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Fall Letters from New York

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Sunday, September 16, 1984

Dear Marzia,

Per your request, I’m writing to you in English, though it still feels a little weird to me. On parle le Français, tu sais? But I understand that you want to practice your English as much as possible. I was really impressed by how well you were speaking this summer, and I’m sure you’re already even more proficient after a month in England.

Speaking of England, how is it? Do you like it there? Are you meeting nice people? Have you and Jean Marc been able to see one another? And how are your classes going? I want to hear everything about Gonville & Caius College, and the city of Cambridge too…what is it all like? I’ve only been to London, and to Oxford once when I was quite small; I went with my father to a conference there. I hope you’re loving school!

I’m settling into life in New York City. I find it both endlessly exciting and also a little exhausting; it is true what they say in the song, “the city that never sleeps.” Remember when we used to ask Papà to play his Frank Sinatra record when we were little, and we’d dance around the living room and sing along? “I want to be a part of it…New York, New York!” I guess I am a part of it now! Wow, we’ve known each other for such a long time, mon amie. I’m very grateful to have such an old and true friend.

Anyway, I’m enjoying Juilliard. My piano lessons are intense, but in a good way; my teacher challenges me, but is also very encouraging. I’ve begun work on a couple of Rachmaninoff preludes; I have not played much Rachmaninoff before. His compositions are so firmly entrenched in the Romantic era even though he lived well into the 20th century. Many of his contemporaries thought him a relic! But his music manages to be simultaneously sweeping and intimate, even sensual. I’m loving it.

My classes are going well. I’m taking music theory, a music history class that covers antiquity to 1600 (that’s a LOT of ground to cover in one class!), a Keyboard Skills class, and a class in the English department called “American 20th Century Writers.” And I have private piano lessons once a week too. My teacher wants me to get into some accompanying work, also…he says it’s excellent “real world” experience. I subbed for another accompanist at a choir rehearsal this past week, and it was interesting and challenging…I was intrigued. You can’t tune out; you have to stay focused the whole time. It’s intense! I can imagine how good accompanying is its own art form.

I can just hear you wanting to ask: what’s up with Oliver? Well, it’s been really good so far! He met my parents and me at the airport when we arrived in New York, and I ended up staying with him for a few nights until I could get into my dorm. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my parents one day, and my father loved visiting his “old friends;” the Met does have an impressive collection of classical Greek sculpture! We all had a fantastic dinner in Chinatown that same night; I’ve never had such good Chinese food! And the next day, Oliver and I slept in, had brunch, and then hung out in Central Park for the afternoon, playing Frisbee and talking. We met my parents for dinner again that evening, but they were definitely giving us space during the day. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have such understanding parents! I’ve never been so far away from them, at least not for this long, and I do miss them. I also feel like I was ready to leave home in many ways, but I just wish the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t so gigantic, you know?

Since school started, Oliver and I’ve been seeing each other a couple of times a week. The last couple of weekends, I slept over at his place on Saturday night, and we’ve been trying to meet for dinner at least once during the week. I know it may get harder to keep this up as we both get busier with our terms, but I’m absolutely loving it right now. He really seems serious about making time for me. I’m happy, Marzia.

I’ll bet you and Jean Marc have the train schedule between Oxford and Cambridge pretty much memorized by now. Hope you’re able to see each other regularly. And I hope he likes Oxford, and that his studies are going well!

Will your family be coming to Crema for Christmas this year? We will be, and I hope you will be too…I miss you! Hopefully Oliver will be able to come back to Italy with me too. My parents were pretty much insisting on it before they said goodbye to us in New York. You know how they are.

Anyway, I’ll stop so I can get this letter on its way to you. Write back soon!

Love,
Elio

 

Tuesday, September 18, 1984

Dear Vimini,

Thank you for all your wonderful letters. I love receiving them, and I’m sorry that it’s hard for me to keep up and answer them all in turn. I think of you so frequently, but life is very full, and often by the time I get home in the evenings, I’m too tired to put pen to paper, at least not in any coherent fashion. I carved out some time this morning just for you, though. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop near Columbia, enjoying a little time for myself, and there’s nothing I’d rather do right now than write to you.

