Authors: André Aciman
I wanted him gone from our home so as to be done with him.
I wanted him dead too, so that if I couldn’t stop thinking about him and worrying about when would be the next time I’d see him, at least his death would put an end to it. I wanted to kill him myself, even, so as to let him know how much his mere existence had come to bother me, how unbearable his ease with everything and everyone, taking all things in stride, his tireless I’m-okay-with-this-and-that, his springing across the gate to the beach when everyone else opened the latch first, to say nothing of his bathing suits, his spot in
, his cheeky
, his lip-smacking love for apricot juice. If I didn’t kill him, then I’d cripple him for life, so that he’d be with us in a wheelchair and never go back to the States. If he were in a wheelchair, I would always know where he was, and he’d be easy to find. I would feel superior to him and become his master, now that he was crippled.
Then it hit me that I could have killed myself instead, or hurt myself badly enough and let him know why I’d done it. If I hurt my face, I’d want him to look at me and wonder why, why might anyone do this to himself, until, years and years later—yes,
—he’d finally piece the puzzle together and beat his head against the wall.
Sometimes it was Chiara who had to be eliminated. I knew what she was up to. At my age, her body was more than ready for him. More than mine? I wondered. She was after him, that much was clear, while all I really wanted was one night with him, just one night—one hour, even—if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that. What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it. I dreaded to think how experienced he himself was. If he could make friends so easily within weeks of arriving here, you had only to think of what life at home was like. Just imagine letting him loose on an urban campus like Columbia’s, where he taught.
The thing with Chiara happened so easily it was past reckoning. With Chiara he loved heading out into the deep on our twin-hulled rowboat for a gita, with him rowing while she lounged in the sun on one of the hulls, eventually removing her bra once they had stopped and were far from shore.
I was watching. I dreaded losing him to her. Dreaded losing her to him too. Yet thinking of them together did not dismay me. It made me hard, even though I didn’t know if what aroused me was her naked body lying in the sun, his next to hers, or both of theirs together. From where I stood against the balustrade along the garden overlooking the bluff, I would strain my eyes and finally catch sight of them lying in the sun next to one another, probably necking, she occasionally dropping a thigh on top of his, until minutes later he did the same. They hadn’t removed their suits. I took comfort in that, but when later one night I saw them dancing, something told me that these were not the moves of people who’d stopped at heavy petting.
Actually, I liked watching them dance together. Perhaps seeing him dance this way with someone made me realize that he was taken now, that there was no reason to hope. And this was a good thing. It would help my recovery. Perhaps thinking this way was already a sign that recovery was well under way. I had grazed the forbidden zone and been let off easily enough.
But when my heart jolted the next morning when I saw him at our usual spot in the garden, I knew that wishing them my best and longing for recovery had nothing to do with what I still wanted from him.
Did his heart jolt when he saw me walk into a room?
I doubted it.
Did he ignore me the way I ignored him that morning: on purpose, to draw me out, to protect himself, to show I was nothing to him? Or was he oblivious, the way sometimes the most perceptive individuals fail to pick up the most obvious cues because they’re simply not paying attention, not tempted, not interested?
When he and Chiara danced I saw her slip her thigh between his legs. And I’d seen them mock-wrestle on the sand. When had it started? And how was it that I hadn’t been there when it started? And why wasn’t I told? Why wasn’t I able to reconstruct the moment when they progressed from
? Surely the signs were all around me. Why didn’t I see them?
I began thinking of nothing but what they might do together. I would have done anything to ruin every opportunity they had to be alone. I would have slandered one to the other, then used the reaction of one to report it back to the other. But I also wanted to see them do it, I wanted to be in on it, have them owe me and make me their necessary accomplice, their go-between, the pawn that has become so vital to king and queen that it is now master of the board.
I began to say nice things about each, pretending I had no inkling where things stood between them. He thought I was being coy. She said she could take care of herself.
“Are you trying to fix us up?” she asked, derision crackling in her voice.
“What’s it to you anyway?” he asked.
I described her naked body, which I’d seen two years before. I wanted him aroused. It didn’t matter what he desired so long as he was aroused. I described him to her too, because I wanted to see if her arousal took the same turns as mine, so that I might trace mine on hers and see which of the two was the genuine article.
“Are you trying to make me like her?”
“What would the harm be in that?”
“No harm. Except I like to go it alone, if you don’t mind.”
It took me a while to understand what I was really after. Not just to get him aroused in my presence, or to make him need me, but in urging him to speak about her behind her back, I’d turn Chiara into the object of man-to-man gossip. It would allow us to warm up to one another through her, to bridge the gap between us by admitting we were drawn to the same woman.
Perhaps I just wanted him to know I liked girls.
“Look, it’s very nice of you—and I appreciate it. But don’t.”
His rebuke told me he wasn’t going to play my game. It put me in my place.
No, he’s the noble sort, I thought. Not like me, insidious, sinister, and base. Which pushed my agony and shame up a few notches. Now, over and above the shame of desiring him as Chiara did, I respected and feared him and hated him for making me hate myself.
The morning after seeing them dance I made no motions to go jogging with him. Neither did he. When I eventually brought up jogging, because the silence on the matter had become unbearable, he said he’d already gone. “You’re a late riser these days.”
Clever, I thought.
Indeed, for the past few mornings, I had become so used to finding him waiting for me that I’d grown bold and didn’t worry too much about when I got up. That would teach me.
The next morning, though I wanted to swim with him, coming downstairs would have looked like a chastened response to a casual chiding. So I stayed in my room. Just to prove a point. I heard him step lightly across the balcony, on tiptoes almost. He was avoiding me.
I came downstairs much later. By then he had already left to deliver his corrections and retrieve the latest pages from Signora Milani.
