The tiny bells on the shop door jingle, and I glance up from the book I was examining to see Elio’s head duck inside. He slides a hand through his wind-swept hair and bids a quick “Buenos días,” to the owner, an old man behind the cash register who glowered incessantly and chewed on the end of an ancient cigar. “Turistes idiota i els seus Espanyols,” he grumbles, returning to the folded newspaper on the counter.
It is only our third day of traveling. The week after Elio’s graduation, we met in Barcelona to tour Catalonia and eventually take the long way back to B. On the whole, that is the extent of our plan; it is our gift to each other—every day, we’d find a new town, a new adventure, and experience it all together. We rented a green Fiat so small that I swore I could shut both doors at once if I sat over the gearshift, and we were off. Our only restriction would be the availability of petrol.
The shop is tucked into an alley behind a bakery that serves the lightest lemon cream tarts I’d ever tasted. It apparently is a second-hand trade shop with an eclectic amalgamation of inventory, from the plastic Mickey Mouse gumball dispenser in the front window to a wall of classic jazz vinyl in the back. I’d poked at a non-functional Pac-Man pinball machine before discovering the pristine hardbound edition of The Great Gatsby that I now cradled in my fingertips.
Elio steps gingerly around a curio filled with glass figurines and shuffles over to me. He cranes his neck to read the book’s spine. His eyebrows raise. “Fitzgerald? Really?”
I nod and twist the volume around. “Amazing, isn’t it? This edition is from 1955. Gold-tipped pages. Binding still intact. I don’t think it’s ever been read.”
His lips quirk. “A thirty-year-old virgin? Nice.”
I grin and bump him playfully with my hip as he passes to look at a basket of stray marbles in front of a haphazard collection of silver spoons and ceramic plates. I glance over at him as he holds one of a handful of marbles aloft to the light, the cuffs of his white shirt crisp against the lean, tanned forearm. There were dustings of powdered sugar from the lemon tarts that had settled into the beds of his fingernails. I swallowed hard, feeling for a moment the warm weight of that hand on my thigh while I drive, tucked under my shorts, drawing feathery circles in my hair and making me shiver despite the unrelenting sun. I make a silent promise to myself to place every digit, one by one, into my mouth and scrub them clean with slow passes of my tongue, to hollow my cheeks and suckle them just hard enough to make Elio wilt and breathe out my name into the humid summer air.
I pick through the rest of the books while Elio pours over a map of the region from 1938. We try to bargain with the owner for our few purchases, but he merely shakes his head at every attempt. Finally, I shove about 3500 pesetas across the counter at him and sigh, “Suficiente?” The old man shrugs and waves us out, impatient to be rid of our intrusion.
We wander aimlessly around the town, some seventy miles from Girona, deciding to climb the bell tower of the Catholic church to take in the countryside. For the effort of the hundreds of steps, we are treated to an unremarkable view of a nearby vineyard and the sparse playground of a small elementary school. I snort softly, “Not exactly To-Die-For, is it?”
He stifles a grin. “To-Wince-For, maybe?”
With mock severity, Elio grabs my wrist and raises my arm up like a referee at the end of a prize fight, turning toward the distant vines to announce, "Tenemos un ganador!” His voice echoes off the stones of the square as he hisses to imitate a screaming crowd, and I sag forward with laughter. I reach around with my other hand and pinch his leg above his knee where I know he is ticklish, and soon we are a wriggling flurry of limbs, wrestling and giggling like kids.
Eventually, we find a small cafe and plop down at a shaded table in its garden to order a couple of beers. Elio props his feet up in one of the empty chairs and runs his fingers up and down the neck of the beer bottle, drawing lines in the condensation. My eyes follow the movement, the way his lips pucker around it when he drinks, the lines of liquid that run down the column of his throat when he tilts his head back and swallows.
He is perfect.
“So tell me: the old map—why did you buy it?”
He gives me a lopsided smile that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It is the smile he gives to me on mornings that we wake up entangled in one another, still tired and achy from the night before, but we just can’t bear to stop tasting, exploring, pressing into each other until we are lost. It is the smile that he gets when he studies my face, tracing its lines with his eyes and his fingertips and his lips in a deliberate circuit that leaves me wobbly and makes me want to fall into him like a tropical pool, to immerse myself totally in the amber flecks of his eyes.
“I love maps like that—the history of them, that’s interesting—but I think what I like most is the idea that they offer a clear plan—all laid out in print, you know?—that no one can follow. The roads that they thought would be there forever, the landmarks and the borders, so much so that they put them down in print, don’t even exist anymore.”
“So it’s a plan that shows how nothing can be planned?”
His smile widens, showing the white tips of his teeth. “Sort of, yeah.” He tilts his head back to rest it against the chair. “Not the good stuff, anyway.”
