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       Two Friends, p.7

           Alberto Moravia

  He was speaking to the elderly governess. She answered quickly: “Signor Maurizio, I don’t understand such matters … I don’t even read the newspaper … If you told me that neither the English nor the Germans, but rather the Chinese, were going to win the war I would have to agree … After all, what can we do about it? It’s not up to us …” She went on; her tongue, which had been frozen in terror, suddenly loosened. Brusquely, Maurizio said, “Come on, Sergio …,” and turned to his family. “Sergio and I are going to take a look around.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Maurizio’s sister declared. Sergio had noticed that she had been staring at him since their arrival, gazing at his face with a curiously intense, provocative gaze. He vaguely remembered


  rumors that circulated about her: that she was strange, perhaps crazy, and obsessed with only one thing, love. They set off down a corridor in silence. Maurizio walked ahead, his hands in his pockets, whistling quietly. Marisa took Sergio’s arm and whispered: “You don’t mind, do you? I’m so frightened.”

  Maurizio touched the wall. “They’re oozing with moisture; they must be built into an embankment.” Without turning around, he added, “Sergio, do you have a cigarette?” Sergio said no, somewhat uncomfortably.

  “I’ll go get some from my father,” Maurizio said, heading in the opposite direction. As if she had been waiting this whole time for her brother’s departure, Marisa pressed her body against Sergio’s side, whispering, “Don’t you remember me? I remember you perfectly … You are a bit younger than me … but you know … back when you used to come by to see my brother, five years ago I think it was … I fell in love with you … but you never noticed.”

  They had reached the darkest point in the corridor. Sergio stopped, slightly agitated. Marisa touched his arm and searched for his hand: “You must be terribly unkind … You’re always so serious … You never smile.”

  Sergio looked around. He had no feelings for Marisa, but the touch of her hand and the clear invitation it implied had an effect on him. A bit farther ahead there was a small red light, revealing a dark doorway. He stepped toward the light, but she held him back: “Wait a minute … I need to tell you something.”

  “What do you need to tell me?”

  “I can’t say it out loud … I’ll whisper it in your ear.”

  He echoed her words, “In my ear,” his voice filled with doubt. He could just make out a dark figure standing in the doorway, vaguely illuminated by the dim red light. It looked like a feminine form, but he could not make out the face. He could feel someone


  looking at him; the woman seemed to be watching them. Marisa whispered: “Come closer, and I’ll tell you.”

  Mechanically, and still peering at the dark shape tucked into the doorway in the half light of the red bulb, Sergio leaned forward slightly. He felt Marisa’s mouth glue itself to his ear with a circular motion of her soft, moist lips, like a suction cup. Marisa’s tongue began to caress his ear, quickly and conscientiously. He felt aroused and at the same time embarrassed. Marisa kissed his ear until she was forced to come up for air. As she leaned back, she whispered breathlessly: “Got it?”

  “Yes,” he answered, in a daze, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and aroused.

  “So, what do you say?” she asked, boldly.

  They heard Maurizio’s voice calling out to them as he returned, carrying a pack of cigarettes. “Marisa, Mamma wants you … She’s afraid you’ll get lost.”

  The young woman squeezed Sergio’s hand conspiratorially and said under her breath: “Call me tomorrow.” Then she let go of his arm and went off, exclaiming, “Why on earth would I get lost?” Her footsteps disappeared around the corner.

  Maurizio walked over to Sergio: “Did you know that there are lots of little rooms down here where the museum’s masterpieces have been hidden away? I just went into one. There was a Bernini statue in a kind of case.” He lit a cigarette, adding: “Let’s see what’s in here,” walking briskly toward the doorway where the dark, motionless figure stood.

