Next Saturday, Annella Perlman was pleased. It seemed to take a little less of an effort to get his son to go out with the other young people. She didn’t know what had caused the change, but didn’t care as long as it meant that Elio would be out spending time with his peers instead of reading alone in his room.
Ever since the previous week’s outing, Jane had gushed about the Americans, especially about the nice and sensible Charlie. First Elio had gotten an earful when Jane had gotten home that night as he was already about to go to bed, and it had continued at the family breakfast the next morning.
Both Jane’s mother and her little sisters Kitty and Mary, who had run into the exchange students at the grocery store, joined in on her praise of Charlie. The Bingleys and their friend were already the talk of the town and by now everyone was aware that they were far richer than the average summer students in Crema.
“And he was sooo cute and so nice! Did he really hang out with you all evening, Jane?”
“Yes, he did,” Elio affirmed for Jane, laughing while the girl herself blushed, shy but pleased.
The younger girls sighed with envy.
“We want to come next weekend, too,” whined the sixteen-year old Lucia.
Lucia had been sent to Crema to spend the summer with her cousins, because her parents could not leave their family farm in Sicily. Yet, she, Kitty, and Mary often felt left out at the villa. The five cousins had been close when they were kids, but at eighteen, Elio and Jane were not as interested in the younger ones’ activities anymore.
After much begging, Mrs Perlman and Jane’s mother agreed that the younger girls could go out with Elio and Jane, if they promised to be careful and be home by their curfew.
Thus, that evening Elio arrived at Sotto Campo with Marzia and his four cousins. They were all in high spirits, and even more excited when the Americans arrived again. Elio refused to admit it even to himself, but seeing the tall American – Oliver, was it? – did something to him. Too bad he was so rude.
The younger girls were overjoyed for the chance to be joining the others, and they took over the dance floor almost immediately. Especially the lively Lucia made the most of her opportunity to be out of the villa and talking to cute boys instead of having to settle for the company of her old aunts and uncles. In the process, she cared very little about what anyone might have thought of her.
Jane’s elation, however, mixed with anxiety when Charlie came over again to talk to her. As she was shy and not used to that kind of attention, she got nervous.
“I’m sure I’ll end up saying something stupid and he never wants to talk to me again,” she worried to Elio.
Elio tried his best to convince her. “You have nothing to worry about, just be yourself. He was pretty enchanted last week already.”
Still, to calm her nerves, Jane inadvertently ended up drinking more than necessary over the course of the evening. She looked like she was having fun, though, so Elio only kept an eye on her but mainly entertained himself for the rest of the evening.
Some of said entertainment included dancing, and if he happened to be closer to the side of the dance floor where the tall American was sitting, drinking his beer, it was only a coincidence. Elio honestly couldn’t have cared less, what a miserable entitled guy, probably sitting there just judging everyone, with his tanned, perfect muscles and shiny golden hair.
Caroline saw Oliver sitting next to the dance floor, eyes fixed on the dancers. He must have been bored out of his mind, she thought. She couldn’t believe Charlie had managed to persuade Oliver to come to Sotto Campo again after last week. This was such an understatement compared to their usual haunts, but maybe it was still better to be here than to be sitting alone at their apartment on a Saturday night.
Caroline slipped into the chair next to Oliver and with her voice dripping sarcasm commented that she could very well imagine what was going on in his head right now.
“I don’t think you can,” Oliver replied, barely taking his eyes off of Elio who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself on the dance floor.
“Let me guess. You are probably thinking how horrible it would be to spend your whole life here, having to do this every single Saturday night,” Caroline guessed with a laugh.
Oliver took a sip of his beer. “No, not really. I’ve been thinking how attractive it can be when someone knows how to dance.”
Elio left for home when he couldn’t locate Marzia anymore. She as well as Elio’s cousins must have left when he had been preoccupied with the ‘80s medley the DJ had been playing, he thought. He was still humming the tunes for the entire bike ride home.
Elio was just about to open the gate to the villa and drag his bike inside, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. A text from Jane.
