ESSAY Present Tense

Finding the right gift may mean giving yourself away.

The best gift I ever received from a man came on my nineteenth birthday. Artie told me he had nothing planned until the evening, when he’d try to scrape up enough money to take me out to dinner. Meanwhile, he had to run an errand for Dennis, his roommate, and would I come along? Dennis had given him an address to find on Market Street, and Artie wasn’t sure just where it was. I was not exactly busy, so I joined Artie in the trip across town. We parked his semi-devastated sports car in a public garage and ambled down Market Street, he checking the street numbers, I shuffling dejectedly through discarded trash, to which I felt akin.

“Is this 1192 Market Street?” he asked me. We stood in front of the Orpheum Theatre where Hair was playing. Live! Theater! Gimme a head with hair, long, beautiful hair! Why had Dennis sent us here?

“We have tickets,” Artie explained. The crushed paper cups in the gutter and I no longer had anything in common. “Happy birthday!” he said, hugging me.

I was speechless with pleasure (Hair was the cultural event of 1969) and then with despair. “My glasses are in your glove compartment,” I blurted. “I won’t be able to see anything!” Artie, a nineteen-year-old track star, ran eight blocks to the garage and back before “The Age of Aquarius” was in full swing. If he minded this last-minute dash, he never let me know it, and this is why the gift was so exquisite.

It’s been downhill ever since, which makes me sound uncomfortably like my friend Princess Phyllis, who. every September when her birthday rolls around, says. “If I have to tell Stan what I want, then it’s just not the same.” Stan gives her the “wrong thing” every year, but Phyllis never tells him what the “right thing” is.

“Is Stan supposed to intuit your secret desire and then make sure it’s flawlessly fulfilled?” 1 ask her. She never responds, so 1 know the answer is “yes.” I also know that Stan will never give her the right thing because it does not exist, at least not in the form of a wrappable gift. Princess Phyllis indulges in that royal habit of looking for ways to feel hurt, and she is never (or perhaps she is always, and blissfully) disappointed.

Since the days of Artie I’ve received gifts from men that were selected not only without intuition but also without a hint of the most rudimentary observation. To wit; a wool (to which I was emphatically allergic) sweater (which fit him perfectly). 1 held this huge, scratchy garment up to my body, struggling to fight off a Princess Phyllis attack. “Have you ever looked at my upper body?” I asked him. It seemed to me a viable question. “It is distinctly medium-sized.”

I then held the sweater up to his body. “Your size exactly,” I assessed, and it was. His face fell, not in chagrin, but in honest perplexity. He had no idea how he had selected such a gift. The ramifications (a narcissism so consuming that he only knew his own body type?) were too upsetting to contemplate, so I asked him only two things: “Does this remind you of seventh grade when you gave your mother a Beach Boys album?” and “Did you keep the sales slip?”

As long as a man keeps the sales slips. I feel I have no right to complain. Indeed. I forfeit any further right 1 have to complain, since I am. myself, an inadequate gift-giver. I have little imagination; I cannot envision what it is that men want, other than a good time and a modicum of peace. But what happiness from a department store? So I usual-ly buy a bottle of good Scotch (albeit not for sworn bourbon drinkers) or cook a zanier meal than usual and call it Birthday Dinner.

My close friend Alan recalls gifts from his ex-wife with fond nostalgia. “Remember what a great cook Corinne was?” he often asks me. To ease his pain, he refers to Cor- inne as if she were either dead or no longer cooking. She is neither.

“Who could forget?” I said. “The worst part of your separation was knowing I’d never be invited to her dinner parties.” Corinne is one of those fearless cooks who can make veal Prince Orloff, Vietnamese shrimp balls, and couscous in the same week.

“When I worked for the welfare department and she wasn’t working at ail, I came home every day for lunch,” Alan recalled. “I’d be starving. Some days she’d surprise me by opening the door naked, pulling off my clothes, and dragging me to bed. I’d forget all about lunch until I realized we were enveloped in a wonderfully heady nonsexual scent. Corinne would then open the night-stand drawer and bring out my hot lunch.”

