Elena's Gift (continued)
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Elena insisted that no one else on the planet could help her in the way that I could. Elena said no that her mother was getting older, this present was the most important thing Elena would ever buy. Elena doesn't talk a great deal about her family. They live far away, and though I've met Elena's mother once, and she seemed utterly charming, and quite beautiful, too, I knew there was some deep flaw in their relationship, though I didn't know what it was, or anything of its origins. Elena was stubbornly resistant to talking about it.
She was also stubbornly persistent in not letting me bow out of the shopping excursion though I came up with some very imaginative excuses: doctor's appointments, overtime work, tickets to a play, a sore knee, an attack of the dreaded Ebola virus enhanced by sudden bouts of agoraphobia. Elena was utterly intolerant of excuses and completely flexible in her time because the birthday was a good three months ahead. And besides all of that, she subtly suggested that if I could not come through for her on this, the one and only important thing she had ever asked me to do, that perhaps the whole friendship was not what she had imagined. So maybe that was a little heavy-handed, but still, she's my friend.
The one concession I was able to negotiate was that we would not do the shopping on a Saturday. The other suggestion I made and Elena seized on it, recognizing its practicality, was that we would sit down over lunch or dinner and discuss this gift -- why it was so important, what she wanted to express with it, what type of tastes her mother had, what she might want or need, where we might find such a thing, and of course, about how much money she wanted to spend, which set off an major anxiety attack.
"Money is the problem, here, in many ways, Claudia. My mother loves beautiful and expensive things, and I know in my heart, that the more I spend, the more she will like it and I can't possibly spend enough to make the impression that I'm trying to accomplish. That is the problem. Money is a huge problem. I mean, I wish I could spend thousands and thousands of dollars, but I can't and that's the way it is. That's why it's going to be so complicated. Money."
"I hear you," I said, trying not to sound impatient, "so OK, there is that problem, but we can get around it, so let's move on." To myself I was thinking, money really isn't the problem, but don't say it out loud, because this is one of those touchy land mines just waiting to go off in your face.
Elena and I agreed to have lunch the following week, a long leisurely lunch, and I planned to ask her enough questions so that I might represent her mother before a tribunal or ghost-write her autobiography, discovering so much information and so many details that, in the end, perhaps, my theory of shopping would prevail and we would target our energies to one spot, wherein we would find the perfect present and be finished within, say, an hour at the most. In retrospect, that seems to be an absurdly unreasonable expectation, bordering on the delusional.
We met for lunch at Hunan in Chinatown at 1 on the following Tuesday. Elena allowed me the honor of picking the restaurant, and I was counting on the tea and the appetizers and the spring rolls and the healthy vegetables to keep our spirits going in this long, emotional and yet, at Elena's insistence, focused and scientific project that would require the precision of say, German-made tweezers.
As soon as the tea was poured and our napkins had been unfolded and greetings exchanged, Elena began to, how shall I put this politely, she began to speak without the disadvantages of taking a breath or leaving any spaces to park, you could say.
"Claudia, the thing about my mother is I feel that no matter what I get her for this birthday, it won't be good enough, or something will be just off about it, or there will be some little disappointment lurking just beneath the wrapping paper and the ribbon, and that she already will know this before she opens the present and then when she does open it and discovers what is actually there, that look will pass over her face, ever so subtly, but irreversibly and indelibly stamped into the air, that look of despair that wonders if anything will ever turn out right for her, or that anything I might have a hand in could in anyway improve her life, and I don't want to see that look, Claudia, the look that will last a nanosecond and then be covered up with a polite smile and a laugh, and a hug and a kiss, all the while in the air there is a thickness, as if someone had just tossed wet Andean wool onto hot smoldering coals, and I will feel so guilty, as if the thick smoke were choking everyone and it was all my fault. So you see, Claudia, we have to keep that from happening. Just this once, I want to see a spark in my mother's eye, and then I want to see it blaze and spread and her face light up and a look of satisfaction and contentment ooze from her pores like pitch from pine and it will never happen, I know it, Claudia."
