The kindness of time is that it moves slower than human thought. So even as Elio imagines the moment of Oliver’s departure - the bittersweet farewell - time moves forward but without haste, gifting them both with another impossibly long Italian summer day.
They ride bikes to B. and take each step to the top of the belfry at San Giacomo. Each act taking longer than it had twenty years before, but are in and of themselves no less sweet for the longer duration.
“It’s the knees,” Oliver pants as they walk their bikes up the alley of pines, long having forgone the pedals. There is a smile on his face and sweat has darkened the fabric of his shirt between his shoulder blades.
Oliver lingers at the al fresco lunch table, chatting with Annella while Elio slips inside for some time with the Ravel piano trio, rep for an upcoming recording project in London. His metronome clicks out at quarter = 60, the impressionistic sixteenth notes roll through his fingers, steady and under tempo, much like the day.
“I charge now, you know,” Elio says without looking away from his music as Oliver joins him in the room a while later and simply sits. No book, no busy work on his laptop, just listening. Oliver chuckles but carries on watching.
Oliver disappears before sunset and it’s almost a relief.
“Où est Oliver?” His mother asks from her sprawl on a lounge chair, a cigarette that she already knows will be the death of her, hanging from her fingers.
“Je sais pas,” Elio mumbles with a lazy tilt of his hand, but he knows the exact spot where he must have gone to watch the sun slip behind the horizon. Oliver’s rock.
He reappears, somehow looking taller than when he’d arrived, just in time for dinner.
Annella makes her farewells shortly after Mafalda clears the plates. She kisses Elio through his hair, like she has done since he was a boy, then kisses Oliver on the cheek. “ Couboi ,” she says dramatically and his laugh rumbles in his chest.
“She’s not the same since we lost dad. It’s good for her that you’re here.”
The night is heavy with unbroken July heat. The sky full of stars, citronella and the sound of cicadas.
Oliver lifts the wine glass to his lips, holding it loosely by the stem. It’s his fourth or fifth, Elio has lost count and that is when he sees it. Or rather, sees the lack of it.
“It’s not official yet,” Oliver says as he notices Elio noticing. “Six months of legal separation are required before we can file.” He thumbs the naked swath of skin on the left ring finger. “If we’re on top of everything, my lawyer thinks it should be finalized by Halloween.”
“Why?” Elio asks, his voice a breathless mix of panic and disbelief.
Oliver inhales. “Life?” He shrugs and Elio exhales. “Two careers, two busy kids, a mortgage, a dog that chews up everything and ends up with kidney disease that costs hundreds a month to treat and you’re the asshole who decides it’s time to put him down. A furnace that goes out during the first cold snap of the winter but you’re at a conference in Seoul and she never forgives you that you’re not there to deal with it. It’s exhausting and it changes you. At least, it changed us. And not for the better.”
Elio doesn’t know what to say to Oliver’s resigned explanation. Should he apologize? Offer his condolences? Rejoice because now Oliver can walk away from his coma, or rather, his parallel life?
“I’ve never even seen a picture of her.”
“She looks nothing like you,” he says right away. Not a replacement then. That is something, he supposes.
Oliver uncorks the wine and pulls Elio’s glass towards him to refill without bothering to ask.
“That day I called you, around Hanukkah, to tell you I was getting married.” He sways slightly, concentrating on the pour. “I asked if you minded. You never got the chance to answer.”
He sits back with his refilled glass, his eyes level across the table.
“Would my answer have mattered?”
“Maybe.” He means ‘no’.
“Then or now?”
“Then? Of course it mattered. I can’t think of anything that would have mattered more.”
It’s honest, brutal and raw. But they have never bothered sparing each other those things so why start now? Oliver doesn’t even blink, as if he’d known the answer all along.
“But now,” Elio turns his wine glass on the table, his fingers tented around the rim. “I don’t begrudge you your life, Oliver. How could I? Your boys…”
“My boys,” Oliver echos, his voice full of pride and fatherly warmth. He looks out across the lawn, towards heaven and the bay beyond. It’s as though, if he looks hard enough, he can see them playing just there. A fresh and altogether more tender form of nostalgia forms in and around his eyes that Elio will not ever understand.
“They loved it here, too.”
Elio remembers the way Oliver’s voice had broken as they spoke on the phone that one afternoon and the sound of Oliver’s children playing in the background had scampered across the wire from one continent to the next. It’s the one time Oliver had been here without him, Elio realizes. The only time with her.
The night is young and a swell of spontaneity grasps him. “Come on,” he says, smacking Oliver lightly on the shoulder with the back of his hand so it can’t be misconstrued as anything else. “Let’s go for a swim.”
