Authors: André Aciman
“That man gives me the creeps,” my aunt would say.
“That creep has a heart of gold,” my father would say.
But all of these hours were strained by fear, as if fear were a brooding specter, or a strange, lost bird trapped in our little town, whose sooty wing flecked every living thing with a shadow that would never wash. I didn’t know what I was afraid of, nor why I worried so much, nor why this thing that could so easily cause panic felt like hope sometimes and, like hope in the darkest moments, brought such joy, unreal joy, joy with a noose tied around it. The thud my heart gave when I saw him unannounced both terrified and thrilled me. I was afraid when he showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn’t. The agony wore me out in the end, and, on scalding afternoons, I’d simply give out and fall asleep on the living room sofa and, though still dreaming, know exactly who was in the room, who had tiptoed in and out, who was standing there, who was looking at me and for how long, who was trying to pick out today’s paper while making the least rustling sound, only to give up and look for tonight’s film listings whether they woke me or not.
The fear never went away. I woke up to it, watched it turn to joy when I heard him shower in the morning and knew he’d be downstairs with us for breakfast, only to watch it curdle when, rather than have coffee, he would dash through the house and right away set to work in the garden. By noon, the agony of waiting to hear him say anything to me was more than I could bear. I knew that the sofa awaited me in an hour or so. It made me hate myself for feeling so hapless, so thoroughly invisible, so smitten, so callow. Just say something, just touch me, Oliver. Look at me long enough and watch the tears well in my eyes. Knock at my door at night and see if I haven’t already left it ajar for you. Walk inside. There’s always room in my bed.
What I feared most were the days when I didn’t see him for stretches at a time—entire afternoons and evenings sometimes without knowing where he’d been. I’d sometimes spot him crossing the piazzetta or talking to people I’d never seen there. But that didn’t count, because in the small piazzetta where people gathered around closing time, he seldom gave me a second look, just a nod which might have been intended less for me than for my father, whose son I happened to be.
My parents, my father especially, couldn’t have been happier with him. Oliver was working out better than most of our summer residents. He helped my father organize his papers, managed a good deal of his foreign correspondence, and was clearly coming along with his own book. What he did in his private life and his time was his business—
If youth must canter, then who’ll do the galloping?
was my father’s clumsy adage. In our household, Oliver could do no wrong.
Since my parents never paid any attention to his absences, I thought it was safer never to show that they caused me any anxiety. I mentioned his absence only when one of them wondered where he’d been; I would pretend to look as startled as they were. Oh, that’s right, he’s been gone so long. No, no idea. And I had to worry not to look too startled either, for that might ring false and alert them to what was eating at me. They’d know bad faith as soon as they spotted it. I was surprised they hadn’t already. They had always said I got
too easily attached
to people. This summer, though, I finally realized what they meant by being
too easily attached.
Obviously, it had happened before, and they must have already picked up on it when I was probably too young to notice anything myself. It had sent alarming ripples through their lives. They worried for me. I knew they were right to worry. I just hoped they’d never know how far things stood beyond their ordinary worries now. I knew they didn’t suspect a thing, and it bothered me—though I wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. It told me that if I were no longer transparent and could disguise so much of my life, then I was finally safe from them, and from him—but at what price, and did I want to be so safe from anyone?
There was no one to speak to. Whom could I tell? Mafalda? She’d leave the house. My aunt? She’d probably tell everyone. Marzia, Chiara, my friends? They’d desert me in a second. My cousins when they came? Never. My father held the most liberal views—but on this? Who else? Write to one of my teachers? See a doctor? Say I needed a shrink? Tell Oliver?
