Call Me by Your Name: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: Call Me by Your Name: A Novel
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Silence.

Then his reply would come, almost a sigh, without a single muscle moving in his body. “I was.”

“Sorry.”

That foot in the water—I could have kissed every toe on it. Then kissed his ankles and his knees. How often had I stared at his bathing suit while his hat was covering his face? He couldn’t possibly have known what I was looking at.

Or:

“Oliver, are you sleeping?”

Long silence.

“No. Thinking.”

“About what?”

His toes flicking the water.

“About Heidegger’s interpretation of a fragment by Heraclitus.”

Or, when I wasn’t practicing the guitar and he wasn’t listening to his headphones, still with his straw hat flat on his face, he would suddenly break the silence:

“Elio.”

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“Reading.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Thinking, then.”

“About?”

I was dying to tell him.

“Private,” I replied.

“So you won’t tell me?”

“So I won’t tell you.”

“So he won’t tell me,” he repeated, pensively, as if explaining to someone about me.

How I loved the way he repeated what I myself had just repeated. It made me think of a caress, or of a gesture, which happens to be totally accidental the first time but becomes intentional the second time and more so yet the third. It reminded me of the way Mafalda would make my bed every morning, first by folding the top sheet over the blanket, then by folding the sheet back again to cover the pillows on top of the blanket, and once more yet when she folded the whole thing over the bedspread—back and forth until I knew that tucked in between these multiple folds were tokens of something at once pious and indulgent, like acquiescence in an instant of passion.

Silence was always light and unobtrusive on those afternoons.

“I’m not telling,” I said.

“Then I’m going back to sleep,” he’d say.

My heart was racing. He must have known.

Profound silence again. Moments later:

“This is heaven.”

And I wouldn’t hear him say another word for at least an hour.

There was nothing I loved more in life than to sit at my table and pore over my transcriptions while he lay on his belly marking pages he’d pick up every morning from Signora Milani, his translator in B.

“Listen to this,” he’d sometimes say, removing his headphones, breaking the oppressive silence of those long sweltering summer mornings. “Just listen to this drivel.” And he’d proceed to read aloud something he couldn’t believe he had written months earlier.

“Does it make any sense to you? Not to me.”

“Maybe it did when you wrote it,” I said.

He thought for a while as though weighing my words.

“That’s the kindest thing anyone’s said to me in months”—spoken ever so earnestly, as if he was hit by a sudden revelation and was taking what I’d said to mean much more than I thought it did. I felt ill at ease, looked away, and finally muttered the first thing that came to mind: “Kind?” I asked.

“Yes, kind.”

I didn’t know what kindness had to do with it. Or perhaps I wasn’t seeing clearly enough where all this was headed and preferred to let the matter slide. Silence again. Until the next time he’d speak.

How I loved it when he broke the silence between us to say something—anything—or to ask what I thought about X, or had I ever heard of Y? Nobody in our household ever asked my opinion about anything. If he hadn’t already figured out why, he would soon enough—it was only a matter of time before he fell in with everyone’s view that I was the baby of the family. And yet here he was in his third week with us, asking me if I’d ever heard of Athanasius Kircher, Giuseppe Belli, and Paul Celan.

“I have.”

“I’m almost a decade older than you are and until a few days ago had never heard of any of them. I don’t get it.”

“What’s not to get? Dad’s a university professor. I grew up without TV. Get it now?”

“Go back to your plunking, will you!” he said as though crumpling a towel and throwing it at my face.

I even liked the way he told me off.

One day while moving my notebook on the table, I accidentally tipped over my glass. It fell on the grass. It didn’t break. Oliver, who was close by, got up, picked it up, and placed it, not just on the table, but right next to my pages.

I didn’t know where to find the words to thank him.

“You didn’t have to,” I finally said.

He let just enough time go by for me to register that his answer might not be casual or carefree.

“I wanted to.”

He wanted to, I thought.

I wanted to
, I imagined him repeating—kind, complaisant, effusive, as he was when the mood would suddenly strike him.

