Throughout Call Me by Your Name, Aciman presents emotional pain as valuable, inevitable, and worth experiencing. Because the circumstances of Elio and Oliver’s relationship make it difficult for them to sustain their romance, Elio understands from the beginning that he’s destined for heartbreak. Throughout the summer, he becomes more and more infatuated with Oliver, all the while knowing that he’ll eventually leave for good. This is partially why he doesn’t pursue Oliver at first; he knows nothing good will come of it in the long run. However, his yearnings eventually become painful in and of themselves, and he finds himself heartbroken by the fact that Oliver hasn’t taken it upon himself to initiate a relationship. Around this time, he begins to intuit that he’ll someday regret not acting on his feelings. As such, he discards his hesitations and moves forward with reckless abandon, fully comprehending that this relationship will hurt him but not letting this deprive him of an otherwise worthwhile experience. In turn, Aciman argues that the only thing worse than heartbreak is regret, because at least a person can learn from painful experiences. Regret, on the other hand, leaves a person with nothing.
At first, Elio is disarmed by how easily Oliver can affect him. Early in Oliver’s stay in the Italian town of B., it becomes clear that there’s a certain electricity flowing between them. This only disconcerts Elio, whose interest in this older man is enough to make him keep his distance. After saying something intelligent at the dinner table, he feels Oliver’s gaze. This delights him, as he thinks Oliver has appreciated his remark, but then he turns and sees that the look on his face is an “icy glare” that is “hostile” and “border[s] on cruelty.” “It undid me completely,” he notes. “What had I done to deserve this? I wanted him to be kind to me again, to laugh with me as he had done just a few days earlier […]. He was going to be a difficult neighbor. Better stay away from him, I thought.” In this scene, Elio discovers that Oliver has the power to “undo” him with just one glance. This is what puts him on guard, as he realizes how much he cares about what Oliver thinks. Sensing the dangerous nature of this relationship—which will only hurt him—Elio decides to “stay away” from Oliver despite how much he wants to get closer.
In these initial stages, Elio and Oliver try to keep their distance from one another while periodically allowing themselves to get close, testing the waters for a moment before once again drawing away. Of course, Elio’s misgivings about letting himself fall in love with Oliver are completely reasonable, especially since he does end up getting hurt in the way he originally anticipated. Regarding this, he writes: “Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don’t want to lose and must second-guess at every turn […]—all these started the summer Oliver came into our house.” Elio confirms that his tumultuous connection with Oliver did indeed affect his entire life, as the pain of this experience is now superimposed onto all his subsequent relationships and romantic forays. Despite how determined he is at first to protect himself from this potentially devastating relationship, it’s clear from the beginning that this effort is in vain—his attraction to Oliver is too strong to ignore.
Once Elio gives himself over to the inevitability of a romantic relationship with Oliver, he completely immerses himself in the experience. This is perhaps because he knows their time together is limited, and he doesn’t want to let the opportunity to be with him slip away. Oliver also seems to acknowledge this, and so they spend their last weeks together in Italy holding nothing back. When Oliver finally does leave, Elio tries to “immunize” himself from the pain, sleeping away the afternoon as a way to avoid the torment. Even as he does so, though, he knows that by trying to “neutralize” his “sorrow” he risks “killing the whole thing.” His father reinforces this notion during a frank discussion about the importance of letting oneself feel pain. “In your place,” he tells Elio, “if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. […] 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!” The real travesty in life is not getting hurt, Elio’s father suggests, but numbing oneself to love, which is inherently volatile. And although Elio is too much in the throes of sadness to wrap his head around this idea when he first hears it, it’s clear he heeds his father’s advice, as he notes, “I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight.”
Elio doesn’t regret his time with Oliver because the pain the experience caused him was informative and valuable, and the only alternative would have been to “feel nothing,” which is an incredible “waste.” In this way, Aciman insists that pain and heartbreak are worthwhile experiences in and of themselves.
