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Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

Dial Press, 1956

Like fugitives, Dean and Gabriella hid from the world, afraid that their secret identities as heterosexual—yes, heterosexual, oh my—lovers would be scandalously revealed. The result was a descent. They slid further and further into the privacy of a suffocating seclusion. Two lives were tucked inside four walls, sealed from a society that was not accepting of sexual relations between members of the opposite sex.

I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning, our life held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride.

Gabriella, much more of a free spirit, was willing to face-off with risks without fear of consequence. After all, what could be more important than love? To her, the concept of morality when it came to sex between consenting adults was something derived by those in the never-ending pursuit of hate. Dean, on the other hand, could not seem to shake free from the ever-present eyes of judgment’s brutal scorn. Tortured over his attraction to a woman, he began to retreat, not only from Gabriella but also from himself, even if he did not possess the self-awareness to recognize the signs of his own disintegration.

“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”

“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”

“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”

Of all the cats in the world to get advice from.

“Love him,” said Jacques, with vehemence, “love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?”

Of course it was no use. No matter how much Dean loved Gabriella, and make no mistake, he loved her more than he was capable of admitting, he simply could not escape the guilt and fear that preyed upon him as only a ravenous cancer can.

“And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty—they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.”

Love is an atom bomb. It has the power to obliterate the naked universe, revealing her most sacred, skeletal mysteries. But like any living thing, nourishment is a prerequisite for survival and so it cannot be surprising at all that a love forced into the exile of darkness is nothing if not doomed. Maybe Dean and Gabriella never had a chance, not that such a realization does anything to fill the crater left behind by its detonation.