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Call Me by Your Name / (by Andre Aciman, 2017) -

Call Me by Your Name /     (by Andre Aciman, 2017) -

Call Me by Your Name / (by Andre Aciman, 2017) -

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Call Me by Your Name / (by Andre Aciman, 2017) -
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2017
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Andre Aciman
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Armie Hammer
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,
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pre-intermediate
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07:43:15
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128 kbps
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mp3, doc

Call Me by Your Name / :

.doc (Word) call_me_by_your_name.doc [550,5 Kb] (c: 317) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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PART 1 If Not Later, When? "Later!" The word, the voice, the attitude. I'd never heard anyone use "later" to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again. It is the first thing I remember about him, and I can hear it still today. Later! I shut my eyes, say the word, and I'm back in Italy, so many years ago, walking down the tree-lined driveway, watching him step out of the cab, billowy blue shirt, wide-open collar, sunglasses, straw hat, skin everywhere. Suddenly he's shaking my hand, handing me his backpack, removing his suitcase from the trunk of the cab, asking if my father is home. It might have started right there and then: the shirt, the rolled-up sleeves, the rounded balls of his heels slipping in and out of his frayed espadrilles, eager to test the hot gravel path that led to our house, every stride already asking, Which way to the beach? This summer's houseguest. Another bore. Then, almost without thinking, and with his back already turned to the car, he waves the back of his free hand and utters a careless Later! to another passenger in the car who has probably split the fare from the station. No name added, no jest to smooth out the ruffled leave-taking, nothing. His one-word send-off: brisk, bold, and bluntedtake your pick, he couldn't be bothered which. You watch, I thought, this is how he'll say goodbye to us when the time comes. With a gruff, slapdash Later! Meanwhile, we'd have to put up with him for six long weeks. I was thoroughly intimidated. The unapproachable sort. I could grow to like him, though. From rounded chin to rounded heel. Then, within days, I would learn to hate him. This, the very person whose photo on the application form months earlier had leapt out with promises of instant affinities. Taking in summer guests was my parents' way of helping young academics revise a manuscript before publication. For six weeks each summer I'd have to vacate my bedroom and move one room down the corridor into a much smaller room that had once belonged to my grandfather. During the winter months, when we were away in the city, it became a part-time toolshed, storage room, and attic where rumor had it my grandfather, my namesake, still ground his teeth in his eternal sleep. Summer residents didn't have to pay anything, were given the full run of the house, and could basically do anything they pleased, provided they spent an hour or so a day helping my father with his correspondence and assorted paperwork. They became part of the family, and after about fifteen years of doing this, we had gotten used to a shower of postcards and gift packages not only around Christmastime but all year long from people who were now totally devoted to our family and would go out of their way when they were in Europe to drop by B. for a day or two with their family and take a nostalgic tour of their old digs. At meals there were frequently two or three other guests, sometimes neighbors or relatives, sometimes colleagues, lawyers, doctors, the rich and famous who'd drop by to see my father on their way to their own summer houses. Sometimes we'd even open our dining room to the occasional tourist couple who'd heard of the old villa and simply wanted to come by and take a peek and were totally enchanted when asked to eat with us and tell us all about themselves, while Mafalda, informed at the last minute, dished out her usual fare. My father, who was reserved and shy in private, loved nothing better than to have some precocious rising expert in a field keep the conversation going in a few languages while the hot summer sun, after a few glasses of rosatello, ushered in the unavoidable afternoon torpor. We named the task dinner drudgeryand, after a while, so did most of our six-week guests. Maybe it started soon after his arrival during one of those grinding lunches when he sat next to me and it finally dawned on me that, despite a light tan acquired during his brief stay in Sicily earlier that summer, the color on the palms of his hands was the same as the pale, soft skin of his soles, of his throat, of the bottom of his forearms, which hadn't really been exposed to much sun. Almost a light pink, as glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard's belly. Private, chaste, unfledged, like a blush on an athlete's face or an instance of dawn on a stormy night. It told me things about him I never knew to ask. It may have started during those endless hours after lunch when everybody lounged about in bathing suits inside and outside the house, bodies sprawled everywhere, killing time before someone finally suggested we head down to the rocks for a swim. Relatives, cousins, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, colleagues, or just about anyone who cared to knock at our gate and ask if they could use our tennis courteveryone was welcome to lounge and swim and eat and, if they stayed long enough, use the guesthouse. Or perhaps it started on the beach. Or at the tennis court. Or during our first walk together on his very first day when I was asked to show him the house and its surrounding area and, one thing leading to the other, managed to take him past the very old forged-iron metal gate as far back as the endless empty lot in the hinterland toward the abandoned train tracks that used to connect B. to N. "Is there an abandoned station house somewhere?" he asked, looking through the trees under the scalding sun, probably trying to ask the right question of the owner's son. "No, there was never a station house. The train simply stopped when you asked." He was curious about the train; the rails seemed so narrow. It was a two-wagon train bearing the royal insignia, I explained. Gypsies lived in it now. They'd been living there ever since my mother used to summer here as a girl. The gypsies had hauled the two derailed cars farther inland. Did he want to see them? "Later. Maybe." Polite indifference, as if he'd spotted my misplaced zeal to play up to him and was summarily pushing me away. But it stung me. Instead, he said he wanted to open an account in one of the banks in B., then pay a visit to his Italian translator, whom his Italian publisher had engaged for his book. I decided to take him there by bike. The conversation was no better on wheels than on foot. Along the way, we stopped for something to drink. The bar-tabaccheria was totally dark and empty. The owner was mopping the floor with a powerful ammonia solution. We stepped outside as soon as we could. A lonely blackbird, sitting in a Mediterranean pine, sang a few notes that were immediately drowned out by the rattle of the cicadas. I took a long swill from a large bottle of mineral water, passed it to him, then drank from it again. I spilled some on my hand and rubbed my face with it, running my wet fingers through my hair. The water was insufficiently cold, not fizzy enough, leaving behind an unslaked likeness of thirst. What did one do around here? Nothing. Wait for summer to end. What did one do in the winter, then? I smiled at the answer I was about to give. He got the gist and said, "Don't tell me: wait for summer to come, right?" I liked having my mind read. He'd pick up on dinner drudgery sooner than those before him. "Actually, in the winter the place gets very gray and dark. We come for Christmas. Otherwise it's a ghost town." "And what else do you do here at Christmas besides roast chestnuts and drink eggnog?" He was teasing. I offered the same smile as before. He understood, said nothing, we laughed. He asked what I did. I played tennis. Swam. Went out at night. Jogged. Transcribed music. Read. He said he jogged too. Early in the morning. Where did one jog around here? Along the promenade, mostly. I could show him if he wanted. It hit me in the face just when I was starting to like him again: "Later, maybe." I had put reading last on my list, thinking that, with the willful, brazen attitude he'd displayed so far, reading would figure last on his. A few hours later, when I remembered that he had just finished writing a book on Heraclitus and that "reading" was probably not an insignificant part of his life, I realized that I needed to perform some clever backpedaling and let him know that my real interests lay right alongside his. What unsettled me, though, was not the fancy footwork needed to redeem myself. It was the unwelcome misgivings with which it finally dawned on me, both then and during our casual conversation by the train tracks, that I had all along, without seeming to, without even admitting it, already been tryingand failingto win him over. When I did offerbecause all visitors loved the ideato take him to San Giacomo and walk up to the very top of the belfry we nicknamed To-die-for, I should have known better than to just stand there without a comeback. I thought I'd bring him around simply by taking him up there and letting him take in the view of the town, the sea, eternity. But no. Later! But it might have started way later than I think without my noticing anything at all. You see someone, but you don't really see him, he's in the wings. Or you notice him, but nothing clicks, nothing "catches," and before you're even aware of a presence, or of something troubling you, the six weeks that were offered you have almost passed and he's either already gone or just about to leave, and you're basically scrambling to come to terms with something, which, unbeknownst to you, has been brewing for weeks under your very nose and bears all the symptoms of what you're forced to call I want. How couldn't I have known, you ask? I know desire when I see itand yet, this time, it slipped by completely. I was going for the devious smile that would suddenly light up his face each time he'd read my mind, when all I really wanted was skin, just skin. At dinner on his third evening, I sensed that he was staring at me as I was explaining Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ, which I'd been transcribing. I was seventeen that year and, being the youngest at the table and the least likely to be listened to, I had developed the habit of smuggling as much information into the fewest possible words. I spoke fast, which gave people the impression that I was always flustered and muffling my words. Af-ter I had finished explaining my transcription, I became aware of the keenest glance coming from my left. It thrilled and flattered me; he was obviously interestedhe liked me. It hadn't been as difficult as all that, then. But when, after taking my time, I finally turned to face him and take in his glance, I met a cold and icy glaresomething at once hostile and vitrified that bordered on cruelty. It undid me completely. What had I done to deserve this? I wanted him to be kind to me again, to laugh with me as he had done just a few days earlier on the abandoned train tracks, or when I'd explained to him that same afternoon that B. was the only town in Italy where the corriera, the regional bus line, carrying Christ, whisked by without ever stopping. He had immediately laughed and recognized the veiled allusion to Carlo Levi's book. I liked how our minds seemed to travel in parallel, how we instantly inferred what words the other was toying with but at the last moment held back. He was going to be a difficult neighbor. Better stay away from him, I thought. To think that I had almost fallen for the skin of his hands, his chest, his feet that had never touched a rough surface in their existenceand his eyes, which, when their other, kinder gaze fell on you, came like the miracle of the Resurrection. You could never stare long enough but needed to keep staring to find out why you couldn't. I must have shot him a similarly wicked glance. For two days our conversations came to a sudden halt. On the long balcony that both our bedrooms shared, total avoidance: just a makeshift hello, good morning, nice weather, shallow chitchat. Then, without explanation, things resumed. Did I want to go jogging this morning? No, not really. Well, let's swim, then. Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don't want to lose and must second-guess at every turn, the desperate cunning I bring to everyone I want and crave to be wanted by, the screens I put up as though between me and the world there were not just one but layers of rice-paper sliding doors, the urge to scramble and unscramble what was never really coded in the first placeall these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoonsmells and sounds I'd grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer. Or perhaps it started after his first week, when I was thrilled to see he still remembered who I was, that he didn't ignore me, and that, therefore, I could allow myself the luxury of passing him on my way to the garden and not having to pretend I was unaware of him. We jogged early on the first morningall the way up to B. and back. Early the next morning we swam. Then, the day after, we jogged again. I liked racing by the milk delivery van When it was far from done with its rounds, or by the grocer and the baker as they were just getting ready for business, liked to run along the shore and the promenade when there wasn't a soul about yet and our house seemed a distant mirage. I liked it when our feet were aligned, left with left, and struck the ground at the same time, leaving footprints on the shore that I wished to return to and, in secret, place my foot where his had left its mark. 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 biding 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, please!" 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 wereand he must have recognized the signs long before I didflirting. 