Chapter 1: Oliver
“You want me to teach you the piano,” her brows knit together, as if someone has squeezed her skull to make wrinkles on her forehead. “...Why?”
I shrug, “Why not? You’re always saying that I should learn. That it makes me more sensitive.”
Now she looks at me like I’ve grown a second head, “...Who are you, and what have you done with my Oliver?”
“I’m your Oliver, am I?” I say, nudging her in the side. It makes her giggle. It makes me laugh, too, when she pushes me away. “Wouldn’t you rather your Oliver could plonk a few notes on a piano, make you look cultured?”
Then she frowns, “Do you think I think of you like that?”
Can’t you just play it like Bach originally wrote it? There’s a warm, guilty coil forming in my stomach. I don’t like the feeling. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“Come on, you’re going to publish a book. It’s gotten translated! That’s amazing,” she says. Then she peers at my face a little bit more closely and I wonder if I’ve accidentally told her something I don’t mean to, because she takes my hand and sits me down at her piano, like I’m six years old and know nothing. She places my right hand on the keys and tells me about the virtues of holding an egg. It’s the hand’s most natural position and I think it’s awkward. Like you’re holding all your fingers in place waiting for something. For the other shoe to drop.
“And relax!” She pats my knuckles. “You’ve got to relax.”
I try. I don’t think it’s working. She shows me middle C, in the middle of the keyboard. I plonk my pointer finger down on it and she says I shouldn’t use the word plonk. “Now, that’s so inelegant. You’ve got to be gentle with the notes. Here, try to caress middle C, Oliver. Play it pianissimo.”
“Caress,” I echo and my mind goes to sex. I think of thighs that somehow can’t manage to keep a suntan and I think -- “...Is that a word you use with the kids? It sounds really dirty.”
She goes a bit red. I like it when she goes a bit red. And I like it because then I can think about how she can’t keep a tan either. But it doesn’t matter because no one comes to New York to tan. It’s different from Italy. I’m still probably a bit tan from Italy. It’s nearly winter. “Shut up, you. Pianissimo. Go.”
I caress middle C. It sounds about the same. She shakes her head. “Try again.”
I say, “My fingers are not used to caressing middle C. However,” I set my other hand on her knee and she flinches, but then she doesn’t stop me. She never does and although she makes one of those sounds that says to me I should stop, she opens her legs just a little.
“I teach at this piano,” she says. “Stop that.” If she really means it, she would have said please and she doesn’t. Distinctions and details are everything.
“We can do both,” I say. Her dress covers her knees and stops just a few inches above her ankle but I can still touch and feel that she’s warm underneath fabric. “I’ve learned to multitask. I am not as boneheaded as before.” I plonk middle C and she makes a noise.
“I said pianissimo,” she grips my wrist. “And this is not how you practice. You’re going to gain lots of bad habits. Oh.”
“Pronto,” comes the lovely, lovely Italian at the other end. I still forget how to breathe every time I hear it.
“Elio,” I say. “It’s me.”
There is a long, long pause. I always think he’s going to hang up, but he doesn’t. “Do you want to speak to Dad?”
We do rituals, the two of us. I don’t say my name (until he makes me) and he asks me if I’d like to speak to the Professor. Sometimes I do. Other times I don’t. “Not today.” I say.
Then he says, “Would you like to speak to Elio instead?”
I’m at my parents’ house in Dorset, Vermont. I’m expected to come back for a weekend every month and I do. I still sleep in the room where I grew up and it’s that, the memory of being a kid in this room, that helps with the discipline. Because this is a very disciplined thing, what I am doing. I sit at my desk, and the hand that isn’t gripping the telephone receiver is splayed out in front of me. I tap my pointer finger like I’m caressing middle C.
“Oliver would like that,” I say. And maybe it’s just my wanting imagination but I think I hear his breathing hitch. “What are you doing?”
“I am alone right now,” he tells me. “Mom and Dad have gone out for a dinner with some Professor Emeritus. I think he used to teach Dad. I might fix myself a sandwich in a bit.”
I am alone right now, like he’s testing me. Wanting to see if my discipline has any give. I’ve written a Ph.D. It’s been published. My discipline is rock solid.
“Elio,” I say. “I am going to hang up if you do this to me.”
“I am not doing anything.” Then, “...What are you doing?”
“I’m visiting my parents in Vermont.” I say. “It’s a five hour drive and I’ve just arrived. I spent the morning with Rachel.”
A noise. Perhaps an unhappy one. I don’t know, “She doesn’t come with you to visit your parents?”
“Sometimes, but she has lessons today,” I shrug. “Tell you what, I am learning piano.”
“You?” He’s probably trying not to laugh. “How is that going?”
“I am learning how to caress middle C. And to hold an egg. And to relax my knuckles. All skills I didn’t know I needed in life.”
“Caress,” Elio says and I didn’t know I wanted him to be hung up on that word. No, that’s a lie, I wanted him to get hung up on it. It’s why I said it. Something that my examiners said, after I finished sitting for my thesis defense. They were (still are?) very impressed at my ability not to waste words. Everything is where it ought to be.
I wonder if it impresses Elio.
“Did she use the word? Or is this you?”
“She did,” I say. “I don’t know, is it a word you’d say to someone when they’re just learning?”
He thinks. I can hear him thinking. When it comes to him I can hear everything, “Caress. Maybe. Probably not.”
“...What word would you use? Tell me.”
More thinking. “I’d say,” Elio drags out the word, as if he knows I am waiting for them a little desperately. “You should touch the keys gently. Like a feather on someone’s skin. Feather light. Like soap still clinging to fabric.”
“That’s a lot of words,” I say. I tap my fingers on wood. Like a feather on someone’s skin.
A knock sounds on my bedroom door. “...Oliver? Dinner is ready.”
“Caress works too,” says Elio. “But I don’t like it so much.”
Caress makes me think of the sun on your skin. Like the sun doesn’t want you to get burned. I think that, but I don’t say it. It’s against my discipline. It’s burned me instead. I need to go eat dinner. I need to get out of my bedroom and away from this phone. Away from the way Elio says caress.
“Right, feathers, got it.” I cut him off. “I need to eat. Later.”
The first time Oliver calls, Elio doesn’t want to talk to him. He can’t. He can’t see how his throat will open up enough to let words come out. But then his father hands him the phone and says, “Oliver says he’d like to talk to you, Elio. He’s passed his Ph.D. Flying colors.”
So Elio picks up the extension in the other room and says, “Congratulations, Doctor.”
A long, long pause. For a moment, he wonders if the man has hung up. Like it’s some kind of joke. But Elio doesn’t think his father would do that to him, so he waits. Oliver’s voice (which is very, very separate from the Oliver he still has in his head, torturing him like spools of unwound film) says, “...Thanks.”
That’s it? Elio feels himself flush, We’ve not spoken in months and all you have to say is thanks, but then he thinks that it might be his fault, and adds. “...How does it feel?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe. I’m a thousand pounds lighter,” Oliver laughs. “I must have driven Rachel crazy the last few months I was writing up. There are still corrections to do, of course. I misplaced a semicolon. But, you know. How are you?”
Elio wants information; he’s got information. Perhaps too much of it entirely. “Who’s Rachel?”
Oliver sucks in a deep breath, “A girl I know. We’ve been kind of seeing each other. On and off. I’ve been married to my thesis. She keeps saying that there’s no room.”
“Ah,” says Elio who feels a bit like his guts have been unspooled just now just like film. “There’s plenty of room now. Why are you calling me?”
“I,” Oliver hesitates. “I did want to share my good news with your family. And you. Of course. You guys are all in my acknowledgments. I.” Then, “Should I not have?”
“I miss you,” Elio says. “I miss you, Elio.”
“Stop,” says Oliver, but he doesn’t sound angry or anything, he sounds like he’s. About to drown. “We can’t do it like this. We have to be disciplined.”
Elio huffs a breath, “Okay. Explain to me what that means. Discipline.”
“It means you don’t get to ask me who Rachel is, like that. It means we can be friends. I can call you sometimes. Or you can call me. You can ask the Professor for my office extension.”
“You have an office extension,” it’s funny. It really is funny, and would continue to be funny. But Elio is miserable, too. Hearing Oliver’s voice telling him to be disciplined reminds him of just how much miserable a single person to cause another by virtue of a single word. Maybe they are not even words. Just a collection of phonemes made by Oliver’s mouth. “Do you have other friends who call your office extension?”
“Yes, I do,” Oliver affirms, a little sniffly but perhaps that’s just Elio’s imagination. “We sometimes trade books that we’ve read. Or someone rings me to tell me that I’ve been cited in an article.”
“And that’s what you want us to do. Trade books. Talk like friends. If I see your name anywhere I’ll call you.”
It occurs to Elio that they are both in New England right now. Worse, they are both in the state of New York. When it’s not summer, the family stays in Ithaca, and Samuel Perlman teaches at Cornell. Cornell isn’t that far away from Columbia, where Oliver apparently has an office extension. But that’s probably not allowed since Oliver wants them to be disciplined.
“Oliver,” says Oliver.
“If you see my name, Oliver, anywhere, you can call me.” Oliver says. “In fact, please do.”
“Elio!” His mother is calling, “Are you still on the phone? Your father needs to make a call.”
“I need to go,” says Elio. “But it was nice to hear from you.”
He doesn’t think he’ll hear from Oliver again. And he doesn’t call Oliver’s office extension because Elio isn’t someone who understands discipline. Or, not in the way Oliver does, he thinks. For one thing, Elio doesn’t think he’ll ever do a Ph.D.
But then Oliver calls him from his parents’ house in Vermont. Oliver is apparently learning the piano and learning how to caress middle C.
He wonders if Oliver caresses Rachel’s middle C(unt). And he really should be shocked at himself for the thought. It’s probably just as well that Oliver has to go for dinner.
It takes another week for Elio to work up the courage to ring Oliver’s office extension after Oliver calls him from Vermont. His father is a little surprised, but not unhappy, that Elio asks for it.
Oliver answers with his full name, with Dr. in front of it.
“I bet you are obsessed with how that sounds.” Elio says.
“Only a little,” Oliver admits. “And I’m not quite yet. Hi.”
“Hi,” Elio has settled the phone next to the piano in the front room. “Are you busy?”
“A little,” something shifts. “But I’ve got a couple of minutes. Go ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking about you and your issues caressing middle C.” Elio cradles the receiver between his ear and shoulder and sets both hands on the piano. A little awkward, but he can manage.
“Do you have a quarter?”
“Somewhere,” comes the reply. “The department has an awesome vending machine not far away from my office. -- Found one. Why?”
“Forget what I said about the feathers,” says Elio. Does Oliver forget things? “And the soap and the whatever. Just balance the quarter on your wrist and you can caress middle C. it’s going to make plonking difficult. The coin will train you to have a more delicate touch when you play.”
“A more delicate touch,” He’s probably mocking his emphasis. But no, no, Oliver doesn’t do that anymore. “Is that something you think I need?”
Elio doesn’t teach piano. He thinks he doesn’t have enough patience for it, but his father always chastises him for not having enough faith in himself. Faith has always been important to Samuel Perlman and hasn’t quite infected his son in the same way.
“We got a copy of your thesis in the mail,” Elio says. “Many grateful thanks go to my second family the Perlmans and bella Italia. You were here six weeks and the best you can manage is bella Italia?” Oliver’s acknowledgments take up an entire page. It starts with him thanking his supervisors, his parents, his favorite librarian, the Perlmans, Italy, the names of several other academics, his Italian translator, and then finally --
Last but not least, thanks go tremendously to Rachel, with love.
“I don’t have any room in my head for Italian while I was writing up, all right. I did the best I could.” Oliver laughs, “You are very persnickety.”
Elio adjusts himself so that he is holding the phone again in his left hand after fishing a quarter out of his own pocket, he places it on his wrist. He presses down on middle C. Caresses it. Turns it into half of Bach’s Invention no. 1.
“And stop showing off.”
“Just trying to show you what a quarter can do,” says Elio. “I am using one right now, Oliver. I’m caressing the fuck out of Bach.”
Oliver says, “There’s someone waiting to see me outside. I’m going to have to let you go.”
Goodness, thank you everyone for the kudos and comments! If anyone is interested in Bach's Invention no. 1, I quite like the version by Glenn Gould.
I don’t own a piano, but Rachel does. I remember when she moved apartments and they had to delay moving the piano because she absolutely had to wait for me. She still blames me, for being without a piano for a month but I maintain that it’s not my fault. I think about buying a piano and begin to look at ads scattered on campus. Rachel comes with me to test out two of them, one’s a baby grand, which won’t fit in my current place no matter how stubborn we are about it. The second, is a sad little upright from the 1930s that needs a good tune up and even I can tell that the middle C sounds dinky.
“It’s broken,” says Rachel. “Don’t say ‘dinky.’ That lets it off the hook, like it’s not to your taste. It’s broken and it should have been looked at before an ad was put up. They are probably trying to sell it on its historical prestige. Some collectors go crazy for pianos from the the early twentieth century.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I say.
She gives me a look that’s unamused, like I’m a pupil who has spoken out of turn, and should know better. “It’s not a very good piano. No amount of historical prestige or well, I suppose nostalgia if you want to be kind, will save it from being not a very good piano. Shoddy craftsmanship has its own history too.”
“You’re persnickety today,” I say, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. She’s always had lovely hands.
Maybe I have a type. I have lots of persnickety friends. I need persnickety people in my life.
“It’s a musician thing,” Rachel looks up at me. “...And if I weren’t that way you wouldn’t be attracted to me.”
“That’s,” I don’t like how that sounds. “That’s not true,” because it isn’t.
She shrugs, “Anyway, come over if you’d like to practice. It’s not as if you don’t have a key.”
Rachel isn’t home and I sit at her piano. I remove the Schumann that she’s been working on with a whole host of pencil scratchings. I can tell she’s particularly frustrated with this one because there are even admonishments to herself in red pencil. The red is ringed around a fermata like it is glaring at me. I am watching you.
I put the Schumann away. I put up instead, her copy of a simple scale books that she uses for toddlers. Rachel has got a lot of patience for children, and I don’t. Which is probably why most of my work involve legal, consenting adults and yelling at them about why they misunderstand Heidegger as applied to the Greeks. I don’t understand Heidegger.
I take a quarter from my coat pocket and balance it on my wrist. I press down on middle C and then my wrist twitches so the quarter bounces off my wrist. It rolls onto the floor with a definite plonk.
I’m caressing the fuck out of Bach.
I fetch the quarter and put it back on my wrist. Middle C, D, E. I don’t quite manage to get to F, because when I shift my thumb like Rachel’s taught me to, the quarter rolls off again.
“Fuck,” I say.
“Oliver? What are you doing?”
I bend to retrieve my quarter, and then I nearly bang my head because Rachel is standing there right behind me.
“I am,” I start. “Do you remember, I called the Perlmans about passing?”
“Oh,” it takes her a moment. “Yes, the family you stayed with in Italy. I bet they were thrilled for you.”
“Their kid,” and I feel strange about this. Calling Elio a kid because he is and isn’t and he has to be. “Plays the piano. Really well, actually. He’s very into his Bach. Transcribes his own variations on things. He told me to use a quarter for a more delicate touch.”
I don’t like the fact that I’ve said that. It feels less secret now and more laden with guilt. I shouldn’t have said anything. But that’s part of the discipline too; I should tell her. I haven’t done anything wrong.
Rachel appears to think about this, “That’s really archaic.” She sits down beside me on the bench and our knees touch. “And not something I generally recommend to the kids. When you’re older than twelve maybe, I might suggest you do that to prove a point.”
I scoff, “I hope I’m at least older than twelve.”
“You know what I mean,” she nudges me. “Anyway. Practicing with a quarter is good sometimes. But not all the time. It might seize you up and the whole point of playing lightly is meant to contribute to you being relaxed. If you’re worried about the quarter falling off all the time, then you’re never going to relax, are you?”
“I take your point,” I say, and put the quarter back into my coat pocket.
“What’s the kid’s name?” Rachel asks. This makes me a little paranoid because I’m sure I’ve told her Elio’s name and the fact that I haven’t means. Or she might be testing me but she doesn’t do that. Elio does that.
“...Elio,” I say.
“Elio Perlman. Any relation to Itzhak, the violinist?” I can see her thinking. I have taken her to see Itzhak Perlman once, even managed to sneak in backstage. I wonder why we don’t go to concerts so much now. I should look into some.
“I don’t know. Never asked,” But this gives me another reason to call the Perlmans at some stage and I shouldn’t feel guilty. I have a genuine question. “Why?”
“Well, if he’s as good as you say, we should be getting this kid gigs,” she says. “Sometimes the parents have no idea how good their kids are. It’s usually the other way around. Now stop it,” she taps my knuckles. “Middle C. Go.”
My wrist feels lighter without the quarter.
“Pronto,” The Professor answers the phone and I think about hanging up.
“Hi,” I say. “Sorry, it’s Oliver. Um.”
“Oliver, hello again!” The Professor sounds warm and happy to hear from me. “We’ve received the copy of your Ph.D. And are very honored to be mentioned alongside bella Italia.”
I consider telling him that Elio’s already laughed at me for that. But then I don’t.
“Is Elio at home? I think he called me on my extension.” I lie. “So I was just wondering if.”
“Yes, that’s right. He did ask me for it a couple of weeks back,” the Professor says. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, no. I’d like to keep in touch with Elio,” I say. “We were great friends in Italy. I lose friends easily so I thought that I’d better make the effort.”
I talk too much. I am that way when I am nervous.
“I am glad you are making the effort, but I am afraid he isn’t at home,” there’s something in the Professor’s tone I can’t quite place. Something middling and catching and odd. I should hang up. Never call again. “In that case, I have a question for you, Professor.”
“Samuel,” the Professor -- Samuel -- corrects me. “Come now, you’ve spent an entire summer with us. And you have a Ph.D. It’s no longer appropriate. What’s your question?”
“Are you related to Itzhak Perlman? The violinist.” I don’t correct him about not quite having a Ph.D in hand yet. “I know it’s a strange question, but my girlfriend wanted to know and. Well, I thought, no harm in asking, right? We saw him in concert once. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto I think it was.”
For a long time, Samuel doesn’t say anything. “As far as I know, we’re not. But I’m sure Elio will be flattered. We’re big fans of Itzhak Perlman.”
“Oh,” I say. “Thank you. Sorry, I know it’s a bit of an weird one.”
“No bother,” Samuel says. “Shall I tell Elio you’ve called?”
I want to ask where Elio is. Where he’s gone. Who he is with. What his other friends are like and if they are anything like me. I have no doubt that Samuel would tell me, he likes our friendship.
“No,” I say. “But please do say hello to Annella for me. Later, Samuel.” Then I hang up.
As ever, thank you all so much! This thing has an ending now, so I look forward to seeing it through! In my head, the Schumann on Rachel's piano is his Fantasie Op. 17 in C Major. The video linked is only the first part, but give a listen if you have time, it is gorgeous.
Lastly, not sure if anyone else got tortured with the quarter while learning to play the piano, but I did. I make no claims on its pedagogical effectiveness, just thought it was a nice little detail!
