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What She Really Wants
© 2004 by Barbara Delinsky
On that bright May morning, with the lilacs budding and the kids off to school, Tom Markham approached his wife with the best of intentions. She was in the kitchen, cleaning up after breakfast. Barefooted, with her dark hair in a ponytail that bounced as she moved, she might have been their fifteen-year-old daughter, except for the bathrobe she wore. No matter that the robe was pure silk and had cost a fortune, their daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but fleece. Silk robes were Mom-wear, she insisted – and Tom agreed. He thought the way the silk draped Sarah’s breasts was sexy as hell. He wasn’t ready to see his daughters in anything of the kind.
He had given Sarah this robe three birthdays ago. It was one of the few gifts he had given her that she actually used.
He was thinking about that, barely on the kitchen threshold, when he realized she had the telephone propped between shoulder and ear. What with that and the water running into the sink, she hadn’t heard him approach.
“Eighteen years,” she was saying into the phone. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
Tom stayed perfectly still. She was referring to their anniversary, coming at the end of the month, but if she meant that she was surprised they had lasted, he didn’t agree. He wasn’t surprised at all. They had a good life – good house, good neighbors, good kids. And they got along with each other, which was more than he could say for some of the couples they knew, certainly more than he could say for some of the clients he served.
“I have no idea,” she said and turned off the water. “But he’ll ask. He always asks.” Lifting a cloth, she wiped the frying pan.
That was the point where he should have gone forward. Properly suited and tied, he was ready for work. His briefcase was there on the floor, waiting to be picked up on his way out the door. He was a lawyer whose specialty was estate planning, and he had a big-time client due in at nine.
But he didn’t advance. All he did was to prop a hand up on the doorjamb.
Oblivious to his presence, with her back to him still, she opened the cabinet, put away the pan, and returned to the sink. “I know, Mom,” she said in a lower voice now, “and I am grateful. You’re right. He’s given me beautiful jewelry.” The water went on, then off again sharply in the next breath. “I don’t wear it because it isn’t me.” She paused. “Yes, I know, I asked for diamond earrings, but I wanted ones to wear everyday, not big things that are only for dress.” Another pause. “Yes, they were very expensive, but expensive doesn’t make them right. I buy costume jewelry that I love, and I wear it all the time, because it’s tasteful and it is me, and you’d think that after eighteen years – twenty-one years, if you count the three we were together before we got married – he would have an idea of the kind of thing I like. But he doesn’t. Doesn’t have a clue.”
She turned the water on again, rinsed a dish, put it in the dishwasher. “I know you didn’t have jewelry.” She listened. “Yes, Mother, other woman would love what I have, but that’s not the point. The point is that a gift lacks something if I have to dictate exactly what to buy, but if I don’t do that, I don’t get what I want.” She rinsed another plate. “The point is that either he simply doesn’t know me, or he doesn’t want to have to think – doesn’t want to have to look at me and see who I really am and what I really want and then surprise me with an appropriate something.” She put the dish in the dishwasher and straightened. “Yes. That’s what I want. I want him to give me the perfect gift without my having to tell him what it is. I want to be surprised.”
Tom hadn’t moved, but she suddenly looked back and saw him.
“Ooops,” she murmured, “gotta run, Mom. Catch you later.” Pushing a button to end the call, she pressed the phone to her middle. It wasn’t often that she was caught with her hand in the cookie jar, and he saw a split-second’s remorse. Then she paused, frowned, drew herself up, and he realized that she didn’t plan to apologize. Quietly, she said, “I want to be surprised.”
Tom was bewildered. “I thought you liked those gifts. You always said you did. What was that about, if you didn’t really like them?”
She thought for a minute, then sighed. “It was about gratitude that you bought them, and gratitude that we’re able to afford them. And I did like them, for those reasons,” she said, though he could tell she wasn’t ceding her point. “But if you want to know what I want for my anniversary this year, it’s to be surprised.”
“How can I surprise you, if I don’t know what you want?” he asked.
“Did you hear what I told my mother?”
“That you want to be surprised.”
“That I want you to think and to look at me and to see who I really am and what I really want. If you do that, you’ll come up with ideas.”
Tom was dismayed. “I have to do those things at work.”
“Yes. You juggle the needs of your clients’ families. You’re very good at that.”
“But I don’t want to have to do it at home.”
She folded her arms on her chest. “That tells me something.”
“Come on, Sarah. You know what I mean.”
