The Birthday Present

December 9, 2009
This happens to me every year. My friend Karli invites me to her birthday party, and every year I don’t know what to get her. Not because I don’t know her well, that’s not the case. In fact, she’s been my best friend for the past three years, ever since we met at high school. I was the dorky kid who still had glasses, braces, and acne all over my face. Karli? She was the plain girl. She didn’t really belong to any group. She never did sports, she wasn’t into theater, and she was awful at art. In some respect, you could say she belonged to my group: the outcast.

High school is a vicious place, and even amongst a population of a mere 700 students, it’s possible to feel left out and like a nobody. While I was eating my bologna sandwich all alone at a round table, she walked up to me and timidly asked if she could sit down. Ever since then, we’ve been close. Even now, during our senior year, we’re only a duo. You’d think that after three years of high school, we’d have other friends there. That’s definitely not the case. I’m more of an introvert, and I’m really not that social. Karli, on the other hand, has a lot of friends from her youth group.

Anyway, she’s kind enough to invite me as her only guest from high school to her birthday parties. All the rest of the guests are from her church. I guess that should make me feel privileged. But the truth is, I don’t really feel too privileged about it; but I don’t feel under privileged, either. I just take it as it is.

So here I am, shopping alone at the mall. I don’t really mind it, it’s fine with me if I shop alone. That way there’s no one distracting me or pulling me away from the things I want to shop for. I’m sitting on the edge of the fountain they installed in the heart of the mall, right next to the food court. I have out a notebook and a pen, and I look like I’m thinking deeply or journaling about something important. I’m not. I’m just writing out ideas as to what I should get Karli, as well as figure out how much I could spend on her.

This past summer I wasn’t able to get a job, and it’s not because I didn’t try. I did. I applied at restaurants, stores, pet shops, ice cream shops. I even volunteered to work at the local library, just so I could fill my summer days doing something. Even there I was turned down. So as I sit on the edge of the fountain, I realize I’ve only collected $12 from babysitting my little brother one night while my parents went out to eat for their anniversary.

I think about maybe getting a her a cheap pair of earrings; but I then remember…she doesn’t have her ears pierced. She’s not really into necklaces, either. She’s not really a jewelry person. And when it comes to clothes, she’s pretty simple and ordinary. With only $12, I might have enough to purchase her a CD; but then again, her taste in music is a little…different. She doesn’t have a specific genre of music she really likes, so it’s hard to tell when she’s going to like a song on the radio or not.

I knew I should have gone shopping earlier; after all, I did get her invitation nearly a week ago. And now the party’s tomorrow and the mall will only be open for another hour. Leave it to me to get an essay done the night it’s assigned, but wait until the last minute to buy a gift for my best friend. I’ve been staring at my notebook for a while. Maybe it’s time to look around and see if anything I see sparks ideas. I see a lady eating in the food court. She’s sitting in the middle with her husband on her right and her son on her left. She looks kinda disgusting as she chews like a cow. Then I realize she’s staring at me. Feeling foolish, I quickly look away at other people eating in the food court. When I look back, I see that she’s still staring; but this time I realize she’s staring at the fountain. She’s been staring at it this whole time. Then she wipes her face with a napkin and digs through her purse. She pulls out a tube of lip-gloss and applies it.

That’s when I come to the conclusion that I could get Karli some make up. But no more than a second later, it hits me that Karli doesn’t really wear make up. Even for formals and special occasions, the most she puts on is mascara and blush. Well, scratch that idea.

I’m starting to sweat, and it’s bugging me. It’s not even that hot in here, because everyone else seems to be fine. But I find myself wiping my forehead constantly. Maybe I’m just paranoid about time. After all, the mall will be closing in less than an hour; and I still have no clue what I’m going to get Karli. I think I’m over-thinking this decision.

Karli is a plain girl, so I don’t need to get her anything elaborate. I just wish shopping for her was a little bit easier than it is. She’s a really good friend to me; and for that, she deserves a great gift. As I stand up and start walking away from the fountain, I see a new store in the mall with a bunch of random pottery inside. Then it occurs to me: Karli loves to drink coffee. I could get her a little mug. As this idea passes my through mind, I see a mug sitting on the shelf in front of me. It has earthy tones, the kind that Karli likes; and it’s a great size: not too big, not too small. I check the price: $9.99. How perfect is that?

I’m at the register as the tiny lady wraps the mug. She continues to tell me that all sales are final and there’s no way to get my money back if something happens to the mug or if I’m dissatisfied with the purchase. I tell her that’s completely fine; after all, she must be on her 7th layer of tissue. She carefully wraps a couple more layers around it and neatly places it into a box. I hand her the money. I am so grateful that I figured out what to get Karli. I check my phone: 10 minutes until the mall closes. As I walk to my car, I think about how excited Karli will be. I’m pretty sure she’s gonna love this mug. I just won’t tell her how much trouble I went through to get it for her.

I start the car, and I exit the parking lot. There’s not that much traffic on the road right now, but it’s not entirely dead, either. I pass a gas station as I drive home. The price of gas these days is ridiculous. A sigh escapes my mouth when I notice that the gas light is on. I wonder how long that’s been on. It’s too late: I’ve passed the gas station. And even if I hadn’t, I don’t have enough money to get much gas anyway.
I’m aghast when my car’s accelerator starts to act funny. I can’t speed up. In fact, I’m slowing down. Cars swerve around me as I hit the hazard lights. Great. This is just my luck. Just as I’m about to pull my cell phone out of my pocket, I feel a sudden shock and my body gets thrown forward as the seatbelt and airbag catch me. I cannot even begin to describe how I feel, what I’m thinking, or what’s even going on. All I know is that somebody hit me; and even that is too much to process. Here I was, relieved because I had finally gotten my best friend the perfect gift. I thought everything was all fine and dandy as I started to drive home, and BAM: my car runs out of gas and someone rear ends me.
It’s when red and blue lights start flashing before my eyes that I fully realize what’s going on. Two police cars pull up beside us on the road as one gets out of his car and starts directing traffic. The other policeman gets out of his car and comes to check on me. I manage to tell him that I’m scared, my car ran out of gas, the other guy hit me, and I don’t know what to do. He asks me a few questions, and I give him my home number. He calls my home and tells my mother what happened.
After what seems like hours, I find myself in the backseat of a cop car. Not really my ideal escort home; but nonetheless, I’m thankful to be out of that mess. It’s also then that I come to the realization that other than a few bruises, a sore neck, and an aching back, I am fine.
When I come home, I talk to my mother for a few moments. Then I go upstairs to my room. Today has been a crazy day, and all I want to do is sleep.
I’m about to collapse on my bed, when I realize there’s still stuff on it. As I remove clothes and books off my bed, I see the invitation. I pick it up and stare at it. The earthy tones of the mug that is now crushed in the back of my car are the same colors that border the edges of the invitation. I’m still going to her party, but without a present. Some best friend I am. I read over the invitation. She has pretty handwriting. Not flashy or cursive. Just plain. Then I get to the bottom of the invite, where she adds, “Please do not bring a gift”. I collapse on the bed, invitation still in my hand. I wonder what would have happened if I would have read the invitation more carefully before. As I consider what might have happened differently, I drift off…

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