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 oppositeand 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 gutsbecause "fire" was the first and easiest word that came to me later that same evening when 1 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 crudest 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-massagethe 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 sayas I'd heard adults so often say when someone happened to massage their shoulders while passing behind themDon'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 easilyjust 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 suspectedand anyone who suspected would of necessity be on the same wavelengthhe 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, Tristan. 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 thingsthat 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. What baffled me was that he didn't seem to care or notice that I wore one too. Just as he probably didn't care or notice each time my eyes wandered along his bathing suit and tried to make out the contour of what made us brothers in the desert. With the exception of my family, he was probably the only other Jew who had ever set foot in B. But unlike us he let you see it from the very start. We were not conspicuous Jews. We wore our Judaism as people do almost everywhere in the world: under the shirt, not hidden, but tucked away. "Jews of discretion," to use my mother's words. To see someone proclaim his Judaism on his neck as Oliver did when he grabbed one of our bikes and headed into town with his shirt wide open shocked us as much as it taught us we could do the same and get away with it. I tried imitating him a few times. But I was too self-conscious, like someone trying to feel natural while walking about naked in a locker room only to end up aroused by his own nakedness. In town, I tried flaunting my Judaism with the silent bluster that comes less from arrogance than from repressed shame. Not him. It's not that he never thought about being Jewish or about the life of Jews in a Catholic country. Sometimes we spoke about just this topic during those long afternoons when both of us would put aside work and enjoy chatting while the entire household and guests had all drifted into every available bedroom to rest for a few hours. He had lived long enough in small towns in New En-gland to know what it felt like to be the odd Jew out. But Judaism never troubled him the way it troubled me, nor was it the subject of an abiding, metaphysical discomfort with himself and the world. It did not even harbor the mystical, unspoken promise of redemptive brotherhood. And perhaps this was why he wasn't ill at ease with being Jewish and didn't constantly have to pick at it, the way children pick at scabs they wish would go away. He was okay with being Jewish. He was okay with himself, the way he was okay with his body, with his looks, with his antic backhand, with his choice of books, music, films, friends. He was okay with losing his prized Mont Blanc pen. "I can buy another one just like it." He was okay with criticism too. He showed my father a few pages he was proud of having written. My father told him his insights into Heraclitus were brilliant but needed firming up, that he needed to accept the paradoxical nature of the philosopher's thinking, not simply explain it away. He was okay with firming things up, he was okay with paradox. Back to the drawing boardhe was okay with the drawing board as well. He invited my young aunt for a t?te-?-t?te midnight gita spinin our motorboat. She declined. That was okay. He tried again a few days later, was turned down again, and again made light of it. She too was okay with it, and, had she spent another week with us, would probably have been okay with going out to sea for a midnight gita that could easily have lasted till sunrise. Only once during his very first few days did I get a sense that this willful but accommodating, laid-back, water-over-my-back, unflappable, unfazed twenty-four-year-old who was so heedlessly okay with so many things in life was, in fact, a thoroughly alert, cold, sagacious judge of character and situations. Nothing he did or said was unpremeditated. He saw through everybody, but he saw through them precisely because the first thing he looked for in people was the very thing he had seen in himself and may not have wished others to see. He was, as my mother was scandalized to learn one day, a supreme poker player who'd escape into town at night twice a week or so to "play a few hands." This was why, to our complete surprise, he had insisted on opening a bank account on the very day of his arrival. None of our residents had ever had a local bank account. Most didn't have a penny. It had happened during a lunch when my father had invited a journalist who had dabbled in philosophy in his youth and wanted to show that, though he had never written about Heraclitus, he could still spar on any matter under the sun. He and Oliver didn't hit it off. Afterward, my father had said, "A very witty mandamn clever too." "Do you really think so, Pro?" Oliver interrupted, unaware that my father, while very easygoing himself, did not always like being contradicted, much less being called Pro, though he went along with both. "Yes, I do," insisted my father. "Well, I'm not sure I agree at all. I find him arrogant, dull, flat-footed, and coarse. He uses humor and a lot of voice"Oliver mimicked the man's gravitas"and broad gestures to nudge his audience because he is totally incapable of arguing a case. The voice thing is so over the top, Pro. People laugh at his humor not because he is funny but because he telegraphs his desire to be funny. His humor is nothing more than a way of winning over people he can't persuade. "If you look at him when you're speaking, he always looks away, he's not listening, he's just itching to say things he's rehearsed while you were speaking and wants to say before he forgets them." How could anyone intuit the manner of someone's thinking unless he himself was already familiar with this same mode of thinking? How could he perceive so many devious turns in others unless he had practiced them himself? What struck me was not just his amazing gift for reading people, for rummaging inside them and digging out the precise configuration of their personality, but his ability to intuit things in exactly the way I myself might have intuited them. This, in the end, was what drew me to him with a compulsion that overrode desire or friendship or the allurements of a common religion. "How about catching a movie?" he blurted out one evening when we were all sitting together, as if he'd suddenly hit on a solution to what promised to be a dull night indoors. We had just left the dinner table where my father, as was his habit these days, had been urging me to try to go out with friends more often, especially in the evening. It bordered on a lecture. Oliver was still new with us and knew no one in town, so I must have seemed as good a movie partner as any. But he had asked his question in far too breezy and spontaneous a manner, as though he wanted me and everyone else in the living room to know that he was hardly invested in going to the movies and could just as readily stay home and go over his manuscript. The carefree inflection of his offer, however, was also a wink aimed at my father: he was only pretending to have come up with the idea; in fact, without letting me suspect it, he was picking up on my father's advice at the dinner table and was offering to go for my benefit alone. I smiled, not at the offer, but at the double-edged maneuver. He immediately caught my smile. And having caught it, smiled back, almost in self-mockery, sensing that if he gave any sign of guessing I'd seen through his ruse he'd be confirming his guilt, but that refusing to own up to it, after I'd made clear I'd intercepted it, would indict him even more. So he smiled to confess he'd been caught but also to show he was a good enough sport to own up to it and still enjoy going to the movies together. The whole thing thrilled me. Or perhaps his smile was his way of countering my reading tit for tat with the unstated suggestion that, much as he'd been caught trying to affect total casualness on the face of his offer, he too had found something to smile about in menamely, the shrewd, devious, guilty pleasure I derived in finding so many imperceptible affinities between us. There may have been nothing there, and I might have invented the whole thing. But both of us knew what the other had seen. That evening, as we biked to the movie theater, I wasand I didn't care to hide itriding on air. So, with so much insight, would he not have noticed the meaning behind my abrupt shrinking away from his hand? Not notice that I'd leaned into his grip? Not know that I didn't want him to let go of me? Not sense that when he started massaging me, my inability to relax was my last refuge, my last defense, my last pretense, that I had by no means resisted, that mine was fake resistance, that I was incapable of resisting and would never want to resist, no matter what he did or asked me to do? Not know, as I sat on my bed that Sunday afternoon when no one was home except for the two of us and watched him enter my room and ask me why I wasn't with the others at the beach, that if I refused to answer and simply shrugged my shoulders under his gaze, it was simply so as not to show that I couldn't gather sufficient breath to speak, that if I so much as let out a sound it might be to utter a desperate confession or a sobone or the other? Never, since childhood, had anyone brought me to such a pass. Bad allergy, I'd said. Me too, he replied. We probably have the same one. Again I shrugged my shoulders. He picked up my old teddy bear in one hand, turned its face toward him, and whispered something into its ear. Then, turning the teddy's face to me and altering his voice, asked, "What's wrong? You're upset." By then he must have noticed the bathing suit I was wearing. Was I wearing it lower than was decent? "Want to go for a swim?" he asked. "Later, maybe," I said, echoing his word but also trying to say as little as possible before he'd spot I was out of breath. "Let's go now." He extended his hand to help me get up. I grabbed it and, turning on my side facing the wall away from him to prevent him from seeing me, I asked, "Must we?" This was the closest I would ever come to saying, Stay. Just stay with me. Let your hand travel wherever it wishes, take my suit off, take me, I won't make a noise, won't tell a soul, I'm hard and you know it, and if you won't, I'll take that hand of yours and slip it into my suit now and let you put as many fingers as you want inside me. He wouldn't have picked up on any of this? He said he was going to change and walked out of my room. "I'll meet you downstairs." When I looked at my crotch, to my complete dismay I saw it was damp. Had he seen it? Surely he must have. That's why he wanted us to go to the beach. That's why he walked out of my room. I hit my head with my fist. How could I have been so careless, so thoughtless, so totally stupid? Of course he'd seen. I should have learned to do what he'd have done. Shrugged my shouldersand been okay with pre-come. But that wasn't me. It would never have occurred to me to say, So what if he saw? Now he knows. What never crossed my mind was that someone else who lived under our roof, who played cards with my mother, ate breakfast and supper at our table, recited the Hebrew blessing on Fridays for the sheer fun of it, slept in one of our beds, used our towels, shared our friends, watched TV with us on rainy days when we sat in the living room with a blanket around us because it got cold and we felt so snug being all together as we listened to the rain patter against the windowsthat someone else in my immediate world might like what I liked, want what I wanted, be who I was. It would never have entered my mind because I was still under the illusion that, barring what I'd read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and womanwith men and women. I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he'd stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine. And yet, about two weeks after his arrival, all I wanted every night was for him to leave his room, not via its front door, but through the French windows on our balcony. I wanted to hear his window open, hear his espadrilles on the balcony, and then the sound of my own window, which was never locked, being pushed open as he'd step into my room after everyone had gone to bed, slip under my covers, undress me without asking, and after making me want him more than I thought I could ever want another living soul, gently, softly, and, with the kindness one Jew extends to another, work his way into my body, gently and softly, after heeding the words I'd been rehearsing for days now, Please, don't hurt me, which meant, Hurt me all you want. I seldom stayed in my room during the day. Instead, for the past few summers I had appropriated a round table with an umbrella in the back garden by the pool. Pavel, our previous summer resident, had liked working in his room, occasionally stepping out onto the balcony to get a glimpse of the sea or smoke a cigarette. Maynard, before him, had also worked in his room. Oliver needed company. He began by sharing my table but eventually grew to like throwing a large sheet on the grass and lying on it, flanked by loose pages of his manuscript and what he liked to call his "things": lemonade, suntan lotion, books, espadrilles, sunglasses, colored pens, and music, which he listened to with headphones, so that it was impossible to speak to him unless he was speaking to you first. Sometimes, when I came downstairs with my scorebook or other books in the morning, he was already sprawled in the sun wearing his red or yellow bathing suit and sweating. We'd go jogging or swimming, and return to find breakfast waiting for us. Then he got in the habit of leaving his "things" on the grass and lying right on the tiled edge of the poolcalled "heaven," short for "This is heaven," as he often said after lunch, "I'm going to heaven now," adding, as an inside joke among Latinists, "to apricate." We would tease him about the countless hours he would spend soaking in suntan lotion as he lay on the same exact spot along the pool. "How long were you in heaven this morning?" my mother would ask. "Two straight hours. But I plan to return early