The Anti-Gift Guide
I am seven years old. I start editing my holiday long-list in November and hand it to my mother, who wrinkles her nose. “Okay,” she says. “Is this pink ‘Dear Diary’ just a pink diary? A new notebook, is that what you want?”
“NoOoO!” I shriek. I tell her all about Dear Diary, which is electronic and password-protected and I can use it for school and to remember people’s birthdays and it’s so important, Mom, it’s so important. I start hiccupping in my attempt to communicate this, the greatest of needs.
On Christmas morning, which is also my father’s birthday, I skip downstairs before the sun rises and tremble with excitement as boxes are passed, foil-printed gift wrap crumpled into unwieldy roses. Suddenly I’m pulling Dear Diary out of its plastic clamshell! I squeal loudly and spend the rest of the day typing in my secrets. Then I forget about Dear Diary. I never use it again.
I am eight. I’m in a Walgreens with my dad and his mother, waiting for someone’s prescription. My grandmother hands me a big wad of cash and tells me to run up to my dad. “Tell him it’s a gift,” she says.
I stare at the hundreds, then dart away. I wheel around at the school supply aisle, pulled into it as if by an offstage cane. I walk to the marker section and stand in front of the Holy Grail: the 128-count box of Crayola crayons, new metallic colors included. This is both a wild senseless luxury and also the pinnacle of my material desire. I am synesthetic and obsessed with writing words in the colors I see them. I vibrate with happiness. Tonight is the night that you could become a new kind of girl.
I pick up the box and run to my dad, hand him the crayons and the cash. “I thought maybe I could get this crayon box,” I say to him. He’s thumbing through the money, staggered. He ignores what I’ve said and goes to find my grandmother. I put the crayon box down next to the blood-pressure machine and figure that somehow I’ve gone too far.
A few weeks later, I vaguely arrive at the understanding that my grandmother’s gift was meant to cover months of unpaid tuition for me and my brother. In my Lisa Frank mind, a shadow begins to take shape: an understanding that adulthood is conducted on a scale without crayons, and that my parents are not unlimited, that things I can’t see yet are crumbling.
I’m 14, locked into an echoing fluorescent racquetball court with my after-school phalanx of cheerleaders, all of us in matching high ponytails and white shoes. It’s the day of the junior class ring ceremony, which I’ll participate in next year.
I stare at the glinting hands of C—, a Medusa-type-of-sexy brunette whose father has chosen to celebrate this occasion not with the pedestrian school-sponsored option but a $30,000 engagement ring instead. Five years later, I will see Damien Hirst’s diamond-crusted skull in a pitch-black gallery and flash back to this moment: 12 girls huddled around a brilliant, angry shine.
C— doesn’t want to take the ring off for practice. Our coach understands. I get myself into position as C— and another girl crouch on either side of me. I place my hands on their shoulders, feel the girl behind me grip my waist. I avoid my discomfort and jump, placing my feet in their hands, rocketing up seven feet into nothing. I teeter atop their palms. I go through the motions; our shrill chanting rises and expands in the room like a cloud. I brace myself for the cradle. They toss me up and catch me in the basket of their arms.
I feel the scratch as it happens, see the thin red river bloom against the top of my thigh. C—rushes off to clean up her ring and I want to tell her that I’m sorry.
I’m 21, a few days away from 22, in an unmapped Peace Corps village. I get up in the blue darkness and listen to the cow outside moan; my host mom is hung over, she must have slept in. I make my oatmeal. My toddler host brother waddles into the kitchen and takes a shit right into a bowl.
I wonder if he ate last night. I consider making him breakfast, then decide against it. If I do it today, I’ll have to do it tomorrow; it’s easier to be selfish than inconsistent. I walk to school as the sun rises, as the little boys in black fourth-hand suits play tag with their backpacks on, crunching frost on the soccer field. I enter the unheated concrete building and go to my class of eighth-grade girls, my first every morning. My chest clutches when I see my desk covered with handmade riches, each trinket and toy and purse and potholder sewn carefully from felt and embroidered with my name. Hearts are scattered across these precious little objects, miniature yurts, cards that say “I love you.”
I look at my students, smiling at me so sweetly, in uniforms that make them look like space-age cartoon maids. Just a few years away from marriage, they are so much more generous than I am. I can’t remake their world for them. I fail them every day.
I’m 23. I’m attached to a person who hates accumulating objects, and the sum of my short experience makes me lean the same way. But I am not as minimal by nature; I used to sleep with seven pillows in the bed. I decide, as they taught me in Texas, to start by faking it and trust that the feeling will come.
I start by keeping the Mother Jones article on Amazon’s packing warehouses as the default page on my browser; I try not to be too harsh on myself when I cave in to the ease of it and buy a dozen books anyway. I dwell on the statistics that flood me with the most disgust. I block inspiration board websites after I understand it makes no sense to hate-read your friends’ material aspirations. I learn that when I want to buy the pleated leather skirt, it comes out of the desire to be wearing nothing. I learn that when I want that hot pink lipstick, what I want is for someone to thumb their fingers across my mouth. I stop thinking of building my life and instead try to unmake it.
I’m 23, about to turn 24. When my boyfriend asks me what I want for my birthday, I look at holiday gift guides on the Internet. I feel tiny yearnings sparkle within me then extinguish themselves completely. In the absence of urges, I forget about the question for weeks. When he asks me for the last time, I say that I want nothing. I’m a little surprised to realize that I mean it. I can’t think of a single thing.
Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor.