“Some people you’re just never going to see again, my son,” Elio’s mother said. She spoke so many languages, and was a translator. She spoke of feeling the right word in a way Elio knew was similar to how he felt music, but still he felt closer to his father, who was expansive, verbose, extroverted and loved company, not like Elio and his mother who felt and watched things. Elio always felt closer to people he was nothing like.
After Oliver returned to the United States, Elio’s father had given him a speech that he couldn’t remember every word of, that in some ways was more for the young man his father had been than Elio himself, but was still the kindest thing anyone had ever done for him. Kinder than Oliver eating the peach that he had made love to because Oliver himself had been out of reach and Elio had gotten a sad glimpse of what life would be like without him.
His mother would not have given such a speech. She could say more with her eyes, her eyebrows, a meal, or the flick of her cigarette ash than most could say with many words, and if you heard none of it, you simply didn’t know her. When she did weigh in on matters of the heart, it was simply. After they found out Oliver was not who he said he was, it was clear she wanted him to accept it, not linger in love that could go nowhere, had been coaxed out of Elio with a deception.
They’d had a summer guest, that was for sure. He was tall, handsome, blonde, charming, and everyone who met him had been enchanted. Elio loved him. But, he wasn’t Oliver Stern. He wasn’t a Classics major, a Columbia grad student. That man had unfortunately been unable to make it to Italy for his summer residency, due to appendicitis. Elio had finally seen the real Oliver’s picture, and he had a high forehead, a receding hairline, and a heavy jaw, too heavy, and of course was 27, not 24. What Ph.D candidate was 24? And what blithe conman had they hosted for the summer, fed and watched television with, and fallen in love with?
The phone numbers and addresses he gave them led to dead ends, no answers, restaurants or places where once there were buildings and they were torn down, now. Then, of course, the real Oliver Stern contacted Professor Perlman about looking over his manuscript anyway, even though he hadn’t been able to come in person.
“Pardon me?” Professor Perlman had said, looking befuddled, as we do when we realize at once what’s happening.
On top of everything, the real Oliver’s thesis was on Plato, not Heraclitus, at all.
Some things stay the same only by changing. When they heard more details, from the American police, Elio couldn’t blame Oliver for trying to stay free by becoming different people. There was, indeed, something he was running from, and needed liberation from, that can’t be faked. Maybe being a scholar and the son of Professor Perlman’s old college acquaintance were lies, but other things Elio knew were the truth. The happy exhaustion on Oliver’s face when he finger combed his sweaty hair away from his beautiful face the night they went dancing with Elio’s friends, the way he jutted his hard cock into Elio’s hands and then stiffened and froze, moving Elio’s hand the day he touched him on the Berm, and Elio knew Oliver wanted him, that’s why he was saying no, the way he unraveled when Elio topped him, and laughed for nothing when they reached their hotel room in Bergamo, laughed at the sheer incredulity at all that had happened. The way he really, really loved “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs, and the intimacy of watching him eat the peach.
“Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” He had whispered, and Elio imagined the walls of their hotel room in Bergamo, though many people had now slept there and the sheets had been changed, still rung with the echoes of “Oliverelioliverelio.” He had wanted to say this strange thing, this odd request to him for as long as Elio had wanted to hear him cry out, “You’ll kill me if you stop,” Elio could tell. These things were true, as was his love for Vimini and the look on his face when he bought Elio’s mother flowers for nothing, flowers just because.
Other things were true, too, but a funny thing happened as they heard of Oliver’s travels, his telemarketing scams, the old ladies he had seduced out of lotto money, the odd jobs throughout Canada and the U.S. and then Europe. They forgave him, the worse it got. Mafalda weighed in, in Neapolitan,
“A boy like that, who prefers the company of women and small children, his father beat him, that’s plain to see,” and they all decided that was true, and where his life on the fringe began.
