“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan.
By now, most people will be at least passingly familiar with André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The story of two young men who fall in love on the Italian Riviera, it was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2017. The novel, like its setting along the northwestern Italian coast, is lush and beautiful and inspiring. Bittersweet like an overripe peach, Call Me By Your Name is part romance novel, part bildungsroman, and—like the passion between protagonist Elio and his beloved Oliver—all-consuming. I enjoyed being transported from a dreary winter in Tennessee to the scalding hot summers of 1980s Italy almost as much as I enjoyed reliving what it feels like to be young and in love.
Indeed, I want to talk about that, partly because (as I said earlier) the novel has been out for so long that any review I provide here is unlikely to add anything new to the cultural conversation. One could write entire essays on the symbolism of the peach and the poo (if you don’t know, read the novel) or of the frequent references to feet and the tactile language Aciman uses to evoke the electricity even the slightest touch can spark between two young people in love. I’ll leave it to the literature scholars and critics to do that, though. I’m more interested in what feelings this novel evoked in me, not because I’m a narcissist but because I suspect they’re universal.
If you’ve ever loved and lost, especially if you loved and lost at a young age, prepare to have those old scars heedlessly cut open. Aciman’s novel takes place in the mid-80s, but Elio tells the story from, doing the math, the mid-00s (which makes sense; the novel came out in 2007). The distance of decades allows him to tell the story of his adolescence with the perspective of an adult, replete with the hindsight, wisdom, and nostalgia that invariably entails.
All of us, at one point or another, have looked back on our teenage years with a sort of longing tinged with regret—whether it’s for a life choice we’d like to change, a lover we might not have even realized we miss, the general loss of innocence, or some combination thereof. Younger readers (say, anyone under 25) might not fully appreciate the wistfulness that thinking about your deep past can evoke, but older readers certainly can. Aciman captures the languor of lifelong regret in a way few authors have.
For me, this meant harkening back to a time ten years ago when I met the man who would become the love of my life. Like Elio and Oliver, we had a tortured will-they-or-won’t-they relationship which culminated in a passionate love affair and ended far too soon because he wasn’t ready to accept his same-sex attraction. Like Elio and Oliver, there was a not insignificant, but not unreasonable age difference between us (I was 24 when we met, the same age as Oliver; he was 18, a year older than Elio). Like Elio and Oliver, I suspect that age difference was insurmountable, though; six years might not matter at 34, but it matters a lot at 24.
We were the inverse of Elio and Oliver, though. I was the one who fell head over heels in love and he was the one who saw us for what we really were—two lonely people who found one another at precisely the right time, but who would never work outside the bubble in which we then lived. He had his demons, to be sure. He wouldn’t come out publicly until seven years after we broke up, and he’d have a child along that journey to self-acceptance. But, looking back now, I suspect that he was always more levelheaded about us than I was. I think he always knew that the life I said I wanted with him would never be enough—little things he said, like “don’t you want to move to London?” or “what about your writing? Why don’t you write more?”—and that he was in no position to give me what I craved, at least not for more than a few months.
Indeed, it was only a few months—the most confusing and logical, the most agonizing and joyous, the most tender and most callous, the most I’ve ever been loved and been loved and the most I’ve ever loathed and been loathed few months—but it still haunts me to this day. I can’t see an orange crewneck or a zip-up hoodie without thinking of him, and the one I used to steal from him and wear around because it was warm and comfortable, but mostly because it smelled like him, his musk and his cologne. To this day the scent of Old Spice reminds me of those nights spent lying in his arms.
Whenever I fall and scrape myself, I think of that first night we met, sitting outside his dorm room while I bled (having fallen, drunk, as we walked) and he insisted on getting a first aid kit. The symbolism of this is not lost on me now. I had no idea how much I would hurt myself for this boy.
We sat up all night talking about life, about books, about music, about art. As the sun rose, we walked to Waffle House—another thing he took from me. I walked home, across the entire desolate length of campus and down College Street to my apartment at about 8:00 AM; by noon he was at my place. We were inseparable from then until we weren’t anymore.
Reading Aciman’s novel made me long to be in Europe, to walk down Roman alleys and sun myself on Monet’s berm. More than that, though, it made me want to go back to my own past, back to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It made me want to walk the length of campus again, as I had that sunny, late summer morning, like a pilgrim walks where Jesus walked. It made me want to go back to the yard where we first met, back to steps where we first kissed, back to the picnic table where he, a student, and I, an alumnus finally said our goodbyes. It made me wonder where he is, what he’s doing, who he’s dating, and if he’s happy.
It also made me consider the passing of time and the wisdom of age. I recently found my high school diary. One entry was about the boy I had a crush on at the time. “He smiled at me. Twice!” I exclaimed. The innocence of youth. The boy who wrote that is a stranger to the man I am today, yet we are inexplicably one and the same. I don’t think I’d get so excited over a smile today, and I certainly wouldn’t take it as irrefutable proof that the object of my affections reciprocated. I wish I could be that naive again.
I remember that boy fondly too. He was a nice boy. It’s been even longer since I’ve seen him, to the point I don’t even remember what his voice sounds like. There were others before my Oliver, who was also my Elio as I was both to him as well. There have been a few since. None have compared to him. None hold a candle.
I don’t suspect he feels the same about me. I imagine plenty followed me, more than one more beloved than I ever was. I hope he thinks about me, though. Undoubtedly, he does; I was his first. You always remember your first. I hope it’s with kind thoughts, though, or at least not all regrets.
How is it that one person can change your life so completely, and that even after a decade leave your heart in tatters by simply coming to memory? A question for the philosophers. He was that to me. Is that to me. No one as ever compared, and as I approach my 34th birthday, I suspect no one ever will.
Why him? I ask myself that whenever he comes to mind. He was cute, but he wasn’t hot. He was nice, but he wasn’t always kind. He wasn’t dumb, but he was no great intellect. His opinions were pedestrian and shallow—a product of his age, perhaps, and an intellectual immaturity which doubtless four years of college could have solved. I only knew him for one.
So why him? He made me feel safe. Whenever he was around, I felt like I could conquer the world. He made me feel valued. There was no shame in working in a coffeeshop, all writers do, he’d say. Your value isn’t measured by your bank account, Skylar, shut up this ramen is fine. He made me feel attractive at a time I was painfully insecure. He made me feel needed a time I felt useless. He made me feel hopeful at a time I felt despairing.
He made me feel loved. He loved me. He told me, but more than that, he showed me. In the little ways—bringing me a slice of pizza when he came over, because he correctly guessed I hadn’t eaten; showing up at the coffeeshop and sitting for my entire shift so I’d have someone to talk to; playing a song twice in a row because he knew I liked it. In the big ways, too, supporting me as I had to institutionalize one of my best friends and never leaving my side when another old friend passed away.
He’s the only man I can say that about. For as little as we knew one another, it’s remarkable what all happened. Six months. I met him in August 2010. We broke up in February 2011. Six months I knew him. A lifetime I’ve loved him.
Unlike the film, Call Me By Your Name ends with a reunion 15 years after the main events of the novel. Then it flashes to five years after that, back in Italy, our two protagonists still longing for one another but unable or unwilling to bridge the time that has now come between them.
I haven’t seen him in nine years. I suppose that means I only have to wait another six.
★ ★ ★ ★☆
Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.