“What I hear,” she said, “is that you don’t want to have to make the effort at home that you do at work. But why not, Tom? I don’t ask you to do it all the time. For the most part, this house and this family are very easy for you. We don’t make many demands –”
“Hold on,” he interrupted. “Who do you think I make that effort for? I work to provide for you and the kids.”
“I work, too.”
“But part-time,” he argued, “and you need to do that,” he added before she could, “because someone needs to be around here to buy the food and see to the house and the kids.” He patted the air. “I know that, Sarah. I’m the first one to say that your role is as important as mine, it’s just that the demands are different.” He put a hand on the back of his neck. “How did we get off on this? I don’t want to be arguing. I have a meeting at nine.”
She smiled. “Yes. You have a meeting at nine.”
He knew the meaning of that smile. It said that he had just made her point about where his priorities lay. Or maybe his guilty conscience was telling him that. But he did have to leave.
≈ ≈ ≈
His meeting went well, as did a subsequent one. Come lunchtime, though, he sat in a sandwich shop with another lawyer, a long-time friend, and said, “How many years have you and Marnie been married?”
“It was twelve last August.”
“What’d you give her for her anniversary?”
“She wanted a weekend at the spa.”
“Did you go with her?”
“Me?” He smirked. “Do I look like a spa person?”
No, Jack Ramsey didn’t look like a spa person. He lifted weights. Tom couldn’t imagine him in an aerobics class, much less wrapped in seaweed.
“So, how did you know she wanted a spa weekend?”
“She told me. She always tells me.”
“And that doesn’t upset her?”
“Sure, it does,” Jack admitted. “We used to argue about it. She wants me to read her mind. So I tried. She didn’t like the results. End of experiment.”
≈ ≈ ≈
Tom wished he could be as cavalier as Jack. He wished he could just go out and buy something, anything, that he thought Sarah would like to prove the point that she was being unreasonable. But he felt like he had already done that and had struck out.
How to know her mind? He needed help.
So he asked the girls that evening, dropping by each of their rooms on the premise of seeing how their homework was coming. Kate, their high school sophomore, was delighted to be taken into his confidence.
“Hmmmm, an anniversary gift for mom.” She mulled over the possibilities, chewing on the tip of her pen as she sat on the bed with her back to the headboard and her history book on her thighs. Her eyes lit. “A fur jacket.”
Tom was horrified. “She’d kill me. She’s such an animal person.”
“Faux fur, Dad. You can’t tell the difference. Some of the stuff out there is fabulous.”
“But we’re getting into summer.”
“For fall, Dad. The most expensive stuff is on sale right now. She’d love a fur jacket.”
“She would, or you would?” Tom asked and was rewarded for his insight by his daughter’s sheepish grin.
Danielle, their eighth-grader, had another idea. “Apple TV.”
“We already have Apple TV.”
“In the den downstairs. But what about the sitting room upstairs? That’s where Mom watches TV.”
“When does she watch TV there?”
“When she … watches TV,” Danielle replied, satisfied with the logic of that.
Tom was not. “Seems to me,” he said, “that she’s at her drawing board evenings more than she’s watching TV, and that you’re the one who uses the sitting room for TV. So who wants the Apple TV there?”
It was Danielle’s turn to grin sheepishly.
Leaving her room, Tom climbed up to the attic studio. Sarah was a graphic designer. She had worked full-time before they had kids and had tried to go back afterward, but had found the constant pull and tug between office and home too draining. So she turned to free-lancing, which meant that she could work at the house and arrange her schedule around the needs of the girls. Tom had been fully in support of her decision and had built this studio to accommodate her.
Now that had been a good gift. It was one of the best he had given her. He had no doubt but that she would agree.
Watching from the door while she worked with her head bent over the drafting table, he tried not to think about the jewelry that sat unworn in her case. He had spent a lot of money on it. Against his better judgment, he grew annoyed.
When she looked up, he said, “If you didn’t like that jewelry, why did you keep it? You knew how expensive it was.”
She was a minute refocusing. Straightening, she swiveled her stool to face him. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, she looked to be his junior by ten years, not the single year younger she actually was.
“Part of me did love those gifts – does love them,” she finally said. “I said that this morning, and I meant it. There are times when we dress up and those pieces are perfect. Beside, I have daughters.”
Tom was appalled. “You’d let them wear those diamond studs – and risk losing one?”
“Not now. But they’re growing up. One day it’ll be appropriate. Besides, the jewelry’s insured.”
And that was that. Still, Tom was annoyed. He didn’t know whether it was her logic, her stubbornness, or the fact that she looked so young she made him feel old. Actually, he wasn’t only feeling old. He was feeling helpless. Clueless. Thick. He still had no idea what to get her for their anniversary.