“Some people are too damn smart for their own good,” said her husband Manfredi, but as if Oliver was a naughty son, the smart and obnoxious one he was the cruelest to but was secretly the most proud of.
“He likes animals. Like St. Francis. No bad person likes animals that much,” Vimini said.
“I thought you should know, Elio, I fucked him,” Chiara admitted at last, on a long walk, and quite defensively told him that Oliver had told her more than he had ever told anyone about his past and himself, though she wouldn’t relay these confidences to Elio. It was rather amusing, the way she was prepared to hiss and spit and get loud in the typical Mediterranean way to anyone who would criticize their mutual lover, although no one had anything bad to say at all. In the end, he hadn’t stolen anything or bludgeoned anyone to death, or gotten anyone’s daughter pregnant. He had gambled a lot, but with honest luck that the drunk old men he had played with could not begrudge, could only attribute to the saints.
So Crema forgave Oliver, forgot him a little, and only Professor Perlman seemed shaken. The next student who stayed at the Villa was a girl, who went on quite loudly at the table about Dr. Judy Grahn’s Metaformic theory, that all art and warfare in human history was a patriarchal reenactment of the female miracle of menstruation. Clearly she wanted someone to challenge her, but everyone was frustratingly polite. Elio longed to see her and Chiara trade wits, but they never met. Chiara had a job at a gelato shop, Marzia lived in Belgium, all the old crowd were scattered at different universities, and no one played tennis on the lawn or swam. Vimini’s transfusions seemed to be making a marked improvement on her prognosis, and so Elio spent a lot of time with her, teaching her piano.
“I’ll never be as good as you,” she said.
“You only have to be as good as you, Vimini,” he said.
“I wonder where he is now,” She said.
Elio took his hands off the keys, paused and thought about it. “I think he mines for opals in Australia.”
“He’s a cowboy in Argentina,” Vimini protested.
“Or……he paints caricatures in Paris,” Elio said.
“Naked street musician in New York City,” Vimini said.
“What?” Elio said, shocked that she had said the word naked.
“He’s a living statue,” she said.
“In what city?” Elio said. Vimini said Prague. Prague, somehow, sounded good. He associated it with Baltic amber, and that was the very color of sunlight in Oliver’s hair on the hottest of days.
“He’s sailing all around the world,” Elio said, and they both agreed this was most like Oliver. Or whoever he had been! It was only then Elio realized he had given this man his real name, and had gotten a purloined alias in return.
Some people, you are never going to see again. And this hurts more than anything that they actually did or failed to do. When you want to say something to them, when you need something from them, where are they? Nowhere to write to or call, but we are so used to communication being a simple matter the urge is still to reach. Was saying goodbye easier in the days of letters delivered by ships, the Pony Express, and such? Who knew? But, when the anger and things you wish you could say are gone, a funny thing happens. The essence of them disperses and is reflected out into the world. You see them in fruit in an orchard, in every light blue cotton shirt and pair of espadrilles, in water, in wind, you hear them in your favorite song, their favorite song. They have become a song you know all the words to and can play or sing anytime you want. And you begin to see the ways in which they have changed you.
The leads went cold, the police stopped calling, and Elio’s father became a different version of the same man. He still welcomed and nurtured his students, but the friendship he’d had with Oliver was not to be repeated. A corner had turned. Times were changing, and he was getting older. Elio now knew what sex with a man felt like. He wasn’t afraid of being attracted to men, anymore. When he met someone new, he didn’t slink and hide from them for four weeks before deciding to make a move. And when he and his friends or lovers talked about first loves or first times, Elio wanted to laugh out loud. No one would ever believe he had fallen for a con man impersonating another man as he drifted through the world, taking other people’s names. He simply said, “He was a writer, from America.”
Because, that was one of the things that was true-he really had been writing a book about Heraclitus! And revising, and beating himself up about passages that he didn’t like, as any writer would do. Sometimes, Elio wondered if it had ever been published, and if so, under what name?