Yes, I tell him, and then some. As usual.
"Great," he says. "Glad to hear you're satisfied. But just so you know," he adds, "you can always return things if you need to. Says so right up there." He gestures at the banner spanning the front of the store, which guarantees my satisfaction or my money back.
I laugh. "Do I look like the sort of person who would return things?" Is it that obvious, I wonder?
"People are funny," he says, re-packing my bag. "I always mention it. Because you know ... it's like they think they have to be happy with what they've got. They're too polite."
"Not me," I assure him. "I never have a problem returning things." I lean in a bit, lowering my voice. "But maybe I'm just a particularly whiney bitch."
He blinks, and starts laughing at me. "No, I'm sure you're not," he says. "And I don't have a problem returning things, either." He finishes packing my bag. "You have a great day," he tells me.
"You too," I say. "I'll be back." I wave my bag at him. "But not with these things."
Maybe it was my father who taught me how to bring things back. He thought nothing of waving the waiter over, the kind of diner who would complain about the fly in his soup, the malas hierbas (weeds) on his plate, or who would use a snow blower once and return it to the store. When I discovered L.L. Bean's lifetime guarantee, and Calphalon's lifetime warranty, and other places that took things back, no questions asked, I thought that I'd found nirvana. Because in those places, you could always get your order right. Exactly as you wanted. Decisions made entirely by you. Complete control. The perfect fit.
And I've brought back my share of Christmas gifts on Boxing Day over the years, even not to those places, with the logic that if I wasn't going to use it, or if it didn't fit (which so many things didn't), I didn't want the item to go to waste. I'd donate the refund, or the item itself, thinking that maybe someone else could use it better. There were so many things I didn't need. It was so much easier to give than to receive.
Maybe, though, in retrospect, it was less about the giver and more about me. Maybe I should have been more willing to believe that other people's gifts were given out of love, and not obligation. Maybe the poor fit was my own narrow-mindedness. Or maybe fear that I could never be grateful enough. Returning something is easier than sitting with it, owning it, taking responsibility for it, or for the relationship it signifies.
I celebrated my birthday the other day. It was an unremarkable year, and I had low-key expectations for celebration, which was just fine by me. My husband had planned to take me to dinner (alone!), my kids made me cards and cupcakes from a box with frosting from a can for breakfast (funfetti!), and quite literally hundreds of friends and former students (who, love them, still call me "Dean") sent me good wishes, mostly on Facebook, but via email and snail mail, too. I was feeling loved.
We celebrate birthdays with cupcakes at work, too. And though we don't exchange Christmas gifts in the office, the birthday person gets a gift. My boss ribbed me gently about my handmade gift post, reminded me that I was lucky people remembered me at all. True, that. I tried to explain --but it got muddled somewhere between my brain and my mouth--that it wasn't so much about the handmade as the thought: that I'd rather get nothing than get a gift from someone who felt they had to give one, and gave any old thing just to dispense with the obligation. It's the same impulse that, over the years, has led me to return things.
As we passed around the cupcakes, I looked at the box on the table in front of me. Considering that awkward balance of obligation and generosity. Hoping they didn't feel that they had to give me anything at all, hoping that they knew that being valued was gift enough. Feeling like it would be easier not to get gifts at all. Less vulnerability that way.
Delicately, I removed the wrapping paper and opened the box.
How could they have known? But someone knew. A wooden bowl, a spiral-but-not-spiral of twisted layers, like an open corkscrew, almost like a basket, a dark exterior with a light interior. Something to hold something, or not to hold anything at all. A work of art that I'd admired in the university museum store, but would never have bought for myself.
I held it, breathed in the deep earthy smell of the wood stain, traced the curves with my fingers, allowed the bowl to rest in my cupped palms. The perfect fit.
And trying not to let them see my throat tighten, said the completely inadequate words--"thank you"--that we have for moments like this, and replaced the bowl carefully in its tissue paper nest in preparation for its journey home with me, marveling at just how incredibly gift-ed I am, in more ways than I can count.