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       Two Friends, p.9

           Alberto Moravia
 

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  She paused, saying in an indecisive, plaintive voice: “Why should I? What do you want from me?”

  “Come here … I need to be near you.”

  “I’m too big to sit on your lap,” she said, mournfully. “You’re too small for me … I’m too heavy … Don’t you agree?” But she too was a bit aroused and perched willingly on his lap, sitting sideways with her arms around his neck. The armchair creaked under their combined weight, and she whispered: “Am I too heavy?”

  Sergio didn’t answer; instead he sought her lips. They kissed, in silence, for a long time, as if silently agreeing to seek consolation for their unhappiness and discouragement in the joys of the flesh. It was always the same, he thought to himself, not without a certain melancholy satisfaction: she would hesitate, struggle slightly, and then give in and indulge him. It was a sign that she loved him and that he still pleased her. They kissed once, and then pulled apart and kissed again; this time Sergio pulled her head slightly away by the hair. They separated again, still looking at each other, and Sergio rested his head on the back of the armchair. She kissed him, this time pressing down with the full weight of her chest and body. After the third kiss they separated and Lalla said, caressing him with her long, shapely hand: “This is what poor people do when they can’t afford to go to the movies or the theater or a café … Love is our entertainment, isn’t that right?”

  He grumbled: “Why do you say that? We love each other … that’s all.”

  “Poor people love each other too … That’s why they have so many babies … because they don’t have anything else to distract them at night.”

  “Do you want to have a child with me?”

  “Of course … I love you,” she answered, seriously.

  “Do you really love me?”

  “Very much.”

  She still seemed dejected and unhappy, and yet filled with passion. Her body pressed against his, and she wormed her hand into his shirt, between two buttons, and caressed his chest, not so much to please him, he thought, as for the pleasure of feeling his

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  skin beneath her hand. He could not help thinking about the fact that she was beginning to weigh heavily on his legs, making his knees ache. They kissed again, and he shifted slightly. She noticed and said, with a melancholy laugh, “I’m too heavy … You’re too small for a big woman like me, Sergio.”

  He did not respond. As she retreated to the other side of the bed to undress, he too began to undress in silence. He was not as neat as she was and usually threw his trousers, jacket, and shirt on the floor. They were both naked now: she on the other side of the bed, and he by the armchair. She tiptoed toward him, picking up his clothes piece by piece, murmuring censoriously, “What a mess you make … Strange; after all, you didn’t grow up with servants to put your clothes away, iron your shirts, and present them to you the next day, like Maurizio.” He said nothing, feeling slightly annoyed; Maurizio’s name reminded him of his task and the difficulties that faced him. As she leaned down to pick up his shoes, he pulled her toward him, pressing her firm belly and the warm, soft flesh of her breasts against his meager, skinny frame. Still holding his shoes, she allowed him to embrace her. Then she pulled away, placed the shoes beneath the armchair carefully, and said, “Let’s go to bed.”

  The bed was typical of furnished apartments, wide but also very low, with an iron frame and a thin mattress. “I don’t have a decent nightgown … they’re all torn or dirty,” Lalla said, sighing as she parted the bedcovers. “I’ll have to sleep in the nude.” Sergio lay down next to her in silence. She turned off the light and pressed her body against his. In the dark, she asked, “Do you love me?” “Very much,” he answered quickly, reaching around her waist to pull her close. “Make love to me,” she said in the dark, turning so that her back was pressed against his body, her buttocks against his groin, her legs slightly open. She pulled his arm around her and guided his hand to her breasts. He sought her sex with his own; with her hand, she guided him inside her, amid the hair and the profound, burning moisture of desire. Once inside her, he remained still with his arms around her, attached to her back like a baby Eskimo or a member of one of the nomadic tribes who carry their young on their backs. They always did this, holding each other in a tight embrace, joined together, motionless,

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  until sleep overcame them, merged and amalgamated into one flesh, perhaps more out of a need for consolation and togetherness than desire. Later, in the dark of night, they would pull apart involuntarily. The following morning Sergio always awoke on his side of the bed, with a wide expanse of cold bedsheets between them.

