Authors: André Aciman
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.
“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
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 later
s, 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.”
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.
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 peril—believe 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 down—and 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 them—even 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
“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.”
“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 nice—and 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 ever so cautiously, 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
. 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 once—some 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 silence—some 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
, Mother trailing the scent of Earl Grey tea, and in the background, all the way from the kitchen downstairs, the voices of Manfredi and Mafalda—spare 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.