Oliver’s brow knits together for a heartbeat, wondering why Elio could possibly be so crazy to suggest a nighttime swim. But then his face morphs to pure bliss and his body sets with ageless motion.
Some hours later, they make their way carefully back up the rocks.
They’d swam in the moonlight, the slap of the water against their bodies and against the shoreline had seemed overloud in the night. They’d floated, the water up to their necks, toes scraping the pebbled bay-floor just enough that little effort was needed to stay upright and talked of nothing, laughed at the banal. As friends, brothers, partners who remember everything but were neither brave enough to tread too deep. To reach out and touch those memories.
What Elio wouldn’t have given to do it just the once, though. Just like he had tried all day not to let on just how desperately he needed to hear Oliver’s voice speak his own name but mean it for him once more, he tried not to think of the feel of Oliver’s skin beneath the water. The taste of his mouth. The weight of him.
“There’s a train.”
“Yes, I know. Tomorrow morning. Manfredi can take you.”
Oliver stops, his wide feet having found the softness of grass, and turns. His towel is slung over his shoulder, his hair still dripping with the sea.
“No, between New Haven and the city. Even if traffic is bad, it can’t be much more than a few hours drive. I’ll shoot you an email when I’m back stateside, see when we might be able to meet up.”
Elio is struck dumb by the casualness of the offer. Like one might say, ‘Let’s get coffee’ to someone they’d just met at a cocktail party and wanted to network with. Not ‘Let’s test these twenty year old waters now that you’re you and I’m me and life has brought us to this place again and we’ve just swam in the same sea, breathed the same air and it’s just as good as we remember.
“This doesn’t have to be goodbye,” he says, his voice taking on a more reverent tone. “At least not in the way you’re thinking.”
Of course he had known what Elio would be dreading and desiring all at once. Oliver always knew. He turns back up the hill, whistling the chorus of some song that had been on the radio all summer long not waiting to hear Elio’s answer. Because of course, he knows that too.
In the end, it is Elio who drives him to the train station. The desperate edge of his departure has been dulled by the offered hope of a visit but the pain is still present, thick and tight across his chest. After all, there have been promises of visits before and Elio can’t hope to expect this time to be any different.
He shakes Oliver’s hand when it is offered, just two men saying goodbye, nothing to see here. But Oliver’s eyes are like the first time, jocular, sparkling and full of promise. His lips curl and his fingers linger against the thin skin at Elio’s wrist.
Upper West Side apartments are all old brickwork and flooring, squirly layouts leftover from walls being knocked down without much forethought with the hope to simply find more space. Every inch of the room is lived in out of necessity, from floor to ceiling, resulting in a character that is all at once precarious, cluttered and something Oliver has always found very homey.
Elio’s apartment is a pastiche of low slung modern furniture, large plants that could all use a pruning, antiques from the old country and everywhere, music in all its forms. The living room is taken over by three things: a stunning fireplace lit for the wet fall day outside, a harpsichord with its cover still on that seems to mostly be used for storage of yet more sheet music and his prize possession, his 9-foot concert Grand Steinway.
“It was built in 1932.” It was one of the very first things Elio had said upon their arrival. “They found it in an old estate in Georgia, tons of humidity damage, but now it plays like a dream.”
It’s Oliver’s first time back in New York in years and he finds it so very changed, and he doesn’t just mean the altered skyline. “I should have called,” Oliver had said, his voice raised over the traffic and the rain. They were huddled together under Elio’s umbrella, rushing from the midtown rehearsal studio where they’d met to get underground. “After it happened, just to make sure you were ok.” He hates himself in present tense that he hadn’t even thought of it at the time.
“I’m sure my father would have told you if I hadn’t been,” Elio had retorted, which had only made him feel worse. “Besides I wasn’t even in New York that day. I watched on TV just like everyone else.”
New York is Elio’s city now, even though Oliver had called it home first. This was the city of his young adulthood, full of hard work and transience. He was never meant to be owned by this place, just as he was never meant to own it.
In the kitchen, Elio is making martinis. Keith Jarrett plays over the stereo. Oliver takes in the pictures hanging on the wall: remembrances of a stunningly successful career, the framed photos of beloved people and places carefully placed on the mantle. A certain image catches his eye. It’s the kind of picture that should have pride of place in a much larger frame but is instead tucked to the back, almost like an apology.
“I made sure we had olives this time,” Elio states, coming back into the room with the drinks.
