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       Boredom, p.9

           Alberto Moravia
 

  I had always thought that Balestrieri ran after all the women he happened to come across; and now, here he was refusing the pretext which the girl offered him. “Why do you think Balestrieri refused?” I asked.

  “I don’t know, he didn’t want to.”

  “Perhaps he was in love with Elisa?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Then why didn’t he want to?”

  Uncompromisingly she replied: “At first I thought it was Elisa who had persuaded him; then I found out that Elisa knew nothing about it. He didn’t want to, that was all. I thought he was annoyed at the idea of my coming to the studio and I suggested he should give me the lessons at my home, but he refused again. In fact, he didn’t want to.”

  “But you, why were you so anxious for Balestrieri to give you lessons?”

  She hesitated, and then I saw her pale face grow red, in an uneven way, in light patches that succeeded one another. “I had fallen in love with him,” she said. “Or rather, I thought I had.”

  “And he paid no attention to you? But why?”

  “I don’t know.” She hesitated again, then, as though she had succeeded in finally overcoming her last remnant of waywardness, she broke into a kind of loquacity which, though still precise and economical, had in it less reserve than her former manner. “I suppose I didn’t attract him, and that was all there was to it. We went on in that way for two or three months, and by then he was positively avoiding me and it made me unhappy. At that time I was really in love with him. In the end I resorted to a trick.”

  “A trick?”

  “Yes. One day when Elisa was due to go to his studio and I knew about it, I asked Elisa to lunch and told her he had telephoned to tell her not to come after all because he was busy, and I went myself instead.”

  “How did Balestrieri take your trick?”

  “At first he wanted to send me away. Later on he became kinder.”

  “You and he made love that day, did you?”

  Again she blushed, in the same gradual, uneven way, and nodded her head in assent, without speaking.

  “How about Elisa?”

  “Elisa never knew that I had gone in her place. But she and Balestrieri parted shortly afterward.”

  “Are you still friends with Elisa?”

  “No, we never see each other now.”

  Silence followed. I realized that I was cross-examining her almost like a policeman, and that she seemed to submit to my examination quite willingly; I asked myself what it was that I really wanted to know. Clearly it was not so much the facts that interested me as something that lay beyond them and constituted their background and their justification. But what was this something? I asked bluntly: “Why did you fall in love with Balestrieri?”

  “What d’you mean?”

  “What I mean is—why with Balestrieri, a man old enough to have been your father’s father?”

  “There’s no reason for falling in love with someone. You just fall in love and that’s that.”

  “There are always reasons, for everything.”

  She looked at me and she seemed now to be closer to me on the divan. Or was this possibly an optical illusion due to the cross-examination which was making her gradually better known and more recognizable to me? At last, leaning slightly forward and gazing straight at me, she said faintly: “I felt very strongly attracted to him.”

  “What kind of attraction was it?”

  She said nothing, but merely looked at me. “Well?” I insisted.

  “Oh well; I’ll tell you. Balestrieri was a little like my father, and when I was younger I had a real passion for my father.”

  “A passion?”

  “Yes, I used to dream about him at night.”

  “So you fell in love with Balestrieri because he was a little like your father?”

  “Yes, that was part of the reason.”

  There was silence again, and then I went on: “Why do you think Balestrieri refused to have anything to do with you at the beginning?”

  “I’ve already told you: I didn’t attract him.”

  “To say that you didn’t attract him doesn’t explain anything. There are so many reasons why a person may not be attractive.”

  “That may be so. But I don’t know what they are.”

  “But you might guess them. Do you think Balestrieri refused to have anything to do with you because you were too young?”

  “No, not that.”

  “Or because he had the same feeling about you that you had about him—I mean that he looked upon you rather like a daughter?”

  “I don’t think so. Otherwise he would have told me.”

  I paused a moment, engrossed in thought. It had now become clear to me that I was questioning the girl about Balestrieri in order to find out something about myself: I too, in fact, had so far repelled her advances, and with me too she appeared to have fallen in love. “Or don’t you think, perhaps,” I said, “that Balestrieri was afraid of getting to know you?”

  “Afraid, why afraid?”

  “Afraid because he foresaw what did in fact happen afterwards: that he would fall in love with you. Love does sometimes frighten people.”

  “It doesn’t frighten me,” she said mysteriously.

  “You haven’t answered my question,” I insisted. “Did Balestrieri avoid you because he was afraid?”

  “No, he wasn’t afraid. In fact I remember now that he once said to me: ‘If you hadn’t played that trick on me, I should never have paid any attention to you, you didn’t attract me.’” She was silent a moment, and then went on: “That’s all there is to it, I don’t know anything more.”

  I saw I should make no further headway in that direction, so I abruptly changed my line of approach. “But afterwards,” I said, “afterwards he fell in love with you, didn’t he?”

  “Yes.”

  “Very much so?”

  “Yes, very much.”

  “Why?”

  She bent forward and looked at me. She was quite close to me now. It was no longer a question of an optical illusion; her knees were touching mine.

