Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.
"I'm like you," he said. "I remember everything."
I stopped for a second. If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you're just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there's not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.
For a split second, our eyes met. His were alive, alight, burning with something intense I couldn’t put a word to. My heart quickened and my mind screamed out silently, daring him, willing him to speak. Speak, Oliver. If after all these years you still want me, it must be you who names the desire as you once named me. If one of us should speak now, it must be you. Speak, or die.
He seemed suddenly to falter. Looked away. And whatever words had been on his tongue melted into silence.
We rode to San Giacomo, and our conversation fell easily into old rhythms. We reminisced, and at times we slipped into a cadence that felt so light and playful that the air between us crackled softly with electricity. It drew me in, pulled me towards him, and every time our conversation lulled into silence I felt queasy with anticipation. But if he felt it too, he ignored it, and whenever these moments came he would say something banal to break the tension and steer us both back to safer waters.
We spent the morning in San Giacomo, the afternoon on the beach, and the evening on the patio sipping wine. My thoughts veered wildly: either berating at him or myself, either in frustration or despair. Other times I was content simply to be with him: to let his words wash over me as he spoke about his life, his work, or other such trivial things. I could have listened to him talk for hours, and in these moments I chastised myself for even entertaining the desire for more. But no sooner had the idea of contentment crossed my mind than he would look at me again as he’d done in the garden, and I would think that perhaps now, perhaps this time—
But the words never came.
We went to bed late that night, and the next morning he caught the first train out of B.
Publishing business, he said it was, but he had no idea how long it would take him. He could be done by the weekend, or he could be in Italy for the rest of the summer.
For two days I tried and failed to shake the spectre of his presence. I spent them the way I always spend late summer days in B., even now: swimming, jogging, reading. Conversing with the afternoon visitors who came to see my mother, and later in the evening the new ones who came to see me. But like the smell of sunscreen or the tang of ground coffee, his ghost lingered. We had embraced only once, just before he had stepped out the door to the waiting taxi, and yet my nose was still filled with the smell of him, miraculously unchanged after all these years.
My chest ached, and I wondered how long B. would belong to him. To some past version of him: Oliver, twenty-four forever, preserved until the end of time in my memory, now revived once more by proximity to the original. And indeed, his physical presence seemed to have breathed new life into the town. Everywhere I looked, the reminders of him that I had long grown accustomed to stood out in sharp relief. I could think only of Oliver.
If I really had been a teenager again this all might have sent me into a spiral of tragic lust, but as it was, it only made me contemplative. I found myself taking longer walks in the evening, during which I wended my way through the hills, trying to find trails and paths that had never known the feeling of his footsteps. Yet even on those paths he walked with me, and I ruminated endlessly on all the ways he had changed, and all the ways he had stayed the same. I thought of the way Mafalda had gasped when he had told her of the dissolution of his marriage.
“Divorce?” she had asked, scandalized.
“Amicable,” he had replied with a sad smile. Had I imagined the way his eyes flicked to mine and then away, almost too briefly to notice at all? Had I imagined the guilt? The hope?
And so what if he dared to hope? I tried to imagine if our conversation in the garden had gone differently. Or if he had spoken in San Giacomo, and said the words I had so longed and feared to hear. After twenty long years, what if we both finally arrived at the same place? Literally and figuratively; in the physical sense as well as the other. I had spent so long getting used to Oliver’s ghost that, when he was not standing in front of me, I was half sure I had dreamt him into being.
Mostly I avoided entertaining the thought. His marriage had not been the only thing to stop our union, and now that his marriage was no more it was hardly as simple as all that.
It was hardly so simple.
So I swam. Read. Once or twice when I was in a masochistic sort of mood I dug my old scorebooks out of the closet and played a few dusty pieces on the piano, relishing the dull pain that flared again in my chest when I thought of playing these same pieces for him all those years ago. I took walks around B., and though I tried to avoid them I found myself back at all our old haunts. But then again, all the old haunts were ours to begin with. They would always be ours. And perhaps one day when I was even older, when all that remained of Oliver was really, truly his ghost, I would visit them again. Visit them still.
Thinking of his death was as painful as it was comforting. Perhaps once he was dead, I reasoned, I would no longer have to wonder what still might be between us. I would think of him and ache, to be sure, but ache only for the past. Not, as I did now, for all that still might exist if only we chose it.
After three days my thoughts began to calm and I felt my senses clear. I felt safe in the knowledge that I was beginning to come back to myself. Beginning, again, not to think of him.
It never occurred to me that he might be thinking of me just as much.
On the fourth night after Oliver’s departure I awoke with a start. I am not sure what did it, for normally I sleep like the dead, but on this night I came to all at once with a chill, my senses heightened and on edge. Through the open window drifted the soft sound of crickets. The crunch of gravel. The murmur of voices. The distant crackle of a car radio. I heard a car door shut, and then no more.
I sat up in my bed, my eyes straining against the darkness. This room—my new room, the one that had belonged once to my parents—faced the ocean instead of the road. Outside, the waves lapped gently at the shore, and I inhaled deeply, breathing in the salt-laced air, watching as it stirred the netting around my bed.
Perhaps I had imagined the sound.
My eyes begin to close as my body relaxed back into my bed. Perhaps my eyes had never been open. Perhaps the sound had only been wishful thinking—a vivid dream.
The crunch of gravel. The flash of pale skin. Blond hair.
I am seventeen, watching from the balcony of my room.