That was the only response I could muster, because I wanted to at least order our food. I begged Elena to wait just a few seconds until I could choose something and we could nourish ourselves, so that we could take on the weight of the whole sun and condense it into something that could fit into a gift box. I didn't say all that, just the part about ordering some food. But when I began to think further about it, I realized this gift really was going to have the density of a collapsed star, and therefore would have immense gravity, and it would turn into a black hole and we might all get sucked in and shredded and devoured in some monstrous nightmare of the time-space thing.
So with those happy thoughts in mind, Claudia and I studied the menu and decided we would order one very greasy and not healthy puu-puu platter and move on to a less life-threatening miso soup, followed by broccoli in garlic sauce.
That settled, I focused all my attention on Elena. She is a very pretty woman in her late 30s. She dyes her hair, and it ranges in color, depending on her mood, from a sort of light ash brown to glamorous bright blonde. She was in a blonde stage on that day, and I had to admire the way she could pass for 28 or 29 so easily.
Her mother's name was Sylvia, and Sylvia, it seems, had some grave disappointments in life, as most of us do, but in her case, there seemed to be a kind of desertification. That is, someone uprooted the vegetation of her soul, the loam was lost and pretty much everything else but the sparest and hardiest little sprigs of faith, hope and charity were swept away by the harsh winds of destiny, or that was what Elena led me to believe, though she never offered any further explanation. Elena, I think, probably looks a great deal as her mother did in her youth. She has the same captivating emerald eyes, thick hair and the kind of face that can stand a few wrinkles because it is so bold.
After the tea arrived and I had snacked on a few fried noodles, I felt more empathetic, so I tried to cheer up Elena and help her focus her thoughts.
"Elena, first off, this birthday is three months away. I don't think you can count on a disappointment. We'll figure this out. Here's a question. What is the one thing your mother treasures the most? Or the three things?"
Elena burned her tongue on the tea and let out a little yelp. She pressed her napkin to her lips and sat there thinking. Finally she said, "My sister. The only thing I can think of that my mother is completely unequivocal about is my sister, Kristina. She loves Kristina with all her heart and soul. It's as if they breathe through the same nose, eat with the same taste buds. They have one pair of eyes and they share a heart."
"So you see, your mother already has something she loves. And she loves you too, of course."
Elena looked stiff and uncomfortable. "My mother didn't want to have me. Did you know that? I wish she had just come out and said it, when I was say, six or something. I couldn't figure out this strange thing between us for so long, but one day she was telling me about how sick she was after Kristina was born, but later she got better, and my father kept telling her that Kristina needed a playmate, and they should have another child right away. She didn't really want another child."
That was the first substantial thing she had ever told me about her mother.
"So your mother was a little hesitant about having you, but of course, she loves you, Elena. Sometimes people just need a little push."
The words hung in the air and Elena seemed to almost disappear.
"Does your mother like music?" I finally asked.
"No, she doesn't listen to music."
"Does she like art, sports, gardening, what are her interests?"
"I guess I don't really know," Elena said.
The waiter arrived with the puu-puu platter just at that moment, and it was a good thing, because I was beginning to see that Elena and I were going to be climbing Mount Everest together and we were going to need some serious calories to do this.
"You know, Elena, maybe your mother would really like something symbolic, like a statue of some sort, or a Greek vase, something classically beautiful. She could put it in her house and show it off to her friends. Or you could have a silversmith hand-craft a custom-made bracelet."
"She doesn't like silver jewelry," Elena said. "She says it doesn't go with her coloring, and she's probably right. She's a gold person. I don't think I can afford gold. It's very expensive now."
"What about earrings or some other jewelry?"
Elena was taking the beef sticks off the grill, and offered me one. I told her no thanks, because I don't eat meat, which she knows and sometimes forgets.
"Well, what else?" I said. "Am I correct in assuming that we can rule out silk scarves, jewelry, art, sculpture, music, theater tickets, books, sports equipment, bonsai trees and wine? I've got it. I'll bet Sylvia loves to cook."
Elena, to her credit, started laughing. "This is hopeless, just as I knew it would be." She leaned back against the banquette, laughing so hard now that tears were squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. Watching her laugh got me laughing, too, so we sat there, completely silly and causing something of a scene, except there were only three other people in the restaurant at the time, so it didn't much matter and, since I go to this place a lot, the waiters didn't even look at us, figuring we weren't going to cause any harm with our sudden release of hysteria into all those bouncing molecules in all that free space.