It’s a statement, not a question, laced with revelation and hurt. Why had no one ever thought to tell him? Did they really think he cared so little? Did they think it would hurt him, even as he lived his hypocritical, mostly happily married life himself? Yet there they all were in the picture, the turncoats: Samuel, Annella, Mafalda, even Marzia, making up the crowd of other nameless friends and family surrounding a bearded Elio his arms around the trim waist of a freckled, mid-western looking man in the same dark blue suit Elio is wearing.
But this is a single man’s apartment and, speaking from experience, one doesn’t usually place wedding photos with one’s ex in a new place.
“It was just a commitment ceremony.” He hands Oliver his drink. “We never had the chance to make it legal.”
“He didn’t have...?” A fresh panic activates his heart into a quicker rhythm.
“No, no, nothing like that,” Elio cuts him off, with a knowing smile. He steels himself, plastering the kind of patient, resigned look on his face of one who has had to explain this more times that one might like. “Drunk driver. Labor Day, 1998 We were our way back from a party in the Hamptons. They other car t-boned us on Nate’s side. Only cuts and bruises for me but he never had a chance.”
Elio doesn’t need to do the math but Oliver does. The calculation breaks his heart. It had happened only a paltry few weeks before Elio had wandered into Oliver’s lecture and all that talk about needing to say goodbye before he dies makes so much more sense.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Elio says smiling at Oliver’s wordless pity. “We had eight years. That’s a lifetime for some. Besides, you came over for dinner not talk of ex-lovers. I made carbonara. It won’t be as good as Mafalda’s but…” He shrugs as he walks backwards into the kitchen.
Perhaps it is because the end of his own marriage is still too new that Oliver is unable to understand the ease with which Elio speaks of his partner’s death. Perhaps Oliver feels too full of guilt and failure to know that when love is taken from you by a car crash and not a signature you have no other option but to accept it and move on.
Later though, with the fire burning low, Elio sits elegantly on the couch, his drink balanced on his knee. Oliver faces him, his body equally languid. Their legs extend towards one another.
“I thought of you that day, briefly,” Elio says. He nods towards the mantle.
Oliver’s eyes are heavy but he lets them settle on Elio. His beard is gone now, has been since they’d met up that summer. He prefers him this way, presenting that same bare-faced look of the youthful man Oliver had held in his arms as he slept, passed out drunk the first night in Rome, and cried silently, knowing the singularity of what they were about to lose.
“Part of me had wished you were there. We had the best party after. You could have danced,” He suggests and Oliver laughs.
“Probably not.” The words are regretful but his lips, god that perfect mouth, is soft. “I just wanted you to see that I was happy. And that I was happy with him because I had been happy with you.”
He could do this forever. Sit on Elio's couch in his fire-warm apartment, a bit too full of wine and Elio’s cooking, and listen to all the times Elio had thought of him over the years. Then when he was done, they’d open another bottle and it would be Oliver’s turn down memory lane. It might only take one evening or it might take all of eternity, it didn’t matter. Never touching, never becoming, simply not being lost to each other any more. That alone could be enough.
The space around the stage door is flooded with well-wishers. Old ladies wearing too much perfume gushing over this charming man who plays with so much feeling, Westchester men, dressed in perfectly tailored suits, shaking his hand and looking at him like they’d eat him alive if only Elio would give them the chance to be alone. But Elio is distracted, his eyes scanning the crowd.
The concert had gone especially well, he has to admit. There are times when it’s easy to go through the motions, play the notes, do his job, bow, smile graciously, cash the check. But there had been a special feeling on stage tonight. Elio had felt the keys beneath his fingers like a sailor who has spent a year at sea might feel terra firma. The string orchestra behind him had listened, responded to his interpretation, everyone committed to the performance. The audience had responded with a sincere ovation. Performances like these have always left Elio feeling alive, like the first drag of a cigarette in the morning, and it’s probably why his career flowed down this path in the first place.
The intoxication only redoubles when he finally sees the inspiration for the performance making his way towards him.
“You were incredible,” Oliver says, breathless. They embrace without thinking, folding into each other like one falls into bed after a long day, tucking your body into just the right shape to maximize the comfort. Only in this instance, the bed Elio falls into is Oliver’s body.
This, Elio thinks, is the moment he’d been waiting for.
Ever since their last night in B., this date had been looming as the perfect excuse to connect. This town is nearly an exact middle between their respective cities. The performance dates with the symphony had been in his books since early last season so it wasn’t like he planned any of this to work out. So that day in July, even if nothing else had ever worked out between them he’d known he could at least hope for this.