this afternoon for a much longer aprication." Going to the orle of paradise also meant lying on his back along the edge of the pool with one leg dangling in the water, wearing his headphones and his straw hat flat on his face. Here was someone who lacked for nothing. I couldn't understand this feeling. I envied him. "Oliver, are you sleeping?" I would ask when the air by the pool had grown oppressively torpid and quiet. Silence. Then his reply would come, almost a sigh, without a single muscle moving in his body. "I was." "Sorry." That foot in the waterI could have kissed every toe on it. Then kissed his ankles and his knees. How often had I stared at his bathing suit while his hat was covering his face? He couldn't possibly have known what I was looking at. Or: "Oliver, are you sleeping?" Long silence. "No. Thinking." "About what?" His toes flicking the water. "About Heidegger's interpretation of a fragment by Heraclitus" Or, when I wasn't practicing the guitar and he wasn't listening io his headphones, still with his straw hat flat on his face, he would suddenly break the silence: "Elio." "Yes?" "What are you doing?" "Reading." "No, you're not." "Thinking, then." "About?" I was dying to tell him. "Private," I replied. "So you won't tell me?" "So I won't tell you." "So he won't tell me," he repeated, pensively, as if explaining to someone about me. How I loved the way he repeated what I myself had just repeated. It made me think of a caress, or of a gesture, which happens to be totally accidental the first time but becomes intentional the second time and more so yet the third. It reminded me of the way Mafalda would make my bed every morning, first by folding the top sheet over the blanket, then by folding the sheet back again to cover the pillows on top of the blanket, and once more yet when she folded the whole thing over the bedspreadback and forth until I knew that tucked in between these multiple folds were tokens of something at once pious and indulgent, like acquiescence in an instant of passion. Silence was always light and unobtrusive on those afternoons. "I'm not telling," I said. "Then I'm going back to sleep," he'd say. My heart was racing. He must have known. Profound silence again. Moments later: "This is heaven."' And I wouldn't hear him say another word for at least an hour. There was nothing I loved more in life than to sit at my table and pore over my transcriptions while he lay on his belly marking pages he'd pick up every morning from Signora Milani, his translator in B. "Listen to this," he'd sometimes say, removing his headphones, breaking the oppressive silence of those long sweltering summer mornings. "Just listen to this drivel." And he'd proceed to read aloud something he couldn't believe he had written months earlier. "Does it make any sense to you? Not to me." "Maybe it did when you wrote it," I said. He thought for a while as though weighing my words. "That's the kindest thing anyone's said to me in months" spoken ever so earnestly, as if he was hit by a sudden revelation and was taking what I'd said to mean much more than I thought it did. I felt ill at ease, looked away, and finally muttered the first thing that came to mind: "Kind?" I asked. "Yes, kind." I didn't know what kindness had to do with it. Or perhaps I wasn't seeing clearly enough where all this was headed and preferred to let the matter slide. Silence again. Until the next time he'd speak. I loved it when he broke the silence between us to say somethinganythingor to ask what I thought about X, or had I ever heard of Y? Nobody in our household ever asked my opinion about anything. If he hadn't already figured out why, he would soon enoughit was only a matter of time before he fell in with everyone's view that I was the baby of the family. And yet here he was in his third week with us, asking me if I'd ever heard of Athanasius Kircher, Giuseppe Belli, and Paul Celan. "I have." "I'm almost a decade older than you are and until a few days ago had never heard of any of them. I don't get it." "What's not to get? Dad's a university professor. I grew up without TV. Get it now?" "Go back to your plunking, will you!" he said as though crumpling a towel and throwing it at my face. I even liked the way he told me off. One day while moving my notebook on the table, I accidentally tipped over my glass. It fell on the grass. It didn't break. Oliver, who was close by, got up, picked it up, and placed it, not just on the table, but right next to my pages. I didn't know where to find the words to thank him. "You didn't have to," I finally said. He let just enough time go by for me to register that his answer might not be casual or carefree. "I wanted to." He wanted to, I thought. I wanted to, I imagined him repeatingkind, complaisant, effusive, as he was when the mood would suddenly strike him. To me those hours spent at that round wooden table in our garden with the large umbrella imperfectly shading my papers, the chinking of our iced lemonades, the sound of the not-too-distant surf gently lapping the giant rocks below, and in the background, from some neighboring house, the muffled crackle of the hit parade medley on perpetual replayall these are forever impressed on those mornings when all I prayed for was for time to stop. Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever, I'm asking for very little, and I swear I'll ask for nothing more. What did I want? And why couldn't I know what I wanted, even when I was perfectly ready to be brutal in my admissions? Perhaps the very least I wanted was for him to tell me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was no less human than any other young man my age. I would have been satisfied and asked for nothing else than if he'd bent down and picked up the dignity I could so effortlessly have thrown at his feet. I was Glaucus and he was Diomedes. In the name of some obscure cult among men, I was giving him my golden armor for his bronze. Fair exchange. Neither haggled, just as neither spoke of thrift or extravagance. The word "friendship" came to mind. But friendship, as defined by everyone, was alien, fallow stuff I cared nothing for. What I may have wanted instead, from the moment he stepped out of the cab to our farewell in Rome, was what all humans ask of one another, what makes life livable. It would have to come from him first. Then possibly from me. There is a law somewhere that says that when one person is thoroughly smitten with the other, the other must unavoidably be smitten as well. Amor ch'a nulVamato amar perdona. Love, which exempts no one who's loved from loving, Francesca's words in the Inferno. Just wait and be hopeful. I was hopeful, though perhaps this was what I had wanted all along. To wait forever. As I sat there working on transcriptions at my round table in the morning, what I would have settled for was not his friendship, not anything. Just to look up and find him there, suntan lotion, straw hat, red bathing suit, lemonade. To look up and find you there, Oliver. For the day will come soon enough when I'll look up and you'll no longer be there. By late morning, friends and neighbors from adjoining houses frequently dropped in. Everyone would gather in our garden and then head out together to the beach below. Our house was the closest to the water, and all you needed was to open the tiny gate by the balustrade, take the narrow stairway down the bluff, and you were on the rocks. Chiara, one of the girls who three years ago was shorter than I and who just last summer couldn't leave me alone, had now blossomed into a woman who had finally mastered the art of not always greeting me whenever we met. Once, she and her younger sister dropped in with the rest, picked up Oliver's shirt on the grass, threw it at him, and said, "Enough. We're going to the beach and you're coming." He was willing to oblige. "Let me just put away these papers. Otherwise his father"and with his hands carrying papers he used his chin to point at me"will skin me alive." "Talking about skin, come here," she said, and with her fingernails gently and slowly tried to pull a sliver of peeling skin from his tanned shoulders, which had acquired the light golden hue of a wheat field in late June. How I wished I could do that. "Tell his father that / crumpled his papers. See what he says then." Looking over his manuscript, which Oliver had left on the large dining table on his way upstairs, Chiara shouted from below that she could do a better job translating these pages than the local translator. A child of expats like me, Chiara had an Italian mother and an American father. She spoke English and Italian with both. "Do you type good too?" came his voice from upstairs as he rummaged for another bathing suit in his bedroom, then in the shower, doors slamming, drawers thudding, shoes kicked. "I type good," she shouted, looking up into the empty stairwell. "As good as you speak good?" "Bettah. And I'd'a gave you a bettah price too." "I need five pages translated per day, to be ready for pickup every morning." "Then I won't do nu'in for you," snapped Chiara. "Find yuhsef somebuddy else." "Well, Signora Milani needs the money," he said, coming downstairs, billowy blue shirt, espadrilles, red trunks, sunglasses, and the red Loeb edition of Lucretius that never left his side. "I'm okay with her," he said as he rubbed some lotion on his shoulders. "I'm okay with her," Chiara said, tittering. "I'm okay with you, you're okay with me, she's okay with him" "Stop clowning and let's go swimming," said Chiara's sister. He had, it took me a while to realize, four personalities depending on which bathing suit he was wearing. Knowing which to expect gave me the illusion of a slight advantage. Red: bold, set in his ways, very grown-up, almost gruff and ill-tempered stay away. Yellow: sprightly, buoyant, funny, not without barbs don't give in too easily; might turn to red in no time. Green, which he seldom wore: acquiescent, eager to learn, eager to speak, sunnywhy wasn't he always like this? Blue: the afternoon he stepped into my room from the balcony, the day he massaged my shoulder, or when he picked up my glass and placed it right next to me. Today was red: he was hasty, determined, snappy. On his way out, he grabbed an apple from a large bowl of fruit, uttered a cheerful "Later, Mrs. P." to my mother, who was sitting with two friends in the shade, all three of them in bathing suits, and, rather than open the gate to the narrow stairway leading to the rocks, jumped over it. None of our summer guests had ever been as freewheeling. But everyone loved him for it, the way everyone grew to love Later! "Okay, Oliver, later, okay," said my mother, trying to speak his lingo, having even grown to accept her new title as Mrs. P. There was always something abrupt about that word. It wasn't "See you later" or "Take care, now," or even "Ciao." Later! was a chilling, slam-dunk salutation that shoved aside all our honeyed European niceties. Later! always left a sharp aftertaste to what until then may have been a warm, heart-to-heart moment. Later! didn't close things neatly or allow them to trail off. It slammed them shut. But Later! was also a way of avoiding saying goodbye, of making light of all goodbyes. You said Later! not to mean farewell but to say you'd be back in no time. It was the equivalent of his saying "Just a sec" when my mother once asked him to pass the bread and he was busy pulling apart the fish bones on his plate. "Just a sec." My mother, who hated what she called his Americanisms, ended up calling him Il cauboithe cowboy. It started as a putdown and soon enough became an endearment, to go along with her other nickname for him, conferred during his first week, when he came down to the dinner table after showering, his glistening hair combed back. La star, she had said, short for la muvi star. My father, always the most indulgent among us, but also the most observant, had figured the cauboi out. "? un timido, he's shy, that's why," he said when asked to explain Oliver's abrasive Later! Oliver timido? That was new. Could all of his gruff Americanisms be nothing more than an exaggerated way of covering up the simple fact that he didn't knowor feared he didn't know how to take his leave gracefully? It reminded me of how for days he had refused to eat soft-boiled eggs in the morning. By the fourth or fifth day, Mafalda insisted he couldn't leave the region without tasting our eggs. He finally consented, only to admit, with a touch of genuine embarrassment that he never bothered to conceal, that he didn't know how to open a soft-boiled egg. "Lasci fare a me, Signor Ulliva, leave it to me," she said. From that morning on and well into his stay with us, she would bring Ulliva two eggs and stop serving everyone until she had sliced open the shell of both his eggs. Did he perhaps want a third? she asked. Some people liked more than two eggs. No, two would do, he replied, and, turning to my parents, added, "I know myself. If I have three, I'll have a fourth, and more." I had never heard someone his age say, I know myself. It intimidated me. But she had been won over well before, on his third morning with us, when she asked him if he liked juice in the morning, and he'd said yes. He was probably expecting orange or grapefruit juice; what he got was a large glass filled to the rim with thick apricot juice. He had never had apricot juice in his life. She stood facing him with her salver flat against her apron, trying to make out his reaction as he quaffed it down. He said nothing at first. Then, probably without thinking, he smacked his lips. She was in heaven. My mother couldn't believe that people who taught at world-famous universities smacked their lips after downing apricot juice. From that day on, a glass of the stuff was waiting for him every morning. He was baffled to know that apricot trees existed in, of all places, our orchard. On late afternoons, when there was nothing to do in the house, Mafalda would ask him to climb a ladder with a basket and pick those fruits that were almost blushing with shame, she said. He would joke in Italian, pick one out, and ask, Is this one blushing with shame? No, she would say, this one is too young still, youth has no shame, shame comes with age. I shall never forget watching him from my table as he climbed the small ladder wearing his red bathing trunks, taking forever to pick the ripest apricots. On his way to the kitchen wicker basket, espadrilles, billowy shirt, suntan lotion, and all he threw me a very large one, saying, "Yours," in just the same way he'd