Authors: André Aciman
Only the scenery and the weather could buoy my spirits now. As would the ride together on the empty country road, which was entirely ours at this time of day and where the sun started pounding exposed patches along the route. I told him to follow me, I’d show him a spot most tourists and strangers had never seen.
“If you have time,” I added, not wishing to be pushy this time.
“I have time.” It was spoken with a noncommittal lilt in his voice, as though he had found the overplayed tact in my words slightly comical. But perhaps this was a small concession to make up for not discussing the matter at hand.
We veered off the main road and headed toward the edge of the cliff.
“This,” I said by way of a preface meant to keep his interest alive, “is the spot where Monet came to paint.”
Tiny, stunted palm trees and gnarled olive trees studded the copse. Then through the trees, on an incline leading toward the very edge of the cliff, was a knoll partly shaded by tall marine pines. I leaned my bike against one of the trees, he did the same, and I showed him the way up to the berm. “Now take a look,” I said, extremely pleased, as if revealing something more eloquent than anything I might say in my favor.
A soundless, quiet cove stood straight below us. Not a sign of civilization anywhere, no home, no jetty, no fishing boats. Farther out, as always, was the belfry of San Giacomo, and, if you strained your eyes, the outline of N., and farther still was something that looked like our house and the adjoining villas, the one where Vimini lived, and the Moreschi family’s, with their two daughters whom Oliver had probably slept with, alone or together, who knew, who cared at this point.
“This is my spot. All mine. I come here to read. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read here.”
“Do you like being alone?” he asked.
“No. No one likes being alone. But I’ve learned how to live with it.”
“Are you always so very wise?” he asked. Was he about to adopt a condescending, pre-lecture tone before joining everyone else on my needing to get out more, make more friends, and, having made friends, not to be so selfish with them? Or was this a preamble to his role as shrink/part-time-friend-of-the-family? Or was I yet again misreading him completely?
“I’m not wise at all. I told you, I know nothing. I know books, and I know how to string words together—it doesn’t mean I know how to speak about the things that matter most to me.”
“But you’re doing it now—in a way.”
“Yes, in a way—that’s how I always say things: in a way.”
Staring out at the offing so as not to look at him, I sat down on the grass and noticed he was crouching a few yards away from me on the tips of his toes, as though he would any moment now spring to his feet and go back to where we’d left our bicycles.
It never occurred to me that I had brought him here not just to show him my little world, but to ask my little world to let him in, so that the place where I came to be alone on summer afternoons would get to know him, judge him, see if he fitted in, take him in, so that I might come back here and remember. Here I would come to escape the known world and seek another of my own invention; I was basically introducing him to my launchpad. All I had to do was list the works I’d read here and he’d know all the places I’d traveled to.
“I like the way you say things. Why are you always putting yourself down?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Was he criticizing me for criticizing myself?
“I don’t know. So you won’t, I suppose.”
“Are you so scared of what others think?”
I shook my head. But I didn’t know the answer. Or perhaps the answer was so obvious that I didn’t have to answer. It was moments such as these that left me feeling so vulnerable, so naked. Push me, make me nervous, and, unless I push you back, you’ve already found me out. No, I had nothing to say in reply. But I wasn’t moving either. My impulse was to let him ride home by himself. I’d be home in time for lunch.
He was waiting for me to say something. He was staring at me.
This, I think, is the first time I dared myself to stare back at him. Usually, I’d cast a glance and then look away—look away because I didn’t want to swim in the lovely, clear pool of his eyes unless I’d been invited to—and I never waited long enough to know whether I was even wanted there; look away because I was too scared to stare anyone back; look away because I didn’t want to give anything away; look away because I couldn’t acknowledge how much he mattered. Look away because that steely gaze of his always reminded me of how tall he stood and how far below him I ranked. Now, in the silence of the moment, I stared back, not to defy him, or to show I wasn’t shy any longer, but to surrender, to tell him this is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I want, there is nothing but truth between us now, and where there’s truth there are no barriers, no shifty glances, and if nothing comes of this, let it never be said that either of us was unaware of what might happen. I hadn’t a hope left. And maybe I stared back because there wasn’t a thing to lose now. I stared back with the all-knowing, I-dare-you-to-kiss-me gaze of someone who both challenges and flees with one and the same gesture.
