A Free Story: The Gift

This story is from my collection, A Perfect Life and Other Stories. Seems appropriate for this time of year.


Morning gleamed like a poem as fat snowflakes spiraled past my window. I like how snow silences the world, a cold compress salving the fevered pace of life. This was the first of the season. If it didn’t turn to rain, as forecast, I’d have to deal with it, but for now, I enjoyed the view and savored the warmth of flannel sheets, the weight of the comforter, and the delicate, floral scent of the woman curled against me. The furnace came on with a comforting “oomph” down in the basement, and soon creaks and groans accompanied the hot water expanding the heat pipes along the baseboards.

My companion shifted. Her left hand, cupping my bare breast, squeezed, not with any intent to stoke desire, but with a dream. I smiled and kissed her curls.

I sighed. What could be better? Freshly fallen snow, a beautiful woman, new love. My breath caught. Holy…

“Shit.”

“Hmmm?” She stirred. “What’s wrong?” she mumbled, sleepily. It came out more like “Whiz’ong?”

“Nothing, hon.” I combed my fingers through her hair until her breathing settled back into its sleepy rhythm.

My heart pounded. I stared at the ceiling and held my breath, willing myself not to hyperventilate. My stomach churned, a different sensation from last night, when I was full from Abby’s amazing dinner—her roast turkey, special cranberry sauce, apple pie, and stuffing—oh, the stuffing. A Thanksgiving feast fit for Pharaohs.

What followed Thanksgiving and snow and falling in love? I closed my eyes and breathed out slowly.

Christmas. Christmas meant presents. Presents meant buying something for Abby. The first big gift-giving event of our relationship. Make or break time, yet I hardly knew her. Sure, we’d been together three months, and I had moved in last month, but that wasn’t enough time before the First Big Gift. Not nearly enough.

Oh, why did I have to fall in love in the summer? Why couldn’t it have been January? January would have left me a whole year to get to know her. Wait, Valentine’s Day would be worse than Christmas. March. Let me have met her in March. Maybe there’d be a birthday along the way, but that could tossed off with a simple dinner out. But Christmas. Jesus H. Christ on a raft.

For the next week, I wracked my brain. Had she dropped any hints? None that I could recall. I resorted to asking her directly.

“I only want you,” she replied with a hug and a kiss. Sweet, but not helpful.

What do you buy the lesbian Martha Stewart? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really needed to know! She manages a gift shop, for Christ’s sake. Plus she has her own catering and interior design business. She’s the expert everyone turns to for gift-giving occasions. Where could I turn? We had no mutual friends—she wasn’t from my lesbian inner circle. I didn’t know her family at all. Besides, you shouldn’t have to ask someone else what to buy the person you love. Right? Desperate, I went to my best friend, Roz.

“Does she like to cook?” Roz isn’t known for her power of observation.

We stood at a butcher block table, under a forest of hanging, gleaming copper pots in a kitchen that while not large looked as though Abby had walked into Williams-Sonoma, held out a credit card, and said, “Outfit me.” This was Abby’s kitchen. Our kitchen, she was always saying since I moved in. I still didn’t know where the butter knives were. Hell, I didn’t know what a butter knife was.

I closed my eyes and steadied myself. “You have no idea.” I pulled a fat cookbook off the shelf and slid it toward Roz. Potluck Potpourri. Abby’s face smiled from the cover as she held up a steaming casserole. The dimples and blue eyes were real, and realistically cute, although they had Photoshopped her teeth whiter. “A fucking bestseller on the New York Times list for eighteen weeks.”

Roz stepped back as though the book might explode. She looked up at me, her eyes narrowed. “You hate to cook. So why are you two together?”

“With her, I don’t have to, which is probably for the best. I’d hate to compete with her on anything.”

“Is it the sex? Is that why she likes you?” Roz strained to keep from grinning, but her eyes betrayed a mischievous crinkle. “I always suspected you were really hot in bed. Those muscles…” Her eyebrows waggled suggestively. Everything’s about sex to Roz.

“Yeah, and the dirt under my fingernails. Sandpaper skin’s a real turn on.” I rolled my eyes. “Focus, Roz. I need help here, not therapy.”

