Authors: André Aciman
The staring was no longer part of the conversation, or even of the fooling around with translation; it had superseded it and become its own subject, except that neither dared nor wanted to bring it up. And yes, there was such a luster in his eyes that I had to look away, and when I looked back at him, his gaze hadn’t moved and was still focused on my face, as if to say,
So you looked away and you’ve come back, will you be looking away again soon?
—which was why I had to look away once more, as if immersed in thought, yet all the while scrambling for something to say, the way a fish struggles for water in a muddied pond that’s fast drying up in the heat. He must have known exactly what I was feeling. What made me blush in the end was not the natural embarrassment of the moment when I could tell he’d caught me trying to hold his gaze only then to let mine scamper to safety; what made me blush was the thrilling possibility, unbelievable as I wanted it to remain, that he might actually like me, and that he liked me in just the way I liked him.
For weeks I had mistaken his stare for barefaced hostility. I was wide of the mark. It was simply a shy man’s way of holding someone else’s gaze.
We were, it finally dawned on me, the two shyest persons in the world.
My father was the only one who had seen through him from the very start.
“Do you like Leopardi?” I asked, to break the silence, but also to suggest that it was the topic of Leopardi that had caused me to seem somewhat distracted during a pause in our conversation.
“Yes, very much.”
“I like him very much too.”
I’d always known I wasn’t speaking about Leopardi. The question was, did he?
“I knew I was making you uncomfortable, but I just had to make sure.”
“So you knew all this time?”
“Let’s say I was pretty sure.”
In other words, it had started just days after his arrival. Had everything since been pretense, then? And all these swings between friendship and indifference—what were they? His and my ways of keeping stealthy tabs on each other while disclaiming that we were? Or were they simply as cunning a way as any to stave each other off, hoping that what we felt was indeed genuine indifference?
“Why didn’t you give me a sign?” I said.
“I did. At least I tried.”
“After tennis once. I touched you. Just as a way of showing I liked you. The way you reacted made me feel I’d almost molested you. I decided to keep my distance.”
Our best moments were in the afternoon. After lunch, I’d go upstairs for a nap just when coffee was about to be served. Then, when the lunch guests had left, or slunk away to rest in the guesthouse, my father would either retire to his study or steal a nap with my mother. By two in the afternoon, an intense silence would settle over the house, over the world it seemed, interrupted here and there either by the cooing of doves or by Anchise’s hammer when he worked on his tools and was trying not to make too much noise. I liked hearing him at work in the afternoon, and even when his occasional banging or sawing woke me up, or when the knife grinder would start his whetstone running every Wednesday afternoon, it left me feeling as restful and at peace with the world as I would feel years later on hearing a distant foghorn off Cape Cod in the middle of the night. Oliver liked to keep the windows and shutters wide open in the afternoon, with just the swelling sheer curtains between us and life beyond, because it was a “crime” to block away so much sunlight and keep such a landscape from view, especially when you didn’t have it all life long, he said. Then the rolling fields of the valley leading up to the hills seemed to sit in a rising mist of olive green: sunflowers, grapevines, swatches of lavender, and those squat and humble olive trees stooping like gnarled, aged scarecrows gawking through our window as we lay naked on my bed, the smell of his sweat, which was the smell of my sweat, and next to me my man-woman whose man-woman I was, and all around us Mafalda’s chamomile-scented laundry detergent, which was the scent of the torrid afternoon world of our house.
I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight. The lyric cast of the sun, the teeming fields with tall plants nodding away under the intense midafternoon heat, the squeak of our wooden floors, or the scrape of the clay ashtray pushed ever so lightly on the marble slab that used to sit on my nightstand. I knew that our minutes were numbered, but I didn’t dare count them, just as I knew where all this was headed, but didn’t care to read the mile-posts. This was a time when I intentionally failed to drop bread crumbs for my return journey; instead, I ate them. He could turn out to be a total creep; he could change me or ruin me forever, while time and gossip might ultimately disembowel everything we shared and trim the whole thing down till nothing but fish bones remained. I might miss this day, or I might do far better, but I’d always know that on those afternoons in my bedroom I had held my moment.
