Giovanni's Last Chapter
I found something today.
Two somethings, actually.
We are painting our family room, or at least we will be once we've removed all the furniture from the room. Part of the preparation involved purging a filing cabinet of college school work of mine...from 2009 (I'm a late bloomer). I threw most of it away, but there were a few pieces of early writing that I just had to keep.
In 2009, during English Comp 1B at my local community college, my professor gave us a creative writing assignment. This was NOT a creative writing class, I was NOT a creative writer - it stressed me the hell out. Even the assurance from him that merely trying to write something was worthy of an A did not detour me from fretting over it.
The theme of this particular class was "Love Sucks". Yeah, Mr. Teacher was the king of negativity and felt the need to assign reading that made one want to jump in front of a train. Most. Depressing. Class. Ever!
One of the stories was Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. The novel has 5 chapters, so our assignment was to write a 6th. The reason I'm going to share this with you is this - my teacher really liked it. Also, too? He said I made him rethink his hatred of the main character. That was huge, for me.
So, if you've read Giovanni's Room then you'll get my final chapter. If you haven't, then you won't. But, I hope you enjoy it anyway.
I was taken aback by how much my father had aged during my residence in France. Had I been gone that long? Or, was it the burden of my absence that brought about the years that now etched his face?
Standing in the doorway, facing his questioning eyes made me want to flee; after all, fleeing seems to be what I do best. But the long journey across the ocean was for a reason; I had to face him to reveal myself, a telegram or letter would not do. I do not know why, after all this time avoiding myself, that I suddenly felt the need to reveal to my father that Butch was not the man he envisioned. Perhaps it was the endless hours staring at the ocean and seeing Giovanni’s face in every crest and cloud, in every ray of sunlight, that made me crave the harsh punishment I knew my father could be capable of. What I did not expect though, was to find him so much older and so much more frail.
“David? Is that really you? Why didn’t you wire ahead to say you were coming home?”
“Hi Dad.” I set my bag down, my one bag that contained all of who I had become.
My fathers eyes glanced at the bag, “I take it you are not staying?”
“No, Dad. I can’t, at least not yet. I need to tell you something, before I lose the nerve forever.” And there it was, right there on his face, the ‘knowing’. He’s known all along and now he is coming face to face with his most haunted reality.
“David, please.” he said looking up and down the hallway. “Come inside won’t you?”
“No, it has to be here, right now.” I could feel myself breathing and I look down to see my chest moving up and down; I gazed in wonder at how it was possible when I suddenly feel so dead. “I don’t know who I am, dad. I’m not Butch, I’m not David, I’m not even sure I’m human. Hella and I have called off the engagement. She left me when she found out….”
It is hard now, so hard to find the words. I practiced them on the ship, day after day, even rehearsing them with the ship steward I had befriended. He found it amusing that I planned to travel “all those thousands of miles to get punched in the face”, for he was sure all American men hated men who loved other men. “But you are different”, he said stroking my bare back as we lay there in my bunk, “you are not a man, you are a fag.” He was right. I am American and I wanted to hurt him for that; and the small part of me that was a man wanted to punch him in the face until nothing remained that could smile at me with shrewd contempt. But I didn’t, he was right; I would not be a man to my father.
I saw my father shrink before my eyes, becoming more hollow. Knowing spread across his face and he sways slightly, griping the door for support, “That isn’t the life for you, David”, his voice soft as a whisper.
“It isn’t a matter of choice anymore, Dad.”
“You can overcome this, it’s possible you know.”
“How can you say that? How can you even know what I’ve been through? How can you even know what it took to stand here in front of you today?”
“Listen to me, David. You can change this,” his voice becoming desperate, “It’s happened before, to someone I know. You surround yourself with women, you bury yourself with them, then you marry and have a child and you carry on with your life, like normal people do. You can change this, David. You can change this.”
He looks down at his feet, using his other hand to further steady himself in the doorway. His stance effectively serves to bar my entrance should I suddenly decide to go in and make myself at home.
It couldn’t be. What he said, what he implied could not be true. “Who, Dad, who is this….person you know who lived such a lie?” I knew the minute the words took their fateful leap off my tongue that I really did not want to know. Yet, my mind reeled and his silence spoke volumes. It was then that another horrible truth started to seep into my thoughts and I ask the question before I can stop myself. “How did my mother die?”
“What the hell are you talking about, David? How does your mother have anything to do with this? It was a sudden illness, you know that.”
“No, actually I don’t. I don’t know anything anymore. Did she know….about you, I mean?” I did not come here to hurt him, but suddenly I wanted nothing more than to make him suffer.
My father’s face crumbled, the sadness now unrestrained, he begins to weep silently. I knew instantly that my mother’s illness was shame; the only cure that she knew of to escape the pain was to take her own life. I did not expect the reality of truth to hit me so hard. I pick up my bag, my life, and I leave.