Roz, being a mere mortal, did the only thing she could. She took me to the mall. Not just any mall. The Burlington Mall. The biggest, baddest mall in the Boston area. So generically American, it’s where they filmed Mall Cop. Roz drove, suspecting, correctly, that I’d have no idea how to get there. We went early on a Saturday morning, while there were still parking spaces available. As she took the exit from the highway, the building loomed like a mutant queen bee, surrounded by acres of pavement that was quickly filling to capacity with drone-like cars, their occupants in a frenzy of feeding the beast with currency and removing the endless waste products. Maybe more like a parasite, a giant fat, sucking leech, bleeding—

“Get a grip, will you?” Roz said as she pulled into a space. Had I said that out loud? “It’s a mall, not some allegory for the destruction of the planet.”

See? No power of observation.

Freezing rain and sleet coated the cars as we stepped out into a thin layer of slush. We began at Sears, which, in retrospect, I thought was brilliant. Roz soon saw the error in her plan as I stood, mesmerized, surrounded by garden tools. I reached for a gleaming blade.

“Step away from the wall,” Roz said, firmly grabbing my arm.

“But…bypass pruners.” My gaze danced along the display. “Loppers…on sale…”

Without letting go she dragged me from the hardware section. Still somewhat dazed, I let her lead me through the store. She muttered under her breath as we passed racks filled with garish dresses in orange and lime green, blew by shelves of handbags the size of seat cushions, and wove among the preppy Land’s End displays. “Nah. Uh uh. Nope.” I looked at her, puzzled. “C’mon,” she said. And we headed into the maw of the mall.

The clamor of American commerce hit me like a shock wave. Bells jangled, Muzak warbled, children cried.

“Over here,” Roz said, raising her voice to be heard.

We retreated into a jewelry store. A hush fell over us. The harsh fluorescent lights of the mall gave way to subdued, dramatic presentations over glass display cases filled with the shimmering result of Third World slave labor. I wandered among the glittery goods. I don’t wear jewelry other than a watch, a Timex I usually have to replace every couple of years because I forget and reach into a bucket of water or run it through the laundry by mistake. Here were rows and rows of watches, for ladies, gentlemen, and even Disney timepieces for little princesses. More rows of necklaces, bracelets, and rings with stones of astonishing shapes, colors, and sizes. Diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. I felt like Dorothy, stunned by the Emerald City. Overwhelmed, I turned to Roz. “Help me out, here. What would you buy Zoey?”

Roz spun a rack of gold and silver necklaces. “God, kid, we’ve been married for eight years now. We don’t even buy gifts anymore.”

I looked at her in horror. “What? Why are we here? This was your idea, remember?”

She smiled innocently, but if we had been anywhere other than a fancy jewelry store, she’d have stuck her tongue out at me. Betrayed, I turned back to the display case.

 “May I help you?” A young woman materialized behind the counter. Her pale face gleamed, her shiny blonde hair pulled tight into a ponytail. All the better to show off her elaborate dangling earrings and a shiny necklace draped over deep cleavage revealed by the plunging neckline of her simple black blouse. A gold, plastic nametag identified her as Isabella. I wondered if that was really her name. She looked more like a Wanda.

“Just browsing,” I said, trying to avoid staring at her cleav—, er, jewels. Roz pinched me.

“We’re looking for a nice gift,” Roz said. “Earrings, bracelet…” She looked at me for some guidance. I shrugged.

For the next hour, Isabella presented assorted sparkly things. Each time, she carefully set the item on a black velvet mat accompanied by a look that said, touch this and you die. I remained unimpressed.

“I don’t know what she likes,” I protested.

Isabella arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Mother, aunt?”

“Girlfriend,” Roz said, engrossed in a brooch. I felt myself blush. Not because she’d just outed me, but because I still wasn’t used to that term. I have a girlfriend. I sighed. That seemed hopelessly high school.

“Ah,” Izzy cooed. I felt the nickname appropriate for someone I was spending so much time with. “How serious? Diamond serious, gold serious, or just silver serious?”

I stared at her. “I didn’t know there were categories.”

She smiled enigmatically.

I cleared my throat and glanced down into the case at neatly aligned rows of diamond rings. Tethered to each was a small white label. Most were face down, hiding the prices, but I spotted one flipped over. It lay upside down and was handwritten, but clearly showed four digits. “I don’t think I can afford diamond serious,” I said quietly.

Roz shook her head. “Unless you’re ready to propose, stick to gold or silver. And no rings. The size of the box alone will give her ideas.”

My stomach clenched. Propose? Ideas?

I settled on a gold chain, more to reward Izzy for her patience than from any confidence that I’d found The Gift.