  Sergio felt embarrassed, as if the mysterious, dark


  figure were about to jump out of the shadows and accuse him: “I saw how you let Marisa kiss you.” Maurizio, who was a few steps ahead of him, did not seem to notice the figure who had witnessed Sergio’s embrace, or pretended not to. “It’s so dark in here,” he said, searching in his pocket for a flashlight to light the ground before him. As the beam illuminated the doorway, two small but sturdy feet appeared. They belonged to a woman. They looked like two small, fat doves roosting quietly side by side. Sergio noticed that the feet were clad in simple low-heeled shoes, almost masculine in design, and heavily worn. Then the beam slid up her bare legs, which were not quite fat but not slender either, with white, healthy-looking, hairless skin and a tender, child-like shape. The beam illuminated the edge of a simple red dress; it made the legs appear even more prominent, with their healthy, innocent air, more infantile than womanly. The young woman’s hips were rather wide, Sergio noted, and her waist not particularly slender; like her legs and hips, there was something solid about her. And then her chest: two mounds protruding under the light fabric, high, solid, and at the same time soft. She had a lovely round neck, and a serious face, with a frank, straightforward beauty and a serene forehead hidden by a lock of brown hair. Her eyes were prominent, light-colored, and clearly outlined, and her nose was small and straight, with flared nostrils; she had pale lips like a fruit or a flower. It was a face with classical proportions, almost marmoreal and characterized by a dreamy, dignified serenity. She was a young woman, but could almost have been a prepubescent boy. She observed them with some diffidence; perhaps because of the light, her eyebrows seemed to express worry. Maurizio held the flashlight up to her face a moment longer, then shifted it slightly to the


  left. In the darkness of the small room, they could see a wooden structure. There, between two pieces of wood, a face was visible. It was very similar to the girl’s, but made out of marble. It was a statue from the museum’s collection, with a serene, pale expression and white eyes that stared out into the darkness. It was surprisingly similar to the real, human face that the flashlight had revealed a moment earlier. Sergio whispered: “Did you notice how much they look alike?”

  “Who do you mean?”

  “The girl and the statue.”

  “Do you know who that is?”

  “Pauline Bonaparte,” Sergio said. As if to evaluate Sergio’s powers of observation, Maurizio aimed the beam of light at the face of the young girl and then at the statue, going back and forth until finally the girl called out, in an irritated voice: “Have you finished blinding me with your flashlight?”

  For a moment, it seemed to Sergio that the statue, rather than the girl, had spoken. Maurizio beamed his flashlight in the girl’s face once again, holding it there. “Forgive us, but we were noticing the truly extraordinary resemblance between you and the statue.”

  “What statue?” she asked. Her voice was neither sweet nor delicate. Like the rest of her, it was on the heavy side, and low, but still affectionate and caressing.

  “Pauline Bonaparte,” Sergio repeated.

  The girl did not respond, as if she hadn’t heard, or hadn’t caught the reference. A moment later she asked, “Do you think the alarm has passed?”

  “Usually there is a signal,” Maurizio said.

  The girl observed them with diffidence tempered by a touch of curiosity and a glimmer of hope. Finally she said: “Is the train station far from here?”

  “No … why?”

  “Do you know this address?”

  In the light of the flashlight, she opened a shabby


  purse and proceeded to hand Sergio a scrap of newspaper. It was an advertisement for a furnished room near the train station. “So you’re not from here,” Sergio commented.

  “No,” she answered with a slightly embarrassed tone.
I’m from T.,” a city in central Italy. “I arrived just yesterday.”

  “And why did you come to Rome?” Maurizio asked, boldly.

  The girl seemed self-conscious: “I’m looking for work.” She was shy, Sergio thought. She avoided looking at Maurizio but answered Sergio’s questions, as if responding to something intimidating in his voice. Maurizio began to laugh: “What a time to be looking for work in Rome.”

  “Why, is it difficult to find work?” she asked cautiously, almost fearfully.

  “It’s impossible,” he said, harshly.

  “That’s not quite true,” Sergio said gently. “What do you know how to do?”

