I lied, I do mind.
Wait for me,
I'll be attending college in the states this fall.
We don't have to make any promises,
Just think about it.
Yours always, Elio.
New York City
I got your letter.
And so you know, It did get me thinking.
No promises, not now.
I wonder which college you will end up at, my guess is you'll have your pick to choose from.
Keep writing, and let me know?
Snowflakes fall outside the frosted window, drifting beneath street lights. The city is still and quiet as a snowstorm moves in late at night.
The radiator hums against static of the radio, Norwegian Wood is playing.
Oliver refills his glass, bourbon on ice. Smoke rises from a snuffed out cigarette in the ashtray. Elio's letter rests on his nightstand, and the words have been replaying in his mind ever since, stirring memories.
I didn’t know you smoked?
Elio, Elio, Elio
But you never said anything.
Well, it's been on and off for more that two years.
I think it's wonderful news.
Elio’s voice still rings in his ears. It's the tremble of his voice that had given him away, he always gives away too much.
The thing is it was really over with Elaine, last year when she'd finally walked out on him after another fight over who remembers why. And then a few months after he'd returned from Italy, a phone call had led to coffee, and then I'll meet you for dinner sometime. They fell back into their routine, and it had been easy, the way he’d always thought it was supposed to be. The way he’d always thought love would find him, growing from a boy to a man.
And then there was Elio. Talented, brilliant, unpredictable, unexpected Elio. Who offered challenge after challenge to all of his defenses. He is so beyond where Oliver was at that age. Sometimes, he thinks, Elio is still beyond him.
I know myself,
And we've been good.
I want to be good.
It's good this way. Isn't it? Elaine is good, the life that they could have would be good, with picket fences and dinners and birthday parties and little league.
Good for Elio, better to set him free to be the man he was meant to be, always three steps ahead of everyone else in the room. The music he will play, the work he will create, the love he will find.
One more glass full tonight, just one more. Know your limits. But that's the problem right there, isn't it?
When there was just Elaine, he had thought he knew. Then Elio had to go and turn everything upside down, until he wasn't sure which end was up anymore.
Elio skids to a stop on his bike at the mailbox, checking for letters with his name. The colleges he's applied to start to reply in the Spring. He sets aside his parents correspondence, and stuffs the University envelopes into his backpack. There are a few letters Oliver sends, he folds the envelope into his back pocket, saves them to read before he goes to bed at night.
In March he sits at his desk after finishing a paper on Dante, and he started to fill out his paperwork for his acceptance to Juilliard for the Fall. In the end it was the only choice to make. New York is the city where he and his parents have spent time stateside, where he has family and friends. The music program is best suited to him. He tries not to wonder if Oliver will be living in New York next year.
“Ja pence que tu seres heureux a'Julliard, cher,“ Annella had said, after he'd announced his decision at the dinner table.
“J'espere bien, mom,” he'd answered.
Samuel calls him into his study after dinner. They sit on the couch as he tells Elio of his University stories, his missteps and lucky breaks and hard won achievements. They go through a mental list of family and friends living in New York, and almost as an afterthought his father offers some news on Oliver. Not of a wedding, but of a teaching position at Columbia.
It’s his last summer at the villa before starting at the University. There are morning swims and sunbathing in the afternoon sun. Evenings of wine and conversation over long, languishing dinners. And nights he goes out with his cousins and friends to movies, bars, and dancing.
One night he goes out with Marzia with their friends, Evonne and Leon. Marzia dances with her boyfriend, Elio dances with their friends. He and Marzia dance together when Time After Time plays. Like so many of their nights together they all gossip in french, who is with who, and drink too much red wine. It's after two when everyone starts leave, one by one.
Not ready to call it a night, Elio and Leon go to an after hours bar, and end up at a table with a couple of guys from the University in Paris, Sean and Taylor, visiting friends in the countryside. They have some pot, so Leon offers to buy them gin in exchange for some. At last call they end loosing Taylor to a couple of girls at the bar, and they wander the mostly empty streets, singing and mostly messing up the the lyrics to Tainted Love.
It's a sweltering summer night, so they end up at the river and go night swimming. Leon smokes to much and passes out on the grass, and Sean and Elio laugh and share the last of a joint. Their shoulders are touching when Sean leans over to kiss him then, soft and questioning. It's not unexpected, they've been watching each other since they'd strpped down to their underwear to go swimming.
Elio leads them behind a fence where they can be hidden, because in the moment he thinks he wants to know what it would be like, touching another guy. Not Oliver, Not Oliver, Not Oliver, Elio plays the words over in his head. Sean is smaller, leaner, brunette. Altogether different, this stranger, and the rush and thrill of it tingles up his spine and through his limbs. Where there had once been nerves and fumbling towards an unexpected intimacy, now there is a detached curiosity chasing after a fleeting connection.