We stopped talking.
Even when we shared the same spot in the morning, talk was at best idle and stopgap. You couldn’t even call it chitchat.
It didn’t upset him. He probably hadn’t given it another thought.
How is it that some people go through hell trying to get close to you, while you haven’t the haziest notion and don’t even give them a thought when two weeks go by and you haven’t so much as exchanged a single word between you? Did he have any idea? Should I let him know?
The romance with Chiara started on the beach. Then he neglected tennis and took up bike rides with her and her friends in the late afternoons in the hill towns farther west along the coast. One day, when there was one too many of them to go biking, Oliver turned to me and asked if I minded letting Mario borrow my bike since I wasn’t using it.
It threw me back to age six.
I shrugged my shoulders, meaning, Go ahead, I couldn’t care less. But no sooner had they left than I scrambled upstairs and began sobbing into my pillow.
At night sometimes we’d meet at Le Danzing. There was never any telling when Oliver would show up. He just bounded onto the scene, and just as suddenly disappeared, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. When Chiara came to our home as she’d been in the habit of doing ever since childhood, she would sit in the garden and stare out, basically waiting for him to show up. Then, when the minutes wore on and there was nothing much to say between us, she’d finally ask, “C’è Oliver?” He went to see the translator. Or: He’s in the library with my dad. Or: He’s down somewhere at the beach. “Well, I’m leaving, then. Tell him I came by.”
It’s over, I thought.
Mafalda shook her head with a look of compassionate rebuke. “She’s a baby, he’s a university professor. Couldn’t she have found someone her own age?”
“Nobody asked you anything,” snapped Chiara, who had overheard and was not about to be criticized by a cook.
“Don’t you talk to me that way or I’ll split your face in two,” said our Neapolitan cook, raising the palm of her hand in the air. “She’s not seventeen yet and she goes about having bare-breasted crushes. Thinks I haven’t seen anything?”
I could just see Mafalda inspecting Oliver’s sheets every morning. Or comparing notes with Chiara’s housemaid. No secret could escape this network of informed
I looked at Chiara. I knew she was in pain.
Everyone suspected something was going on between them. In the afternoon he’d sometimes say he was going to the shed by the garage to pick up one of the bikes and head to town. An hour and a half later he would be back. The translator, he’d explain.
“The translator,” my father’s voice would resound as he nursed an after-dinner cognac.
, my eye,” Mafalda would intone.
Sometimes we’d run into each other in town.
Sitting at the
where several of us would gather at night after the movies or before heading to the disco, I saw Chiara and Oliver walking out of a side alley together, talking. He was eating an ice cream, while she was hanging on his free arm with both of hers. When had they found the time to become so intimate? Their conversation seemed serious.
“What are you doing here?” he said when he spotted me. Banter was both how he took cover and tried to conceal we’d altogether stopped talking. A cheap ploy, I thought.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“My father doesn’t believe in bedtimes,” I parried.
Chiara was still deep in thought. She was avoiding my eyes.
Had he told her the nice things I’d been saying about her? She seemed upset. Did she mind my sudden intrusion into their little world? I remembered her tone of voice on the morning when she’d lost it with Mafalda. A smirk hovered on her face; she was about to say something cruel.
“Never a bedtime in their house, no rules, no supervision, nothing. That’s why he’s such a well-behaved boy. Don’t you see? Nothing to rebel against.”
“Is that true?”
“I suppose,” I answered, trying to make light of it before they went any further. “We all have our ways of rebelling.”
“We do?” he asked.
“Name one,” chimed in Chiara.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“He reads Paul Celan,” Oliver broke in, trying to change the subject but also perhaps to come to my rescue and show, without quite seeming to, that he had not forgotten our previous conversation. Was he trying to rehabilitate me after that little jab about my late hours, or was this the beginnings of yet another joke at my expense? A steely, neutral glance sat on his face.
“E chi è?” She’d never heard of Paul Celan.
I shot him a complicit glance. He intercepted it, but there was no hint of mischief in his eyes when he finally returned my glance. Whose side was he on?
“A poet,” he whispered as they started ambling out into the heart of the piazzetta, and he threw me a casual
I watched them look for an empty table at one of the adjoining caffès.
My friends asked me if he was hitting on her.
I don’t know, I replied.
Are they doing it, then?
Didn’t know that either.
I’d love to be in his shoes.
But I was in heaven. That he hadn’t forgotten our conversation about Celan gave me a shot of tonic I hadn’t experienced in many, many days. It spilled over everything I touched. Just a word, a gaze, and I was in heaven. To be happy like this maybe wasn’t so difficult after all. All I had to do was find the source of happiness in me and not rely on others to supply it the next time.
I remembered the scene in the Bible when Jacob asks Rachel for water and on hearing her speak the words that were prophesied for him, throws up his hands to heaven and kisses the ground by the well. Me Jewish, Celan Jewish, Oliver Jewish—we were in a half ghetto, half oasis, in an otherwise cruel and unflinching world where fuddling around strangers suddenly stops, where we misread no one and no one misjudges us, where one person simply knows the other and knows him so thoroughly that to be taken away from such intimacy is
, the Hebrew word for exile and dispersal. Was he my home, then, my homecoming? You are my homecoming. When I’m with you and we’re well together, there is nothing more I want. You make me like who I am, who I become when you’re with me, Oliver. If there is any truth in the world, it lies when I’m with you, and if I find the courage to speak my truth to you one day, remind me to light a candle in thanksgiving at every altar in Rome.
It never occurred to me that if one word from him could make me so happy, another could just as easily crush me, that if I didn’t want to be unhappy, I should learn to beware of such small joys as well.