One morning, though, I awoke and saw the whole of B. overborne by dark, lowering clouds racing across the sky. I knew exactly what this spelled. Autumn was just around the corner.
A few hours later, the clouds totally cleared, and the weather, as though to make up for its little prank, seemed to erase every hint of fall from our lives and gave us one of the most temperate days of the season. But I had heeded the warning, and as is said of juries who have heard inadmissible evidence before it is stricken from the record, I suddenly realized that we were on borrowed time, that time is always borrowed, and that the lending agency exacts its premium precisely when we are least prepared to pay and need to borrow more. Suddenly, I began to take mental snapshots of him, picked up the bread crumbs that fell off our table and collected them for my hideaway, and, to my shame, drew lists: the rock, the berm, the bed, the sound of the ashtray. The rock, the berm, the bed…I wished I were like those soldiers in films who run out of bullets and toss away their guns as though they would never again have any use for them, or like runaways in the desert who, rather than ration the water in the gourd, yield to thirst and swill away, then drop their gourd in their tracks. Instead, I squirreled away small things so that in the lean days ahead glimmers from the past might bring back the warmth. I began, reluctantly, to steal from the present to pay off debts I knew I’d incur in the future. This, I knew, was as much a crime as closing the shutters on sunny afternoons. But I also knew that in Mafalda’s superstitious world, anticipating the worst was as sure a way of preventing it from happening.
When we went on a walk one night and he told me that he’d soon be heading back home, I realized how futile my alleged foresight had been. Bombs never fall on the same spot; this one, for all my premonitions, fell exactly in my hideaway.
Oliver was leaving for the States the second week of August. A few days into the month, he said he wanted to spend three days in Rome and use that time to work on the final draft of his manuscript with his Italian publisher. Then he’d fly directly home. Would I like to join him?
I said yes. Shouldn’t I ask my parents first? No need, they never said no. Yes, but wouldn’t they…? They wouldn’t. On hearing that Oliver was leaving earlier than anticipated and would spend a few days in Rome, my mother asked—with il cauboi’s permission, of course—if I might accompany him. My father was not against it.
My mother helped me pack. Would I need a jacket, in case the publisher wished to take us out to dinner? There’d be no dinner. Besides, why would I be asked to join? I should still take a jacket, she thought. I wanted to take a backpack, travel as everyone my age did. Do as you please. Still, she helped me empty and repack the backpack when it was clear there wasn’t room for everything I wanted to take along. You’re only going for two to three days. Neither Oliver nor I had ever been precise about our last days together. Mother would never know how her “two to three days” cut me that morning. Did we know which hotel we were planning to stay in? Pensione something or other. Never heard of it, but then who was she to know, she said. My father would have none of it. He made the reservations himself. It’s a gift, he said.
Oliver not only packed his own duffel bag but on the day we were to catch the
to Rome he managed to take out his suitcase and place it on the exact same spot in his bedroom where I had plopped it down the day of his arrival. On that day I had fast-forwarded to the moment when I’d have my room back. Now I wondered what I’d be willing to give up if only to rewind things back to the afternoon in late June when I took him on the de rigueur tour of our property and how, with one thing leading to the next, we’d found ourselves approaching the empty scorched lot by the abandoned train tracks where I received my first dose of so many
s. Anyone my age would much rather have taken a nap than trekked to the back reaches of our property on that day. Clearly, I already knew what I was doing.
The symmetry of it all, or was it the emptied, seemingly ransacked neatness of his room, tied a knot in my throat. It reminded me less of a hotel room when you wait for the porter to help you take your things downstairs after a glorious stay that was ending too soon, than of a hospital room after all your belongings have been packed away, while the next patient, who hasn’t been admitted yet, still waits in the emergency room exactly as you waited there yourself a week earlier.
This was a test run for our final separation. Like looking at someone on a respirator before it’s finally turned off days later.
I was happy that the room would revert to me. In my/his room, it would be easier to remember our nights.
No, better keep my current room. Then, at least, I could pretend he was still in his, and if he wasn’t there, that he was still out as he so frequently used to be on those nights when I counted the minutes, the hours, the sounds.
