|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets Serious.||Rowena Gets A Surprise, Part 7|
Rowena eased away from the curb. “Okay,” she said. “Mall Ho.”
“Do we sing Christmas carols now?” inquired Jean.
“Not me,” Terese announced. “For which you should all be grateful.”
“Does everybody have enough space back there?” Rowena asked.
“Barely,” said Terese cheerfully.
“I hope you have a big trunk,” said Beth.
“Buy small things,” advised Claudia.
Five grown woman packed into Rowena's little car. Holidays, she thought, make us do strange things. She wasn't even sure how it had happened; nobody she spoke to seemed to have her Christmas shopping done, she had mentioned to Terese that she didn't know what to get for Sammy, and then Terese suggested they go together, and after Rowena had agreed to that Terese had remarked that they ought to invite Beth, and once that was done there was a comment about how much they all liked Rowena's cousin Claudia and Sammy's cousin Jean and wouldn't they come in handy when Rowena was picking out gifts for those respective families . . .
So, somehow, here they all were.
Rowena let them do most of the talking on the way over. She found a parking space with less difficulty than she had expected, and a few minutes later they found themselves inside the mall.
“So. Where to?”
“Everywhere.” This was Terese.
“Clockwise,” said Claudia. So they went clockwise.
A candle shop; Beth bought a nice scented candle and a holder. A jewelry store, and Claudia bought a pair of earrings. A toy store; nearly everybody came out with something. A restaurant.
“When's lunchtime?” asked Beth.
“I'm just getting started!” objected Terese. They voted to go on.
A kitchen-and-housewares store. Nothing for Sammy there, but Rowena trooped in with the rest of them; she did, after all, have a few other people remaining on her list. She looked at towels and trivets, at sauté pans and spoons. Beth bought a very fancy Bundt pan and Jean a device for making pasta. Rowena looked at her watch and sighed.
“The music store, and then lunch?” asked Beth.
“Fine by me,” said Jean.
“Everybody likes music,” Terese said, looking at Rowena. “I'm sure you'll find something there.” Something for Sammy, she meant. Rowena considered some kind of response, but ended up saying nothing. They all trooped into the store, where Beth bought three CDs, Jean two, Terese two, Claudia one, and Rowena . . .
Rowena found one CD she thought her grandmother would like. But nothing for Sammy.
“I think we all drive ourselves crazy.” Terese lifted her pizza, a thick, mushroom-laden wedge. “Even if what we want really is to make other people happy, and not just compete somehow.” Her statement made, she took a bite, set down the remains of her pizza, and picked up her napkin.
“There's a competition to that, too.” Claudia stirred her pasta. “Or can be.”
“Well, the season invites it. And in this country, you know, you're supposed to be able to buy happiness, whatever anyone says.” Terese lifted her pizza.
Beth shrugged. “Maybe we're just smart enough to notice we can't buy it for ourselves. But maybe, just maybe, we can buy some for somebody else . . .”
“H'mm,” said Claudia.
Jean shifted in her chair. “If I am competing, am I competing against you guys or against myself?”
Claudia shrugged. “Your call,” she said.
None of this was really making Rowena feel better. “I don't think it's unreasonable to hope to please somebody,” she said.
“Of course not,” said Terese.
Rowena looked at her seafood linguini. She picked up her fork. “You'll be fine,” Beth said.
“Hey, Rowena,” said Terese. “Did you tell everybody about the office Christmas party?”
“No,” said Rowena, as soon as she could. “Just you and Beth.”
“Tell what you got in the Mighty Rorschach & Schmed Gift Exchange.”
“Jim, the guy who drew my name, gave me a little basketball hoop for my wastebasket.”
“Oh, no,” said Jean.
“Which was bad enough—well, maybe not too bad, but silly. Except that I kind of had to set it up, at least just for the one day, and so of course I had half the guys in the office trooping by to throw their stuff away.”
“Of course,” said Claudia.
“So then you took it down?”
“Better than that; I gave it to Marjorie, the camp boy-chaser. Which would be perfect, except that her desk is right next to mine.”
“So you're still getting a lot of traffic through there.”
“I made her put her wastebasket on the side farther from me, but yeah, basically.”
