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       Two Friends, p.6

           Alberto Moravia
 

  He seemed unhappy, but his uncomprehending, innocent sadness was like that of an animal that suddenly feels something amiss—a lessening or a change in its vitality—and cannot understand the cause. Maurizio did not understand the war or what was happening in his own house, just as he did not understand the illness of his cat and dog; in fact, he did not seem to understand even himself. After a pause, he said, “This is why I want to go to Capri. It’s relatively quiet there because of the war. I want to spend a summer alone, without anyone around, so I can reflect a bit. Meanwhile, the war will end and then I will return to Rome and make a decision.”

  “What decision?”

  “I don’t know … maybe I’ll find a job … or maybe I’ll get married … I’ll have lots of children and become a paterfamilias.” He said this with a certain sour note in his voice, unsentimentally, with a kind of coarseness that Sergio envied, if only momentarily. “Why are you smiling?” Maurizio asked. “Don’t you think I would be a good father?”

  “I’m sure you would,” Sergio answered, now smiling sincerely.

  “After all,” Maurizio said, more calmly, “this is more or less how things have always been. A young man would have a good time and then, later, he would get married. Why should I be different? I’ll get married, I’ll be faithful to my wife, I’ll work … A wife, children, and a job—it’s probably what I need.”

  “What do your parents think of your plans?” Sergio asked, not knowing what to say.

  “Oh, nothing. They don’t know … I am, as my father likes to say, his greatest worry in life. My mother

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  behaves as if I were still seven years old … but they know nothing about my life.” By now Maurizio was speaking with complete openness, in a voice filled with fervor. He got up from the couch, went to a cabinet in a corner of the room, and opened it, revealing a bar, bottles, and mirrors gleaming. He poured himself a generous portion of whiskey. “Would you like some?” he asked.

  “At this time of day? No, thank you.”

  “It picks me up,” Maurizio said, pouring some water into the glass. “I confess that I was almost afraid that you would accept, because it has become very hard to find and can only be bought at a very high price … I had a good supply at the beginning of the war but it’s almost gone now.”

  “Did your family stock up on many provisions before the war?” Sergio asked, gently.

  “I’m not sure,” Maurizio said vaguely, slightly surprised at the question. “I think so … When the war began, and for months after that, my mother did nothing but accumulate things, as if we were under siege … I think we have enough clothes and food to last us several years.” He returned to the couch and sat sideways, with one leg over the armrest, glass in hand. “Tell me the truth … You must see me as a kind of glutton: drinking, smoking, making love to women.”

  Sergio hesitated and peered closely at his friend before answering: in effect, the word Maurizio had chosen fit him quite well. His face, once so fresh and youthful, now clouded and impure, was that of a glutton. “No,” he said finally, “I think you look tired.”

  “I am,” Maurizio said in a tone that was suddenly innocent and plaintive, almost like that of a child. “You know, I hardly sleep. The doctor says there’s nothing wrong with me … but I don’t sleep at all, even when I take pills.”

  “You need to rest,” Sergio hazarded.

  “Yes,” Maurizio answered with conviction, “I need to rest. In Capri I’ll eat, exercise, sleep … it’s exactly what I need. It’s probably just this heat and this

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  damned war.”

  “What are you saying? I thought you didn’t give a damn about the war.”

  “That’s right, I don’t … and why should I? I didn’t declare it and I have nothing to lose or to gain from it … But they just won’t leave us alone, will they?”

  “But you didn’t fight in the war.”

  “I’m not crazy … I was an officer for a few months and then I managed to get myself demobilized … My father knows someone at the ministry of defense.”

  Feeling a wave of resentment, Sergio retorted: “My brother was deployed to the Russian front.”

  “You should have told me,” Maurizio said, surprised. “We could have arranged for him to stay here.”

  “My family belongs to the class of people who do what has to be done and pay the price for the rest of us,” Sergio said, darkly.

  Maurizio did not react to his comment. “You know what troubled me the most? Emilia’s death.”