I know you don’t like to talk about your leukemia, but I am always wondering how you’re feeling, so I have to ask. I hope that you’re still in remission, and as always, I hope it is a permanent remission. You are so strong, Vimini! Many people I know who are much older than you are have not done half as much living as you have already done. It was SO GOOD to see you again in Crema this past summer. You looked healthy and radiant! I love picturing you sitting on our rock in the sunshine.

I know you’re probably wondering how things are with Elio. The short answer is that Elio is wonderful, and we are very happy. We spent several beautiful days together (along with Mr. and Mrs. Perlman) enjoying New York when he first arrived in the city, and we continue to see each other once or twice a week, at least every weekend. We’ve walked all over the city together, and have gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA a couple of times, as well as to a concert at Carnegie Hall just last week. Elio’s piano teacher at Juilliard was performing one of the piano parts in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with a touring choir; you probably know that that piece is scored for two pianos (as part of the orchestra)…I didn’t know that! Anyway, it was an impressive performance, and as it had been years since I’d sat in Carnegie Hall, I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. There is so much amazing history in that place; you can sort of feel it in the air, just being there. I hope you get to hear a concert there one day. It was Elio’s first time seeing the hall, and he just kept looking every direction…his eyes were so round! It was fun to be with him.

I want to thank you, again, for being so accepting of the way that Elio and I feel about each other. Young people like you give me hope for a brighter future for people like me (and Elio). I will never forget how you brought the whole thing up so matter-of-factly as we sat on our rock this summer. “You came back here for Elio, didn’t you?” you asked me. Not even Elio’s parents have been that direct with me, even though they clearly know what’s going on, and are, unbelievably, supportive. After you spoke, I think my heart skipped a couple of beats! But then I realized that your voice didn’t sound judgmental or unkind; you might as well have been asking me whether I liked my new apartment, or how my fall semester at Columbia was shaping up. You know me better than just about anyone, and you had clearly seen what was happening between Elio and me, probably before we even saw it ourselves! I could not deflect or answer you with anything but the truth; we have always been candid with one another. But what was, and is, so special is that I knew, somehow, that I didn’t need to hide this part of myself from you. You are a remarkable young woman, my friend, and you have such a beautiful, accepting spirit. I am so glad that we became friends during my first Crema summer! I just wish Italy and New York were not so far apart.

My fall semester at Columbia is going well so far. I’m teaching a huge undergraduate survey class, Philosophy in the Ancient World. I’m also teaching a smaller, graduate-level seminar that I tried out this summer during our summer intensive, and have expanded into a regular, semester-length class: it’s called Gender and Sexuality in the Art of Ancient Greece. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I consulted with Elio’s father on my syllabus! We’ve been having some great discussions in the class, and the students seem to find the material fascinating. It’s fun for me to have new material to teach, too. I’ve also started work on a second book. I’ll let you guess as to the subject matter of it…think about our conversations this summer.

I’m hoping to be able to join the Perlmans in Crema over winter break this year. Will your family be there, do you think? I hope so. It would be really good to see you.

I hope your school year is going well. Tell me about your favorite subjects in school (or your least favorite if you prefer). I’d love to hear more about your life when you’re not in Crema. How is your own writing going? If you ever want to share some of your poetry with me, I’d love to read it. I can hardly be critical since I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it! I also hope you’re enjoying your school choir; it sounds like that group brings you a lot of joy.

Well, I’ll stop for now, and walk this letter down the street to our campus post office. I hope that when it reaches you, it finds you having a good day and feeling well!

I miss you.

Your friend,
Oliver

 

Tuesday, September 18, 1984

Dear Mother and Father,

I hope this note finds you both well.