Elio walks back to the villa just before dawn, a hint of sunrise in the sky. He is on his way to New York, Sean on his way back to Paris. They don't exchange numbers, it's a parting that's more relief than regret.
In the Fall his parents help him move his boxes, a coffee maker, and a desk into his dorm room on campus. It's a crisp fall afternoon in New York, and the University is overrun with students dressed in sweaters and scarfs. Red and orange rusted leaves litter the common grounds, and storm clouds are on the horizon.
Samuel arranges for a rental loft on the upper west side to be closer, “There’s enough work to keep me in New York for awhile,” Samuel explains. “Only if you promise we’ll visit Crema often,” Annella offers in compromise.
As a housewarming they invite their family and friends in New York to the loft for dinner. Oliver arrives shaking off the rain from his scarf and over coat, and runs a hand through is wet strands of hair. He joins Samuel and the other academics debating the pros and cons of the Socratic method. An annual Fall tradition among Samuel and his colleagues.
Elio ends up with cousins smoking cigarettes out on the covered balcony, overlooking the city's skyline. They're planning to go out to a club later. He's thinking of making an excuse because finally Oliver is here, and there is so much left unsaid between them. But then again, they haven't spoken two words to one another all evening, and it's too much like the early days that summer when he was sure Oliver was avoiding him.
His cousins filter back inside, leaving for the club. It's then Oliver finds him out here, his fingertips brush against Elio's shoulder as he takes the seat beside him on the bench. “I got your letter. Figures you'd end up at a University for music prodigies.”
“How so,” he asks, and shifts until their knees and feet are side by side.
“It’s the way you play, like the music's part of you.”
“I thought you didn't like the way I play.”
“The way I remember it, I asked you to play. You're the one who gave me a hard time about it.”
Thought you didn't like it?
Play it again, will you?
He smiles at the memory. “I couldn't let you see how much I’d liked your asking.
Oliver laughs and shakes his head. His hair still a little frumpled from the rain, and it undoes Elio a little. Disheveled Oliver was always his favorite. He nods towards the cigarettes on the table by way of asking for one, and Elio shakes open the pack, lights one and passes the cigarette to Oliver's waiting fingers. It's then Elio notices, no ring.
“You’re here alone,” he asks, because he's been dying to know all evening.
“Elaine had some friends in from out of town.”
“Elaine huh,” Elio repeats, testing the name in his mouth. “And what did you tell her about your summer with the Perlman's?”
“I talk about Heraclitus' influence, cataloging antiquities, organizing Professor's correspondence...”
“So no talk of the berm, or Rome,” or me, he stops before he asks.
Standing again, Oliver flicks the ashes from his cigarette, and walks to the balcony rail overlooking the city. Elio can barely make out his blurry reflection in window against the night. “There are some things I keep to myself.”
“You haven't been writing, I didn’t know,”
“I know, I thought I should give you some time to get settled.”
“You think I need time?”
“I think we both do.”
“Why, why do you say that?”
Oliver breathes in a drag before putting the cigarette out in the ashtray on the table. He's quiet for several minutes. Elio is about to give up and change the subject, certain that Oliver's silence is him raising his impenetrable walls again.
“You know why,” Oliver finally answers, his voice barely a whisper. “I'm involved, and it's complicated. Then there's you, and your life is just starting in so many ways, there's no limit where your talent might take you.”
“You say things like that, and it makes me think you might... and then you disappear again.”
Oliver takes the seat beside him, slides off his loafer before brushing his socked foot against Elio's bare toes. “I told you I remember everything. I told you I would take time to think. You asked me to wait. Now I'm asking you, just wait."
He tucks his toes underneath Oliver's covered foot, and nods his head. Silent because any words he can think to say Oliver seems to have guessed at already .
There are rules Oliver has in New York, they meet only on neutral territory, Elio and Oliver. His parent's loft, dinner parties with family and friends, Hanukkah and Passover. And the rare cup of coffee nearby campus. Oliver keeps to these rules, steering their conversation towards topics like Homer and Haydn. They debate, argue, find agreement and points of contention, and more often than not end up finishing each other’s sentences.
Elio's first year at the University is a haze of coffee and cigarettes, classes and rehearsal, and late night study sessions. He starts sleeping with his best friend Zooey in the spring, after a late night of beer pong and sharing a few joints. The morning after they sit side by side against the headboard of his twin bed, and hold hands. “I think I like guys, too“ he tells her, because he remembers the mistakes he’d made with Marzia.
“Elio, you know I like you, but we were high last night. It's nothing to make any promises over” She ties her brunette hair in a ponytail, and wraps herself inside her hoodie. “Lets be friends, we'll last that way.” They develop their own on and off again arrangement after that, more based on comfort than any expectations.
Oliver writes again the summer he's back at the villa.
I went to a concert the other night, Bach. Made me think of you. Yours, Oliver.
I'm in your head, good. Dad gave me a copy of your book. And now you are in mine. Congratulations Professor. Yours always, Elio.