“Who did you draw, and what'd you get 'em?” asked Jean.
“Lorraine, the Insufferably Proud Mother. I gave her a picture frame with babies' toys and things swarming all around it.”
“Nice,” said Claudia, deadpan.
“I thought, she'll probably like it, and in any case, she's not likely to see an insult or anything there. But I don't know that much about her personal taste.”
“And . . . ?”
“Turned out it was identical to one she had at home, except for the base color. Yellow instead of pink. She said, ‘Now I have a set!’ She seemed thrilled.”
“There's a message there,” said Claudia.
Perhaps there was. But whatever she gave to Sammy had to be special. Even more so than usual, for their first Christmas living together.
Next was a department store. Beth very helpfully steered them first to Menswear; Rowena wondered if her friend considered her fragile, unable to wait a moment longer. She felt better a few minutes later, when she spotted a gorgeous silk shirt in Sammy's size and color. It didn't solve her whole problem; she needed one or two “public” gifts for Sammy to open at the family gatherings plus another—the one she wanted to be extra-special—for a private little exchange just for the two of them.
But it was a gorgeous shirt, and it felt wonderful to the touch.
She also found a sweater for her grandfather. Things were looking up. Now . . .
They and their booty moved on to Ladies', or most of them did. “I'll be in Jewelry,” Claudia said. “I never buy clothing for other people. I'm never sure it'll fit.” She'd seemed contented enough browsing in Menswear; Rowena wondered if everyone thought she needed coddling. She began snooping through the racks.
“Think Tina would like this?” Beth asked, holding up an embroidered vest.
“Beth, she's your sister. You know her better than I do.”
“But do you think she'd like it?”
Rowena regarded the vest. “Yes.”
“Wonderful,” said Beth, in tones of vast relief. Apparently, Rowena thought, I'm not the only one.
“See anything for your mom?” inquired Terese impishly.
“I've already got something for my mom, thank you very much.”
“What about your sister?”
Rowena sighed. “I can't get clothing for my sister. Anything she would wear is too embarrassing.”
“You could give her some scarves. Really filmy ones. You can pretend they're just ordinary scarves, and she could use them for her own little Dance of the Several Veils.”
Rowena shut her eyes. “Maybe next year.” She could hear Terese's giggle growing fainter as she moved away. She returned to the rack she was studying, and moment or two later something caught her eye. She pulled it out: A black blouse printed with red flowers. Just the thing, she thought, looking furtively towards the Jewelry counter, for Claudia. She looked it over; she suspected it was the right size. She might come back for it later, just hide it on the rack and Claudia wouldn't see it, wouldn't see Rowena buying it. But it seemed to be the only one the store had.
Rowena looked over at Claudia, looking down into the glass case, and then at Terese. She strolled over to Terese, holding the blouse low.
“Terese. I would guess you and Claudia are just about the same size.”
Terese looked to Jewelry. “So?”
“Could you try this on? And buy it if it fits? I'll pay you back first opportunity.”
Terese grinned. “I love a good conspiracy,” she said. She took the blouse, handed Rowena her own items for safekeeping, and sailed off for the fitting rooms. When she returned she gave Rowena a thumb's-up, and proceeded to do the rest of her Ladies' Department shopping with the blouse slung over her arm.
Rowena finished her tour of Ladies' and joined Claudia at Jewelry, where she admired the butterfly-shaped pin Claudia had selected. Beth appeared next, and was showing an interest in buying one just like it for her mother when Jean approached and immediately pointed out a bracelet which Rowena, distracted, had overlooked but which both were sure Sammy's mother would love. Rowena gratefully added it to her collection, then, turning, suddenly saw a display of rhinestone accessories.
She walked over. Sparkling and showy, ornaments for hair, ears, necks, wrists—for everywhere; there were even rhinestone belts, anklets, shoe buckles, and purse straps. Flashy and inexpensive, but also, it seemed to Rowena, fun.
She felt her sister would either love them or hate them.
“What on Earth are you doing?” asked Terese at her elbow, and then, before Rowena could reply, “Maralynne?”
“Do you think she'd love them for being flashy, or hate them for being cheap?”
“Some cheap things are cheaper than others.” Terese considered. “These might . . . they might just do.”
