Authors: André Aciman
There was a scuffle of quick sounds as people rushed in and out of the dining room. I had shut my eyes. Get a grip, I kept saying to myself, get a grip. Don’t let your body give the whole thing away.
“Was it my fault?” he asked when he stepped into my bedroom after lunch.
I did not reply. “I’m a mess, aren’t I?”
He smiled and said nothing.
“Sit for a second.”
He sat at the far corner of my bed. He was visiting a hospitalized friend who was injured in a hunting accident.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I thought I was. I’ll get over it.” I’d heard too many characters say the same thing in too many novels. It let the runaway lover off the hook. It allowed everyone to save face. It restored dignity and courage to the one whose cover had been completely blown.
“I’ll let you sleep now.” Spoken like an attentive nurse.
On his way out he said, “I’ll stick around,” the way people might say, I’ll leave the light on for you. “Be good.”
As I tried to doze, the incident on the piazzetta, lost somewhere amid the Piave war memorial and our ride up the hill with fear and shame and who knows what else pressing on me, seemed to come back to me from summers and ages ago, as though I’d biked up to the piazzetta as a little boy before World War I and had returned a crippled ninety-year-old soldier confined to this bedroom that was not even my own, because mine had been given over to a young man who was the light of my eyes.
The light of my eyes, I said, light of my eyes, light of the world, that’s what you are, light of my life. I didn’t know what light of my eyes meant, and part of me wondered where on earth had I fished out such claptrap, but it was nonsense like this that brought tears now, tears I wished to drown in his pillow, soak in his bathing suit, tears I wanted him to touch with the tip of his tongue and make sorrow go away.
I didn’t understand why he had brought his foot on mine. Was it a pass, or a well-meaning gesture of solidarity and comradeship, like his chummy hug-massage, a lighthearted nudge between lovers who are no longer sleeping together but have decided to remain friends and occasionally go to the movies? Did it mean,
I haven’t forgotten, it’ll always remain between us, even though nothing will come of it
I wanted to flee the house. I wanted it to be next fall already and be as far away as I could. Leave our town with its silly Le Danzing and its silly youth no one in his right mind would wish to befriend. Leave my parents and my cousins, who always competed with me, and those horrible summer guests with their arcane scholarly projects who always ended up hogging all the bathrooms on my side of the house.
What would happen if I saw him again? Would I bleed again, cry, come in my shorts? And what if I saw him with someone else, ambling as he so often did at night around Le Danzing? What if instead of a woman, it was a man?
I should learn to avoid him, sever each tie, one by one, as neurosurgeons do when they split one neuron from another, one thought-tormented wish from the next, stop going to the back garden, stop spying, stop heading to town at night, wean myself a bit at a time each day, like an addict, one day, one hour, one minute, one slop-infested second after the other. It could be done. I knew there was no future in this. Supposing he did come into my bedroom tonight. Better yet, supposing I had a few drinks and went into his and told him the plain honest truth square in your face, Oliver: Oliver, I want you to take me. Someone has to, and it might as well be you. Correction: I want it to be you. I’ll try not to be the worst lay of your life. Just do with me as you would with anyone you hope never to run into again. I know this doesn’t sound remotely romantic but I’m tied up in so many knots that I need the Gordian treatment. So get on with it.
We’d do it. Then I’d go back to my bedroom and clean up. After that, I’d be the one to occasionally place my foot on his, and see how he liked that.
This was my plan. This was going to be my way of getting him out of my system. I’d wait for everyone to go to bed. Watch for his light. I’d enter his room from the balcony.
Knock knock. No, no knocking. I was sure he slept naked. What if he wasn’t alone? I’d listen outside the balcony before stepping in. If there was someone else with him and it was too late to beat a hasty retreat, I’d say, “Oops, wrong address.” Yes: Oops, wrong address. A touch of levity to save face. And if he was alone? I’d walk in. Pajamas. No, just pajama bottoms. It’s me, I’d say. Why are you here? I can’t sleep. Want me to get you something to drink? It’s not a drink I need. I’ve already had enough to find the courage to walk from my room to your room. It’s you I’ve come for. I see. Don’t make it difficult, don’t talk, don’t give me reasons, and don’t act as if you’re any moment going to shout for help. I’m way younger than you and you’d only make a fool of yourself by ringing the house alarm or threatening to tell my mommy. And right away I’d take off my pajama bottoms and slip into his bed. If he didn’t touch me, then I’d be the one to touch him, and if he didn’t respond, I’d let my mouth boldly go to places it’d never been before. The humor of the words themselves amused me. Intergalactic slop. My Star of David, his Star of David, our two necks like one, two cut Jewish men joined together from time immemorial. If none of this worked I’d go for
, he’d fight me back, and we’d wrestle, and I’d make sure to turn him on as he pinned me down while I wrapped my legs around him like a woman, even hurt him on the hip he’d scraped in his bicycle fall, and if all this didn’t work then I’d commit the ultimate indignity, and with this indignity show him that the shame was all his, not mine, that I had come with truth and human kindness in my heart and that I was leaving it on his sheets now to remind him how he’d said no to a young man’s plea for fellowship. Say no to that and they should have you in hell feet first.
What if he didn’t like me? In the dark they say all cats…What if he doesn’t like it at all? He’ll just have to try, then. What if he gets really upset and offended? “Get out, you sick, wretched, twisted piece of shit.” The kiss was proof enough he could be pushed that way. To say nothing of the foot?
Amor ch’a null’amato amar perdona.
The foot. The last time he’d brought out such a reaction in me was not when he’d kissed me but when he’d pressed his thumb into my shoulders.