When I opened his closet I noticed that he had left a bathing suit, a pair of underwear, his chinos, and a clean shirt on a few hangers. I recognized the shirt. Billowy. And I recognized the suit. Red. This for when he’d go swimming one last time this morning.
“I must tell you about this bathing suit,” I said when I closed his closet door.
“Tell me what?”
“I’ll tell you on the train.”
But I told him all the same. “Just promise to let me keep it after you’re gone.”
“Well, wear it a lot today—and don’t swim in it.”
“Sick and twisted.”
“Sick and twisted and very, very sad.”
“I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I want Billowy too. And the espadrilles. And the sunglasses. And you.”
On the train I told him about the day we thought he’d drowned and how I was determined to ask my father to round up as many fishermen as he could to go look for him, and when they found him, to light a pyre on our shore, while I grabbed Mafalda’s knife from the kitchen and ripped out his heart, because that heart and his shirt were all I’d ever have to show for my life. A heart and a shirt. His heart wrapped in a damp shirt—like Anchise’s fish.
We arrived at Stazione Termini around 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. The air was thick and muggy, as if Rome had been awash in a rainstorm that had come and gone and relieved none of the dampness. With dusk scarcely an hour away, the street-lights glistened through dense halos, while the lighted storefronts seemed doused in gleaming colors of their own invention. Dampness clung to every forehead and every face. I wanted to caress his face. I couldn’t wait to get to our hotel and shower and throw myself on the bed, knowing all the while that, unless we had good air-conditioning, I’d be no better off after the shower. But I also loved the languor that sat upon the city, like a lover’s tired, unsteady arm resting on your shoulders.
Maybe we’d have a balcony. I could use a balcony. Sit on its cool marble steps and watch the sun set over Rome. Mineral water. Or beer. And tiny snacks to munch on. My father had booked us one of the most luxurious hotels in Rome.
Oliver wanted to take the first taxi. I wanted to take a bus instead. I longed for crowded buses. I wanted to go into a bus, wedge my way into the sweating mass of people, with him pushing his way behind me. But seconds after hopping on the bus, we decided to get out. This was too
, we joked. I backed out through the incoming press of infuriated home-goers who couldn’t understand what we were doing. I managed to step on a woman’s foot. “
E non chiede manco scusa
, doesn’t even say he’s sorry,” she hissed to those around her who had just jostled their way into the bus and were not letting us squeeze out.
Finally, we hailed a cab. Noting the name of our hotel and hearing us speak English, the cabby proceeded to make several unexplained turns. “
Inutile prendere tante scorciatoie
, no need for so many shortcuts. We’re in no rush!” I said in Roman dialect.
To our delight the larger of our adjoining bedrooms had both a balcony and a window, and when we opened the French windows, the glistening domes of numberless churches reflected the setting sun in the vast, unencumbered vista below us. Someone had sent us a bunch of flowers and a bowl filled with fruit. The note came from Oliver’s Italian publisher:
“Come to the bookstore around eight-thirty. Bring your manuscript. There’s a party for one of our authors.
we’re awaiting you.”
We had not planned on doing anything except go for dinner and wander the streets afterward. “Am I invited, though?” I asked, feeling a tad uncomfortable. “You are now,” he replied.
We picked at the bowl of fruit sitting by the television cabinet and peeled figs for each other.
He said he was going to take a shower. When I saw him naked I immediately got undressed as well. “Just for a second,” I said as our bodies touched, for I loved the dampness that clung all over his. “I wish you didn’t have to wash.” His smell reminded me of Marzia’s, and how she too always seemed to exude that brine of the seashore on those days when there isn’t a breeze on the beaches and all you smell is the raw, ashen scent of scalding sand. I loved the salt of his arms, of his shoulders, along the ridges of his spine. They were still new to me. “If we lie down now, there’ll be no book party,” he said.
