The only gifts he ever gave were books; he was simple like that. I would agonize over finding him little trinkets that were romantic but relevant, meaningful but useful. He was no-nonsense.
The books he gave me—Wicked, for my September birthday, and The Phantom Tollbooth, for the one Christmas that we shared—were alike in that they seemed like perfect picks but really proved that he didn’t listen. I was a longtime lover of the Wizard of Oz who had never read Maguire’s revisionist version. But the one time we had discussed it, I stubbornly insisted I was too enamored with the original to read something more gritty and realistic. Nevertheless, weeks later, he presented the book to me, as if the conversation hadn’t happened and I’d never sworn to never read it. It was the same with Christmas. After I had tried, and mainly failed, to find a good gift for him (settling on a mix CD, a photo book, a calendar, and a scarf he’d never wear), it was time for his offering: a beloved childhood book. “Since you never got to read it,” he explained. But I know we’d talked about how yes, I think I did read it, though no I don’t remember it much.
Somehow, though, the joke was on me. I reread The Phantom Tollbooth immediately and fell in love with it, appreciating the cleverness that surely went over my head when I was younger. I even peppered school essays and college applications with quotes from the book. Wicked was a bit more challenging. During the school year, I lacked the time to attempt such a thick book, so I put it off, and lied by omission when he assumed I had read it. When we broke up, I shunned it, relegating it to the corner of my room with Valentine’s Day cards and other depressingly romantic objects. A year later, I dug it out and devoured it. I loved it, in a way I wouldn’t have without the months of change I’d experienced in the meantime.
He might not know it, but he got the last laugh. Now that the dust has cleared, I cherish those books and I’m that’s what out ill-fated romance left behind.
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