Elio speaks to Marzia sometimes. After all, he takes friends for life very seriously. They don’t speak about anything particular, but he sometimes reads her interesting bits that he finds in books still. He tries to keep it surprising. She keeps him up to date on the gossip, although there isn’t much. He doesn’t tell her that Oliver calls sometimes. Maybe that is what he and Oliver will be like years from now when everything hurts a little bit less. Friends for life.
But he wishes he could tell Marzia things. Part of him does, anyway. Because if anyone understands how bad Elio is with discipline and patience and waiting and wanting, it’s Marzia.
Lotte isn’t anything like Marzia. She’s very blonde, for one thing. Doesn’t speak any French, but she does speak Swedish and some German. She’s got eyes that Elio thinks he can stare into for a long time if only --
Lotte goes to Cornell and is older than he is by a little spell. Twenty to his almost eighteen. If this bothers her she doesn’t say. In fact, she takes pains to say the opposite, as if she knows what he’s thinking already.
“I have a younger brother,” she says. “Older girls really like him. So I guess it doesn’t bother me. But I suppose we shouldn’t tell your dad that you took me out on a date.”
“I don’t think my dad cares about that sort of thing,” says Elio. “I think Mom’s older than him, by a tiny bit. She’s gracious about it, says he’s only gone white quicker because he works harder.”
His parents love each other. That’s the one thing Elio has always been sure about, even after.
“That does sound very gracious,” Lotte agrees. “Well, if you don’t think they care, do tell the Professor I say hi.”
“Lotte,” his father frowns. “Oh, yes. Lotte Nilsson. I remember her. She’s very bright. I’m glad you had a nice time.”
“I did,” Elio nods and it’s not a lie. He goes to sit down at the piano.
“But if you’re doing this because Oliver has a girlfriend,” his father starts and Elio freezes.
“What do you mean?” Elio says, careful to look at the keys. Black and white, just waiting to be played at the right time. Simple as that.
“He called here, an hour or so ago. He asked that I not tell you, but I didn’t see any harm.”
Elio makes room, and his father sits down next to him on the piano bench. “What did he want?”
“To know if we were related to Itzhak Perlman. Rather, his girlfriend wanted to know.”
His father just tells him these things. His father never pries.
“Dad, we’re friends, and we talk sometimes. It’s nice.” Elio says. “Please don’t worry. I think I might take Lotte out again this weekend.”
Oliver calls him a few days later just after dinner. Elio answers with, “Dad said you called.”
“Where were you?” If Oliver cares that he was given up, there’s no indication of anything in his voice.
Elio thinks about saying something boyish and petulant. But that would be unfriendly and he doesn’t think Oliver’s tone was terribly accusatory, “I was on a date with someone.” He lies back on his bed. The door can’t completely close on account of the phone but he doesn’t think he is doing anything too out of line. A better question would be why Oliver doesn’t want his father to tell Elio he’s called.
“A date,” says Oliver and if this offends him any Elio can’t tell. Oliver is, technically, also not allowed to be offended. “I bet she’s a stunner.”
“Am I not allowed to think you have good taste?”
Good taste. Elio runs his tongue over his lips and he swallows. Oliver makes a reasonable point.
Elio clears his throat. “Here. Yes, you are allowed to think that and yes I do. She’s Swedish. And German.”
A low whistle on the other end. He wonders what Oliver is imagining right now.
“...Where are you calling me from? It’s evening. Are you still in your office?”
“I am calling you from home.”
So far, Oliver has called from his office, and his parents’ home in Vermont, and now his home. The man must live somewhere, that’s not so unexpected. Does he live with Rachel? Does she sleep there in secret? It’s not disciplined to ask. It is also not polite either.
“Does Dad have your home number?”
Oliver lets out a breath, “No. Just my office extension.”
“Can I have it?”
Oliver breathing. Again. Inhale. Exhale. “Do you have a pen?”
“I’ll find one,” a quick rummage through his desk, Elio finds a dry marker. What’s it doing there? He should clean out his desk. “Okay.”
Oliver recites his home number and Elio inks each digit into his forearm like some sort of tattoo all across his veins. He thinks he ought to write Oliver’s name under the number itself, lest he forgets.
“You thought I was related to Itzhak Perlman?” The thought’s laughable, but flattering. His father had thought it particularly funny.
Oliver makes a sound like he’s embarrassed. “I didn’t ask that question. Rachel did.”
“You could have just told her that we weren’t,” says Elio.
“I’m a good academic,” Oliver says. “Thought I’d at least check.”
“You’ve told her about me?” A warm heat rushes through Elio and he flirts with the edge of his sweater with his fingertips.
“She knows you play the piano, and are quite good,” says Oliver in the least sexy way possible. There is absolutely nothing sexy about being quite good, Elio notes. It’s on par with ‘I guess that will do.’ “She disagrees with you about the quarter. It’s archaic.”
“Archaic,” Elio turns the word over in his mind and it makes him laugh. “It’s good discipline. My teacher used to make me do it. He’d say, ‘Elio, watch the quarter!’ And then he’d hit me, if the quarter fell, but not very hard.”
“I don’t think Rachel hits her students,” Oliver thinks aloud.
“I’m a product of history,” says Elio in agreement. “No one like me exists anymore.”
“I know, Oliver.” Oliver says, and his voice is so soft that Elio thinks he hasn’t spoken at all. But he has because Oliver’s name is ringing in his ears clear as day.
“Elio,” says Elio because Oliver makes him slightly Pavlovian. “What are you doing?” If this is a new rule, he thinks he ought to be told, consulted.
“I’m,” He can hear Oliver inhaling noisily. “I shouldn’t have done that. I am sorry. Fuck.”
The way Oliver says fuck. The word is warm and slips in snakelike between his skin and his soul and stays there.
Elio hangs up the phone; something tells him he should, he can be disciplined. But his dick is twitching like a traitorous thing; like it knows things it ought not to. He goes and closes his door and thinks of blue eyes that must must be Lotte’s.
Plot-related things will happen in the next update. Thank you all for sticking with this! I'm still rolling around in fantastic comments :).
Chapter 5: Oliver
A bit of housekeeping, does anyone else see this chapter in the actual count? In any case, thank you for sticking with this despite the update mechanics being a bit wonky!
“It’s me,” is the voice that greets me when I pick up my office extension. My first thought is that I am in trouble. Knee-deep, waist-deep in shit. Clingy Italian mudbanks right next to the lake. I have mud over my eyes and mud in my head. Then I think, that whatever I might get up to in here, I should probably close the door. The thought is guilty, urgent, and entirely inappropriate.
“It’s a school day,” I say. “You shouldn’t be calling me.” And suddenly everything hurts. I have to run a postgraduate seminar in about twenty minutes. There isn’t time and I am secretly happy. And besides, Elio goes on dates now, which is also good for me. I am happy for him about that too. Of course I am.
“I am on my lunch,” says Elio just like an adult on lunch. “I’ve got news.”
“Yeah,” I really really don’t have time.
“I’m going to university,” Elio tells me.
“Of course you are,” I gather up graded papers, a few books and tuck the phone under my chin.
“I mean I got accepted places, genius.”
“Oh,” I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. The guilt is less this time, which I am glad about, but it’s still there. “Congratulations.”
“Ask me where.”
“I’d love to,” I say. “But I can’t. I am late. I’ll. I’ll call you later.”
I should call the Perlmans to wish them a Happy Hanukkah, which comes but a week later, but I can’t bring myself to. My excuse is that I am very busy. Rachel’s parents are visiting her from New Jersey. Her father subtly (or not so) asks me when I am going to propose. I don’t eat much that evening.
“Are you coming down with something?” Rachel goes home with me and presses a hand to my forehead. “You don’t feel warm. But you’ve been working so hard. Between corrections and still teaching…”
“Do you mind that I haven’t proposed?” It’s an honest question.
Rachel’s eyes are even darker when there’s no light in the room. “I love you, Oliver.”
That particular way of avoiding my question makes me feel even worse. “But?”
“But you make Dad very nervous, by not proposing. That’s true. Do you love me?”
“Tell him I’m still getting a divorce from my thesis,” I laugh. “That takes a while. We're discussing alimony and I'm trying to wrestle my soul back from the brink of certain death. I.” I hesitate and I pray that she doesn’t notice. “Rachel, you’ve seen me through my Ph.D. I can’t not love you.” My hand finds hers and I hold it.
She makes a noise. When she puts her leg across my knees she is still gripping my hand for dear life.
I finally call the Perlmans from my parents’; they’ve put Rachel up in the guest bed down the hall from my room.
“Pronto,” comes the greeting and it’s the right voice this time. I feel almost all the tension rush out of my shoulders.
“Hello. Happy Hanukkah.”
“Would you like to speak to Dad? Or would you like to speak to Elio instead?”
“I, Oliver, would really really like to speak to Elio.” I say, “I’m sorry.”
I wonder if he is punishing me. I still think, sometimes, deeply, privately, that I’ve ruined him the way that philosophy extols but also warns against. Even though he says that I haven’t. Of course he’d say that. He’s a ruined, ruined boy. “For.” Is all I can manage.
“I tried calling your home number,” Elio moves on, and I feel his forgiveness course throughout my body. “A couple of days ago.”
“I’ve been in and out. Entertaining Rachel’s parents. Sorry I missed you.” It might as well have been ‘sorry, I missed you.’ Because I do. It’s too much by virtue of me not being able to say it, really put it into words to give to him that the sentiment remains with me, a little guilty and a lot monstrous. “They’re from Jersey.”
“Oh,” Elio says. “Did you have fun with them?”
“They keep me on my toes. So about as fun as you’d think.” I should not say that about my future in-laws. They aren’t, but they might as well be. “Where did you get into school?”
He hates me. “I remember. Yes. Tell me.”
“Juilliard,” Elio says. “I’ll be going for performance. Maybe a bit of composition if I feel like it.”
He makes a noise. “Does it seem to you like I can teach anything? I am archaic.”
“That wasn’t me,” I say quickly. But it occurs to me that I don’t want to blame Rachel either. “I shouldn’t have said that. But that’s. That’s great. That’s choice.” Then I get an idea, “Wait a second. I’m going to put the phone down.”
I go my doorway and call for Rachel, whose hands are greasy with latke batter. “I can’t hold the phone.” She says.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll hold it,” I say. “Elio?”
“Say hello to Rachel. And told her what you told me.”
A pause, “Hi Rachel. I got into Juilliard.”
“Hello, Elio, right?” She looks at me and I nod. “That’s awesome. We should chat about this. I went to Julliard.”
Elio’s reaction is about what I expected. I kid myself sometimes. I have a fantastical imagination. You need one to love the antiquities. “Oliver really likes musicians.” He says, “I have to go.”
“Hey,” Rachel presses. “Wait a moment, Elio. I’d love to hear you play. Oliver says you’re very good. Maybe you can send copy of your audition tape to his office?”
“Okay. Okay, fine. But I need to go.” He sounds like he’s about to cry.
I don’t know why I expected that to turn out better, “...Later. Say Happy Hanukkah to your parents?”
“I can have them pick up the extension if you’d like,” says Elio. “But I Elio, personally, have to go.”
Rachel lies on my childhood bed as I sit on my desk trying to puzzle out some of the easier corrections, like a mistranslation from the Greek that I probably should have caught months ago.
Months ago, when I was sleepwalking in Italy half awake. We keep the door open because my parents are traditionalists. It’s a good thing they are. For the first time, I think that.
“Not a talkative kid, is he?” Rachel says.
“Your Elio Perlman,” Rachel rolls over her side to better look at me.
For a moment I don’t say anything, and then, “Yeah. Kind of. He didn’t take to me until the last two weeks I was there. But I like him.” I like him. I like him. I like him. Elio fucking Perlman. I --
“Rachel, I’m going for a walk.” I push my chair away from my desk to stand and stretch. “Don’t judge me too much if I sneak a cigarette? This Greek is really getting to my head.”
“Juilliard will be great for him,” she gets up from my bed and runs a hand through her hair. “He’ll be best friends with his practice room and its four walls. Won’t have to say a single word to anyone. Drove me crazy, though.”
Chapter 6: Elio (& Oliver)
TW: A mild case of dubious consent in the beginning bit of this chapter (I think). If anyone thinks I can word the warning better, please feel free to let me know.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s Lotte’s first Hanukkah and Elio is fucking her in her car. He fucks her with his eyes closed because he already has blue eyes in his head. As long as the eyes are there he’ll be all right. He is all right. Oliver is just a phone call away. Friends call each other to catch up like it's no big deal, and they do exactly that.
“Elio, Elio stop.” Otherwise delicate fingers pinch at his shoulder and he opens his eyes. “Please, you’re hurting me.”
I suppose you’ve already moved on from animals. That’s me.
“Lotte, I’m sorry.”
Lotte’s breathing hitches, and when Elio pulls out of her he knows he’s gone slightly soft. He shuts his eyes, but the blue eyes are not there anymore. It’s not fair. He has to close his eyes again.
“Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” says Elio, eyes still shut. “Please Lotte, do that for me.”
Elio couldn’t ever have asked Marzia to do this for him. Lotte is different. Every part of her is generous. Her breasts, her legs, and even though everything is too soft she whispers for him, “Lotte, Lotte.”
Meanwhile, Elio thinks of how Oliver knows and hates him for it. It is the sort of hate that could only come from want. “Elio, Elio.” He calls out, and ejaculates.
The next day, Elio goes to the post office and mails off a copy of his audition tape to Oliver’s office.
And then he calls Oliver on his office extension.
“Are these calls recorded?”
“Do people record the calls made to your extension?”
“Elio, I work at a university,” Oliver laughs. “Not the CIA. Or the KGB. Or whatever. What’s up?”
What’s up. Like nothing is the matter. Like everything is normal. Like Oliver doesn’t care that Elio is reduced to sex in the backseat of a car and can’t even manage.
There is a long, long pause. “We are not talking about that.”
“Why not?” Elio grits his teeth. “We always talk about what you want to talk about. We can talk about archaic quarters. And the fact that your girlfriend went to Juilliard. I mailed you a copy of my audition tape, by the way. So you should look out for it. FAO Dr. Oliver. Oliver. Oliver. From Elio Elio Elio.”
“Elio, I’m in my office. The door is open.”
“My door is open too,” just a sliver, but it isn’t a lie.
“Why aren’t you at school?”
“We don’t start until the day after tomorrow,” Elio says. “Are we friends?”
“I guess. Yes. Of course.” There is some scuffling, and then very clearly, the sound of a door shutting. “Why?”
“Sometimes friends talk to each other about sex, don’t they?”
A noise. Kind of like Oliver is grinding his teeth or trying to align the muscles of his so defined Herculean jaw. “I don’t think we’re that sort of friends. And it’s not disciplined.”
“You’re only saying that because I am calling your office extension.”
“So what if I am?” Oliver says, a little sharply.
Elio skims a hand over his belt and then the slightly raised bulge of his erection. “So if you are. I’d like you to call me back later. At home.”
“...You’d like me to call you back.”
“Yes, Doctor, I would.” Elio bites his lip, “Mom and Dad have another dinner. Someone is visiting from Budapest.”
“I’ll think about it,” Oliver says and hangs up.
After his parents leave, Elio strips down to just his sweater and his underwear and sits at the piano. It’s cold, but he doesn’t care. Satie’s Gnoissienne no. 3 helps him pass time. After Satie, he plays some Nikolai Medtner. He is trying to get with the times. It’s something that his teacher has said to him before. Get with the nineteenth century at the very least. It’s no use bringing all the composers back into the past with you. Past is past. It will always be past and at some point nostalgia will worm its way to the tips of your fingers and poison everything that you put your mind to.
Then the phone rings.
Elio stares at it. It rings once, twice. Three times. Finally, he picks it up.
“I think that I’ve figured out why you like Bach so much,” says Oliver. “Listen to this:
Straightforward Instruction: in which amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones, are shown a clear way not only (1) of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) of dealing correctly and satisfactorily with three obbligato parts; at the same time not only getting good inventiones, but developing the same satisfactorily, and above all arriving at a cantabile manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition.
I think I get it."
“There’s another version of this,” Elio replies, assuming a teacherly tone or at least trying to because he’s suddenly aware that he’s very inappropriately in his underwear. “And I like that translation better. Instead of straightforward instruction, you get honest playing.”
“I was saying,” Oliver presses on. “It’s very clean. Bach. And when you embellish, Bach doesn’t get any less clean. That’s why.”
“I like him because he’s honest,” Elio says, pressing back in return. “And not obsessed. Like say, Liszt, Chopin, who are obsessed with themselves.”
“Egomaniacs,” Oliver agrees a little insincerely. “But I don’t know much about them.”
“Do you want to know what I’m wearing right now? Sitting at the fucking piano?”
“I am not naked,” Elio insists. “Because that’d be crass. I am not crass.”
Elio is not naked in front of his piano. Because that would be crass. Whereas I. I’m still wearing a tie. I think I can take things off without him noticing. If I put the phone down very quietly, I can strip naked and just listen to the sound of his voice.
“Are you accusing me if being dishonest with you?” I say. “Because if that is what you are doing, then I am hanging up. Perhaps I will never speak to you again.”
“And then you would have done a very dishonest thing. Bach knows.” Elio invokes the name, as if J. S. Bach knows anything about my sex life. Or Elio’s.
“Can you stop,” I beg. I have to beg. “If you knew how things need to be. We can.” I can’t get any respite. I should just hang up.
“My parents know, all right? At least, Dad does. About how we were in the summer. They’re surprised we even kept in touch as friends.”
I know they know. They’ve not exactly hidden it from me how much they like me. Especially Samuel. But somehow that makes things worse because I’ve never felt so far away from the Perlmans right now. I have no place in their lives, the way that Bach has no business being the patron saint of sex. I don’t know why he’s told me. I don’t think it absolves me from anything.
I jerk my tie loose. And then I yank my shirt open and I hear the certain pop of buttons. “That wasn’t my real life. This is. And I am not dishonest. I am.” I bury my head in my hands and wheeze.
“Elio, I can’t breathe.”
There. That’s honest as anything. I can’t breathe.
“Oliver, do you want --”
I hang up.
For those interested, Reinbert de Leeuw is my favorite for Satie's Gnossienne no. 3 and Nikolai Medtner has basically become my favorite composer all over again ever since I've started writing this fic. I imagine Elio playing his Four Lyrical Fragments.
The fragment from Bach that they discuss is taken from the beginning of Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias where Bach sort of lays down the law. 'Honest' and 'straightforward' are two possible translations. This was an enlightening essay for me.
As ever, sorry that Oliver is a bit of a tool at present and a big thank you for reading!
I buy a piano. A colleague in Philosophy has heard I was looking for one and she had a cousin selling an old upright circa the sixties. But Rachel is impressed with the quality of sound despite the lack of maintenance done on the piano for the last year or so. I pay three hundred for it and the colleague arranges for a van. Rachel arranges for one of her friends to show up and tune. Replace some of the hammers. Check the pedals. Nothing sounds dinky. Good as new.