“You’re making things very difficult for me.”
Was he by any chance referring to our staring?
I didn’t back down. Neither did he. Yes, he was referring to our staring.
“Why am I making things difficult?”
My heart was beating too fast for me to speak coherently. I wasn’t even ashamed of showing how flushed I was. So let him know, let him.
“Because it would be very wrong.”
Was there a ray of hope, then?
He sat down on the grass, then lay down on his back, his arms under his head, as he stared at the sky.
. I’m not going to pretend this hasn’t crossed my mind.”
“I’d be the last to know.”
“Well, it has. There! What did you think was going on?”
“Going on?” I fumbled by way of a question. “Nothing.” I thought about it some more. “Nothing,” I repeated, as if what I was vaguely beginning to get a hint of was so amorphous that it could just as easily be shoved away by my repeated “nothing” and thereby fill the unbearable gaps of silence. “Nothing.”
“I see,” he finally said. “You’ve got it wrong, my friend”—chiding condescension in his voice. “If it makes you feel any better, I have to hold back. It’s time you learned too.”
“The best I can do is pretend I don’t care.”
“That much we’ve known for a while already,” he snapped right away.
I was crushed. All these times when I thought I was slighting him by showing how easy it was to ignore him in the garden, on the balcony, at the beach, he had been seeing right through me and taken my move for the peevish, textbook gambit it was.
His admission, which seemed to open up all the sluiceways between us, was precisely what drowned my budding hopes. Where would we go from here? What was there to add? And what would happen the next time we pretended not to speak but were no longer sure the frost between us was still sham?
We spoke awhile longer, then the conversation petered out. Now that we had put our cards on the table, it felt like small talk.
“So this is where Monet came to paint.”
“I’ll show you at home. We have a book with wonderful reproductions of the area around here.”
“Yes, you’ll have to show me.”
He was playing the role of the patronizing understudy. I hated it.
Each leaning on one arm, we both stared out at the view.
“You’re the luckiest kid in the world,” he said.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
I let him ponder my statement. Then, perhaps to fill the silence that was becoming unbearable, I blurted out, “So much of it is wrong, though.”
“What? Your family?”
“Living here all summer long, reading by yourself, meeting all those dinner drudges your father dredges up at every meal?” He was making fun of me again.
I smirked. No, that wasn’t it either.
He paused a moment.
“Us, you mean.”
I did not reply.
“Let’s see, then—” And before I knew it, he sidled up to me. We were too close, I thought, I’d never been so close to him except in a dream or when he cupped his hand to light my cigarette. If he brought his ear any closer he’d hear my heart. I’d seen it written in novels but never believed it until now. He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point—except that I didn’t have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I’ll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was. I wished I knew how to calibrate my kiss the way he did. But passion allows us to hide more, and at that moment on Monet’s berm, if I wished to hide everything about me in this kiss, I was also desperate to forget the kiss by losing myself in it.
“Better now?” he asked afterward.
I did not answer but lifted my face to his and kissed him again, almost savagely, not because I was filled with passion or even because his kiss still lacked the zeal I was looking for, but because I was not so sure our kiss had convinced me of anything about myself. I was not even sure I had enjoyed it as much as I’d expected and needed to test it again, so that even in the act itself, I needed to test the test. My mind was drifting to the most mundane things.
So much denial?
a two-bit disciple of Freud would have observed. I squelched my doubts with a yet more violent kiss. I did not want passion, I did not want pleasure. Perhaps I didn’t even want proof. And I did not want words, small talk, big talk, bike talk, book talk, any of it. Just the sun, the grass, the occasional sea breeze, and the smell of his body fresh from his chest, from his neck and his armpits. Just take me and molt me and turn me inside out, till, like a character in Ovid, I become one with your lust, that’s what I wanted. Give me a blindfold, hold my hand, and don’t ask me to think—will you do that for me?
I did not know where all this was leading, but I was surrendering to him, inch by inch, and he must have known it, for I sensed he was still keeping a distance between us. Even with our faces touching, our bodies were angles apart. I knew that anything I did now, any movement I’d make, might disturb the harmony of the moment. So, sensing there was probably not going to be a sequel to our kiss, I began to test the eventual separation of our mouths, only to realize, now that I was making mere motions of ending the kiss, how much I’d wanted it not to stop, wanted his tongue in my mouth and mine in his—because all we had become, after all these weeks and all the strife and all the fits and starts that ushered a chill draft each time, was just two wet tongues flailing away in each other’s mouths. Just two tongues, all the rest was nothing. When, finally, I lifted one knee and moved it toward him to face him, I knew I had broken the spell.