“Maybe you need a new car,” he said, but she shook her head.
“I love my Outback. And it’s only two years old.”
“How about a weekend in New York?”
“A surprise,” she reminded him.
“A spa – you haven’t done that.” A spa had worked for Marnie Ramsey, hadn’t it?
Putting an elbow on the drafting table and her chin in her palm, she simply looked at him. She wasn’t angry. To the contrary. She had her lips pressed together; she was clearly trying not to smile – and he loved this about her, this good nature. Of course, that didn’t solve his current problem.
“You think this is funny?” he asked.
“Actually,” the corner of her mouth twitched, “I do. You’re making this into a major quest, and it isn’t even a big anniversary.”
“What’re you getting me?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Do you already have it?”
She nodded – which meant another mark against him. She made it worse by holding up two fingers and saying, “Them. It’s a two-parter.
He heard smugness. And she probably had a right. She had come up with a two-part idea well in advance, while he was later to start and couldn’t come up a single thing.
Turning and heading down the stairs, he called, “I’m asking your mother.”
“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Sarah called back. “She’ll suggest something she wants, and it’ll be useless and expensive.”
“Well then, who is supposed to know what you want?”
“You,” she cried, sounding exasperated.
≈ ≈ ≈
Sheer pride kept Tom from calling his mother-in-law – that, and the belief that Sarah was right. Her mother had grown more self-centered with age. She would suggest something she wanted herself.
But then, so had the girls.
So it wasn’t just him who had trouble thinking of what Sarah wanted. He took some comfort in that.
But it didn’t solve the problem. Where to find clues? He thought about calling her friends, but pride stopped him there, too. He ought to know more than her friends did. Oughtn’t he?
Imagination was needed, he decided. His work demanded it, albeit not as often as Sarah’s did. But he wasn’t a total robot. He could be imaginative when he tried. Trying now, he came up with a clever angle.
Catalogues. Sarah loved reading the ones that arrived in the mail. She saw it as the highest form of relaxation, but he knew for a fact that the attraction went beyond that. Increasingly, she was purchasing things online after seeing them in those catalogues.
So he went about the house browsing through all that he found, and it was quite a collection. Over the next few days, he looked for dog-eared corners in more catalogues than he imagined the mailman cared to carry. There were clothing ones, like Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom – and yes, there were a few turned-down corners, but he didn’t want to buy her a scarf, or a t-shirt, or a pair of flip-flops for their anniversary.
There were home catalogues, such as Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Williams-Sonoma. In the latter he spotted a burgundy breadmaker that would go with their kitchen. But Sarah was cooking more simply as the girls grew into their teens and were watching their weight. Actually, she was cooking more simply as he grew into his forties and had to watch his weight.
Forget a breadmaker.
There were sporty catalogues that the kids liked – J.Crew, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, and Land’s End. But he wasn’t buying something for the kids.
There were ones with garden supplies and ones with health supplies, but neither offered anything remotely appropriate.
There was one with animal supplies, though they didn’t own a pet. Tom wasn’t sure how it had started to come, but Sarah loved the pet pictures inside. More than once she had shown him a particularly adorable one. Wasn’t she outside now, even as he looked through this catalogue on a Sunday afternoon, on the screened porch next door, playing with the litter of kittens that their neighbor’s cat had just had? The girls were with her. They were all laughing.
Personally, Tom wasn’t going near that litter. He was allergic to cats.
He took advantage of their being there, though, to do more searching. There were catalogues for food – meats, pre-cooked hors d’oeuvres, desserts, and fruits. There was a computer catalogue, a regular arrival following her purchase of a new computer the year before. And there were travel catalogues. He looked through the last with particular interest, searching for sign of a trip that had caught her eye.
≈ ≈ ≈
So he approached Alex Trenaway. Twice-divorced, good-looking and immaculately groomed, Alex was the office romeo. He was several years older than Tom. But he dated women quite a few years younger. Still, Tom figured he might have a suggestion or two. He certainly knew how to please a woman, to judge from the doe eyes that followed his every move.
Tom spent a long time debating how to approach Alex, because there was pride involved here, too. But Alex was good at this. Women were his specialty.
So he began by talking about cars. Alex had a new BMW. Tom asked whether he liked it, how big the engine was, what kind of mileage he got, how it drove. When the answers came back in the superlative, he said, “I was toying with getting one for Sarah. Our anniversary is coming up. I’m just not sure she’d like it.”
“Sapphires. Get her those. Sapphires are hot.”
“I did that for her last birthday.”