To me those hours spent at that round wooden table in our garden with the large umbrella imperfectly shading my papers, the chinking of our iced lemonades, the sound of the not-too-distant surf gently lapping the giant rocks below, and in the background, from some neighboring house, the muffled crackle of the hit parade medley on perpetual replay—all these are forever impressed on those mornings when all I prayed for was for time to stop. Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever, I’m asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more.

What did I want? And why couldn’t I know what I wanted, even when I was perfectly ready to be brutal in my admissions?

Perhaps the very least I wanted was for him to tell me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was no less human than any other young man my age. I would have been satisfied and asked for nothing else than if he’d bent down and picked up the dignity I could so effortlessly have thrown at his feet.

I was Glaucus and he was Diomedes. In the name of some obscure cult among men, I was giving him my golden armor for his bronze. Fair exchange. Neither haggled, just as neither spoke of thrift or extravagance.

The word “friendship” came to mind. But friendship, as defined by everyone, was alien, fallow stuff I cared nothing for. What I may have wanted instead, from the moment he stepped out of the cab to our farewell in Rome, was what all humans ask of one another, what makes life livable. It would have to come from him first. Then possibly from me.

There is a law somewhere that says that when one person is thoroughly smitten with the other, the other must unavoidably be smitten as well.
Amor ch’a null’amato amar perdona.
Love, which exempts no one who’s loved from loving, Francesca’s words in the
Inferno
. Just wait and be hopeful. I was hopeful, though perhaps this was what I had wanted all along. To wait forever.

As I sat there working on transcriptions at my round table in the morning, what I would have settled for was not his friendship, not anything. Just to look up and find him there, suntan lotion, straw hat, red bathing suit, lemonade. To look up and find you there, Oliver. For the day will come soon enough when I’ll look up and you’ll no longer be there.

 

 

By late morning, friends and neighbors from adjoining houses frequently dropped in. Everyone would gather in our garden and then head out together to the beach below. Our house was the closest to the water, and all you needed was to open the tiny gate by the balustrade, take the narrow stairway down the bluff, and you were on the rocks. Chiara, one of the girls who three years ago was shorter than I and who just last summer couldn’t leave me alone, had now blossomed into a woman who had finally mastered the art of not always greeting me whenever we met. Once, she and her younger sister dropped in with the rest, picked up Oliver’s shirt on the grass, threw it at him, and said, “Enough. We’re going to the beach and you’re coming.”

He was willing to oblige. “Let me just put away these papers. Otherwise his father”—and with his hands carrying papers he used his chin to point at me—“will skin me alive.”

“Talking about skin, come here,” she said, and with her fingernails gently and slowly tried to pull a sliver of peeling skin from his tanned shoulders, which had acquired the light golden hue of a wheat field in late June. How I wished I could do that.

“Tell his father that
I
crumpled his papers. See what he says then.”

Looking over his manuscript, which Oliver had left on the large dining table on his way upstairs, Chiara shouted from below that she could do a better job translating these pages than the local translator. A child of expats like me, Chiara had an Italian mother and an American father. She spoke English and Italian with both.

“Do you type good too?” came his voice from upstairs as he rummaged for another bathing suit in his bedroom, then in the shower, doors slamming, drawers thudding, shoes kicked.

“I type good,” she shouted, looking up into the empty stairwell.

“As good as you speak good?”

“Bettah. And I’d’a gave you a bettah price too.”

“I need five pages translated per day, to be ready for pickup every morning.”

“Then I won’t do nu’in for you,” snapped Chiara. “Find yuhsef somebuddy else.”

“Well, Signora Milani needs the money,” he said, coming downstairs, billowy blue shirt, espadrilles, red trunks, sunglasses, and the red Loeb edition of Lucretius that never left his side. “I’m okay with her,” he said as he rubbed some lotion on his shoulders.

“I’m okay with her,”
Chiara said, tittering. “I’m okay with you, you’re okay with me, she’s okay with him—”

“Stop clowning and let’s go swimming,” said Chiara’s sister.