I practice more. I can manage two handed scales now and I don’t balance quarters on my wrists.
Elio’s tape arrives. He announces in a clear voice what he is playing at the beginning of each piece. A selection from the Goldberg Variations, A movement of a Beethoven Sonata, a piece by someone called Nikolai Medtner whom I’ve never heard of.
I masturbate furiously to Goldberg Variations in a way I never knew was possible. But it is because I. FAO Dr. Oliver Oliver Oliver from Elio Elio Elio. It's all I can hear in my head.
But I don’t call the Perlmans. Not even when it’s Passover. When I have an excuse.
The last week of April, Rachel asks me if I would like to perform with her students. Just for fun. Get me used to being on stage. She assures me that although I am probably used to lecturing to international audiences by now (she jests, I’ve only given papers at two international conferences, chaired a keynote speech at another) being on stage and expected to play the piano is a completely different beast.
“I’d feel silly,” I say, caressing middle C multiple times for good measure and she lifts my wrist off the keys. “I am old.”
“Be a good sport,” Rachel says, in a tone of voice that really suggests I don't have much of a choice if being a good boyfriend is important to me. “I have another student who’s nearly fifty. It would mean a lot to me. We’ll put Ph.D after your name on the program.”
I acquiesce. I practice a very simplified version of Pachelbel's Canon in D on my piano, play it on stage, to a distinctly unimpressed audience of about forty people. I wish I were lecturing instead. The applause that I receive after I’m finished playing is obligatory and vaguely judgmental. Maybe I am thinking too much.
I nearly run away when I realize that Professor Samuel Perlman is in the audience. But he’s already spotted me, and running away would mean explaining to Rachel exactly why. I don’t have the energy.
I really, really want a cigarette. The Professor suggests we have one outside and I only have to gesture to Rachel in the general direction of the veranda. She just shrugs.
“Is that her?”
“Who?” I carry cigarettes but I don’t carry a lighter. Samuel ends me a light.
“Your girlfriend,” Samuel says. “She’s beautiful. And talented. What’s her name, Elio told me. Rachel?”
“Yeah, Rachel,” I say. “She shoved Pachelbel into me. I’d say that takes severe talent.” If I don’t do it now, I’ll lose my chance (and my nerve). “I didn’t take you for a student concert goer, Samuel. I didn’t even know you were in the city.”
“I can still surprise in my old age,” says Samuel. “Tell you what, the other older gentleman who was playing. He’s an old friend of mine. I dare say he is even more stubborn than you. We caught up for dinner yesterday. You, you're something of a pleasant surprise.”
“Sometimes you forget how small a city New York really is.”
I suck on my cigarette. “Yeah.”
“Elio misses you,” says Samuel, but then he adds, “We all do.”
“I,” I am suddenly very aware that there’s ash in my mouth. “He’s not with you?”
“He’s around,” Samuel shrugged. “He’s eighteen now. I have no idea what boys his age get up to and I think it’s better for me and my blood pressure that I don’t. I convinced him to come down and look at a few options for student housing. We might have to go back up and consult with Annella and then be back next weekend to look at the last few places.”
“He is eighteen?” I don’t mean for it to sound that way. Honest. I’m just surprised to have...missed Elio’s birthday. Though I don’t think he would have told me. There is no denying Elio is a little self-obsessed, but not in that way.
“Yes, has been for two weeks now. His birthday usually coincides with Passover.”
I fetch another cigarette and Samuel lights it for me.
“I should send a present,” I say. “Fuck, sorry. I didn’t know. I got his audition tape too, but I.”
“It’s all right, Oliver,” Samuel touches my arm. “We’re not huge on birthdays as a family. I think he might forgive you. Did you manage to send off your corrections?”
“Yes,” I can sigh with relief and not feel guilty. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank heaven. Now I have to cross two of everything that I have to hope they go through.”
Samuel smiles at me, “They will. You young ones have no faith in yourselves nowadays do you? I hope it’s just a fad.”
“Doubt it,” I shrug. “Angst sells, doesn’t it, Samuel? If popular music has anything to say about it.”
“Perhaps it does,” says Samuel, in the vaguely familiar tone of a parent who is a little tired of arguing the facts of life with his offspring. “I prefer Sehnsucht.”
“Oliver,” Rachel has come out to the veranda and I take a deep drag of my cigarette. “Ready to go?”
“Yes.” I say. To Samuel, I say. “We should have breakfast. I’d like to see Elio.”
“Please come to our hotel,” says Samuel. He names where they are staying and I know where it is, more or less. “We’ll treat you. They do a mean continental if yesterday was anything to go by. How does nine sound?”
At one-fifteen in the morning, my phone rings. I am not awake. My first thought is how lucky I am, that Rachel is not beside me in my bed. She’s got a lesson at eight. So I've walked her back and I am free.
Free. To pick up this phone call. It can only be one person.
“Hello,” I say very sleepily.
“Pachelbel,” Elio says. “Honestly?”
“Well, my girlfriend studied pedagogy. If she thinks it’s good for me. It’s so good to hear your voice. Does Samuel know you’re calling?” I am clearly not awake, because if I did, I would have never given him so much of what he wants from me. Clarity. Honesty.
“Is that what you call him?”
“He asked me to,” I say. “We had a nice chat. What student places did you look at? I’m guessing you’re not fond of the dorms. There’s a nice cluster in Williamsburg, but Rachel knows more about that than me. And I guess you could look at some bits of the East Village, but that’s more expensive.”
“Dad said you seemed very nervous when you were up there.”
“I’m not a pianist,” I say. “I did okay.”
“You probably sucked.”
“Probably,” I say. “Where are you calling me from?” I don’t think about it, I can’t think about it, the way his tongue is just so suspended from the roof of his mouth to force the friction through his teeth, as he forms the word sucked.
“Lobby,” Elio says. “Dad’s snoring keeps me up. I am probably going to run out of change in a bit. Am I seeing you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be at the hotel,” I tell him. “I don’t know if you’re going to be there or not. I am not forcing you to be anywhere you do not want to be.”
“I will be,” Elio assures me. Then the line clicks and goes dead.
“You saw him?”
“In the flesh,” Elio’s father confirms over his nightcap. He often has one. One dram of cognac. He’s asked Elio if he wanted anything from the minibar and Elio asks for a bit of peach schnapps and gets it. It’s not so unusual that he drinks with his father. Most often, it’s a glass of wine with dinner.
“Was he any good?” A better question might have been: did Oliver look all right?
“He played Pachelbel, Elio. Please point me to a universe where Pachelbel is appreciated classically and I will live there. Gladly. I’ll be so persuasive your mother will have no choice but to come with me.”
Elio winces, “He could have at least tried some Bach. I mean, if he could manage Pachelbel, the Prelude is an obvious choice.”
“For you, perhaps,” his father settles a hand on his head and Elio suddenly feels the urge to cry. He is friends with Oliver now, even if the man has not called him for a good two-three months.
“Dad,” when his father had talked to him on their old couch in the villa, he’d been relieved to feel the pain and absolute misery that came with Samuel’s permission. But this isn’t like that. This, came tainted with Oliver’s saying what happened in Italy wasn’t his real life and that Elio should know that he wasn’t being dishonest.
“He’s coming to breakfast?”
“He says he will be,” his father says. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Elio?”
Samuel Perlman snores in his sleep. Elio doesn’t usually spend enough time with his father asleep in the same room to bear witness to its full effect. He doesn’t know how his mother stands it.
Elio gives up around one in the morning and goes downstairs to make a call. He thinks he’s allowed.
“Don’t you know how late it is?”
“I wear a watch,” Elio says. “After one.”
“Does Samuel know you’re calling?”
Has Oliver been calling his father that this whole time and Elio just hasn’t noticed? Is that how far gone he is? “Is that what you call him?”
“He asked me to,” Oliver says. “If it’s any comfort to you, he’s still the Professor in my head, your mother is Annella. And you are Elio.”
You didn’t call for two, no, three months like a damn coward, Elio thinks. He ought to say it. “He says you’re coming for breakfast.”
“Can’t resist a mean continental,” Oliver smiles -- rather, Elio can hear it, the smile laced around Oliver’s words, like they are real and moving and can come to him at long last. “I miss big European breakfasts.”
“You would, you eat like a horse.”
“That’s a bit cruel. I can be the growing boy out of us both. You peck like a bird.”
“You are nearly thirty,” Elio says. “How else are you meant to grow?”
“I can always grow my ego,” Oliver reminds him. “And that’s too much rounding up. I’m just getting used to be twenty-seven.”
Elio thinks this over, “Did you have a birthday?”
“...I was under the impression that everyone has a birthday,” says Oliver. “Which, Samuel says I missed yours.”
“We never exchanged birthdays,” Elio rubs at his eyes. He fumbles for more change and slots a quarter into the payphone slot. Before he does, he balances the coin on his wrist, just to prove a point although Oliver’s not here to see. “That’s not very friendlike behavior.”
“So it isn’t, when’s your birthday?”
“The sixth of April,” Elio says. “Yours?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was still writing up,” says Oliver. “I don’t think I did anything. Mom and Dad insisted on taking me out to dinner. They came down to New York especially. I don’t even remember what we ate.”
“Was there cake?”
“I think the restaurant gave me free cake, yes.” Oliver yawns and Elio fights the urge to yawn too. “Can I go back to sleep?”
The lobby is empty save for the night receptionist. Elio cradies the phone under his chin and sinks down to the floor of the phone cubicle.
“I’ll be at the hotel tomorrow,” Oliver says, probably to fill the silence. “I don’t know if you’ll be there or not. But I’d really, really like to see you.”
“I’d like to see you too,” Elio says. “Good night.”
The next morning, Elio and his father traipse down to breakfast. They inform reception that there’s going to be one more joining them and they get led to a corner table for three. Oliver’s absence and the ever presence of the chair is profound.
“Sleep okay?” His father asks him.
Elio nods, “Okay.”
He could have spotted Oliver from miles and miles away. But then Elio’s eyes cheat him and he can’t really believe that it’s Oliver. Oliver, who’s been just a voice on the phone for months and months discounting the time when there’d only been silence.
“Hello, Perlmans.” Oliver says. He’s carrying a shoulder bag and he shrugs that off, along with his coat. Takes a seat, after fielding a big embrace from Elio’s father. “Long time.”
“Where’s mine?” Elio’s voice says.
“Your what?” says Oliver, reaching for the menu. A waiter flits by and Oliver asks for coffee and the continental breakfast.
“My hug,” says Elio. “I should get one.”
Oliver considers this. After the waiter is safely a ways away from their table, he folds away the menu and stands up. “Okay. Get up.”
Oliver is wearing cologne. Oliver’s suit jacket is neatly pressed, the material is slightly scratchy. He’s never seen Oliver in a suit before, even a casual one. These are things that Elio notices when they hug. He’s good and solid and naked underneath his clothes but these are things Elio doesn’t (can’t) notice.
They both sit back down.
“Well,” says Elio’s father. “This is nice. Annella will be bummed that she’s missing this.”
“Was she scheduled to come down?”
“Mom might be down next weekend,” says Elio.
Oliver looks a bit surprised, and then his expression segues into something pleased. “That reminds me. I have something for you.” From his bag, he produces an envelope and hands it over.
Elio turns the envelope over in his hands. It’s otherwise unmarked, except for Oliver’s handwritten surname, and the initial first on the top left-hand corner, and unsealed.
“Is this you inviting me to hear you plonk out Pachelbel?” He can’t help himself. “I think I might give that a pass.”
“Elio,” says his father. But Oliver laughs.
“Just open it.”
Inside, are two tickets to Martha Argerich playing Chopin’s first piano concerto with Boston Symphony, who are visiting next Friday.
“I know you might think Argerich is plonky, and that Chopin is an egomaniac,” says Oliver. “But I did look around for some Bach. I did find a church doing his Mass in b minor. I weighed my options and I thought you might prefer this for something different. I hope you’ll go. I think I even managed decent seats. If they’re not decent I am going to be having words.”
“Oliver, that’s wonderful,” says Elio’s father. “It does pay off to have a friend in the city.”
“It’s nothing,” Oliver brushes him off. “Just a few calls. I didn’t even have to make them.”
Which means Oliver has gotten him these tickets through Rachel. Oliver doesn’t have to say. Elio knows.
“Thank you,” Elio says. “I’m sure I will enjoy it.”
It’s a relief when their orders for breakfast finally arrive.
As ever, a huge thank you for reading and enjoying (I think)! The Bach Prelude that Elio mentions is Prelude in C Major which will show up ostentatiously for later.
Fun fact: Martha Argerich did not tour in the US from the early 1980s onwards until sometime in the 2000s.
I prefer Sehnsucht.
Rachel and I drop by my office because I have to pick up my German-English dictionary. I don’t ask her to come home with me and she asks without any prompting that I walk her home. In the end, she doesn’t get to meet the Professor -- Samuel -- after all. She pecks me goodbye outside of her door.
“You did great,” she said. “Stellar for a first-timer.”
“That sounds like something a girl says to a poor boy when they are getting out of bed in the morning after boinking,” I say, mostly teasing. She goes reliably red and pinches my elbow.
“Honestly, Oliver. Boinking. That is just as bad as plonk.”
“I like to boink with you,” I say, reaching for her waist. “We can boink all weekend.”
“Oliver, go home. Pete’s sake.”
My fingers linger. “I wanted to ask you something. Are there any good concerts in town? Preferably next weekend. And featuring a pianist.”
She thinks, “I could probably order you tickets to Argerich doing Chopin’s second with Boston Symphony if I give Ben a call. How soon do you want them?”
“Tomorrow,” I find myself telling her. “If you can.”
“I can, because I must,” she smiles. “You’ll have to pick them up on your way to wherever.”
“I love you,” I say. I don’t know why I’ve said it, perhaps to remind myself that I must. Rachel just smiles and goes.
When I get home, I put Elio’s audition tape on and strip down to just my underwear. Then I lie on my bed and flip my dictionary to Sehnsucht.
A German noun. Compounded from das Sehnen (‘yearning’, ‘craving’) and das Siechtum (‘long lingering illness’).
Sehnsucht makes angst sound positively paltry.
I almost always skip over Elio’s Beethoven. “And now,” Elio’s voice sounds from my Walkman. His voice is tinny, like his vocal chords are stretched like tape on a spool. “Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata in a mineur, no. 9 opus 30, published 1914.” It’s nothing like his voice on the phone. When he greets me with Pronto.
He even takes care to say a mineur. What a wonder wrapped up in a terribly longing sickness.
I close my eyes and let my hand trail down my stomach as I imagine a shiny new quarter never moving, fluid and still as nimble fingers have the run of complex ornaments on top of the lively, and yet somehow weighted melody after the melancholic opening chords.
Elio’s Medtner doesn’t take me to Italy. Only his Variations can do that. But I can’t.
There is a bit in the middle that goes very well with deepened, quickened breathing and if I time it just right (I often do, I have the luxury of not kidding myself in my own head) then I can come and come and come as his fingers caresses the minor scales soothed over by sometimes imperfect tritones.
“Oh,” I keep my eyes closed. Because when I open them I know I. “Oh, shit.”
I’ve gotten semen on my dictionary. A guilty, clear, sticky smudge over Sehnsucht.
If Elio knows in his heart somewhere that I’ve been using his audition tape to commit the sin of onanism, then he is kind enough to me to not say anything when we speak on the phone.
I wake up at eight, even though I’ve not slept well. I wear a suit as opposed to something more informal because it's kind of become a habit. I know the box office where I’m meant to pick up Elio’s tickets open at eight thirty. Despite this, I am still late for my breakfast with the Perlmans. Only by about ten minutes. On the way, I see an advertisement for Bach’s Mass in b minor. Perhaps Elio would correct me and insist that I refer to it as h-Moll. Its proper name. It is also happening at the weekend, but I already have Rachel’s tickets.
I have sprayed cologne rather liberally everywhere mostly as a defensive measure. Samuel gives me a sustained, jovial hug when I arrive at the table, and if he notes anything out of the ordinary, he doesn’t say.
As I look across the table at Elio, I am glad I masturbated last night. My cock can’t betray me the way it probably profusely wants to because I know myself. It is strange to see him like that this, I think. For so many months, he’s been disembodied. His wrists, his fingers. His tongue, mouth and the way he caresses the fuck out of Bach. And now he’s here. All of him. Head, curls, eyes, thighs that are probably as pale as when I had occasion to touch them during the summer.
“Your what?” I say.
“My hug,” he says evenly. Suddenly I have horrible vision of the watchful eye of the Schumann fermata, which seems to have replaced his eyes in their sockets; red-ringed, watchful and sleep-deprived. “I want one.”
My first instinct is to hide behind the menu I am holding. But he wants. He might as well say that he needs and undo me the way his disembodied self has done many times without the whole of him knowing. “Okay,” I say. “Get up.”
Elio does. I take him into my arms and I can feel him shift to press his nose against my sternum.
“Are you smelling me?” I can feel him smiling.
“So what? You smell nice.”
“So you’re a very strange person.”
We sit down again and our breakfasts come. Samuel is right. It is a mean continental. I give Elio the tickets and I wonder if he knows that the tickets also have Rachel in them. He is clever. He’s too clever not to know. Elio tucks the tickets away.
Samuel finishes first and drains the rest of his coffee, “...Right, I’ll see about checking out. Are you sure you’re all packed, son?”
“You keep reminding me, Dad. Yes, I did.”
“Good, then I’ll go upstairs and make sure everything is in order. Give you two a minute.” Then he looks at me. “...Good to see you, Oliver. Don’t be a stranger.”
We shake hands, “Yes, sir.”
Samuel goes and I order another coffee. Elio does the same. After a moment, I remember my manners and fetch take out five dollars from my wallet. I hand it to him, “You should give this to Samuel when you go back up.”
“Why?” He looks like I am handing him something dead.
“For the coffees we’ve just ordered, Elio.” I say, “Let me treat you.”
“Are you trying to buy my affections?” He looks at me, and then the five dollar bill. “Because you don’t have to, you know. You’re all I think about. I know it’s not very disciplined of me, and that you might be angry with me after you find out what I did. I did a terrible thing, Oliver.”
I think, so did I.
Our coffees come, and I hold my breath. Finally, I put the five dollars back into my wallet. Perhaps I can give it to Samuel later, since I am fairly sure that I’ll see him again before he and Elio have to go.
“Oh, Elio. I can never be angry with you.” It’s true. I’m many things, with him, but I don’t think I can bring myself to feel angry. “And whatever you think you did, I forgive you.” I can’t think of a single thing he’s done. All I can think of now, is the singular thought that I am ubiquitous in his quotidian life, that he thinks of me and the thought of me drives him mad. I like that. I like that because then I’m not alone.
“Wait until you hear what I did.” Elio mumbles into his coffee.
I wait. I don’t dare touch my coffee. Maybe I’ll not be able to swallow and then.
“Are you going to tell me or not?”
“Call me by your name,” says Elio. “And I’ll call you by mine. Elio, Elio! And she cried, Lotte, Lotte!”