”I think I had too much to drink. Not feeling too good. I’m at Charlie’s place on Via Largo, the red building next to the ice cream place.”
He knew he should’ve paid closer attention to her. He also knew his mother – or Jane’s mother, for that matter – wouldn’t be happy in the morning if they found out that he had left her unattended with virtual strangers, so he pocketed his phone, closed the gate and hopped back on his bike.
Elio rode back to town as fast as he could, getting even sweatier in the process than he already had been after having spent most of the warm night on the dance floor. Based on Jane’s text it didn’t sound like she was in trouble, but better safe than sorry. Charlie had seemed nice, but you could never be certain and they hardly knew him, after all.
When he arrived in front of the red building on Via Largo, Elio heard noises from above.
The windows on the second floor were open and he thought he recognized one of the speaking voices as Charlie’s. He laid his bike against the wall and climbed upstairs. Swiping his sweaty forehead on his sleeve, Elio rang the doorbell.
Caroline came to the door. Elio could see over her shoulder into the apartment; it seemed very nice, upscale.
”Hi, is Jane here?”
”Hey Elio, yes, she is. Charlie thought she’d be safer here than trying to get home in the shape that she’s in.” Caroline’s words were friendly, but they were delivered in a cool tone.
Elio pushed past her and saw Jane lying on the couch, Charlie sitting next to her, perched on the edge of the coffee table.
There was a glass of water and a cup of coffee on the table, and Charlie’s kind eyes looked worried.
”Hi, Eeeeliooooo.” Jane extended her arms towards him and Elio bent down to hug her. She was clearly inebriated, but other than that, she seemed to be in one piece.
”Hey. I got your text. How are you doing?”
”I’m feeling awful, but thankfully these lovely gentlemen took me here.”
Jane patted Charlie’s knee and he looked at Elio apologetically. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that she was not that used to drinking.”
”What were you guys having?” Elio sighed. He hadn’t been in a situation like this with Jane before. They did drink when they went out, but always more responsibly than this.
”Just vodka shots, but maybe there were more of those than what would’ve been wise.”
”Yeah, hard liquor isn’t really her thing. But I’m sure she’ll be fine. I doubt she’ll be able to ride her bike home right now, though. So just give me a second and I’ll call a taxi and take her home with me.”
”Yeah, she and all my cousins are staying at our villa for the summer.”
Charlie thought for a moment. ”You know, why don’t you both stay here for the night. We have extra beds, this apartment was meant for a bigger group but now it’s just us. She can sober up and you can take her home tomorrow.”
Elio pondered the offer for a moment. Charlie and even Caroline seemed nice enough, and maybe this would be a better alternative than paying for a taxi all the way back to the villa, not to mention trying to then haul Jane up to her room without waking up the whole house.
”Okay, thanks. If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”
”Of course. It’s kind of my fault, anyway, so whatever I can do to help, you know. She can stay here on the couch so we don’t have to move her, and you can take my room. I can bunk with Oliver.”
As if on cue, the tall American appeared from the kitchen in nothing but sweatpants, holding a glass of water.
”Elio came to take Jane home,” Charlie explained. “But it’s probably best if they both stay here overnight so that she can sober up.”
”Sure.” Oliver took a gulp of his water and disappeared to his room.
After Oliver had realized that being around Elio could spell trouble for himself, he had tried his best to avoid him. And now that skinny boy had turned up at their apartment in the middle of the night, all disheveled and in soaking wet clothing, like someone had run their hands through his hair all night while giving him reasons to sweat.
Elio had bitten his lip when he had said hi to Oliver, and Oliver had seen the tip of his tongue quickly flick out and then back in. Elio’s shirt had been clinging to his back and Oliver would have gladly freed him from it. His damp curls had been plastered to his forehead and Oliver had wanted to reach and push them aside, but all of these were weird urges, weren’t they?
Oliver wondered how he was going to sleep, knowing that the boy was in the next room.