They haven’t hugged like this since that afternoon in Oliver’s Ivy League classroom with 15 years between them. That embrace had been all consuming, taking them both by surprise. This time it’s been less than a month since they last saw each other so the fact that he holds him with just as much tenderness makes the impact all the more.
“I got better, huh?”
“You were always a scene stealer when you sat down to play. No one could ever take their eyes off you. At least, I couldn’t.” Oliver can’t now either.
Elio feels himself blush, de-age. He’s 17 again and Oliver has just said he’s making things difficult for him on the Berm. Or he’s surreptitiously holding his hand on the piazetta the morning after they’d made love for the first time. Elio feels like he’d be useless without him, something he knows is both completely preposterous and utterly true.
“Stay,” he says when the Executive Director invites him to join the reception backstage, being held in his honor. “Please.” These parties are so dull, forced to have the same conversation again and again about his past and his studies and his compositions and his career. Oliver would stand close by, holding his wine in a plastic cup and they’d all think they were a couple and for one night wouldn’t that just be positively mad? Just to pretend? To try it on like a shirt they might like to buy?
“I should go. I have class in the morning.”
Of course, Elio concedes with a nod. Perhaps that’s why he chose to come to the weeknight performance instead of the concerts over the weekend.
They embrace again before he goes, the lobby nearly empty of concert goers by now. It feels especially quiet on a night dedicated to organized sound. Elio is the first to close the space. He encircles him with one arm low by his waist. Oliver’s hands come round him slowly, spreading over the fabric of Elio’s tuxedo. Elio arches his neck, lifting up enough so he can rest his chin on Oliver’s shoulder. He hears Oliver exhale, a conscious, concentrated sigh.
Elio dips his head and kisses him with feeling on the side of his neck. Oliver steps away from the touch, thanking him for the ticket and bidding him goodnight all in one hasty moment.
Later that night, in his hotel room Elio sends an email to the increasingly familiar yale.edu address.
I’m sorry if I embarrassed you tonight when I kissed you. He writes.
He wakes the next morning to find a reply. You never could, you goose.
Their excuses for contact become flimsier, as does their pretense that they don’t like these interactions or even come to expect them.
I’m coming through JFK on my way to Berlin, you in town? My friend has two tickets to Tosca at the Met this weekend she can’t use, you free?
But this particular visit was backed with convincing enough rationale. Adam, Oliver’s eldest son had been accepted to NYU and he was in town to visit campus. Angie will take him to visit Bowdoin and Dartmouth but this day worked with my schedule. They give the parents the rundown in the morning then kick us off campus the rest of the day, cutting the cord in one fell swoop. Lunch?
Oliver sends him an address
“Osteria Romana?” Elio remarks looking from the sign to Oliver and then back again as the other man approaches from down the street. “Seriously?”
“It got great reviews,” He says, innocent as the day he was born. Elio stares at him, happy to play along with the subterfuge. He lifts then drops his shoulders, an ‘alright, let’s get on with it then’ gesture.
The lunch rush is over, so there are just a few other small parties still seated. Elio picks a bottle of wine and Oliver tells the waiter, “We’re in no hurry,” after they order.
Oliver looks so handsome in pale green cashmere, the color setting off his blue eyes like he’d somehow caught part of the Aegean in his irises. They’re seated with their backs to the rest of the restaurant as if they couldn’t possibly be interested in anything else going on around them. The wine, the white linens, the votive candle flickering on the table. It feels like a date.
Elio says as much.
“Would it be a problem if it were?”
“I don’t know.”
Oliver takes Elio’s uncertainty without a word but Elio can see the concern that has awoken in his features. It’s not for the reason you’re thinking, Elio wants to say. His hesitancy isn’t because he’s still some grieving widower. He’s gone on plenty of dates since Nate’s death, even had a pair of semi-serious relationships. It’s because if this is a date then they would both finally have to acknowledge exactly what has been going on since last summer: a slow climb back towards each other.
But to attempt it would be like a trek up Everest. Failure would result in nothing short of death. But to not even try? Could they really resign themselves to glimpses of the pinnacle only? To simply gaze up at the peak and never see if they could make it to the top of the world, victorious?
“If it is, then it’s a good one,” Elio says. The corner of Oliver’s mouth twitches with a smirk and he tips the rim of his glass towards Elio’s. They toast the ambiguity.
Oliver asks if they can go to The Strand, so they hail a cab.
“I always loved coming to this place,” Oliver says as they walk through the front door. The ‘miles of books’ extend upwards and outwards as far as the eye can see. Elio loves it, too. “It’s heaven,” he adds, garnering another pleased smile from Oliver.