I don’t think I have an ounce of blood left in my body. My coffee cup feels very heavy when I endeavor to pick it up. I am not me or my name.
“I hurt her,” Elio still doesn’t look at me. “She was you. And then she wasn’t you. And then I.”
I take a deep breath. And for good measure, a sip of my coffee. It numbs my tongue, being too hot and might yet numb what I’ve got to say. Have I got anything to say?
“It’s not ours anymore, Oliver. I gave it away in the back of her car and I hurt her and. Why are we friends?”
I don’t know if I have the answer for that. I try for one. I have to.
“Sehnsucht,” I say.
“It’s a compound word,” I say. I think how I’ve had to wipe the over the entry with slightly damp toilet paper from my bathroom. And then I’ve had to stand over the dictionary with my hair dryer. The irony is that I’ve only bought the hair dryer because Rachel refused to stay over without one. I never use it. “From das Sehnen, which means longing, desire, an ache for the past. Nostalgia, say. The second part of the word is from das Siechtum, a long, lingering illness. I think it’s burden to share Sehnsucht together. That’s why we’re friends.”
Elio is staring at me like I’ve grown a second head. “That’s fantastique,” he says, his French twisting in a similarly fantastique way his English can’t quite manage. “We are friends because we’ve drank poison of history together. And we are even cruel together because you don’t care that I’ve given the poison to someone else. That settles it, we’ll be cruel together for the rest of our lives.”
His voice grows heated and sharp. The older couple one table over turn to look at us and I stare at them in turn until they avert their eyes again.
“I don’t think we’ve drank poison together, Elio.” I say quietly. “I only meant --”
“Elio,” Samuel’s voice sounds from behind us and I release a breath I’m almost not aware of holding. “Are you ready? I hate to cut this short, but I was hoping to get back home at a sensible time today.”
“Yes,” I say. “Samuel, please take this.” I take out the five dollars from my wallet. “I’d like to treat Elio,” Elio, who is pointedly not looking at me, “to coffee. Please accept it.”
Samuel looks between us and after a moment he takes my money.
“I’ve got a piano now,” I say. “I bought it a month ago. Got it tuned and replaced the pedals and everything. It would be nice if someone else would come and play something other than Pachelbel and bad scales on it.”
I...might have spent a bit too much time thinking about this, but the bit Oliver really likes from the Medtner Sonata starts from around 6:22 and ends around 8:00.
Sehnsucht is basically my favorite word in German. Also - a bit of headcanon. I think Oliver's got a working knowledge of German through Heidegger but he doesn't know the language per se, and Elio knows even less.
Again, a mighty thank you and then some for the kudos and lovely comments!
Sehnsucht makes Elio want to laugh. Moreover, Elio thinks Oliver’s pronunciation is horrendous. Elio doesn't know much German, to be fair, but he is still used to hearing it from his mother from time to time. But Oliver isn’t like Elio; sometimes it hits him in the face just how much. He’s had to work at things like German and French. He’s more familiar in the Greek and Latin and because he doesn’t go out of the country much (Italy was his first time, he says). His accent is remains helplessly American no matter what language he is speaking, but in the way Europeans like. Elio thinks of himself as an European over the summer. And he has Italian and French blood, too.
”Cowboy scholar,” Elio says, reaching to pinch Oliver’s near naked hip, right above the line of his bathing suit.
“That’s what they call you in town. The cowboy scholar.”
Oliver laughs, heartily and brings up his forearm to shield his eyes the bright sun overhead. “That’s very funny. I’ve never been to Texas. Although I have worn a cowboy hat once. As part of a costume. Someone forced me. It was for a Halloween event hosted by the department.”
“...Do you want to talk about it?”
They’ve left Oliver, the hotel, and nearly, the city too. A cassette tape of Arthur Rubinstein playing Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne provides welcome relief from the still-stifling silence that his father is trying to break apart.
“We are just friends,” says Elio. “Friends having a fight.” Friends with poison in their bodies that keeps them bound to each other. It is not like his father says. Nothing like it, not parce-que c’etait lui, parce-que c’etait moi. It’s turned into something ugly and they don’t have anyone else but themselves to blame. They are not good people.
“It was nice of him to get you those tickets, in any case.”
“I know. Mom likes Argerich, doesn’t she?”
“I think she does, yes.”
Elio’s mother tacks the concert tickets up on the fridge, like they’re some kind of prize. “How wonderful, Elio!” She beams, “I’ll really look forward to going. I haven’t been to a proper concert for ages.”
His father, reading in the corner, fixes her with a look, “You say that like I don’t take you anywhere, Annie. Didn’t we go see Rochester Philharmonic do Sibelius?”
His mother laughs, “Oh, Samuel. But this is different. It’s in the city, it takes effort.” She gives the tickets one more happy gaze and turns back to peeling the potatoes that they are having for dinner. “Do you think Oliver and his girlfriend will join us?”
Elio wants to sink his head further into the pages of Il nome della rosa that he’s trying to get into again because there’s something about Eco’s prose that just takes him away from the life he is currently living, but he feels his father’s eyes at the back of his head. “I don’t know, Mom. He only gave me two tickets.”
“Call and ask him,” says Elio’s father. “It’s not as if you do not have his phone number.”
“For more tickets?”
“No, of course not. Have we taught you no manners?” A shake of the head, “No, Elio. To ask if he is coming to the concert separately. It might have been something he’d neglected to mention.”
“Yes, do,” his mother chimes in. “It doesn’t seem fair that everyone else has gotten to say hello to Oliver. I’d like my chance.”
“You can call him after I make a call to finalize Charlie’s flight itinerary. I want to make sure that we have the right dates so she isn’t kept waiting at the train station.” His father gets up.
“That didn’t happen with Oliver,” says Elio. Quite disparately, he thinks, that it’s the end of April already. Soon it will be July. High summer.
“Goodness no, it didn’t. It happened in a year you were still gaining consciousness. That student wasn’t particularly impressed with us.” Elio’s father shrugs. “I don’t think we’ve even got a Christmas card off of him.”
Elio watches his father go, and puts down his own book.
“Can I help with anything?”
“Sure,” His mother gestures. “You could boil some water, put some salt in. I am almost done with the potatoes.”
Elio gets matches, lights the stove. He fills a stewing pot with water and watches as it comes to a boil.
“It was weird seeing him, Mom.”
Now his mother is chopping the potatoes and although the noise isn’t quite up to par with the Rubinstein’s pristine playing, Elio clings to the sound of the blade hitting wood. “How so, passerotto?”
“Mom.” The endearment makes Elio wrinkle his nose.
“My little one’s leaving the nest,” his mother turns to look at him. “Expanding his mind, expanding his heart. I won’t get a second chance. Tell me how so, Elio? You talk on the phone to him so much, how could it be strange?”
In Italy, that is something that he’d asked his father, and though Elio hadn’t had the room in his head to really confront the thought of not wanting his mother to know. What that means really. He understands it better now.
“When we talk on the phone, he’s just a head.” Elio shrugs. No, Oliver is less than a head. A pair of eyes. A tongue.
“Is seeing his body attached to his head so traumatic? My poor boy.”
“No! It’s not that, it’s,” Elio runs a hand through his hair, a little frustrated. “He’s changed, Mom.”
“He’s got a fresh Ph.D with a job, darling. And a girlfriend. These are life changing events.” His mother comes to stand next to him, plopping in the peeled, chopped potatoes. “Sometimes friends come second to things like that.”
“Mom --” Elio starts. Except he can’t end it with anything sensible and his mother is right. And they are friends, which means he’ll be second, or third or fourth but still there. Still there clinging to the farthest reaches of Oliver’s orbit because Elio has every right to, as Oliver’s friend.
“Why don’t you invite Lotte over for dinner sometime?” She says. “I saw some Blodpudding when I went to the market. I think I can make something nice with that.”
There is glass between Elio and Lotte. There hadn’t been glass between Elio and Marzia. With Marzia it was more like fog. Fog because Elio can’t bring himself to see clearly. But he sees clearly now and there is a sheet of glass between himself and blonde, blue-eyed, long-limbed Lotte. The glass is there because there are things the two of them can’t talk about. And when they have sex in the back of her car, he keeps his eyes open.
“Can you say a word in German for me?”
She slides her toe up his slightly flaccid penis and then up his stomach. “Ja, welches Wort?”
“Sehnsucht,” says Elio. His cock twitches, and she notices.
“Sehnsucht,” Lotte repeats, and the curve of her lips take on a mischievous edge. “Sehnsucht. That is not a sexy word, Elio. It’s pretty fucking depressing, actually.”
Elio closes his eyes. The way that he tells himself he shouldn’t, can’t. Because it isn’t good. But Lotte takes him in hand, and says it again, “Sehnsucht.”
“I’m strange,” says Elio. “And you’re sexy. I’ll listen to anything that you say.”
Lotte says the word over and over again, because she’s giving and she knows that there’s glass and even an end to this. That she’s due to start a term abroad in Rome in August and maybe she and Elio have joked about meeting somewhere in the middle, perhaps Pisa, put all the American tourists to shame. He’s going to Juilliard in September. Every day they are getting further apart.
And there’s still the glass.
“Sehnsucht,” says Lotte and presses a finger to his mouth. The tip of her finger is shiny with his come. “Suck.” The ‘s’ in suck, on the tip of her tongue is lazy and sexy, somewhere wandering the narrow space between the letters s and z.
He does, taking her warmly and generously down to her knuckle. It’s weird, tasting himself. He and Oliver are both shy people. Oliver has never made him do that.
Elio decides he’s going to be good. He is only going to call Oliver’s office extension from now on. School lets out at three and by the time he gets back to the house and hides the phone away in his room it’s gone past three-thirty.
Also Lotte is coming over to dinner. He doesn’t have a lot of time, he is going to be good.
Oliver’s extension rings. Once, twice, three times. When Oliver picks up, Elio says his name along with him, complete with the Dr. that precedes his name.
“What? Why are you laughing?”
“I just,” Oliver inhales deeply. “What you must think of me.”
“I think,” Elio pauses. “I think the world of you.” He says. “But it’s not what you think. It’s not what you think, let me finish, okay.”
“I’m just happy to hear from you,” Oliver says, and he sounds like that. Happy. Thrilled, even, that Elio’s called him. “Okay, I will let you finish.”
Elio waits for another tick or two, then he wets his lips and takes the plunge, “I think the world of you, Oliver. So I’m going to be good now. I have a question.”
“You’re going to be,” Oliver starts and then takes a sharp left turn. “What’s your question?”
“Will you be going to see Argerich?”
He doesn’t think this is the question that Oliver is expecting from him, because there’s absolute silence on the other end.
“...Oliver?” He ventures.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m here,” Oliver says. “I wasn’t. I mean, I wasn’t planning to. And even if Rachel works her charm again, she can’t magic tickets out of thin air that have already been sold. It was very popular and sold quickly. Why?”
“Mom’s pinned the tickets to the fridge,” Elio says with a little laugh of his own. “Like it’s some kind of prize. Or doctor’s appointment. We sometimes pin those to the fridge.”
“I’m sure Argerich is as plonky as as any dentist drill.”
It’s good. This is good. They are even laughing together. “Can we meet for dinner before, or perhaps a drink?”
“You and me?”
“I thought we were being good,” Elio chides him, and it’s no secret -- it even feels good. He feels the moral superiority course through his veins in a way that’s not really like him but is wholly a part of him because Oliver has put it there. “No, I meant me, Mom, you,” he inhales, “Rachel. You never told me what she thought of my audition tape.”
“Your,” Oliver has stopped breathing. Then he says, “Yeah, yeah, that’s great. We can do that. I can make a reservation somewhere. I know a place with great pasta.”
“Right,” Oliver pauses. “Not pasta. You must be sick of pasta. I’ll think.”
“You do that,” Elio raises his eyes towards the ceiling of his bedroom. “My girlfriend is coming to dinner. I have to go change.”
“Oliver --” says Oliver. Then suddenly, “Later.”
Rubenstein's Chaconne is here.
Passerotto means 'little sparrow,' if Google hasn't let me down. (Edit: so it has, thanks to Knight41 for the clarification/correction!)
And the book Elio is reading is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
As ever, a huge thank you! We're now halfway through and Ch. 20 is being edited as we speak, so I am happy to say that this thing definitely will be completed in the near future.
I remember the first time the thought crosses my mind. I think, about the long-limbed boy who has stomped through our shared bathroom for the summer and I think that I love him. The thought stays in my head and lights up my loins (I shouldn’t think that, that’s me giving in to irony). But Elio thinks we’ve drank the poison of Sehnsucht together. Or as he says, history because he is infinitely more loved and kinder than I am. History happens to everyone. What I don’t get to tell him before he and Samuel drive away into quickly unforgiving New York traffic is that even if Elio ran around and gave the poison to everyone else, my cup will still run over with him. The girl he’s seeing, what’s her name? I have tried to scrub her name from my memory but then it hits me in the face.
“Oliver, your phone’s ringing.”
Sometimes, when she doesn’t have lessons, Rachel comes and sits in my office. Some days she’s poring over music, fingers tap-tapping out a passage that’s been particularly stubborn. Or she’ll just sit and stare and stare trying to make sense of some interpretation or another. She’s become a bit of a fixture around the department over these past few months and my department head (yet another fixture since the fifties who oversaw my thesis) keeps wanting to know if he’s just missed his wedding invitation in the mail.
I don’t like this. How everyone thinks I ought to be engaged.
I also don’t like remembering just how small my office is when my phone rings. It fills out the entire room.
“...Do you mind?”
Rachel doesn’t look up, “Go ahead. If you need me to, I can leave.”
I pick up the phone. On the other end is Elio, who says my name with me in perfect parallel. I laugh. It’s a nervous laugh. I can’t help it. I should ask Rachel to leave, but she’s away somewhere already. I can tell; she’s perfectly still, not even listening. I envy her. Mazurkas and Chaconnes and etudes buffer her from the world that I’m in.
“I thought you’d never speak to me again,” I say. “What you must think of me.”
“I think the world of you,” says Elio, and the world goes everywhere in my veins. Mostly south and I try to will some of it towards my toes.
I have to tell him we can’t do this. But before I can say anything, he interrupts me. He knows me. He can even interrupt my silences in my own head, where I used to live alone. “But it’s not what you think. Let me finish. I’m going to be good now. I have a question.”
He’s going to be. I feel like someone has just hit me on the side of the head very hard. One pane of glass and then another. Whiplash.
“What’s your question?”
He asks me if I’m coming to see Martha Argerich and that Annella would like to see me if so. And then. He asks me if I would like to get dinner.
You can’t drink, I think. You’re eighteen. “You and me?”
“I thought we were being good,” he says. And all the blood I’ve collected in my toes because I am good too, rushes back up. None of it hits my brain. “Me, Mom, you. Rachel. I want to hear what she thinks about my audition tape.”
I haven’t played Rachel Elio’s tape. I’ve been touching myself to it. I know the notes now almost as well as I know the Seven Last Words of Christ. I know exactly where to really work the head of my cock with my thumb when the right and left hand and the right hand join in parallel octaves and then he soothes me, I know exactly when to let myself fall in Medtner’s Sonata in a mineur.
I remember that they are going to Italy soon, again. They’re sick of pasta. I’ll have to find something Annella will like.
“My girlfriend’s coming to dinner. I have to go.”
“Oliver,” I say, instinctively and stupidly, as if that will keep Elio with me. And that’s what makes Rachel look up and I add, “Later.”
I hang up the phone and reach for a pen.
“...What was that?” She says.
I bite into the end of the pen and Rachel frowns. “Stop that,” she plucks the pen out of my fingers. “If you want to do that, just have a cigarette.”
“It’s better than you gnawing on a pen,” she says. “Like an animal.”
“You hurt my feelings,” I say. In reality, my feelings are terrified.
She shakes her head. “I despair.”
I run outside for a cigarette after I make sure nothing will betray me when I stand up. But first, I have to stick my head into the department head’s office which is next door, to borrow a lighter. I have to assure him that no, we’ve not put the wedding invites in the mail yet.
When Rachel and I have sex, it’s prim, it’s proper. It’s on a bed most of the time. Either hers or mine but sometimes I like to touch her between her legs when she’s playing Beethoven or Schumann or something then she says “Oh,” in the way I like and then I get to press her against the wall and she says my name Oliver Oliver Olver. I sometimes translate what she sighs into my ear in my head.
Elio. Elio. Elio.
We have boinked away entire weekends before. I am not unhappy. She’s never put her mouth on me either but maybe I don’t want her to. I have never had sex in the back of a car. I don’t use my car much except to drive back to my parents’. That alone makes my car a very non-conducive space for any sexual activity.
“I forget,” I say.
Rachel shifts and splays her fingers over my chest, “Hm?”
“I need to play you Elio’s audition tape,” I run my fingers through her hair. Sometimes it’s curly if she makes it. Today it’s not. “It came but I forgot. He wants to know what you think.”
“Now?” She frowns. I cup one of her breasts.
I think it has to be now. My body will betray me less.
“We’re not doing anything,” I say.
“It’s,” she frowns. “We’d have to dress. I am not going to sit naked in the living room in front of your radio.”
“We can stay here,” I say. I get up and fetch the Walkman from my desk. His tape is still inside. “I was listening to it before.”
“I’m still going to put some clothes on,” she says.
I know if I argue, she’ll start to get suspicious. “Put this on, then.” I hand her one of my shirts.
Will you leave this shirt with me? After you have to leave?
She puts it on and looks down at herself. Laughs. My shirt swallows the usual soft curve of her breasts. Rachel almost looks like she doesn’t have any. “I look ridiculous in your clothes, Oliver.”
“I like the way you look in my clothes,” I say. I press play and put the Walkman on my end table, reaching over her. Her nipples touch my arm, even if I can’t see.
“Goldberg Variations,” comes Elio’s voice. “By J. S. Bach.”
“Why are you hard again?”
I am being good. I have one arm around Rachel as we listen, and the other just lying above the covers on my knee. But I am, and I have a damn excuse.
“I have a beautiful girl who is naked next to me.”
Rachel gives me a searching look, “I don’t want to do it again right now.”
That relieves me. I am so fucking relieved.
“We don’t have to do it right now,” I say but I pull her closer to me. The Metdner Sonata in a mineur is coming to that bit I like. Where I let go and fall and fall and fall and I think in my head Elio Elio because the name is loud as a scream, and has no place to go.
Because I am good (too), I call the Perlmans. I get Annella, like I wanted. She likes it much better when I call her by name. Mrs. P., she tells me only later, makes her feel like half a person. She says, “Pronto,” like her voice is dancing.
“Oliver!” Annella is delighted. She’s miles and miles away from my own mother, who is a lot like Rachel. She’s prim too. I’m surprised sometimes that I was born at all. I’ve read somewhere that all men grow up to despise their fathers but it’s precisely because they are self-obsessed and busy with hating their fathers, the cycle that really dooms them is that they almost always end up marrying their mothers. It’s an accident, of course. “Elio and Samuel are out running some errands for me. I can have one of them call you back, who are you after? Oh, and before I forget, thanks so much for getting us those tickets. Elio doesn’t think much of her, but I like Argerich.”
