“So,” he said to me, “What do you think?”
“About what?” I replied.
He frowned. “About the book I lent you.”
“Lent” was a curious way of putting it. In actuality, he had insisted the last time we spoke that I needed to read the Wheel of Time series, based on something I’d said in passing. He was super into Robert Jordan and not shy about letting me know.
And then I showed up later and found the book in my room.
“Fencing Ben came by,” my roommate explained. That was our nickname for him. Fencing Ben. The first time I’d seen him, he was walking back to the dorm from somewhere — probably a fencing class — holding a foil.
I don’t know what possessed me to start talking to Fencing Ben. But I did. I was a great deal more impulsive and extroverted in those days. “Hey, aren’t you in my physics lecture?” I asked him, knowing full well he was not. Knowing I’d never seen him before in my life.
That was my favorite conversational starter back then. Mistaking a stranger for someone in one of my classes. I’d say it was pick-up art, but I made more friends than lovers using this strategy.
“No,” he said. “I’m not taking physics.”
He was a little awkward, so I thought that might be the end of it. But it wasn’t. He began to talk about his experiences taking physics in high school. What his favorite experiments had been. By the time we got back to the dorm, I’d invited him to eat dinner with me and whichever of my friends happened to drift by us in the dining commons.
Over pot roast, I found out he was from Connecticut and that his father ran a funeral parlor.
From that moment on, I didn’t have to ask Ben if he’d accompany me anywhere else. He seemed to find reasons to be where I was. Things for us to talk about.
And he kept leaving me books. Even when I had expressed no real interest in actually reading them when he brought it up in conversation.
And not only did he leave me the books, he’d also monitor my progress.
“So, what do you think? How far have you gotten?”
I felt like a creep the evening I went to his dorm room when I knew he’d be out and knocked on his door, handed his roommate the stack of books Ben had lent me, and left.
It was never the same after that. Ben and I would acknowledge each other when we’d pass, but neither of us went out of our way to hang out with the other.
When Gifts Have Strings Attached
I’ve always been nervous about receiving gifts. Especially when they come with expectations attached. When someone gives me a book and keeps checking up to see if I’ve read it.
Or when my mother will make an off-hand comment, “You never wear that sweater I got you,” and act sad until she either sees me wear it somewhere when we’re hanging out, or I send her a photo text of me wearing it (the more realistic option these days as I now live 2000 miles from where I grew up).
When she’d give me books, she’d visit my home later and scan my shelves looking for them. If she didn’t see her books, she’d inquire about their whereabouts.
Same with home furnishings or decorations she’d gift. If she didn’t see them prominently displayed, she’d ask why.
Always uncomfortable, especially when I’d sold or regifted the item in question.
Gifts were also the way my mother tested my father — and his love. If he bought her what she wanted — for her anniversary, her birthday, Christmas — he really loved and valued her. If he bought her something else, he didn’t. It also really didn’t seem to be about what was useful to her or what really suited her — but what was most expensive. What she could most easily show off to other people.
In my mother’s eyes, all gifts had strings — ones that wound in both directions. If you bought a suitable gift, it meant you truly loved the person you gave it to. And if they loved you back, they would use it prominently and let you know.
Anything less was a rejection. A lack of gratitude. Unacceptable.
Growing up, I learned to view holidays with dread — to see them as exam dates. Wasteful referenda on how much the members of our house did or didn’t love one another. I knew I’d be tested both by how I gave and how much I used whatever I’d been given.
I Still Have a Hard Time with Gift-Giving
Even now, I have a hard time with gift-giving. Ask anyone who knows me. I forget holidays and special occasions (my husband typically has to remind me of our anniversary). And I don’t expect anyone to do anything for my birthday or remember it.
It seems to be a conversation I’ve had over and over again. Explaining that I’m weird about gifts and holidays. That I love when people have thought of me, and I’ve been known to pick up something (especially as a surprise at a random time) for people that makes me think of them, but that I can’t stand strings being attached to a gift. Ever. And I have decades of old programming I’m working against, miles of emotional barriers making it impossible for me to ever really get excited about it.
For the most part, these conversations go really well. I’m still close to many gift-givers. But occasionally, it’ll go very badly. The initial reaction of most gift-oriented and/or holiday-focused people when they find out that I am not is to get defensive. To assume that my distaste for gifts and holidays means that I think badly of them or that they’re a lesser person or something for finding a lot of joy in those things.
Usually, however, if we can talk a little longer, they’ll see this is not the case. There has been the rare occasion, however, when no matter what I say, the other person will think I judge them and look down on them for being more into gifts and holidays. Or decide that their template of close friend is incompatible with a person who doesn’t prioritize those.
And you know, while that kind of decision hurts, it’s okay.
I think gift-giving — like love — is rather complex. That people can mean all different things when they give a gift. And that we take a lot for granted and far too often assume that another person means what we do when we give (or receive) a gift.