Throughout Call Me by Your Name, anticipation is often cast as unbearable and torturous. This is because Elio doesn’t know whether or not something romantic will happen between Oliver and himself. Although there are a number of indications that they will develop a loving relationship, their future remains unclear for the entire first half of the novel. During this time, Elio is tormented by the way time moves—he knows Oliver will soon be gone, but he can’t bring himself to act on his feelings, instead waiting for Oliver to make the first move. In turn, this anticipation only intensifies his longings, and it feels like he has to wait an eternity before finally kissing Oliver. Years later, however, Elio has a different conception of time, feeling as if his summer with Oliver is a distant memory and yet also so visceral and important that it seems like just the other day. By manipulating time to feel both interminable and collapsible, Aciman invites readers to experience the strange ways in which love affects a person’s sense of chronology.
Aciman uses Elio’s mixture of timidity and desire to illustrate how torturous time and anticipation can seem to a person in love. At the beginning of the novel, Elio and Oliver’s interactions are spaced out over sporadic intervals. Not wanting to seem desperate or too interested, Elio refuses to break silences, always wanting Oliver to come to him if they haven’t spoken for several days. Despite this resolve, though, he hates these periods of waiting. “What I feared most were the days when I didn’t see him for stretches at a time,” he writes, “entire afternoons and evenings sometimes without knowing where he’d been.” What bothers Elio the most, it seems, is the uncertainty that is swirled in with his sense of anticipation. As time passes, he wonders where Oliver is, when he’ll come home, and (most importantly) whether or not something will happen between them. In turn, Aciman highlights the mental calculations people make as they wait for what they want.
Part of the reason Elio is so tormented by the passage of time has to do with the fact that Oliver is only staying with his family for six weeks, after which he’ll return to America. This lends a sense of urgency to Elio’s desire and makes him even more sensitive to the uncertainties surrounding his and Oliver’s interactions. This distressing uncertainty is especially apparent during a conversation Elio has one morning with his father and Oliver after spending the evening with Marzia. When he tells them that he—Elio—could have had sex with Marzia if only he’d tried, Oliver suggests that he “try again later.” Then, as Elio considers the subtext of this comment, Oliver adds, “If not later, when?” This last remark strikes Elio to his core because it sounds like both a challenge and an expression of doubt. Applying the phrase to his relationship with Oliver, he realizes that “If not later, when?” is open-ended, suggesting a certain inevitability, as if saying that their relationship will certainly come to fruition at some point, even if it doesn’t happen until “later.” At the same time, though, the phrase is a question, and there is only one answer that makes sense: never. After all, if something doesn’t happen “later,” then it’ll never happen. More than anything, this idea—that nothing romantic will ever happen with Oliver—intensifies the urgency Elio feels, making him even more aware of the passage of time as Oliver’s departure draws closer.
Anticipation doesn’t only intensify desire and warp the way a person conceives of the passage of time; it also affects how a person experiences whatever it is they have been waiting for. After wanting for weeks to engage romantically or sexually with Oliver, Elio finds himself underwhelmed by their first kiss. “I was not sure our kiss had convinced me of anything about myself,” he notes. “I was not even sure I had enjoyed it as much as I’d expected and needed to test it again, so that even in the act itself, I needed to test the test.” Having built up so many expectations about this moment, Elio is unable to simply exist in the moment, already deciding that he’ll have to kiss Oliver again in order to “test” the effect it has on him. In this way, Aciman shows readers the potentially harmful influence of anticipation on lived experience, which often falls short of expectation.
Although he deftly conveys the sting of anticipation, Aciman also demonstrates how the passage of time changes and heals people. Sixteen years after their summer together, Elio and Oliver speak on the phone. Oliver is visiting Elio’s parents in Italy, and when he gets on the phone, he’s barely able to speak because he starts crying. “He’s all choked up,” Elio’s mother says when Oliver hands her the receiver, and then Elio himself starts to cry. “‘I wish I could be with you all,’ I responded, getting all worked up myself over someone I had almost entirely stopped thinking about,” he notes. “Time makes us sentimental. Perhaps, in the end, it is because of time that we suffer.” On the one hand, it is significant that Elio has “almost entirely stopped thinking about” Oliver, since this indicates that time has helped him recover from their painful past. On the other hand, though, he immediately becomes “sentimental” again upon hearing Oliver’s voice. In turn, Aciman suggests that the passage of time skews the way people perceive their own romantic relationships, simultaneously easing and recalling difficult emotions. Although the intensity of lovesick yearning can fade, such intense anticipation creates feelings that are intricate and potent enough to linger long after a romantic experience ends.
Time and Anticipation ThemeTracker
Time and Anticipation 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.
He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point—except that I didn’t have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I’ll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was.
And yet, he had shown me that what I wanted could be given and taken so naturally that one wonders why it needed such hand-wringing torment and shame, seeing it was no more complicated a gesture than, say, buying a pack of cigarettes, or passing a reefer, or stopping by one of the girls behind the piazzetta late at night and, having settled on a price, going upstairs for a few minutes.
Did I want this, now that something was being offered? And was it in fact being offered? And if I wanted or didn’t want it, how would I live out the day till midnight? It was barely ten in the morning: fourteen hours to go . . . The last time I had waited so long for something was for my report card. Or on the Saturday two years ago when a girl had promised we’d meet at the movies and I wasn’t sure she hadn’t forgotten. Half a day watching my entire life being put on hold. How I hated waiting and depending on the whim of others.
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.
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.
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.