throw a tennis ball across the court and say, "Your serve." Of course, he had no idea what I'd been thinking minutes earlier, but the firm, rounded cheeks of the apricot with their dimple in the middle reminded me of how his body had stretched across the boughs of the tree with his tight, rounded ass echoing the color and the shape of the fruit. Touching the apricot was like touching him. He would never know, just as the people we buy the newspaper from and then fantasize about all night have no idea that this particular inflection on their face or that tan along their exposed shoulder will give us no end of pleasure when we're alone. Yours, like Later!, had an off-the-cuff, unceremonious, here, catch quality that reminded me how twisted and secretive my desires were compared to the expansive spontaneity of everything about him. It would never have occurred to him that in placing the apricot in my palm he was giving me his ass to hold or that, in biting the fruit, I was also biting into that part of his body that must have been fairer than the rest because it never apricated and near it, if I dared to bite that far, his apricock. In fact, he knew more about apricots than we didtheir grafts, etymology, origins, fortunes in and around the Mediterranean. At the breakfast table that morning, my father explained that the name for the fruit came from the Arabic, since the wordin Italian, albicocca, abricot in French, aprikose in German, like the words "algebra," "alchemy," and "alcohol"was derived from an Arabic noun combined with the Arabic article al- before it. The origin of albicocca was al-birquq. My father, who couldn't resist not leaving well enough alone and needed to top his entire performance with a little fillip of more recent vintage, added that what was truly amazing was that, in Israel and in many Arab countries nowadays, the fruit is referred to by a totally different name: misbmish. My mother was nonplussed. We all, including my two cousins who were visiting that week, had an impulse to clap. On the matter of etymologies, however, Oliver begged to differ. "Ah?!" was my father's startled response. "The word is actually not an Arabic word," he said. "How so?" My father was clearly mimicking Socratic irony, which would start with an innocent "You don't say," only then to lead his interlocutor onto turbulent shoals. "It's a long story, so bear with me, Pro." Suddenly Oliver had become serious. "Many Latin words are derived from the Greek. In the case of 'apricot,' however, it's the other way around; the Greek takes over from Latin. The Latin word was praecoquum, from pre-coquere, pre-cook, to ripen early, as in 'precocious,' meaning premature. "The Byzantines borrowed praecox, and it became prekokkia or berikokki, which is finally how the Arabs must have inherited it as al-birquq." My mother, unable to resist his charm, reached out to him and tousled his hair and said, "Che muvi star!" "He is right, there is no denying it," said my father under his breath, as though mimicking the part of a cowered Galileo forced to mutter the truth to himself. "Courtesy of Philology 101," said Oliver. All I kept thinking of was apricock precock, precock apricock. One day I saw Oliver sharing the same ladder with the gardener, trying to learn all he could about Anchise's grafts, which explained why our apricots were larger, fleshier, juicier than most apricots in the region. He became fascinated with the grafts, especially when he discovered that the gardener could spend hours sharing everything he knew about them with anyone who cared to ask. Oliver, it turned out, knew more about all manner of foods, cheeses, and wines than all of us put together. Even Mafalda was wowed and would, on occasion, defer to his opinionDo you think I should lightly fry the paste with either onions or sage? Doesn't it taste too lemony now? I ruined it, didn't I? I should have added an extra eggit's not holding! Should I use the new blender or should I stick to the old mortar and pestle? My mother couldn't resist throwing in a barb or two. Like all caubois, she said: they know everything there is to know about food, because they can't hold a knife and fork properly. Gourmet aristocrats with plebian manners. Feed him in the kitchen. With pleasure, Mafalda would have replied. And indeed, one day when he arrived very late for lunch after spending the morning with his translator, there was Signor Ulliva in the kitchen, eating spaghetti and drinking dark red wine with Mafalda, Manfredi, her husband and our driver, and Anchise, all of them trying to teach him a Neapolitan song. It was not only the national hymn of their southern youth, but it was the best they could offer when they wished to entertain royalty. Everyone was won over. _________ Chiara, I could tell, was equally smitten. Her sister as well. Even the crowd of tennis bums who for years had come early every afternoon before heading out to the beach for a late swim would stay much later than usual hoping to catch a quick game with him. With any of our other summer residents I would have resented it. But seeing everyone take such a liking to him, I found a strange, small oasis of peace. What could possibly be wrong with liking someone everyone else liked? Everyone had fallen for him, including my first and second cousins as well as my other relatives, who stayed with us on weekends and sometimes longer. For someone known to love spotting defects in everyone else, I derived a certain satisfaction from concealing my feelings for him behind my usual indifference, hostility, or spite for anyone in a position to outshine me at home. Because everyone liked him, I had to say I liked him too. I was like men who openly declare other men irresistibly handsome the better to conceal that they're aching to embrace them. To withhold universal approval would simply alert others that I had concealed motives for needing to resist him. Oh, I like him very much, I said during his first ten days when my father asked me what I thought of him. I had used words intentionally compromising because I knew no one would suspect a false bottom in the arcane palette of shadings I applied to everything I said about him. He's the best person I've known in my life, I said on the night when the tiny fishing boat on which he had sailed out with Anchise early that afternoon failed to return and we were scrambling to find his parents' telephone number in the States in case we had to break the terrible news. On that day I even urged myself to let down my inhibitions and show my grief the way everyone else was showing theirs. But I also did it so none might suspect I nursed sorrows of a far more secret and more desperate kinduntil I realized, almost to my shame, that part of me didn't mind his dying, that there was even something almost exciting in the thought of his bloated, eyeless body finally showing up on our shores. But I wasn't fooling myself. I was convinced that no one in the world wanted him as physically as I did; nor was anyone willing to go the distance I was prepared to travel for him. No one had studied every bone in his body, ankles, knees, wrists, fingers, and toes, no one lusted after every ripple of muscle, no one took him to bed every night and on spotting him in the morning lying in his heaven by the pool, smiled at him, watched a smile come to his lips, and thought, Did you know I came in your mouth last night? Perhaps even the others nursed an extra something for him, which each concealed and displayed in his or her own way. Unlike the others, though, I was the first to spot him when he came into the garden from the beach or when the flimsy silhouette of his bicycle, blurred in the midafternoon mist, would appear out of the alley of pines leading to our house. I was the first to recognize his steps when he arrived late at the movie theater one night and stood there looking for the rest of us, not uttering a sound until I turned around knowing he'd be overjoyed I'd spotted him. I recognized him by the inflection of his footfalls up the stairway to our balcony or on the landing outside my bedroom door. I knew when he stopped outside my French windows, as if debating whether to knock and then thinking twice, and continued walking. I knew it was he riding a bicycle by the way the bike skidded ever so mischievously on the deep gravel path and still kept going when it was obvious there couldn't be any traction left, only to come to a sudden, bold, determined stop, with something of a declarative voila in the way he jumped off. I always tried to keep him within my field of vision. I never let him drift away from me except when he wasn't with me. And when he wasn't with me, I didn't much care what he did so long as he remained the exact same person with others as he was with me. Don't let him be someone else when he's away. Don't let him be someone I've never seen before. Don't let him have a life other than the life I know he has with us, with me. Don't let me lose him. I knew I had no hold on him, nothing to offer, nothing to lure him by. I was nothing. Just a kid. He simply doled out his attention when the occasion suited him. When he came to my assistance to help me understand a fragment by Heraclitus, because I was determined to read "his" author, the words that sprang to me were not "gentleness" or "generosity" but "patience" and "forbearance," which ranked higher. Moments later, when he asked if I liked a book I was reading, his question was prompted less by curiosity than by an opportunity for casual chitchat. Everything was casual. He was okay with casual. How come you're not at the beach with the others? Go back to your plunking. Later! Yours! Just making conversation. Casual chitchat. Nothing. Oliver was receiving many invitations to other houses. This had become something of a tradition with our other summer residents as well. My father always wanted them to feel free to "talk" their books and expertise around town. He also believed that scholars should learn how to speak to the layman, which was why he always had lawyers, doctors, businessmen over for meals. Everyone in Italy has read Dante, Homer, and Virgil, he'd say. Doesn't matter whom you're talking to, so long as you Dante-and-Homer them first. Virgil is a must, Leopardi comes next, and then feel free to dazzle them with everything you've got, Celan, celery, salami, who cares. This also had the advantage of allowing all of our summer residents to perfect their Italian, one of the requirements of the residency. Having them on the dinner circuit around B. also had another benefit: it relieved us from having them at our table every single night of the week. But Oliver's invitations had become vertiginous. Chiara and her sister wanted him at least twice a week. A cartoonist from Brussels, who rented a villa all summer long, wanted him for his exclusive Sunday soupers to which writers and scholars from the environs were always invited. Then the Moreschis, from three villas down, the Malaspinas from N., and the occasional acquaintance struck up at one of the bars on the piazzetta, or at Le Danzing. All this to say nothing of his poker and bridge playing at night, which flourished by means totally unknown to us. His life, like his papers, even when it gave every impression of being chaotic, was always meticulously compartmentalized. Sometimes he skipped dinner altogether and would simply tell Mafalda, "Esco, I'm going out." His Esco, I realized soon enough, was just another version of Later! A summary and unconditional goodbye, spoken not as you were leaving, but after you were out the door. You said it with your back to those you were leaving behind. I felt sorry for those on the receiving end who wished to appeal, to plead. Not knowing whether he'd show up at the dinner table was torture. But bearable. Not daring to ask whether he'd be there was the real ordeal. Having my heart jump when I suddenly heard his voice or saw him seated at his seat when I'd almost given up hoping he'd be among us tonight eventually blossomed like a poisoned flower. Seeing him and thinking he'd join us for dinner tonight only to hear his peremptory Esco taught me there are certain wishes that must be clipped like wings off a thriving butterfly. 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 Pm-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 paradise, his cheeky Later!, 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 lateryes, Later!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 nightone hour, evenif 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 x to y? 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 youand 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 1 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'? 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 perpetue, housekeepers. 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. "Traduttrice, my eye," Mafalda would intone. Sometimes we'd run into each other in town. Sitting at the caff? 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. "Hanging out." "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 ??" 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 Later! I watched them look for an empty table at one of the adjoining caff?s. 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. Who wouldn't? 