“Yep. You’ve got to be able to answer them if you want to go any farther, or is further?”
“Who is Maggie Smith?”
“An Actress. Tea with Mussolini.”
“Good. That’s one, though you would’ve gotten an extra point had you said A Room with a View."
“Because it’s my favorite movie. Next, who’s James Baldwin?”
“Very good, and you get extra credit for mentioning Giovanni.”
“It’s my favorite book.”
"What’s the third question?”
“How old are you?”
“So sorry. But two out of three ain’t bad.”
“What’s wrong with 34?”
“Too young. But you’re smart. I like that.”
I smile. We’re at a restaurant, Jim and I. I’ve known him a long time. Two friends having dinner.
“Have you ever read Giovanni’s Room?” He asks.
I get lost for a moment, sidetracked by my own thoughts, then return to Jim.
“Nothing." I tell him. "It's just that I haven’t thought about that book in a long, long time.”
Jim loves my stories. I indulge him.
I’d known Seth a couple of months when his birthday came around. Was already head over heals, could barely see straight. I had no idea what hit me, hooked.
He was the first, the one to whom all future boys would be compared to.
For weeks all I could think of was finding him the perfect gift. An obsessive never before felt need to surprise him with that one thing that would set me apart from all other guys. Show him beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one will ever know him the way I did.
At that moment I would have picked not only the stars out of the sky for him, but also the sun and the moon and the space between.
Problem is, didn't know him at all. Had no idea what he liked, what made him tic. I replayed every conversation we had, thought of all the things he'd said to me alone at night. Was looking for clues into his soul, but all I could see was my panic. Weeks went by. I had nothing.
The big day was getting close and I was nowhere near finding him a gift. Finally I had to make a decision, settle on something, anything. It wasn’t as romantic as I’d hoped but at least it was something he’d appreciate. I knew he liked music. An amateur DJ, he spent hours in front of his turntables, eyes closed, head tilted to one side, lost in a neverending mix of beats inside his mind.
He was still accumulating his record collection. At least once a week he’d go shopping for music, a tedious and time-consuming affair that involved hopping from store to store, flipping through a sea of vinyl, most of which he couldn’t afford.
Usually when he'd ask me to join him, the answer would shoot out of my mouth, “I’d rather chew glass.” Now I was tagging along making mental notes every time he looked at an album.
Then, just as I compiled my list, his best friend took him shopping for his birthday and got him all the titles I’d spent three weeks researching. Forty-eight hours before the big day.
Two days. No time. No money. No idea what to get. I talked to his friends, chatted up his roommate, called his sister. I tried anything I could think of, anything that would help me figure out what makes this kid smile. I was just about to lose hope when I remembered. His favorite book. Giovanni’s Room. A film student, his dream was to make it into a movie.
This was my way in. A first edition copy of his most cherished read, published in 1956. Problem is e-Bay didn’t have it. Neither did the 20 bookstores I called. None had seen a copy in years, some actually laughed at me. The one place that did have it was selling it for $700. Interestingly all other first edition books by Mr. Baldwin were considerably cheaper, as low as $70. I thought of buying another title, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t have the same effect. Then someone suggested I called this one guy, a “book specialist.”
“He’s a pro,” said my friend. “Can find anything.”
24 hours to find the perfect gift.
“Yeah hi, I was told you find rare books.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.”
“Dude, that’s a tough one, usually pretty expensive.”
“I've got about $300.”
“Let me see what I can do for you, hold on.”
The click of a mouse, fingers tickling a keyboard, a deep breath.
“I’ll be damned.”
“It’s your lucky day, kid. I found you a copy in Canada of all places. You’d have to ship it, but it’s only $165.”
The book arrived the next day, just in time to wrap it up and run it over to Seth’s. I handed him my gift, excited, like a kid on Mother’s Day. Then watched, as his face began changing expressions from grateful, to confused finally landing on shocked.
Gasp. The drop of a coin. He knows. This is no ordinary copy.
“This isn’t…?” He said, unable to finish the sentence.
Then the moment that will come to mind each time that book is mentioned. A tear, first small, then overflowing, spilling onto his cheek, slowly finding its way down his face leaving behind a shiny trail of wetness. It’s a moment of realization: a man who can cry over a book is a man worth keeping.
I finish my story, look up at Jim. I can tell he’s trying not to cry but his eyes are dancing with emotion.
“Wow,” he says, his voice cracking.
"Yeah, well, about six months later my birthday came around. Seth had handed me his gift. He had this smile on his face, the same smile I had when I gave him the book. I carefully opened my present. Then I saw it. Inside was a baby blue Banana Republic button-down shirt and two ties. Should have dropped his skinny ass right then and there."