Tell Oliver. There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I’m afraid it’s going to have to be you…
One afternoon, when I knew that the house was totally empty, I went up to his room. I opened his closet and, as this was my room when there were no residents, pretended to be looking for something I’d left behind in one of the bottom drawers. I’d planned to rifle through his papers, but as soon as I opened his closet, I saw it. Hanging on a hook was this morning’s red bathing suit which he hadn’t swum in, which was why it was hanging there and not drying on the balcony. I picked it up, never in my life having pried into anyone’s personal belongings before. I brought the bathing suit to my face, then rubbed my face inside of it, as if I were trying to snuggle into it and lose myself inside its folds—So this is what he smells like when his body isn’t covered in suntan lotion, this is what he smells like, this is what he smells like, I kept repeating to myself, looking inside the suit for something more personal yet than his smell and then kissing every corner of it, almost wishing to find hair, anything, to lick it, to put the whole bathing suit into my mouth, and, if I could only steal it, keep it with me forever, never ever let Mafalda wash it, turn to it in the winter months at home and, on sniffing it, bring him back to life, as naked as he was with me at this very moment. On impulse, I removed my bathing suit and began to put his on. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it with the kind of intoxicated rapture that makes people take risks they would never take even with plenty of alcohol in their system. I wanted to come in his suit, and leave the evidence for him to find there. Which was when a crazier notion possessed me. I undid his bed, took off his suit, and cuddled it between his sheets, naked. Let him find me—I’ll deal with it, one way or another. I recognized the feel of the bed. My bed. But the smell of him was all around me, wholesome and forgiving, like the strange scent which had suddenly come over my entire body when an elderly man who happened to be standing right next to me in a temple on Yom Kippur placed his tallis over my head till I had all but disappeared and was now united with a nation that is forever dispersed but which, from time to time, comes together again when one being and another wrap themselves under the same piece of cloth. I put his pillow over my face, kissed it savagely, and, wrapping my legs around it, told it what I lacked the courage to tell everyone else in the world. Then I told him what I wanted. It took less than a minute.
The secret was out of my body. So what if he saw. So what if he caught me. So what, so what, so what.
On my way from his room to mine I wondered if I’d ever be mad enough to try the same thing again.
That evening I caught myself keeping careful tabs on where everyone was in the house. The shameful urge was upon me sooner than I’d ever imagined. It would have taken nothing to sneak back upstairs.
While reading in my father’s library one evening, I came upon the story of a handsome young knight who is madly in love with a princess. She too is in love with him, though she seems not to be entirely aware of it, and despite the friendship that blossoms between them, or perhaps because of that very friendship, he finds himself so humbled and speechless owing to her forbidding candor that he is totally unable to bring up the subject of his love. One day he asks her point-blank: “Is it better to speak or die?”
I’d never even have the courage to ask such a question.
But what I’d spoken into his pillow revealed to me that, at least for a moment, I’d rehearsed the truth, gotten it out into the open, that I had in fact enjoyed speaking it, and if he happened to pass by at the very moment I was muttering things I wouldn’t have dared speak to my own face in the mirror, I wouldn’t have cared, wouldn’t have minded—let him know, let him see, let him pass judgment too if he wants—just don’t tell the world—even if you’re the world for me right now, even if in your eyes stands a horrified, scornful world. That steely look of yours, Oliver, I’d rather die than face it once I’ve told you.
Toward the end of July things finally came to a head. It seemed clear that after Chiara there had been a succession of
, crushes, mini-crushes, one-night crushes, flings, who knows. To me all of it boiled down to one thing only: his cock had been everywhere in B. Every girl had touched it, that cock of his. It had been in who knows how many vaginas, how many mouths. The image amused me. It never bothered me to think of him between a girl’s legs as she lay facing him, his broad, tanned, glistening shoulders moving up and down as I’d imagined him that afternoon when I too had wrapped my legs around his pillow.
Just looking at his shoulders when he happened to be going over his manuscript in his
made me wonder where they’d been last night. How effortless and free the movement of his shoulder blades each time he shifted, how thoughtlessly they caught the sun. Did they taste of the sea to the woman who had lain under him last night and bitten into him? Or of his suntan lotion? Or of the smell that had risen from his sheets when I went into them?
How I wished I had shoulders like his. Maybe I wouldn’t long for them if I had them?
Did I want to be like him? Did I want to be him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are “being” and “having” thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M. C. Escher. When had they separated us, you and me, Oliver? And why did I know it, and why didn’t you? Is it your body that I want when I think of lying next to it every night or do I want to slip into it and own it as if it were my own, as I did when I put on your bathing suit and took it off again, all the while craving, as I craved nothing more in my life that afternoon, to feel you slip inside me as if my entire body were your bathing suit, your home? You in me, me in you…
Then came the day. We were in the garden, I told him of the novella I had just finished reading.
“About the knight who doesn’t know whether to speak or die. You told me already.”
Obviously I had mentioned it and forgotten.
“Well, does he or doesn’t he?”
“Better to speak, she said. But she’s on her guard. She senses a trap somewhere.”
“So does he speak?”
“No, he fudges.”
It was just after breakfast. Neither of us felt like working that day.
“Listen, I need to pick up something in town.”
was always the latest pages from the translator.
“I’ll go, if you want me to.”
He sat silently a moment.
“No, let’s go together.”
“Now?” What I might have meant was, Really?
“Why, have you got anything better to do?”
