How do you let go of something you never had?
This is perhaps a question that Elio Perlman, the bookish, seventeen-year-old protagonist of Call Me by Your Name, and I might spend a lifetime posing to ourselves. We may never find an answer resolute enough to meet our satisfaction. When you’re grappling with the sheer magnitude of first love, every feeling is amplified tenfold. Its grip, steadfast and unrelenting, taints future memories that seem to be recorded solely for posterity. First love is an echo, the ghost in your machine. It’s the soft spot in your heart that you return to whenever the hollow strikes in.
I was skeptical of the Luca Guadagnino film upon learning its premise—a sweeping summer romance starring beautiful (and white and hetero) people set in the idyllic countryside of Northern Italy. That my love life had been through the wringer over the preceding year didn’t do any favors. I was quick to brush the film off after a largely impressionless viewing. Sure, the cinematography was gorgeous. The impeccably coiffed and often shirtless Armie Hammer bore a striking resemblance to Adonis. Timothée Chalamet played the dreamiest vision of a premium twink. The hushed vocals of Sufjan Stevens melded perfectly into the blue hues of Elio’s summer nights. Granted.
But it didn’t hit until an unexpected bout of tears found me on a near-deserted midnight bus. The night felt like an extended metaphor: hastily boarding the wrong one instead of waiting a little longer for the right one to take me home. As I considered Elio’s days with Oliver—how vast and endless those numbered summer days felt sharing biting banter and secret, pleading glances—the film’s quiet moments stretched and grew louder, taking a life of their own. I thought of the billowy blue shirt Oliver wore the day he arrived at the Perlman’s summer home, how Elio wore it to the train station the day he left. The shirt, a gift; a totem to believe this was real, that he was really there. My memory wandered back to the disparate moments I shared with my Oliver.
He was called Ray, and I chanted his name in my head like a prayer: Ray, Ray, Ray. I thought of his eyes, jet black and wandering; his wild, poetically disheveled hair. How he angled one leg on top of the other when he smoked. I remembered the lake at the forecourt of his campus, the French classes we were in together. I remembered trading stories about our early onset metaphysical crises, our mutual love for eighties bands: his for the Cure, mine, Depeche Mode. I remembered the way he tugged the collar of his deep green shirt to cover his face that rainy Tuesday morning I realized I was in love with him. I remembered his abrupt departure, the callous “Dah!” –the Indonesian equivalent of Oliver’s fabled ‘later’— that would set me in a tailspin as we parted ways. I thought, Traitor.
The winter following Oliver’s departure finds Elio back in the same Italian villa. The snow falls steadily, blanketing the branches of the orchard that bore fruit in the summer. Inside, Mafalda, the beloved housekeeper, lights the menorah. Elio, back from a visit to the Gaverine, where he spent much of his summer with Oliver, shuffles inside. His headphones are still on. He seems well-adjusted—content, even—as he wishes Mafalda a happy Hanukkah. Until the phone rings with Oliver at the other end. Muddled impulses give way to cordial greetings heavy with the weight of the unsaid. A carefully meditated but nonetheless reckless “I miss you” slips out. Elio forces a smile as he learns that Oliver is getting married. “That’s wonderful news!” The false sense of bravado, the act, falls apart. Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine. In desperation, he whispers into the phone: “Elio. Elio, Elio, Elio, Elio, Elio.” A sigh is heaved at the other end, and then: “I remember everything.” It’s a vast moment, and its fullness is everything.
Call Me by Your Name is more than a tale of first love; it is a tale of love, interrupted. Oliver’s departure in the midst of a burgeoning relationship lodges him permanently in Elio’s past. Their relationship is a terminated possibility; magic cut short. These are memories that are sealed and shelved with blue, billowy shirts of ex-lovers and mothballs in the back of our closets.
When I unexpectedly ran into Ray again, his first words in three years were as sharp and callous as his goodbye. A shrewd comment about how much weight I had gained. I came to realize I only needed to see him again to see if the feelings were still there. It’s tempting to muse on the kind of person I would be, the kind of life I would lead today had we gotten together for real. But I think back to the impassioned speech delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father, in the film:
In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!
I think of this, and my previously numbed feelings thaw.
Not only are these the words that every queer kid out there would love to hear from their parents, they are also a fervent reminder to anyone: be in touch with your full, human capacity to love and never lose sight of love’s all-consuming, solipsistic, wondrous ways to make you feel.
I dust Ray off and put him back on the mantel. I might kneel before him and weep forlornly from time to time, but I will not love for the last time.
More often than not, we’re left to deal with the way things are, not the way they should be. We’d be spared a lot of pain and dejection if we could come from, and come together in, the same place of reason and logic all the time. But in a world that by and large continues to ostracize those who dare to call love by different names – anything other than heterosexuality – that’s not quite how it works. It’s a matter of synchronicity, two people lucky enough to happen upon each other at the same time. Sometimes it works out. Often it doesn’t. Sometimes you want to see people for who they could be, not just who they are. But goddamn it, we all try.