"I've got it, Elena. You can give your mother an empty, gift-wrapped box with a little card inside that says —'Nothing is good enough for you.' "
Elena burst out again into a spasm of laughing.
"Wait a minute. No, seriously, this is it. Do you have any frequent flier miles? You could take her somewhere, and show her a good time."
Elena looked horrified. "She's afraid to fly. And I'm afraid to go anywhere with her by myself. I've never done it."
When the fortune cookies arrived, I said to Elena, "This is where we are going to find the clues to the perfect gift. It's going to happen now. You go first."
Elena cracked open the fortune cookie right down the middle with the ends turned up. I always turn the ends down, but I'm really the more optimistic of the two of us, so I guess it doesn't mean anything.
"You will lose your mind in a futile pursuit."
"OK, now read the real one."
"A human life is a collective history."
"Gee, that's really deep, Elena. OK, here I go."
"Your friends will drive you crazy. How did that get in there?"
"Not funny, Claudia."
"OK, would you believe, 'A plum is the gift of a plum tree.' "
"Come on Claudia, stop making them up."
I handed her the little slip of paper. That's exactly what it said. Elena looked puzzled, then she threw it down on the table. "This is silly. Let's pay the bill and get out of here."
I couldn't get the business about the plum tree out of my head, and after maybe half an hour of walking around and looking in store windows, it hit me. But of course, we had been going about this thing from the wrong angle. The questions were not what was Sylvia like, what were her interests, what would make her happy, but rather, what was Elena about, what did she have to give her mother that was uniquely Elena?
Elena belonged to the swim club and the fitness club, but she was hardly fanatical about fitness and health. She made her living as an independent PR woman, but she had mostly small businesses and nonprofits for clients. Her vacations were a mix of visits to friends or relatives and self-indulgences, such as a Broadway show or a New Year's jaunt to Las Vegas. Her relationships with men I won't even go into. Elena has dated more men than I will ever even be acquainted with in a lifetime, but she is always unhappy with them, dissatisfied in some disappointing vague, but angry way, and as soon as that thought crystallized, it seemed obvious. Elena was a doppelganger of her mother.
About two weeks later, Elena sent me a text. "Can we try again? Desperate. Call me!"
I waited a full 24 hours before answering because I was so busy, and finally I answered her text and we decided to schedule another shopping excursion.
"You know, Elena, I was thinking. The thing for you to do is to make up a press kit," I told her. "After all, you're in the PR business, so you should make up the ultimate, sublime press kit announcing your mother's birthday. It would be fantastic. You could put her picture in it, a really glamorous one, you know, have one made on some pretense, and then tell the story of her life. It would be great fun, and she would love it."
Elena paused as we stood in front of Macy's. Then she looked at me. "That's a wonderful idea, really it is, Claudia, but the problem is, she would look at me with those eyes, and say, 'Elena, is this really going to be in the newspaper? Am I going to be on TV?' Then I would have to deal with her disappointment and tell her that it was only a gift, you know, not a real press release, and no one was really going to put it in the paper or on TV. And, the other thing, is well, I couldn't gush like that. It would feel really, beyond phony, impossible."
That's when I began to understand that this was a task that was never going to be completed, a symphony never to be finished, a novel without an ending. Elena really wasn't going to find what she was looking for, and, whatever she did was going to be a disappointment to her, not her mother, because what Elena wanted was the lifetime of affection owed her, a repeal of rejection, a birthright of acceptance that had never been offered.
The next day, I got a merciful reprieve. It was a request from one of my clients. I'm a business consultant and dabble in PR, too, which is how I met Elena, in the first place. Anyway, one of my clients wanted to buy my time to write a report on the use of laundry products in Brazil. That, of course, meant going to Rio immediately. I couldn't have been happier. Rio is an incredible place, I've been there several times, for other clients, but always flying in, flying out, never really exploring the country. Probably that's what would happen this time, too, except, the added advantage was I would have to be gone, distracted, exonerated from the birthday project, at least for five or six weeks, maybe even longer. No one really expects you to sacrifice your living for a birthday present! At least, I didn't think anyone could.
