“I noticed.” He straightened papers on his desk. “I hope you’ll give her the present you have in your left coat pocket before it’s ruined and you fail science. You’re okay and all, but I’m not interested in having you again next year.” Sitting at his desk, he opened the bottom left drawer, retrieving a brown paper grocery bag, from which he pulled two sandwiches, an apple, and a foil-wrapped can of Tab.
“I don’t—I mean—how did you know?”
“Be a fool not to. I’ve seen you start to give it to her every day since December first. The only mystery is how she doesn’t know. If she doesn’t.”
Not sure his legs would keep him upright, Evan flopped back in his chair. “You think she knows?”
“She’s a girl. Who knows what they know?”
“What if she won’t take it?”
“The sun will rise tomorrow.”
But at that moment, he knew he would never give her the gift. He was just too big a coward. His eyes burned and he wished he wasn’t a boy so he could cry, but he was so he couldn’t. That night, he took the present from his coat and tossed it under his bed to join its compatriot.
The next year, she was dating a new kid, so he didn’t have to bother buying a gift to not give her. He didn’t want to hate the guy as he walked around the halls with his fingers entwined in hers, long and slender. It wasn’t this guy’s fault. But he hated him anyway. He wanted to punch him in his smug little mouth.
High school was not much better, for him at least. Renee remained his friend throughout, though she dated other guys. He pined over her to his best friend regularly, complaining every time she started seeing a new guy.
“I know,” said his best friend Joey as they walked into theater class one day. “How can she do this to you, when she has no idea how you feel?”
“Let me talk to her.”
“I can’t do that.”
“That’s no better than giving her a note asking if she likes me, check yes or no.”
“Well, at least you’d know if you did that. You’ve been sulking over her since seventh grade.”
“What if she says no?”
“Like Mr. Beck always said, the sun will rise tomorrow. Life goes on. You find some other girl to whine to me about.”
But that was just it. Maybe life wouldn’t go on. As long as he never asked, she could never turn him down. And if she never turned him down, the chance was still there. His brain told him this made no sense at all, but his pathetic, romantic heart always won the argument.
The summer after his freshman year in college, he met a girl. She wasn’t Renee, but she was pretty and talented and, best of all, she was forward enough to ask him out. So they started dating. The Christmas of their senior year, he popped the question. It was kind of just a formality. They’d shopped for rings together. She didn’t trust him to pick out one she would like. She was probably right. The one she liked was nothing like he would have picked out for her. This made him wonder if he really knew her.
He was pretty sure he didn’t really love her, but they made sense. He liked her. They got along and liked a lot of the same things. Frankly, they’d been together in every sense of the word almost since their first date, so they were essentially married anyway. Why not make it legal? Especially since they’d had a few pregnancy scares.
So they married the summer after they graduated college and they moved to the next town, where she took a job in a bank and he went to graduate school. They stayed there after school when he was offered a lucrative job with a prominent advertising firm. She took a better position with another bank just a block away from his office. They commuted together every morning and every evening. It was comfortable. It was nice. It was boring, but where, outside of romance novels, is it said that marriage is supposed to be all fireworks? A firecracker or two would be nice, though.
They had their work, which paid well, so they had a nice big house in the suburbs with plenty of room for her to have a music studio. She’d dreamed of going to Nashville, but banking paid better. He also had an office, where, when he wasn’t working on an ad campaign, he wrote plays. No one ever saw them, but he must have written dozens.
And, after a few years, it just got easier to have separate rooms. He was a morning person and was always up hours before she was and it always irritated him when she came to bed and woke him up at night, so a room for each just made sense didn’t it? If they wanted to make love, one of them could go to the other’s room and then go back for sleeping. In theory, at least. It seemed neither was very interested anymore.
One day in his 42nd year, he stopped at the mailbox before going into the house after work. Among the bills and junk mail was a letter from his hometown. The name on the return address sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it. He opened it to find an invitation to his 25th class reunion. He hadn’t been to one since he graduated. His wife had gone to a different school and they didn’t live there anymore, so there seemed no need. He’d essentially left that life behind. Especially after his parents died, there just seemed no reason to go back home.
But something made him check the yes box on the response card. He wasn’t sure he would really go, but maybe he would. For reasons he couldn’t explain, even to himself, he kept the card a secret from his wife. The next morning he told her he was going to look for something in the car before they left for work. He wasn’t even sure she heard, but he took his keys out as if to get in the car in case she had. But instead, he walked to the end of the drive and put the card in the mailbox, lifting the flag so the mailman would know to pick it up.
Weeks passed. He couldn’t put the reunion out of his head. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t because of Renee, but down deep he knew the truth. Finally, he decided that, if for no other reason than that he could quit worrying himself over it, he would go. But how to go without having to take his wife? He didn’t want to lie to her. He didn’t love her, but she didn’t deserve dishonesty. He finally decided there was nothing for it but to tell her.
“I’m thinking of going to my 25th high school reunion,” he said one day over breakfast.
“Do I have to go?” she asked over the Wall Street News.
“No, I don’t suppose.”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Yes, it’s okay.”
So the problem was solved for him. Finally, the time for the reunion came. He was more excited than he thought was probably appropriate, so he did his best to keep it from her as he packed for the trip. He kissed her on the cheek and climbed in the car for the two-hour drive to his old hometown.
He’d made reservations in a nice historic hotel in downtown, one he’d never even been able to afford even to eat in while he lived there, let alone spend the weekend. It was as nice as he’d always imagined. He unpacked, showered, and got dressed for the first event of the reunion, a mixer and dance at a local country club. As he shaved and combed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror, he wondered if she would even be there. Was she married? Was she thinking about him? It dawned on him that this was a dramatic event only in his mind. She never loved him. She never even knew he loved her. To her, they were just pals. He almost talked himself out of going, but decided he’d come this far, so he just needed to see it through.
Does Evan see Renee at the reunion? Find out next week in the thrilling conclusion of "Gifts Ungiven."