Pain, Heartbreak, and Regret ThemeTracker
Pain, Heartbreak, and Regret Quotes in Call Me By Your Name
Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don’t want to lose and must second-guess at every turn, the desperate cunning I bring to everyone I want and crave to be wanted by, the screens I put up as though between me and the world there were not just one but layers of rice-paper sliding doors, the urge to scramble and unscramble what was never really coded in the first place—all these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon—smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer.
At my age, [Chiara’s] body was more than ready for him. More than mine? I wondered. She was after him, that much was clear, while all I really wanted was one night with him, just one night—one hour, even—if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that. What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it.
The fear never went away. I woke up to it, watched it turn to joy when I heard him shower in the morning and knew he’d be downstairs with us for breakfast, only to watch it curdle when, rather than have coffee, he would dash through the house and right away set to work in the garden. By noon, the agony of waiting to hear him say anything to me was more than I could bear. I knew that the sofa awaited me in an hour or so. It made me hate myself for feeling so hapless, so thoroughly invisible, so smitten, so callow.
And yet another part of me knew that if he showed up tonight and I disliked the start of whatever was in store for me, I’d still go through with it, go with it all the way, because better to find out once and for all than to spend the rest of the summer, or my life perhaps, arguing with my body.
I’d make a decision in cold blood. And if he asked, I’d tell him. I’m not sure I want to go ahead with this, but I need to know, and better with you than anyone else. I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me.
No, I didn’t hate it at all. But what I felt was worse than hate. I didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to think about it. Just put it away. It had never happened. I had tried it and it didn’t work for me, now I wanted my money back, roll back the film, take me back to that moment when I’m almost stepping out onto the balcony barefoot, I’ll go no farther, I’ll sit and stew and never know—better to argue with my body than feel what I was feeling now.
It never occurred to me, as I was going through the heady motions of feeling over and done with him and even a tad disappointed that I had so easily recovered after a spell of so many weeks, that this desire to sit and discuss Haydn in so unusually relaxed a manner as we were doing right now was my most vulnerable spot, that if desire had to resurface, it could just as easily sneak in through this very gate, which I’d always assumed the safest, as through the sight of his near-naked body by the swimming pool.
I don’t know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry. And rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder. I was crying because no stranger had ever been so kind or gone so far for me, even Anchise, who had cut open my foot once and sucked and spat out and sucked and spat out the scorpion’s venom. I was crying because I’d never known so much gratitude and there was no other way to show it. And I was crying for the evil thoughts I’d nursed against him this morning. And for last night as well, because, for better or worse, I’d never be able to undo it, and now was as good a time as any to show him that he was right, that this wasn’t easy, that fun and games had a way of skidding off course and that if we had rushed into things it was too late to step back from them now— crying because something was happening, and I had no idea what it was.
This was a time when I intentionally failed to drop bread crumbs for my return journey; instead, I ate them. He could turn out to be a total creep; he could change me or ruin me forever, while time and gossip might ultimately disembowel everything we shared and trim the whole thing down till nothing but fish bones remained. I might miss this day, or I might do far better, but I’d always know that on those afternoons in my bedroom I had held my moment.
“You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.”
“Oliver was Oliver,” I said, as if that summed things up.
“Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi,” my father added, quoting Montaigne’s all-encompassing explanation for his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie.
I was thinking, instead, of Emily Brontë’s words: because “he’s more myself than I am.”
In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. 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!
The very possibility of meeting his family suddenly alarmed me— too real, too sudden, too in-my-face, not rehearsed enough. Over the years I’d lodged him in the permanent past, my pluperfect lover, put him on ice, stuffed him with memories and moth balls like a hunted ornament confabulating with the ghost of all my evenings. I’d dust him off from time to time and then put him back on the mantelpiece. He no longer belonged to earth or to life. All I was likely to discover at this point wasn’t just how distant were the paths we’d taken, it was the measure of loss that was going to strike me— a loss I didn’t mind thinking about in abstract terms but which would hurt when stared at in the face, the way nostalgia hurts long after we’ve stopped thinking of things we’ve lost and may never have cared for.