  [II]

  A few days later, Sergio and Lalla visited Maurizio at home. They had called him that morning, as usual. During that period, their friendship had reached its apogee; they saw one another almost every day. Maurizio, who did not like cafés, where one was uncomfortable and had to share space with other people, had invited them to his house. It was the first time they would meet there. Sergio’s goal of converting Maurizio to his political ideas had not changed. He also knew that Maurizio was aware of this and had invited them over with this in mind. In short, there was between them, in addition to their mutual sympathy and the obscure attraction Sergio felt—and which Maurizio also seemed to feel—the matter of Maurizio’s conversion to Communism. It hung there, silent but clear to both of them, like a game whose rules they both knew and played day after day. Sergio was convinced that deep down it was a struggle for power: the power of an ideology, whose truth and validity he wanted to impose upon his friend, as well as his own personal power. And the power of a social reality which Sergio felt his friend would eventually have to accept, if the ideology itself and his personal authority were not enough. He was convinced that Maurizio was simply weak, afflicted by a lassitude that was the result of a lack of ideas and the personal deficiencies of a man with less fortitude than himself. A weakness born of a social situation whose hopelessness Maurizio himself admitted and condemned. Under such conditions, Sergio reasoned, there was

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  no alternative for Maurizio but to convert if he was a man of good faith and good intentions. And since he had no doubt that Maurizio was a man of good faith and good intentions, he was convinced that in the end he would convert.

  He mentioned none of this to Lalla. Nevertheless, for some reason he sensed that she looked upon his plans with some skepticism. They set out for Maurizio’s in the early afternoon. That afternoon, Sergio was in a hurry, as if impatient to lock horns. Lalla seemed to intentionally take her time in preparing for the visit. Sergio sat for a long time in the armchair by the window, waiting for her to finish brushing her hair. Lalla had a very limited wardrobe, but she made a conscious effort to dress as well as possible, applying herself to her toilette with a care that irritated him even more than their lateness. First she went to the bathroom wearing her old, tattered dressing gown, and stayed there for a good half hour. Then she sat at her dressing table. He waited in silence, angrily chain-smoking in the dark room, which looked even smaller and shabbier in the gray light of the rainy afternoon. With exasperating care and deliberateness, she brushed her hair and applied face cream, lipstick, powder, eyeliner, and mascara. She sat on a low stool, her powerful hips spreading over the edge of the chair; her dressing gown hung open, revealing two dark, oblong breasts, delineated by a pink fold that formed on her belly because of her hunched posture. Peering into the mirror with her head inclined, she presented her small profile and elongated neck. From his position, he could just make out her face in the mirror, embellished by the shadows and her contemplative air. Each time he looked over as she combed her hair with careful, slow strokes, his irritation grew. But then he would catch a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, and his irritation would pass and he would feel content to wait, almost as a way to prove his love for her. In the end, however, his impatience won over, and he broke his silence: “Couldn’t you move a bit more quickly? We
’re already half an hour late.”

  “Why are you so worried about being on time?” she said, without turning around. “He can wait … You’d think he was your lover.”

  “What nonsense … I can’t stand being late, that’s

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  all.”

  “But sometimes you make me wait for hours,” she said slowly, still combing her hair.

  “That’s different.”

  “You should always be on time … The truth is that your feelings for Maurizio are different.”

  “What do you mean by that?”

  She paused for a moment and then said, distractedly: “If I weren’t convinced that you love me and that you are normal, I would think that you were a little bit in love with him.”

  “What a stupid thing to say.”

  She finished arranging her hair in silence and went over to the bed and sat down, pulling a plastic bag out of the dresser drawer. It contained a pair of new stockings. “I bought them just this morning,” she said, leaning over to pull on one of the stockings. “You can’t say that I’m not doing my best to do honor to your dear Maurizio.”

  Sergio said nothing. Lalla finished putting on her stockings, then a slip, and finally picked out her best dress, the one she wore on special occasions. For some reason, this irritated Sergio, and he protested: “Why are you wearing that dress?”