Roz and I headed back into the mall and made our way down the main thoroughfare. In the time that we’d been in the jewelry store, the place had become vastly more crowded. Harried mothers pushed strollers, bored fathers carried sleeping children and bursting shopping bags, clutches of teenage girls walked together, texting or chatting into cell phones, deep in her own private conversation, maybe to each other. The noise rose to ear-splitting levels as music poured out of stores and through the mall sound system—nonreligious holiday tunes, classics, and remixed oldies. I couldn’t help but notice that most shops sold clothing geared to a form of female unknown to me. Skinny pants, skimpy tops, and pink, everywhere pink. Kiosks displaying cell phones, watches, earrings, sleep apnea machines—sleep what?—and sports memorabilia dotted the aisle, altering the course of foot traffic like boulders in a river. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream, convinced success would mean my ultimate demise.

“How about music?” Roz asked as we stopped outside an electronics store.

“I know she likes Enya.”

Roz rolled her eyes and continued on. “Explain to me again why you two are together?”

I ignored her, mostly since I couldn’t answer her question. What is it that brings people together? Roz had been my best friend for eons, long before she met Zoey, yet we’d never hooked up. Was she that different from Abby? And if so, why did I like them both? Attraction is a mysterious force.

A powerful stereophonic beat pulsed from a Bose store. Hmm. “What about a stereo? Her CD player skips.”

Roz shook her head. “You can’t afford Bose. Trust me. You only work half the year.”

“I work year round,” I protested.

“Snowplowing doesn’t count.”

“It does, too,” I said. “Depending on the snowfall, I can do better than in summer.”

“Yeah, ‘depending,'” she said, making little air quotes with her fingers. “And with global warming, you’re in a dying profession.”

“Not the summer work!”

“Yard work doesn’t count, either. Does she know you mow lawns?”

“I do not mow lawns.” I turned so she’d see the back of my jacket—Ecological Landscaping Services. Powered by People, not Petroleum. “And of course she knows. That’s how we met.”

Roz sneered. “Yeah, catchy tagline there. Just how many ‘people’ you got working for you?”

I made a face. She knew it was just me. “It’s a new business. It’s growing.”

She laughed. “No pun intended.”

I smiled. The only reason I let Roz rag on me is because I know she doesn’t mean it. After all, she designed my logo and my website. There are plenty who do mean it, though, like bankers denying loans because they don’t understand my niche. I specialize in natural landscaping. Get rid of the lawn and put down native groundcovers, perennials, and shrubs. You save on gas, fertilizer, weed killers, water, and you attract birds and butterflies. Roz and Zoey were my first customers. Roz even took the photos of their yard, before and after, that I feature on my website. Still, she was right about my finances. Bose was not in the cards, or the wallet. We moved on.

Soon we made it to the heart of the beast, or, to keep with my earlier metaphor, the center of the hive, where we found the meaning of life. Or at least of life at this time of year. Santa Claus. Surrounded by a white fence and blankets of fake snow, a path curved toward a gilt throne where sat the jolly old fellow himself, looking perhaps a bit thin and bored, as dozens, maybe hundreds of children and their parents, or whichever grownup the parents could cajole into taking on this chore, lined up to list their demands. We gave the whole scene as wide a berth as possible.

“What about a picture frame?” Roz asked. We had moved on to a camera shop and she was examining a pewter 8 by 10.

“Too intimate. Then I suppose she’d want a picture of me for it.”

Roz put the frame back on the shelf. “Yeah, it’d be awkward to put her ex in there.” She glared at me. “What do you mean ‘too intimate’? You two are having sex, are you not?”

“That’s different.”

Roz howled. She made me buy one anyway and we resumed our trek, my quest for the relationship holy grail.

At Williams-Sonoma, Roz spotted Abby’s cookbook. She grabbed it off the shelf and held it up for the crowd of shoppers as though giving a demonstration. “Hey, Becca,” she said, louder than necessary. “Here’s your girlfriend’s cookbook!” She leafed through the pages. “My, these look like yummy recipes,” she said in her best QVC voice. 

I pretended I didn’t know her and made my way down the utensil wall. Who knew spatulas came in so many shapes, sizes, and materials. Silicone? Clearly not just for breasts anymore. I didn’t know what half the gewgaws were, but recognized most of them from Abby’s drawers. She really had been outfitted here. Coals to Newcastle came to mind.

Roz came up behind me. “There’s got to be something here for her, right?”

“You saw her kitchen.” I swept my arm in an arc. “Hello! This is Abby’s kitchen.”

