December 31, 2006

The last time I was honest about a gift I received, it was a mess. My boyfriend had spent a lot of time picking it out and said he knew it was something I'd love. Right then I knew I was in trouble. The difference between a gift that's a hit and a gift that bombs comes down to one thing: expectations. So as soon as he told me I'd love it, I prepared to be disappointed.

I've always believed it's the thought that counts. Unless it's from someone you're sleeping with. What they choose is really about how well they know you, where the relationship is going, and when it will end. So a fluffy magenta cardigan with burgundy velvet heart buttons doesn't say: I'm thinking of you. It says: not a good sign. Was he drunk when he saw it? Maybe it was intended for someone else. An ex-girlfriend, perhaps. Or his gran. What could ever have led him to believe I would wear magenta? Had he paid attention to me when I wasn't naked, he'd have noticed that I wear black. All black. No magenta, no fluff, or velvet. The cardigan was meant for someone with a name like Christie who draws a heart when dotting an "i".

"What do you think?" he asked as I held it up. But before I could answer, he added: "It was really expensive because it's one of a kind." There were just so many things wrong with that statement, I didn't know where to start. One of a kind means unreturnable. And telling me it was expensive? Who am I, Ivana Trump?

Gift-giving often reminds me that people in my life have no idea who I am. Last year, my friend Audrey gave me a halo that lit up. Which would have been great, if I was nine. And the other day I found a beautiful notebook my father had given me a few years ago for my birthday. Inside he had written: "The life of Ariel Leve 1998-2028". I flipped through it. Empty.

I've always had a problem giving gifts as well. The last time I went to a baby shower, I gave the mother-to-be Primo Levi's book If Not Now When? I forgot that at baby showers everyone sits around and watches as the gifts are opened. When a book about Jewish partisans fighting Nazis was unwrapped, everyone's face fell. But quickly an enormous box from Pottery Barn was shoved in front of her and the mood picked up again.

I'm terrible at giving gifts because I always get people what I'd want. If I could, I'd get everyone I cared about a free MRI scan. I'm also delinquent when it comes to gifts. It took me so long getting my friend Heather a wedding gift that by the time I sent it off, she was getting divorced.

Back to the cardigan. "You hate it," he said, "don't you?" I could lie and pretend the scowl on my face had nothing to do with the gift - I was depressed in general. He'd buy that. But instead I decided to take a chance. I told the truth. "Yes," I said. "I hate it."

What a mistake. Suddenly I was an ungrateful wretch. Honesty is never a good idea. I didn't intend to hurt his feelings. Why should that hurt his feelings anyway? It's not like I was saying he stank or was bad in bed.

I was saying that something he chose didn't work. You'd think he'd appreciate knowing this. I was saving him money. His response? "I'm never giving you a gift ever again."