“I think she’s very expressive. And Chopin is self-absorbed. It’s just right.”
I smile. At least some things run in the family, “I was calling for you, Annella. Do you like perogi? I promised Elio I’d book us somewhere that doesn’t serve pasta.”
Annella laughs, “I hope Elio didn’t bully you into having dinner with us.”
“He didn’t, I want to,” I say. “My treat. Samuel did buy me breakfast. Rachel listened to Elio’s tape. She really wants to talk to him about it.”
“In that case, I’ve not had perogi for some time, but I’d like some.” Then she quiets, “Oliver, I’d like to thank you. I don’t think I ever got to, when you came to stay with us.”
“Whatever for?” I don’t know whether to swallow or not.
“I know that your friendship means a lot to my son,” Annella says. “Samuel and I love helping bright young minds get on their feet. But a lot of the time, when people leave our nest they don’t come back. Sure, they might send a card. A call in the first few months, then, nothing. And sometimes Elio makes friends with them and he doesn’t say anything, but I think he feels abandoned by them. Forgotten.”
I think of Sehnsucht. Annella’s German is better than Samuel’s.
“Elio and I are friends for life,” I say, telling nearly the whole truth. “I can’t forget him even if I tried.”
Spot the Nabokov reference. Cookies if you do! Another huge thank you to everyone, I hope you enjoyed!
Elio and his mother are going into the city again tomorrow. His suitcase is packed for the weekend, and it gets to be about nine when his father calls for him, that Oliver is on the phone.
He goes and takes the phone into his room.
“I have a new rule,” Elio says. “I am not allowed to call you at home. Only at your office.”
“You don’t have an office for me to call,” Oliver says. “Suffice to say that can’t be my rule.”
“I can get one,” Elio closes his eyes. “One day. I’ll see you tomorrow. What couldn’t wait?”
A long silence. This one feels different; usually, Oliver uses his silences to avoid something. This time, it feels like he’s opening up something very delicately. Like teasing away the tender skin of a peach.
“I could never forget you. I could never abandon you,” Oliver says. “I have never had someone live so close next to me in my mind. And it’s not poison.”
“Then what is it, in your mind? Because it makes me so desperately unhappy. It might as well be poison. I get a shot of it. A delicious shot of it every time I hear your voice.”
There, he’s said it.
“I’m sorry I make you so unhappy,” says Oliver. And he sounds like he means it.
Elio bites his lip, “I promised Marzia in Italy we’d be friends for life.”
Oliver doesn’t speak.
“Do you know what that means? It means we barely speak, and when we do she just tells me about the various boys Chiara goes around with.”
“And what kind of boys is that?”
“None of them are very tall. One of them is from Portugal.”
Oliver laughs. “I am one of a kind.”
“Not if I go to Texas,” Elio laughs along. It’s better. Laughter means they don’t have to dance around skinless peaches waiting to bruise at the slightest provocation. Maybe they are both getting a hang of this. Maybe this will be fine. “Cowboy scholars everywhere.”
“I still have never been to Texas.”
“Neither have I.”
“Samuel’s never taken you there for anything, conferences, fellowships, nothing?”
“I did send an audition tape to Rice,” says Elio. “But then they wanted to hear me in person and I just decided not to go. I can’t deal with having more than one cowboy scholar in my life. The phone would be ringing off the hook.”
“Can you play me something?”
“On the piano?” Elio stares at his watch. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”
“Your parents are not ancients who go to bed that early, are they?”
“Dad sometimes picks up the extension in the study to listen to my phone calls.”
“What?” Elio can picture it now, Oliver going pale, and then red. Pink.
“I’m kidding, of course he doesn’t.”
“Don’t do that,” Oliver says. “Please.”
Elio takes the phone into the living room. His father is still there reading the paper. He returns Elio’s questioning look with a nod. But then he puts his thumb and forefinger closely together and then puts his forefinger to his lips, gesturing upstairs. His mother must already be resting for the long drive tomorrow.
“Mom’s resting,” Elio says to Oliver over the phone. “But I can play quietly.”
“Pianississimo,” comes Oliver’s voice, barely audible.
“What would you like?”
“Whatever you’d like. Nothing too self-absorbed.”
Elio would like to argue that instruction as being clearly dishonest, but he doesn’t because his father is present. “I think Rachel should teach you this; it’s much better than Pachelbel.” He plays Oliver the entirety of Bach’s Prelude in C Major and when it is over, he says --
“Yes. I don’t think I could play that.” Oliver says. Elio imagines him lying down on his bed, looking peaceful.
“You could play the left hand,” says Elio, half joking. He presses two notes. “And I can do this.” He finishes the phrase with his right hand.
“Two-note wonder, Ph.D.” Oliver laughs, “You’ve still not tried out my piano.”
“No,” Elio agrees. “I haven’t.”
Oliver and Rachel are already at the restaurant when Elio and his mother arrive. It’s been a long day and his mother has a slight headache from the traffic they’ve hit in the morning. But she’s adamant that they make the dinner. The restaurant is famous for perogi and the first thing Elio thinks when he sees Rachel is. Well. He wonders how Oliver and Rachel have sex. He wonders if Oliver closes his eyes. Or if both of them just wait for it to be over.
He thinks that she is enough and that Oliver deserves (and wants, the man must want) more.
Elio thinks he’s more. But he smiles and shakes her hand and his mother hugs Rachel like she hugs Lotte when she comes over. His mother likes Lotte. They speak German together. Oliver hugs Elio’s mother and places a kiss on her cheek like he’s still on the continent, but he doesn’t give Elio a hug. He doesn’t ask for one this time. It’s against the rules.
“I can’t believe it’s taken this long for us to meet, Elio!” Rachel says cheerily. “Oliver talks about you all the time.”
“All good things,” Oliver smiles at him. It’s the sort of smile that slots glass between two people. “Promise.”
“For one thing, I can tell why he’s in love with your Bach,” Rachel continues. “It’s very clean. Sometimes people try to do too much with Bach, do you know what I mean? All clutter and people miss the point.”
“I prefer honest,” Elio tells the truth. “But I think it’s a matter of translation. Preference.”
The more Elio talks to Rachel, the more he can see a vision of himself in Oliver’s head. He doesn’t know if he can see himself -- that version of himself -- living peaceably in Oliver’s mind. It’s an important distinction to make, so he is careful. Elio thinks there is a difference between his thinking Rachel isn’t enough and disliking her outright. Because he doesn’t dislike her. Sometimes she fills in for staff away on sabbatical and Elio knows he won’t really mind her as a teacher. Even if she might think he’s antiquated.
“But we have to go,” Elio says as their mains are cleared away and he glances at his watch. “Doors open at seven. Mom, you wrote it down, right?”
His mother is rubbing two fingers against her temple, “Sorry, Elio, what?”
Almost in unison, Elio and Oliver ask her if she’s okay. Except Oliver calls her Annella.
“Elio, darling, I know I said I was looking forward to this,” his mother says. “But I’m sorry. I might go back to the hotel.”
“It’s not the food, is it?” Oliver sounds worried.
“Of course not,” says Annella placatingly. “The drive was awful this morning and one of the real estate agents gave us the wrong address. We had to drive around the same two blocks for nearly an hour.”
“Why don’t I take Annella back to her hotel,” Rachel looks between the three of them. “You can go see the concert with Elio, Oliver.”
Elio’s heart is suddenly full and he also wants to vomit. Maybe it is the food. He thinks his nose will start bleeding at any second.
“I should,” Oliver begins, and Elio can see him weighing his options, again. “You two should go to the concert,” he says a little weakly. “Gives you something to talk about. Juilliard jargon.”
Rachel gives Oliver a slightly exasperated look.
Elio says, “Or I can go by myself.”
“You’re not going to do that,” Rachel says firmly. “What are you doing, Oliver? Just go.”
She is not afraid of Elio at all. Of the power that Elio has, and Elio knows he must have this power because Oliver goes five shades of pale as he counts out cash from his wallet.
“Fine, let me -- let me just get the bill.”
The Bach is back with a vengeance! Also I cannot believe the incredible amount of love this story is getting, thank you all so so much!
Providence, I think. But the part of me that is guilty thinks that this is the sort of temptation that should be obvious to any man who considers himself anywhere near upstanding. I pay the bill. I swear I must be sleepwalking because I don’t remember getting to the end of the block, where Annella and Rachel have to go in the opposite direction towards the hotel.
“Are you sure?” I ask Rachel. I don’t know if I want to be rescued or not.
“Stop asking, and just go,” she kisses me on the cheek. But then I catch her and kiss her on the mouth. She colors. “You’re going to be late.”
Annella kisses my other cheek, the one that Rachel hasn’t touched. I wonder if she’s done it on purpose, “I’m so sorry about this, Oliver. This has turned out to be such a bother.”
“You’re not putting me out at all,” I assure her. “I was just going to go home and read. Please. Rest, and I’ll make sure Elio gets back to the hotel.”
Elio, who is standing a ways away and I can’t read him at all. He comes to hug his mother. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll have a nice time. We’ll have a nice time.”
They go, and Elio and I are left staring after them as they turn a corner. His mother, my girlfriend. We are alone. More alone than we’ve been in months.
“Oliver,” Elio’s voice cuts in. “Aren’t we going to be late?”
The seats of the concert hall are small and not built for people like me. I am reminded why I don’t go terribly often, and why sometimes I wish I wasn’t me. That thought has come less, now, that I am older and am able to accept the things I cannot change, it’s less present.
What isn’t any less present, unfortunately, is the thought that my knees will be in someone’s way for about two hours not including the interval.
“...Is Annella going to be all right?” I ask. I do worry, and it’s a neutral subject.
“Dad did tell her to take the train. But she insisted on driving.” Elio says. “She doesn’t like traffic.”
His hand is on the armrest next to my elbow and I find myself studying the shape of his fingers. Elio watches me watch him.
Finally, he says, “What are you looking at?”
“Your fingers,” I say. The moment those words leave my mouth I realize I shouldn’t have said anything.
Elio looks at me. He opens his mouth, but then the lights dim. It’s an excuse not to speak, and both of us, as if we’re both old hats in the art of preserving a silence, say nothing. We’ve waited so long to be alone.
Here’s something I have never told anyone. When I took Rachel to see Itzhak Perlman, she’d cried. She doesn’t know I know, but halfway through the first movement she’d started tearing up and I let her think that she’d managed to hide it from me. The truth is, that I still think back to it. How she manages to cry, how I’ve never done. How I have managed to masturbate to Elio’s Juilliard audition tape so many times I’ve practically lost count. I can’t help myself. I am not myself.
I can feel Elio tap-tapping along to Argerich’s Chopin, right next to my elbow. Sometimes, his taps do not match the music and I am not able to tell if he doesn’t like her interpretation, or if it is something else.
Daringly, I move my elbow and Elio spreads his fingers across the armrest. He never looks at me, and his fingers continue to follow Argerich, as if he is possessed. I put my fingers between his knuckles, as if they are keys. I’m careful not to disturb him, in fact, one could say I am barely touching him at all.
We stay like that until the Chopin ends.
“Is that a concerto you know well?” I ask.
“I played it with a school orchestra in Bergamo when I was about,” Elio has to pause to think, as if the event is far buried in recent memory. “Fourteen. I know it okay. It’s not a favorite or anything.”
“...So you were already famous when we were cavorting together.”
Elio laughs and I want to gather the sound in my hands before it disappears, “Cavorting. Is that what you think we did? And I wasn’t famous. I am not famous.”
I think we were alchemists of time. Two weeks stretched into a lifetime. Years and years and there was a lot of fucking. I don’t say any of that. “My vocabulary is rotten. Rachel is trying to cultivate me into someone better, someone well-spoken.”
“You were well-spoken when you corrected Dad,” he says.
“Now I say words like ‘boink,’” I tell him. I think Elio flinches. “Here, I’ll even use it in a sentence. I can’t believe you boink in your car.”
“Excuse me,” I grin. “I can’t believe you boink in her car.”
Taxi after taxi drive past us. I should really put him in one. Take him back to the hotel before something bad happens.
We’ve been good. We’ve not done anything.
Elio looks at me, “I think I know your game now.” His hands are in his coat pockets, it’s slightly windy so his hair is unruly. “If I reach for you, right now. You’d pull away from me. You only want to live with me in your head. Except that’s not me. You know it. It’s Rachel and me. And that makes it all right for you.”
If I didn’t love Rachel first -- and I think I must love her -- I don’t think I would have had the capacity to love Elio.
“I don’t have any way of telling you the truth that you would believe,” I say.
A couple walks past us without seeing that we exist. The man knocks my shoulder at least, and I don’t think either of us notice. The woman giggles next to him, possibly drunk. Most likely drunk. It is the weekend, after all.
It makes me think I should be drunk. If I was, perhaps I could. I could step out of my mind, out of my body, embrace him, kiss him the way he invites me to so openly; in doing so, I’d be myself again.
I touch his shoulder. If I am not careful (I try to be) I can also touch Elio where the long line of his neck starts to meet the gentle slope of his shoulder.
Time stands completely still and I don’t think he’s even breathing. Elio has waited for me for months, perhaps if I am vain, all of his life. That must be what he is thinking, he can stand to wait another minute or two. Until I come around. His ache has passed to me, I can feel the tips of my fingers withering.
“Please kiss me,” he says again. “You’re right. I don’t care if Sehnsucht is poison or not. I’ve given that away too. I’ll give away everything you give me until you give me something that I can really keep.”
“I have given you,” I begin and then I can’t say anything. But I don’t take my hand away either. I touch the line of his neck, the rather Grecian curve of his cheek although most would have reserved such a descriptor for a person’s nose. Elio is lovely all over.
I pass my thumb over his lips and just for the briefest of seconds I think he’s just kissed my skin.
“I’m going to call us a cab,” I say. I have to say it, before I change my mind or go out of my mind entirely, “Come see my piano.”
Elio is not impressed with my apartment. He has no reason to be. My couch is a hangover from my last place, where I’d convinced my landlord to sell me the couch for ten dollars. I have an armchair, which is arguably the nicest thing I own because Rachel’s parents bought it for me for my last birthday. My radio with a cassette player is also old. There is a bookshelf with a few books. A framed picture of my parents and me in my graduation gown.
“I thought there’d be more books,” he says.
“You should see my office,” I say.
“This is practically monkish,” Elio shakes his head. “I can’t believe this is where you live.”
I take his coat when he shrugs it off. “I live on my own in the middle of Manhattan. Most of my money goes to rent.”
“How’s Rachel’s place?”
“Much better than mine,” I readily admit. “She hired a decorator.”
“Trust you to marry an heiress,” Elio scoffs and sits himself down at my piano.
I think that if I marry Elio, it will be the equivalent of marrying an heiress. I will inherit an Italian villa in the countryside. Not that I think we will get married. And then I remember to correct him, “...We aren’t married.”
“Don’t you want to be?” He doesn’t look at me.
“Would you mind?” I counter.
Elio starts playing. Something that I don’t recognize but it sounds familiar enough like the Medtner sonata.
Maybe I don’t want an answer to my question. Because he’s in my head he knows that.
I don’t dare touch him as I sit down on the bench, but there is barely any room. Our knees have to touch because he’s also pressing down on the soft pedal. I am glad that he spares some thought for my neighbors, who have very graciously put up with Pachelbel and bad scales.
“More Medtner?” I say.
“Can’t you play some Bach?”
The Medtner stops and there’s silence.
I panic. Elio can go home now. He’s touched my piano and I will remember. I can’t forget.
“...Do you want some wine?” The voice doesn't sound like me, but it's my voice. I think we're both surprised that I even said anything.
Elio studies me, “Are you having some?”
“Yes,” I say. “If you will have some with me. I have a bottle of red in the kitchen. It was left over from a departmental party.”
“I’ll have a little,” Elio agrees and my heart lifts. “Dad sometimes lets me have a nightcap with him and I sometimes have a glass of wine at dinner.”
“You don’t have to convince me to let you drink,” I laugh. “I just offered.”
“I just wanted to let you know that I’ll still be good,” Elio shrugs.
I flee to my kitchen.
For anyone interested, Itzhak Perlman's Beethoven is absolutely lovely. Rachel starts crying around 12:55 to about 14:30.
Martha Argerich's Chopin is actually one of my favorites in spite of how I have Elio talk about it, promise. I'm with Annella with this one. Also she's also had a interesting love life, this article explains more.
Although the Medtner that Elio plays is unnamed, I've got the third Skazki from his 6 Skazkis in mind starting from 8:46.
My usual shower of gratitude to all of you! Updating early today because I am not around tomorrow. Looking forward to catching with all you lovelies on Tuesday!
Oliver is running away again. Except his apartment isn’t that big and he can only retreat to the kitchen. Elio sits still at the piano. He can still feel the light pressure of Oliver’s fingers between his knuckles during the concert. He feels too, the touch of Oliver’s knee knocking against his. Oliver Oliver Oliver. It’s like he’s back home.
Except Elio can’t believe Oliver lives here. The place is so plain, and most of the furniture is old and not in a good way. He wonders if Oliver’s parents’ house in Vermont is any better, if Oliver's ever put himself in a room.
Oliver does not come out of the kitchen for a good ten minutes. Maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe Elio should leave to save face. He doesn’t know how many times he can stand this.
“...What are you doing in there?”
“Looking for another glass,” Oliver’s voice comes back to him.
Elio gets up and crosses the length of the small front room, which leads back into a rather cramped galley kitchen. Oliver makes the space look like nothing at all. Elio can take a few steps and trap the man in the room. That way, Oliver doesn’t get to run away anymore. The kitchen is his last refuge.
No, he will stay put. Elio has to. He’s promised to be good.
“How do you only have one glass? How do you and Rachel drink?”
“I had two glasses once, “ says Oliver. “But I broke one. I usually have my drink out of a mug and give her the glass. It’s not been a terrible problem. She doesn’t drink much.”
“I see that,” Elio says. “Wine in a mug, you animal.”
Feeling brave, Elio ventures, “We can share a glass of wine, Oliver. What I’ve got. You’ve got too. It’s already catching.” A little smugly, he thinks too, that Oliver’s apartment now has him in it. He’s touched Oliver’s piano. He’s about to drink from Oliver’s one glass. The man doth protest, but then he gives in.
Oliver assents, and he pops the cork with ease with a knife he retrieves from a drawer and pours liberally. He sips. No, he gulps, generously. Then he hands the glass to Elio.
Elio takes the glass out of the kitchen, “...You don’t want this on the piano, do you?”
“I’ll hold on to it,” Oliver follows him. “Play, if you’d like.”
“I haven’t had my sip,” says Elio. He makes sure Oliver is watching him, and then he drinks from the glass. His head corrects him, that this is Rachel’s glass, Elio is merely borrowing it.
They sit down at the piano again. Oliver balancing the glass on his right knee. This feels dangerous, like they are rushing headlong to a destination neither of them understand. But they’ve been here before.
“Can you keep your foot on the soft pedal?” Elio says, nudging Oliver’s right foot. “That way I don’t have to bump you or upset the wine.”