These words, spoken from a height of bliss it seemed no one could steal from us, would take me back to this hotel room and to this damp
evening as both of us leaned stark-naked with our arms on the windowsill, overlooking an unbearably hot Roman late-late afternoon, both of us still smelling of the stuffy compartment on the southbound train that was probably nearing Naples by now and on which we’d slept, my head resting on his in full view of the other passengers. Leaning out into the evening air, I knew that this might never be given to us again, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. He too must have had the same thought as we surveyed the magnificent cityscape, smoking and eating fresh figs, shoulder to shoulder, each wanting to do something to mark the moment, which was why, yielding to an impulse that couldn’t have felt more natural at the time, I let my left hand rub his buttocks and then began to stick my middle finger into him as he replied, “You keep doing this, and there’s definitely no party.” I told him to do me a favor and keep staring out the window but to lean forward a bit, until I had a brainstorm once my entire finger was inside him: we might start but under no condition would we finish. Then we’d shower and go out and feel like two exposed, live wires giving off sparks each time they so much as flicked each other. Look at old houses and want to hug each one, spot a lamppost on a street corner and, like a dog, want to spray it, pass an art gallery and look for the hole in the nude, cross a face that did no more than smile our way and already initiate moves to undress the whole person and ask her, or him, or both, if they were more than one, to join us first for drinks, for dinner, anything. Find Cupid everywhere in Rome because we’d clipped one of his wings and he was forced to fly in circles.
We had never taken a shower together. We had never even been in the same bathroom together. “Don’t flush,” I’d said, “I want to look.” What I saw brought out strains of compassion, for him, for his body, for his life, which suddenly seemed so frail and vulnerable. “Our bodies won’t have secrets now,” I said as I took my turn and sat down. He had hopped into the bathtub and was just about to turn on the shower. “I want you to see mine,” I said. He did more. He stepped out, kissed me on the mouth, and, pressing and massaging my tummy with the flat of his palm, watched the whole thing happen.
I wanted no secrets, no screens, nothing between us. Little did I know that if I relished the gust of candor that bound us tighter each time we swore
my body is your body
, it was also because I enjoyed rekindling the tiny lantern of unsuspected shame. It cast a spare glow precisely where part of me would have preferred the dark. Shame trailed instant intimacy. Could intimacy endure once indecency was spent and our bodies had run out of tricks?
I don’t know that I asked the question, just as I am not sure I am able to answer it today. Was our intimacy paid for in the wrong currency?
Or is intimacy the desired product no matter where you find it, how you acquire it, what you pay for it—black market, gray market, taxed, untaxed, under the table, over the counter?
All I knew was that I had nothing left to hide from him. I had never felt freer or safer in my life.
We were alone together for three days, we knew no one in the city, I could be anyone, say anything, do anything. I felt like a war prisoner who’s suddenly been released by an invading army and told that he can start heading home now, no forms to fill out, no debriefing, no questions asked, no buses, no gate passes, no clean clothes to stand in line for—just start walking.
We showered. We wore each other’s clothes. We wore each other’s underwear. It was my idea.
Perhaps all this gave him a second wind of silliness, of youth.
Perhaps he had already been “there” years earlier and was stopping for a short stay on his return journey home.
Perhaps he was playing along, watching me.
Perhaps he had never done it with anyone and I’d showed up in the nick of time.
He took his manuscript, his sunglasses, and we shut the door to our hotel room. Like two live wires. We stepped outside the elevator door. Broad smiles for everyone. To the hotel personnel. To the flower vendor in the street. To the girl in the newspaper kiosk.
Smile, and the world smiles back. “Oliver, I’m happy,” I said.
He looked at me in wonderment. “You’re just horny.”
Along the way we caught sight of a human statue of Dante cloaked in red with an exaggerated aquiline nose and the most scornful frown limned on all his features. The red toga and the red bell cap and the thick-rimmed wooden spectacles gave his already stern face the wizened look of an implacable father confessor. A crowd had gathered around the great bard, who stood motionless on the pavement, his arms crossed defiantly, the whole body standing erect, like a man waiting for Virgil or for an overdue bus. As soon as a tourist threw a coin into a hollowed-out, antique book, he simulated the besotted air of a Dante who’s just spied his Beatrice ambling across the Ponte Vecchio and, craning his cobralike neck, would right away moan out, like a street performer spitting fire,
Guido, vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io
fossimo presi per incantamento,
e messi ad un vascel, ch’ad ogni vento
per mare andasse a voler vostro e mio.