It was time for a break. All those kitchen goodies had made me hungry, so we headed for the food court. On the way, we passed a Rainforest Café—dining as entertainment. Sensory overload to distract you from your appointment with obesity. I stood transfixed, watching fish swim through a tube-shaped aquarium that framed a doorway separating what looked like a gift shop from what was probably the restaurant. Fog misted across fake wetland displays and plastic vines covered the ceiling. An enormous painted plaster mushroom marked the entrance.

Roz chuckled. “They’re either offering an LSD special or it’s an homage to Alice in Wonderland.”

“Something for everyone,” I said.

When we arrived at the food court we discovered there were no McDonald’s, no Burger King, but instead Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and, we noticed, a currency exchange. “Are you sure we’re still in America?” I asked.

 I wasn’t convinced a mall could offer truly fine international dining, so we settled for Dunkin’ Donuts. Once satiated, we resumed our excursion, but passed the Yankee Candle shop without going in. Abby sells that kind of stuff in her store, and besides, I started coughing at the entrance. Does everything have to smell? The easiest purchase was a nice card at the Hallmark shop. Roz suggested an ornament, and I perused them all carefully. But Snoopy on a sled, as cute as he was, somehow didn’t fulfill my dream of The Perfect Gift.

Back in the salmon stream, we latched onto a mall directory and scoured it looking for a bookstore. The closest they had was a newsstand. We made our way there, Roz shaking her head and muttering about “a bunch of illiterates.” Then, every title I pulled off the meager display of mass market paperbacks, Roz grabbed from me and put back. “You’re only picking books you like.”

“So?”

“So, Patricia Cornwell is not an appropriate first big gift for your girlfriend.”

“But I need to know what happens to Lucy!”

Roz threw up her hands in disgust and abandoned me. I found her by the escalator sitting in a massage chair.

“It works better if you put money in it,” I said.

“I would, but then I’d feel like I’m in a sleazy Vegas motel.”

Just as I sat in the one next to her, she stood up. “C’mon. Time to get serious.” I groaned.

The next shop we came to was Victoria’s Secret. Roz’s eyes lit up. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

She headed straight in, but I couldn’t make it past the doorway, as though a force field kept me out. She turned when she realized I hadn’t followed. I shook my head. “I can’t go in there.”

She gave me a hopeless look as I retreated to a grouping of faux leather couches across from the door, joining elderly men who were either waiting while their wives shopped or ogling Victoria’s patrons, who, to be frank, didn’t look anything like the scantily clad, stick-thin models on the bigger-than-life posters in the windows. Thankfully, Abby didn’t look like those models either, and I suppose lingerie is an entirely appropriate gift, but still, I find that whole “edible underwear” thing kind of gross. Not that we’re prudes…

My thoughts were interrupted by Roz, emerging from the store. She wouldn’t look at me but headed to the next shop.

“Well?” I asked, jogging to catch up.

“Well, what?”

I noticed she carried a small bag. “What’s in the bag? Did you buy something for me to give Abby?”

Roz stopped. “No. If you want to give Abby something from that store, you go in there and get it yourself.” She resumed walking.

“What did you get? Something for Zoey?” I asked, reaching for the bag to get a peek.

She whipped it away from me. “Never you mind.”

Laughing, I followed her into Pottery Barn and immediately stopped to admire a desk of dark, polished wood. It reminded me of the day I met Abby. Just last August. A hot day, as I recalled. I’d only talked to my new customer on the phone and had stopped by to walk the property and gather some ideas before meeting with the couple that Saturday. I didn’t think anyone was home until a pert young thing poked her head out the door and asked for my help. She needed a desk moved. It was heavy, but she didn’t just stand there and watch me, she helped.

“It’s antique, be careful,” she said after I’d pinched my hand between it and the wall. Better to bust a hand than dent an antique, I mused. Her diva tone kind of pissed me off. After we’d moved the behemoth, she noticed my hand was swelling. It was while she was looking for ice in the freezer that I realized she didn’t live there. If she did, she’d have known there wasn’t any.

“You robbing the place?” I asked.

She laughed. Pure and crystalline. It pierced me with glory and left me stunned. She ran a hand through her thick, brown curls. That’s when I noticed how sexy she was. Her T-shirt was short enough and her slacks slung low enough that when she raised her arm, a hint of midriff peeked out. Normally I hate that look, but on her it transformed my own midsection to jelly.

“No,” she said, “I’m a decorator. Among other things.” She held out her hand. “Abigail.”

