Sometimes middle age hits with surprising force. I noticed it one rainy evening when I got together with my 40-something girlfriends, the girls I usually see with glasses of wine in their hands as we talk about “books” at our “book club.”
We shook out umbrellas and piled up at a table in a dark pub. A singer-songwriter burbled her way through some dull tunes. Two of us ordered a “half litre” of house wine to share; the carafe was so full, it could’ve been a Tahiti Treat bottle from an 80s birthday sleepover.
And like those sleepovers, our conversation centred on hot guys. Or, one guy in particular: Armie Hammer, the lead in Call Me By Your Name, which we’d just seen in the theatre. My friend, obsessed with the film, had insisted we go. She was right, considering most anybody could use a good dose of two hot men kissing no matter what their situation. Flattened as we were by kid duties, overwork, and lack of sleep, two and a half hours of shirtless Armie dawdling through Italian piazzas, lounging by the pool, reviewing his manuscript (shirtless), and caressing Timothée Chalamet’s face as they made out was crippling. He’s so gorgeous, one of us said. He wasn’t near as appealing as the Winklevoss twins, said another.
We came to the conclusion: This guy is so beautiful in the film, he’s as untouchable, as life-altering, as a work of art.
I’m generally not prone to liking blond, or built, guys, nor movie stars, but now that I’m reading the book that inspired the film, I can’t get him off my mind. Like my friend. This has nothing to do with Armie, though his beauty does help.
Instead, his character – initially awkward at the best of times, frosty at the worst – blossoms throughout the story, to reveal someone deeply invested in connecting with another human who compels him. The passion that then erupts is thus what we all have felt, or yearn to feel. Oliver (Armie’s character), in making himself available for love, receives the profoundest kind of love in return. It manifests repeatedly in the book in the line, “You’ll kill me if you stop,” applied not just to their sexual encounters, but their connection, affection, lived out fully in the limited time they have together.
What attracts us to stories like this? I believe it is the restrictions placed on them. No romance can survive the realities of differences in age, experience, background, and geography like these two had. Nor can it withstand the imposition of daily life and duties in a more mundane setting than northern Italy in the summer. Moreover, the secrecy of it, as with most compressed, passionate affairs, is part of its appeal. Turn off your world, I’ll turn off mine, and we’ll create this tiny one together. At the end, the two men go on a short trip, the alternate surroundings and time limit offering a setting neither would have to return to once they were apart.
Naturally, I likened this kind of romance to a song. I always enjoyed “Static on the Radio,” sung by Aimee Mann and Jim White, for the way it revealed its characters’ interiority, and felt like you were caught in an intimate embrace between the two.
When it’s done, it’s done. You snap back to reality, go about your day; nothing in your regular business sounds or feels like this.
I once had a romance whose terms were clearly defined. This can’t last forever, we told ourselves. It’s not sustainable. On this day, we stop seeing each other. And we held to that, bawling like pathetic babies as we counted down the minutes. Snap: it was done. Nothing in our regular lives felt like that.
Therein lies the power of the bite-size romance. Unlike snacks, its power is not reduced by its scope.
I can see how it was appealing to our group of middle-age ladies, tied as we are to our long-term partners, sometimes unclear as to what still binds us. Not that I’d assume unhappiness on their parts, nor suggest my own romance is dullsville. It’s just that mine is more like this song:
Where every day could either progress as before, or log a surprise shift that takes us in an unexpected direction for a while, only to return to the familiar. We’ve got the time to sort it out, see what transpires. Not to mention we’re also bound by a mutual love of Geddy Lee. (Is this not the dorkiest?)
Call Me By Your Name was mostly compelling because it was a story that took me several weeks to understand. Why was I invested in these characters? What makes us care? As a narrative arc, it traces the impossible to the potential to the real; from the faraway dream to the fantasy to the realization of them. Long-term love may start this way, but its trajectory is defined by its length, not its limitations. Perhaps the constraints forced on these two are ones we rarely, if ever, encounter – though I’d argue it’s just these constraints that make a good story.