Christopher checked the drawer again. It was the first time in his life that he felt like he had gotten the exact right gift for a girlfriend. He had watched for clues for what Jessica would like for months. He asked her, of course, but she would always say she didn’t really know what she wanted, and that he didn’t have to get her anything, really, because she just wanted to spend time with him. Sure.
He watched her reactions to holiday sale commercials. He chatted up her friends. He checked her closet to see what color was most common in her wardrobe. He came over to pick her up early so he could watch her as she got ready.
Then he knew. He found the perfect teardrop-shaped aquamarine stone in a white gold dolphin setting, which the jeweler said would be well complemented by her surprisingly brown-toned clothing. It suited her perfectly, and he almost gave her the gift four times already, days before Christmas.
“Okay, so make sure they know you love football, and that you really appreciate college football a lot more than professional. Then they will know you appreciate the game and not just the popularity.” They were sitting on Jessica’s tan couch, and she was pulling a photo album onto her lap.
“No problem.” He stroked her blond waves back from her shoulder to hang over the back of the couch. “Any topics I should stay away from?” He leaned in to kiss her jaw and below her ear.
“Well I can think of a few actions you should maybe avoid,” Jessica giggled and playfully pushed him away. “Now, you’ve met all my immediate family, and a couple of cousins, but the rest will be new and,” she turned to look him in the eyes, “here is the tricky part. Almost every family member will be there, but they are coming in shifts because they can’t be in the same building as the others.”
Christopher gazed at her as she spoke. He was looking at all the freckles that she said embarrassed her when she was young but he thought they made her face interesting and girl-next-doorish. He murmured “mmhmm” and leaned in to kiss her.
Jessica smiled and pulled back. “Stop,” she said, trying not to giggle again. “We need to talk about this, really, because Christmas is a conversational minefield with my family, and the sensitive topics change by the hour.”
Chris relented and leaned back. “I know. I won’t. But Jess, I’ve met most of these people already at Thanksgiving.”
Jessica cackled. “You met the kindest family. Now you’re going to meet the most volatile.” She flipped back through pages. “I haven’t looked at some of these in years,” she said, marveling at some of the clothing and recounting a few choice dramatic family fights that led to the current Christmas-in-shifts arrangement.
Chris let his eyes drift down to the page. While Jessica was pointing to a page on the right half of the album, Chris’s eyes froze on a photo on the left. His stomach sank into the couch cushions. “What’s this one?”
“What? Oh,” Jessica’s singsong voice had flattened. She tried to close the album, but Chris kept his arm in the way. He could not take his eyes off the photo.
“What’s this?” he repeated.
“Christopher,” Jessica pleaded.
“What’s this?” He looked her straight in the eyes, finger unmoving from the photo.
“You know what it is.”
She climbed out from beneath the photo album to stand up. “We were together for four years. He came to Thanksgiving; he came to Christmas; he met my family, too. What’s the big deal?”
Chris gulped and blinked. “Yeah,” he said and swallowed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Jessica just raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t know. I didn’t expect him to be in your family photo album. Sorry.”
Jessica relaxed. “There was a time when I thought he would become part of the family.” She touched his arm. “You knew that, right?”
“Yeah.” Christopher regained his composure. “Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I did know that. Sorry,” he scratched the back of his neck and blew out a breath. “That was an overreaction.”
“Let’s forget about the holiday stuff and grab a drink?” He stood and held out his hand. She took it and they turned to leave the apartment.
“I was just in here last week. You remember me, right?” He thrusted the box across the glass counter so the saleswoman could see it better, as if to prove he wasn’t just some nutcase trying to run a holiday scam.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Adelaide Jewelers has a very specific return policy. No returns…”
“No exceptions, yeah, I got it.” Chris ran a hand down his face. Other impatient customers were looking at him. All men, he noticed.
“So if there’s nothing else,” the saleswoman continued, looking to the attention of another customer.
He moved back into her view. “What about exchanges?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but all sales are final,” she chirped.
“Might I ask, sir, what the problem is with the piece you purchased?”
“Would any version of this answer change your store policy?”
She cleared her throat. “Um, no, sir, most likely not.”
“Then no.” Chris clapped the jewelry box shut. He felt a little bad about being rude, but this is nonsense. No returns at all? And now he was definitely out of time on his lunch break.
Anything he could order online would not arrive in time. He’d have to go out tomorrow, on Christmas Eve. He hated doing that, and had specifically gotten all his shopping done so he would not be that guy. Could he pawn it? Sell it online? Swap it?
That was something. Maybe he could sell it or swap it with someone else who needed a romantic gift like the one he had. He looked around the store and found someone who looked nervous and desperate and not being helped. Chris headed over to the man, whose eyes were darting around the earrings selection.