  “Nothing, really,” she said, simply, “but I thought …”

  They heard voices just beyond the bend in the hallway. They could clearly hear Maurizio’s mother calling out “Maurizio … Maurizio …” Then she appeared, with the small case still tucked under her arm, waving the other arm gaily. “It’s all over … They’ve sounded the all clear. Let’s go, Maurizio.”

  Beneath the vaulted ceiling, in the dark, Sergio thought her voice sounded like a ghost calling from the underworld, surrounded by other melancholy, incorporeal spirits. Maurizio, the girl, and Sergio all stared at her in silence. She too was still and silent,


  the case still under her arm, in the half light of the hallway. Finally, Maurizio said, dreamily, “All right, Mother, let’s go.” She seemed to finally take a breath, as if her son’s words had released her from a spell and she had once again become a sentient being, no longer a ghost, as she had feared. As they walked silently behind her she went on about how frightened she had been, how long the alarm had lasted, and whether any bombs had been dropped. Maurizio walked slowly, as if trying to linger behind with Sergio and the girl. But his mother matched her footsteps to his and finally she took his arm, as if confirming her maternal role. Turning to Sergio, she said: “Of course, Maltese, you must understand the fears of a mother … In moments like these, I think principally of him.” Sergio said nothing and instead gazed at the girl walking beside him with her eyes lowered.

  They walked toward the exit with the rest of the people from the shelter, who were moving with the docility and deliberate pace of a multitude emerging from Mass or a cinema. One by one, they climbed the spiraling staircase and emerged into the blinding sunlight, across from the large square surrounded by trees and statues. Maurizio’s mother turned to Sergio and said, in a worldly, detached, and somewhat disdainful tone: “Good-bye, Maltese … I hope to see you again in less extreme circumstances.”

  “Good-bye, Maltese,” Maurizio’s father repeated, smiling affably.

  “Good-bye, Maltese,” Marisa said. She squeezed his hand and as she let go, her fingers lingered on his with an air of complicity.

  “Good-bye,” the governess echoed, hurrying after her mistress.

  Maurizio asked Sergio, “Where are you off to now?”

  Sergio realized that the girl was still there, walking slowly nearby. He called out to her, suddenly decisive: “Signorina …”

  “Yes?” she answered with a start.


  “Would you like … may I walk with you?”

  “Yes, thank you,” she answered with complete frankness. Maurizio looked at her, then at Sergio, and said, “Call me after lunch. I’ll join you.”

  “All right.”

  “See you later,” Maurizio said, seemingly with some regret, before calmly joining his family, which was already some way off. Only after a little while, when he was already far away, did Sergio remember that Maurizio was supposed to leave early that afternoon. He felt a touch of surprise. The young woman asked, in her confident, trusting voice: “Where should we go?”


  Under a burning sun, in the silent emptiness of the


  park, they slowly approached the main path. The sun seemed fixed at a point directly above them, beating down on their heads. Time stood still, as if events were taking place outside of time, like figures beyond an impenetrable pane of glass. “Here I am,” Sergio could not help but think as he gazed at the girl walking next to him and then at the path in the deserted park. “Here I am; all around, everything is disappearing, but I’m standing still … It’s 1943 and this mysterious girl is here next to me … Many years hence, if I survive this test, I’ll remember this insignificant moment of no historical importance more than anything else in this clamorous, crucial period.” It was true; he could feel that this moment, clearly delineated by his unhappy, fearful sensibility, was unique and would never be repeated, and that furthermore, it was important, though he couldn’t quite say why. He felt a sensation that was deep, pungent, and intense and at the same time completely ineffable and indefinite. A feeling that encompassed not only the girl and himself but everything, all of reality, as if suddenly the dam holding back this wave of feeling had opened and the emotion flowed freely into the outside world, becoming one with it and staining it in its own hue. His eyes welled with tears. “So then, could there really be something beyond these important events taking place all around us … and is it possible that we are not just spectators or actors in these events?” He could not fully answer either of these two questions. He tried to define what he was feeling and understood that it was something terribly vast, a cosmic compassion that encompassed both the Fascists and the anti-Fascists, Germans and Italians, as well as the sky, the sun, the trees, and both himself and the girl walking next to him. She must have noticed his agitation, because she turned and asked, in her childlike voice: “Are you crying? Why?” […]

  She answered, firmly: “Please don’t ask me […]”


  “But why?”


