“Call Me By Your Name” and the Heartbreak I’ve Never Had

Why you need to watch Call me by your name
Photo: Sony Picture Classics

On Sunday afternoon, I watched Call Me By Your Name and left the theater weeping.* Not because I left feeling hopeless, but simply nostalgic, for old lessons and old times. 

Yes, it was a visually stunning film. And yes, the acting was amazing – especially young Timothee Chalamet as Elio, the seventeen-year old prodigy who falls in love with Armie Hammer’s 24-year old graduate student adonis Oliver.

But the movie is great. And no, this isn’t a review. I suck at those. I just really, really liked it. It captures perfectly the heady thrills of falling in love for the first time and even more so, the pain that comes when it ends. At least I think so.

I’ve never suffered such a savage heartbreak as Elio does. No man has ever made me cry the cries of someone who understands that the person they want most is the very person they can never have. Because she doesn’t want you anymore. Because he chose someone else. Because the timing isn’t right.

After all, I still have Tom.**

Twice, when relationships around me fell apart, I’d been there.

Once home from college, I was sleeping over at a friend’s house when her boyfriend called, right before we were going to bed.

She nodded into the phone and didn’t say much. I remember looking around her room, at the teddy bears from her childhood that still sat on her bookshelves and wondering when we’d start feeling like adults. I was trying not to eavesdrop so I thought naturally about weddings and marriage.

Towards the end of the conversation she said, “And what about my grandfather’s birthday party. I’ve told everyone you’re coming.”

I could hear the deeper voice murmur something on the other end.

“Okay,” she said, and for a second it sounded like she was going to say something else. Many things else. Instead she took a deep breath, swallowed her words, hung up.

I asked her what was the matter. The entire conversation seemed to have been less than five minutes.

“—— just broke up with me.”

I looked at her. She was expressionless.

“Are you okay?”

She shrugged, “He’ll still come to my grandpa’s party. That’s the least he can do for me so I don’t have to explain to everyone why he’s not there.”

I wanted to ask why and a ton of other questions, but it was clear she didn’t have the answers. She didn’t cry. At least I didn’t hear her. We went to sleep – at least I did. And for many years, simply because she didn’t let it show that night or even days to years later, it didn’t occur to me that she had likely been in so much pain she couldn’t articulate it.

Another time, also in college, a friend was driving to meet at my parents’ house when the guy she’d been seeing for nearly a year in an undefined relationship called. He made things definitively clear: there was no future for them.

She arrived looking tired and withdrawn. At first she didn’t say much. We went to the backyard to sit by the pool. After a while of gazing over the low, hazy hills of Orange County, she said finally, “—— and I are done.”

I asked why. Things had seemed to be going well.

She recounted the conversation she’d had just before parking her car, and all the occurrences large and small that had preceded that moment. All these together pointed to the only two possibilities: that he loved her very much, or that he loved her very much, but there was someone else he loved more.

She burst into tears. Her shoulders shook.

“It hurts so much,” she said.

I didn’t know what to do except pat her on the back. I was 19? Maybe 20, 21? Inexperienced though I was, I knew we were young, the road ahead was long. Her road had always seemed crowded with suitors compared to my empty is-she-a-lesbian-or-isn’t-she lane and, I was sure, would be traversed by many more. Some of whom would hurt her and others who would be hurt by her.

I’m not sure why, but I didn’t have the same certainty for myself.

Eventually she dried her eyes. She felt empty but having cried, equated it to feeling better for the time being. The sun began to set and we were soon sitting in the cool shadow of my parents’ house. Around us a slight breeze stirred and from the window I could see my parents preparing dinner. To them, we must have looked as we always did: two kids chatting in the tranquil backyard.

“I hope you never feel what I am feeling right now,” she said.

“Why?” I gave her a curious look.

Heartbreak was a necessary part of life was it not? Like falling in love. You can’t have one without the other. I said this to her. It seemed inevitable to me that eventually some man would leave me sobbing as she was now.

“No,” she said wearily, as though she were many years older than her college self. “Some people are lucky and just never know what it’s like. I hope you never do.”

That may have been the kindest wish anyone has ever wished for me.

When I first told my mother that things with Tom were becoming serious, she said that it was wonderful. She was happy for me.

She said, “Everyone must love and be loved at least once.”

I had smiled because it was an old favorite line of hers. My mother was a romantic and though she loved my father very much, would speak wistfully of the naïveté with which she loved her early boyfriends.

“But if it doesn’t work out,” she added now, “Don’t kill yourself. It always gets better.”

Elio’s father – or Andre Aciman, I should say – put it a bit more eloquently. But I always remember what my mother said because it makes me chuckle, and because it’s true: it does get better. Her first heartbreak, instead of making her a walled garden, opened the door for later lovers, and perhaps even more heartbreak. And then of course my father. And though my mother didn’t elaborate, I like to think that in her pithy statements were packed the eloquent advice that Elio’s father gave him.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know these words:

“What lies ahead is going to be very difficult,” he started to say, altering his voice. His tone said: We don’t have to speak about it, but let’s not pretend we don’t know what I’m saying.

Speaking abstractly was the only way to speak the truth to him.

“Fear not. It will come. At least I hope it does. And when you least expect it. Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember: I am here. Right now you may not want to feel anything. Perhaps you never wished to feel anything. And perhaps it’s not with me you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you did.

“[…] 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!”

My friends have long recovered from those early heartbreaks, and have since endured a few more. And I – I can count on one hand a series of epic crushes before I met Tom – but all just crushes. None turned into love turned into heartbreak. For that, I’m grateful.

My friend’s wish for me held fast.

After the movie I came home, my eyes still red both from crying and the chilly walk back.

“Was it good?” Tom asked.

I nodded and tried to speak but started crying again.

“Good Lord, Beefus,” he said, “Try to regain your composure.”

“It was beautiful,” I said finally, sniffling. “You have to watch it.”

“I will not.”

I  tried to convince him of the film’s merits, but in vain. Tom was adamant. His favorite movie is and remains “The Big Lebowski.”

For a moment, I was even sadder. Perhaps Tom and I were not so compatible. What kind of great love could exist between two people with completely opposite tastes in movies? And not just opposite taste but a straight refusal to even try what I like?!

But I remembered the words of Montaigne, quoted by Elio’s father in the scene above: “Parce que c’etati lui, parce que c’etait moi.”

Oh that Tom. That tearless jerk, that love of my life.

Anyway. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I recommend both.

*I cry easily but the last time I left a theater weeping was after “La La Land,” which I thought would be a happy movie but was sad, actually, in the same way that “Call Me By Your Name” was sad.
**Why, he is sitting there in the other room, watching YouTube videos of people hang-gliding off Mt. Everest.
***I think “The Big Lebowski” is, to use some of Tom’s terminology when describing things he dislikes, “a giant sack of [hipster] shit.”
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