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 Jewishwe 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 galut, 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. But on that same night I used the heady elation of the moment to speak to Marzia. We danced past midnight, then I walked her back by way of the shore. Then we stopped. I said I was tempted to take a quick swim, expecting she would hold me back. But she said she too loved swimming at night. Our clothes were off in a second. "You're not with me because you're angry with Chiara?" "Why am I angry with Chiara?" "Because of him." I shook my head, feigning a puzzled look meant to show that I couldn't begin to guess where she'd fished such a notion from. She asked me to turn around and not stare while she used her sweater to towel her body dry. I pretended to sneak a clandestine glance, but was too obedient not to do as I was told. I didn't dare ask her not to look when I put my clothes on but was glad she looked the other way. When we were no longer naked, I took her hand and kissed her on the palm, then kissed the space between her fingers, then her mouth. She was slow to kiss me back, but then she didn't want to stop. We were to meet at the same spot on the beach the following evening. I'd be there before her, I said. "Just don't tell anyone," she said. I motioned that my mouth was zipped shut. "We almost did it," I told both my father and Oliver the next morning as we were having breakfast. "And why didn't you?" asked my father. "Dunno." "Better to have tried and failed . . ." Oliver was half mocking and half comforting me with that oft-rehashed saw. "All I had to do was find the courage to reach out and touch, she would have said yes," I said, partly to parry further criticism from either of them but also to show that when it came to self-mockery, I could administer my own dose, thank you very much. I was showing off. "Try again later," said Oliver. This was what people who were okay with themselves did. But I could also sense he was onto something and wasn't coming out with it, perhaps because there was something mildly disquieting behind his fatuous though well-intentioned try again later. He was criticizing me. Or making fun of me. Or seeing through me. It stung me when he finally came out with it. Only someone who had completely figured me out would have said it. "If not later, when?" My father liked it. "If not later, when?" It echoed Rabbi Hillel's famous injunction, "If not now, when?" Oliver instantly tried to take back his stinging remark. "I'd definitely try again. And again after that," came the watered-down version. But try again later was the veil he'd drawn over If not later, when? I repeated his phrase as if it were a prophetic mantra meant to reflect how he lived his life and how I was attempting to live mine. By repeating this mantra that had come straight from his mouth, I might trip on a secret passageway to some nether truth that had hitherto eluded me, about me, about life, about others, about me with others. Try again later were the last words I'd spoken to myself every night when I'd sworn to do something to bring Oliver closer to me. Try again later meant, I haven't the courage now. Things weren't ready just yet. Where I'd find the will and the courage to try again later I didn't know. But resolving to do something rather than sit passively made me feel that I was already doing something, like reaping a profit on money I hadn't invested, much less earned yet. But I also knew that I was circling wagons around my life with try again laters, and that months, seasons, entire years, a lifetime could go by with nothing but Saint Try-again-later stamped on every day. Try again later worked for people like Oliver. If not later, when? was my shibboleth. If not later, when? "What if he had found me out and uncovered each and every one of my secrets with those four cutting words? I had to let him know I was totally indifferent to him. What sent me into a total tailspin was talking to him a few mornings later in the garden and finding, not only that he was turning a deaf ear to all of my blandishments on behalf of Chiara, but that I was on the totally wrong track. "What do you mean, wrong track?" "I'm not interested." I didn't know if he meant not interested in discussing it, or not interested in Chiara. "Everyone is interested." "Well, maybe. But not me." Still unclear. There was something at once dry, irked, and fussy in his voice. "But I saw you two." "What you saw was not your business to see. Anyway, I'm not playing this game with either her or you." He sucked on his cigarette and looking back at me gave me his usual menacing, chilly gaze that could cut and bore into your guts with arthroscopic accuracy. I shrugged my shoulders. "Look, I'm sorry"and went back to my books. I had overstepped my bounds again and there was no getting out of it gracefully except by owning that I'd been terribly indiscreet. "Maybe you should try," he threw in. I'd never heard him speak in that lambent tone before. Usually, it was I who teetered on the fringes of propriety. "She wouldn't want to have anything to do with me." "Would you want her to?" Where was this going, and why did I feel that a trap lay a few steps ahead? "No?" I replied gingerly, not realizing that my diffidence had made my "no" sound almost like a question. "Are you sure?" Had I, by any chance, convinced him that I'd wanted her all along? I looked up at him as though to return challenge for challenge. "What would you know?" "I know you like her." "You have no idea what I like," I snapped. "No idea." I was trying to sound arch and mysterious, as though referring to a realm of human experience about which someone like him wouldn't have the slightest clue. But I had only managed to sound peevish and hysterical. A less canny reader of the human soul would have seen in my persistent denials the terrified signs of a flustered admission about Chiara scrambling for cover. A more canny observer, however, would have considered it a lead-in to an entirely different truth: push open the door at your own perilbelieve me, you don't want to hear this. Maybe you should go away now, while there's still time. But I also knew that if he so much as showed signs of suspecting the truth, I'd make every effort to cast him adrift right away. If, however, he suspected nothing, then my flustered words would have left him marooned just the same. In the end, I was happier if he thought I wanted Chiara than if he pushed the issue further and had me tripping all over myself. Speechless, I would have admitted things I hadn't mapped out for myself or didn't know I had it in me to admit. Speechless, I would have gotten to where my body longed to go far sooner than with any bon mot prepared hours ahead of time. I would have blushed, and blushed because I had blushed, fuddled with words and ultimately broken downand then where would I be? What would he say? Better break down now, I thought, than live another day juggling all of my implausible resolutions to try again later. No, better he should never know. I could live with that. I could always, always live with that. It didn't even surprise me to see how easy it was to accept. And yet, out of the blue, a tender moment would erupt so suddenly between us that the words I longed to tell him would almost slip out of my mouth. Green bathing suit moments, I called themeven after my color theory was entirely disproved and gave me no confidence to expect kindness on "blue" days or to watch out for "red" days. Music was an easy subject for us to discuss, especially when I was at the piano. Or when he'd want me to play something in the manner of so-and-so. He liked my combinations of two, three, even four composers chiming in on the same piece, and then transcribed by me. One day Chiara started to hum a hit-parade tune and suddenly, because it was a windy day and no one was heading for the beach or even staying outdoors, our friends gathered around the piano in the living room as I improvised a Brahms variation on a Mozart rendition of that very same song. "How do you do this?" he asked me one morning while he lay in heaven. "Sometimes the only way to understand an artist is to wear his shoes, to get inside him. Then everything else flows naturally." We talked about books again. I had seldom spoken to anyone about books except my father. Or we talked about music, about the pre-Socratic philosophers, about college in the U.S. Or there was Vimini. The first time she intruded on our mornings was precisely when I'd been playing a variation on Brahms's last variations on Handel. Her voice broke up the intense midmorning heat. "What are you doing?" "Working," I replied. Oliver, who was lying flat on his stomach on the edge of the pool, looked up with the sweat pouring down between his shoulder blades. "Me too," he said when she turned and asked him the same question. "You were talking, not working." "Same thing." "I wish I could work. But no one gives me any work." Oliver, who had never seen Vimini before, looked up to me, totally helpless, as though he didn't know the rules of this conversation. "Oliver, meet Vimini, literally our next-door neighbor." She offered him her hand and he shook it. "Vimini and I have the same birthday, but she is ten years old. Vimini is also a genius. Isn't it true you're a genius, Vimini?" "So they say. But it seems to me that I may not be." "Why is that?" Oliver inquired, trying not to sound too patronizing. "It would be in rather bad taste for nature to have made me a genius." Oliver looked more startled than ever: "Come again?" "He doesn't know, does he?" she was asking me in front of him. I shook my head. "They say I may not live long." "Why do you say that?" He looked totally stunned. "How do you know?" "Everyone knows. Because I have leukemia." "But you're so beautiful, so healthy-looking, and so smart," he protested. "As I said, a bad joke." Oliver, who was now kneeling on the grass, had literally dropped his book on the ground. "Maybe you can come over one day and read to me," she said. "I'm really very niceand you look very nice too. Well, goodbye." She climbed over the wall. "And sorry if I spooked you well" You could almost watch her trying to withdraw the ill-chosen metaphor. If the music hadn't already brought us closer together at least for a few hours that day, Vimini's apparition did. We spoke about her all afternoon. I didn't have to look for anything to say. He did most of the talking and the asking. Oliver was mesmerized. For once, I wasn't speaking about myself. Soon they became friends. She was always up in the morning after he returned from his morning jog or swim, and together they would walk over to our gate, and clamber down the stairs, and head to one of the huge rocks, where they sat and talked until it was time for breakfast. Never had I seen a friendship so beautiful or more intense. I was never jealous of it, and no one, certainly not I, dared come between them or eavesdrop on them. I shall never forget how she would give him her hand once they'd opened the gate to the stairway leading to the rocks. She seldom ever ventured that far unless accompanied by someone older. When I think back to that summer, I can never sort the sequence of events. There are a few key scenes. Otherwise, all I remember are the "repeat" moments. The morning ritual before and after breakfast: Oliver lying on the grass, or by the pool, I sitting at my table. Then the swim or the jog. Then his grabbing a bicycle and riding to see the translator in town. Lunch at the large, shaded dining table in the other garden, or lunch indoors, always a guest or two for lunch drudgery. The afternoon hours, splendid and lush with abundant sun and silence. Then there are the leftover scenes: my father always wondering what I did with my time, why I was always alone; my mother urging me to make new friends if the old ones didn't interest me, but above all to stop hanging around the house all the time books, books, books, always books, and all these scorebooks, both of them begging me to play more tennis, go dancing more often, get to know people, find out for myself why others are so necessary in life and not just foreign bodies to be sidled up to. Do crazy things if you must, they told me all the while, forever prying to unearth the mysterious, telltale signs of heartbreak which, in their clumsy, intrusive, devoted way, both would instantly wish to heal, as if I were a soldier who had strayed into their garden and needed his wound immediately stanched or else he'd die. You can always talk to me. I was your age once, my father used to say. The things you feel and think only you have felt, believe me, I've lived and suffered through all of them, and more than oncesome I've never gotten over and others I'm as ignorant about as you are today, yet I know almost every bend, every toll-booth, every chamber in the human heart. There are other scenes: the postprandial silencesome of us napping, some working, others reading, the whole world basking away in hushed semitones. Heavenly hours when voices from the world beyond our house would filter in so softly that I was sure I had drifted off. Then afternoon tennis. Shower and cocktails. Waiting for dinner. Guests again. Dinner. His second trip to the translator. Strolling into town and back late at night, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Then there are the exceptions: the stormy afternoon when we sat in the living room, listening to the music and to the hail pelting every window in the house. The lights would go out, the music would die, and all we had was each other's faces. An aunt twittering away about her dreadful years in St. Louis, Missouri, which she pronounced San Lui, Mother trailing the scent of Earl Grey tea, and in the background, all the way from the kitchen downstairs, the voices of Manfredi and Mafaldaspare whispers of a couple bickering in loud hisses. In the rain, the lean, cloaked, hooded figure of the gardener doing battle with the elements, always pulling up weeds even in the rain, my father signaling with his arms from the living room window, Go back, Anchise, go back. "That man gives me the creeps," my aunt would say. "That creep has a heart of gold," my father would say. But all of these hours were strained by fear, as if fear were a brooding specter, or a strange, lost bird trapped in our little town, whose sooty wing flecked every living thing with a shadow that would never wash. I didn't know what I was afraid of, nor why I worried so much, nor why this thing that could so easily cause panic felt like hope sometimes and, like hope in the darkest moments, brought such joy, unreal joy, joy with a noose tied around it. The thud my heart gave when I saw him unannounced both terrified and thrilled me. I was afraid when he showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn't. The agony wore me out in the end, and, on scalding afternoons, I'd simply give out and fall asleep on the living room sofa and, though still dreaming, know exactly who was in the room, who had tiptoed in and out, who was standing there, who was looking at me and for how long, who was trying to pick out today's paper while making the least rustling sound, only to give up and look for tonight's film listings whether they woke me or not. The fear never went away. I woke up to it, watched it turn to joy when I heard him shower in the morning and knew he'd be downstairs with us for breakfast, only to watch it curdle when, rather than have coffee, he would dash through the house and right away set to work in the garden. By noon, the agony of waiting to hear him say anything to me was more than I could bear. I knew that the sofa awaited me in an hour or so. It made me hate myself for feeling so hapless, so thoroughly invisible, so smitten, so