“Do you have any idea how wise you are?”
“Yep, sure do.” He smirks. He thinks I’m joking.
He flaps a languid hand in the air. “You know, professor’s son—blah, blah.”
“Well, I’ve met plenty of professors’ sons. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
The smile again. He’s killing me. I shove my pinky into a jagged edge of the wrought iron table to keep from knocking it aside with one giant sweep of my arm and pulling him into my lap.
I raise my bottle to him. “Drink up. We really need to find a place to stay for the night.”
That’s all I could take. I couldn’t have lasted another moment without him.
I left Rome at the end of our summer with a hole stabbed in my heart, but I had grit my teeth through the pain. I had obligations, responsibilities. I hadn’t a choice in the matter—I had to go back. The new semester was starting in a couple of weeks and there was no time to make other arrangements.
And did I even want to? I’d only known Elio for a summer—no, for part of a summer, a fraction of one—and I was unwilling to trust that with the rest of my life. I know myself. I know how I get caught up in the stories that I read, the winding vines of a drama and romance in which I wrap myself to choke out the reality around me. It had been my pattern since youth. I had lived through fiction and history. It filled my soul to the point that I swore I saw frescos in the masonry of the subway and a Juliet on every balcony. A living paradox was my subsistence, the dreams of my fiction used to make my waking life feel tolerable and real.
Could it have been that this whole affair merely an extension of that? Had I, in desperation, convinced myself that it was real? Had I simply cast myself in the role of a lifetime, one in which a chance meeting, a summer fling, becomes the foundation for a life, the missing key that unlocks the rusted tumblers of a temperate heart and floods it with joy and heat and fresh blood, forcing it to beat again? It made me blush to think like this: foolish, fanciful Oliver who believes in happiness on a cosmic scale, who thinks that love is real and that Fate actually allowed him to happen upon his soulmate early in his life so that he might experience the miracle of it in earnest, or dared to hope that such an occurrence might exist at all.
I spent the long flight back to New York trying to block out the smell of Elio’s skin and the feel of the hair at the nape of his neck. I reminded myself of how hard I’d worked to get where I was, how I owed it to myself and my book and the university to make the most of the opportunities that I had been granted, ones I had earned through determination and a dedication to scholarship. I rehearsed my first lecture in my mind and edited the syllabus and ignored the sharp pain in the back of my throat when I would blink and see Elio’s face disappearing in the distance as the train drug me away without him and left my entrails behind as tracks.
A dark part of me also insisted that Elio deserved better. He is good, so much better than me that it seemed unfair to shackle him with a pathetic dreamer who feared his waking life. I should want him to find his own bliss, to walk proudly and unencumbered, and not selfishly cling to him like a drowning man, pulling him under the water to drown along with me, a sorry thank you for the life he’d breathed back into me, for reaching into my chest and pulling me back from oblivion. How much more could I take from him before he would resent me? I imagined the moment it would occur to him that I was not worth his time, that I was a sham in brightly colored swimming trunks, that he would like nothing better than to rewind his life and start over at seventeen before I came into his home and stole his future away before he even got a chance to glimpse it.
The habits of a vicarious life are difficult to break.
I called when I got back to my apartment, and I almost wished I hadn’t. The professor and Annella were warm and jovial, as always, but when they clicked off and Elio sighed into the phone, the static and the catch in his voice, the weight of the distance between us, nearly crumpled me. I don’t want to lose you. I ached to say his name, to call him by mine, but I didn’t. I hung up the phone and sat alone on my bed, hugging my knees tight to my chest, and tried not to feel the spray of the sea or a kiss to my neck and the soft hair tickling my cheek.
We wrote to each other regularly. I called once a week, though these talks ended up with more and more extended silences than conversation. The last time I tried to reach him, the professor told me very gently that Elio was not home.
As the weeks turned into months, I thought I was managing it. I was busy with grading and classes, meetings with the department and a couple of signings for my book. Then, a colleague, an older professor with a silver goatee, invited me for a drink. We both happened to be in our offices late after the Thanksgiving break, and he popped his head through my open door and announced that he just couldn’t take one more dissection of Daisy Buchanan as a revamped female archetype of the modern superwoman.
I laughed and gratefully accepted his invitation. We sat on stools at a bar down the street and ordered scotch.
“Daisy Buchanan, huh?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “You a Fitzgerald fan?”
I winced. “Not particularly.”
He clinked his glass with mine. “Good. He’s a slow learner, that one.” I laughed, and he said, “Poor bastard tried to substitute money for love in every story he ever wrote, and they all ended for shit. You’d have thought he’d have learned not to do it in his real life.”
I swallowed that down, along with a gulp of scotch.
