all these funereal signs; it struck him as an indication of indifference bordering on ignorance. “Ah, it’s you,” Maurizio said, inviting him in. “There’s no one home … only the cook, all the others have left.” As he said this, he led Sergio

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from the foyer, through a series of anterooms, and, finally, to the living room. It was dark; Maurizio went to one of the windows and pulled aside a heavy drape. The room was just as Sergio remembered it; not a single object or piece of furniture had been changed. But it looked smaller, faded, not at all luxurious or magnificent as it had appeared to him many years earlier when he had first entered this room. It was of medium size with walls covered in red imitation damask and ugly, gold-framed paintings on the walls; the furnishings—antiques, many of them probably reproductions—were distributed here and there. The sofas and armchairs looked worn and dirty; it was evident that nothing had been replaced and that even the cleanliness of the room was questionable. In a corner there was a settee on which lay something long and white. Sergio looked more closely and saw that it was a dog, lying on its side with its mouth slightly ajar, its fur matted, reddish eyes half closed. Maurizio followed his gaze and said, in a jocular tone: “I don’t know what’s going on around here … The dog and the cat are both sick; I think they are dying …” Sergio looked at Maurizio, who did not seem to attach any importance to the agony of these two animals; he opened his mouth as if to speak, but then decided not to. Everything seemed to be in agreement: the neglected old house, the animals’ suffering, the war, and the country’s impending disaster. Maurizio saw none of this, or at least did not react to it, a sure sign that he too was part of this world that was sinking, not standing outside looking in like Sergio, if only as an impotent spectator. Maurizio was part of it, an actor in the events and at the same time a victim. With some effort, Sergio said: “So, are you off to Capri?”

  “Yes, tonight,” Maurizio said. “It’s too late to catch the last boat. I’ll spend the night in Naples and leave for Capri tomorrow.” He paused, adding, “So, have you changed your mind? Are you coming with me?”

  Sergio answered slowly: “No, I can’t … I have work to do.”

  “What work?”

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  “I’ve agreed to write for a paper … Look here.” He handed the newspaper to Maurizio, who took it reluctantly. On the way over, it had occurred to Sergio that he should show Maurizio his article in order to make clear what he thought of the events unfolding around them. But as he handed Maurizio the newspaper he realized that he had simply succumbed to vanity mixed with his old inferiority complex. He wanted to show his friend what he had written, to be admired by him. Maurizio glanced at the paper and set it aside. Sergio could not help remarking: “Why don’t you read it? That way at least you’ll know what I think, and why I’m staying.”

  With a bored expression, Maurizio opened the newspaper, read a few lines, and then set it aside. “It’s useless, I don’t feel like reading it. I don’t care.”

  “How do you know?” Sergio said, irritated. “You haven’t read it.”

  “I can imagine what it says.”

  “You can’t.”

  “Of course I can. I know you.”

  “All right then, let’s see,” Sergio said, his irritation growing. “What do you think I wrote?”

  “You haven’t changed,” Maurizio said with a half smile. “Always the same.”

  “Why should I change?”

  “Anyway, you seem satisfied with yourself. You’ve written an article entitled ‘Who Is Responsible?’ So I’m sure you’ve done your best to indicate who is responsible for the war and for what is happening now.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Well, I can imagine that your point is that those responsible are not the military but the Fascists and the government in general. How original …” He dug around in his pocket for his gold cigarette case, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it. Sergio watched as he

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  smoked and repeatedly pushed back one of his blond curls, a familiar gesture. Just as he had when he saw the suffering of the two dying animals, Sergio felt the desire to speak up and explain his thoughts, or rather his feelings, but once again he lost his nerve. Maurizio was obviously a million miles away from what he considered to be the true path, and he felt an almost painful need to warn him and open his eyes. Maurizio did not seem to think that he too might be partly responsible. How could he, when even those directly and flagrantly responsible, the generals and the bosses, did not know it? Sergio felt a terrible sense of futility. He held out his hand, took back the newspaper, and said, somewhat falsely: “It doesn’t matter … If you don’t feel like reading it, I’m sure you have your reasons.”

  There was a long pause. Maurizio smoked, seemingly lost in thought. Then he said, “How long do you think the war will last at this point?”

  Sergio answered, “I don’t know, probably a long time.”

  “I’m convinced,” Maurizio said, “that it will end very soon … I think the Allies will be in Rome in a week at the most, and then everything will return to normal. That’s why I’m going to Capri; it’s not worth giving up our vacation and even risking injury for something that is about to end.”