“Hey,” Chris said quietly.
“No thank you,” the guy said.
“I can see you have no idea what you’re looking for. But I’ve got something. I’ve got something any woman would love.”
The man whipped his head up to look at Chris. “No thank you,” he snapped.
“Come on man. Nothing weird.” He glanced around and saw that all the clerks were busy. He followed the man to another display. “Look, I got this necklace I can’t give to my girl, and this place won’t let me return it. So how about you buy it from me so I can get something else.”
Chris calmed his features to not raise any more attention.
“How do I know you’re not trying to scam me?” the man demanded.
“Look, I have the receipt right here. You can see I bought it right here a few days ago. And you can see how much I paid. And look, now you won’t have to choose a gift, because I can see you have no clue what to get.” He opened the box to show the man, whose eyes opened wider, seeing the beautiful piece.
The man shifted, now looking more skeptical than scandalized. “But why do you–” the man started but was interrupted by a loud voice from behind Chris.
“Sir, it’s time to leave.” Chris turned to see the very large, muscular security guard addressing him.
The nervous man bolted. Chris opened his mouth to speak when the store owner joined them from behind the counter. “I can’t have you selling jewelry in my store unless you work here, sir. And you don’t seem to be particularly good at it, so I won’t be hiring you to do so.”
Chris opened his mouth again to plead his case about the return.
“Sir,” the security guard said.
Chris put up his hands. “Fine, fine, I’m leaving.”
Maybe he could swap it online. When he got back to his desk, Chris created a listing, and a few hours later he had a couple of offers on the necklace, all very far below the asking price. Some were requests to meet and see it in person and to be able to take the necklace for inspection - fat chance - and others were hundreds of miles away.
Between meetings he snuck into a different jewelry store. The clerk draped the necklace between his fingers, examining the stone through his loupe. He said he would not be able to resell it, but maybe he could buy it to melt down the setting and remake it after the holidays. He offered less than half of what Christopher had paid for it.
Chris closed his eyes and huffed out a breath. “What if we just swap out the stone for a different color, would that work? Maybe a pink stone?” The clerk shook his head. “A sapphire?” The clerk continued shaking his head. “A diamond?” Chris nearly shouted.
The clerk looked up at him over his glasses, bald head shining under the bright lights. “Sir, I cannot take apart another jeweler's work and resell it as my own. Especially not another jeweler in town.”
Chris was flabbergasted. “Another jeweler’s work? Are you kidding me? It’s because of another jeweler that I’m here. I just bought this and can’t give it to my girlfriend and now I have to find something else.”
“And why can’t you give it to her? It is a lovely necklace.”
Chris groaned again and turned in a circle, checking his watch. He was completely out of time.
“I can see you really care deeply for this girl,” the jeweler said, sensing a lost customer and moving to stand behind another display case. “Might I interest you in something from this collection? We might be able to work out a deal.”
Chris looked into the case. He saw blue velvet rows of glittering, sparkling diamond rings.
Chris looked flatly at the jeweler, put the necklace and box back in his pocket, and walked out of the store without another word.
By the time he got home, he was exhausted. More sketchy garbage responses to his online ad, no help from his friends, and the pawn shop was only going to give him $40 for the necklace. The chain alone was worth $210. Or that’s what he paid for it, at least.
He threw his things onto his bed and got into the shower to wash off the disappointment of the last 24 hours. He got dressed in sweats and headed into the kitchen to heat up dinner, when he saw Jessica’s caramel-colored jacket tossed over the back of a kitchen chair. She was sitting absolutely still at the table, untouched glass of red wine in front of her.
“Hey,” Chris said.
“Where did you get it.”
It wasn’t a question.
“What, babe? The wine?”
She turned her face up to look at him. He could see now that she was livid. And scared?
“I’ll ask you one more time. Where. Did. You get it.”
Chris sat down and sighed. He looked longingly in the fridge, where his leftover pizza was waiting for him. “I got it a week or so ago.” He was about to continue, but Jessica smacked the table.
“How dare you go through my things!” Jessica shouted. Chris was stunned. Jess had never yelled at him before. He didn’t even think he’d seen her actually get angry about anything. “You think you have the right to snoop around in my place? Why, because you met my family once?”
“What? No. I didn’t go through your things. I wouldn’t do that.” That wasn’t true. He had looked at her jewelry to see what other things she liked and he had looked through some drawers to check the inscrutable numbers and letters that denoted women’s clothing sizes.
“Then how do you have this?” She produced the necklace and held it up in a white-knuckled grip.
