The Pre-Packaged Husband
The first time my mother saw my father, he was 31, an investment banker in a three piece suit, and he was crawling out of a refrigerator box with a shiny red bow scotch-taped to his chest.
I’ve seen the photographs snapped by my mother’s colleagues at the advertising agency where she used to work—she’s standing in the middle of the office, her hair falling in dark brown waves to her shoulders and poofing inches high off her forehead, not because it was the eighties, but because her hair once had a mass that could not be contained. And my father—the one crawling out of the box—wears oversized, round-rimmed glasses and a mustache, rich with a blackness that has now faded to grey.
It’s the Friday before Christmas 1981, and there are Santa Claus cut-outs taped to the office walls and a table in the corner piled high with cookies and mini cakes. I can almost smell the way the heater must have wafted the scent of confectioner’s sugar and walnuts across the room and I can almost hear Darlene Love crooning “White Christmas” in the background—like she does on the cassette tapes my father still plays when we put the Christmas tree up in our living room.
I can only imagine how mortified my mother is at this kind of attention—at this man in the box. She’s so shy she crawled beneath the table that one time at the restaurant when my father and I conspired to have the waiters sing her “Happy Birthday.” But there she stands as her Secret Santa—a blond woman named Diane, whom I have never met—reads aloud a poem to go along with her gift:
“When I set out, I had one gift in mind,
Something I was sure would be hard to find.
But after some time, I found one you’d like.
However, if you don’t like this one, it can ‘take a hike.’”
I’ve seen this slip of paper with the hastily constructed rhymes. My mother keeps it pressed between my birth certificate and baby photos in a drawer in the family room.
When I’m little and my mother tells me this story, it sounds like a fairy tale. I think love is easy--that one day, someone will pick out the perfect person for me, stick a bow on him, and put him in a box. In my spiral notebook, I begin to make out a list of the kind of man I want, to carve out his attributes in ink across the page.
When I’m older and my father tells me this story, it sounds a little different.
My father tells me how he was never supposed to be the guy in the box. That guy, the one Diane had carefully picked out for my mother, was some accountant who worked across town. Only, he couldn’t make it that day because the snow was piling up and the roads were slick with ice and he wasn’t willing to venture across town in the storm.
My father was working that Friday when his friend Gene asked him into his office to have a drink. And there, in Gene’s office, was this lady named Diane, whom my father had never met before. She worked in the advertising agency on the third floor of the same building and she was in hysterics. She wanted to give her friend a man for Christmas and she had found the perfect one but now he wasn’t coming and the Secret Santa party was in an hour.
Gene made my father a drink as they both listened to Diane’s definition of the perfect man, which basically consisted of three requirements: he must wear a three piece suit, he must be in finance, and he must not be married.
After his first drink, my father made it very clear to Diane that he was not going to make a fool of himself by jumping out of a box for some woman he had never seen before. After his second drink, my father was starting to reconsider the idea. And after his third drink, my father climbed into the box as Diane made little rings of tape to attach to the back of the red bow she planned to stick to his chest.
When I’m older, and I’ve been to college, and I’ve fallen in love with a guy at a party from across the room—the one sleeping, his mouth hanging open, drooling into the couch cushions, the man who is nothing like the one I carefully planned out in the chicken scratch of my notebook--I decide that my father’s version of the story makes a lot more sense.
About the author:
Elizabeth Klehfoth is an MFA candidate at Indiana University where she teaches composition and fiction. She is also an Associate Fiction Editor at Indiana Review and is currently working on a collection of short stories.