“I think we should go.”
“We can’t do this—I know myself. So far we’ve behaved. We’ve been good. Neither of us has done anything to feel ashamed of. Let’s keep it that way. I want to be good.”
“Don’t be. I don’t care. Who is to know?”
In a desperate move which I knew I’d never live down if he did not relent, I reached for him and let my hand rest on his crotch. He did not move. I should have slipped my hand straight into his shorts. He must have read my intention and, with total composure, bordering on a gesture that was very gentle but also quite glacial, brought his hand there and let it rest on mine for a second, then, twining his fingers into mine, lifted my hand.
A moment of unbearable silence settled between us.
“Did I offend you?”
It sounded a bit like
when I’d first heard it weeks earlier—biting and blunted, and altogether mirthless, without any inflection of either the joy or the passion we’d just shared. He gave me his hand and helped me stand up again.
He suddenly winced.
I remembered the scrape on his side.
“I should make sure it doesn’t get infected,” he said.
“We’ll stop by the pharmacist on the way back.”
He didn’t reply. But it was about the most sobering thing we could have said. It let the intrusive real world gust into our lives—Anchise, the mended bike, the bickering over tomatoes, the music score hastily left under a glass of lemonade, how
they all seemed.
Indeed, as we rode away from my spot we saw two tourist vans heading south to N. It must have been nearing noon.
“We’ll never speak again,” I said as we glided down the never-ending slope, the wind in our hair.
“Don’t say that.”
“I just know it. We’ll chitchat. Chitchat, chitchat. That’s all. And the funny thing is, I can live with that.”
“You just rhymed,” he said.
I loved the way he’d flip on me.
Two hours later, at lunch, I gave myself all the proof I needed that I would never be able to live with that.
Before dessert, while Mafalda was clearing away the plates and while everyone’s attention was focused on a conversation about Jacopone da Todi, I felt a warm, bare foot casually brush mine.
I remembered that, on the berm, I should have seized my chance to feel if the skin of his foot was as smooth as I’d imagined it. Now this was all the chance I’d get.
Perhaps it was my foot that had strayed and touched his. It withdrew, not immediately, but soon enough, as though it had consciously waited an appropriate interval of time so as not to give the impression of having recoiled in panic. I too waited a few seconds more and, without actually planning my move, allowed my foot to begin seeking the other out. I had just begun searching for it when my toe suddenly bumped into his foot; his had hardly budged at all, like a pirate ship that gave every indication of having fled miles away but was really hiding in a fog no more than fifty yards away, waiting to pounce as soon as the chance presented itself. I had barely enough time to do anything with my foot when, without warning, without giving me time to work my way to his or to let mine rest at a safe distance again, softly, gently, suddenly his foot moved over to mine and began caressing it, rubbing it, never holding still, the smooth round ball of his heel holding my foot in place, occasionally bringing its weight to bear but lightening it right away with another caress of the toes, indicating, all the while, that this was being done in the spirit of fun and games, because it was his way of pulling the rug out from under the lunch drudges sitting right across from us, but also telling me that this had nothing to do with others and would remain strictly between us, because it was about us, but that I shouldn’t read into it more than there was. The stealth and stubbornness of his caresses sent chills down my spine. A sudden giddiness overtook me. No, I wasn’t going to cry, this wasn’t a panic attack, it wasn’t a “swoon,” and I wasn’t going to come in my shorts either, though I liked this very, very much, especially when the arch of his foot lay on top of my foot. When I looked at my dessert plate and saw the chocolate cake speckled with raspberry juice, it seemed to me that someone was pouring more and more red sauce than usual, and that the sauce seemed to be coming from the ceiling above my head until it suddenly hit me that it was streaming from my nose. I gasped, and quickly crumpled my napkin and brought it to my nose, holding my head as far back as I could. “
, ice, Mafalda,
per favore, presto
,” I said, softly, to show that I was in perfect control of the situation. “I was up at the hill this morning. Happens all the time,” I said, apologizing to the guests.