When Elio and Oliver arrive in their hotel room, there is a note from Oliver’s publisher inviting him to a party at a bookstore for one of the press’s authors. Elio wonders aloud if he’s invited, too, but Oliver waves away this insecurity, saying, “You are now.” They then stand naked with their arms leaning against the windowsill and look out at the Roman cityscape. Wanting to “mark the moment,” Elio rubs Oliver’s buttocks and then begins “to stick [his] middle finger into him.” In response, Oliver points out that if Elio keeps doing this, they won’t make it to the party.
Instead of fixating on the fact that their time together is almost over, Elio and Oliver focus on their new erotic intimacy. Indeed, this intimacy threatens to eclipse all other considerations, as evidenced by the fact that Oliver worries they won’t make it to the bookstore party if they continue their foreplay.
Later, Elio and Oliver prepare to take a shower together. After Oliver takes a bowel movement, Elio tells him not to flush. “I want to look,” he says. “Our bodies won’t have secrets now.” He then sits on the toilet himself and says, “I want you to see mine.” Oliver steps close and kisses Elio while “pressing and massaging [his] tummy with the flat of his palm,” all the while watching “the whole thing happen.” Elio notes that he wants “no secrets, no screens, nothing between” them. At the same time, he doesn’t realize that this desire to feel as if there are “no secrets” between them is also a desire to reignite “the tiny lantern of unsuspected shame.” In the shower they begin to have sex, but they stop so that they’ll feel like “live wires” for the rest of the night.
This is a rather vivid scene in which Elio wants to eviscerate any mystery that still exists between Oliver and himself. To do this, he studies Oliver’s feces and then decides to add his own excrement to the toilet as Oliver kisses him and helps along his bowel movement. This, he notes, is an attempt to recapture “the tiny lantern” of “shame” that he experienced after first having sex with Oliver. It’s interesting that this is something he wants to relive, since he was initially so devastated by the guilt and shame he experienced after their first time making love. The fact that he now actively seeks out this feeling suggests that he’s grown immensely more comfortable with himself and their relationship.
Walking to the bookstore, Elio and Oliver pass a “human statue of Dante” who recites lines from The Inferno when tourists give him change. At one point, he recites a Roman drinking song instead of Dante’s poetry, and everyone present laughs except Oliver, who needs Elio to explain to him what has just happened. As they resume walking, Elio senses that Oliver is uncomfortable about something, but he doesn’t know what might be bothering him. He suddenly worries that he’s what’s distressing Oliver, and suggests that everybody’s going to see him as “the professor’s son tagging long.” However, Oliver waves this away, simply saying, “I don’t want anything to change or to come between us tonight.”
It is not readily apparent why Oliver thinks that something might suddenly “change” his relationship with Elio. Although Aciman doesn’t make clear what’s on Oliver’s mind, readers can guess that Oliver is reticent to make his and Elio’s relationship public. Until now, they’ve allowed their bond to take hold in private. At the party, though, they’ll be subject to outside opinions, many of which could potentially center around their age difference. However, Oliver’s misgivings clearly aren’t strong enough to keep him from bringing Elio to the party, suggesting that he’s willing to publicly display his feelings no matter what.
On the way to the bookstore, Elio and Oliver pass a significant landmark: the place where Elio first intuited his attraction to men. Three years ago, he was walking through Rome when an “errand boy” rode by on a bicycle. As they passed, they made intense eye contact—so intense that the errand boy turned around and introduced himself, asking questions and throwing his arm around Elio while caressing him in a friendly, insinuating way. “Did I want to get together in a nearby movie house, perhaps?” Elio writes. “I shook my head.” He notes how easily he could have said yes to this young man’s offer, but for some reason he held back.
By including this story about Elio’s first romantically charged encounter with a man, Aciman solidifies the fact that Elio has been keeping himself from acknowledging his true sexual preferences for quite some time. Although Oliver is the first person he’s actually pursued, he’s not the only man about whom Elio has fantasized. As such, Aciman insinuates that Elio’s sexual desires have been in place long before he was willing to accept them as part of his identity.
