You think you know a person until you have to buy her a gift—then it feels like you don’t know her at all. I realized I didn’t know my roommate Amanda as well as I thought I did, even though we’d been living together for two years. Most of what I had was speculation: she was from some cul-de-sac/suburban utopia where all the houses sit evenly spaced from one another and look pretty much like the builders used a Xerox machine while constructing them. Her mom was the kind of parent who seemed to be heavily involved in the PTA and was the chaperone of every school dance. Amanda probably got her expectations on what romance should be like from watching Disney movies—where happily-ever-after is the end–all, be all. She also didn’t think Nala qualified to be a Disney princess because Nala is a lion and didn’t find it discriminatory.
What I knew for sure was that Amanda was a business major on the fast track to becoming an entrepreneur. She didn’t like my major (anthropology) and insisted I study something more worthwhile, like business. I also knew she preferred it when I gave her my half of the rent two days before the first of the month so she could write the check to the landlord the day before since she didn’t want him to think we were the kind of people who waited until the day of to pay rent. Judging by the countdown on the calendar, I also knew her birthday was in eight days.
As I entered the mall, a cool gust of air washed over me, and the aroma of soft pretzels, pizza, and stir-fry wafted past. Near the doors, an ambitious food stand employee chased the passerby with a tray of teriyaki chicken samples in tiny cups urging them to take one. A young boy by the A&W booth wiped his mouth with his sleeve as a girl dreamily watched from several tables away. Their voices and others composed the food court medley, joined by the faint sound of dogs barking in the pet store around the corner.
I circled the downtown mall feeling lost and hopeless and savoring the tangy aftertaste of teriyaki in my mouth. I didn’t know where to start and had nothing to go on other than a vague idea of who Amanda was and my dad’s gift-giving protocol. To him, gift-giving was sacred — he devoted his life to it. He believed gift cards were a cheap, lazy substitute and that people should have something to open up. My dad also claimed that giving the wrong present is among the worst things a person can do. It’s hard to forget a bad one, he’d say every time my mom reminded him of her waffle-iron anniversary present. He taught me that when giving a gift, you give something you’re excited about. That way, when the receiver sees your excitement, they’ll get excited too. The best present you can give a person is something you’d want to buy for yourself.
Last year I picked out a laser-engraved crystal cube of the Titanic. It depicted the ship sinking front-first into the arctic depths of the Atlantic with ice water streaming down the sides of the above-water stern as the ship began to break in half. If you looked close enough, you could spot a few of the third-classers leaping off the stern of the ship as the upper-class citizens sat in the lifeboats watching thick columns of smoke rise from the funnels. My favorite detail was the jagged iceberg floating serenely, almost unapologetically, away from the scene. The light-up base I bought with it shone an icy blue color that brought the tragic picture to life.
It was the coolest thing I ever bought, and I knew my roommate would love it.
She looked at it like it was a dead bird. I could tell by the way she raised her shaded eyebrows and drew her lips back to expose her teeth that she was trying too hard to smile.
Still, I asked, “Do you like it?”
Her face puckered like she just ate something sour.
“Oh. . .yeah. Thank you,” she answered mechanically and set the box aside. We went back to picking at her store-bought cake in silence.
I hadn’t seen the laser-engraved crystal cube of the Titanic since.
This year she took a more direct approach. She went through and circled (in red pen) clothes (and her sizes) and accessories she liked in her fashion catalog and stealthily inserted them into our mail/coupon pile. Other times she ripped out perfume inserts in magazines and had me sniff them to see what I thought. Or in mid-conversation she’d interrupt with things like, “I can’t believe I got this [item] in red. I wish I had it in a different color!” and “Oh no! My [insert object] just broke!” (then she’d slyly mention where it came from and how much it cost).
I started at a store with a hard to pronounce name and almost choked on the aroma of cologne and perfume, strong enough to peel the skin off my eyeballs. The cocktail of scents built a wall so thick that no sounds from my fellow shoppers outside could penetrate. The fluorescent bulbs overhead dumped buckets of light on the store, and I couldn’t find my own shadow on the white tiled floor or the bleached white walls. The whole place was sterile enough to make a hospital look dirty. Perfume bottles were lined up by color and height on glass counters with an even, probably measured space between them. More lights hung underneath the tables to highlight each one. A lot of them had weird titles like, “Urban Paradise,” “Endless Forever,” “Tiki Twilight Tango,” and other exotic-sounding strings of words slapped on a label.
The clerk’s heels popped like firecrackers as she approached me and her question, “Is there anything you’re looking for?” exploded next to my head.
“I’m, uh, just browsing.”
She winced and retreated behind her counter and tried to look busy.
I tip-toed over to a row of pink bottles. I opened the cap of a bottle called “Perpetual Sunshine” and sniffed the sprayer, trying to recall some of the samples Amanda showed me. It smelled familiar, like one of the inserts I remembered (either that or Pine-Sol). I checked the price tag: $130. I wiped my fingerprints off the delicate glass bottle with my shirt sleeve as I set it down and walked the tightrope out of the store under the clerk’s stink eye.