Elio has a thousand questions and a thousand wants, but he’s not so much a boy anymore. He’s waited for Oliver his whole life. He plays, because then that’s easier. They don’t have to speak. He plays Bach, his second Invention in c minor. Exactly the way Bach wrote it. No jimmying whatsoever. Exactly the way Oliver likes.
Even without looking at the man next to him, Elio can tell he’s smiling.
“Be honest,” Oliver says, after he’s taken another sip from the wine glass. “Did you really enjoy it?”
“Yes.” Elio is honest, straightforward, “I might not agree with Argerich sometimes. But there is no denying that she’s one of the greats.” (He wants to add, “please just kiss me. I’ve given you everything that you wanted.”)
“You wouldn’t have rather seen Bach’s Mass?”
“We didn’t go see Bach’s Mass,” says Elio. “That’s like saying, ‘would you rather we didn’t fuck last summer?’”
Oliver drinks, and hands over the glass. “That’s not the same. And you know my answer to that.”
More silence. Elio takes Oliver’s left hand places it on the keys. “Find middle C.”
“I’m beginning to hate that key.” Oliver complains, but finds middle C with his thumb. He doesn’t say anything but he does what he is told, when Elio taps his third knuckle, indicating that he should switch over. Elio can tell that Oliver has been taught the piano. His touch is more certain, and his fingers are poised. Not quite relaxed maybe, but getting there.
“Did she teach you about intervals?”
“Sure,” Oliver says. “And the circle of fifths, and how to properly draw a treble clef. Not that I will ever use it to transcribe or anything.”
“She’s very thorough.” Elio says.
“She starts out kids at the age of four,” Oliver shrugs. “She’s obsessed with foundation. Doing things properly. No use building on shaky basics, et cetera. I imagine it carried over. It’s natural for her, this sort of thing.”
Rachel doesn’t get any further away from them, even though they both seem determined to take her name away from her. Maybe it will finally leave them enough room to be alone. It is not working.
Oliver, Elio realizes now, has never said much about his parents. For the first time, he considers the possibility that Oliver has never said much about them because he dislikes them for making him into a needy person. A needy person who hides behind discipline, behind friendship. Oliver is the good one, out of them both. Elio rummages around in his trousers’ pocket, comes up with a quarter and settles it on Oliver’s wrist. The quarter doesn’t move. Neither does Oliver.
“Put your thumb up a major third,” says Elio. “Now play both notes separately and hold the second. Like this.” He demonstrates up an octave.
Oliver plays both notes. One after the other. Elio finishes the phrase with his right hand. Their hands are impossibly close. Everything is impossibly close. If either of them move an inch, Oliver might spill wine or the quarter might fall. Oliver repeats his two notes, and Elio finishes.
Pause. Oliver brightens, “I know the next one. Major second.”
The quarter still doesn’t move.
“Major third again, with your fourth finger on B this time.” Elio knows this Prelude forwards and backwards. He can spend the time looking at Oliver’s hand next to his on the keys. “Now go back to where you were, middle C, E.”
“Major third,” Oliver names the interval.
And that’s how they go. Given time, Elio thinks Oliver could have been a wonderful pianist.
Elio and I are playing Bach together. It’s the most limpid Bach that I have ever heard in my life, although it’s probably got more in common with a funeral dirge the way we are going. But it’s ours and we are alone in it. In the back of my head, I think (I know) Rachel disapproves of this exercise because of its penchant to excuse learning coordination when one is still amateurish on the piano. I refuse to think of other reasons. This alone is valid.
“Perfect fifth,” says Elio’s voice entirely too close to me. “Your little finger on D, your thumb on A.”
Then, “ -- Oliver?”
“That’s not what you call me,” I whisper. His face is right next to mine. He’s here in my apartment, I can --
“We should put the wine down,” he says. “It’s been scaring me for the last few measures.”
“Has it?” But Elio is right. It’s more practical to move the wine. It also lets me think (really think) about what I’m doing. I get up, infected by our Baroque funeral dirge and the quarter drops into the wineglass.
“Fuck,” I say.
He just looks at me, “You were doing well.”
I go to get more wine.
Of all the rooms in my apartment, I find the kitchen to be the least consequential one. I’m hardly ever in here, and my cooking doesn’t amount to much. I pour out the wine from the glass and rinse it, along with Elio’s quarter.
“Stop running into your kitchen,” says Elio from somewhere behind me, and I wince. “You don’t have to run away from me. You didn’t run away last summer. You loved me.” We didn’t have to say the words as such, but he resorts to them now because we’ve become so ordinary. Because I am. Just me. I want to be fair to him.
I don’t remember him being so bold. Does it really make such a difference? Seventeen, eighteen? But then, two weeks made all the difference for us, the last time. As if someone’s pulling me by invisible strings, I pour more wine. There are a few people in the department who claim to be wine connoisseurs and they’ve not let me down.
“I do love you.” I say, “Oliver, Oliver. I am selfish. I don’t want your name to be anyone else’s. Just mine, Oliver.”
He comes towards me and holds out his arms. The force that is Elio almost knocks me back into the counter and I nearly tip over the glass, and I reach out a hand to steady myself, “ -- Elio, the wine.”
“I don’t care,” he presses his lips to mine and that’s all the wine I can taste. He is holding me prisoner in my own kitchen and I don’t want to be let out. “Let me just call you my name. It’s Elio. Elio. Elio.”
Bach's Inventions no. 2 for those interested!
Also surprise! I had a good day today and so am early. All the thanks for reading and oh yes, there will be more to come!
Although I do not think of them, there were people before Elio. Before Rachel. There was Christine, who’d taught me Latin in my sophomore year. She’d brought Europe to my bedroom and germinated the idea of real sophistication in my head. There was Linda, who’d grown up three doors down on my street and I remember us riding bikes together in Dorset. One summer, we’d gone swimming. I noticed Linda’s legs. I noticed her breasts, the soft curves that suddenly seemed to take over her body in a way that I’d never noticed before. There was Danny too, who’d once touched my mouth and then I thought about him for days and months like I was parched for water.
Although I barely think about Danny now. Elio consumes my mind. But perhaps Elio is.
Elio is touching my mouth, kissing my eyelids and tracing the shape of my ear as if he’s memorising me again. “I missed you,” he says. “I have made do with little pieces of you. I scarcely know what to do with the rest of you.”
I drink more wine, if only because there’s less to spill that way. He lets me.
“I can think of a few things,” I say. “I’ve got my own pieces.” I slide my hand between Elio’s thighs and feel how warm he is and I can hear his breath hitch. Elio is everywhere and here with me. I can feel Rachel leaving and I hope she can get ever further away. “I can show you.”
His eyes fluttering shut, Elio arches into my touch and we don’t move any closer. “Later,” he says, and I might have thought it mocking. But I just drink words from his mouth. “Just tell me about one of your pieces. I’ll make do.” His hands slide down. My face, my neck, my shoulders, to finally his own belt. The snap of his own trousers. Nimble fingers (I have testament that they are nimble and I think that they must still be) slip beneath his underwear.
I wonder if he knows me now in a way that I don’t dare to know myself. Elio wants to keep me here because he’s afraid I’ll change my mind.
I don’t think I am particularly shy. But sometimes a bout of uncharacteristic shyness hits me and my throat dries up.
Then the phone rings in my bedroom. Muted, but shrill and ever present, and I can see Elio deflating. He takes his hand out of his trousers, quickly, as if he is suddenly aware that this whole situation is rather incredibly stupid, and buckles up his belt.
“Don’t you have to go get that?”
“Hello,” I say into the phone. I know who it is, which is why I have to pick up. I sit on my bed, and Elio takes a seat at my desk.
“Oh, good, you’re still up,” Rachel says. “Wasn’t sure if you’d gone to bed.”
I feel guilty. I look everywhere but Elio, who is probably not looking at me either, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“What?” Rachel asks, “Oliver, it’s nearly midnight. Are you okay?”
Midnight. Nearly. I check my watch, and she’s right, “Shit. Yeah. I um, you just caught me reading.”
Now Elio is looking at me. I can feel it, his eyes are chiseling away at my skin.
“I was just calling to ask how the concert was,” she continues. Rachel won’t question why I am still up. Writing up my thesis the last few months, she’s seen me go to bed at two-three, even four in the morning, once. “And to tell you that Annella’s going to be fine. I sat with her for a while. Had a cup of tea.”
I wish he would stop staring at me, “You had a cup of tea with Annella?” I think of how long that must have taken, and if we’ve already given ourselves away. “But the concert was good. My knees didn’t get in anyone’s way.”
Rachel makes a sound that is somewhere between amused but also not, “Yes. She invited me.”
I ache. I want to ask them what they’d talked about. But I can’t. “Oh.”
“Did you put Elio in a taxi?”
Elio, who has stood up from my desk and walked over to sit next to me on my bed where Rachel and I are sometimes naked. “No.” I have to tell her the truth. It’s not quite a compulsion, but close enough.
Elio stands up again and walks out of my bedroom; he returns a moment later with the wineglass in hand, he hands it to me. I sip. “He’s sleeping on my sofa.”
“But why?” I can see her frowning; Rachel has got a special talent familiar to all teachers and students of a certain stock, she can frown with anything. Her eyes, hands, voice. “His hotel is not that far.”
“We were talking,” I say. “He came back for a glass of wine.” I sip from the glass. Elio does, too, and then passes it to me.
“You gave a kid wine,” Rachel is sounding more and more anxious by the minute. I should shut my mouth and stop speaking. “Oliver, you don’t even own two wine glasses.”
“The kid,” I say, determined to put her at ease even though calling Elio a kid while he is standing there is something I never want to do again. “Is eighteen, Rachel. He vacations in Italy. He’s probably a better drunk than I’ll ever be.”
Elio snorts behind his hand.
“Well, all right,” Rachel assents. “I still think it’s strange. And your place isn’t exactly fit to be seen.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I’m going to go to bed.”
“Night, Oliver. I love you.”
“I,” Rachel rarely tells me she loves me. Which is good for me because then I don’t think about it much until she says it again. But when she does I feel compelled to return the sentiment. In case she wonders, but today, tonight, at nearly midnight, Elio is watching me. Somehow, I drag out the words, heavy like cement, “I love you. Sleep well.”
I hang up.
“So you two say I love yous,” Elio says. “Do you fuck?”
I sigh loudly, “Yes. Don’t you tell your girlfriend you love her? And fuck?”
“What’s it like?”
I told him once, Grow up. I regret it immensely. To avoid answering, I drink from the wine glass.
Oliver had said to him, that summer, that Elio is lucky. Elio doesn’t feel lucky. He doubts that any man would, for lack of a better phrase, having been just caught with his pants down. The taste of Oliver’s skin on his lips is growing fainter already.
Elio wonders if it would have changed anything if he’d asked Oliver not to pick up the phone, but he doesn’t follow through. Instead, he follows the man into his bedroom under blatantly false circumstances.
They are back to being disciplined again. This is good.
Oliver’s bedroom is perhaps the saddest part of his apartment. It’s why Elio routinely dislikes giving up his room in the villa for six weeks at a time -- that’s half the time we’re here, he remembers lecturing his father at thirteen, as if Samuel Perlman, Professor of Classics at Cornell University, had no grasp of basic mathematics -- a bedroom is a man’s last inner sanctum.
It is telling that there is nothing of Oliver in this room, except for a phone that connects him to Rachel.
Watching him speak to her in the same room is especially disconcerting to Elio because he’d just been about to --
Oliver is a horrible liar. After learning that his mother has invited Rachel to stay for a cup of tea in the hotel room he should be in right now he thinks they both need a drink. Rachel has been everywhere he’s going to be. Juilliard; the hotel room he’s rented with his mother for the weekend; and quite likely, here in Oliver’s near empty, colorless bedroom, where they must fuck from time to time, if not fruitfully.
Elio hands Oliver the glass with the wine, because he thinks he feels a bit sick. And then he asks Oliver what it feels like because he wants to punish them both. Maybe it needs to hurt more to hurt less, even if his father would call that line of thinking cheap nihilism.
Oliver doesn’t answer and a long silence passes.
“Maybe I should go,” says Elio. “I’ll walk down and get myself a cab.”
“You might as well sleep on the sofa,” Oliver says. “Or, sleep here. I’ll sleep outside.”
“You know,” if Elio really wants to push the boat out, he thinks that he can take that as an invitation to touch Oliver’s bed. He’d sit on it again, slide his fingers longingly against sheets that Oliver sleeps on and might not be clean. Oliver doesn’t seem like the type of person who cares about sleeping on clean sheets. How could he find the time? He must be drowning in paper at the office because his desk in the bedroom is spotless. Elio struggles to remember if he’s ever seen his father’s desk in any sort of order. The answer would be no.
“I know what?” Oliver prompts. He gets up from the bed and opens one of the drawers of the desk to reveal a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. “...Want one?”
“Sure,” Elio turns in the chair and watches Oliver light one once he’s opened a window. Oliver inhales, and then passes the cigarette over; after that, he lights one for himself. “You know, you could have just lied to her.”
Brave, daring. It’s paid off before.
“I try not to lie.” Oliver says. He moves over to make room for Elio at the window.
I love you, sleep well.
“So you love her?” Elio puffs his own cigarette and stares straight out the the window. For what it’s worth, Oliver’s apartment sports a great view. It would impress girls -- Rachel.
Elio feels Oliver wince, like the expression is his own, violent and alien across his own skin.
“I said ‘try,’” Oliver emphasises softly. “I’m not a great liar.”
“I know.” Oliver’s talent lies stringently in telling neither truth nor lie. He once told Elio that he feels like he’s often sleepwalking with his eyes open. Elio pictures that the delicate (yet entirely ordinary) space between a truth and a lie and imagines it must be like that. Not anything.
“I don’t love my girlfriend,” Elio offers. “I don’t think she loves me, either. We’re passing time. She’s going to Rome. But for your edification we do fuck.”
“Is she still me, sometimes?” Oliver exhales and Elio watches the cloud of smoke drift away from them out the window.
You are you, Elio thinks, right now. But then he thinks of himself at thirty and wonders if he won’t have anything left to give then. He already giving less now. And Oliver? Oliver is nearing thirty, and it’s his father’s prophecy is unfolding in front of his eyes. It makes their summer seem so removed, the explosion of feeling and want like a single perishable firework in the sky.
“No.” Then, “Yes. Only when she says Sehnsucht to me. I keep my eyes open.”
Guys, I am just floored that this is basically being treated like a piece of real literature by some of you! I am rolling around on my floor and doing the happy dance. Thank you all so much, and I hope you continue to enjoy!
“She says,” Oliver starts and stops and starts again. It’s a bit like he is having a fit (he's just rhymed). “She. Your girlfriend says Sehnsucht to you when you’re fucking.”
Oliver’s face is a hodgepodge of things kept secret. Things that he is showing Elio now. Things are coming to light. He stabs his cigarette on the windowsill and flicks the end of it out into the street.
“Is that surprising?”
Oliver looks a bit like he’d like to jump out the window, “...Who are you?”
“I am good at making do,” Elio says. He is rather, it’s something he’s had to learn. “You know, I think to myself, I’ll make do. I’ll make do until I am thirty, and then I can come back to you properly and you can fill me back up. You’d like me half-empty.”
It’s no crazier than the other things they’ve said to each other.
Oliver whispers, “Stop. You don’t.”
“Go on,” Elio says daringly, inhaling the last of his cigarette and doing the same. Stab. Flick. “Say it. Sehnsucht. Your accent is atrocious but I bet it still will work. It’s my favorite piece of you now.” Elio wants to touch himself. Wants wants wants. But he stays still because he wants to watch Oliver on his precipice. Both hands are at his sides, clenched into fists.
Oliver shuts the window and closes the curtains. Then he picks up the wineglass he’s left on the floor. After that, he leaves the room and Elio doesn’t think it’s time to feel stupid yet (again) because the front door hasn’t closed and shut.
When Oliver comes back into his bedroom, Elio hasn’t moved by the window. Oliver is carrying a dictionary. He flips it to Sehnsucht where Elio runs a finger over the entry. The thin paper of the page feels odd. Stiff. Like it’s been dried over.
Elio says, “I know what it means.” And then, “Oh.”
“And then there’s this, too.” There is a Walkman on Oliver’s bedside table. Oliver sits down and reaches for it. Presses play.
“Goldberg Variations, by J. S. Bach,” says Elio’s voice on the tape. Oliver presses fast forward and the Walkman makes an unfriendly whirring noise. Then Oliver stops the tape again, presses play.
“Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata in a mineur, opus 30, published 1914.” says the tape that is partially Elio. Oliver cuts off the tape again and looks at him. Elio holds his gaze. “I like this one. You actually say a mineur.”
“A mineur,” Elio supplies in a rush, if only to remind Oliver that the authentic, whole version of the voice he worships on the phone and on the tape is here in this room. “I’ll say it as many times as you fucking want.” He finally roots his feet from their spot near the window and comes to stand near the bed, between Oliver’s knees which open to welcome him. He remains standing and Oliver’s hands, holding pieces of him just now, can hold the whole of him(self). Elio stays still with his hands barely touching Oliver’s shoulders because he knows now not to hold on to the man too tightly. Oliver pushes up his shirt to press his mouth to Elio’s skin.
“Elio,” Elio says, sighs. That’s more honest. “Here, let me --” Oliver’s lips scarcely leave him when he finally manages to lift his shirt over his head. Oliver kisses him everywhere, up his stomach, along the slightly noticeable line of his ribcage, and finally tonguing over his nipple in a way that suggests Oliver must do this a lot. Rather selfishly, he finds that he doesn’t mind that Oliver has had ample practice.
Elio’s hands leave Oliver’s shoulders to mind his own belt. He unbuckles it, pulls down his pants and his underwear and wraps a hand around his own quickly forming erection. Elio is warm and full and with Oliver.
Oliver’s mouth leaves him for just a moment, and the man just gazes at his body. Elio is only partially sure that he doesn’t have enough blood circulating in him to go red.
“Oliver,” says Oliver. “I miss you.”
“You don’t have to miss me,” Elio says. “I’m right here.” He touches Oliver between his knees, between his thighs. Telltale and honest, neither of them can run away from their bodies. “I’m right here, Elio, and so are you.”
It is later. Past midnight. Crawling towards one o’ clock. The alchemy of time and Sehnsucht have stayed us for a little while. I hope so in my soul.
I let him undress me and he takes his time. I hold Elio in my hand and I feel him want me. But the way he takes his time has changed too. As if he knows that I’ll stay as long as it takes, that the promise of later will hold until then. Or perhaps his girlfriend who he doesn’t love has taught him how she likes, at least. That’s easy enough to do, if both of them are only passing time.
With his trousers and underwear still bunched around his feet, Eilo kneels to make short work of my belt and as he undoes my trousers for me and pulls. I have to let go of him for that, but I don’t stop looking at him. He doesn’t look any less marvelous. “How do I look?”
“Present,” I say. And we both laugh. I run my hand through his hair, curls still wild as anything, and he waits for me until I finish.