They wander on their own, always making their way back to each other when they have found something splendid or ridiculous. Down a long row of books, down in the second basement where only the most hearty dare to venture, Elio finds the very same, large Monet picture book that his parents had owned in B. He thumbs through the book as Oliver comes to stand at his shoulder.
They find the painting, San Giacomo, their eyes meet and they are there.
Laid out in the grass of the Berm, their feet still cooled from the water even as sweat pools at the base of their necks and there can be no ambiguity now. Elio wants nothing more than to kiss him like he had that day, like the first and the second time. He wants to taste him then devour him. Their intentions could not be anymore obvious, as their gaze continues to hold and Oliver shifts, using is wide body to block the sight of passersby. He lets his shoulder fall against the book rack, smooth and suave. He brushes his fingers across Elio's lips like he had that day on the Berm. Elio opens his mouth and Oliver pushes past, moving in to where the lip becomes plump and wet. Elio closes his mouth around those fingers, pressing tongue to flesh. Oliver’s breath catches, his eyes fluttering.
“That day you came to my lecture, I wanted you so badly. I wanted you to come home with me or ask me to stay with you at the hotel. I was waiting for you to cross a line I wasn’t brave enough to cross on my own. You were always braver than me, Elio.” Oliver’s words come, unfettered and breathless and that is when it strikes him.
While Elio has been trying to rebuild from those sacred days twenty years ago, Oliver is starting from much more recent history. He’s moved the parable forward. Suddenly Everest seems no taller than a grassy hill.
Later, they get coffee and take another cab uptown to meet up with Adam. He has his father’s build, but what Elio can only assume is his mother’s coloring, grinning from ear to ear about the prospect of city life.
The next day, Elio goes back to the bookstore and buys the Monet book. He inscribes the front cover with If not later, when? Somewhere in Manhatten in the early aughts , kisses the ink like some love-struck ingenue and mails it to Connecticut.
One morning Oliver wakes up to the sound of a late-spring snow storm melting off the trees and finds a perfunctory email from Elio in his inbox when he opens his laptop.
It’s my mom. She’s not well. I’m with her now in B. and will keep you posted. We will probably need to go to Milan before this is all over.
Weeks pass and he hears nothing. When Elio starts cancelling concerts, even missing a premiere of a new work of his in Boston, Oliver knows it’s serious. He thinks of emailing. How is she? How are you? He wants to ask. I know what it’s like taking care of an ill parent. What can I do to help? But the time around the end of a life, especially that of a parent, is sacrosanct and he doesn’t want to intrude.
The news comes in an another email nearly a month later. He reads the title, FWD: Notre Princesse Annella . He sinks to his office chair, dropping his notes and his face into his hands. His senior seminar is in twenty minutes and he knows if he has any hope of making it through, he can’t read it now. So he clicks off the monitor and grabs his bag.
After class though, he shoos away the grad student who is waiting at his office. “I know it’s office hours,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But not today, ok?” She can read the social cues enough and says she’ll come back later. He shuts the door behind him.
He skips the part that had been sent to the masses. He doesn’t need the hows and whens. She’s gone and it’s agonizing. Instead he skips to the next indentation in the text, the part Elio added to the version sent only to Oliver.
She’s just like dad, wants her ashes everywhere. I’m going to go to France, to the village where she lived for a while growing up. Can you come with me? I know it’s horrible timing with the end of the semester so close, but I think that she and my father would have liked it if you were here.
What he means is If I weren’t alone.
The phone is cradled under his chin before he’s even done reading, calling the chair of his department. “Jim, yeah, it’s Oliver. Look, a family emergency has come up. No, no, they’re all fine, extended family. Can we get someone to cover my classes for the next few weeks?”
Less than 48 hours later and he’s walking through the international arrivals gate at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Eventually he spots Elio, standing away from the crowd, his eyes cast downward. He looks delicate yet defensive. A porcelain statue, petulant about his own breakability.
The train will take them west towards Normandy, then a bus north and even more west towards the sea. Jetlagged, Oliver falls asleep almost right away, the gentle chug of the train forming a comforting backdrop. When he wakes, Elio’s head is on his shoulder, his hand resting gently on the inner side of Oliver’s knee. He doesn’t move a muscle and lets Elio sleep until the train stops.
The village is small, near the edge of a national forest. This region is farther along into springtime than the New England Oliver had left and even in the fading, almost-night light Oliver can make out pale buds on trees and promising bright green leaves. No more than 900 people live there but the auberge has room for the night and the night clerk makes no judgements about two men arriving together. Vive la France.