Just before reaching the bookstore, Oliver steps aside to make “a quick local phone call” and tells Elio he’ll meet him inside. Nervously, Elio enters to find the entire two-story shop crowded with people smoking and talking and drinking scotch. He then recognizes the author of Se l’amore and realizes that this party is for him. As the poet walks by, Elio shakes his hand and tells him how much he liked his poems. When the poet asks—not without a degree of suspicion—which one Elio liked most, an old woman whose brightly colored clothes make her look like a toucan tells him to stop interrogating the boy. Nonetheless, Elio answers, referencing the only poem he can remember from the book: “The one comparing life to San Clemente,” he says. “The one comparing love to San Clemente,” the poet replies. “‘The San Clemente Syndrome.’ And why?”
When Oliver slinks away to make a phone call, the reason he was nervous about bringing Elio to the bookstore becomes a little clearer (though not much). The fact that he has to call someone suggests that he may have other lovers in Rome (or back in America), and this is perhaps why he was worried that something might “come between” Elio and himself. But even if this is the case, Elio thankfully seems to find pleasure in simply entering the bookstore and encountering this vibrant world of artists and intellectuals—a world that no doubt appeals to him because it allows him to publicly embody the mature and sophisticated personality he wants so badly to have.
“My God, just leave the poor boy alone, will you?” says a woman who swoops in and grabs Elio’s hand and whisks him away, casting a derisive yet affectionate remark in Alfredo’s (the poet’s) direction as she goes. This woman, whose name is Lucia, doesn’t let go of Elio’s hand, and he revels in the experience of touching her while moving through a sea of “tanned arms and elbows that [belong] to all these women looking down from the gallery.” As Lucia bickers lovingly with Alfredo, someone makes a joke about love, signaling to Elio that they are married. Finally, the crowd dies down and the poet gets ready to begin. Elio and Lucia have tucked themselves into a corner, sitting on a spiral staircase and holding hands.
Elio’s descriptions of this book party and the worldly people he meets there confirm that he thoroughly enjoys joining this enclave of poets and readers. In fact, he seems so immersed in and attracted to this environment that he hardly notices Oliver’s absence. No longer wondering why Oliver was worried or why he stepped away to make a phone call, Elio relaxes into the thrill of holding a stranger’s hand and fielding the attention of doting strangers, all of which give him the opportunity to act like an adult.
The bookstore’s door opens and Oliver steps in, and his publisher shouts, “Oliver! Finally! Welcome, welcome. One of the youngest, most talented American philosophers, accompanied by my lovely daughters.” Elio notes that the two women flanking Oliver are stunningly gorgeous. “Such babes, aren’t they?” Lucia whispers before they and Oliver come to stand near the spiral staircase. “Oliver,” Lucia says to him, “sei un dissolute, you’re debauched.” When the publisher’s daughters see Elio, one of them says, “You’re Oliver’s friend, right? He spoke about you.” Throughout these pleasantries, Elio and Lucia never stop holding hands, even when Lucia jokes about it in a way that makes it clear she wants everyone to know that she’s holding a handsome young man’s hand.
When Oliver appears with the publisher’s daughters, readers can reasonably assume that he was worried Elio would be upset to see him flirting and interacting with other good-looking people—perhaps even past lovers. However, Elio is too in awe of his surroundings to worry about whether or not Oliver has slept with these women. Indeed, he’s preoccupied with Lucia, clearly enjoying the attention she’s giving him, which makes him feel both alluring and mature.
Alfredo finally begins, explaining that Se l’amore came out of “a season in Thailand teaching Dante.” “As many of you know,” he says, “I loved Thailand before going and hated it as soon as I arrived. Let me rephrase: I hated it once I was there and loved it as soon as I left.” He talks about how lonely he was in Bangkok, admitting how attracted he was to the people around him while simultaneously remaining unable to interact with them in any meaningful way. He then reads poems for twenty minutes, after which the audience delivers thunderous applause.
Alfredo’s speech about his time in Thailand relates to Elio and Oliver’s relationship. When Alfredo was in Thailand, he was unable to truly enjoy the experience, and it wasn’t until he left that he could see how good his life was in Bangkok. This ultimately underlines the importance of enjoying good things while they last, which is exactly what Elio is trying to do. Rather than focusing on the sadness he’s going to experience when Oliver leaves, he decides to simply relish the last days they have together.