I received the invitation to Father’s retirement party next month. I do plan to come home for the celebration; I will take the train up Saturday morning, stay over on Saturday night, and return to the city on Sunday. Father, I offer you my sincere congratulations on a long and successful career, and I hope you will enjoy your retirement very much; you have certainly earned it.

Mother, in response to the note you enclosed, yes, I did hear that Joshua and Kate had their baby; Josh called me to share the happy news of Adam’s birth. Congratulations on your new grandson! I know you’ve both been eager to become grandparents. I’ll look forward to seeing all of them at the party, and meeting my new nephew!

Yes, Mother, I had heard that JoAnn is dating someone new. I am happy for her; I have never wished her anything but the best. That is, in fact, precisely why I broke off our engagement. I became certain that I was not the right person for JoAnn, and I did not want to tie her down. She is a good woman, and I truly wish her a happy life.

In answer to your question: no, there is not a new woman in my life. Getting married is not a priority for me right now. I’m busy with my teaching and research, and enjoying time with friends. My life is full and good, and I am quite content.

Thank you for the invitation to join you for your seder on the first night of Rosh Hashana. As it falls during the week, and I have to teach, I will not be able to come home. I will be celebrating the holiday with friends here in the city.

Enjoy the beautiful fall weather and the foliage. I do miss New England in the fall.

Your son,
Oliver

 

Sunday, September 23, 1984

Dear Papà and Maman,

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to write before now! I trust that you have taken the silence as evidence that my life here in New York is full, busy, and good. It was wonderful speaking to you on the phone earlier this month, but it’s amazing that it’s already been two weeks since we talked. Time is flying by!

I miss you both a lot, and hope that you’re doing well! How are your semesters going? I’d love to hear all about your classes and your favorite students. Do either of you have any conference travel coming up? Maman, I was so happy to hear that you have a conference in New York in March…it seems so far away now, but it will be here before we know it. Papà, I think you should tag along too.

How is Mafalda? Please send her my love! I miss her, and I miss her cooking terribly. Even the places in Little Italy can’t compare. I have truly led a charmed life. Next time I’m home, I need to start spending time with her in the kitchen, and taking lots of notes…I know she doesn’t have any recipes written down because she just knows how to do it all. Incredible!

It’s a peaceful Sunday morning, and I’m writing you from Oliver’s little kitchen table; he’s out for his morning run, and I’ve made a pot of coffee and am enjoying the quiet. We’ve fallen into a pattern of spending Saturday evening and much of Sunday together. I like being on campus on Friday nights so I can hang out with friends and go to parties, but it’s so nice to spend time with Oliver later in the weekend. We both do our work on Saturday during the day, and then get together in the late afternoon, or certainly by dinner time. I stay over at his place, and then we spend much of Sunday together…I head back to Juilliard in the late afternoon to get a couple hours of piano practice in before dinner, eat, and then study/do homework in the evening. I’m so happy that Oliver is making so much time for me; I know his teaching makes his life very full. So far we’ve usually been able to find a night during the week to meet for dinner, also, and that’s been lovely. He’s enjoying taking me to all his favorite cheap restaurants. We had delicious Thai food this past Wednesday. I’m very happy.

Oliver seems happy too (mostly). He definitely seems happy with me. Sometimes work stresses him out a bit because it sounds like his department chair at Columbia can be a bit of a jerk, but I think on the whole he likes his job. His two courses are going well, especially the new course on gender and sexuality in the art of ancient Greece that he tried out over the summer and is teaching this fall for the first time; I know he told you all about it when he visited. That course is much smaller than his big survey class, so he can really connect with his students. I’d love to see Oliver teach sometime. I think I need to sneak into one of his classes one of these days. ☺