  “I don’t know,” she said.

  “But didn’t he talk about his love for you?”

  “Yes, he talked about it.”

  “And what did he say?”

  She seemed to be reflecting, and I noticed her drooping over toward me, as if she were going to fall on top of me. Or rather, owing perhaps to the kind of sheath-like wrapping formed by the towel around her body, she seemed like a vessel full of some liquid or other tilting further and further toward me, as though to make it possible for me to drink from it. Finally she answered: “I don’t remember what he said. I remember what he did.”

  “What did he do?”

  “He used to cry, for instance.”

  “To cry?”

  “Yes, all of a sudden he would take his head between his hands and start crying.”

  I thought of Balestrieri as I had always seen him: old, certainly, but robust, broad-shouldered, firm on his legs, his red face full of vitality beneath his white hair; and I could not help feeling disconcerted. “Why did he cry?” I asked.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Didn’t he tell you why he cried?”

  “No, he only said he cried because of me.”

  “Perhaps he was jealous?”

  “No, he wasn’t jealous.”

  “But did you give him reason to be jealous?”

  She looked at me for a moment in silence, as though she had not understood, then she replied briefly: “No.”

  “Did he cry like that in silence, without speaking?”

  “No, he always said something.”

  “Well then, you see, he did speak. And what did he say?”

  “He used to say, for instance, that he couldn’t do without me.”

  “Ah, then, there was a reason for his crying. He would have liked to do without you and he couldn’t.”

  She corrected me pedantically. “No, he si
mply said that he couldn’t do without me. He never said that he wanted to do without me; on the contrary, in fact, once when I wanted to leave him he tried to kill himself.”

  I was surprised at the complete absence of any change in the tone of her voice, whether she was saying something unimportant or whether she was revealing to me that Balestrieri had tried to kill himself on her account. “So he tried to kill himself? How?” I asked.

  “With those pills that people take when they can’t sleep. I don’t remember what they’re called.”

  “Barbiturates?”

  “That’s it, barbiturates.”

  “Was he sick after that?”

  “He was sick for a couple of days, then he got better.”

  “Did Balestrieri suffer from sleeplessness?”

  “Yes, he took barbiturates for it. There were nights when he slept for only an hour or two.”

  “Why?”

  “Why didn’t he sleep? I don’t know.”

  “Was it because of you?”

  “He used to say that everything that happened to him was because of me.”

  “Didn’t he say anything more? Didn’t he explain why you were the cause of everything?”

  “Yes, now that I think of it, he used to say I was his drug.”

  “A commonplace, don’t you think?”

  “What does a commonplace mean?”

  “Something not at all original, that anybody might say.”

  There was silence again. Finally I went on: “But why were you a drug for Balestrieri?”

  She in turn asked me, slowly: “Tell me, why are you asking me all these questions?”

  I answered, with sincerity: “Because in all this story about you and Balestrieri there is something that makes me curious.”

  “What’s that?”

  “I don’t know. That’s why I ask you these questions. In order to find out why I ask you.”

  She did not smile, but again gazed at me intently though in an expressionless way, leaning toward me so that it almost seemed to me that the warm, simple smell of her body came faintly to my nostrils. Finally she explained: “I suppose I was like a drug for Balestrieri because he had more and more need of me. He said so himself: ‘The dose that was sufficient for me once is no longer sufficient now.’”

  “In what sense was he always in need of you?”

  “In every sense.”

  “In the sense of lovemaking?”

  She looked at me and said nothing. I repeated my question. Then she appeared to make up her mind and answered precisely: “Yes, in that sense.”

  “Did you do it very often?”

  “At first only once or twice a week, then every other day, then every day, then twice a day. In the end I gave up counting.”

  “Why?”

  “He was doing it continually”—she seemed more at ease now—“he would make me pose, then he would stop painting and want to make love: and so it went on all day long.”

  “Wasn’t he ever satisfied?”

  “He used to get tired. Sometimes he felt sick, too. But it was never enough for him.”

  “And you, did you like all that?”

  She hesitated, and then remarked: “A woman never minds a man showing that he loves her.”

  “But did he really love you? Wasn’t it rather that he needed you as a habit, as a vice, just as, in fact, a person needs a drug?”

  With a touch of warmth she replied: “No, he really loved me.”

  “How, for instance, did he show that he loved you?”

  “How can one explain? These are things that one feels.”

  “Nothing more than that?”

  “Well, just as an example, he wanted to marry me.”

  “But he was already married, wasn’t he?”

  “Yes, but he said he would manage to get a divorce.”

  “And would you have accepted him?”

  “No.”

  “Why wouldn’t you have accepted him?”

  “I don’t know, I didn’t feel like marrying him.”

  “Then you didn’t love him?”

  “I never loved him.” She stopped, as if prevented by some scruple, and then added: “Or rather, perhaps I loved him at the beginning, just after I first met him.”