  “It’s the only decent one I have.”

  “You usually wear it to parties,” he said, bitterly. “This isn’t a party … Why don’t you dress normally?”

  “Why should I?” she said, staring at him. “Maurizio has invited us to his house … I should do my best to look presentable.”

  “He’ll get the impression that you’re intimidated and honored by his invitation.”

  She looked at him for a moment with a dreamy expression. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because … I don’t want to give the impression that this is a big event … an honor.”

  “Who wants to give that impression?”

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  “You, with all your fineries and that dress.”

  “Do you know why you’re saying this?” she said, sharply.

  “Why?”

  “Because despite your Communist ideals, you feel socially inferior to Maurizio … That’s the truth … and you’re trying to project your feelings onto me. But I don’t feel inferior in the least.”

  Her answer irritated Sergio even more, almost as if it contained a grain of truth; but he quickly examined his conscience and concluded that she was wrong: “Don’t be silly. Why should I feel socially inferior? What kind of Communist would that make me?”

  “I don’t know … that’s your business.”

  He paused. Then, in a precise, almost scientific tone, he explained: “As you know, we are very poor, and he is very wealthy. I don’t feel inferior in any way, please believe me … but it’s important to me that he not feel superior to us, and if he sees you arrive all gussied up for a simple, friendly conversation … If it were a party, at his house or elsewhere, I would be the first to say that you should make an effort … Elegance is important, and dressing well for a festive event is a serious matter … I’m not as stupid as you think … but I don’t want him to get the wrong idea about us … that’s all. I’m also thinking of him, because I have great affection for him, not only about us.”

  Lalla listened carefully, and answered, somewhat bitterly: “You think he’s stupid, but he’s not … All right, I’ll take off this dress and wear the oldest, most worn-out one I have … the one I wear when I teach.”

  “No need to go overboard … Then he’ll think we want to make a spectacle of our poverty, and that would just be another way of revealing a feeling of inferiority.”

  “What dress would you like me to wear, then? The selection is quite limited, after all. I only have three dresses.”

  “Just wear the one you’re already wearing,” he said, moodily. “Do whatever you want … but let’s go, shall we?”

  This time she said nothing and simply shrugged.

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  She put on her usual brown coat. Drily, she said, “Let’s go.”

  They traversed the dank cooking smells lingering in the hallway and came to the foyer. When they were on the stairs, he felt a wave of disconsolate passion and took Lalla by the waist: “Are you still angry with me?” he asked.

  She looked up at him. “No … why?”

  “Because of what I said about the dress.”

  “Of course not, don’t be silly.”

  Sergio felt mortified, though he did not quite know why. His eyes welled with tears. He whispered, “I’m at a difficult time in my life, you know that … I need you to love me very much.”

  “I do.”

  They separated and began to go down the stairs. Now that the turmoil of the moment had passed—a turmoil he could not explain—Sergio had become his lucid self again. He knew that this invitation was important and realized that in the duel he was about to fight with his friend, every false step could be fatal. He reviewed his arguments in his mind, as he did before speaking at Party meetings, reexamining his logic and approach, and anticipating his friend’s counterarguments. Just as when he prepared to speak in public, he felt lucid, determined, cool, and self-assured. He knew that this coolness and lucidity, mixed with a touch of cynicism, formed a kind of streamlined, utilitarian structure planted squarely upon a deep foundation of enthusiasm, hope, and faith: his enthusiasm, his hope, and his faith in the Communist Party and its destiny. One could build any kind of edifice upon such a foundation, he reflected, no matter what materials one worked with. The foundation was solid and sound.

  He was so distracted and lost in thought that he almost forgot where they were, standing at the bus stop, waiting for a bus to carry them through the city. His actions had become almost automatic; his mind was submerged in thought, like an atmosphere that did not thwart action but nevertheless impeded his awareness of his actions. A while later they were

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  walking down an empty boulevard with villas and gardens on either side, in an elegant neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. “Here it is,” Lalla said, pointing at the number on the gate.

