I’m sitting at my parent’s kitchen table, circling my cursor over the purchase button on my laptop screen.
“For fuck sake,” says my father, “just buy the damn thing.”
I shake my head. “I’m not ready.”
“You’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes,” my mother says.
“Is sitting here such a problem?” I ask in my best Being-Home-for-Thanksgiving-brings-out-my-thirteen-year-old-self tone.
“Well, no.” She pauses. “It’s just that you keep making that keening sound.”
“I just don’t think I can do it.”
“Why the hell not?” My father pours coffee.
“If I buy it, it’ll mean I care.”
“You do care.” My mother looks at me over her reading glasses.
“Well, I don’t want you-know-who to know that!”
“Aren’t you dating you-know-who?” My mother sets down her iPhone, clearly resigned to the fact that Words with Friends will have to wait.
“For how long now?”
“Jesus Christ!” My father leaves the room.
“It is perfectly acceptable to buy the person you’re dating a Christmas present after five months,” my mother says.
“It would be fucked up if you didn’t!” My dad yells from the living room.
“You got engaged at two months,” I yell back.
“So?” I hear my father flipping channels.
“So I don’t trust your timetable!”
“He’s watching The Godfather again,” my mom says, then: “You do care about-”
“Don’t say the name!”
“You-know-who,” my mother finishes. “Why are you so afraid to show it?”
My first boyfriend and I had been dating two months when Christmas came along. I’d planned his gift—a copy of Edward Albee’s Seascape and a gum wrapper necklace—for 90 days, and watching him open it, I knew I’d scored. When he broke up with me the next day, I pointed out that maybe he should have pulled the plug before I gave him a Christmas present, not to mention a hand-job. He said he thought the hand-job was a nice final memory for us. And then I spent the next 15 years dating women. Whatever. I’m over the guy, but I still hate giving gifts. Although strangely, I’m fine with giving hand-jobs.
I’m not about to explain this to my parents. Not only do I try to keep hand-job references to a minimum with them, but I don’t believe past trauma excuses present dysfunction. Still, my pathological reluctance to drop money at my beloved JCrew when they’re offering a whopping thirty percent off an obviously perfect gift is probably not normal. (Nor, arguably, is letting one’s parents this far into one’s personal life, but one dysfunction per post please.)
So what is normal at five months? A Google search tells me a sweater. It also tries to change my question to “What’s normal to buy you’re (sic) girlfriend if she’s 13?” Which: a) seems appropriate for my current headspace, b) causes me to worry that the people asking this question are pedophiles, and c) makes me angry about grammar. But my problem isn’t what to buy.
“If I buy it, I’ll have to say I did,” I tell my mother.
“Did you know a ‘geoduck’ is a type of clam?” She asks. “It’s worth a lot of points.”
“It’s pronounced ‘gooey duck,’ I say.
“Why do you know that?”
“I have no idea.”
“The thing about you,” my mother says, “is you know things I wouldn’t expect, but you have no idea about things most people know.”
“Like Star Wars,” my dad shouts.
“Fuck Star Wars,” I shout back.”
“What’s wrong with saying you bought—whatever it is you’re buying?” My mother asks.
“I just don’t know how to have that conversation.”
“How about ‘hey-”
“Don’t say the name!”
“Hey, You-Know-Who, I bought you a Christmas present.”
“I can’t!” My head hits the table so hard my mother’s teacup rattles.
“Listen,” my father leans against the door frame, “you’re going to have to be vulnerable at some point.”
“Vito Corleone,” my father pounds his fist on the wall.
“I don’t know who that is.”
“For Christ sake.” My father leaves the room again.
“Why don’t you ask your friends on Facebook what they think is appropriate,” my mother says.
I post. I wait. I scroll through my profile and spot a picture of me and You-know-Who. We look startled. I remember the friend who took the photo telling us to move closer to one another. I remember I hesitated, afraid to seem too eager. I imagine handing over a Christmas present, one I’ve clearly taken time to pick out and purchase. One that requires me to have noted interests, personal aesthetics, and preferences. One that means I care.
On Facebook: “Nothing too expensive or commitment-y like diamonds in the first year. Maybe a treat like a ticket to a play or concert,” writes one of my friends.
“I will take the diamond. In the first week. I’m fine with that,” says another.
“If you actually like the person, something small and fitting their personality (just to show that you’ve been paying attention) is fine virtually right away. Who doesn’t like gifts?” writes a third.
“Why are you making that sound?” My mother sets her glasses on the table.
“Because I hit purchase.”
“You can’t hide the thunderbolt,” my dad says from the living room. “When it hits you, everybody can see it. Christ, man, don’t be ashamed.”
“Maybe if I don’t wrap it,” I say. “Like, oh I picked this up in the midst of several much more pressing errands and didn’t even bother to brush my hair because I’m effortlessly perfect, hope you like it, wish I’d had a moment to wrap the thing, but you know how it is.”
“Honey,” my mother says, “that’s really stupid.”
“You’re not the boss of me.” I fold my arms.
“Did I raise you to be this self-protective?” My mother watches me, obviously concerned. Then her phone chimes. “Darn it.” She glances at her screen. “I need dumber friends.”
I still have a picture of my first boyfriend and me somewhere. We’re in a diner’s dilapidated red booth. Behind us, Christmas lights set the icy window aglow. I remember thrilling at the sensation of his arm around me. I remember I wasn’t afraid.