  “Emilia is dead?” Sergio exclaimed in surprise.

  “Yes, she died in tragic circumstances … I heard about it by chance from a German living in Italy … poor thing … She was Jewish, you know, and they came to arrest her … She jumped out of a window so they wouldn’t take her … She must have been about fifty … What a way to die. At the time, it didn’t affect me … I never really loved her and so much time had passed … But then I began to have trouble sleeping and I realized that whenever I lay in my bed I was thinking about her, or rather about the time when we were lovers … I suppose that my unconscious mind was marked by her death. In any case, perhaps it’s a coincidence.”

  He had told this story in a casual, conversational

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  tone. Evidently, Sergio thought, her death had not affected him too deeply; similar cases were quite frequent, even, one might say, normal. But Maurizio’s unconscious, as he had said, adopting a term from psychoanalysis, which was all the rage, had been shaken. Sergio asked himself whether Maurizio’s unconscious might be aware of other things, or at least sense them, and he concluded that perhaps his friend was not completely sincere, not only with Sergio but with himself. He was trying to protect himself, that was all. And if he felt the need to defend himself, perhaps all was not lost. Gently, Sergio asked: “I don’t understand … what do you mean by your ‘unconscious’?”

  “You know,” Maurizio said, awkwardly, “it’s like when you fall and you think you haven’t hurt yourself … Then a few days later it starts to hurt and you get a bruise … The unconscious … don’t you know what it is?”

  “You’re the one who doesn’t know,” Sergio thought, changing the subject. “Maybe you should fall in love … If you could fall in love, everything would be all right. You’d be able to sleep, and all the rest.”

  “I can’t fall in love,” Maurizio said sincerely, with clear bitterness. “Either a woman jumps into bed with me too quickly, or something is missing … Either way, I soon lose interest. I have no illusions … It’s been years since I’ve been in love.”

  “So how are you planning to go about getting married?”

  “Finding a wife is a different matter … You don’t need to be in love. I’ll get married and we’ll have four or five kids. I won’t be in love with her but she’ll still be my wife … No, love isn’t for me.”

  Maurizio shook his hand and then lit another cigarette. Sergio insisted: “But wouldn’t you like to fall in love?”

  Maurizio was pouring himself another glass. Just as he was about to answer, he stopped, holding up one finger as if commanding Sergio to be silent.

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  Sergio watched in surprise. Sergio could hear a low rumbling from outside, barely distinguishable from the silence, almost part of it. Then, like an airplane engine gaining speed, the noise grew, louder and louder, eventually becoming a howl. “The alarm siren,” Maurizio said, calmly.

  Sergio instinctively jumped up. These were the first air raids they had experienced, and the sound of the siren, linked to the idea of bombs falling out of the sky, inspired an agitation in him that was not quite fear but rather a sensation like being immersed in freezing water. It was the sensation of passing too quickly from a state of safety and calm to one of danger and tension. He bit his tongue as he looked over at Maurizio and saw that he was still sitting in his chair with an indifferent air. He began to pace up and down, saying: “I’m tense and this wailing i
rritates my nerves.”

  They heard doors slamming on the second floor and feet descending the stairs. The alarm began again after a short pause; it rose upward and spread out above them, evoking with its spiraling sound the immensity of the burning August sky over the defenseless city. The door to the living room opened and several people rushed in.

  Sergio knew some of them. One was Maurizio’s mother, a tall, fair-haired woman with cerulean eyes set in a red, swollen face; she was simultaneously bony and curvaceous, and it seemed as if the abundant curves of her breasts, hips, and thighs clung to her skeleton without concealing its great size and brittleness. Maurizio’s father also appeared; he was a large, tall man with a reddish complexion and youthful appearance despite his completely bald head. He was elegant, taciturn, terribly calm, and slightly sly, just as Sergio remembered him. Maurizio’s sister