  He continued to smoke with an air of conviction, adding, after a short pause: “Considering everything, Italy will come out all right … We haven’t been in the war for too long … As soon as it really got started, it’s all over, at least for us …”

  Once again, Sergio was tempted to contradict his friend’s reasoning, which to him seemed so full of cynicism and skepticism. To Maurizio it was simply good sense. Once again, he held his tongue. Then he asked: “And then what?”

  “Then, nothing,” Maurizio said offhandedly. “The Allies will arrive and set up whatever government they please. Of course, they’ll take away our colonies and our empire. After all, it’s what we deserve. If we hadn’t gone to war, we would have kept everything,

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  and Italy would have become the richest, most influential country in Europe. Mussolini was stupid.”

  “Only stupid?”

  “I can’t wait for it all to end,” Maurizio continued, without noting Sergio’s interruption. “I’ve wasted the past few years … I’d like to get a degree, even though it’s late now.”

  “What kind of degree?”

  “Maybe law,” Maurizio answered, in an uncertain tone which reflected the uncertainty of his decision. “I must tell you that from time to time I think that you may be right … It’s not good to hang around doing nothing … even people like me who have enough to live on. You were right when you told Emilia that I was wasting my life, do you remember? It made me angry at the time, of course, because no one likes to hear certain things; and the way she said it was so irritating … But I have to admit it: you were right.”

  Sergio said nothing and instead peered at his friend. He saw that Maurizio had changed, like his house and everything it contained. His face was still youthful and attractive, but it had a grim and tired quality that was new. His blue eyes, which had once been clear, limpid, and pure, seemed to have a dark halo around them, with a turbid, bored quality around the irises, a sickly glow. A line, as fine as a razor’s edge, framed one corner of his mouth, making that side of his face look ten years older. And he was losing his hair, unevenly and in a manner that suggested dissoluteness and fatigue: a few blond hairs still stuck out of the middle of his balding pate, combed back, fine and trembling like bushes in the middle of a hillside full of mud, stones, and boulders. It was the face of a man who had enjoyed life to the fullest, and who still knew how. But when he spoke of wasted time and admitted to Sergio that he was right, his tone was unusually sincere and almost anguished. Sergio was moved by the idea that Maurizio

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  was opening up to him, and realized once again that despite everything, his friend still occupied a place in his heart. As if guessing at his thoughts, Maurizio said: “I haven’t been well for some time … I think I smoke too much.” He threw away the cigarette he had just lit. “Or maybe I drink too much … And you know”—he hesitated for a moment and lowered his eyes almost shamefully—“the years go by and I realize I’m not young anymore.”

  Gently, al
most as if fearing that he would interrupt the flow of Maurizio’s confidences, Sergio said: “You’re only twenty-seven.”

  “I know,” answered Maurizio, “but, I don’t know if it’s the same for you … probably not, because your life is so different from mine … but even though I’m twenty-seven, I feel as if I were forty. I notice it especially in my relations with women.” He stopped and was suddenly quiet, and seemed almost to regret having spoken.

  “What do you mean, in your relations with women?”

  “Well, you see,” Maurizio said, uncomfortably, “I have a lot of dealings with women … Let’s just say, I don’t have many distractions … And for some time it has felt like it’s always the same thing, and I’m bored.” After a moment he continued, in an exasperated tone: “It’s always the same—the meeting, the amusing repartee to show my interest, the invitation to go for a drive, dinner, or a day at the beach, the first kiss, then the second, then the third, and finally, the surrender. Every woman gives herself with the same gestures, the same words, the same objections, and the same impulses as the one who came before and the next one … You can see how all this could become a bore,” he said, raising his voice slightly as if Sergio had contradicted him.

  “I agree, of course,” Sergio said, with a smile that he knew to be slightly false. The smile of a man who has never been in love with a woman.

  “It’s a bore,” Maurizio went on. “It almost sickens me … When I put my hand on a girl’s breast for the first time, it feels like the same breast as the last time, with another girl … And that goes for everything else, as well … Do you know what happened to me recently? After overcoming a woman’s final resistance I sent her away. I told her that I had a serious

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  venereal disease and did not want to infect her. She was horrified, but I knew that if I insisted, illness or no illness, she would still be willing … They’re all the same, and I too keep repeating myself … All of this leads me to think that my youth is finished. What more is there to say?”

 
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