It is a truth universally acknowledged that summers should be enjoyed out in the sunshine, not inside, nose buried in books.
That's what Elio Perlman’s mother kept telling him, but Elio could not have cared less. He relished immersing himself in the worlds between pages and at most, sharing them with his best friend Marzia or the dearest of his many cousins, Jane.
While the other young people in the tiny Italian town of Crema preferred to spend their days swimming, dancing, and generally soaking up the summer, Marzia and Jane didn’t require Elio to be around people if he wasn’t up for it. The three of them had been inseparable since they were kids, and the girls were perfectly content just reading alongside Elio on his bed or listening to him play.
Yes, Elio also played the piano. He loved to play, took lessons with a teacher in Crema while dreaming of going to Juilliard, and wanted to do it professionally one day.
His parents greatly encouraged him, because it drew him out of his room. Unlike reading, playing piano could be done in company, for an audience like his aunts and uncles and cousins who were always happy to hear him play the grand piano in the living room of the Perlman villa.
Elio knew his mother only meant well when she tried to persuade him to socialize more. Since he was an only child, she did not want him to be a lonely eighteen-year-old when there were so many people his age in town during the summers.
In the winter, Crema was quiet with only local families around, but at the beginning of every summer season, Elio’s cousins arrived from London and Sicily to stay with them. Jane always came with her two younger sisters Kitty and Mary and their parents to escape the stress of London, whereas Lucia came on her own. Her parents, who were grew lemons and other fruit in a small town in Sicily, could not leave the farm, but they wanted their only daughter to enjoy her summers. Thus, Lucia was sent to the Perlman villa to spend her vacation in the company of her cousins.
Similarly, the other villas in Crema became populated with their summer guests, and to complete the busy atmosphere, a group of American exchange students descended to the tiny town every July.
On the first Saturday of July, Elio and his mother once again had the same conversation.
“Jane is going out too, why don’t you go with her,” Annella Perlman encouraged her son, lovingly raking her fingers through his hair while he slouched on the couch.
Elio had just finished reading the biography of the composer Bach and he decided it might be easier to just humor his mother, so he went upstairs to change his faded t-shirt into a nicer polo shirt, yelling to Jane that he’d meet her outside in five minutes.
When Elio was ready, his dark curls seemingly arranged but just as wild and unruly as ever, he found Jane by the gate as agreed. She stood there with their bikes, fiddling with her long blond braid while she waited for Elio. Jane was always on time, ready to please everyone, but she was also shy, so she was especially happy that Elio was coming with her tonight.
Of the few bars in Crema, Sotto Campo was the one that everyone went to. It was the nicest, by local standards at least, and had the biggest outdoor patio, perfect for summer nights and dancing. Little string lights were hung on the wooden pillars and beams, which made the scene quite charming, especially after the sun had set and the evening got darker.
When Elio and Jane arrived at Sotto Campo, most of the outdoor tables were already populated, as usual. It was a warm night of an even warmer day, and no one wanted to be inside.
Luckily Marzia noticed them and waved her best friend and his cousin over to the table where she was already sitting with a couple of other girls.
Marzia also proceeded to promptly inform Elio and Jane that the first group of this year’s exchange students had supposedly arrived in Crema that morning and that she had heard that they might be coming to Sotto Campo tonight.
“I wonder what kind of people they turn out to be this year. Or if there are any boys in the group,” Jane said. She knew they would have a boring summer ahead of them if there weren’t any.
It had long been the pastime of the girls of Crema to enjoy flirting with the young Americans during the sun-drenched weeks of July. And ever since it had become clear that Elio, too, was more interested in the American boys than the American girls, he had been more than welcome to join in on their giggling conversations.
Thus far however, both Elio and Jane had mostly settled for admiring the handsome foreigners from afar. Jane because of her reserved nature, and Elio because he had simply not found anyone to be interesting enough. No one had cared to discuss Ovid with him or wanted to hear about the elements that Busoni’s compositions had in common with Sibelius’ style.
It was a pity, really, since Elio and Jane were some of the few in Crema who actually spoke fluent English. Their Italian mothers were sisters who had both married men from abroad; Elio’s mother an American and Jane’s mother a Briton.