  “At least tell me why you left T.”

  “I can’t tell you that either.”

  “Why this mystery?” Sergio asked. “Don’t you trust me?”

  “No,” she said, staring at him with a kind of desperation. “Please don’t ask any more questions, I beg you.”

  For a moment he sat perplexed, a flurry of ideas streaming through his mind: perhaps she was a spy or an adventuress, or a thief, or some other kind of criminal. But it was enough just to look at her, to see her innocent, almost childlike face, in order to know that this was impossible. There were doubtless dishonorable people in the world, but most of them were innocent victims, forced into crime by the war. Even if the girl’s life was a mystery, it was sure to be a mystery in her image, innocent and simple. “Forgive me,” he said, sincerely, “I didn’t mean to be indiscreet.”

  She responded brightly, her voice betraying the slightest trace of a local accent: “Please don’t apologize … it’s understandable. You found me in this park, alone … it’s normal for you to ask questions.”

  After a short silence, he said, “My name is Sergio … I’m a journalist. And I’m from Rome.”

  Again, she was silent, and after a moment he added, “Do you have a suitcase, or something else?”

  “Yes, at the station.”

  “All right then,” he said with some effort, “let’s go get a bite to eat and then we can go to the station and pick up your bag. We’ll take it to your room.”

  “All right,” she said with a trusting docility that he


  found slightly jarring. “Let’s go.”

  They got up from the bench and left the square, walking along a vast, empty avenue. Nella unexpectedly began to speak in a relaxed, trusting voice, as if they were old friends. Not only did she not attribute much importance to the war, but she did not seem to even understand its exact terms. After he asked whether she thought they had really been bombed that morning, she asked casually, “Were those German planes?”

  Sergio stared at her in disbelief. “German planes? No … not yet … the Germans are our allies.”

  She turned away and said in a serious voice: “I don’t understand any of it, you know … Germans, British, they
re all the same to me … Now that the Fascists are gone, I assumed it was the Germans bombing us because we got rid of the Fascists.”

  “No,” Sergio explained, “those were English planes … that is, if there were planes at all.”


  was not surprised by this request for a bathing suit.


  Nella looked at several different styles, measuring them with her eyes. The shopgirl stared out at the street rather than at Nella, and said: “This one is made of knitted fabric … This is a two piece … This is a one piece.” Sergio could not help asking: “Do you sell a lot of these despite the war?”

  “Yes, of course,” she answered, “like every other year.”

  Nella asked, “Can I try one on? This one?”

  “Yes of course,” the young woman answered, picking up a bathing suit and taking it over to a folding screen. Now alone, Sergio looked around the shop nervously. For some reason he felt that he should pay for the bathing suit, and yet he wasn’t sure that he had enough money and was afraid of appearing stingy. He said to himself, “I met her just three hours ago … she’s nothing to me,” and realized once again that his feelings, almost like a lover’s, had no basis in reality. He was startled by Nella’s voice asking, in a pleased tone: “Do you think it suits me?”

  He turned around.

  “It suits me, don’t you think?” she repeated.

  It was true: it fit her perfectly, Sergio thought, or rather, any bathing suit would have suited her. Without the red cotton dress that concealed and almost erased her shape, her body was revealed in all its luminous, firm beauty. Like her face, it was as appetizing as bread and as life itself. In her, nature seemed to express only candor, health, luminosity, and purity. He remembered a prostitute he had visited two weeks earlier, a young woman, dark-haired and ill-proportioned, dark-skinned and sweaty, and it seemed to him that this girl standing before him now was the exact opposite of that woman, as different from her as day from night. Nella’s shoulders were plump

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