“So let’s go.” He put some pages in his frayed green backpack and slung it over his shoulders.
Since our last bike ride to B., he had never asked me to go anywhere with him.
I put down my fountain pen, closed my scorebook, placed a half-full glass of lemonade on top of my pages, and was ready to go.
On our way to the shed, we passed the garage.
As usual, Manfredi, Mafalda’s husband, was arguing with Anchise. This time he was accusing him of dousing the tomatoes with too much water, and that it was all wrong, because they were growing too fast. “They’ll be mealy,” he complained.
“Listen. I do the tomatoes, you do the driving, and we’re all happy.”
“You don’t understand. In my day you moved the tomatoes at some point, from one place to another, from one place to the other”—he insisted—“and you planted basil nearby. But of course you people who’ve been in the army know everything.”
“That’s right.” Anchise was ignoring him.
“Of course I’m right. No wonder they didn’t keep you in the army.”
“That’s right. They didn’t keep me in the army.”
Both of them greeted us. The gardener handed Oliver his bicycle. “I straightened the wheel last night, it took some doing. I also put some air in the tires.”
Manfredi couldn’t have been more peeved.
“From now on, I fix the wheels, you grow the tomatoes,” said the piqued driver.
Anchise gave a wry smile. Oliver smiled back.
Once we had reached the cypress lane that led onto the main road to town, I asked Oliver, “Doesn’t he give you the creeps?”
“No, why? I fell the other day on my way back and scraped myself pretty badly. Anchise insisted on applying some sort of witch’s brew. He also fixed the bike for me.”
With one hand on the handlebar he lifted his shirt and exposed a huge scrape and bruise on his left hip.
“Still gives me the creeps,” I said, repeating my aunt’s verdict.
“Just a lost soul, really.”
I would have touched, caressed, worshipped that scrape.
On our way, I noticed that Oliver was taking his time. He wasn’t in his usual rush, no speeding, no scaling the hill with his usual athletic zeal. Nor did he seem in a rush to go back to his paperwork, or join his friends on the beach, or, as was usually the case, ditch me. Perhaps he had nothing better to do. This was my moment in
and, young as I was, I knew it wouldn’t last and that I should at least enjoy it for what it was rather than ruin it with my oft-cranked resolution to firm up our friendship or take it to another plane. There’ll never be a friendship, I thought, this is nothing, just a minute of grace.
Zwischen Immer und Nie. Zwischen Immer und Nie.
Between always and never. Celan.
When we arrived at the piazzetta overlooking the sea, Oliver stopped to buy cigarettes. He had started smoking Gauloises. I had never tried Gauloises and asked if I could. He took out a
from the box, cupped his hands very near my face, and lit my cigarette. “Not bad, right?” “Not bad at all.” They’d remind me of him, of this day, I thought, realizing that in less than a month he’d be totally gone, without a trace.
This was probably the first time I allowed myself to count down his remaining days in B.
“Just take a look at this,” he said as we ambled with our bikes in the midmorning sun toward the edge of the piazzetta overlooking the rolling hills below.
Farther out and way below was a magnificent view of the sea with scarcely a few stripes of foam streaking the bay like giant dolphins breaking the surf. A tiny bus was working its way uphill, while three uniformed bikers straggled behind it, obviously complaining of the fumes. “You do know who is said to have drowned near here,” he said.
“And do you know what his wife Mary and friends did when they found his body?”
, heart of hearts,” I replied, referring to the moment when a friend had seized Shelley’s heart before the flames had totally engulfed his swollen body as it was being cremated on the shore. Why was he quizzing me?
“Is there anything you don’t know?”
I looked at him. This was my moment. I could seize it or I could lose it, but either way I knew I would never live it down. Or I could gloat over his compliment—but live to regret everything else. This was probably the first time in my life that I spoke to an adult without planning some of what I was going to say. I was too nervous to plan anything.
“I know nothing, Oliver. Nothing, just nothing.”
“You know more than anyone around here.”
Why was he returning my near-tragic tone with bland ego-boosting?
“If you only knew how little I know about the things that really matter.”
I was treading water, trying neither to drown nor to swim to safety, just staying in place, because here was the truth—even if I couldn’t speak the truth, or even hint at it, yet I could swear it lay around us, the way we say of a necklace we’ve just lost while swimming: I know it’s down there somewhere. If he knew, if he only knew that I was giving him every chance to put two and two together and come up with a number bigger than infinity.
But if he understood, then he must have suspected, and if he suspected he would have been there himself, watching me from across a parallel lane with his steely, hostile, glass-eyed, trenchant, all-knowing gaze.