When I called Elena to tell her of my latest coup, and alas, emergency work, she didn't even congratulate me.
"This means you're not going to help me anymore with Sylvia's present, doesn't it? Claudia, how could you let me down like this? I can't do this without you."
I had been up all night, organizing my ideas and making lists and getting myself ready to go to Rio to write the equivalent of War and Peacein about eight weeks. I would have to give up all socializing, eat at home, sandwiches probably, not drink, not party, not do anything that would take up any substantial amount of time. This was an extraordinary piece of luck that would allow me to live comfortably for the next year, keep up on my investments and continue with my other projects. Elena, obviously, was not seeing this from my point of view, however.
"Elena, you're a grown woman. You're only choosing a present for your mother's birthday. I think you can handle this on your own."
Again I had said exactly the wrong thing, and I was going to pay heavily for having ventured into the City of Forbidden Words.
"Claudia, I really don't know why you are so uncaring, unsympathetic and selfish, in fact."
Needless to say, when we hung up the phone, Elena and I really weren't on the best of terms.
The trip to Rio was a big success. I spent two weeks there working hard, sitting in offices, interviewing people, analyzing purchasing and sales reports. I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing, heard some of the best jazz of my life, then went home to do more research for my report, which I finished on time and which turned out to be more than 200 pages long, OK, maybe it wasn't War and Peace, but it was a big success.
One day, not long after I had sent off the final version of the report in the mail, I dashed to the 7-Eleven to buy some milk and a New York Timesand I ran into Elena. She was buying cigarettes of all things, which really surprised me, because she tends to be watchful of her health, belonging to the two clubs, as I mentioned earlier. She looked at me and I think she probably would have walked on out but I said, "Elena, how are you?" and she stopped.
Her gaze was so strange and indefinable that I wasn't sure if she resented me or just didn't recognize who I was. But then her face softened a bit. I seemed to have come into focus, and she smiled. "Claudia, I haven't seen you in so long."
I was shocked at her appearance. Elena has never been fat, never had an extra pound that I can recall, but now she was so thin, I cringed to look at her. It was as if her bones didn't quite meet at the joints, as if her face might float away into the troposphere. And her hair, it was short and badly cut, and darker than I had ever seen it. The roots were prominent and the rest of it was an eerie, faded, greenish-brown. We talked for a few moments, and then I ventured into the big question. "So Elena, did you find a present for your mother's birthday?"
She looked at me, and her eyes were deep in their sockets and she seemed very far away from me and the world and the words we were saying to each other. I was profoundly moved, because something more than ordinary angst or, even say department-store anxiety, had overtaken her.
"I haven't been able to think of anything, or to find anything. I've been out on the weekends, searching after work in the evenings, always looking. I've combed the stores, galleries, consulted psychics, my shrink, called my friends in Prague. Nothing. I never found anything even close to being the right present for Sylvia."
Elena was looking at me with those vacant distant eyes and a chill ran through my body.
"Elena," I said. "This has gotten out of hand. What has happened to you?"
"I know that you don't understand, Claudia. But, really, it was just so very important, truly, truly important."
With that she took her carton of cigarettes and moved her hand through the air in a slow-motion, faltering gesture, somewhere between a shrug and a wave of goodbye.
I stood for a few minutes, completely stunned. I didn't know whether to follow her and try to help, to just let her slip away, I was frightened for her. Clearly I had let her down, but what could I do? Still, I couldn't help chastising myself for my lack of patience, my disloyalty, my complete failure as a human being, a disaster that had created this zombie that used to be my friend Elena. She was living on some other planet, not Earth, she had departed from this terrestrial sphere, disappeared into an irretrievable haze that only she could inhabit, that much was profoundly clear.
About a week later, I got a text from another friend. "Did you hear about Elena?"
I called my friend immediately and she explained that Elena was in the hospital, had almost died.
"What happened? I asked.
She said she didn't have any details.
I think I knew, in fact, I was pretty sure. I didn't say anything, just thanks, and then I hung up. That's when the first rain of tears began for my friend Elena.