He had, it took me a while to realize, four personalities depending on which bathing suit he was wearing. Knowing which to expect gave me the illusion of a slight advantage. Red: bold, set in his ways, very grown-up, almost gruff and ill-tempered—stay away. Yellow: sprightly, buoyant, funny, not without barbs—don’t give in too easily; might turn to red in no time. Green, which he seldom wore: acquiescent, eager to learn, eager to speak, sunny—why wasn’t he always like this? Blue: the afternoon he stepped into my room from the balcony, the day he massaged my shoulder, or when he picked up my glass and placed it right next to me.

Today was red: he was hasty, determined, snappy.

On his way out, he grabbed an apple from a large bowl of fruit, uttered a cheerful “Later, Mrs. P.” to my mother, who was sitting with two friends in the shade, all three of them in bathing suits, and, rather than open the gate to the narrow stairway leading to the rocks, jumped over it. None of our summer guests had ever been as freewheeling. But everyone loved him for it, the way everyone grew to love
Later!

“Okay, Oliver, later, okay,” said my mother, trying to speak his lingo, having even grown to accept her new title as Mrs. P. There was always something abrupt about that word. It wasn’t “See you later” or “Take care, now,” or even “Ciao.”
Later!
was a chilling, slam-dunk salutation that shoved aside all our honeyed European niceties.
Later!
always left a sharp aftertaste to what until then may have been a warm, heart-to-heart moment.
Later!
didn’t close things neatly or allow them to trail off. It slammed them shut.

But
Later!
was also a way of avoiding saying goodbye, of making light of all goodbyes. You said
Later!
not to mean farewell but to say you’d be back in no time. It was the equivalent of his saying “Just a sec” when my mother once asked him to pass the bread and he was busy pulling apart the fish bones on his plate.
“Just a sec.”
My mother, who hated what she called his
Americanisms
, ended up calling him
Il cauboi
—the cowboy. It started as a putdown and soon enough became an endearment, to go along with her other nickname for him, conferred during his first week, when he came down to the dinner table after showering, his glistening hair combed back.
La star
, she had said, short for
la muvi star
. My father, always the most indulgent among us, but also the most observant, had figured the cauboi out. “
É un timido
, he’s shy, that’s why,” he said when asked to explain Oliver’s abrasive
Later!

Oliver
timido
? That was new. Could all of his gruff Americanisms be nothing more than an exaggerated way of covering up the simple fact that he didn’t know—or feared he didn’t know—how to take his leave gracefully? It reminded me of how for days he had refused to eat soft-boiled eggs in the morning. By the fourth or fifth day, Mafalda insisted he couldn’t leave the region without tasting our eggs. He finally consented, only to admit, with a touch of genuine embarrassment that he never bothered to conceal, that he didn’t know how to open a soft-boiled egg. “
Lasci fare a me
, Signor Ulliva, leave it to me,” she said. From that morning on and well into his stay with us, she would bring Ulliva two eggs and stop serving everyone until she had sliced open the shell of both his eggs.

Did he perhaps want a third? she asked. Some people liked more than two eggs. No, two would do, he replied, and, turning to my parents, added, “I know myself. If I have three, I’ll have a fourth, and more.” I had never heard someone his age say,
I know myself
. It intimidated me.

But she had been won over well before, on his third morning with us, when she asked him if he liked juice in the morning, and he’d said yes. He was probably expecting orange or grapefruit juice; what he got was a large glass filled to the rim with thick apricot juice. He had never had apricot juice in his life. She stood facing him with her salver flat against her apron, trying to make out his reaction as he quaffed it down. He said nothing at first. Then, probably without thinking, he smacked his lips. She was in heaven. My mother couldn’t believe that people who taught at world-famous universities smacked their lips after downing apricot juice. From that day on, a glass of the stuff was waiting for him every morning.

BOOK: Call Me by Your Name: A Novel
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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