He must have hit on something, though God knows what. Perhaps he was trying not to seem taken aback.
“What things that matter?”
Was he being disingenuous?
“You know what things. By now
of all people should know.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I thought you should know.”
“Because you thought I should know.” He repeated my words slowly, trying to take in their full meaning, all the while sorting them out, playing for time by repeating the words. The iron, I knew, was burning hot.
“Because I want
to know,” I blurted out. “Because there is no one else I can say it to but you.”
There, I had said it.
Was I making any sense?
I was about to interrupt and sidetrack the conversation by saying something about the sea and the weather tomorrow and whether it might be a good idea to sail out to E. as my father kept promising this time every year.
But to his credit he didn’t let me loose.
“Do you know what you’re saying?”
This time I looked out to the sea and, with a vague and weary tone that was my last diversion, my last cover, my last getaway, said, “Yes, I know what I’m saying and you’re not mistaking
of it. I’m just not very good at speaking. But you’re welcome never to speak to me again.”
“Wait. Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Ye-es.” Now that I had spilled the beans I could take on the laid-back, mildly exasperated air with which a felon, who’s surrendered to the police, confesses yet once more to yet one more police officer how he robbed the store.
“Wait for me here, I have to run upstairs and get some papers. Don’t go away.”
I looked at him with a confiding smile.
“You know very well I’m not going anywhere.”
If that’s not another admission, then what is? I thought.
As I waited, I took both our bikes and walked them toward the war memorial dedicated to the youth of the town who’d perished in the Battle of the Piave during the First World War. Every small town in Italy has a similar memorial. Two small buses had just stopped nearby and were unloading passengers—older women arriving from the adjoining villages to shop in town. Around the small piazza, the old folk, men mostly, sat on small, rickety, straw-backed chairs or on park benches wearing drab, old, dun-colored suits. I wondered how many people here still remembered the young men they’d lost on the Piave River. You’d have to be at least eighty years old today to have known them. And at least one hundred, if not more, to have been older than they were then. At one hundred, surely you learn to overcome loss and grief—or do they hound you till the bitter end? At one hundred, siblings forget, sons forget, loved ones forget, no one remembers anything, even the most devastated forget to remember. Mothers and fathers have long since died. Does anyone remember?
A thought raced through my mind: Would my descendants know what was spoken on this very piazzetta today? Would anyone? Or would it dissolve into thin air, as I found part of me wishing it would? Would they know how close to the brink their fate stood on this day on this piazzetta? The thought amused me and gave me the necessary distance to face the remainder of this day.
In thirty, forty years, I’ll come back here and think back on a conversation I knew I’d never forget, much as I might want to someday. I’d come here with my wife, my children, show them the sights, point to the bay, the local caffès, Le Danzing, the Grand Hotel. Then I’d stand here and ask the statue and the straw-backed chairs and shaky wooden tables to remind me of someone called Oliver.
When he returned, the first thing he blurted out was, “That idiot Milani mixed the pages and has to retype the whole thing. So I have nothing to work on this afternoon, which sets me back a whole day.”
It was his turn to look for excuses to dodge the subject. I could easily let him off the hook if he wanted. We could talk about the sea, the Piave, or fragments of Heraclitus, such as “Nature loves to hide” or “I went in search of myself.” And if not these, there was the trip to E. we’d been discussing for days now. There was also the chamber music ensemble due to arrive any day.
On our way we passed a shop where my mother always ordered flowers. As a child I liked to watch the large storefront window awash in a perpetual curtain of water which came sliding down ever so gently, giving the shop an enchanted, mysterious aura that reminded me of how in many films the screen would blur to announce that a flashback was about to occur.
“I wish I hadn’t spoken,” I finally said.
I knew as soon as I’d said it that I’d broken the exiguous spell between us.
“I’m going to pretend you never did.”
Well, that was an approach I’d never expected from a man who was so okay with the world. I’d never heard such a sentence used in our house.
“Does this mean we’re on speaking terms—but not really?”
He thought about it.
“Look, we can’t talk about such things. We really can’t.”
He slung his bag around him and we were off downhill.
Fifteen minutes ago, I was in total agony, every nerve ending, every emotion bruised, trampled, crushed as in Mafalda’s mortar, all of it pulverized till you couldn’t tell fear from anger from the merest trickle of desire. But at that time there was something to look forward to. Now that we had laid our cards on the table, the secrecy, the shame were gone, but with them so was that dash of unspoken hope that had kept everything alive these weeks.