Authors: André Aciman
This alternation of running and swimming was simply his “routine” in graduate school. Did he run on the Sabbath? I joked. He always exercised, even when he was sick; he’d exercise in bed if he had to. Even when he’d slept with someone new the night before, he said, he’d still head out for a jog early in the morning. The only time he didn’t exercise was when they operated on him. When I asked him what for, the answer I had promised never to incite in him came at me like the thwack of a jack-in-the-box wearing a baleful smirk. “Later.”
Perhaps he was out of breath and didn’t want to talk too much or just wanted to concentrate on his swimming or his running. Or perhaps it was his way of spurring me to do the same—totally harmless.
But there was something at once chilling and off-putting in the sudden distance that crept between us in the most unexpected moments. It was almost as though he were doing it on purpose; feeding me slack, and more slack, and then yanking away any semblance of fellowship.
The steely gaze always returned. One day, while I was practicing my guitar at what had become “my table” in the back garden by the pool and he was lying nearby on the grass, I recognized the gaze right away. He had been staring at me while I was focusing on the fingerboard, and when I suddenly raised my face to see if he liked what I was playing, there it was: cutting, cruel, like a glistening blade instantly retracted the moment its victim caught sight of it. He gave me a bland smile, as though to say,
No point hiding it now
Stay away from him.
He must have noticed I was shaken and in an effort to make it up to me began asking me questions about the guitar. I was too much on my guard to answer him with candor. Meanwhile, hearing me scramble for answers made him suspect that perhaps more was amiss than I was showing. “Don’t bother explaining. Just play it again.” But I thought you hated it. Hated it? Whatever gave you that idea? We argued back and forth. “Just play it, will you?” “The same one?” “The same one.”
I stood up and walked into the living room, leaving the large French windows open so that he might hear me play it on the piano. He followed me halfway and, leaning on the windows’ wooden frame, listened for a while.
“You changed it. It’s not the same. What did you do to it?”
“I just played it the way Liszt would have played it had he jimmied around with it.”
“Just play it again,
I liked the way he feigned exasperation. So I started playing the piece again.
After a while: “I can’t believe you changed it again.”
“Well, not by much. This is just how Busoni would have played it if he had altered Liszt’s version.”
“Can’t you just play the Bach the way Bach wrote it?”
“But Bach never wrote it for guitar. He may not even have written it for the harpsichord. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s by Bach at all.”
“Forget I asked.”
“Okay, okay. No need to get so worked up,” I said. It was my turn to feign grudging acquiescence. “This is the Bach as transcribed by me without Busoni and Liszt. It’s a very young Bach and it’s dedicated to his brother.”
I knew exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him the first time, and each time I played it, I was sending it to him as a little gift, because it was really dedicated to him, as a token of something very beautiful in me that would take no genius to figure out and that urged me to throw in an extended cadenza. Just for him.
We were—and he must have recognized the signs long before I did—flirting.
Later that evening in my diary, I wrote:
I was exaggerating when I said I thought you hated the piece
What I meant to say was: I thought you hated me. I was hoping you’d persuade me of the opposite—and you did, for a while. Why won’t I believe it tomorrow morning?
So this is who he also is, I said to myself after seeing how he’d flipped from ice to sunshine.
I might as well have asked: Do I flip back and forth in just the same way?
P.S. We are not written for one instrument alone; I am not, neither are you.
I had been perfectly willing to brand him as difficult and unapproachable and have nothing more to do with him. Two words from him, and I had seen my pouting apathy change into I’ll play anything for you till you ask me to stop, till it’s time for lunch, till the skin on my fingers wears off layer after layer, because I like doing things for you, will do anything for you, just say the word, I liked you from day one, and even when you’ll return ice for my renewed offers of friendship, I’ll never forget that this conversation occurred between us and that there are easy ways to bring back summer in the snowstorm.
What I forgot to earmark in that promise was that ice and apathy have ways of instantly repealing all truces and resolutions signed in sunnier moments.