“If there are any boys this year, I’m sure they will all fall in love with you, Jane,” Elio said and warmly kissed his cousin on her cheek.
Ever since Jane had been a child, she had been considered the beauty of the family with her flaxen hair and creamy complexion, but instead of letting it get to her head, she rather needed the extra boost of confidence every now and then. Elio, who considered her more a sister than a cousin, was happy to give her that.
“And if they don’t, then I know nothing about beauty,” Elio added.
“Or those boys,” Jane laughed.
“Oh, boys can be stupid, for sure,” Elio smirked.
“You know, you say stuff like that now, Elio, but just wait. One day someone interesting will actually show up, and then you’ll have to watch your comments,” Jane warned.
Elio had a quick tongue and even quicker wit, which under the right circumstances could make him quite charming, but Jane knew that he was also easily misunderstood by people who didn’t get his sarcasm.
It took about an hour and a half, but then two American-looking boys and one girl, all in their early twenties, weaved through the crowd at the gate. Two with auburn hair and one with a golden swoop that almost fell on his forehead, they stopped to look around and marvel at this little local gathering.
It was certainly different from their usual nights out on the East Coast in the States. The patio was not paved, leaving them to get their shoes all dusty, and the bar was barely more than just a stand outside, manned by one bartender who seemed to occasionally take on other duties as well. Whenever the breaks in the lively music allowed, loud Italian shouts and chatter filled the air.
Oliver Darcy had his best friend Charlie Bingley and Charlie’s twin sister Caroline with him, but he still felt a little like a fish out of water here. He was more used to the upscale nightclubs in Manhattan and in the Hamptons, with VIP rooms and bottle service. Places where everyone eyed each other on the basis of who they knew and how they could benefit from them were the norm for him. Whereas here, people seemed to fetch their own beers from the bar and no one seemed to care how they were perceived and instead, were simply having fun.
All eyes were on Oliver and the Bingley twins when they arrived, and Oliver heard the whispers around them but only understood the words studenti di scambio, exchange students.
“I had my reservations about whether I was going to enjoy this summer and I must say, this scene doesn’t necessarily reassure me,” Oliver commented.
At least these weeks in Europe would result in him getting the required course credits for his class back in Columbia University, but that might be the only upside of this trip. This tiny town wasn’t quite what he had expected when Charlie had suggested the idea of coming to Italy for the exchange portion of their classes.
Charlie, on the other hand, was delighted. “Just wait Darcy, this will be fun.”
Hailing from upstate New York, Charlie always flourished in small town atmospheres even if they were less affluent than what he was used to. Even now, he was excitedly looking around in the crowd.
Oliver was looking around, too, but with far less enthusiasm. At least up until he noticed a boy with dark, curly hair standing by the bar, in a cerulean blue polo shirt and loose-fitting jeans. The boy glanced back at Oliver, but it wasn’t the kind of look Oliver was used to. The boy’s eyes bore inside him, not caring for one moment about Oliver’s face or clothes that he usually was judged on, or more often, appreciated for.
The stare made Oliver uncomfortable.
Thankfully the boy got his drinks from the bar quickly and left before Oliver, Charlie, and Caroline got close enough to order theirs.
How had the boy been so skinny, even? Weren’t Italians supposed to be subsisting on pasta and bread and olive oil, basically? The curls, on the other hand; those Oliver could understand. It was so humid that his own carefully arranged golden head of hair was at constant risk of getting frizzy. Luckily it was nothing an extra dose of hair gel hadn’t solved.
While they waited for their beers, Charlie was leaning with his back against the counter and kept eyeing the local people. He nodded towards the table that was nearest to the open space acting as a dance floor.
”That girl is really pretty.”
Oliver handed the bartender his euro bills furrowing his brow – he was still trying to get the hang of which color was which denomination – and turned around to take a look. A girl with long blond hair in a braid hanging over her shoulder, kind eyes, a sweet smile.
“Yes, the prettiest one I’ve seen here so far,” Oliver agreed.
”I need to go talk to her,” Charlie decided.
Oliver handed Charlie one of the three beers and knew that this was typical of his friend. With his sunny outlook, Charlie would be at home anywhere, making friends instantly.