“So, how are you enjoying Columbia?”
“Good. Great.” I nodded and smiled at him.
He stroked his beard. “You sure?”
“Of course! Why do you ask?”
“Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn, Oliver, but I’m an old man, and we tend to do things like that.” He took a sip of his scotch. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re depressed.”
I shrugged. “Just anxious, I guess. Trying to make a good impression, feel the place out. You know how it is.”
He watched me quietly for a moment. “Sure, I see that—again, forgive me if this is too forward—but I really don’t think that’s it.”
I could feel my cheeks redden. I told myself it was the booze. “Why?”
“Because every week you seem to sink a bit further. You’re a young man, Oliver, and that sharpness you showed at the beginning of the semester…well, this week you drug into the office looking older than I do.”
I couldn’t deny it. He wasn’t wrong. “Too many late nights, I suppose,” I offered lamely.
He didn’t answer. He motioned to the bartender for another round.
We chatted some about my book, and he was very complimentary. I knew that he was humoring me; he’d had half a dozen volumes published over the course of his career, but he never felt the need to mention that to me. I suppose that is how one behaves when he is comfortable with himself.
Finally, I sighed and looked at him over the rim of my glass. “What do you think it means when you miss someone more as time passes, and not less? When the pain keeps getting worse instead of better?”
“What do you think it means?” he returned evenly.
It was then I saw my error. I was worse than Fitzgerald. So enamored was I with the fictions I had read and created in my head that I assumed my real life could never touch them. Real life would forever be taxes and traffic jams and deadlines. Thus, when real life eclipsed the art, I assumed it was false—it had to be because it was better, far more wondrous than I’d ever believed it could be. I loved it, so it had to be fake and ephemeral.
My whole life before Elio had been a search for meaning. Then, I found it. I had actually found it. But because I had seen the whole as an epic quest, a hero’s journey that would involve a lifetime of lonely wandering and solitary meditation, I never truly believed that search would be—could be—successful. Those stories never have a resolution, do they? The prize is the experience, not a tangible object at the end. No one ever finds the holy grail or the pot of gold; rather, they die with their arms outstretched to a green light on a dock across the bay. All they have are the metaphors, figurative joys that idiots cling to when they’ve nothing else in their arms.
But Elio was real. His soft cheek and his pliant skin and his sharp mind were real. He was exactly what I needed exactly when I needed him, so I had written him off as a mirage, and I’d done so with such consistency that he was fading away. I was losing him.
“It means I am a fucking imbecile.”
He smiled broadly and clapped me on the shoulder. “According to my wife, we all are.”
That night I called Samuel.
“Come va, Americano?” he greeted me warmly. “How is life abroad?”
“I’m hurting, Pro.”
“Yes? Perché? Why is that?”
“I need to talk to you about something. I’m not sure that you’re going to like it.”
“Ah.” His voice had deepened. “I knew that what lay ahead for you and Elio was going to be difficult. I knew that you two had much to work out between you.”
My hand started to sweat on the receiver. I don’t know why I was surprised. Samuel is no fool. Of course he knew. “I—I think I—“ Oh, out with it, you moron. “I’ve worked out my end, Pro. I want to come visit at the winter break. I need to know from him…well, I just need to know.” My voice was strangled. I heard the desperation in it, but there was no sense in hiding it now.
“You are welcome here, Oliver. We have raised our son to be his own man, to make his own decisions. Come and ask him all of the questions that need to be answered.”
I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Thank you, Pro. You’re the best.” What would it have been like to grow up under the roof of such a man? After a conversation like this, my father would have locked me in a tower or sent me to a correctional facility. “Elio is a very lucky man, you know.”
“How funny,” he responded thoughtfully, “that’s exactly what I was going to say.”
We didn’t tell Elio that I was coming. I asked Samuel not to; I claimed that I wanted to surprise him. Really, though, I was afraid he would make plans to be elsewhere if he knew, that he would have the time to work up a whole speech to explain why his life was better without me in it. Surprise felt like a tactic of war to gain some kind of an advantage. I hoped it was enough.
I arrived in the late afternoon when Elio was napping. Mafalda patted my cheek and told me sternly that I was too skinny. The Perlmans gave me strong hugs and sent me up the stairs. I ascended slowly, my gut churning. I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock entering a tea party. I knew I would die if Elio looked at me with pity and uttered any version of ‘That is not what I meant at all.’
I eased open the door to my room—his room—and the creaking of the hinges made him twitch. I padded over and sat on the edge of the mattress. I breathed in deeply several times, taking in as much of the smell of the place, its comfort and ambiance. It occurred to me then how much it felt like home here, far more than an apartment in New York or a ranch in Connecticut. I wondered what that meant.