“Later!” he says to the cab driver. My eyes trace the curve of his neck, the white skin of his wrist, the Star of David resting just below the hollow of his throat.
If not later, when?
The star is dangling above me, bouncing with the motion of his body. The star is drifting in the water, floating in front of my eyes. I wrap my arms around him and take it in my mouth as we surface together, feeling the muscles of his shoulders move under my fingers.
I wrap my leg around his hip in the water, then again in an alley in Rome. Via Santa Maria dell’Anima. I pull him closer, pull him into me the way I wanted from the very beginning, since he first stepped from the cab, billowy blue shirt, wide-open collar, sunglasses, straw hat, skin everywhere. Since he squeezed my shoulder, since he held my gaze that morning in the garden, since the night I heard a noise outside the landing by my door and suddenly knew that someone was in my room, someone was sitting at the foot of my bed, and the whole time I lay still just as I lay now, waiting, hardly daring to breathe, willing him to touch me.
“Is it better to speak or die?”
I hear the words in his voice. Feel the weight of him on the bed next to me.
I open my eyes. My heart is calm now, no longer racing. In fact, the whole world is calm: even the waves outside are silent, and I imagine the sea frozen still as a painting, suspended in motion a split second before crashing to shore. Before me his silhouette, outlined in silver moonlight, something halfway between a ghost and solid flesh and bone. The smell of him is all around me.
“Oliver,” I say.
“Oliver,” he repeats, as much a confirmation as a plea. “Oliver, Oliver…” His hand on my face.
“Are you real?”
The answer: “I don’t know.”
My hand finds his in the darkness. “I don’t know,” he says again. “I know nothing, Elio. Nothing, just nothing.”
“And you remember everything,” I murmur, still half asleep, still half convinced this is just another dream until he kisses me.
Occasionally over the years I had imagined what it might be like to kiss him again: to feel his lips move against mine, to press my bare skin against his. Electric, perhaps, kindling again the same furious desire that had lit my blood on fire that summer so long ago. Or perhaps I would feel nothing: a void, a bored absence of passion, the final proof that I had only kept alive my old desires in my memories.
But the real thing is like none of this. It does not burn like fire or ache like ice; it simply feels like a deep breath—a sigh—and the calm certainty of finally, finally coming home.
My mother did not seem surprised to see him the next morning at breakfast, and I learned later that this was because it was she who had given him the key to our house.
“She told me to come back soon,” Oliver said the next day as we lay on the grass by the pool. Heaven. Oliver was on his back, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand. The other hand I held in my own. “I made up my mind to come back almost as soon as I left,” he went on, an explanation I hadn't asked for. “As soon as I walked out the door I would have turned around and come straight back if I hadn’t had business to attend to. Menton was hell, even worse than Rome. I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“I never asked—did you go by the via Santa Maria dell’Anima when you were there? Piazza Navona?” I knew I was rubbing salt in the wound, but I didn’t care. I wanted to hear more about how much he had missed me, and it was our street: our statue, our city, our life—yes, our life then, and our life now. The thought made me giddy.
“I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Just the thought of it made me sick.”
“Now?” He brought my hand to his mouth, grazing his lips over my knuckles. I shivered, but never took my eyes from his. “Now I want to go everywhere in the world.”
The cicadas swelled around us. From a neighbouring house, the crackle of the radio.
“I’m glad you came back.”
He looked at me, and for the first time I dared to let myself think of everything that could be. Everything that would be.
“You know,” he said, “I feel that I never truly left.”
One year later, and it has been twenty-one years since our first summer in B.
I write this now from my father's desk, which is littered with some papers that belong to me, and some that belong to Oliver. It is evening, and soon he will return from the train station: his eldest son is coming for the summer, having just finished his first year at Columbia.
Twenty-one years. I am thirty-eight and Oliver is forty-five, yet in many ways I am sure that no time has passed at all.
The interlude in our life together seems so distant now. The people that came and went, the experiences we lived, the places we became so intimately familiar with seem to be nothing but a dream. The fine hairs at the back of his neck, the pale skin of his wrist, the sunspots on his hands that I kiss each morning upon waking—these are close and real, and they belong to the sparkling past as much as the present or the future.
During those years apart, in which we both seem to have slipped through the fabric of time and entered parallel dimensions, I often wondered if a reunion would feel to much like a retread; a sad attempt to recreate the golden past that was long gone, and maybe never existed in the first place except through the rosy lens of memory. But our life now does not feel like a backwards step, or a grasping attempt to rekindle a fire that has long been dead. The fire was only burning low, burning in a different way, and with new oxygen breathed into its depths it roars to life once more.
Our life now feels like a continuation. Like picking up a book that you had never quite finished, only to find the disagreeable part that made you put it down in the first place was really much further from the last page than you remembered, and there is so much more to be said.
The sun is setting now, and the breeze that wanders in through the window is cool and damp. From the kitchen comes the clink of pots and pans, mingled with the rich spices of Mafalda's supper: onions and sage. I can hear the crisp crunch of gravel clearly from here. The slam of a car door, the sound of voices in familiar conversation, and beyond that the cicadas and the crickets, the birdsong, the gentle swish of the tide.
I have been happy in B., you said once. Have been, present perfect. Sono stato, sono, sarò. I have been, I am, I will be. So many summers now stretch out before us.
I am happy in B., Oliver. I am happy in Rome, and in New York, and in New England in the Autumn when the leaves lie thick on the ground and the smell of their decay hangs heavy all around us.
I am happy with you, Oliver. Whether for one summer or for twenty.