  There was a long silence. She was very close to me now, almost hanging over me, with her bust inclined forward and her eyes fixed upon me, giving me a feeling of unsteadiness which made me think of her again as a vessel, a beautiful two-handled vase, slim and big-breasted and brimming with desire, on the point of overflowing and submerging me. Finally I said: “I have put you through a full-scale cross-examination and perhaps you’re a bit tired?”

  “Oh no, you haven’t tired me at all,” she hastened to reply. “On the contrary.”

  “On the contrary what?”

  “On the contrary you gave me pleasure. You’ve made me think of so many things that I never think about.”

  “Don’t you ever think about Balestrieri?”

  “No.”

  “Not even today, when they took him away?”

  “No, today less than other days.”

  “Why less than other days?”

  She looked at me and said nothing. I repeated: “Why less than other days?”

  She answered at last, quite sharply: “Because today I’ve only thought of you. I followed the funeral for a little, from some way off, then I couldn’t resist any longer and ran back to the studio. I was afraid they might have changed the lock.”

  “What then?”

  “Then I shouldn’t have had any excuse for seeing you.”

  I pretended not to attach any importance to this declaration, and asked her: “All the same, Balestrieri did mean something to you?”

  “Yes, certainly.”

  “What?”

  She thought for a moment and then replied: “I don’t know. Certainly he meant something to me, but as I’ve never thought about it I don’t know what it was.”

  “Think about it now.”

  “I can’t think about it. You can’t think on purpose about somebody or something. Either you just think about them naturally or you don’t think at all.”

  “At this moment what would you be thinking about, as you say, naturally?”

  “About you.”

  I remained silent for a moment. I lit a cigarette and then said, deliberately: “Now, you can rest assured, I’ve finished cross-examining you and I’ll come to the point. While Balestrieri did not mean anything much to you, or possibly nothing, you to Balestrieri were something very real, very concrete. Something he could not do without, according to his own words, in short—something like a drug. Isn’t that so?”

  “Yes.”

  “In other words, you, to Balestrieri, were not merely something very real, but actually the only reality that mattered. In fact, when you told him you wanted to leave him, he tried to kill himself. And he tried to do this precisely because you, by going away, would have been depriving him of everything that was real to him.”

  She looked at me in a gentle, polite, but entirely unconvinced manner; much as a child looks at his mother when she scolds him before giving him a piece of candy, and waits patiently for the scolding, which matters nothing to him and which he does not understand, to be over, so that he can get the candy. She said, however: “Yes, it’s true, now that I think of it, I remember his telling me often that I was everything to him.”

  “Well then, do you see?—Balestrieri, although he was an unhappy lover and a very bad painter, was in a way rather enviable.”

  “Why?”

  “Because he was able to say to someone: ‘You are everything to me.’”

  She was silent again, as though uncertain of the meaning of my words, and anyhow not very interested in looking for it: it was the candy that she minded about, not the scolding. I resumed: “And now that’s enough of Balestrieri, let’s talk about you and me.”

  She seemed delighted at this, in her own highly discreet, almost
imperceptible way, making a slight forward movement with her face, as if to show solicitude and attentiveness, and an even slighter movement of her hips on the divan, as though to come even closer to me. “For at least three or four months,” I said, “we’ve been meeting in the corridor or the courtyard, and every time we meet you look at me and smile at me in a way which is, let us say, significant. Isn’t that so? If it’s not true, contradict me; it’ll mean I’ve had a wrong impression.”

  She said nothing, she merely looked at me as if waiting for the end of my speech, and as if all that came in between had no interest for her. “You don’t answer,” I continued, “so I presume that I’m not making a mistake. Besides, what you want of me seems to me pretty clear. Forgive me, I know I’m being brutal: for four or five months you’ve been wanting to show me that you’re ready to do with me what you used to do with Balestrieri. At least, that’s what I’ve understood. Again, if I’m wrong, tell me.”

  Once more there was silence; her face now expressed a kind of shy satisfaction at having been so well understood. “Balestrieri,” I went on, “told you that you were everything to him. And the word ‘everything’ meant, as far as I can see, really everything. Unfortunately I’m in the opposite position. To Balestrieri you were everything; to me you are nothing.”

  I paused for a moment, looking at her, and could not but admire her impassivity. She said modestly, lowering her eyes: “We’ve only known each other for half an hour.”

  I hastened to explain. “I don’t want to be misunderstood. It is in fact impossible for you to be everything, or even something, to me, in the sense which is usually given to that expression. It’s certainly true, as you pointed out, that we’ve known each other for barely half an hour. No, this is a question of something different. Do please try and follow me, even if these explanations don’t interest you. Well then: I asked you to come here to my studio under the pretext of painting you—isn’t that so?”

  “Yes.”

  “It really was a pretext; that is, a lie. Apart from the fact that I haven’t painted the human figure or other recognizable objects for years, I lied to you because I’m not a painter, or rather, I haven’t been a painter for some time. And I am no longer a painter because I have nothing to paint, that is, I have no relationship with anything real.”

 
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