Brooms are not an easy thing to disguise: You know right away what you’re getting, unless the gifter went so far as to procure a very long box. My boyfriend — now an ex — did not put in that kind of effort. He just grabbed one from the bodega, wrapped it in Christmas paper, and presented it to me with not enough irony. Maybe you recall that scene in the first Harry Potter book, where a small parliament of delivery owls swoops over the Gryffindor breakfast table and drops a mysterious package on our young protagonist’s plate? And the reader is made to understand that no one can tell what it could possibly be? Misleading. Nothing else is shaped like a broom, so for me, unlike for poor naïve Harry, peeling off the festive wrapper was a real exercise in face control. What do you read into it, when your boyfriend gives you a broom for Christmas?
“It’s more a gift for me than it is for you,” I remember him telling me as I stood there, probably looking bemused, holding my new broom as the queen might hold a sword during an accolade: gingerly, awkwardly, and with some resignation. Before my boyfriend bestowed this conspicuously practical gift upon me, I did not have a broom — mainly because, at 24 and having lived in my apartment for two months, I’d found my handheld dustpan sufficient. Apparently, though, my boyfriend needed more.
I cannot fault him for wanting to spend time in a clean environment, though I did take issue with the timing. If he had just grabbed me a broom one day and deposited it wordlessly in the corner with the Swiffer, I likely would’ve appreciated it. I likely would’ve interpreted it as a thoughtful gesture performed without expectation of acknowledgment or praise, and looked on gladly as the man swept his little heart out. Instead, he wrapped it up and presented it to me with some reaction-seeking fanfare, half joking and half not. I sensed a commentary on my housekeeping skills bundled up in this gift. The gendered implications of giving a woman a broom she neither wanted nor specifically asked for are, I think, clear, but then there is this totally separate principal: If you have insisted on exchanging presents, then get me a present for me, not for you.
To be fair, the broom was only one of three items I received from my boyfriend that Christmas. He also gave me a lap desk, and a fragrance lotion set he’d swiped from work at random, seemingly to make this distinctly unromantic gift more appealing to my feminine sensibilities. The impersonal nature of the afterthought cream aside, I liked the lap desk. It felt like an olive branch. Moving to New York that September, I accepted a freelance gig to supplement my meager publishing assistant’s income, and spent many nights and some mornings furiously transcribing interviews for a famous man’s biography from my bed. My boyfriend and I fought endlessly over this, a job that technically predated the relationship, even though most of my free time still went to him, at the expense of friendships. We communicated constantly throughout the day, and I tried to work from his apartment when things got really busy, so at least we could be physically together as I hammered away at my keyboard. He felt, though, that I could pay our relationship more attention, and he made his position known at every possible opportunity. Here’s me, finally closing up shop at 2 a.m. on a weeknight, turning off my wrung sponge of a brain and thisclose to spooning my way into sleep, when he cuts it off with a “So you’re just going to go to sleep now? You’re not even going to talk to me about my day?” perfectly timed for my head’s touchdown on the pillow.
In that context, the lap desk felt like a step forward — an effort to make my life a little more comfortable, and acknowledgement that, currently, it was not. But then you throw the broom in there and it’s two steps back: Why muddy the kind gesture with a subtle reminder that still there were areas in which I could improve, and now I had no excuse not to do better?
Boyfriend probably did not intend to communicate all of that with his choice of gifts, and I do not think I assigned it that much meaning at the time. But when I look back now, the broom exists almost as shorthand for our issues, how he seemed to expect constant accommodation, for me to attend to his needs before all else, no matter how much I had to do. My resentment became like a pilot light, always on and easy to ignite. For the next two months, I kept feeling the same prickling frustration, finding myself once again blindsided by an argument and having genuinely zero idea how we got there. He became openly distrustful, increasingly controlling, easily jealous; I automatically interpreted his comments as insults, and grew more and more bewildered as to why we merited effort at all.
Once I realized that no amount of bending would make us fit together — that we simply operated from different places toward different ends, and the discrepancies didn’t need to mean anything more than that we’d both be happier with other people — I couldn’t unsee it. I knew, and accepted, that it was never going to work. And actually, maybe that is the best present he ever could’ve gotten me.