Rowena reached out and picked up a fancy comb. She turned it over in her hand. Her sister . . . She picked up a necklace-and-earring set, turned it in the light.
“What's that?” asked Claudia.
Rowena found herself saying, “It's what I'm giving my sister.”
“Carry on,” Claudia said. Then, “Oh, I like that.”
“Yeah, I lucked out,” Terese said. “It was the last one.” They were talking about the black-and-red blouse. Rowena kept her eyes on the rhinestones; let Terese handle this, she thought.
And she left the store with her spirits higher, pleased to think that Claudia would like her gift, pleased with the silk shirt for Sammy, and only a little concerned about the rhinestones.
Her only real worry: Something for Sammy that was a little more personal.
Back home. She had dropped Claudia off before Terese, who had, when she was dropped off, swapped the black-and-red blouse for the appropriate amount of cash. And so now she was home, everything straightened out except—
Except for that elusive special gift for Sammy.
She sighed. She did find a beautiful shirt for him, and, a store or two later, a miniature grandfather clock to sit on his desk. Nice; very nice. But . . .
Was Claudia right? Was she trying too hard, making all this out to be more than it could be? She looked at the pile of bags in which her new purchases were hidden. What exactly was she doing?
She took the shirt and clock into the bedroom, to hide in the closet. Loretta Lemur sat in her place on Rowena's pillow, her long plush tail curled around her feet; the first birthday present Sammy had given her, in memory of their meeting at the zoo. “Something like you,” Rowena told her. “Why can't I find something as good as you?”
And then she knew. She knew what she was giving Sammy. She hurriedly hid the shirt and clock and dashed into the office.
Christmas Eve. Stories and children and small accidents nobody minded. Decorations and food and a fire in the fireplace. A tall, glittering tree. And the presents.
Anything handed to a child was in danger of a shredding. There was much oohing and aahing over the silk shirt Rowena gave to Sammy; there was almost applause when she unwrapped the package he gave to her and lifted from its nest of tissue a silk blouse. Rowena's mother cooed over everything, and even her father was in a good mood. Nobody even seemed to mind the fact that Maralynne's gifts to them were all connected to her beloved Chow Hall, despite the fact that only Maralynne and her mother ever watched the show on purpose.
Rowena's gift to Maralynne was among the last to be unwrapped.
She watched with some apprehension as her sister lifted the lid on the box. And then—
“Oooh, Chester! Look! How glam!” Maralynne exclaimed. She held the necklace-and-earring set for all to see. “I can wear them with my—never mind,” she finished hastily. Somehow it had not occurred to Rowena that her sister would use the gift primarily for her naughty Web site. Maralynne finished admiring the necklace-and-earring set long enough to set it down and pick up the comb instead. “Wow,” she said. “Thanks, um—” looking for the card—“Rowena.”
“You're welcome,” said Rowena, though the idea of her sister posting photos of herself wearing little if anything else made her feel a bit uneasy. But she smiled as Maralynne pushed the comb into her carefully-disarranged hair and repeated, “Thanks.”
And she thanked Rowena again as they were all leaving. “I didn't know you were so cool,” she said.
Christmas morning: Rowena and Sammy's time together. Theirs and Linus' and Caesar's. On the floor, Linus dashed after his bouncy new chew toy and Caesar savaged a very wily new catnip mouse, but up on the bed, Rowena and Sammy went through their Christmas stockings and opened their gifts.
“Oh, Sammy!” He had given her an opal pendant. She held it up to catch the light; it was the most exquisite thing. Her gift to him would look, she knew, much less extravagant, but she wasn't afraid he wouldn't like it.
He accepted her thanks, helped her put the necklace on, and then turned to the flat, almost weightless box she had wrapped for him.
In which he found, nestled in red tissue, a sheet of paper which Rowena had made as official-looking as she could.
This Certificate Entitles
to a Free
Romantic Zoo Visit for Two
Complete with Food and Lemurs
and much Love from
She had even put pictures of lemurs in the corners. Sammy laughed. “I love it! Thanks!” He pulled her to him and kissed her. “I can't wait.”
“Neither can I.” Rowena snuggled close. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
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