“Une chambre ou deux, monsieur?”
“Un,” Elio answers, flat and immediate.
He is on Oliver before the latch of the door even clicks in place behind them. He kisses Oliver, frenetic and clambering, rough in a way that is far too desperate to be a turn on.
“ Elio, no, no, no. This isn't what you need.” Oliver’s voice is a contradiction, gentle, patient and slow.
“No, this is actually exactly what I need.” His tone is biting and he reaches the hem of Oliver’s shirt, as if he’s willing to just go ahead and take it if Oliver won’t give it. But Oliver has always had the upper hand physically and it takes no effort to stop him again.
“Please.” A frustrated tear collects on the lower lid of Elio’s eye, catching in his thick lashes. “I know, ok? I know .”
That this isn’t fair. That after 20 years they deserve so much than a quick screw to relieve the grief. That it’s not a healthy coping mechanism but it’s either this or an entire bottle of vodka form the shop down the road. And that worst of all, they’d both known - from the minute Elio sat down to type his email to the moment Oliver bought his plane ticket - this exact moment was coming.
“No speeches, not tonight.” His breath is so unsteady. “Please. Just kiss me, Oliver.”
A tear follows the arch of his cheekbone near his nose and over his mouth. Oliver knows that when he kisses him, he’ll taste of salt.
Oliver acquiesces with a sad nod. He lets Elio swoop in for another kiss, taking from him what he needs.
Elio wakes first. He goes downstairs and returns with a carafe of coffee, a few croissants and some fruit.
The similarities between this morning and the first time they slept together are obvious, aside from their traded roles, one for the other. It is Elio now who has taken something precious from Oliver, something he can never give back yet had been yielded willingly.
When Oliver wakes some time later, he lifts up on his elbows to give Elio that same insecure smile that is burned into Elio’s memory. It’s as hurtful and beautiful as it had been then. Elio looks back at him, his expression plain, as if to say, Now we understand each other. And, I’m sorry.
They scatter his mother’s ashes from the top of a hill with views of the valley below. The entirety of the village fits into the green creases and folds of the topography. If one follows the line long enough, one can just make out the dark Atlantic abutting a warm grey sky.
“She said she fell in love for the first time here.”
Wordless, Oliver hooks his forefinger around the same digit on Elio’s hand. God, he adores being known so well.
They return to the hotel, having already missed the last train back to Paris for the day. Oliver drops his backpack wearily on the floor. He’s exhausted, his hair a dull, flat mop against his head and Elio realises, only then, that Oliver hasn’t even had the chance to bathe since he arrived. Now he’s covered in two days worth of travel, mud from the ramble through the hills, his own semen and Elio’s greif.
“Come here,” Elio says and extends his hand.
He turns the shower on as hot as it will go and Oliver melts with gratitude. The small bathroom quickly fills with steam. They undress themselves and step under the water together. Elio washes Oliver’s hair, his back. He watches the water cascade over the pert swell of Oliver’s ass. Apricot, he thinks and allows himself a small laugh. Oliver turns at the sound, surprised to hear it. Elio explains himself with a blush and Oliver kisses him for it. They are both hard but choose to do nothing about it; their desire is merely a result of their closeness, not the reason for it.
Elio fishes out a razor and shaving cream from Oliver’s suitcase. With utmost tenderness, Elio scrapes away the stubble, reveling in the smoothness that follows, first with his fingers then his mouth. Oliver reciprocates, angling Elio’s head this way then that. Every touch is foreplay. Every glance builds on the previous stoking heat and expectation.
The afternoon is too soft for full on love making so instead he tastes Oliver’s cock, letting his mouth be filled by the thick heat of him. Oliver brings Elio off by hand, eyes wide open to each other.
After, Oliver’s head rests near his navel, his breath even and deep. He rubs his cheek against the softest part of Elio’s belly. “Did you think we’d ever do this again?”
Oliver shifts onto his elbows, crawls towards the top of the bed. “There were days, whole swaths of years, when I didn’t think of you. How is that even possible?” Elio cards his fingers through the still damp hair at the nape of Oliver’s neck. “But then I came back to B. And then New York. And then there was hope.”
They kiss the way they could have on the piazetta if society at the time would have allowed it. Two men, mouths wide and plush, commemorating a love that is new and eternal all at once.
Into the safe space between the pillows, Elio says, “I’m going to sell it.”
Oliver’s head snaps back, affronted. “You can’t.”
“Why?” Elio asks. “It’s just me now, Oliver.”
“It’s your home.”
“Vacation home,” he corrects.