Guido, I would that Lapo, thou, and I
Led by some strong enchantment, might ascend
A magic ship, whose charmed sails should fly
With winds at will, where’er our thoughts might wend.
How very true, I thought. Oliver, I wish that you and I and all those we’ve held dear might live forever in one house…
Having muttered his sotto voce verses, he would slowly resume his glaring, misanthropic stance until another tourist tossed him a coin.
E io, quando ’l suo braccio a me distese,
ficcaï li occhi per lo cotto aspetto,
sì che ’l viso abbrusciato non difese
la conoscenza süa al mio ’ntelletto;
e chinando la mano a la sua faccia,
rispuosi: “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?”
Soon as he touched me, I could no more avert
Mine eyes, but on his visage scorched and sered
Fixed them, until beneath the mask of hurt
Did the remembered lineaments appear.
And to his face my hand inclining down,
I answered, “Ser Brunetto, are you here?”
Same scornful look. Same rictus. The crowd dispersed. No one seemed to recognize the passage from the Fifteenth Canto of the
where Dante meets his former teacher, Brunetto Latini. Two Americans, who had finally managed to fish out a few coins from their knapsack, tossed Dante a hail of tiny coins. Same glowering, pissed-off stare:
Ma che ciarifrega, che ciarimporta,
se l’oste ar vino cia messo l’acqua:
e noi je dimo, e noi je famo,
“ciai messo l’acqua
e nun te pagamo.”
What do we care, why do we give a damn
If the innkeeper watered down our wine.
We’ll just tell him, and we’ll just say:
“You’ve added water, and we won’t pay.”
Oliver couldn’t understand why everyone had burst out laughing at the hapless tourists. Because he’s reciting a Roman drinking song, and, unless you know it, it’s not funny.
I told him I’d show him a shortcut to the bookstore. He didn’t mind the long way. Maybe we should take the long way, what’s the rush? he said. Mine was better. Oliver seemed on edge and insisted. “Is there something I should know?” I finally asked. I thought it was a tactful way of giving him a chance to voice whatever was bothering him. Something he was uncomfortable with? Something having to do with his publisher? Someone else? My presence, perhaps? I can take perfectly good care of myself if you prefer to go alone. It suddenly hit me what was bothering him. I’ll be the professor’s son tagging along.
“That’s not it at all, you goose.”
“Then what is it?”
As we walked he put an arm around my waist.
“I don’t want anything to change or to come between us tonight.”
“Who’s the goose?”
He took a long look at me.
We decided to proceed my way, crossing over from Piazza Montecitorio to the Corso. Then up via Belsiana. “This is around where it started,” I said.
“That’s why you wanted to come by here?”
I had already told him the story. A young man on a bicycle three years ago, probably a grocer’s helper or errand boy, riding down a narrow path with his apron on, staring me straight in the face, as I stared back, no smile, just a troubled look, till he passed me by. And then I did what I always hope others might do in such cases. I waited a few seconds, then turned around. He had done the exact same thing. I don’t come from a family where you speak to strangers. He clearly did. He whisked the bicycle around and pedaled until he caught up with me. A few insignificant words uttered to make light conversation. How easily it came to him. Questions, questions, questions—just to keep the words flowing—while I didn’t even have breath to utter “yes” or “no.” He shook my hand but clearly as an excuse to hold it. Then put his arm around me and pressed me to him, as if we were sharing a joke that had made us laugh and drawn us closer. Did I want to get together in a nearby movie house, perhaps? I shook my head. Did I want to follow him to the store—boss was most likely gone by this time in the evening. Shook my head again. Are you shy? I nodded. All this without letting go of my hand, squeezing my hand, squeezing my shoulder, rubbing the nape of my neck with a patronizing and forgiving smile, as if he’d already given up but wasn’t willing to call it quits just yet. Why not? he kept asking. I could have—easily—I didn’t.