New York, October 1988.
Elio was sprawled on the bed, his arms draped over the width and curled legs formed a pleasant contrast with the rectangularity. The sheets were crumpled and coming loose, highlighted by the pale streetlights, and the sensuousness of the fabric echoed the smooth flesh of his thighs. I seldom wished to be more artistically inclined, but it was moments like this that made me wish that I could paint or sculpt just as well as I could write. To commit what I was feeling to solidity and memory through doing and making.
We were together again but it felt like a desperate, stolen moment. A blip in the universe. A momentary lapse in judgement, an act of recklessness, a slip of the divine hand. God had somehow allowed Elio back into my life, like a sick miracle. Five years on, the road of my life had cruised to a pleasant banality from the minor wreck that was the six months following my return from Crema. I taught more or less the same courses at Columbia each term, worked on whatever book I was writing in my remaining time, suffered through school holidays with family or took solitary vacations, participated in a sexual life peppered with spontaneous encounters involving men and women who were possessed by infatuation. I was an objective observer of my own life, my relationships almost scientific and experimental as I simply took account of what others thought of and saw in me.
Competent and intelligent enough, I could tell from the gaze of my colleagues: a knowing nod when I was in the depths of marking a tall stack of term papers, a chummy smile before leaving the department at weekends. Admired and idolised: the wide, excited eyes of the students who insisted on visiting my office hour every week, who smiled too much and laughed too easily. Passive disapproval and impatience from my mother and assorted relatives, eyes shining with perverse anticipation of interjecting with suggestions, comments, ‘constructive’ criticism on my life choices. Boring and even fraudulent, in the gaze of the driven students who loved to argue and who thought I was too young to be credible. Lust and adoration, in the eyes of temporary lovers, in the breaths before the first kiss, before penetration, and before the moment they realised they would never see me again.
I was looking and being looked at but I did not feel seen by this carousel of characters. To be seen was to be free, to dissolve the prison bars around my soul, to be unseam’d from the nave to the chaps and bared open to the one who owned it all. I wanted my heart to be cut out, juiced, peeled, segmented, beaten, chopped, smashed till it was an unrecognisable pulp and then devoured. It was festering within me, shrivelled cold and dead, yet simultaneously pulsing red and hot like an infection, twisting and aching and racing because it wanted, needed, a way out— because it did not belong to me.
And then it had its moment.
It tore itself in half, and shot opposite directions in my body: one clogged my throat and wanted oral purging, to be spit out piece by piece, cell by cell, atom by atom in words, kisses, bites, sucks, licks. The other took to my ass and waited, anticipated, could only be taken thrust by thrust, pound by pound, chisel by chisel. It was perverse, it was masochistic, it was me arrested in the gaze of Elio Perlman: Elio Perlman who filled the frame to my office with burgundy blazer shoulders, curly hair, pink lips, and those damned hazel green eyes that saw.
Hi. I looked well. He knew it was my student office hour but could he come in. He was sorry he presumed, he was sorry for showing up, he shouldn’t have come, he could come back later, or never, he was sorry, just sorry and he would never bother—
“No,” my lips formed around the syllable, air pushed my vocal chords and it projected from my heart, from my chest and I didn’t even know I had done it until the word rang in my ears and my jaw was hanging empty around its shape. His eyes turned wide and his four consecutive blinks of disbelief punctured through the shroud of disbelief and I realised I had shouted into the stale, dusty, silent Classics hallway. He stood petrified by my volume, his naked-as-ever, honest-as-ever, transparent-as-ever face betraying his instinct to leave in the face of anything less than positive or affirming from me. And before I could—
“Is everything alright, professor?” Professor Zetzel stood three-quarters of the way out of his office three doors down, glasses in his right hand and his centre of gravity indicating he was half a heartbeat away from leaving his fortress to give the ‘disruptive student’ at hand a thorough talking down.
“Fine. Just fine. Apologies.” I retreat back into my door and Elio has the good sense to follow, if a few beats too late. I close my office door behind him, pausing by the door to listen and its a full five seconds before Zetzel decides to let it go and shut his own office door.
When I turn back Elio is sitting in the old leather chair in front of my desk, as if he was any other student. As if he was any other visitor. Any other passerby. As if he ever could be.
I pace slowly around the desk and sit in my chair, stiffly as if not to disturb even a speck of dust and finally look up. He looks the same and yet not: the dissonance is jarring. Older, hair longer, dressed better, lit by the cold and smog-filtered New York sun instead of the impossibly warm glow of summer, Crema-Italian sun filtered by sweat and desire.
“Can I really stay? You must have students who need to see you, I shouldn’t take up your time.” Ironic, time hasn’t really moved for me since the last time I saw you.
“You just missed my regulars. We won’t be interrupted.”
“Okay,” he looks down and clenches his jaw, it’s stronger than when he was seventeen, “I’m not really sure…I don’t…”
“You don’t have to.” He looks up. My heart is racing and my breath is quick. To speak or to die. To speak or to die.
“I…” Elio, despite whatever he liked to say about himself would always be the braver, “I’m here.”
“Yes.” The sibilance of the syllable is soothing, completing and the slow closing of the mouth and lips meeting together verses the emptiness that follows its antonym somehow lends itself to the present moment, to affirmation, to believing mind, body and soul that he is here.
“You’re in the States.”
“I’m here doing my masters.” Where have the years gone?
“Here,” I blink “Here here, or here?” The most idiotic five sounds I have ever uttered. Elio’s face splits into the most cherubic, lovely, sweet, euphoric smile I have ever seen.
“Here here. Research with the music department.”
“You picked here because,”
“Yes,” what a word, what a word! It shone on my heart, coloured my soul, filled in the gaps left by five years of questions and made its way out by way of my lips— the shit-eating grin.
“I just wanted to… be near you again. In any capacity. We haven’t talked directly in years, and I don’t want you to think I want— I expect… I expected for us to just pick up, I just,” he stopped speaking, and it must have been because of the look on my face. His eyes continued where he stopped, and it seemed he was realising that it was enough for now, enough that he was here. We were quiet for a while. It was easier to let the words and thoughts transpire of their own accord, it was easy because we saw each other. And even though we weren’t finished, after all there were things that did need to be said, everything was okay. Because in his gaze, I could just be. And I hadn’t been, hadn’t truly been since Rome.
Like a sick miracle, I was allowed to breathe and live and be and move again, unstuck from some purgatory, but just as quickly as it happened, it could all stick again.