Authors: André Aciman
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.
, had an off-the-cuff, unceremonious,
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 did—their 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 word—in Italian,
in German, like the words “algebra,” “alchemy,” and “alcohol”—was derived from an Arabic noun combined with the Arabic article
before it. The origin of
. 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:
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.
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
, pre-cook, to ripen early, as in ‘precocious,’ meaning premature.
“The Byzantines borrowed
, and it became
, which is finally how the Arabs must have inherited it as
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 opinion—Do 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 egg—it’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.
, 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 kind—until 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
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
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.
Just making conversation.
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
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
, 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, “
, I’m going out.”
, I realized soon enough, was just another version of
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
taught me there are certain wishes that must be clipped like wings off a thriving butterfly.