The week after Thanksgiving Judy met her friend Eloise for lunch. They worked for the same computer company, and met in the cafeteria each Tuesday. Eloise brought a glossy brochure listing the company's service awards. After five years you could get a small desk clock, or a set of steak knives, or a duffle bag made of scraps of leather patched together like a quilt.
Between forkfuls of salad, Eloise made a tsk-tsk sound. "Look at this: knives. The company should know better."
"In Asia, gifts of cutlery are considered bad luck." Earlier in the year, Eloise had married a man who was born in Japan. It was her second marriage. She once joked that she was "upgrading," because her new husband understood her better. Now she often talked about Japan. Eloise handed the brochure to Judy. "I'm getting the clock," she said. "At least I can use it at work."
Judy took the brochure back to her desk, even though she was a year behind her friend. She looked at the steak knives. Christmas would be here soon. Her old knives were flimsy and cheap. Suddenly she wanted something better for chopping: a butcher knife or a cleaver. Something solid and heavy. Judy could get a head start on her New Year's Resolutions. She would line up the celery and carrots in alternating rows like threads in a rug. Then chop, chop, chop. It would be easy.
As Christmas grew closer, she dropped hints for her husband Ben. One evening she was cutting ham as he passed through the kitchen. "Boy, these knives are dull," she said. He kept walking. Judy cleared her throat. "Dull, dull, dull." When she turned around, Ben was gone.
Judy knew that he probably had no idea what she was getting at. It was often like that. When they were younger, just starting out, she used to think his not-knowing was because he didn't understand her yet. When they married she imagined they'd spend a lifetime accumulating little facts, piecing them together to create a perfect picture of each other, like a collage. But after ten years it hadn't worked out like that. Sure, he now remembered she preferred mint-flavored dental floss, and she knew he lost a pair of sunglasses each summer, but there were still plenty of moments when she said something, and he said nothing, and she had no idea what he was thinking.
She decided to try a more direct approach.
"Christmas is coming," she said at dinner. "Is there anything special on your wish list?"
"Not really." He sliced his ham.
"Anything at all?"
He shook his head. "I know I'm hard to shop for." His parents and sisters had stopped buying him gifts. Only Judy bought him presents anymore.
"I have a few ideas," she said.
"Really, like what?" He stopped chewing his food.
She shook her head. "It's a surprise." But she wondered when they'd talk about her.
They went back to eating their dinner. She waited for him to ask what she wanted. She grew tired of waiting.
"I wouldn't mind getting some knives for Christmas." She looked at him. He was eating green beans. Judy thought the beans were so-so but they were her husband's favorite.
Still he didn't say anything. It was the kind of pause that used to send her into a tail spin, but she had learned to wait him out. Finally he said, "I thought household goods didn't count as gifts."
"They don't," she said. "Ordinarily. But I want to upgrade the kitchenware, and I need new knives for chopping."
She smiled. He had heard her out.
When Christmas came they opened their gifts. Ben liked his iPhone. Judy got silk lingerie and season tickets to the ballet.
"Oh, the ballet," she gushed. She knew he hated the theater, so this was a real sacrifice.
After the open gifts were arranged beneath the tree, they snuggled on the couch. Judy realized she didn't get the knives.
"No knives," she said.
Ben said nothing. She waited for him, thinking he'd suggest that they buy the knives from the household fund. But he said nothing, as if he hadn't heard her.
Judy went to the mall that weekend, planning to exchange her lingerie for pajamas. On the way in, she stopped by the kitchen department and saw that the knives were on sale. She felt lucky. Ha! Shows you what Eloise knows. She asked to see a cleaver. When she held it in her hand, it felt solid and heavy, as if it would always do what she wanted, and she'd never have to question what it was thinking. She bought the knife, kept it in a special drawer, and used it when he wasn't around.
About the author:
Patti Jazanoski's stories have been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Opium Magazine and elsewhere. A graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of California Santa Cruz, she's currently working on a collection of short stories.