The inherent politics of buying a man a gift never hit me more strongly than when I was twenty-five and Christmas shopping for the proverbial Rich And Older Man. He was twenty years my senior, and I wanted a present that would reflect my sophistication, as well as my ultimate indifference to his affection. “See how thoughtful this young woman is,” my gift was to shout, “and yet see how she probably spent no more than ten minutes selecting it! See how busy she is with other preoccupations!” This was a tall order and one I could not fill myself, so I consulted my friend Roberta, an intuitive, observant woman with classic taste. We spent three hours downtown agonizing in men’s clothing shops before settling on a cashmere scarf. This was a chilly December; he might even wear it. It was a small gift but one of high quality, and, better yet, he could wear it, as he did his wardrobe of turtleneck sweaters, to cover his increasingly crepey neck.

He liked it. He liked it so much he reciprocated then and there by opening a living room cabinet and extracting a tiny bottle of Joy perfume for me. It was one of many stacked there in reserve for such emergency occasions.

“At least sign the card,” I suggested, indicating the blank tag that dangled from the black bottle. I wanted a souvenir. He signed; we drank sherry. I decided I’d never agonize over a gift again, or at least not for the Older Man, for whom all I ever needed to be was twenty-five.

Gifts are dangerous because they embody the hidden expectations of the giver and reveal the expectations of the recipient. “It cost less than thirty dollars; you don’t love me enough” is a silent refrain. They say it’s the thought that counts, and for some that’s absolutely true. My friend Linda came into a hefty trust fund at age twenty-one, and, though the money was welcome, it never turned her into Princess Phyllis.

“I used to think the best thing about having money was being able to give my boyfriend expensive presents,” she said. “It was exhilarating to buy him something terrific and see how happy it made him. I don’t care what anyone says, material things can make you happy.”

“Of course they can. Do you still buy him expensive gifts?”

“No, I stopped when I realized two things. The first was that I always, no matter how hard I tried not to, managed to let him know what the gift cost. Sometimes I left the price tag on; other times I let him overhear it in a conversation with someone else. But I could see I was trying to get mileage out of it.”

“What was the second thing?”

Linda laughed. “Lack of reciprocity. He reasoned that I was rich enough to buy gifts for myself, so he never even bothered to give me a single rose for my birthday. But it was my own fault-I turned it into a competition that only I could win. Or lose, I should say.”

She gave up both her boyfriend and her extravagant gifts and eventually married a man who knew the value of a single rose as well as a pair of diamond earrings.

Robbie Anderson and I won the prize for Most Crossed Expectations in Gift Ex- ! change last Christmas. We had enjoyed a summer fling six months before and were briefly reunited for the holiday season. I think we both expected a relaunching of the Love Boat. It was apparent to me that the boat was sinking fast when I saw that Robbie hadn’t cleaned his apartment once in the decade he’d lived in it. Still, I liked him a lot and was practiced in pretending I didn’t notice intolerable things. Then we opened our presents.

Lacking Linda’s trust fund, I’d bought him the paperback edition of Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy, which is what I give to everybody who I think would prefer it to Scotch. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read; therefore, I want everyone I know to read it. He thanked me and promised to read it right away. I opened my package to find a purple teddy, I, a fan of terry-cloth bathrobes and nothing more complex, was dumbfounded. Was this a sex enhancement? Was there any sex to enhance? I didn’t know what should happen next: should Robbie give a public reading and I an extemporaneous floor show? He wanted me to try it on immediately. I shuffled tissue paper on top of it and declared I couldn’t find it. So there we were: a thwarted sex kitten and a man with a reading assignment. We were not only off the Love Boat, we were in different oceans.

My American Heritage Dictionary defines “gift” as “something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.” It sounds easy, apolitical. But, in reality, gift-giving is usually dictated by the calendar, which makes it like chronological blackmail. And no compensation? My cashmere scarf was meant to win approval; Robbie’s purple teddy (1 left it in his apartment; I pray he’s using it as a dust rag) begged for fulfillment of some sexual fantasy. We all should have saved our hard-earned pennies.

I don’t think Princess Phyllis is right when she says she shouldn’t have to tell Stan what she wants for her birthday. Of course she should tell him, Unfortunately, I don’t know how he can give her what I’m sure she craves: a nineteen-year-old track star racing back for her glasses so she won’t miss one visual detail of Hair. Poor hapless Stan. How can he hope to match a standard like that?

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