I caught my breath next to a pretzel stand and spotted a little shop called Treasured Memories wedged between a candle store and a hair salon. The best way I can describe the inside of this place is like being at a party you didn’t want to go to but were too polite to turn down the invitation.
The store smelled like soup, and the temperature was set a few degrees below boiling. I navigated the labyrinth of shelves and racks stuffed with plain Dollar Store-quality mugs, key chains, frames, T-shirts, tote bags. No price tags. My dad says if you can’t see what something costs upfront, odds are it’s going to be expensive. Posters taped to the shelf holding a rainbow of mugs advertised a semi-annual sale, but I couldn’t tell the price from the quantity from the date of the sale. Taking stock of the inventory felt like watching a movie trailer and not learning anything about the plot.
I stumbled out of the jungle of shelves to the back of the store to find the cashier behind the counter, organizing a key chain display. She wore an orange t-shirt with the store name screen printed on the front in thick gray letters. A man emerged from a back room and dropped a large box on the floor. He sliced it open in a quick motion with a box cutter stashed on his belt. He scooped armfuls of totes and threw them on an adjacent table. My eyes wandered to a contraption that looked like a giant clamp, and I finally understood the plot to the movie. The cashier rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Hank! We have enough totes. We need more T-shirts out here!” she snapped. Hank seemed like he knew better than to argue. He balled up the totes and shoved them back into the box and disappeared into the back room.
When she caught me backing away, she said, “Sorry about that…Welcome to Treasured Memories — where your memories are always with you! Anything I can help you with?”
“Oh, I’m just looking aro —”
“Well, we’re running a sale right now till the end of the month. Two for the price of one, six for four, or add three more for half off. Have any questions, my name’s Leslie, okay?”
I nodded and receded into the overgrowth of tote bags and sweatshirts. This is the kind of place my parents would like, I thought and ducked out of the store.
I decompressed in a massage chair for about fifteen minutes and dumped all my quarters into the twenty-five-cent machines for jawbreakers and rub-on tattoos. About half an hour earlier I had spent all the time allotted in my dad’s get-in-get-out policy, but in my defense, it was a lot harder to stick to that code when you had no idea what to look for. I’d use a needle in the haystack analogy here, but really, I was rolling around in hay.
I trailed behind two middle-aged women wearing tennis shoes and pumping their arms as they turned the bend. I pledged I’d never turn into a mall exerciser, but at this point I was one. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my sleeve and considered swapping my jeans for sweatpants and picking up a pair of Dr. Scholl’s sneakers. I was about ready to join them until the beat of a vaguely familiar song tapped me on the shoulder. I’d recognize the song once I got to the chorus, I knew it, but I had to get closer.
I followed the beat to a quirky store called Crash Couch, where the music pounded its well-known tune into the walls. I stepped into a time capsule of Wonder Balls, Rubik’s cubes, Action League Now! and Gumby figurines, “Back to the Future” T-shirts, Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape, and box sets of The Joy of Painting on DVD. I began to yearn for the time you could wear socks with sandals and not be harshly judged. I felt at home immediately.
In this treasure chest of trinkets and novelties, I dug up a true gem, a square metal lunch box depicting Darth Vader standing with his arm outstretched, using the Force to crush Admiral Motti’s throat. They depicted Motti in extraordinary detail: his lips and cheeks turning bluish-purple, eyes bulging out of their sockets, and fingers grasping for the nonexistent hand choking him. In a speech bubble, Vader says, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
I checked the price tag: $17.99 plus tax — it was such a steal. I needed to buy this. So, I did, along with six Wonder Balls, a black-and-white speckled Furby, a pink and purple striped Furby (so the other one wouldn’t get lonely), and a Halloween edition of “Where’s Waldo?”
By the time I left Crash Couch, I was tired, hungry, moderately over budget, and the mall was closing in half an hour. I had a bagful of things I was excited about — maybe a little too excited about to gift. Would Amanda like the lunch box or Furbies as much as I did? Maybe my dad’s idea only works sometimes, like with close friends or people who have a good taste in music. Maybe in this case, I needed to think the opposite thought. The perfect gift for her might be the one thing I’d never want to own.
I sought out some hipster place with a name so pretentious I don’t even want to utter it. The dimly lit store was packed, even though I was the only customer in the store. Shirts, shorts, and other clothes size medium and smaller piled the tables and the latest trends in jeans and shorts stuck to the walls like wallpaper. The speakers played some generic millennial track about how everyone’s hometown sucks, and the only solution is to pack up and leave town (with your boyfriend) without looking back. The whole time I thought to myself, this must be what hell is like. I turned to leave and collided with a mannequin standing where the door should have been.
And then I saw it. A scarf. It was like an epiphany.
I unwrapped it from around the mannequin’s plastic neck like I was looting a corpse and examined it. The scarf was a thin, gauzy material stitched in one loop, speckled with a red, purple, and orange polka dots over a lime green and yellow paisley pattern. I gagged and thought, no sensible person would buy this.
It was perfect.
Maureen Crowley is an artist, fiction writer, and co-founder of Long Shot Books LLC. She isn’t sure if she’s overthinking or under-thinking how to write her own bio.
Featured photo credit: Chris Ferry.