By Will Fletcher*
My Christmas gift-giving strategy for my wife is to find a few little presents that are either edible or humorous (or both) that swirl in a sparkly constellation around a bigger “centerpiece” gift – the one I’m counting on her to really love and for which I will score the most brownie points as a thoughtful husband with tremendous taste. Which is why I found it an amazing stroke of luck when, several weeks ago, my wife tore beyond repair one of the arm straps on her most cherished handbag.
She had been making do with a much less favored secondary bag about which she never missed the opportunity to deride the quality of its construction, the awkward length of its straps, the dullness of its color. How pleased I was with myself for selecting a new handbag for the centerpiece gift. Not only is it something she will really want, but all that’s required of me is to select a new bag with a ballpark similarity to the old one and I’m a bigger hit this Christmas than Frosty the Snowman. What could be simpler?
Alas, not so simple. The mistake I made – surprise, surprise – was in thinking like a man. When a personal item dear to man breaks or wears out after many years of use, his mission is simple: find a replacement that looks just like it. It’s only due to limitations of foresight and closet space that we didn’t purchase five or six of the one blue sweater you see us wear every day all winter long. Women don’t see it happen, but when the elbow on that sweater gives out, we find a corner to cry in. We’d give anything for a ride in a time machine back to the day we purchased it for the chance to tell the clerk “give me every one of these in XL that you’ve got!”
Very sadly for me, my wife subscribes to a philosophy which holds that life is too short to own the same handbag twice. For her, a new handbag promised the ascendance to a higher state of being. It must be that, even when their handbags are in fine shape, women privately note the shortcomings they want changed when the time comes for a replacement. I learned that my wife wasn’t looking for a new bag, she was looking for the New Bag. The New Bag that would answer not only the prayers the old one didn’t have time to get to, but the ones my wife had not yet thought to ask.
In trying to pry from her an understandable description of the New Bag, I was frozen stiff by the impossibility of the undertaking. Forget a moment about color, size, material and shape. The physical manifestation of the New Bag consisted merely of details when compared to the overarching, chimerical threshold consideration: purpose. The question was not what purpose the New Bag was intended to serve. Not really. The more limiting and interesting question was what purpose was there that the New Bag couldn’t serve? Is it like a briefcase you’re looking for, sweetheart? No, no, definitely not a briefcase, she says. A briefcase would be just for work. This is for more than just taking to work. Okay, so like a purse then, I say. No, not a purse, either. You see, a purse is too small. It needs to be big enough for my gym shoes for when I go to Pilates. A purse won’t work. But I can use it as a purse. What about a small duffel bag then? More formal than that, she said. I need something I can bring to meetings or take with me in case we meet for dinner after work.
My wife’s conception of the New Bag was so varied and flexible, so all-encompassing and dependable, that it sounded not like a handbag at all. Rather, it seemed to answer more closely to the description of what one expected a dear, lifelong friend to be. And I had naively considered myself generally acquainted with the universe of women’s arm-borne storage containment. But over my wife’s ever-expanding considerations of the New Bag’s utility my humble expertise could gain no purchase.
I tried. I visited department stores playing the part of the harried husband in need of top-notch sales assistance and willing to shell out a few extra bucks for the effort. But if they ever existed, the days of the store clerk who stakes his or her honor on finding the customer the perfect gift have ended. And what’s true of the Hunt for the New Bag is what’s true of all of life’s major obstacles – one confronts them horribly unprepared, overmatched and alone.
Instead of being rescued, I was shown to the half acre of Macy’s floorspace that displayed every conceivable variety of handbag and left by myself. Short of breath and my pupils dilating, it painfully occurred to me that not a single one of these handbags wouldn’t fulfill at least one of the functions that my wife envisioned. Even the zebraskin number with the gold zippers had a discreet sleeve into which a rolled yoga mat can be snugly stowed. Approximately three hundred of the bags arrayed before me bore a family resemblance to the examples of suitable candidates my wife has shown me on the Internet but none of them is close enough to make me pull it off the hook and declare it the New "It" Bag. I exit Macy’s empty-handed and hopeless.
I don’t sleep well and my work inbox stacks up. Telephone calls go unreturned. I’m suspicious at subway stops for my overlong stares at the handbags that droop from female shoulders. Excuse me, miss, but is that bag of yours big enough to fit your spin class clothes and salad bowl, but still small enough to fit under your desk without kicking it all day? Are your straps the right length and do they have the soft padding where they rest on the shoulder? Are there enough exterior pockets for your bus pass and iPhone? I wanted to ask but I didn’t. I was befallen by an unknown disorder that renders men incapable of selecting the right handbag for their wives. Every mid-December evening offered the prospect of redemption as I went from store to store, but I confronted the same problem of an overabundance of options. I magnified the degree of difficulty into believing that if only one bag in a thousand will fit the bill then the chances are overwhelming that I was selecting from the 999 bags destined for rejection.
I picked around the problem for a few days and bought my wife yet a third and fourth winter hat before I surrendered. I confessed to her, just a day before we departed for my in-laws’ in France, that I haven’t found the New Bag and informed her about the clinically unrecognized but still very real affliction. We agreed to meet after work for a stroll on one of Chicago’s boutique-lined streets. And before I arrived, she sent me a text message: “I think we have a winner.” I joined her at the store and she pointed it out to me. It’s black. Leather. Much taller than it is wide. The straps shorter than I would have considered suitable. When she threw it over her shoulder, the beige piping on its sides tensed up and it looked for a moment like it was smiling at me, saying “here I am.”
Had I seen anything like it in my own adventures? Sure I had. At least a dozen. Would I ever have selected this as the New "It" Bag? Of course not. I had mythologized the New Bag into so ephemeral a thing that it couldn’t have possibly been reduced to a real object that could be seen or touched, much less purchased at 30% off (as I did!).
Perhaps the connection between a woman and her handbag is so personal that no man can understand the chemistry that bonds her with it. Maybe husbands acquit themselves nicely enough at the gifts they’re good at giving and that deeper into the forestry of their wives’ tastes they should not tread. Or, the lesson could be that I should have trusted myself a little more to pick something that she would have liked and thought worthy of becoming the New Bag. Or failing trust in myself, I should have at least trusted the safety and assurance of the gift receipt.
But I will never again take lightly the undertaking of finding my wife a Christmas present.
*Another cadeau from our week of giving and receiving from men. The man who wrote this short story is extremely, extremely dear to me, and, as you can see, extremely talented, so I hope you will take the time to read and enjoy it.
Tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, the men I love (Will Fletcher is among them) or really, really, really, really like, will tell you what they would give the love of their life, if they could give her anything. You will be enchanted. I was.