When Charlie came to take the spare bed in Oliver’s room, Oliver bid him goodnight quickly and turned towards the wall, bunching up the covers over his front. He didn’t want Charlie to get the wrong idea and think that his predicament had anything to do with him. He wanted to admit even less that the local skinny boy had any effect on him. Oliver dated boys from Ivy League schools in sport coats or girls with trust funds; not borderline rude, too-witty-for-their-own-good Italian boys.
In the morning, it turned out that Jane was still slightly drunk and only entering the worst phase of her hangover. Therefore, it was not an option for her and Elio to leave home as soon as the sun had come up as Elio had planned. Instead, they would have to stay longer at the apartment with Charlie, Caroline, and Oliver.
Elio had come there straight from their night out, so he didn’t have any entertainment with him. Luckily the place that the Americans had rented belonged to someone with an interest in literature and there were wall-to-wall bookshelves in more than one room of the apartment. Elio had already scanned them for possible pastime, since it looked like it would take the better part of the day to get Jane into a shape where she would not throw up every time she tried to get up.
The Americans hung out in the living room and they had moved Jane to Caroline’s room so that she could sleep and recuperate without the others bothering her. Elio had talked to Jane for a bit, and she seemed embarrassed that she had caused so much trouble, but Elio assured her it was fine.
“Thanks again for taking care of her last night and letting us stay here,” Elio said to Charlie as he walked back to the living room.
“No, it’s my pleasure. I mean, not that she’s feeling like that, of course, but that she’s here, feeling like that. I mean…”
Elio smiled to let Charlie know he understood him despite his babbling, and went to take a closer look at the largest bookshelf in the living room. He picked one book and curled up in the corner of the couch.
Oliver sat in an armchair across the room and pretended to scroll through his phone but observed Elio from the corner of his eye. Elio seemed weirdly at ease in their apartment and carried himself in a manner that looked much more mature compared to his eighteen-year-old peers, or even compared to himself or Charlie.
Caroline was painting her nails bright red next to Elio on the couch, and while she waited for the first coat to dry, she noticed Oliver glancing at their guest. It made her uneasy, and took attention away from her, which she especially didn’t appreciate.
Caroline liked having Oliver around and to an extent, had grown to consider him hers.
Her feelings towards his twin brother’s childhood friend had inevitably changed around the time they had grown into their teens, and as the kid who used to pull her hair had turned into a handsome young man. Caroline was in no rush though, and she kept waiting for Oliver to get through his dating phase and realize that what he truly wanted, was to become Charlie’s brother-in-law.
She had been patient, and so far it had been easy to be nonchalant when Oliver had brought girls around, or boys, for that matter. He hadn’t seemed serious about any of them, so Caroline had never really had to worry. However, there was something in the way Oliver kept looking at Elio that made her wonder.
“Why are you on your phone, Oliver, we have guests,” she started, flipping her curly auburn locks.
“I’m taking care of my emails,” Oliver replied.
“You always have emails. Are they for the business stuff?”
“How boring! Come on, it’s Sunday.”
“If one is in training to take over the family company, one can’t really ever take a day off. Besides, these are from Saturday, it’s barely midnight in New York.”
Charlie watched the typical back-and-forth with his sister and his friend, and then commented to Elio how nice it was to see people actually read books.
Elio agreed. He said he liked it to begin with, but also wanted to make a conscious effort to keep reading them. Everyone was always on their phone, which shortened people’s concentration spans, making it even harder to keep at reading long novels.
Oliver interjected with a remark that it was possible to do both. Those two things didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“Yes, maybe it’s possible for you, Oliver, but that’s only because you’re perfect,” Caroline laughed.
“Perfect, is that so? A man without fault?” Elio tilted his head.
“No one’s perfect. I try my best, though, to avoid some of the common traps people fall into these days, or complain about.”
“Like pride and judgment?” Elio asked pointedly.
Oliver sensed the condescending tone and didn’t like it. “Pride is not a flaw, if you can control it.”