Then came that July Sunday afternoon when our house suddenly emptied, and we were the only ones there, and fire tore through my guts—because “fire” was the first and easiest word that came to me later that same evening when I tried to make sense of it in my diary. I’d waited and waited in my room pinioned to my bed in a trancelike state of terror and anticipation. Not a fire of passion, not a ravaging fire, but something paralyzing, like the fire of cluster bombs that suck up the oxygen around them and leave you panting because you’ve been kicked in the gut and a vacuum has ripped up every living lung tissue and dried your mouth, and you hope nobody speaks, because you can’t talk, and you pray no one asks you to move, because your heart is clogged and beats so fast it would sooner spit out shards of glass than let anything else flow through its narrowed chambers. Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door, but I’d sooner he never knock than knock now. I had learned to leave my French windows ajar, and I’d lie on my bed wearing only my bathing suit, my entire body on fire. Fire like a pleading that says, Please, please, tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’ve imagined all this, because it can’t possibly be true for you as well, and if it’s true for you too, then you’re the cruelest man alive. This, the afternoon he did finally walk into my room without knocking as if summoned by my prayers and asked how come I wasn’t with the others at the beach, and all I could think of saying, though I couldn’t bring myself to say it, was, To be with you. To be with you, Oliver. With or without my bathing suit. To be with you on my bed. In your bed. Which is my bed during the other months of the year. Do with me what you want. Take me. Just ask if I want to and see the answer you’ll get, just don’t let me say no.
And tell me I wasn’t dreaming that night when I heard a noise outside the landing by my door and suddenly knew that someone was in my room, someone was sitting at the foot of my bed, thinking, thinking, thinking, and finally started moving up toward me and was now lying, not next to me, but on top of me, while I lay on my tummy, and that I liked it so much that, rather than risk doing anything to show I’d been awakened or to let him change his mind and go away, I feigned to be fast asleep, thinking, This is not, cannot, had better not be a dream, because the words that came to me, as I pressed my eyes shut, were, This is like coming home, like coming home after years away among Trojans and Lestrygonians, like coming home to a place where everyone is like you, where people know, they just know—coming home as when everything falls into place and you suddenly realize that for seventeen years all you’d been doing was fiddling with the wrong combination. Which was when I decided to convey without budging, without moving a single muscle in my body, that I’d be willing to yield if you pushed, that I’d already yielded, was yours, all yours, except that you were suddenly gone and though it seemed too true to be a dream, yet I was convinced that all I wanted from that day onward was for you to do the exact same thing you’d done in my sleep.
The next day we were playing doubles, and during a break, as we were drinking Mafalda’s lemonades, he put his free arm around me and then gently squeezed his thumb and forefingers into my shoulder in imitation of a friendly hug-massage—the whole thing very chummy-chummy. But I was so spellbound that I wrenched myself free from his touch, because a moment longer and I would have slackened like one of those tiny wooden toys whose gimp-legged body collapses as soon as the mainsprings are touched. Taken aback, he apologized and asked if he had pressed a “nerve or something”—he hadn’t meant to hurt me. He must have felt thoroughly mortified if he suspected he had either hurt me or touched me the wrong way. The last thing I wanted was to discourage him. Still, I blurted something like, “It didn’t hurt,” and would have dropped the matter there. But I sensed that if it wasn’t pain that had prompted such a reaction, what other explanation could account for my shrugging him off so brusquely in front of my friends? So I mimicked the face of someone trying very hard, but failing, to smother a grimace of pain.
It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire: he stirs nerves in them they never knew existed and that produce far, far more disturbing pleasures than they are used to on their own.