Oliver looks at him wounded, wondering how Elio could speak so neglectfully of a place he holds so dear. He’s speechless.
“You really think that massive house on a different continent is good for me anymore? It’s just full of the memories of people I've loved and lost.”
Oliver’s knows he’s counted on that ledger.
“We never said it. I mean, I knew and I hope you did too, but that summer we never actually said the words.”
“Please. Don’t,” Elio musters.
It’s too much. Like the peach, it’s more kindness than Elio can bear. He bites at the inside of his lips, trying to hold back the emotions. His chest hurts to restrain such a force. Oliver will not be discouraged by Elio’s obvious anxiety and he surges forward, cuping Elio’s face in his hands.
“I loved you, Elio.”
The vowel in the verb is elongated slightly, breathed instead of voiced. It makes the four letter world even more potent than it already is. Elio cannot bear it and he closes his eyes.
“I think in all my life I’ve loved you best of all.”
'Best' not 'most'. Elio finds he prefers that and gains the strength to look back.
“Until last night I hadn't been with anyone since my divorce.” Oliver admits. He’s become shy.
In their talks, Oliver explained how he’d gotten back together with his ex-wife too quickly after Italy, that he hadn’t given himself enough time to adjust. They follow the same flow of thought and Oliver answers Elio’s unspoken question.
“I was faithful to her.”
Bookends, Elio thinks. All these years with his wife, her soft curves and wetness between her thighs, and Elio was the man to mark the beginning and end of it. It’s enough to drive him mad.
That last night in Rome, Elio was in a place of emotional openness where he would have done anything with Oliver. Let Oliver tie him up, invite another partner to join, let Oliver piss on him, hurt him. If it was going to bring Oliver pleasure, he was up for it. But the only thing Oliver had wanted, the one thing he had insisted for with his body and begged for with his words, was to feel Elio inside him one last time.
A thought strikes Elio, as he realizes that Oliver is doing the exact same thing right now. It’s a fresh thought, one he’d never considered in all the days and years that followed.
That night at midnight had been his first time with a man, but had he been Oliver’s first too? Not the first man, clearly, that had been obvious from the start but the first to take him? The first to be inside him? To fuck him like a man fucks a woman and make love to him like two humans in love do, giving himself up to him? Had there ever been another soul in the universe who had known Oliver that way?
The heat in his cheeks is nearly unbearable as he considers it. He presses at Oliver’s shoulder and he rolls onto his front obediently. Elio straddles his thighs, his hands cupping the swell of Oliver’s ass, his thumbs applying just enough pressure to the cleft for him to say, ‘I know.’
“Come with me this summer,” he whispers brusquely against the shell of Oliver’s ear. “To Italy. Come with me one last time.”
Oliver reaches behind and grabs Elio’s thigh with a slap and groans, “Yes.”
Oliver holds Elio’s hand in the back of the cab all the way from the station in B. to the house not because he feels like Elio needs any sort of extra support to return here, but because he can. Because it’s what couples do and that is what they most certainly are.
France had marked the beginning. Or the end. Or simply the continuation. Whatever it was, they were different from then on. How quickly the heart remembers, reshaping itself back into a previous form that one, and only one, person will ever, has ever or could ever own so completely.
After the semester ends, Oliver spends a week in New York, notes for his new book project strewn across the floor, getting mixed up with Elio’s Schubert Impromptus and The Well Tempered Klavier. Elio’s season ends with several concerts on the west coast and Oliver joins him for the final weekend. With everyone they met, Elio had introduced Oliver as his partner.
“I should have asked you first if it was ok,” he says on the red-eye back from San Diego. Oliver had looked up from his book and kissed behind by the ear.
“You think too much.”
They’d left from New Haven, driving to Hartford, connecting through Logan, then Milan and finally the train to B. It’s peak tourist season so all the flights had been packed, the airports a mess of increased security and sunburned people.
The house is empty and dark when they arrive in the fading light. There is no Manfredi to meet them at the end of the gravel drive, no Mafalda fussing in the kitchen, insisting they eat before anything else. The silence strikes them both.
They go straight to their room. Yes, their room. They open all the doors, the French windows, the shutters. Elio wants the feel the breeze and smell the bay.
Oliver comes back with several citronella candles already lit and produces a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. They’re the same kind he’d bought his first day when he’d opened his bank account and Elio had considered the pale skin of his forearms. How he got them, Elio can’t figure out, unless he bought them online or from some specialty smoke shop before they left. What slaves to sentiment they both have become.
