Realize that your ex-boyfriend is about to turn 40. Think about what it would be like to still be together, in a purely “Wow, I would be a 25-year-old dating someone who’s forty” kind of way. Briefly recall always feeling so protective of him, so much older but not in a condescending way, despite being 15 years younger. For a minute, get tangled in the complications of that dynamic but quickly move on. You stopped feeling the compulsion to untangle your collective neuroticism — get sidetracked by trying to come up with a word hybrid for “erotic” and “neurotic,” both because you love combining words and because it seems like the two sound alike and are alike and that can’t be a coincidence. Kick yourself that you didn’t stay in college long enough to immediately know the Latin roots or whatever that could explain how the two words are, in fact, connected. Think about how people never really kick themselves.
Get back to business. You have to select a gift to send to this aging ex-lover. How boring and impossible. Although he’s long since moved to another city, and you rarely speak, and even more rarely see each other, you are unbreakably connected. And not just in the usual “We loved once. Sigh.” way. It’s the kind of connection that can only come from years of deep emotional manipulation, great hope and good sex, punctuated by abortion, physical violence, restraining orders, several deaths, and eventually an understanding that it was all so silly and somehow so serious that you’ll never be able to fully escape each other, even if you never speak again. You live more inside each other as slightly altered versions of your real selves, and you each have a precarious relationship with the versions of each other that you carry around. It’s tenuous and tender. It has very little to do with the actual versions of your present selves, people who don’t know each other very well at all. But at least if you speak, you have someone else in your life who understands that. And so you’re not really friends, but you are war buddies, and he’s entering a new decade and that must mean something.
You think about the gifts you bought him in years past. You can only remember that ink drawing on the wood fiber scroll and how you drove over to his house late on a Wednesday after working on it all night, stuck it in his mailbox, hid in your car around the corner and called him, told him to look, watched him find it and then look for you under the street light. You remember that one, and the one where you bought him a suit for the funeral when his mother died and was buried on his birthday. You mostly remember the suit because you can’t forget; you mostly force yourself to remember the scroll thing because it was sweet and light and that beginning time was the best, like it always is. You were there the minute that birthdays changed forever for him. You will never be the person screaming “Happy birthday, old chap!” into the phone, or at the surprise party, because you know better.
So you think about this year’s gift. What kind of gift says, “You were born today! You are worth celebrating! Don’t be sad about your dead mother!” while simultaneously acknowledging that he is, undoubtedly, thinking about his dead mother. And thinking about what a crap mother she was, but how much he loved her anyway, even when she abandoned him. And thinking about how this set the tone for all of his future relationships with women, and all the Psych 101, totally transparent, easy-to-see-but-not-easy-to-fix problems and fixations. Definitely do not think about how you were the second mother to fail him in a heart-changing way by not wanting to be a mother. (Writer’s note: do not realize as you’re writing this that you are pregnant again, 5 years later, and that you will decide to keep it this time. Later, absolutely don’t think about the possible meaning behind the timing of writing this.)
Think about being alone, and turning 40, and everything he is proud of and everything he hates about his life. Feel stupid for thinking you know anything about his present life. Wonder if he will ever feel whole, healthy, happy. Wonder what kind of gift gives credence to these things, to make him know that at least one other person knows at least partially what he is feeling today, knows that a birthday will never be a simple and happy thing, yet knows that he is trying to be a simple and happy thing, and at least one person loves him enough to help that goal by being a simple and happy presence in his life? You laugh when you think about the notion that you could ever be a simple thing in his life. You remind yourself to readjust your goals back in the realm of reality. What gift does all that and is also kinda funny and not too expensive and not too fragile to send through the mail and maybe you can buy it at Target?
You try to remember things you experienced together. Smoking a joint and watching two episodes of Malcolm in the Middle at midnight, on weeknights, on network TV, in his attic bedroom, before sleeping. You think about ordering the DVD box set of all the seasons and sending that to him, but then you realize that perhaps that memory isn’t as clear and dear to him as it is to you, and in the absence of the that particular level of sentimental attachment, all you’re left with is a cold and impersonal gift of a show that you aren’t even sure he liked that much. You can’t be sure of the hierarchy of his memories anymore. It’s been a long time, and people’s brains evolve in fickle ways. For a minute, this thought makes you realize that you’ve drifted quite far apart and you pause to wonder why you’re sending a gift at all.
You realize that the DVD set might be perfect. Maybe the best thing you can be is the half-removed, hazy recollection of some monotonous, unobtrusively pleasant memory. Everything else, every other gift that could mean more is a filter through which you can become clearer and nearer, and in most ways, you think it would be more burden than gift to become that to him again. You want to send easy, nice birthday wishes, not a bulldozer of reminder. He was there. You were there. Absolutely anything you send is going to say, “I remember and I know you do too.” The message cannot be lost; the transmission could come across any wire. So you might as well pick a gift that is funny and light, and yeah, that mom from Malcolm in the Middle was also so goddamn weird and funny, right?