No, there’d been another time yet. In my sleep, when he came into my bedroom and lay on top of me, and I pretended to be asleep. Correction there again: in my sleep I’d heaved ever so slightly, just enough to tell him, Don’t leave, you’re welcome to go on, just don’t say I knew.
When I awoke later that afternoon, I had an intense desire for yogurt. Childhood memories. I went to the kitchen and found Mafalda lazily stowing away the china, which had been washed hours earlier. She must have napped too, and just awakened. I found a large peach in the fruit bowl and began to pare it.
“Faccio io,” she said, trying to grab the knife from my hand.
“No, no, faccio da me,” I replied, trying not to offend her.
I wanted to slice it and then cut the pieces into smaller pieces, and the smaller pieces into yet smaller ones. Till they became atoms. Therapy. Then I picked a banana, peeled it ever so slowly, and then proceeded to slice it into the thinnest slices, which I then diced. Then an apricot. A pear. Dates. Then I took the large container of yogurt from the refrigerator and poured its contents and the minced fruit into the blender. Finally, for coloring, a few fresh strawberries picked from the garden. I loved the purr of the blender.
This was not a dessert she was familiar with. But she was going to let me have my way in her kitchen without interfering, as if humoring someone who’d been hurt enough already. The bitch knew. She must have seen the foot. Her eyes followed me every step of the way as if ready to pounce on my knife before I slit my veins with it.
After blending my concoction, I poured it into a large glass, aimed a straw into it as if it were a dart, and proceeded toward the patio. On my way there, I stepped into the living room and took out the large picture book of Monet reproductions. I placed it on a tiny stool by the ladder. I wouldn’t show him the book. I’d just leave it there. He’d know.
On the patio, I saw my mother having tea with two sisters who had come all the way from S. to play bridge. The fourth player was due to arrive any minute.
In the back, from the garage area, I could hear their driver discussing soccer players with Manfredi.
I brought my drink to the far end of the patio, took out a chaise longue, and, facing the long balustrade, tried to enjoy the last half hour of full sun. I liked to sit and watch the waning day spread itself out into pre-dusk light. This was when one went for a late afternoon swim, but it was good to read then as well.
I liked feeling so rested. Maybe the ancients were right: it never hurt to be bled from time to time. If I continued to feel this way, later I might try to play one or two preludes and fugues, maybe a fantasy by Brahms. I swallowed more of the yogurt and put my leg on the chair next to mine.
It took me a while to realize that I was striking a pose.
I wanted him to come back and catch me ever so relaxed. Little did he know what I was planning for tonight.
“Is Oliver around?” I said, turning to my mother.
“Didn’t he go out?”
I didn’t say anything. So much for “I’ll stick around,” then.
In a while, Mafalda came to remove the empty glass.
Vuoi un altro di questi
, did I want another of
? she seemed to say as though referring to a strange brew whose foreign, un-Italian name, if it had one, was of no interest to her.
“No, maybe I’ll go out.”
“But where will you go at this time?” she asked, implying dinner. “Especially in the state you were in at lunch.
, I worry.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“I’d advise against it.”
“Signora,” she shouted, trying to enlist my mother’s support.
My mother agreed it was a bad idea.
“Then I’ll go for a swim.”
Anything but count the hours until tonight.
On my way down the stairway to the beach, I encountered a group of friends. They were playing volleyball on the sand. Did I want to play? No, thank you, I’ve been sick. I left them alone and ambled toward the large rock, stared at it for a while, and then looked out to the sea, which seemed to aim a rippling shaft of sunlight on the water directly toward me, as in a Monet painting. I stepped into the warm water. I was not unhappy. I wanted to be with someone. But it didn’t trouble me that I was alone.
Vimini, who must have been brought there by one of the others, said she heard I’d been unwell. “We sick ones—,” she began.
“Do you know where Oliver is?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I thought he went fishing with Anchise.”
“With Anchise? He’s crazy! He almost got killed the last time.”
No response. She was looking away from the setting sun.
“You like him, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“He likes you too—more than you do, I think.”
Was this her impression?
No, it was Oliver’s.
When had he told her?
A while ago.
It corresponded to the time when we had almost stopped speaking to each other. Even my mother had taken me aside that week and suggested I be more polite with our cauboi—all that walking in and out of rooms without even a perfunctory hello, not nice.
“I think he is right,” said Vimini.
I shrugged my shoulders. But I had never been visited by such powerful contradictions before. This was agony, for something like rage was brimming over inside me. I tried to still my mind and think of the sunset before us, the way people about to be given a polygraph like to visualize serene and placid settings to disguise their agitation. But I was also forcing myself to think of other things because I did not want to touch or use up any thoughts bearing on tonight. He might say no, he might even decide to leave our house and, if pressed, explain why. This was as far as I would let myself think.
A horrible thought gripped me. What if, right now, among some of the townsfolk he had befriended, or among all those people who clamored to invite him for dinner, he were to let out, or just hint at, what had happened during our bike ride into town? In his place, would
have been able to keep a lid on such a secret? No.
And yet, he had shown me that what I wanted could be given and taken so naturally that one wonders why it needed such hand-wringing torment and shame, seeing it was no more complicated a gesture than, say, buying a pack of cigarettes, or passing a reefer, or stopping by one of the girls behind the piazzetta late at night and, having settled on a price, going upstairs for a few minutes.
When I returned after swimming, there was still no sign of him. I asked. No, he wasn’t back. His bike was in the same place where we’d left it just before noon. And Anchise had returned hours ago. I went up to my room and from my balcony tried to make my way through the French windows of his room. They were shut. All I saw through the glass was the shorts he had been wearing at lunch.