“Then get her a closet planner. Women are always needing more space for their clothes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had nowhere to hang a single damn suit because a woman’s closet was so stuffed. Hire a closet planner. She’ll think you’re brilliant.”
“She hired one herself a few years back. I need something she hasn’t thought of herself.”
“How about a cook?”
“Huh. That’s a thought.”
“Either a cook, or one of those services that deliver home-cooked food hot to your kitchen however many times a week. My women have loved that gift. Here.” He flipped through his Rolodex and pulled out a card.
Tom took it. But he never made the call. Just because Sarah had simplified their eating didn’t mean she had a problem with cooking. He had a funny feeling that if he hired a cook or a cook-service, he would be the only one enjoying the food. His waistline didn’t need that.
≈ ≈ ≈
In hindsight, he should never have asked Alex. To do so implied that Sarah was like one of Alex’s women, which she wasn’t at all. Sarah was … Sarah. She wasn’t like any other woman Tom knew, which was another of the things he loved about her. She was unique. The question that followed was whether anyone would truly know what gift she wanted.
Sarah knew. No one else.
So he began watching her closely. He watched her read the newspaper, watched her watch television, watched her talk on the phone with a friend. He watched her sort through her mail and watched what she tossed out. He watched her when they were at Kate’s tennis match and when they were watching Danielle’s soccer game. He watched her watching people at the local restaurant.
And he did learn things about her that he didn’t know. For instance, he learned that she read Letters to the Editor every day and stewed over the narrow-mindedness of some of their authors, that she loved watching reruns of “Lassie” and had just made a contribution to the local Humane Society, that she wasn’t just any old soccer mom watching her child but actually understood the intricacies of the game, that she wasn’t shy about asking women where they had their hair done or where they had bought a particular handbag, when she admired one or the other. He actually went to one of the recommended stores, but then couldn’t remember exactly what the bag looked like that Sarah had admired – and anyway, he didn’t want to buy her the same bag as her friend. She wouldn’t want that. She was … Sarah.
While he was out shopping, he visited some of the boutiques he knew she liked, and he even found saleswomen in several who knew Sarah and were filled with recommendations for an anniversary gift. But he didn’t like what they showed him. He could tell himself a hundred times that this wasn’t about what he wanted, but about what Sarah wanted. Still, he couldn’t imagine her liking what they showed him.
≈ ≈ ≈
With five days to go before the date, he was no closer to finding what she wanted. Or so he thought, when he idly ambled across the yard one evening, following the sounds of humor and delight to the neighbor’s porch. The sun was slanting in low from the west, slipping between tree branches to gild the screen.
He didn’t go up the steps to open the door, didn’t want to be that close to cat fur. Besides, standing in the yard listening to the antics was pleasure enough. Sarah, Kate, and Danielle, were playing with the new kittens, talking gently to the babies, laughing and squealing as the little things scrambled, tumbled, and rolled.
Joni, the neighbor whose cat had given birth, came around the yard from the front of the house as he stood there. “Go on in,” she invited, hitching her chin toward the porch.
“Nah,” Tom replied. “I get …” he gestured toward his eyes, “… bad.”
“That’s a shame. They’re adorable. You could have taken a pair. I only have two left. The rest are promised.”
Tom smiled, shook his head, held up his hands. “We’d take a pair of most anything else, speaking of which,” he was suddenly inspired because, after all, Joni Siegal was one of Sarah’s closest friends and, pride notwithstanding, he was running out of time, “has Sarah, uh, dropped any hints to you about what she might like for our anniversary?”
Joni smiled. “Having trouble coming up with something, are you?”
“Ah. She told you.”
Joni nodded. Putting her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, she focused on the porch.
“So, has she mentioned anything?” he asked.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“It’s a maybe. Wait here.” Taking her eyes from the porch, she headed back around the house.
“Look, Dad,” called Danielle, holding up what appeared through the screen to be a black-and-white ball of fur. “Isn’t he precious?”
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?” Tom called back.
“Joni said so.” She rejoined her mother and sister with a shout of laughter as the baby escaped from her arms.
And still Tom waited. He looked around the yard in search of anniversary inspiration. A fountain? A wood bench? A bird feeder? Any of them were possibilities, though none stood out. Uninspired, he refocused on the shrubs.
After what seemed an interminably long time, Joni returned. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to make a call. What were you saying?”
“How about a rose bush? Think she’d like that?”
“Gee. I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not sure. But she does like to garden.”
“When she has time,” Tom murmured, correctly reading Joni’s qualm. “What about a horse?”