callow. Just say something, just touch me, Oliver. Look at me long enough and watch the tears well in my eyes. Knock at my door at night and see if I haven't already left it ajar for you. Walk inside. There's always room in my bed. What I feared most were the days when I didn't see him for stretches at a timeentire afternoons and evenings sometimes without knowing where he'd been. I'd sometimes spot him crossing the piazzetta or talking to people I'd never seen there. But that didn't count, because in the small piazzetta where people gathered around closing time, he seldom gave me a second look, just a nod which might have been intended less for me than for my father, whose son I happened to be. My parents, my father especially, couldn't have been happier with him. Oliver was working out better than most of our summer residents. He helped my father organize his papers, managed a good deal of his foreign correspondence, and was clearly coming along with his own book. "What he did in his private life and his time was his businessIf youth must canter, then who'll do the galloping? was my father's clumsy adage. In our house-hold, Oliver could do no wrong. Since my parents never paid any attention to his absences, I thought it was safer never to show that they caused me any anxiety. I mentioned his absence only when one of them wondered where he'd been; I would pretend to look as startled as they were. Oh, that's right, he's been gone so long. No, no idea. And I had to worry not to look too startled either, for that might ring false and alert them to what was eating at me. They'd know bad faith as soon as they spotted it. I was surprised they hadn't already. They had always said I got too easily attached to people. This summer, though, I finally realized what they meant by being too easily attached. Obviously, it had happened before, and they must have already picked up on it when I was probably too young to notice anything myself. It had sent alarming ripples through their lives. They worried for me. I knew they were right to worry. I just hoped they'd never know how far things stood beyond their ordinary worries now. I knew they didn't suspect a thing, and it bothered methough I wouldn't have wanted it other-wise. It told me that if I were no longer transparent and could disguise so much of my life, then I was finally safe from them, and from himbut at what price, and did I want to be so safe from anyone? There was no one to speak to. Whom could I tell? Mafalda? She'd leave the house. My aunt? She'd probably tell everyone. Marzia, Chiara, my friends? They'd desert me in a second. My cousins when they came? Never. My father held the most liberal viewsbut on this? Who else? Write to one of my teachers? See a doctor? Say I needed a shrink? Tell Oliver? Tell Oliver. There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I'm afraid it's going to have to be you . . . One afternoon, when I knew that the house was totally empty, I went up to his room. I opened his closet and, as this was my room when there were no residents, pretended to be looking for something I'd left behind in one of the bottom drawers. I'd planned to rifle through his papers, but as soon as I opened his closet, I saw it. Hanging on a hook was this morning's red bathing suit which he hadn't swum in, which was why it was hanging there and not drying on the balcony. I picked it up, never in my life having pried into anyone's personal belongings before. I brought the bathing suit to my face, then rubbed my face inside of it, as if I were trying to snuggle into it and lose myself inside its foldsSo this is what he smells like when his body isn't covered in suntan lotion, this is what he smells like, this is what he smells like, I kept repeating to myself, looking inside the suit for something more personal yet than his smell and then kissing every corner of it, almost wishing to find hair, anything, to lick it, to put the whole bathing suit into my mouth, and, if I could only steal it, keep it with me forever, never ever let Mafalda wash it, turn to it in the winter months at home and, on sniffing it, bring him back to life, as naked as he was with me at this very moment. On impulse, I removed my bathing suit and began to put his on. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it with the kind of intoxicated rapture that makes people take risks they would never take even with plenty of alcohol in their system. I wanted to come in his suit, and leave the evidence for him to find there. Which was when a crazier notion possessed me. I undid his bed, took off his suit, and cuddled it between his sheets, naked. Let him find meI'll deal with it, one way or another. I recognized the feel of the bed. My bed. But the smell of him was all around me, wholesome and forgiving, like the strange scent which had suddenly come over my entire body when an elderly man who happened to be standing right next to me in a temple on Yom Kippur placed his tallis over my head till I had all but disappeared and was now united with a nation that is forever dispersed but which, from time to time, comes together again when one being and another wrap themselves under the same piece of cloth. I put his pillow over my face, kissed it savagely, and, wrapping my legs around it, told it what I lacked the courage to tell everyone else in the world. Then I told him what I wanted. It took less than a minute. The secret was out of my body. So what if he saw. So what if he caught me. So what, so what, so what. On my way from his room to mine I wondered if I'd ever be mad enough to try the same thing again. That evening I caught myself keeping careful tabs on where everyone was in the house. The shameful urge was upon me sooner than I'd ever imagined. It would have taken nothing to sneak back upstairs. While reading in my father's library one evening, I came upon the story of a handsome young knight who is madly in love with a princess. She too is in love with him, though she seems not to be entirely aware of it, and despite the friendship that blossoms between them, or perhaps because of that very friendship, he finds himself so humbled and speechless owing to her forbidding candor that he is totally unable to bring up the subject of his love. One day he asks her point-blank: "Is it better to speak or die?" I'd never even have the courage to ask such a question. But what I'd spoken into his pillow revealed to me that, at least for a moment, I'd rehearsed the truth, gotten it out into the open, that I had in fact enjoyed speaking it, and if he happened to pass by at the very moment I was muttering things I wouldn't have dared speak to my own face in the mirror, I wouldn't have cared, wouldn't have mindedlet him know, let him see, let him pass judgment too if he wantsjust don't tell the worldeven if you're the world for me right now, even if in your eyes stands a horrified, scornful world. That steely look of yours, Oliver, I'd rather die than face it once I've told you. PART 2 Monets Berm Toward the end of July things finally came to a head. It seemed clear that after Chiara there had been a succession of cotte, crushes, mini-crushes, one-night crushes, flings, who knows. To me all of it boiled down to one thing only: his cock had been everywhere in B. Every girl had touched it, that cock of his. It had been in who knows how many vaginas, how many mouths. The image amused me. It never bothered me to think of him between a girl's legs as she lay facing him, his broad, tanned, glistening shoulders moving up and down as I'd imagined him that afternoon when I too had wrapped my legs around his pillow. Just looking at his shoulders when he happened to be going over his manuscript in his heaven made me wonder where they'd been last night. How effortless and free the movement of his shoulder blades each time he shifted, how thoughtlessly they caught the sun. Did they taste of the sea to the woman who had lain under him last night and bitten into him? Or of his suntan lotion? Or of the smell that had risen from his sheets when I went into them? How I wished I had shoulders like his. Maybe I wouldn't long for them if I had them? Muvi star. Did I want to be like him? Did I want to be him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are "being" and "having" thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone's body to touch and being that someone we're longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M. C. Escher. When had they separated us, you and me, Oliver? And why did I know it, and why didn't you? Is it your body that I want when I think of lying next to it every night or do I want to slip into it and own it as if it were my own, as I did when I put on your bathing suit and took it off again, all the while craving, as I craved nothing more in my life that afternoon, to feel you slip inside me as if my entire body were your bathing suit, your home? You in me, me in you . . . Then came the day. We were in the garden, I told him of the novella I had just finished reading. "About the knight who doesn't know whether to speak or die. You told me already." Obviously I had mentioned it and forgotten. "Yes." "Well, does he or doesn't he?" "Better to speak, she said. But she's on her guard.She senses a trap somewhere." "So does he speak?" "No, he fudges." "Figures." It was just after breakfast. Neither of us felt like working that day. "Listen, I need to pick up something in town." Something was always the latest pages from the translator. "I'll go, if you want me to." He sat silently a moment. "No, let's go together." "Now?" What I might have meant was, Really? "Why, have you got anything better to do?" "No." "So let's go." He put some pages in his frayed green backpack and slung it over his shoulders. Since our last bike ride to B., he had never asked me to go anywhere with him. I put down my fountain pen, closed my scorebook, placed a half-full glass of lemonade on top of my pages, and was ready to go. On our way to the shed, we passed the garage. As usual, Manfredi, Mafalda's husband, was arguing with Anchise. This time he was accusing him of dousing the tomatoes with too much water, and that it was all wrong, because they were growing too fast. "They'll be mealy," he complained. "Listen. I do the tomatoes, you do the driving, and we're all happy." "You don't understand. In my day you moved the tomatoes at some point, from one place to another, from one place to the other"he insisted"and you planted basil nearby. But of course you people who've been in the army know everything." "That's right." Anchise was ignoring him. "Of course I'm right. No wonder they didn't keep you in the army." "That's right. They didn't keep me in the army." Both of them greeted us. The gardener handed Oliver his bicycle. "I straightened the wheel last night, it took some doing. I also put some air in the tires." Manfredi couldn't have been more peeved. "From now on, I fix the wheels, you grow the tomatoes," said the piqued driver. Anchise gave a wry smile. Oliver smiled back. Once we had reached the cypress lane that led onto the main road to town, I asked Oliver, "Doesn't he give you the creeps?" "Who?" "Anchise." "No, why? I fell the other day on my way back and scraped myself pretty badly. Anchise insisted on applying some sort of witch's brew. He also fixed the bike for me." With one hand on the handlebar he lifted his shirt and exposed a huge scrape and bruise on his left hip. "Still gives me the creeps," I said, repeating my aunt's verdict. "Just a lost soul, really." I would have touched, caressed, worshipped that scrape. On our way, I noticed that Oliver was taking his time. He wasn't in his usual rush, no speeding, no scaling the hill with his usual athletic zeal. Nor did he seem in a rush to go back to his paperwork, or join his friends on the beach, or, as was usually the case, ditch me. Perhaps he had nothing better to do. This was my moment in heaven and, young as I was, I knew it wouldn't last and that I should at least enjoy it for what it was rather than ruin it with my oft-cranked resolution to firm up our friendship or take it to another plane. There'll never be a friendship, I thought, this is nothing, just a minute of grace. Zwischen Immer und Nie. Zwischen Immer und Nie. Between always and never. Celan. When we arrived at the piazzetta overlooking the sea, Oliver stopped to buy cigarettes. He had started smoking Gauloises. I had never tried Gauloises and asked if I could. He took out a cerino from the box, cupped his hands very near my face, and lit my cigarette. "Not bad, right?" "Not bad at all." They'd remind me of him, of this day, I thought, realizing that in less than a month he'd be totally gone, without a trace. This was probably the first time I allowed myself to count down his remaining days in B. "Just take a look at this," he said as we ambled with our bikes in the midmorning sun toward the edge of the piazzetta overlooking the rolling hills below. Farther out and way below was a magnificent view of the sea with scarcely a few stripes of foam streaking the bay like giant dolphins breaking the surf. A tiny bus was working its way uphill, while three uniformed bikers straggled behind it, obviously complaining of the fumes. "You do know who is said to have drowned near here," he said. "Shelley." "And do you know what his wife Mary and friends did when they found his body?" "Cor cordium, heart of hearts," I replied, referring to the moment when a friend had seized Shelley's heart before the flames had totally engulfed his swollen body as it was being cremated on the shore. Why was he quizzing me? "Is there anything you don't know?" I looked at him. This was my moment. I could seize it or I could lose it, but either way I knew I would never live it down. Or I could gloat over his complimentbut live to regret everything else. This was probably the first time in my life that I spoke to an adult without planning some of what I was going to say. I was too nervous to plan anything. "I know nothing, Oliver. Nothing, just nothing." "You know more than anyone around here." Why was he returning my near-tragic tone with bland ego-boosting? "If you only knew how little I know about the things that really matter." I was treading water, trying neither to drown nor to swim to safety, just staying in place, because here was the trutheven if I couldn't speak the truth, or even hint at it, yet I could swear it lay around us, the way we say of a necklace we've just lost while swimming: I know it's down there somewhere. If he knew, if he only knew that I was giving him every