Oliver looks at Elio as if to ask if he liked Alfredo’s poems, and Elio shrugs in a way that he hopes seems indifferent even though in truth he loves this poetry. “Perhaps what I liked far more was the evening,” he writes. “Everything about it thrilled me. Every glance that crossed my own came like a compliment, or like an asking and a promise that simply lingered in midair between me and the world around me.” He looks around and covets how alive and virile the people around him seem, thinking sadly about “the thoroughly delibidinized lives of [his] parents with their stultifying lunches and dinner drudges.” He then accepts a glass of scotch from an older man who tells him he admires his youth. Interrupting their conversation, Lucia calls this man a “dissolute,” and Elio admits that he wishes he were “dissolute,” too.
In contrast to the life Elio leads in B.—tolerating “dinner drudges” and stuffy academic conversations—this evening in Rome feels magical and imbued with an alluring energy. In the same way that Elio previously wished that he had enough life experience to say something like “I know myself,” now he wishes he could be considered a “dissolute,” romanticizing the idea of embodying a certain kind of sexual debauchery and worldliness that would make him feel all the more sophisticated and mature.
Resuming the reading, Alfredo reads “The San Clemente Syndrome,” though not without first prefacing it by saying that he’s only reading it because “somebody” in the audience mentioned it. The poem, he says, is about his seemingly endless time in Thailand, though he ultimately finished the piece in Rome. After the reading, Elio and Oliver go with Alfredo, Lucia, and their many friends to dinner at a trattoria, where they drink heavily and eat well while Alfredo regales them with stories about writing “The San Clemente Syndrome,” telling them he wanted to “sleep with all of Thailand” but couldn’t avoid the crushing loneliness of living abroad. “This is when I began to think of San Clemente,” he says. “It came to me like an undefined, nebulous feeling, part arousal, part homesickness, part metaphor.”
The feeling that led Alfredo to write “The San Clemente Syndrome” is one Elio and Oliver are well-acquainted with. Indeed, they know what it’s like to experience “an undefined, nebulous feeling” that has to do with “arousal” and “homesickness.” After all, Elio has already stated that having sex with Oliver feels like “coming home.” As such, when Oliver leaves, he will experience a certain kind of “homesickness,” one that is closely tied to not only his relationship with Oliver, but his sense of self, since this romantic experience has helped him develop his own sexual identity.
Alfredo speaks about the nature of travel, saying that no place is ever what one expects it to be. He talks about struggling to be oneself in a foreign place, all the while missing home while striving to live a certain (new) kind of life. This, he explains, is what made him think of the Basilica of San Clemente, which “is built on [a] site” that has seen many different buildings, all of which have either burned or been built over multiple times. “Like the subconscious, like love, like memory, like time itself, like every single one of us,” Alfredo says, “the church is built on the ruins of subsequent restorations, there is no rock bottom, there is no first anything, no last anything, just layers and secret passageways and interlocking chambers.”
When Alfredo describes the Basilica of San Clemente as a building that has been constructed atop multiple “layers” of history, he draws a parallel between the passage of time and the nature of love. Insisting that “there is no first anything” and “no last anything,” he suggests that love, like time, is composed of many different histories. Thinking of love in this way is helpful when considering Elio and Oliver’s relationship, as the idea implies that although their bond may fade into the past, it will never vanish. Instead, it will inform all the other relationships that are “built” upon it, forming “secret passageways and interlocking chambers” that recall Mr. Pearlman’s idea of the human heart as something that consists of many “bends,” “chambers,” and “tollbooths.”
After dinner, the group goes to a bar, where they drink long past closing. Later, Oliver and Elio walk drunkenly through the streets. Overcome by the alcohol he’s had, Elio feels sick, so Oliver suggests he force himself to throw up, and when Elio insists he can’t, Oliver sticks his fingers down his throat to help. Laughing into the night, they stroll back and encounter buskers in the streets, joining their singing as a German tourist sidles up to them and belts out Neapolitan songs with them. All these years later, Elio writes, he can still remember this moment, thinking of it as the last time he and Oliver ever made love. “Tomorrow let’s go to San Clemente,” Elio says in the streets. “Tomorrow is today,” Oliver responds.
The passage of time comes crashing down on Elio when Oliver points out that it is already the next day. More than anything, this reminds him—and, in turn, readers—how soon Oliver will be gone. No matter how much fun they have tonight, there’s no slowing down time, which in this moment works against Elio as it speeds toward the inevitable end of his relationship with Oliver.