Elio stirred, blinking awake. “Oliver?” He looked at me hazily, as if he were unsure if I were some kind of delusion, a waking dream. I smiled. Just seeing him inches in front of me, mussed hair sticking at all angles, warm and soft and beautiful—I wanted to scoop him up in a bearhug or burrow under the covers with him and hide my face, turn it into his chest and listen to the thud of his heart.
“Hi.” It’s all I could get out. My throat was dry as tinder.
Suddenly he sat upright and pushed himself away until his back was against the headboard. His eyes were wide. “What are you doing here?”
My fingers twisted into my pant leg. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I—I didn’t want to—startle you or to upset you. I—I just had to tell you this in person.” Elio said nothing, merely pulled up his legs, away from me and into himself. I pressed on. “I tried, Elio, I really did. I tried very hard to function on my own, to keep my distance, to give you the space you needed.” I wiped my nose. “I don’t know if it is all right to say this now, but I can’t…you need to know the truth.” I looked up, directly into his eyes. “I love you, Elio. In all the world, that is the only thing I know for certain. I love you. You are the only part of my life that makes sense. Nothing feels real until I tell you; nothing I do has any meaning unless I’m doing it with you. I went back to America in August, but that’s not home anymore. Home is wherever you are, and I don’t want you to question that or have any doubts about what you mean to me.” I pressed the heels of my hands into my eye sockets. “And I have to tell you that if you don’t feel the same, if you’re unsure, it’s all right. You can tell me. This isn’t an obligation for you. It’s just…it’s just a confession. Please just tell me honestly what you want and what you feel.”
I dared to look up again. Elio’s face was frozen, his hands clinging to the bedsheet like it was a shield. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I turned my head away so I wouldn’t have to watch his emotions filter from shock to disgust to pity. I stood up and walked toward the balcony, looking out over the snow-dusted landscape, at once foreign and achingly familiar.
There was a small voice behind me. “Are you serious?” I heard a choked sob, and I spun around. Elio’s face was in his hands, fingers gripping his face tight.
I lunged at him and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. “My God, Elio, no! It’s all right. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please! Please don’t cry, please don’t cry…”
I’m not sure I have ever hated myself more than at that moment.
He clutched at my shoulders and pushed me back. There was a watery smile on his face. I blinked. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what this meant. I plunked down on the mattress next to him. “Elio?”
Elio surged up and knocked me flat on my back. He sat on my chest, hands on either side of my head. “God damn it, Oliver! I thought you showed up here to break up with me, you son of a bitch!” He dove at my mouth, biting at my lips and pulling my hair. “I fucking love you, Oliver. It split me in two when you left me because you are more myself than I am. So don’t you ever do that to me again,” he panted. “Do you hear me? Never again!”
I crushed him against me, tears spilling unchecked from the corners of my eyes. I felt dizzy, giddy and drunk, and I folded all of my limbs around him like a June bug to seal his body to mine, to snuff out the miles that had separated us and the misunderstandings that seem to evolve from nothing when distance and silence fills in the gaps left by touch and talk.
We missed dinner that night.
When we came down for breakfast the next morning, the Perlmans acted as if I’d never left. My place was set at the table, and as I chiseled open my boiled egg, Annella squeezed Elio’s hand and murmured, “Now our family is complete.”
We find a bed and breakfast on the edge of the town. We drop our purchases on the small table, and I flop onto the bed, face down. The afternoon sun had sapped our energy, and the room is wonderfully cool and dim. I move back and sit up against the frame, and Elio climbs into the V of my legs and leans back against my chest. I wrap my arms around him and grip my hands together over his stomach. I run my nose through his hair and kiss his neck, licking the salt from the inside of his collar.
He sighs and melts further against me. “Want to head back toward the water tomorrow? Follow the coast a bit?” His voice sounds lazy. Contented.
“Works for me. You’ll never have to try hard to convince me to stare at the Mediterranean for hours on end.”
We chatted more, how long before we’d work our way around the arc of the sea to arrive back in B., how long we’d have with his parents before we’d depart for the States to set him up at my place in New York before he’d migrate the short distance to Princeton in the fall.
After a while, Elio is quiet for so long, I wonder if he’s fallen asleep.
“I thought you hated him,” he murmurs.
“Fitzgerald. Thought you found him ‘tiresome and deliberately obtuse.’”
I shake my head slightly and chuckle. Leave it to Elio to remember an exact phrase from a snippet of offhanded conversation had in a bookstore a year before. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
He hums and yawns. “I suppose. I mean, who decided that a love story has to end tragically in order for it to have meaning, right?
I adjust my shoulders to better cradle his head and kiss his jaw.
“So why did you buy the book?”
I tighten my grip on his waist and tuck my feet under his legs. “To remind myself of how close to death I came.”