Finally, Elio steps out of his clothes and pushes me back onto my back on my bed. He’s light, but solid and confident and probably doesn’t need to be told what to do.
“You know,” Elio frames his hands around my face and then he kisses me. “I thought I’d only needed one night with you. To get you out of my system.”
This is news to me. We’d fucked every day for two weeks with no signs of running out of steam, and then I don’t know about Elio but I’d thought about it every day since. Sometimes it’s a little half thought that creeps into my head at night, or it’s when I lazily scribble treble clefs on the margin of my notes. Or that one time I stood in my kitchen paring a peach not long after I’d come back from Italy. His body doesn’t curve so easily like a woman’s, but most of the time, he’s just in my head. I can make Elio do anything I want.
“No. I didn’t know that. Something changed your mind?” I hold his hips, naked and smooth and giving in my hands. My fingers trail down to the curve of his ass and he makes a sound. A happy one.
“You,” he says. “I didn’t know that much of you had been in me already.”
I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it goes to my bones.
We kiss, mindful of Sehnsucht. If we are both thinking of it, we don’t have to say it aloud.
Elio kisses my shoulder, I kiss his forehead and after a slightly embarrassing hunt for a box of condoms that have crept under the bed since Rachel’s last visit (she makes me buy them), he lets me fuck him. He practically begs me to as he says Elio, Elio, Elio.
His name is going to haunt everything in this room. I press my thumb into his shoulder blade the way I know he likes and he makes another noise. I didn’t know one person could grip another so tightly in an intimate place save for one’s soul.
Or, I used to know. Now, I just remember.
“Press play on the Walkman,” I say. “Please, please, Oliver.”
Elio arches back to kiss me. His tongue is more clever now, and full of promise, and then he says, “That’s so dirty.”
Maybe he has become more flexible because it’s ease for me to cup the side of his jaw and kiss him again. I say, “You’d like it.” I find his cock, which he’s been rutting aimlessly into my mattress in time with me and Elio sucks in a deep breath.
Elio presses play. I let the music take my fingers without thinking. I’ve done this more times than I can remember but this is the time I will remember the most. I get to the cascade of notes where I usually let myself go and Elio lets go with me, exchanging his name for, “Fuck. Fuck.” He quivers and ruts in my hand; he gives himself up to me as I’m falling falling too, and I bite into his shoulder.
Afterwards, he licks my fingers. Elio hadn’t done that when we were together in the summer. I wonder if that’s something his girlfriend likes.
The bit where Elio says he only initially wanted one night with Oliver is lifted from the book! I didn't want to take credit where it isn't due, but I thought it fitting with this particular characterization of him.
The long awaited - hope it doesn't disappoint! I will get the other chapters up by sometime this evening, just wanted a last read through them first. In the meantime, hope you enjoy! I don't know if my sense of gratitude when I try to convey thanks over the Internet can get any bigger, but darn it I am going to try :).
“You have to wake up,” I say to a still-naked Elio, who is still in my bed. I think I must be dreaming, except he makes a dissenting noise and reaches to kiss me. There is too much spit for this to be a dream.
“What time is it?”
“It’s just gone past seven,” I say. I enjoy the kiss but I am suddenly in a hurry to get dressed. Or at least, less naked. “But I have to take you back to the hotel. What time’s your first appointment to look at places?”
“Eleven,” Elio sits up. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting dressed.”
He holds out his arms towards me, “Five more minutes.”
I am reminded of five very long minutes in Clusone and let my feet carry me back to my bed. I take him in my arms, “All right.”
Elio and I are standing in the hotel lobby, waiting for the elevator and when I hear Rachel’s voice and I don’t know which one of us flinches more. Before we left my apartment, I’d checked Elio’s neck obsessively for marks while trying not to make any more.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, mouth filling up with guilty bile.
“Morning to you too,” she says, leaning in to peck me on the cheek. “After you said Elio was sleeping on your couch I thought I might as well call the hotel and leave a message for Annella when she wakes up. If she already doesn’t like the city, there’s no use to worry her. She called me and asked if I’d like breakfast. And then she mentioned that you guys are looking around Williamsburg today, and I used to live around there, Elio. Remember, Oliver? Annella asked me if I’d like to ride along and give suggestions.”
Elio says, “Oh. Yeah, yesterday probably. Um. Made her nervous her a little.”
I can’t speak. Elio is doing much better than I am although I don’t think he’s managed a sentence, “...You shouldn’t have done that, Rachel.”
“Done what?” She looks at me, “Called the hotel? Would you have?”
I hadn’t, so I shake my head. She steps in my immediate space again, probably trying to figure out if I am drunk. I am not drunk, but I don’t think I need to be to give anything away, this time.
“I can’t stay for breakfast,” I say. Because I can’t. “I’ve got a. I said to someone I’d do something in the department. It’s for a thing.”
Both of them look at me; Elio says, “A thing.”
I wish he wouldn’t look at me like that, “Sorry. It just came to me.” Before I can change my mind, I grab Elio and pull him close to me. I count to five, I let go. He doesn’t ask for another five, or ten, or twenty like this morning. He doesn’t give me any sign that he really wants me to stay. If he’d only asked, I would have.
“I will call you,” I say. “I promise.”
Elio doesn’t say anything. He barely nods.
Rachel has this look on her face. It’s another one of her teaching faces, like she can’t quite tell how a student has lied to her but she’s sure that there’s a trick somewhere. But then I lean in to kiss her before I turn away from both of them, and this smoothes over her frown just a little.
“Come over for dinner,” Rachel squeezes my hand. “I’ll make something.”
I clean my apartment but mostly my bedroom. I strip the sheets and obsessively check the mattress for stains. While I wait for the laundry to be done, I go and finally buy another wine glass. I walk past a jeweler’s and think deluded thoughts about buying an engagement ring. I’d probably have to pay for something worthy of Rachel in installments, thereby prolonging things even longer.
I wait by the phone and I have a glass of wine even though it’s not even the afternoon. I wish Elio and I had had sex in my car. That’s something he could keep with him.
Nothing comes, so I go to Rachel’s place, aiming for six and missing it by mere minutes. She opens the door wearing an apron. I am late because I stop by the florist’s that I know she likes.
“These are for you,” I say. (A confession: I know next to nothing about flowers but once I say that they are for my girlfriend, the cashier winks and said, “I know just the thing. Wait a minute, are these apology flowers?” Apology flowers. Even a stranger knows my shame.)
“Oliver, these are wonderful! Thank you,” she beams. “Actually, if you hold on to them a minute I’ll fetch something to put them in.”
It takes another minute for her to come back with a vase. Glass, exquisitely cut and probably imported. It does seem that Rachel’s alone in the apartment, which...I don’t know if I am glad about. Given the way my day is going, I am not going to be too surprised if Annella and Elio show up to dinner after Rachel finishes cooking.
Rachel has a large kitchen that doubles as a dining room. Her pasta machine is out, but I don’t see a dough anywhere, so I assume the pasta’s already been made and put away.
“Wine?” She says. “There’s enough for a glass each. I was going to use the rest in the sauce.”
“Please,” I watch as Rachel pours red into two separate, proper glasses. The type that I’ve seen at restaurants. “...Did you enjoy your time with the Perlmans today?”
“It was a lot of fun,” Rachel smiled. She goes to the fridge and retrieves minced beef, it looks like. “I did invite them, but they said they were going to wander around. I think Annella’s just a bit overwhelmed by the city; I like to think that I put her at ease a little. They’re a great family, I can see why you’ve taken to them.” The fact that Rachel would go out of her way to say that to me doesn’t make me feel any better. In fact it makes me feel worse. But of course I can’t say why. I don’t know why.
As I sip from the glass, I distract myself by thinking that my wine is better, “Did he see anywhere he liked?”
“He was between a place he saw today and a place he apparently saw with Samuel last week. But I don’t think they’ll come down again. Elio’s already missed school for two Fridays in a row.” I should hate her for calling the Professor by his given name with such ease. Annella probably told her she could. Rachel is emptying mince into a glass bowl. She’s prepared. Chopped herbs, I think. Egg, and -- “Shit.”
Rachel never swears, and my first thought is that she’s cut herself, even though there isn’t a knife in sight. I am glad there isn’t one because -- “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot to chop an onion,” Rachel waves her minced-stained hands at me. “Would you mind?”
Would you mind? Elio hadn’t answered me. I don’t want to think about how relieved I am. I take another sip of the wine and go to the refrigerator, “Just one? Red or white?” She has got the most organized fridge of anyone that I’ve ever seen, except for maybe my mother. I always get the sense that she is a good wife before she is a good mother and this shows through in her fridge.
“Well,” Rachel looks down at her bowl of mince, “Half should probably do it. White, please. Oh, and use the proper knife for the vegetables? You always use the wrong one and that drives me crazy.”
I stay the night with Rachel but we don’t have sex. She makes me coffee in the morning and then makes me sit at the piano. I show off my scales, start on arpeggios for the right hand. I wonder if Elio tried to call me from the lobby of his hotel. If he’s disappointed I wasn’t there, or if he already knows where I am.
“One, two and three, Oliver. Not four.” Rachel taps my knuckles. “Pay attention. Again.”
In my head, I think in intervals. Major third, major third, perfect fourth. I think Rachel would be proud of me. Just for a moment, I take my hand off the keys and settle it on her knee. Elio is a better person than I am because he can at least admit it outright when he’s hurt someone. Me? I’m just. I make do, too. I do not think I hurt people, but I try to hurt them less than I otherwise would have.
“What?” Rachel looks down at my hand. “Oliver, come on. You know your silence thing gets a little freaky.”
I rub off on her too. Usually, Rachel doesn’t say words like, “freaky.”
“Would you rather I stay quiet,” I say. “Or that I lie?”
“I don’t understand your question,” she pores over my face. Sometimes, I think, Rachel doesn’t understand me at all, but most of the time, she is too polite to say so. Because I must be the stupid one out of the both of us. “Is everything okay? I didn’t want to say anything yesterday, but you seemed distracted. Did something happen at your thing for the department?”
My thing for the department. I remember, “No. No. It’s not that, I’m.” I squeeze the skin between my eyebrows. I don’t know how to put this into words. It’s like all semblance of language has been dried out of me. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m feeling well.”
“You could have just said, silly.” Rachel pats my hand. “I’ve got a student coming in a little bit. But you’re welcome to go lie down in the bedroom.”
The phone rings that night, but I don’t pick up. I tell myself I will call Elio next week. I did promise.
“Hello, Oliver!” Annella greets me when I call like a coward a week later. I pick Thursday night; which straddles the delicate line between forgiving myself for my cowardice and still keeping a promise I wholeheartedly mean to keep. “Sorry we missed you at breakfast, but oh -- you must thank Rachel for us. Elio’s decided to take the place she recommended in Williamsburg.”
“Oh,” I feel vaguely sick again.
“And she’s already volunteered you to move things come September. So don’t be too surprised if we keep turning up on your doorstep like a bad penny!” She laughs.
I really want to ask Annella if she knows about us. About how I can’t stand to be friends for life with her son. I thirst for his naked body, I greedily take up residence in his soul and in his head. “I’d be glad to help out.” I say, “Of course. Anything I can do.” I pause and take a deep breath, “...Speaking of, may I speak to Elio?”
Annella doesn’t say anything for a long moment, “He’s not around, I’m afraid. He and Lotte just left to see a film. Amadeus, I think.”
“I think he’s going to hate it,” I laugh. I haven’t seen the movie myself, though the advertisements I have seen for it are rather lackluster and are not going to be to Elio’s taste. I’m sure about this; I am rarely sure about anything anymore.
“No doubt,” Annella agrees. “I’ll tell him you called. He’ll be happy to hear from you.” Then, “Oh, and before I forget. What are you doing the last weekend of May? I know that’s not a lot of notice given that we’re on the second week of May already.”
I reach for my calendar and flip to the appropriate week, “I am not doing...anything. Well, except drowning in red ink. Grades are due that Monday, but that shouldn’t be too big a problem.” I try to be conscientious about my grading, especially since I am the newest member of staff in the department.
“Great, great,” Annella says. “In that case, you’re officially invited to Elio’s graduation party. We’ve not told him you’re coming. It's mostly a family thing.”
Amadeus came out in September 1984, just tweaking the dates a little (since we're still technically in May of 1984 for this fic.
“Five more minutes.” Elio holds out his arms to Oliver, Oliver who is suddenly in a hurry to dress. It’s only seven on a weekend and his perfect torso has already disappeared under a smooth cotton shirt. Elio thinks he’s allowed five minutes. Maybe ten. Twenty, if he really wants to be greedy. It won’t take that long to suck Oliver off. If Oliver puts his shirt on now, then it’s going to be like last night never happened.
Oliver gazes at him and Elio waits. Then the man comes to him, into his open arms, and Elio clings to him.
“All right,” Oliver says, burying his nose in Elio’s hair. “It’s going to be all right.”
But it is not all right. By the elevators, when they are waiting, Elio and Oliver run into Rachel and Oliver becomes, in the blink of an eye, someone different. He had done that during the summer too, but Elio can look back at that time with relative fondness, as if everything is rosy with summer haze. But this time it’s different.
This time they might have really done a guilty thing, and even though Elio has his own misdeeds to account for, he doesn’t think his mistakes are anywhere near Oliver’s own. And Elio does wish he could hate it a little more, what they’ve done.
He also wishes, that he can grab Oliver’s hand inches away from his and not let him go. The man is already simmering away from him.
Oliver says he has a thing with his department and beats a hasty retreat. He does gather Elio in his arms, hangs on for a touch longer than is probably wise, and promises to call him. But then he has to kiss Rachel too and Elio tries not to look. He looks in his imagination and somehow that makes it worse than the night before.
“A thing with the department,” Rachel turns to look at Oliver’s back as he practically marches out of the hotel. “That’s very odd, you know. Oliver is protective of his weekends.”
“I didn’t know that, no.” Elio says. It’s the truth, he really didn’t. Maybe it is already wistful thinking on his part, but it seems that Oliver has always had the time.
Rachel peers at him, “...Sleep okay? Oliver’s couch is awful. I keep asking him to throw the damn thing out.”
Elio thinks about running away too, but the elevator comes and he has to go in. Rachel follows. Part of him guiltily wants to shout at her and tell her not to ride around with them in Williamsburg because he doesn’t want her there. If Rachel knows what’s good for her, she probably doesn’t want to be there. He is almost wants to tell her, that he has no idea if Oliver’s couch is awful or not because --
Your boyfriend fucked me. Your boyfriend can’t contain himself when he hears me say a mineur because that’s what I do to him. He also does unspeakable things to me. I don’t know the first thing about his couch.
“It was a bit lumpy,” says Elio. “You should probably keep trying to tell him to throw it out.”
The fact that his ass had hurt over the summer after the first time isn’t something that Elio thinks about too much. Now, he has better things, more longing wounds to bother him when he isn’t paying attention, but he is sore when they walk around Williamsburg and his mother keeps asking him how much wine he drank last night. Rachel must have given him away. Of course she would.
Elio and his mother end up having a quiet dinner at a little pizzeria near their hotel. Rachel had extended an ever generous invitation to join her and Oliver for a meal at her place. Elio can’t bear the thought of going so he tells his mother he is feeling pizza. Maybe this is what it’s like to sleepwalk when one is awake. This is clearly Oliver’s doing. They will go on infecting each other with various lingering illnesses until one of them gives in.
Or maybe they’ll perish before then.
“What is with you?” His mother says, reaching to wipe what Elio can only guess is tomato sauce from the side of his mouth. “You’ve been quiet all day. I know it’s not the wine. I was joking. I suppose Rachel took it a little seriously. I suppose it’s a side effect of teaching young children, but I think you know better than she does about how your father and I have raised you to be responsible.”
Rachel doesn’t know anything about him, that’s true and Elio grips around that thought like it keeps him breathing. If he truly wants to take a leap of faith and run with the thought, then Rachel knows nothing about Oliver either. Because there is the sickness of Elio in Oliver and she hasn’t the slightest idea.
“Did you love anyone before Dad?” The question slips out and Elio wishes he can take it back.
His mother is surprised at this question, “Well. Yes, of course. I don’t think I would have come to him as someone he liked if I didn’t.” But she doesn’t ask him why. His parents, who have always believed in Elio finding things out for himself, put their faith first of all in the kindness of time.
While his mother is having a glass of red, Elio is relegated to ginger beer. He doesn’t exactly wish that he could drink, but he does wish there was some way to make this all easier to swallow.
And between his father’s pronouncement that young people have nothing to give by the age of thirty and his mother’s mother past certainty of loving other people who are not his father, Elio finds that he doesn’t know what to think. He wonders if his mother and father have ever talked about it, the people who have come before. If there is ever glass in the way when they endeavor to talk about such things.
In the summer, he’d thought with such iron surety that he loved Oliver and that Oliver loved him in turn. They were both so sure, in fact, that they made do with names and each other’s faces. But now Oliver uses ‘I love you’ as a defense mechanism. He wields it like a weapon, the only thing keeping him from falling into the hole they’d been so eager to tumble into during the summer. Or at least, that’s how Elio has come to see it.
A loud sniff escapes Elio, ugly and miserable and when he rubs his nose, he’s halfway expecting blood to come out. But there’s only snot.
“Oh, passerotto.” His mother immediately moves to sit beside him. She gathers Elio in her arms and pets his hair. She even offers him a sip of her wine when she’s sure the waiter is not looking.
Elio is not quite certain what he wants to say, but he rehearses it in his head like trying to piece back together pieces of unspooled tape. I can come back when I am thirty. Pass time with someone else. Learn to love them so I can learn to love you the way you like. I hate you. You know I don’t. The very thought of it, it’s preposterous.
When they finally get home that Sunday evening just a bit after six, Elio calls Oliver’s home number. There is no answer and he’s relieved.
Elio doesn’t really have time to think about Oliver much, the coming week, as it happens. An academic from Canada comes to stay with them; he is Oliver’s age, perhaps a bit older, and Elio passes time with him by examining the difference between Quebecois and French spoken in Paris. He has a nice time with Benoit. But then Benoit leaves two days later. Lotte convinces Elio to go see Amadeus the next day, although he doesn’t really want to.
“I thought you’d enjoy the music in the movie,” she tells him afterwards as she stretches her legs onto his lap.
“If I wanted to listen to Mozart I could have just went to a concert,” Elio says, a little snippily. “The film stuff is a bit superfluous.” But he wraps his hand around her ankle.
“Elio,” After a moment, Lotte breaks his hold and sits upright. “Is there anything wrong? You seem upset. I can understand if the movie was not to your taste. But you don’t have to be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad,” Elio insists. Because he isn’t. But he doesn’t have the words to describe to her how he feels, so he might as well be angry. He had not been lying to Oliver when he’d admitted to not loving Lotte, but now Elio is confronted with the fact that he’s perhaps done something wrong. Not all betrayals have to be life-ending or life-rending, he thinks, but then.
Lotte thinks for a moment, “Did something happen in the city?”
Elio feels a lump in his throat, “What do you mean?” If he doesn’t name it, perhaps it will be all right.