The “mostly” that I mentioned above is a reference to one thing that does seem to bother Oliver: his family. Every time I ask about them, he gets tense and gives me one-syllable answers to my questions, especially when I ask him about his parents. He’s a little bit more forthcoming when he talks about his older brother, Josh; Josh and his wife, Kate, actually just had a baby boy, Adam, last week, so Oliver is an uncle now! Josh and Kate live in Boston; Josh is a lawyer at a big firm, and I don’t know what Kate does (she’s probably staying home with the baby right now). Oliver’s parents are having a party to celebrate his dad’s retirement in October, and Oliver plans to go home to Connecticut for that; he’ll get to meet his new nephew then. I keep hoping that he’ll ask me to come with him, but I suspect that Oliver will never feel comfortable being honest with his family about us. I’m trying not to worry about this, as I know our relationship is still very new, and I’m so happy and grateful that Oliver wants to be with me. But still, I do wonder sometimes how it’s going to play out in the future. I guess only time will tell. Maman, I can hear your words in my head: "Ne t'inquiète pas, chérie." I’m trying.

We had a fun evening last night. Oliver’s department colleague, Jill, and her husband, Miguel, who is in the biology department at Columbia, had us over for dinner. They live in Brooklyn, and you can hang out on the roof of their building! The residents all take care of the rooftop space together! There are chairs and a table up there, and a variety of garden plants in pots; the space is decorated with Christmas lights and even some tiki torches. It was a warm night, so we all brought our dinner plates up and enjoyed the night sky. It was magical to watch lights twinkle on the East River, and see the skyline of Manhattan lit up like a giant, sideways Christmas tree. This place is pretty amazing. Jill and Miguel are both super nice, too, and seem unconditionally accepting of us as a couple. I wondered if I would feel weird hanging out with other people Oliver’s age, but it was actually very comfortable. I guess, thanks to Dinner Drudgery and all your many guests and visitors over the years, I’ve always been around lots of people older than me. Thank you, Maman and Papà.

I wrote Marzia a letter last weekend; I’m looking forward to hearing back from her, and finding out how everything is going in Cambridge. She sent me a postcard a couple of weeks ago with a picture of her college on it; it looks really beautiful! I sent her one back with a picture of the Empire State Building since Juilliard is not actually that interesting to look at compared to other buildings in New York City.

I realize that I’ve hardly mentioned school. It’s really, really good! Dr. Shapiro is an excellent piano teacher; he’s kind but does not tolerate laziness, and he’s pushing me in the best possible ways. We get along great! I’m working hard and tackling some Rachmaninoff preludes right now, which I’m really enjoying digging into. I saw Dr. Shapiro in concert at Carnegie Hall last week; he was playing one of the piano parts in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and it was really awesome to watch him perform for an audience. And Carnegie Hall…wow! What an incredible place…visiting there was a kind of pilgrimage for me. Oliver said he could feel all the history of the amazing music in the air there, in the very walls around us. I totally agree with him! That’s a memory I’ll always treasure, my first concert in Carnegie Hall.

As for my other classes, they’re good. My music theory and music history classes are fine…good teachers, and the work is going well. My keyboard skills class is a little basic and boring, but it's a good one to get out of the way first semester. My favorite class this semester is actually my English class about 20th century American literature. We’re reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God right now. What an engrossing book! I've never read anything else like it! We have really good discussions in that class…nearly everyone participates. I love that.

My roommate, Dave, and I are getting along fine. He’s a voice major, a tenor who plans to be an opera singer, and as you may remember, he’s originally from Charleston, SC. I love his accent! Anyway, he’s very busy just like I am, and our schedules actually work pretty well so that we each have some time in the room when the other is not there. But I do enjoy talking with him. He’s totally cool about Oliver; he shared with me pretty early on that he’s gay, and has a boyfriend who goes to NYU; they met at some kind of summer opera program. So it’s nice that I don’t have to worry about that issue with Dave. I feel very lucky.

OK, Oliver just got back from his run, so I’m going to wrap this up, and let you two get on with your lives! I love you and miss you, Papà and Maman. I wish the ocean wasn’t so huge so that I could see you more often, and hug you both! But Christmas/Hanukkah break will be here before we know it. I’m going to make Oliver come to Crema with me!

Hugs and kisses to you both,
Elio