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  appeared; she did not seem to belong in that family, and in fact she was a daughter from the mother’s first marriage. Maurizio’s mother had been widowed at an early age and had remarried soon after the death of her first husband. This daughter, Marisa, could now be called an old maid; she was very beautiful, tall, with a limpid expression and a large nose, big, melancholy eyes, a dark complexion and delicate features. She must have been in her thirties. Sergio remembered her as a very elegant, worldly, but also sweet and gentle, young woman, whose many love interests were a constant subject of conversation, but who for some reason had never married. The fourth and final member of the group was an old woman whom he did not recognize. Her expression spoke of a great but almost pathetic goodness; she was thin, with a large nose and whiskers, with ashen skin and watery blue eyes. She must be a governess or a lady companion or perhaps a poor relation, or all three, Sergio thought, observing her servile attitude even at this moment of intense agitation.

  Maurizio’s mother seemed to be suffering from a panic attack. She was dressed in a summery, youthful outfit—a fluttering blue dress with white polka dots—and she clutched a small leather case. She rushed into the room and called out to her son: “Hurry, hurry, let’s go to the shelter.”

  In response, not moving, Maurizio asked, “Why don’t we stay here?” As if to accentuate his impassivity, he introduced Sergio to his mother: “Mother, you remember Sergio, don’t you? Sergio Maltese.”

  “Good day, Maltese,” Maurizio’s mother said, in a rush. The wailing began again. She screamed, “Let’s go to the shelter … That’s the third alarm … Let’s go!” She took Maurizio by the arm, as if to pull him out of the chair. Finally, Maurizio’s father said calmly: “Get up immediately … You know that your mother can’t find peace if you’re not with us.”

  This reasonable request seemed to convince Maurizio. He got up from the chair and walked to the

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  door. “You come too,” Maurizio’s mother called out to Sergio as she went out, leading the group. “The shelter is in the Borghese Museum … come on, we mustn’t waste time.” As she reached the door, the old lady observed: “Madam, you dropped a hairpin,” and bent down to pick up a tortoiseshell pin. Maurizio’s mother arranged a lock of hair dangling in her face and answered, hurriedly, “Leave it there, dear, there is no time.” Maurizio’s sister, who seemed calmer, took the pin from the old woman: “You can give it to me … I’ll keep it for her.”

  They walked through several anterooms, and finally out into the garden, feeling the sudden heat of the afternoon after the cool air inside the house. Maurizio’s mother’s high-heeled shoes clattered precipitously down the marble stairs of the main entrance. The others followed more calmly: besides the governess, who was obviously terrified, neither Maurizio’s father, nor his sister, nor Maurizio himself seemed frightened. The front gate was ajar, and the ragged cat was still sitting there, with its scrawny neck, dirty muzzle, and red eyes half shut in the sunshine. Sergio could not help reaching down to pat the cat softly. The animal turned toward him and seemed to look up at him almost gratefully, through swollen, hairless lids. Just then, the first burst of antiaircraft fire rang out, dry and loud in the summer sky.

  “Oh God,” Maurizio’s mother cried, now running toward the entrance of the Villa Borghese, which was not far from their front gate. Without knowing why, Sergio also began to run, and he saw that they were all running, as if overcome, not so much by fear but by the urgency of the bursts. Maurizio’s mother ran ahead, with her small case under her arm and her blue-and-white polka-dotted dress fluttering around her. She was followed by the elderly lady, running with great strides on her bony legs; just behind her came Maurizio’s father and sister, who seemed to be running calmly, followed by Maurizio, who could not be said to be running but had accelerated his pace. He leaned forward, his face masked by large sunglasses. Sergio, who had been left behind when he paused to caress the cat, came last. Farther down the street he could see other people running in the same direction in the blinding August sun. The antiaircraft guns were firing consistently, with quick, angry

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  bursts. When he had looked up at the sky before passing through the front gate of the villa, he had seen the white tufts of shells exploding in a straight line, then expanding slowly in the wind while others exploded, forming darker and denser areas here and there in the sky. They ran down an avenue, rapidly approaching the large whitish building of the museum. A little bit toward the right he could see the small door of the shelter, marked by a sign. The people ahead of them passed through the door and disappeared. Now the antiaircraft fire and siren stopped, and in the silence that ensued it was suddenly unclear why all these people were running. But just as Sergio was about to pass through the little door, he heard something that made him stop in his tracks and gaze up into the sky: a metallic, vibrating whir, surrounded by a duller, more insistent hum which grew louder and louder, threatening to fill the entire sky. “The planes,” he thought as he went inside.