“That’s a yes, then,” Lotte says.
The more Elio scrambles for words, the further away words get from him. Lotte, who’s all of the sudden accrued all the patience in world just sitting there.
Finally, he says, “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you. If you’re hurt.” Elio can’t make heads or tails of her expression. It makes him think that he didn’t really hurt her, at least, not yet. Maybe Lotte will wake up sometime in the next week and really realize the fullness of Elio’s cruelty.
Lotte takes another moment, “Do I know her? Or was it an accident? We are leaving each other anyway, I don’t want to do it like this. If you tell me it’s an accident I can forgive you. I’ve had them too.”
She’s had -- Elio swallows, “While we were…?”
“No,” she shakes head. “Never while we were. But before. When I was younger.”
He doesn’t know if he feels better or worse, “You don’t know her. Him.” Elio doesn’t know why he’s admitted so much. Or he does, but he doesn’t think he has the words for that either, so it’s the same as not knowing. He wonders what Oliver would make of Lotte, if he’d be just as uncomfortable around her as Elio had been around Rachel. If Oliver thought the news would go down easier if Rachel did know exactly who he was.
As soon as it wisped at the corner of his mind, Elio shoves the thought away.
“Him,” Lotte pauses again to let the revelation sink in. On the one hand, it is not as if Lotte hasn’t read Thomas Mann in its original German. Perhaps it won’t be so unfamiliar to her, “I suppose he speaks German too, does he?”
Elio searches her face for something, anything. But it’s hard to search if he doesn’t even know what he is looking for. Laughably, he finds that he can’t look for anything if he doesn’t know what he is searching for. Maybe that is how --
“No, he doesn’t, at least, not well. But he gave me Sehnsucht.”
“Trust you to fall in with a man who gave you a lingering sickness.” Lotte shakes her head. She touches the top of his head and it is a different feeling. It’s suddenly a sisterly hand, one that understands the necessity of the mistakes made during one’s youth.
“That isn’t what the word means,” Elio feels the need to say. He doesn't want Lotte to infect the word.
“I know,” Lotte says. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
Thomas Mann is a German writer who struggled a lot with his homosexuality...some of the things he wrote is, by today's standards, rather problematic, but I think the mention of Mann also underpins what our boys are trying to come to terms with.
Chapter 19: Oliver
Elio doesn’t call me back. Now that I think back on it, there had been something in Annella’s voice when I called last even though I’ve apparently garnered an invitation to Elio’s graduation party. One thread unravels after another and I think the worst. I think that I also deserve it if he decides not to return my calls anymore. There’s no doubt of that in my mind. I broke a promise. I live in an unimpressive apartment. He knows all of my truths (most of them lies) and I’ve been relegated to youthful folly. Our friendship has ended, because Elio has finally flown the nest of my harried indecision.
As perhaps it ought to be, all along.
I go back to my parents’ the following weekend. I’ve never thought I would think to escape my apartment for Vermont. I’ve never done so before, and it’s usually the other way around. I don’t like going home much. My mother suspects this, and my father probably doesn’t care one way or the other.
My parents have left me mostly alone since I’ve handed in my corrections. A copy of my diploma hangs over our mantlepiece, where most families usually hang a portrait or something more personal.
I also haven’t spoken to Rachel much, blaming marking. I haven’t had sex with her either, though that is neither here nor there.
“Oliver?” Samuel’s voice comes over the phone.
“Still here,” I say. I have been waiting.
“Elio says he’s not feeling well and can’t come to the phone.” Samuel’s cadence makes the sentence sound like a question and I feel ill myself. If there’s anyone that I really have to account to, it is possibly Elio’s parents, who have done nothing but like me and welcome me. Such as I am. “Is everything all right?”
“Is he all right?” I say.
“He’s not eaten much, recently, or left the house.” Samuel informs me. But he doesn’t ask me why, nor does he sound particularly upset or worried. He is just telling me and my own guilt does the rest. “I think he’s just gone to bed, is all. Annie has tried to get him to return your call.”
“You and Annella must hate me,” I say, finally.
A long silence, “Of course we don’t hate you, Oliver.”
I want to prostrate and confess. “Not even for what I did?”
“And what did you do?”
Samuel is fond of the Socratic method, he told me once when we’d shared a cigarette in Italy. It finds the teacher in everyone, even -- especially, rather, he’s careful to quantify -- in the most surprising, the shyest of students. Conversely, I hate the Socratic method when I am teaching my own courses because mostly I am met with silence. Grovelling silence. Fill our heads! Please sir, can I have some more? We haven’t the time to do it ourselves! We’re the stupidest idiots on earth!
“Samuel, I can’t possibly.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Samuel says. “But I think you owe it to Elio.”
I get up and pace the length of my childhood bedroom. It’s tiny and getting smaller by the second. Every step I take the walls are closing in. Bricks are there against my throat.
“He’s not really asleep, is he?”
I inhale deeply. “Professor, could you just --”
“Samuel,” he corrects me, a reproach. “Could I just?”
I reach for a pen that I’ve got in my pocket and chew on it. Then I remember what it must sound like and stop. “All right, all right, Samuel. Tell him that he doesn’t have to say anything to me. But I’d like him to listen...if, if he wants to.”
“Sure, one moment.” There is a bit of a shuffle, then, “Before I try again, could I please say something?”
I close my eyes, “I deserve it. Please.”
“It is nothing bad,” Samuel says. “Just parce-que c’etait lui, parce-que c’etait toi. I do believe the two of you are good, you know. You, Oliver, and my son. People think it’s not vogue to believe that they are good, not anymore. Nietzsche’s ruined all of it. But goodness stays of its own accord. It has its own mind. It is patient, and perhaps binding.”
I can’t speak, and I don’t dare to touch the corner of my eye either, because I swear I am.
“I’ll try again now,” says Samuel. “One moment.”
“...Hello?” Elio’s voice, very soft, cautious. I want more of him.
“I,” before I can form proper words, a sound I don’t recognize comes from me. And then the sound comes again, and again, and again. It’s like I don’t have any power to stop it at all. And it’s loud, like it’s swallow me and everything I am all up in the noise.
A knock sounds on my door.
“Oliver, are you all right in there?” My mother, affecting concern.
“Yes.” I don’t think she will come in. There was a too-long period in my young life when I can remember the door never being closed. I simply wasn’t allowed. But when I was allowed to close the door, it stayed closed, and they never came in. “Everything is fine.”
I wait. Elio breathes and waits with me.
“All right?” Elio asks me, as if I’m the one self-destructing now.
I lie down. Actually, before I do that, I lock my door.
“I’m all right,” I say, although my words still shake and betray me. It isn’t fair. “I’m worried about you. You should eat something. Sleep. Whatever else you haven’t been doing.”
“Touching myself,” Elio supplies drily.
“Is that you trying to be funny?”
“I have not masturbated,” he says. “Honest. I have not had sex, either.”
I wish he hadn’t said that to me. I draw in a breath; it’s less shaky this time, “Neither have I. This didn’t end up how I thought it would.”
I imagine Elio lying in his bed, in a bedroom perhaps larger, and more personable than mine (both of mine, here in Dorset and back in the city). A room that looks nothing like his room that he had to give up to me in Italy. “I started calling you because. I don’t know, if you didn’t want just one night with me, then I was even more greedy than you were and I didn’t just want one summer with you. I didn’t want to give you love. I wanted to give you my name, that lasts longer. But I.”
“But you have Rachel,” Elio prompts.
The part of me that knows I’m not so good, even as Samuel has absolved me of my sins, thinks about Rachel. She was even partly there in Italy, but I don’t remember her being there. All I remember is --
“I do.” And I’ve only got a little bit of bile in my mouth this time, “You’ve got your Lotte. And Marzia.” Even if he doesn’t love Lotte, I think, maybe he might try, when he gets a little older. He might pass time like the rest of us.
“I have got,” Elio makes a noise I don’t quite understand. “Rien. Lotte left me when I told her about you.”
I quiet, “About me.”
“I just,” Elio starts and stops. “I couldn’t lie. Not any more than you can. She asked me if there was anyone else, and I said yes, but that she didn’t know who he was.” A pause, “Lotte is a devotee of Thomas Mann.” As if that’s meant to make a difference.
I don’t like the way he’s said that, if I’m honest. Elio might not want to lie, and his reasons for not lying are possibly more moral than my own. But I have my reasons and they are both less noble and more practical. Practicality is the standard. I’ve lied because there is no one to comfort me with Thomas Mann (of all people!) in the original German.
“Look,” Elio says, sensing my hesitation, my distance. “I know it’s different for you; I am younger. I have more time, and if I need to I’ll.” He doesn’t finish. That’s good because I don’t think I’ll like what he would have said. “But you can’t just say all these things and.”
“I mean them,” I say. “Maybe ‘friends’ isn’t the right word for you and me, Elio, but I wanted.”
I can’t tell if he believes me or not.
I stare up at my ceiling. It tells me nothing and is white and clear and as empty as my mind. Actually, it’s likely eggshell. My mother is meticulous about these things.
“Could you please eat something? For me?”
Elio says, “And that’s the end of our conversation? We go back to...whatever?”
“No,” I say quickly. “No. Of course not! Elio I,” love you. Maybe he hates me when I say it. “I’m old, afraid, set in my ways. You are, you know, much better than me.”
“Doesn’t it only matter what I think? Fuck what you think.” He tries for levity, it mostly works because we both laugh.
“I’m going to call Rachel,” I say. “Doubt she’s read any Thomas Mann.”
Rachel is in her nightdress, a dark silk affair that I always think could be shorter, but I’ve had my fun with it all the same. “Oliver, it’s late. I have lessons starting at eight tomorrow, which means I have to get up at seven.” She tells me this as if I don’t know her schedule. In some ways, I am indebted to her schedule; it’d let me sleepwalk again, for a little while. “Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow? Or couldn’t you have told me over the phone?”
I could have, coward that I am, “Yes, but I didn’t want to.”
“Okay, well.” Rachel steps away from her door frame so I can enter. I wonder if she thinks I’m going to propose. I hope not.
I take off my shoes and put them by the door. And then my jacket, although it is getting warmer now. These are measured things I know how to do. I hang it on her coat rack.
“Do you want anything? I was having a cup of mint tea before I got into bed.”
“I. Yes. Please.”
“You’re acting really strange, Oliver.”
I follow her anyway into her kitchen and watch her heat the kettle, empty out the teapot that she’s been using for herself. My mother, I recall, bought Rachel that teapot on our first anniversary. She fills the teapot with fresh leaves and boiled water. The water goes into a small matching mug. “Stop staring at me like that, like you’re some sort of creep.”
“I am sorry I am creepy,” I say. And it otherwise would have been funny, I think, but. “Thank you, for the tea.”
She doesn’t look particularly convinced by my gratitude, which is, I think, mostly genuine. I am also thanking her for more than the tea, which she doesn’t know about and my guilt here reaches a crescendo that also almost has my heart thumping out of my ribcage. Madly, I think that I should ask her whether she’s read Thomas Mann, although I know she hasn’t.
“Pete’s sake,” Rachel purses her lips. “Either say something, or come to bed.”
“I love you,” I start, trying for snitches of words. “I think I loved you when I heard you play Schumann. I think if I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t have been able to open my eyes as I did. As I do now. I.” I want to do something with my hands, wring my fingers from their respective joints. “Rachel, but I can’t. I can’t keep doing this. I’ve.”
Her expression has gone very cold and still. Just like the tea I am not drinking.
I think I can see it in her face.
“Either say what you’re going to say, Oliver.” Her voice is thin and getting thinner. Then she’s furious all at once, “Or get out. Actually get out. Get out. Get out!”
It’s better the second time. Or no, that's not the right word. It's easier the second time, perhaps because he knows how to lick the wound.
Probably because too, that Elio knows how to deal with it now, how his father was wrong. How perhaps his mother is wrong too, and maybe he doesn’t need to love more than one person. He just needs to love one person, differently.
He doesn’t have any words for Oliver, and so he doesn’t call. It still aches in the dull way like a twisted ankle, and in some ways that ache is simple, too.
“...Elio,” his father is outside of his door. “Oliver is on the phone.”
“I am asleep,” Elio says. “I am not feeling well.”
Elio can feel the hesitation radiating outside from the hallway. He thinks to tell his father that he means it; he hasn’t got any words. He can make do with Oliver’s voice. After all, neither the man’s voice nor his eyes can leave the confines of Elio’s head if Elio doesn’t let them. But he hears footsteps leading away from his door and breathes a sigh of relief.
But then his door opens and his father is standing there again with the receiver and the phone itself in hand. “He would like you to just listen.”
Oliver’s voice. Listen to Oliver’s voice. And then Elio remembers how completely Pavlovian his body is, because he thinks he feels himself nodding. His father hands him the phone and leaves his door open just a sliver like always.
Elio’s hello is greeted with a sound he’s never heard Oliver make before. Although he knows rationally what it must be, he has trouble reconciling it with the rest of Oliver. The sound touches and troubles something deep in his bones.
“...I didn’t mean to do that,” Oliver says, after a long, long pause. “I can’t remember the last time I’d cried. I didn’t know I even could. I’m sorry.”
Elio sucks in a breath, “It’s good, isn’t it? Shows you’re human. That you can still live properly.”
“...You sound like your Dad,” says Oliver.
“I am his progeny,” Elio shrugs.
“That you are,” Oliver agrees. “I didn’t think it would be like this when I started calling you.”
“What did you think it would be like, Doctor?”
“I don’t know, maybe I thought I’d get you out of my system too. Just like your one night. Be disciplined. Maybe you had no need for my friendship, Elio, maybe friendship is the wrong word for us, but I.” Oliver pauses. “I wanted to give you more than love. I’ve felt it before, you know. And it tends to leave. I wanted to give you my name. It lasts longer.”
Oliver’s name. Elio lies back and traces where Oliver’s name would have been under where he’d scribbled the man’s name in his own imagination, just over his veins. But the name has already been etched into his soul. The deepest part of it. Perhaps a part that wasn’t meant to come to light until he got older.
“I am greedy,” Oliver says. “I’ve noticed that about myself, as I’ve gotten older. I want everything, but everything gets further away from me the more I want it.”
“Do you think I’ll get like that when I get older?” Elio muses.
“I hope not.”
A silence passes. It’s a middling sort of silence, waiting patiently for further direction. It seems to Elio that this is the true precipice. They either fall together or stand forever at the edge of an excruciating crossroads. But it’s familiar enough place that maybe he and Oliver don’t mind being here either. What Elio really minds is the glass. It’s only the glass that separates them now, that, and the versions of themselves that they perhaps think each other to be.
“I know it’s different for you. You and Rachel.”
Oliver lets out a sound through his teeth, “You have Lotte. And Marzia.”
“Lotte left me. I mean, she was going to leave me anyway, but I.” Elio swallows. “But I’ve told her about us. She said.” He stops. “I couldn’t lie, Oliver.”
“You told her about,” Oliver hesitates.
“I didn’t use your name,” Elio hurries to assure him. “But she does know you’re um, a he. I can’t lie any more than you can. Lotte reads Thomas Mann in the original German.”
“I don’t have anyone in my life who reads Thomas Mann, Elio.” And it sounds like Oliver saying something else entirely. “Well, except you.”
“I am younger,” Elio reminds him. Not that Oliver needs reminding. “If you need me to, I’ll just --”
A little laugh, a slightly unkind one because Oliver is always a little unkind to himself, Elio thinks. “Don’t finish that sentence. I’m old and afraid, and you know, you’re much better than me.”
“What does it matter what you think? Doesn’t it only matter what I think?”
Oliver says, “If I go ask Rachel whether she’s read Thomas Mann, will you eat something please? For me?”
Slowly, Elio thinks, the glass might disappear after all. But it will take time; he’s got time, of course he does. “I can do that.”
It takes two days, but Oliver calls him back, “She doesn’t read Thomas Mann.”
Elio is sitting at the piano in the front room. His father is reading something (looks like a new monograph) and not really paying attention.
“And how do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know,” it takes Oliver a bit too long to answer. “I didn’t tell her about you, in the end. I got thrown out. I think it’s also kinder, if I do it this way. If you have ever have to see her…”
“I’ll remember you didn’t,” Elio presses down on middle C. It’s not a word, but maybe it’s enough.
I don’t tell Rachel about Elio, in the end. I didn’t get a chance to. I do, however, field angry calls from her mother, her sister, and her father reminds me that he knows where I live. My mother chastises me for letting a great girl go and my father opines quite sensibly that I’ll probably never find better. I reply that it’s Rachel who deserves better. They don’t really understand what happens when young people break up, but my mother assures me that they’d be happy to have me home for a little while, if work can spare me. If I need it.
Part of me thinks that I should do this over again, but it is a futile thought that goes away easily enough after a down half of a bottle of cheap red that I’ve bought from the 24-hour bodega around the block.
I pour myself more wine, and somewhere on the other end there’s middle C. I resist the urge to cling to it, like it’s the only thing I know.
“Pete’s sake,” a vestige of Rachel. “What are you doing?”
“Distracting you,” comes the answer. “Play the Bach with me.”
“Otherwise you’re just going to keep on sloshing wine, aren’t you?” Elio says, “Don’t think I don’t hear you.” And then he adds, “I’m not blaming you or anything, but I don’t think it’s healthy. Do it for me.”
I am not sure if that’s meant to make me feel any better, but I spend the next couple of minutes trying to find a way of balancing my wineglass, the bottle, and the phone. Finally, I give up and fill my glass to the brim, gulp from it, and sit down at my piano. Some of the keys still have the ghost of Elio Elio on them. He doesn’t have to be a ghost for too long, I think.
“You start,” Elio says. Suddenly his voice sounds very far away and yet intimately close, as if he is sitting right here next to me on my bench.
The next weekend, I drive up to Ithaca and arrive as the afternoon segues into early evening. I’ve never been up there, but the party is already well underway and the Perlmans that greet me all seem like they’ve already been drinking throughout the day. (Actually, there are more than three, I also meet Samuel’s mother, who is eighty-odd and likens me to a young John Barrymore, we’ve got the same nose, she reckons, and the same hair. I’m just taller and therefore, automatically better-looking.)
Samuel and Annella find this tremendously amusing, so it’s Elio who finally has to shove a glass of wine into my hand and leads me away by the elbow, but not before reassuring his grandmother that John Barrymore will be back later.
Since the sun has not set yet, we elect to wander outside and end up leaning against my car. We touch elbows probably without meaning to, and Elio plops a quarter on my wrist that he’s retrieved from his pocket. I hold perfectly still.
Have a picture of John Barrymore guys! Not sure what I was doing when I was looking this up, but I was struck by the similarity between him and Armie as the latter appears in the movie The Final Portrait. Just wanted a bit of levity at the end.
Anywho, that's a wrap! I hope you guys enjoyed reading as much as I enjoy writing! At the end of the day, I couldn't give them an explicitly happy ending, but I hope I've at least given them a clean slate.
(Lastly, I am looking into getting Tumblr, I suck so much. But I am getting there!) Thank you thank you all so much! xx