Joni stared at him then. “A horse. Where did that come from?”
“Does Sarah like to ride?”
“I don’t know. But she loves animals.”
“A horse is tons of work.”
Tom thought aloud. “Well, you have to stable it somewhere, but isn’t there someone who can do the work, so that the horse is just there for you to ride?”
“But Sarah wouldn’t do that to a horse,” he concluded. “She’d want to take care of it herself.”
“Uh-huh,” Joni said, looking again at the porch.
Tom looked, too, but the visual was unnecessary. The sounds of pleasure coming from the other side of the screen told him what was there.
“Hey, I gotta go inside,” Joni finally said. “Take it easy, Tom.”
He nodded, waved, looked again at the porch. The sun had sunk too low to hit it now, but there still seemed a kind of gilding.
And then it hit him. It was so obvious that he had to laugh.
Well, it wasn’t that obvious, thanks to one serious roadblock. But he had a thought on that.
≈ ≈ ≈
On the morning of the anniversary, Tom served Sarah breakfast in bed. He brewed the coffee, sliced a banana on her cereal, toasted an English muffin, and put a cup of jam and a flower on a tray.
“Is this my gift?” Sarah asked with a smile as she sat up in bed.
“Nope,” he said, but it was actually part of it. Setting the tray beside her, he was starting to worry, starting to feel guilty.
She distracted him by pulling her gift for him out from under the bed. It was two-tiered and beautifully wrapped, with an exquisite card she had made herself – she was an artist, after all. He read the message inside, felt a catch in his throat, and read it again. Then he gave her a hug and took up the gifts. The bigger held a pair of wireless headphones, the smaller a portable charger for his phone.
“Look on the back of my card,” Sarah coaxed, and there Tom found the schedule for live coverage of his beloved New England Patriots’ games. “And that’s only football. You can get every other sport. I know you prefer watching, but you can have this with you wherever, whenever. You already have apps on your phone, but you’re always running out of juice, hence the charger. The headphones are for me – or for anyone else, wherever we are, who’s rooting for a different team.”
Tom kissed her. He knew not to ask how she knew he would use them often. Sarah knew what he liked. She always had. “These,” he said truthfully, “are perfect. Thank you.”
She took her coffee from the tray. Sitting back against the pillows, she sipped from the cup. “Mmmm. You made it just right.” Her eyes twinkled. “So … didya think of something?”
He patted the pocket of his robe, but made no move to pull out the box.
“Having second thoughts?” she asked, reading the look on his face.
“It’s not as lavish as what you’ve given me.”
With a half-smile, she held out a hand and wiggled her fingers.
He took out the box. It was small and wrapped nowhere near as beautifully as hers had been. The card was store-bought. But he had written a message of his own inside. It said, In all of our years together, I’m not sure you’ve posed as much of a challenge to me as you did this time. But it was good. You need to tweak me more. It makes me look, really look at you and see what a remarkable person you are. Happy Anniversary, from a lucky guy who loves you very much.
He relaxed a little when he saw the tears in her eyes. Too often, caught up in the business of their everyday lives, he missed these small signs. Sarah was truly a soft-hearted and sentimental soul.
He had used so much tape to keep the ends of the paper together that she was a while removing the wrapping. She finally lost patience and just tore it off. She stared at the box underneath. Then she turned questioning eyes on him.
“Claritin? For me?”
He shook his head. “For me.” Leaving the bed, he went to the door, picked up the large picnic basket that the girls were holding, then closed the door, leaving them outside. Much as he had needed their help earlier, he didn’t want an audience now.
“Tom?” Sarah coaxed with a curious smile.
He gave her the basket. Opening one of the top flaps, she peeked inside. She gasped. She closed the lid. She looked at Tom.
His own eyes were wide. “They’re yours. Was this bad?”
“Bad?” With a cry, she put the basket down and threw her arms around his neck. “It’s … incredible! A dream! The best!” She drew back. “Are you serious?”
“They’re the last two of the litter.”
“But are you sure you can do this?”
His arms were around her waist. “The doctor said I could. This medicine is over-the-counter.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“I’ll move out.”
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll take the prescription route.”
She didn’t say a word, just stared at him.
“It didn’t cost much,” he said by way of apology.
“Didn’t have to,” she replied.
“Did I do good?”
“You did good.”
“Don’t you want to play with them?”
“First, you.” She gave him a kiss, but it wasn’t just any old kiss. It was the kind that said he was special, the kind that made him feel loved. Only then did he totally know.
Sensing that, she released his neck, opened the flap and let the kittens tumble out onto the sheets.