He still seemed surprised by my reaction but gave every sign of believing in, as I of concealing, the pain around my shoulder. It was his way of letting me off the hook and of pretending he wasn’t in the least bit aware of any nuance in my reaction. Knowing, as I later came to learn, how thoroughly trenchant was his ability to sort contradictory signals, I have no doubt that he must have already suspected something. “Here, let me make it better.” He was testing me and proceeded to massage my shoulder. “Relax,” he said in front of the others. “But I am relaxing.” “You’re as stiff as this bench. Feel this,” he said to Marzia, one of the girls closest to us. “It’s all knots.” I felt her hands on my back. “Here,” he ordered, pressing her flattened palm hard against my back. “Feel it? He should relax more,” he said. “You should relax more,” she repeated.
Perhaps, in this, as with everything else, because I didn’t know how to speak in code, I didn’t know how to speak at all. I felt like a deaf and dumb person who can’t even use sign language. I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code. So long as I had breath to put words in my mouth, I could more or less carry it off. Otherwise, the silence between us would probably give me away—which was why anything, even the most spluttered nonsense, was preferable to silence. Silence would expose me. But what was certain to expose me even more was my struggle to overcome it in front of others.
The despair aimed at myself must have given my features something bordering on impatience and unspoken rage. That he might have mistaken these as aimed at him never crossed my mind.
Maybe it was for similar reasons that I would look away each time he looked at me: to conceal the strain on my timidity. That he might have found my avoidance offensive and retaliated with a hostile glance from time to time never crossed my mind either.
What I hoped he hadn’t noticed in my overreaction to his grip was something else. Before shirking off his arm, I knew I had yielded to his hand and had almost leaned into it, as if to say—as I’d heard adults so often say when someone happened to massage their shoulders while passing behind them—Don’t stop. Had he noticed I was ready not just to yield but to mold into his body?
This was the feeling I took to my diary that night as well: I called it the “swoon.” Why had I swooned? And could it happen so easily—just let him touch me somewhere and I’d totally go limp and will-less? Was this what people meant by butter melting?
And why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was? Because I was afraid of what might happen then? Or was I afraid he would have laughed at me, told everyone, or ignored the whole thing on the pretext I was too young to know what I was doing? Or was it because if he so much as suspected—and anyone who suspected would of necessity be on the same wavelength—he might be tempted to act on it? Did I want him to act? Or would I prefer a lifetime of longing provided we both kept this little Ping-Pong game going: not knowing, not-not knowing, not-not-not knowing? Just be quiet, say nothing, and if you can’t say “yes,” don’t say “no,” say “later.” Is this why people say “maybe” when they mean “yes,” but hope you’ll think it’s “no” when all they really mean is,
Please, just ask me once more, and once more after that
I look back to that summer and can’t believe that despite every one of my efforts to live with the “fire” and the “swoon,” life still granted wonderful moments. Italy. Summer. The noise of the cicadas in the early afternoon. My room. His room. Our balcony that shut the whole world out. The soft wind trailing exhalations from our garden up the stairs to my bedroom. The summer I learned to love fishing. Because he did. To love jogging. Because he did. To love octopus, Heraclitus,
. The summer I’d hear a bird sing, smell a plant, or feel the mist rise from under my feet on warm sunny days and, because my senses were always on alert, would automatically find them rushing to him.
I could have denied so many things—that I longed to touch his knees and wrists when they glistened in the sun with that viscous sheen I’ve seen in so very few; that I loved how his white tennis shorts seemed perpetually stained by the color of clay, which, as the weeks wore on, became the color of his skin; that his hair, turning blonder every day, caught the sun before the sun was completely out in the morning; that his billowy blue shirt, becoming ever more billowy when he wore it on gusty days on the patio by the pool, promised to harbor a scent of skin and sweat that made me hard just thinking of it. All this I could have denied. And believed my denials.
But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences. I saw his star almost immediately during his first day with us. And from that moment on I knew that what mystified me and made me want to seek out his friendship, without ever hoping to find ways to dislike him, was larger than anything either of us could ever want from the other, larger and therefore better than his soul, my body, or earth itself. Staring at his neck with its star and telltale amulet was like staring at something timeless, ancestral, immortal in me, in him, in both of us, begging to be rekindled and brought back from its millenary sleep.