It is supposed to be easier now. The conversation with my father is over. My room is small, often dark, and affords a view of all the pleasures poverty has to offer. No doubt it is this view, the bleak neighborhood, which is causing the man standing in front of me to fear the future well being of the child. The nurse, sensing his unease, clutches the child closer in her arms trying to shield it from the bewilderment and angst emanating from me.
“I’m sure this comes as a great shock. I assumed you already knew.” The words the man is speaking seem to come from somewhere else. The whole scene playing out in front of my eyes seems to be happening to someone else.
“No. I had no idea. Hella and I parted in France. I never knew she was pregnant.” The baby turns and looks at me and then, perhaps sensing my own fear, begins to cry tears from eyes that look so very much like my own. “The child can’t be mine. Are you sure you have the right man?
“Forgive me, sir, but I’m afraid that question can only be answered by Hella,” and the man squirms slightly, apparently uncomfortable keeping such close company with death. “We have brought the child’s, I mean Giovanni’s, belongings. It isn’t much, but Hella left some money in a trust fund to care for his needs. Hella also requested that you be given this letter”
I see my hand reach for the letter, receive the letter and then fall back to rest at my side. “Wha..what did you say its name is?”
“His name is Giovanni. Seems a bit of an extravagant name for a child who isn’t even Italian, but then Hella was an unusual woman. Shall I have the nurse bring his bag inside while you sign the receiving papers?”
“No!” The sound of my voice, so high and shrill, astounds even me. The nurse took several steps back and volleyed a desperate look between the man and I. He is quick, “This is no doubt difficult, but you must understand that I have a duty to carry out Hella’s wishes as defined by her will. She requested custody go to the father, which is apparently you.”
The saccharine smile on his face hides nothing. Hella is getting her revenge, “What about Hella’s parents? Can’t they take him?”
The man shakes his head, “I’m sorry to say they have declined any contact with the child. He is all yours.”
“And should I decline? You’ve no proof that I’m the father.” The truth being there is no amount of denial in the universe that could defend against the fact that the child is the spitting image of me. I feel like a monster; this child is my flesh, my blood, and I want the man and his anxious nurse to make him disappear. “I just don’t think this is a healthy place for child. There has to be some other option.”
The man’s eyes grow small and hard, he does not want to leave the child with me any more than I want to take it. “The orphanages around here are full right now. There will be a bed available for him in a week. Until then, he has no one.” He stares at me, his lips tight, the muscles in his jaw working to control the anger that seethes beneath his starched, white collar.
I step aside to let them in, the nurse immediately goes to work like a little bird building a nest. And then they were gone. The room is completely silent but for the roar of my own blood pounding in my ears. “This is wrong” I say to myself over and over. “This can’t be happening.” We stare at each other for a long time, Giovanni and I; and then he drifts off to sleep leaving me to calculate how many hours, minutes, seconds would need to pass until I am free of him. One week.
Hella’s letter couldn’t have been more cruel. David, If this letter makes it into your hands then it means I have been given the ultimate freedom. Bearing this child of yours has been torture for me; it is like carrying a huge ball of shame that kicks at my insides. It is a parasite waiting to eat me alive. I thought I was free of you, free to get on with the life you came so close to destroying. I guess you got the last laugh, because it is in fact, destroyed. The doctors tell me that I am frail and childbirth might be difficult. Of course it will, I must endure it alone. That is something you gave me, David, loneliness. The doctors suggested that I have a plan, someone to care for the child should I die during the birth. You have hurt so many people and you should be punished. This is your punishment; if the child is a girl, she will be Hella and if it is a boy, Giovanni. I know what you did to Giovanni; I know you used him like you used me. I can’t feel love or the expectant joy that women feel when they are with child. It eludes me. What is there for you David? Destruction or redemption? Perhaps neither, then you will be dead like me. Hella
Never, not in a million centuries, did I envision once again standing in front of my father’s door. How I arrived here from the orphanage, I do not know. But here I stand, wet, cold, full of fear with the smell of feces, urine and vomit still assaulting my nostrils. Are they all that way? Does every orphan become a nobody?
I push the buzzer with such urgency and force that I’m sure I will push it right through the wall where it will land at my father’s feet as he reaches for the door.
“David? What’s wrong? Who is this? What happened?” My fathers questions are frenzied as he looks me over, fearful and unsure of what is about to play out before him.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. I can’t bring him back. I can’t fix it. Please help me not destroy him again. I’m sorry.”
The fright on my fathers face dissolved. He looks at Giovanni, his sleeping head resting against my shoulder, and steps aside to let us in. “Come in David. We should finally have that talk.”