  The shelter was simply the crypt, or basement, of the museum. The small group of fugitives was now precipitously descending a spiral staircase with marble steps and a low, vaulted ceiling, rushing between thick walls. Finally they entered a semi-dark cellar, seemingly vast, with low, unfinished, vaulted ceilings made out of a material that looked like concrete, supported by enormous, rough-hewn pilasters. The cellar seemed to be only partly occupied by a small multitude. Sergio noticed the presence of many women and children, and quite a few men. The arches and pilasters formed shadowy alcoves, corners in which it was impossible for the eyes to penetrate the darkness. He could see dark archways which seemed to open onto hallways leading into other areas. Sergio and Maurizio could no longer see the others in their group and began to walk around the dim basement, amid the anxious, frightened people. Far from reassuring, the heavy, muffled silence which seemed to emanate from the enormous arches augmented the

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  sense of imminent danger: those arches, however massive, did not appear at all solid, since they were built out of a crumbly material. He couldn’t help thinking that a single bomb would send the whole thing crashing down on their heads. Maurizio, as if guessing Sergio’s thoughts, pointed to one of the arches and said: “They call it a shelter … This stuff will collapse at the first impact … We’ll be crushed, like mice … It’s safer outside …”

  “Do you come here every time the alarm goes off?”

  “My mother comes, and when I’m at home, I come too to reassure her.”

  “What is that case she carries under her arm?”

  Maurizio answered lightly: “Her jewels … She has several million liras’ worth in there.”

  Sergio said no more. He saw that the rest of the family—father, mother, sister, and governess—were approaching. The mother, who had always treated him with a slight haughtiness, as if she felt that this son of a government employee was her inferior, anxiously asked: “What do you think, Maltese? Will the war ever end? Will it be over soon? What do you think?”

  There beneath the arches, Sergio noted that her v
oice did not sound exactly terrified, but rather like the echo of words pronounced in some other dimension. Being in that place was like walking in the circles of hell, as if they had already died and their souls lived on, speaking in earthly tones. “It’s impossible to know,” he answered, “but of course, one day it will end.”

  With utter conviction, Maurizio’s rosy, conciliating, discreet, well-mannered father mumbled—more to reassure his wife than to reiterate an obvious truth—“Don’t worry, the war will be over soon … The Germans will win the battle for Russia; they’ll occupy the rest of the country, and then they’ll come here and drive out the Allies.”

  Sergio peered over at Maurizio’s father and wondered

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  whether he was joking. But he was quite calm and composed and didn’t seem to be joking in the least. It was a case of complete incomprehension and deafness, Sergio reflected, similar to Maurizio’s but more profound and almost comical in its absurdity. Sergio knew that Maurizio’s father was a businessman, and he seemed to remember that his business was investing in stocks. He asked, cautiously, “Do you really think that the Germans can still win the war?”

  “Of course,” Maurizio’s father said calmly.

  “I’m not so sure,” Maurizio’s sister interjected, but it seemed to Sergio that her tone was even more unrealistic than her father’s. By implying thought, her doubts gave her an air of obtuseness even greater than that created by her father’s absence of doubt. Desperate and terrified, Maurizio’s mother shifted her jewelry case from one arm to the other and said: “For all I care, the English can win, or the Germans … I just want someone to win so we can forget all this!”

  “Don’t worry, darling, the Germans will win the war and we’ll all be fine … Don’t worry yourself,” Maurizio’s father said, affectionately, patting her on the back. Maurizio, who had said nothing until then, asked suddenly: “What about you, signorina, who do you think will win the war?”

 
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