J. and I were sitting in bed a little over a month ago. It was 11 o’clock at night, and I was growing antsy. We’d been sitting there staring at the laptop propped on my lap for nearly an hour, trying to think of something—anything—that J. wanted for a birthday gift. His birthday was in less than a week, and my mother needed a specific answer about, well, three weeks ago.
She’d been bugging me about the gift thing for months now. A gift certificate wouldn’t suffice, she said. Not personal enough. She wanted a gift that meant something, something that J. really wanted. The problem was, J. never really wants anything.
“What about this?” I offered desperately. We were on the J. Crew website, and I was showing him a wool coat.
“I have a coat. I don’t need another coat.”
I gritted my teeth. “Okay. What about a new pair of dress shoes? Sneakers?”
“No. I’ve got enough already. I really don’t need anything.”
We’d been through this twenty times. Tennis rackets, jeans, books, tennis bags, watches, wallets. I was running out of ideas, and patience.
“Oh my Lord. Pick. Something,” I said. “I don’t care if you want it. I don’t care if you have a million things just like it. In fact, I don’t even care if you like it.” I was nearly hissing at this point. “If we don’t give my mother an answer tomorrow, she will continue stalking us. And I can’t take it anymore.”
He recoiled and took the laptop. I rubbed my temples. Here’s the big difference between J. and me: I often want things I don’t need. J. does not. In fact, I could think of a million things at that very second that I wouldn’t mind getting presented to me in a big gift-wrapped box with a bow on it. I was currently visiting about five pairs of shoes, three coats, a handful of dresses, and a pleated leather skirt online at least once a day. Just to make sure, you know, they were still there. In case someone wanted to buy me a gift or something.
And then there was J., who had been searching for something he wanted for an hour. He tried to explain it to me, his view of purchases being almost entirely need-based. He’d rather get tickets to a great concert—some sort of experiential gift, he said—than a new pair of sneakers or an iPad or something else he didn’t need. It was about living simply, he said, looking at me pointedly. Like Chris McCandless from Into The Wild.
“Yes, and he died in the middle of Alaska on a broken-down bus from eating poisonous berries,” I said. Checkmate, me.
In the end, I suggested a record player. We’d just begun to collect old LPs, and we were waiting for our collection to grow a bit before springing for one. And in the end, that’s what he got. He likes it, and we sit listening to his Pearl Jam records and my Bob Dylan records and it feels, for a second, that we are living simply. Listening to music in the dark of our bedroom, not saying anything, pretending that we don’t have anywhere to be or anything to do except enjoy each other’s company.
I bought him a J. Crew shawl-collar cardigan. He didn’t need it, and it wasn’t something he’d ever have bought for himself. Clothes aren’t his thing. But recently we went to a party and he pulled it out of his closet. It looked nice on him, it fit him well, and it was just thick enough to keep him warm without being bulky. I saw him look at himself in the mirror before we left, and I could tell he thought he looked good. And he did.
“Hey, I really like this, babe. It looks good, doesn’t it?” he said on the way to the party.
“It does. And you don’t really have anything like it—you know, it’s not a coat, and it’s not a sweatshirt…” I said lightly. Explaining the value of a shawl-collar cardigan to someone who still owns sweatshirts from high school can be tough.
“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully. “And it looks a little bit dressier.”
He was getting it! I pushed a little bit further:
“You know, they have it in green, too…”
He looked at me. Too far. I’d pushed it too far. So I hastily retreated. “But, you know, that would be overkill. You really don’t need two shawl-collar cardigans.”
Still, I texted my mom later that night:
J. likes plain cardigans. In navy. Size large.
Anyone else out there have a guy who’s impossible to shop for? How to you come up with good, fun, meaningful gifts?