I would have taken it but for the fact that my right hand held a bag of frozen organic wild blueberries against my swollen left hand. She laughed again, this time shy and self-conscious. “Sorry about that. The desk, I mean. I made it sound like your hand was expendable.” She looked me up and down, her gaze settling on my left breast, or maybe on the embroidery there. “You’re a landscaper. You need your hands.” She glanced down at my hands then up, meeting my eyes. “They are nice hands.” My heart melted along with the berries.

“I’m Rebecca,” I managed to croak.

Dazed by the memory, I made my way to the back of the store where I was drawn to a four-poster bed. “We have that comforter,” I said, to no one in particular. Was it just last night that we made love under that comforter? I sighed. “I miss her.”

“She’s at home, waiting for you.” Roz snapped her fingers in front of my face, like I’d gone comatose. “It is the sex. That’s why you two are together.” The glee in her voice was notable.

Maybe, I thought. Until Abby introduced me to Bag Balm, I was afraid to touch her with my rough, calloused hands. “Tongues are soft,” she’d said. She was right.

“She’s not at home,” I whined. “She’s working in her shop. I’ll be lucky if I see her before Christmas morning.”

Roz wasn’t paying any attention to me. “Wow, she’s got money!”

I came to. Roz was holding up the price tag. “No. Some client gave it to her when she decided she didn’t like it. Couldn’t return it because her kid had thrown up on it.”

“Eww.”

“It washed out.”

Roz looked at me and her shoulders slumped. Anticipating what would come next, I raised my hands in defeat. “Don’t ask it, because I can’t answer you.” I felt more tired than if I’d planted a dozen trees. “Can we go home now?”

Eight days later, or maybe it only seemed that long, we emerged from the mall, released, like prisoners on parole. The sky had cleared and we squinted into the bright, low solstice sun. If it wouldn’t have looked so damn Pope-like, I’d have knelt and kissed the pavement.

We searched in vain for Roz’s car, discovered we’d come out the wrong doorway, and walked around the building. I refused to go back inside and cut through.

Roz opened her trunk and I tossed in my packages. “You realize you bought more stuff for yourself than for her,” she said, with more than a hint of disgust.

“They’re all things she’d never think of. That I needed anyway.”

Roz heaved a sigh and unlocked the car. My feet throbbed, grateful for me to sit, finally.

Each evening, while Abby went through paperwork from her store or called clients or worked on her blog, I would retreat to the corner of the basement she had cleared for my workshop. I’d put on some Enya—Abby says it sparks creativity—and whittle. I’m always bringing home interesting branches or scraps leftover from my job. Working with wood relaxes me. It’s mindless but natural, the wood pure and organic in my hands. No power tools, just a sharp knife, some awls and chisels, and a variety of sandpaper grits. The hours melt away.

I was down there Christmas Eve. Through the ceiling, I could hear Abby humming along with carols. Desperate and despondent, I opened the box with my stash from the mall. It was time to make that final decision. What among these boxes and wrappings and price tags adequately signified the material representation of our relationship? Necklace, picture frame, books, nail clippers…Huh? “Oh, right.” I ripped open the package and slipped them into my pocket. None of these was good enough. Roz’s question echoed, why are you two together? Abby was the most important person in my life and this is all I have to show for it? To show her how I feel? I just wanted to cry.

Christmas morning I held my breath as I handed Abby her present. I had to start breathing again, however, or I would have suffocated by the time she painstakingly peeled back the tape to so as not to damage the paper. I rolled my eyes. “We can reuse this,” she explained, flattening and folding it, and carefully setting it aside before opening the box. She parted the tissue paper and peered inside. This time my heart stopped.

“Oh, Becca! It’s beautiful.” She held up the delicate hummingbird ornament, wings spread as though frozen in flight. “Where did you ever find this?”

My face flushed. In the light of day, it didn’t look so great. The head wasn’t right, and the bill was too short, though the speckled bird’s eye maple pattern shined through the light oil polish. I liked the natural look, but it simply wasn’t nice enough for a First Big Gift. Mortified, I let out a defeated breath. “I didn’t buy it, Ab.”

She looked at me, brow furrowed, questioning.

“I made it.”

Her eyes widened, and she looked back at the bird then at me, tears welling. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “I love it!” She cradled it as though it was the live, fragile bird, turning it carefully, examining every detail. “It’s you!

My scalp tingled and I grinned with relief. That’s why we’re together.


If you’d like to see more, check out A Perfect Life and Other Stories. All ebooks are 20% off at my publisher, Bedazzled Ink. As of 12/27–won’t last forever!

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