“I bought that, Jess,” Chris said.
“Oh please. You think I don’t recognize this? You think I’m an idiot? How could you, Christopher?”
“An idiot? No, of course not!” Chris stood as well.
“Oh, sure,” Jessica rolled her eyes and bolted out of her chair. “I don’t even know what to say to you right now. This is such a violation of my privacy. And that you’re lying to me about it? Unbelievable!”
“Whoa whoa, what? That is not what is going on here,” Chris walked around the table to get closer, to touch her, to pull her close and convince her that he was not a liar or a snoop and that he definitely did not think she was stupid.
She moved the other way around the table, keeping it between him. “Don’t come near me. I can’t believe you! You’re just like him. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. So nice, so thoughtful, but it’s really just a trap.”
“What? No! Not at all!” Chris could hardly think straight, but something was wrong, other than Jess’s fury. Something was nagging at him.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me again.Why do I keep letting myself get taken in by these toxic men!”
Chris was listening, but his mind was whirring. “Toxic? Are you serious? What have I done that’s toxic, Jessica? I love you. I have loved you since the moment we met.”
Jessica cackled. “Of course you have. You made some impression of me the moment we met. When you saw me. Then what? Nothing. You love how I look and how I laugh, but.. But…” Now she started to get upset, taking big choking inhales. “But you don’t really…” she started crying now. An ugly, red, scrunched-face cry.
“Whoa, hold on. Calm down.” Chris regretted it the moment it came out of his mouth. But he couldn’t backpedal. There was too much to unpack here. “First of all, yes, I love you, and you are beautiful.” Jessica cried more. “I said and, not because. Second of all, where did you get that necklace?”
Jessica choked back a few more sobs and walked over to the tissue box.
“Jess, did you go through my pockets?” She blew her nose. “Did you go snooping through my things?”
She sniffled some more and said nothing.
“Okay, that’s a yes.” Chris shifted his weight, realizing what was wrong. He pointed to the necklace and calmly explained, “Jessica, I bought you that necklace a week ago. I put a lot of thought into it and I was excited to give it to you.” He walked closer to her, but she didn’t look at him. “I couldn’t believe it when we were looking at old photos and I saw you wearing almost the exact same necklace in that picture with your ex. I went all over town trying to exchange it for something else today, but I didn’t have any luck. I guess I didn’t put it back in the box after the last place. That’s why it was in my pocket.”
He reached her and went to put his hands on her arms to get her to look at him, but his hands almost recoiled from touching her. “I assumed he had given it to you. But I wasn’t sure.”
Jessica nodded, still looking at the floor and sniffling.
“What I didn’t realize, honey,” Chris tilted his head down and waited for her to look at him. She looked miserable, but she met his eyes. “What I didn’t realize was that you kept it all this time.”
Her eyes filled again and her face scrunched again and she started to cry harder.
“You kept it.” He turned and leaned on the kitchen counter, pushing back and looking down. “You kept it.” He scoffed. “No, that’s not right. You didn’t just keep it.”
He stood and turned and looked square at her again, and she looked back, confused.
“I did look through your things. Because I wanted to find the right gift for you. I didn’t snoop. I wasn’t looking for secrets. I was looking for something you wouldn’t need to return.” He barked a laugh at that irony. “I looked in your jewelry box and in a drawer or two. And I didn’t see that necklace. But you didn’t just keep it. You hid it away somewhere.”
Jessica, understanding why Christopher was getting progressively more upset, started to protest. “Wait. Wait.”
“You treasured it.”
Jessica started taking short, quick breaths. “Wait, wait,” she kept repeating, her chest and shoulders rising and falling sharply with each breath. “Wait.”
Chris paused to listen.
“Wait. wait, no. I didn’t. I, I,” now she was reaching toward him. He took a step backward and shook his head.
“Chris, wait, please.”
“I am waiting. I would love an explanation. I would love to hear why I’m wrong, Jess. Honestly, I don’t think it would even take very much.”
Jessica continued to hyperventilate.
Chris watched her.
Jessica’s eyes darted around as she panicked, and it was her turn to lean on the counter.
Chris’s stomach growled. He straightened up, stepped behind her, and took his leftover pizza out of the fridge. He wanted to heat it up, but he really didn’t want to stay in the same room as her, his girlfriend, the love of his adult life.
“I won’t keep waiting, but hey, finder’s keepers on that necklace. Take it with you if you want. I can’t do a thing with it, and I bought it for you in the first place.” He turned and looked at her. “I thought it would compliment your eyes.” He flopped onto the couch, turned on the tv, and ate his pizza. After a few minutes, he heard her gather her coat and close the door behind her.
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