Elio’s lips curved slightly in a sarcastic smile, which made Oliver continue equally pointedly: “I have flaws, but they are not in my comprehension skills. I have been called resentful, though. If I once find that someone isn’t worth my time, I’m hardly going to change my mind later.”
In an effort to defuse the suddenly charged situation, Caroline prodded Elio about what it was that he was reading, then, and asked if he had seen the current top New York Times bestseller in the shelf. Elio patiently explained that he had, but that he liked to read all genres, starting from poetry by Ovid.
”Is that what you’re reading now?” Caroline asked sharply. Elio sensed her prickliness but wasn’t quite sure what the reason for it was.
”No, this is poetry too, but this is by Celan.”
He showed Caroline the cover of the book.
“Huh. Interesting.” Her voice indicated that she thought it was anything but. “Can you read us something?”
Elio really wouldn’t have been in the mood, but thought it best to humor her for a few lines.
“Umm, sure. Let me see… Okay. If I were like you. If you were like me. Did we not stand under one trade wind? We are strangers. The flagstones.”
”Can you believe that, Oliver? Despite all the books that were on offer here, Elio would rather read poetry like that?” Caroline sounded sarcastic.
”On them, close to each other, the two heart-grey puddles: two mouthsfull of silence,” Oliver commented.
”What?” Caroline was puzzled.
Elio bit on his tongue to suppress a smile. He had begun to get a clue what Caroline was trying to do, and her plan had just backfired.
”That’s how it continues. It’s from Celan’sSprachgitter,” Oliver explained. ”It’s my favorite poem of his.”
Caroline squinted, looking at Oliver. ”You read this...Celan, Oliver?”
”Sure. He’s a classic. It’s refreshing to see that at least someone is still interested in more than just the hottest novel of the month,” Oliver added.
Elio glanced at Oliver and felt that for the first time, Oliver looked back without the blank disinterest that Elio had already gotten accustomed to.
Caroline looked from Oliver to Elio and then back to Oliver, and she wasn’t pleased.
She felt, however, that she wasn’t in a secure enough position to continue this conversation, so she let it go and returned to her primping. She started adding a second coat of paint to her nails in silence as Elio went back to his book and Oliver to his phone.
Oliver continued scrolling his inbox of emails, but found it hard to concentrate and accidentally almost forwarded an internal board member email to one of their biggest customers.
It took till early evening until Jane started to feel well enough to think about getting home. Oliver and Charlie came downstairs to see them off. While Charlie and Jane went to get her bike from the backyard where they had walked it to on the previous night, Elio waited for them in front of the building.
Elio fiddled with the handlebar of his bike and Oliver kicked the pebbles on the sidewalk to the wall. The sound of the rocks hitting the wall echoed in the empty street.
Elio didn’t really know why Oliver had come down in the first place.
”Cool bike. What’s that inscription?” Oliver asked and pointed to a rough engraving on the crossbar of Elio’s bike.
”My initials, EBP. Elio Bennet Perlman. I did that when I got this bike. I mean, like years ago. When I was a kid.”
Oliver nodded, looking like he stored that information somewhere even though Elio had no idea what he would ever need it for. But he didn’t get a chance to ask, either, because Oliver suddenly decided to go back upstairs.
Elio was left standing there with his bike, baffled by this man who looked like a movie star, read Celan, and had the most peculiar social manners.
Elio had texted his mother about his and Jane’s whereabouts that morning so that the family wouldn’t be worried. Nevertheless, everyone at the villa came to meet them in the hall when they got home.
Jane was still embarrassed about having caused all the trouble, but was also beaming when she explained to everyone how Charlie had taken care of her like such a gentleman, and how lovely his sister had been. Jane’s mother got quickly over the fact that her daughter had been so careless with her drinking and only marveled at how she was now such close friends with the rich Americans.
No one paid any attention to Elio, and he used the opportunity to sneak off upstairs to his room.
Finally some peace and quiet.
He went to his bookshelf and pulled out his own copy of Celan’s Sprachgitter and searched for the page with the poem on it.
”Two heart-grey puddles,” he said quietly to himself as he ran his finger over the words on the page.