He lifts a candle toward Elio so he can light his cigarette. The flame flickers a warm light across Oliver’s face highlighting wrinkles that hadn’t been the last time they’d stood here together. He loves those wrinkles. Loves Oliver.
They say that to each other now in the present tense. Not daily like some couples do, an afterthought tossed over a shoulder as they’re headed out the door. I love you. Later.
They save it for when it matters the most. When they can tell the other is getting worried that perhaps this second go is just a fool’s dream and they are in need of the reassurance. When they’ve tested the limits of their middle aged bodies and are feeling vulnerable and exposed, embarrassed by how much they had liked it. Or simply when Elio catches Oliver invested in a translation and can’t stand how handsome his face is.
“You think Mafalda is enjoying her retirement?” Oliver asks.
“No, I’m sure she’s absolutely miserable.” He cough-laughs as the smoke empties his lungs. He hasn't smoked in years.
Heady, spinning from the thick, Italian nicotine, Oliver pulls him lazily to their bed.
They are headless of the noise. With the windows wide open, they are maybe even louder because of it. Maybe the neighbors will hear their joining, the whole city of B., all of Italy and beyond that, the world. Let them. Let them envy these two souls. Spurn them and their obscene luck at the chance to find the impossible not once but twice. Elio climbs into Oliver’s lap, lowers himself slowly and rides him. Oliver lifts his knees to plant his feet so he can thrust upwards.
They fuck on their bed. In their room. In this house that will always belong to them no matter who holds the deed. Ghosts of of two men who found each other and themselves one summer. Oliver and Elio. Eliooliver. How had he never noticed the way their names bleed together? Palindromes at the start, one becoming the other.
“Say it,” Elio chokes.
It’s the first time he’s asked in all this time. Oliver hands find Elio's hair and he slows his hips to the smallest of arcs. This moment belongs to love making not fucking. He remembers everything, too.
“Oliver,” he sighs, his eyes open across Elio’s face.
“Oliver.” A cry of joy. Of remembrance. Of homecoming.
The next morning, they wake late and walk into town. It takes nearly an hour but they have the time. That realization alone leaves Elio’s heart beating faster. They get capuccini at the cafe and sit at a table on the piazetta, just taking the morning in.
And that’s when the memories come.
Memory, like time, has a way of finding you when you least expect it. Grabbing hold of you around the throat with a hard shake and saying, ‘Don’t run, remember. Idiota!’. So he does; Elio remembers. He has no choice.
He looks around this square and sees so much life. Holding his mother’s hand as a child as she’d picked out flowers at the market. The first time he’d been allowed to come into town on his own with friends, staying out way too late and loving every second. Kissing Marzia, her hips undulating. Telling Oliver he doesn’t know anything about the things that matter.
Elio closes his eyes, as if to say ‘Enough’ but then hears his father’s voice in his head repeating the words he’d said the day Elio had returned from Rome, What a waste!
There are tears running down his face before he even knows it.
“You ok?” Oliver asks over the top of his newspaper. It’s so nonchalant. So American. Elio wipes his face and nods.
“Do you think Adam and Jake would want to come here next summer?” He’s on a first name basis with Oliver’s sons now, children of the 90’s who are totally nonplussed by the fact their father has a boyfriend.
Oliver sets the newspaper down on the table and moves his sunglasses to the top of his head.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” He’s teasing. As if now would be the time to begin doubting his ability to know Elio completely.
“God, I hope so.” Elio grins, playing along.
He reaches across the table grabbing Oliver’s chin between forefinger and thumb, irreverent to anyone to anyone whose backwards, Catholic sensibilities they might offend, and kisses him full on the lips.
This is his town, after all. His home away from home. His Oliver, whose memories of B., of fall afternoons in New England and bookstores in Manhattan will become just as precious to him as his own. They will knit a patchwork together out of their miraculous life: past and future tense, crafted out of events this present day Elio can’t even imagine. Like the day, 11 years from now when the Supreme Court of the United States will send down a ruling and rainbow flags will fly across the nation and they will slow dance in their kitchen, after Elio has already said yes, “Cause we need to practice.”
Moments becoming memory, becoming a miraculous life, crafted from second chances that logic could never have predicted.
“Come on,” Oliver says, tapping him playfully with his folded newspaper. “Let’s go run before it gets too hot.”
Elio can remember a time, 21 years ago when his days with Oliver were numbered instead of stretching out infinitely, when he’d thought they had been gifted with the stars and something like that could happen just the once. There are still days when he feels that is true.
So later, when night settles over B. and the stars come out, burning their twinkling light in the Mediterranean sky for them alone, he and Oliver will reach out, greedy fisted, and steal them instead.