”Good luck,” Oliver said and clinked his beer against Charlie’s. ”Caroline and I will stay here and see how that goes for you.”
As Charlie approached the table, Oliver saw that the girl was sitting next to that skinny dark-haired boy from earlier, and the boy was now eyeing Charlie with suspicion. The girl seemed delighted, however, when Charlie sat down; her entire face beaming. Charlie was at a beginner’s level when it came to speaking Italian, so Oliver only hoped the girl knew some English. Not that Charlie’s winning smile wouldn’t have done the trick if needed.
A little while later, the dance floor filled with what must have been the top Italian hit of the week blaring from the speakers. Oliver and Caroline were deep in discussion about comparing this scene to the summer clubs in East Hampton, when Charlie came back to ask for a favor.
”I really want to dance with that girl, Jane – that’s her name – but I think she doesn’t want to leave her friend alone. Will you come and keep him company? He seems nice, and not too shabby-looking, either,” Charlie winked at Oliver.
Oliver groaned. Always the social butterfly himself, Charlie had been trying to pair Oliver off, too, with girls ever since they were in high school. When Oliver had finally told him that he was also into boys, Charlie had just been delighted that his reserve of people to fix Oliver up with had doubled.
Oliver didn’t have to turn to take another look at that boy to know that he would not enjoy his company.
”Sorry Charlie, but I don’t want to. That boy is so not my type. Too skinny, not cute enough to do anything for me, really.”
At the same time, Elio had gone with Marzia to refill their water jugs at the bar and he noticed that the tall one of the Americans was standing close by with his back turned to them. His friend Charlie had been to their table earlier, and Jane had been instantly charmed by him. Elio had found him nice but a bit naïve.
The tall American, whom he and Marzia had stealthily kept an eye on, intrigued Elio more.
Not like that, of course, just out of human curiosity. Not that he wasn’t gorgeous – even Elio had to admit that.
But he seemed reserved, and judgmental of everyone around him. He had a Greek god-like form as if he had been directly lifted from the stories of Olympos, but he looked miserable to be in Sotto Campo to begin with. He acted cold towards everyone, and Elio and Marzia had come to the conclusion that he must be exhausting to be around.
When Elio heard the tall American and Charlie now talking about Jane, and subsequently about a skinny boy at her table who wasn’t “cute enough to do anything” for the tall American, his demeanor steeled nevertheless.
It was one thing for Elio to think the foreigner was arrogant, but to hear himself being judged and dismissed by him like that?
Fine. At least the American had proved their suspicions of his character correct.
Marzia looked at Elio sympathetically.
“Look at the bright side. If he liked you, you’d have to talk to him.”
Elio laughed and agreed that he wouldn’t talk to him if they paid him.
“Okay, let’s get back to our table,” he hurried Marzia along, wanting to get away from the bar before the Americans would notice that he had heard them.
Soon, Charlie came back to their table to continue to flirt with Jane. Elio noted reluctantly that it warmed his heart to see how smitten they both looked already, despite having met each other no more than half an hour ago.
The other two Americans came over a little bit later, prompting Charlie to introduce them.
“Elio, Oliver. Oliver, Elio. And this is my sister, Caroline.”
Elio shook the tall American’s hand with the minimum amount of politeness he could get away with.
Oliver wasted no time making it clear he and Caroline were not going to sit down, they were only there to ask Charlie if they could leave soon.
“You should still reconsider,” Marzia commented. “Evenings like this are the best opportunities to get a feel for the town, as everyone is here.”
She had a point. During the days people were scattered around, all lounging at their respective villas or cooling off at the different swimming spots by the river.
“I don’t think I need to get a better feel for the town,” Oliver said dryly, “This evening has been plenty.”
“Usually the exchange students have felt more at home after they have made connections with the locals,” Elio interjected.
“So what would you recommend?” Oliver asked.
“Just trying to get to know them. Even if they aren’t cute enough to talk to.”
Elio saw Oliver’s eyes flash with a moment of recognition, and that was all he had wanted.
He had been bored anyway, so he left the table and never looked back, only texting Jane from outside the gate that he was going home.