chance to put two and two together and come up with a number bigger than infinity. But if he understood, then he must have suspected, and if he suspected he would have been there himself, watching me from across a parallel lane with his steely, hostile, glass-eyed, trenchant, all-knowing gaze. He must have hit on something, though God knows what. Perhaps he was trying not to seem taken aback. "What things that matter?" Was he being disingenuous? "You know what things. By now you of all people should know." Silence. "Why are you telling me all this?" "Because I thought you should know." "Because you thought I should know." He repeated my words slowly, trying to take in their full meaning, all the while sorting them out, playing for time by repeating the words. The iron, I knew, was burning hot. "Because I want you to know," I blurted out. "Because there is no one else I can say it to but you." There, I had said it. Was I making any sense? I was about to interrupt and sidetrack the conversation by saying something about the sea and the weather tomorrow and whether it might be a good idea to sail out to E. as my father kept promising this time every year. But to his credit he didn't let me loose. "Do you know what you're saying?" This time I looked out to the sea and, with a vague and weary tone that was my last diversion, my last cover, my last getaway, said, "Yes, I know what I'm saying and you're not mistaking any of it. I'm just not very good at speaking. But you're welcome never to speak to me again." "Wait. Are you saying what I think you're saying?" "Ye-es." Now that I had spilled the beans I could take on the laid-back, mildly exasperated air with which a felon, who's surrendered to the police, confesses yet once more to yet one more police officer how he robbed the store. "Wait for me here, I have to run upstairs and get some papers. Don't go away." I looked at him with a confiding smile. "You know very well I'm not going anywhere." If that's not another admission, then what is? I thought. As I waited, I took both our bikes and walked them toward the war memorial dedicated to the youth of the town who'd perished in the Battle of the Piave during the First World War. Every small town in Italy has a similar memorial. Two small buses had just stopped nearby and were unloading passengersolder women arriving from the adjoining villages to shop in town. Around the small piazza, the old folk, men mostly, sat on small, rickety, straw-backed chairs or on park benches wearing drab, old, dun-colored suits. I wondered how many people here still re membered the young men they'd lost on the Piave River. You'd have to be at least eighty years old today to have known them. And at least one hundred, if not more, to have been older than they were then. At one hundred, surely you learn to overcome loss and griefor do they hound you till the bitter end? At one hundred, siblings forget, sons forget, loved ones forget, no one remembers anything, even the most devastated forget to remember. Mothers and fathers have long since died. Does anyone remember? A thought raced through my mind: Would my descendants know what was spoken on this very piazzetta today? Would anyone? Or would it dissolve into thin air, as I found part of me wishing it would? Would they know how close to the brink their fate stood on this day on this piazzetta? The thought amused me and gave me the necessary distance to face the remainder of this day. In thirty, forty years, I'll come back here and think back on a conversation I knew I'd never forget, much as I might want to someday. I'd come here with my wife, my children, show them the sights, point to the bay, the local caffes, Le Danzing, the Grand Hotel. Then I'd stand here and ask the statue and the straw-backed chairs and shaky wooden tables to remind me of someone called Oliver. When he returned, the first thing he blurted out was, "That idiot Milani mixed the pages and has to retype the whole thing. So I have nothing to work on this afternoon, which sets me back a whole day." It was his turn to look for excuses to dodge the subject. I could easily let him off the hook if he wanted. We could talk about the sea, the Piave, or fragments of Heraclitus, such as "Nature loves to hide" or "I went in search of myself." And if not these, there was the trip to E. we'd been discussing for days now. There was also the chamber music ensemble due to arrive any day. On our way we passed a shop where my mother always ordered flowers. As a child I liked to watch the large storefront window awash in a perpetual curtain of water which came sliding down ever so gently, giving the shop an enchanted, mysterious aura that reminded me of how in many films the screen would blur to announce that a flashback was about to occur. "I wish I hadn't spoken," I finally said. I knew as soon as I'd said it that I'd broken the exiguous spell between us. "I'm going to pretend you never did." Well, that was an approach I'd never expected from a man who was so okay with the world. I'd never heard such a sentence used in our house. "Does this mean we're on speaking termsbut not really?" He thought about it. "Look, we can't talk about such things. We really can't." He slung his bag around him and we were off downhill. Fifteen minutes ago, I was in total agony, every nerve ending, every emotion bruised, trampled, crushed as in Mafalda's mortar, all of it pulverized till you couldn't tell fear from anger from the merest trickle of desire. But at that time there was something to look forward to. Now that we had laid our cards on the table, the secrecy, the shame were gone, but with them so was that dash of unspoken hope that had kept everything alive these weeks. Only the scenery and the weather could buoy my spirits now. As would the ride together on the empty country road, which was entirely ours at this time of day and where the sun started pounding exposed patches along the route. I told him to follow me, I'd show him a spot most tourists and strangers had never seen. "If you have time," I added, not wishing to be pushy this time. "I have time." It was spoken with a noncommittal lilt in his voice, as though he had found the overplayed tact in my words slightly comical. But perhaps this was a small concession to make up for not discussing the matter at hand. We veered off the main road and headed toward the edge of the cliff. "This," I said by way of a preface meant to keep his interest alive, "is the spot where Monet came to paint." Tiny, stunted palm trees and gnarled olive trees studded the copse. Then through the trees, on an incline leading toward the very edge of the cliff, was a knoll partly shaded by tall marine pines. I leaned my bike against one of the trees, he did the same, and I showed him the way up to the berm. "Now take a look," I said, extremely pleased, as if revealing something more eloquent than anything I might say in my favor. A soundless, quiet cove stood straight below us. Not a sign of civilization anywhere, no home, no jetty, no fishing boats. Farther out, as always, was the belfry of San Giacomo, and, if you strained your eyes, the outline of N, and farther still was something that looked like our house and the adjoining villas, the one where Vimini lived, and the Moreschi family's, with their two daughters whom Oliver had probably slept with, alone or together, who knew, who cared at this point. "This is my spot. All mine. I come here to read. I can't tell you the number of books I've read here." "Do you like being alone?" he asked. "No. No one likes being alone. But I've learned how to live with it." "Are you always so very wise?" he asked. Was he about to adopt a condescending, pre-lecture tone before joining everyone else on my needing to get out more, make more friends, and, having made friends, not to be so selfish with them? Or was this a preamble to his role as shrink/part-time-friend-of-the-family? Or was I yet again misreading him completely? "I'm not wise at all. I told you, I know nothing. I know books, and I know how to string words togetherit doesn't mean I know how to speak about the things that matter most to me." "But you're doing it nowin a way." "Yes, in a waythat's how I always say things: in a way." Staring out at the offing so as not to look at him, I sat down on the grass and noticed he was crouching a few yards away from me on the tips of his toes, as though he would any moment now spring to his feet and go back to where we'd left our bicycles. It never occurred to me that I had brought him here not just to show him my little world, but to ask my little world to let him in, so that the place where I came to be alone on summer afternoons would get to know him, judge him, see if he fitted in, take him in, so that I might come back here and remember. Here I would come to escape the known world and seek another of my own invention; I was basically introducing him to my launchpad. All I had to do was list the works I'd read here and he'd know all the places I'd traveled to. "I like the way you say things. Why are you always putting yourself down?" I shrugged my shoulders. Was he criticizing me for criticizing myself? "I don't know. So you won't, I suppose." "Are you so scared of what others think?" I shook my head. But I didn't know the answer. Or perhaps the answer was so obvious that I didn't have to answer. It was moments such as these that left me feeling so vulnerable, so naked. Push me, make me nervous, and, unless I push you back, you've already found me out. No, I had nothing to say in reply. But I wasn't moving either. My impulse was to let him ride home by himself. I'd be home in time for lunch. He was waiting for me to say something. He was staring at me. This, I think, is the first time I dared myself to stare back at him. Usually, I'd cast a glance and then look awaylook away because I didn't want to swim in the lovely, clear pool of his eyes unless I'd been invited toand I never waited long enough to know whether I was even wanted there; look away because I was too scared to stare anyone back; look away because I didn't want to give anything away; look away because I couldn't acknowledge how much he mattered. Look away because that steely gaze of his always reminded me of how tall he stood and how far below him I ranked. Now, in the silence of the moment, I stared back, not to defy him, or to show I wasn't shy any longer, but to surrender, to tell him this is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I want, there is nothing but truth between us now, and where there's truth there are no barriers, no shifty glances, and if nothing comes of this, let it never be said that either of us was unaware of what might happen. I hadn't a hope left. And maybe I stared back because there wasn't a thing to lose now. I stared back with the all-knowing, I-dare-you-to-kiss-me gaze of someone who both challenges and flees with one and the same gesture. "You're making things very difficult for me." Was he by any chance referring to our staring? I didn't back down. Neither did he. Yes, he was referring to our staring. "Why am I making things difficult?" My heart was beating too fast for me to speak coherently. I wasn't even ashamed of showing how flushed I was. So let him know, let him. "Because it would be very wrong." "Would?" I asked. Was there a ray of hope, then? He sat down on the grass, then lay down on his back, his arms under his head, as he stared at the sky. "Yes, would. I'm not going to pretend this hasn't crossed my mind." "I'd be the last to know." "Well, it has. There! What did you think was going on?" "Going on?" I fumbled by way of a question. "Nothing." I thought about it some more. "Nothing," I repeated, as if what I was vaguely beginning to get a hint of was so amorphous that it could just as easily be shoved away by my repeated "nothing" and thereby fill the unbearable gaps of silence. "Nothing." "I see," he finally said. "You've got it wrong, my friend" chiding condescension in his voice. "If it makes you feel any better, I have to hold back. It's time you learned too." "The best I can do is pretend I don't care." "That much we've known for a while already," he snapped right away. I was crushed. All these times when I thought I was slighting him by showing how easy it was to ignore him in the garden, on the balcony, at the beach, he had been seeing right through me and taken my move for the peevish, textbook gambit it was. His admission, which seemed to open up all the sluiceways between us, was precisely what drowned my budding hopes. Where would we go from here? What was there to add? And what would happen the next time we pretended not to speak but were no longer sure the frost between us was still sham? We spoke awhile longer, then the conversation petered out. Now that we had put our cards on the table, it felt like small talk. "So this is where Monet came to paint." "I'll show you at home. We have a book with wonderful reproductions of the area around here." "Yes, you'll have to show me." He was playing the role of the patronizing understudy. I hated it. Each leaning on one arm, we both stared out at the view. "You're the luckiest kid in the world," he said. "You don't know the half of it." I let him ponder my statement. Then, perhaps to fill the silence that was becoming unbearable, I blurted out, "So much of it is wrong, though." "What? Your family?" "That too." "Living here all summer long, reading by yourself, meeting all those dinner drudges your father dredges up at every meal?" He was making fun of me again. I smirked. No, that wasn't it either. He paused a moment. "Us, you mean." I did not reply. "Let's see, then" And before I knew it, he sidled up to me. We were too close, I thought, I'd never been so close to him except in a dream or when he cupped his hand to light my cigarette. If he brought his ear any closer he'd hear my heart. I'd seen it written in novels but never believed it until now. He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there'd be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still de-bate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point except that I didn't have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I'll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was. I wished I knew how to calibrate my kiss the way he did. But passion allows us to hide more, and at that moment on Monet's berm, if I wished to hide everything about me in this kiss, I was also desperate to forget the kiss by losing myself in it. "Better now?" he asked afterward. I did not answer but lifted my face to his and kissed him again, almost savagely, not because I was filled with passion or even because his kiss still lacked the zeal I was looking for, but because I was not so sure our kiss had convinced me of anything about myself. I was not even sure I had enjoyed it as much as I'd expected and needed to test it again, so that even in the act itself, I needed to test the test. My mind was drifting to the most mundane things. So much denial? a two-bit disciple of Freud would have observed. 