  “You’ve been here before,” Sergio said with a start, surprised by her certainly.

  “No, I just know the number,” she responded simply.

  It was a black iron gate, bolted with an iron bar on the inside. Tall, robust trees, revealing the garden’s age, protruded above the pillars of the boundary wall, which were surmounted by decorative urns. Lalla reached out a gloved hand and pressed the button of the gleaming brass doorbell. Sergio looked at her and then turned to gaze into the street. It was truly an elegant street; all around there were high walls with tall trees looming over them, and the façades of a few imposing villas. Cars were parked here and there, all of them luxury models. It was a gray, cloudy day, and humid; it had been raining, and there were large puddles on the sidewalks. The dark, looming sky seemed to threaten more rain. “A mild, average day,” he thought, mechanically, and for some reason he could not explain, he shuddered, as if struck by a bad omen. He realized that the sangfroid he had enjoyed during their long walk, and which had made him almost forget his task, was now submerged beneath a feverish, dreamlike ardor. His cheeks were burning; his heart was pounding. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he wondered.

  “What did you say?” Lalla asked, coming closer.

  He had said these words aloud. This vexed him. “Nothing … I didn’t say anything.”

  “Yes you did … you said: What the hell?”

  “I didn’t say anything. I was just thinking aloud.”

  The gate opened and a butler in a striped jacket invited them in, stepping aside to let them pass. Sergio and his lover followed the butler through the garden. As they could guess from the tall trees looming over the wall, it appeared to be very old, filled with mature bushes, trees, and thick creepers. Once they were actually in
the house, Sergio’s heart began to beat normally again, and his cheeks no longer burned. He was glad: once again, he felt cool and in control. They entered a vast anteroom decorated with wooden chests and weapons mounted on the walls, then another, and finally, they arrived in a large sitting room. It was dark inside: the walls were hung with rich fabrics;

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  heavy velvet curtains covered the windows. Like the two previous rooms, this one was furnished in a style that had gone out of fashion twenty or thirty years earlier. There were carpets, clusters of dark armchairs and couches—many them old and threadbare—a multitude of paintings on the walls, large vases, and imposing bric-a-brac on every surface. The room had an air of stale, worn-out luxury, empty and tired, as if it had been decorated according to tastes and a way of life that no longer existed. The air was murky, even though it was still early in the day. “It’s too dark in here, I can’t see,” Lalla exclaimed, traversing the room confidently and switching on the central chandelier, a bronze object with three arms. Sergio noted her self-assuredness, finding it disagreeable, and once again suspected that Lalla had been in this house before. Again, he banished the thought, convincing himself that it was impossible and absurd.

  They sat across from each other in two deep armchairs positioned in a corner of the sitting room and waited, without speaking. The house was immersed in silence. The walls were thick and insulated; they could hear nothing from the tree-filled garden, except a vague scraping which seemed to come from downstairs. Perhaps someone was poking around in the cellar. It was hot, almost too hot, and, like the house, the heat felt old, stale, impure.

  After a long wait they heard steps, and Maurizio appeared in a doorway at the other end of the room. Sergio observed something he had never noticed before: Maurizio had a slight limp, almost imperceptible but just pronounced enough to catch the eye. Even so, his gait was not without grace. He was tall, as Sergio noted bitterly, with wide shoulders, and a strong, dynamic presence. His face appeared slightly older than that of a twenty-eight-year-old man: it was somber, with large black eyes, a prominent nose, a dark mustache, and very white teeth. His features were striking, vigorously outlined. He had large hands and feet, and emanated an air of simplicity and energy. But underneath he was actually extremely reflective, prudent, and cautious, as well as extraordinarily pleasant, affable, and polished in his manner. This mildness was surprising in a man with such a vigorous, almost brutal appearance. He was like a giant who is able to hold a butterfly between two fingers without hurting it, Sergio reflected. He knew that he was attracted to these contrasts in Maurizio, that they were perhaps the principal reason for his attraction. Maurizio greeted Sergio and Lalla in a loud,

 
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