1 squelched my doubts with a yet more violent kiss. I did not want passion, I did not want pleasure. Perhaps I didn't even want proof. And I did not want words, small talk, big talk, bike talk, book talk, any of it. Just the sun, the grass, the occasional sea breeze, and the smell of his body fresh from his chest, from his neck and his armpits. Just take me and molt me and turn me inside out, till, like a character in Ovid, I become one with your lust, that's what I wanted. Give me a blindfold, hold my hand, and don't ask me to thinkwill you do that for me? I did not know where all this was leading, but I was surrendering to him, inch by inch, and he must have known it, for I sensed he was still keeping a distance between us. Even with our faces touching, our bodies were angles apart. I knew that anything I did now, any movement I'd make, might disturb the harmony of the moment. So, sensing there was probably not going to be a sequel to our kiss, I began to test the eventual separation of our mouths, only to realize, now that I was making mere motions of ending the kiss, how much I'd wanted it not to stop, wanted his tongue in my mouth and mine in hisbecause all we had become, after all these weeks and all the strife and all the fits and starts that ushered a chill draft each time, was just two wet tongues flailing away in each other's mouths. Just two tongues, all the rest was nothing. When, finally, I lifted one knee and moved it toward him to face him, I knew I had broken the spell. "I think we should go." "Not yet." "We can't do thisI know myself. So far we've behaved. We've been good. Neither of us has done anything to feel ashamed of. Let's keep it that way. I want to be good." "Don't be. I don't care. Who is to know?" In a desperate move which I knew I'd never live down if he did not relent, I reached for him and let my hand rest on his crotch. He did not move. I should have slipped my hand straight into his shorts. He must have read my intention and, with total composure, bordering on a gesture that was very gentle but also quite glacial, brought his hand there and let it rest on mine for a second, then, twining his fingers into mine, lifted my hand. A moment of unbearable silence settled between us. "Did I offend you?" "Just don't." It sounded a bit like Later! when I'd first heard it weeks earlierbiting and blunted, and altogether mirthless, without any inflection of either the joy or the passion we'd just shared. He gave me his hand and helped me stand up again. He suddenly winced. I remembered the scrape on his side. "I should make sure it doesn't get infected," he said. "We'll stop by the pharmacist on the way back." He didn't reply. But it was about the most sobering thing we could have said. It let the intrusive real world gust into our livesAnchise, the mended bike, the bickering over tomatoes, the music score hastily left under a glass of lemonade, how long ago they all seemed. Indeed, as we rode away from my spot we saw two tourist vans heading south to N. It must have been nearing noon. "We'll never speak again," I said as we glided down the never-ending slope, the wind in our hair. "Don't say that." "I just know it. We'll chitchat. Chitchat, chitchat. That's all. And the funny thing is, I can live with that." "You just rhymed," he said. I loved the way he'd flip on me. Two hours later, at lunch, I gave myself all the proof I needed that I would never be able to live with that. Before dessert, while Mafalda was clearing away the plates and while everyone's attention was focused on a conversation about Ja-copone da Todi, I felt a warm, bare foot casually brush mine. I remembered that, on the berm, I should have seized my chance to feel if the skin of his foot was as smooth as I'd imagined it. Now this was all the chance I'd get. Perhaps it was my foot that had strayed and touched his. It withdrew, not immediately, but soon enough, as though it had consciously waited an appropriate interval of time so as not to give the impression of having recoiled in panic. I too waited a few seconds more and, without actually planning my move, allowed my foot to begin seeking the other out. I had just begun searching for it when my toe suddenly bumped into his foot; his had hardly budged at all, like a pirate ship that gave every indication of having fled miles away but was really hiding in a fog no more than fifty yards away, waiting to pounce as soon as the chance presented itself. I had barely enough time to do anything with my foot when, without warning, without giving me time to work my way to his or to let mine rest at a safe distance again, softly, gently, suddenly his foot moved over to mine and began caressing it, rubbing it, never holding still, the smooth round ball of his heel holding my foot in place, occasionally bringing its weight to bear but lightening it right away with another caress of the toes, indicating, all the while, that this was being done in the spirit of fun and games, because it was his way of pulling the rug out from under the lunch drudges sitting right across from us, but also telling me that this had nothing to do with others and would remain strictly between us, because it was about us, but that I shouldn't read into it more than there was. The stealth and stubbornness of his caresses sent chills down my spine. A sudden giddiness overtook me. No, I wasn't going to cry, this wasn't a panic attack, it wasn't a "swoon," and I wasn't going to come in my shorts either, though I liked this very, very much, especially when the arch of his foot lay on top of my foot. When I looked at my dessert plate and saw the chocolate cake speckled with raspberry juice, it seemed to me that someone was pouring more and more red sauce than usual, and that the sauce seemed to be coming from the ceiling above my head until it suddenly hit me that it was streaming from my nose. I gasped, and quickly crumpled my napkin and brought it to my nose, holding my head as far back as I could. "Ghiaccio, ice, Mafalda, per favore, presto" I said, softly, to show that I was in perfect control of the situation. "I was up at the hill this morning. Happens all the time," I said, apologizing to the guests. 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, J 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. Inter-galactic 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 him, 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 nul-I'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 these? 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. Mi preoc-cupo, I worry." "I'll be okay." "I'd advise against it." "Don't worry." "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 toomore 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 cauboiall 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 I 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. I tried to remember. He was wearing a bathing suit when he came into my bedroom that afternoon and promised to stick around. I looked out of the balcony hoping to spot the boat, in case he had decided to take it out again. It was moored to our wharf. When I came downstairs, Father was having cocktails with a reporter from France. Why don't you play something? he asked. "Non mi va," I said, "don't feel like it." "E perche non ti va?" he asked, as though taking issue with the tone of my words. "Perche non mi va!" I shot back. Having finally crossed a major barrier this morning, it seemed I could openly express the petty stuff that was on my mind right now. Perhaps I too should have a drop of wine, said my father. Mafalda announced dinner. "Isn't it too early for dinner?" I asked. "It's past eight." My mother was escorting one of her friends who had come by car and had to leave. I was grateful that the Frenchman was sitting on the edge of his armchair, as though on the verge of standing up to be shown to the dining room, yet still sitting down, not budging. He was holding an empty glass in both hands, forcing my father, who had just asked him what he thought of the upcoming opera season, to remain seated while he finished answering him. Dinner was pushed back by another five to ten minutes. If he was late for dinner, he wouldn't eat with us. But if he was late that meant he was having dinner elsewhere. I didn't want him to have dinner anywhere but with us tonight. "Noi ci mettiamo a tavola, we'll sit down," said my mother. She asked me to sit next to her. Oliver's seat was empty. My mother complained that he should at least have let us know he wasn't coming for dinner. Father said it might be the boat's fault again. That boat should be totally dismantled. But the boat was downstairs, I said. "Then it must be the translator. Who was it who told me he needed to see the translator this evening?" asked my mother. Must not show anxiety. Or that I cared. Stay calm. I didn't want to bleed again. But that moment of what seemed like bliss now when we'd walked our bikes on the piazzetta both before and after our talk belonged to another time segment, as though it had happened to another me in some other life that was not too different from my own, but removed enough to make the few seconds that kept us apart seem like light-years away. If I put my foot on the floor and pretend that his is just behind the leg of the table, will that foot, like a starship that has turned on its cloaking device, like a ghost summoned by the living, suddenly materialize from its dimple in space and say, I know you've beckoned. Reach and you'll find me? Before long, my mother's friend, who, at the last minute, decided to stay for dinner, was asked to sit where I'd sat at lunch. Oliver's place setting was instantly removed. The removal was performed summarily, without a hint of regret or compunction, the way you'd remove a bulb that was no longer working, or scrape out the entrails of a butchered sheep that had once been a pet, or take off the sheets and blankets from a bed where someone had died. Here, take these, and remove them from sight. I watched his silverware, his place mat, his napkin, his entire being disappear. It presaged exactly what would happen less than a month from now. I did not look at Mafalda. She hated these last-minute changes at the dinner table. She was shaking her head at Oliver, at my mother, at our world. At me too, I suppose. Without looking at her I knew her eyes were scanning my face to pounce on mine and make eye contact, which was why I avoided lifting my eyes from my semifreddo, which I loved, and which she knew I loved and had placed there for me because, despite the chiding look on her face that was stalking my every glance, she knew I knew she felt sorry for me. Later that night, while I was playing something on the piano, my heart leapt when I thought I'd heard a scooter stop by our gate. Someone had given him a ride. But I could have been mistaken. I strained for his footsteps, from the sound of gravel underfoot to the muted flap of his espadrilles when he climbed the stairway leading to our balcony. But no one came into the house. Much, much later, in bed, I made out the sound of music coming from a car that had stopped by the main road, beyond the alley of pines. Door opens. Door slams shut. Car pulls away. Music begins to fade. Just the sound of the surf and of gravel gently raked by the idle steps of someone who's deep in thought or just slightly drunk. What if on the way to his room he were to step into my bedroom, as in: Thought I'd stick my head in before turning in and see how you're feeling. You okay? No answer. Pissed? No answer. You are pissed? No, not at all. It's just that you said you'd stick around. So you are pissed. So why didn't you stick around? He looks at me, and like one adult to another, You know exactly why. Because you don't like me. No. Because you never liked me. No. Because I'm not good for you. Silence. Believe me, just believe me. I lift the corner of my sheets. He shakes his head. Just for a second? Shakes it again. 1 know myself, he says. I'd heard him use these very same words before. They meant I'm dying to, but may not be able to hold back once I start, so I'd rather not start. What aplomb to tell someone you can't touch him because you know yourself. Well, since you're not going to do anything with mecan you at least read me a story? I'd settle for that. I wanted him to read me a story. Something by Chekhov or Gogol or Katherine Mansfield. Take your clothes off, Oliver, and come into my bed, let me feel your skin, your hair against my flesh, your foot on mine, even if we won't do a thing, let us cuddle up, you and I, when the night is spread out against the sky, and read stories of restless people who always end up alone and hate being alone because it's always themselves they can't stand being alone with . . . Traitor, I thought as I waited to hear his bedroom door squeak open and squeak shut. Traitor. How easily we forget. I'll stick around. Sure. Liar. It never crossed my mind that I too was a traitor, that somewhere on a beach near her home a girl had waited for me tonight, as she waited every night now, and that I, like Oliver, hadn't given her a second thought. I heard him step onto the landing. I had left my bedroom door intentionally ajar, hoping that the light from the foyer would stream in just enough to reveal my body. My face was turned toward the wall. It was up to him. He walked past my room, didn't stop. Didn't even hesitate. Nothing. I heard his door shut. Barely a few minutes later, he opened it. My heart jumped. By now I was sweating and could feel the dampness on my pillow. I heard a few more footsteps. Then I heard the bathroom door click shut. If he ran the shower it meant he'd had sex. I heard the bathtub and then the shower run. Traitor. Traitor. I waited for him to come out of the shower. But he was taking forever. When I finally turned to take a peek at the corridor, I noticed that my room was completely dark. The door was shutwas someone in my room? I could make out the scent of his Roger
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Cackle
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