The city felt lonely. I walked aimlessly down the busy streets as a tourist analyzing the city as a potential home. It was hard to imagine moving my entire family to this foreign place: much more urban, a different language, no friends or family to be heard of. Knowing that they were across the country continuing on in their lives without me there was heart-wrenching, at best. Nevertheless, I continued on down the street, rewinding the audio book that I had zoned out from temporarily. I passed a bookstore whose storefront was adorned with colourful knick-knacks and French books, and I decided to go in. As I perused the shelves and displays, my attention was immediately drawn to a display of lunch bags. The first bag on the shelf was blue and was decorated with cute cartoon cats in various positions – it was the perfect gift for anyone who loves cats.
I myself am not a cat person; but, many of my resident friends are. The memories of our annual resident Christmas gift exchange from previous years were flooding back into my mind: There is always one gift that is so popular – the one that everyone tries to steal – and makes the gift exchange most exciting. I knew right away that this lunch bag would be that item. Even though we were still months away from choosing a theme, I decided to buy it. I knew that whatever the theme, I would find a way to fit it in. And so, with nothing else in my shopping bag, I left the store with the lunch bag and resumed my rather touristy walk down the streets of this strange city.
The lunch bag sat on the top shelf of my closet since I returned from my trip three months ago. Busy with working, studying, parenting, and just trying to keep life together left me grasping for the gift at the last minute. I had intended to wrap it intricately to ensure that the outside presentation matched the inside awesomeness of the gift. This would have, of course, ensured that it was picked early in the rounds of the gift exchange. But that didn’t happen. I haphazardly threw the bag into a dollarstore gift bag and surrounded it with crumpled tissue paper. It would have to be good enough.
The party went as planned. To my dismay, a good portion of the cat-loving residents where not in attendance despite it being a mandatory party. The theme of the gift exchange was “animals,” and I only hoped that there would be enough love for the lunch bag among all the other cat paraphernalia that was sure to be hidden in the pile of gifts. Despite my worries, when the lunch bag was opened, it was immediately popular and was ogled by all the cat lovers in attendance. Rounds went by where people considered stealing the lunch bag and those in possession of it would hide it in hopes that others would forget.
The lunch bag was stolen for a second time after a heated yet friendly back-and-forth between the person who stole it and the person who wanted to keep it. I was secretly pleased that my gift had become, as I predicted, the hot item of the exchange. It was another resident who now was in possession of the bag and it was someone I really liked and was hoping would actually end up with it. But with only one steal left, only halfway through the rounds, and such a popular item, it was never guaranteed. Rounds continued and the lunch bag was safely stowed away by my resident friend who hoped to keep it. But then one of our staff finally had her turn. She wanted the lunch bag and asked for it vehemently. Again, there was a friendly exchange of bantering and bargaining over the stealing of the gift and at the last minute, the staff felt bad about stealing the much wanted bag from her resident and decided not to take it. We encouraged her to take the gift, as that was the purpose of the game, but her kindness persisted and she insisted on taking a different gift. The bag was safe again with the resident who wanted it.
When the game was over, I was praised for picking the hottest gift of the exchange. The bickering and friendly trash talk that surrounded the trading of the lunch bag provided some of the best entertainment at the party. The staff who almost stole it but didn’t then asked me where I got the bag; she wanted to go and buy it for herself. She was outwardly disappointed when I mentioned that I had bought it in another city, on the other side of the country. Everyone loved the kindness and big heart of the staff who was now disappointed about her inability to acquire this cat adorned lunch bag, so myself, as well as the other staff at the party decided that when I moved to this city in the coming year, we would arrange to get another lunch bag and send it back for our lovely colleague.
The staff called me into her office to discuss my request. Without warning and with no fairly identifiable reason, it had been denied. She was sorry, but not sorry enough to offer a real explanation or to use her authority to override the decision. The results of this would lead me down a spiral of despair, self doubt, and discovery that people are not always what they seem. I cried hard in her office, tears streaking my face, and I said to her: “You know me so well and you know this isn’t fair. How can you just be okay with this happening to me?”
She offered no explanation. She bowed her head and also began to cry. All she could say was that she did her best and offer an apology.As time went on the situation unraveled further. The staff tried to be friendly, to offer support and encouragement, which only made it more difficult for me to handle the situation.
Everyone and everything was in disarray and I didn’t want to deal with the situation anymore. This was one of the most devastating situations I had ever found myself in and I felt like I was abandoned and left to flail by the very people who were meant to support and mentor me. I wrote it all down and eventually sent my feelings to the staff in an email… to which I never got a response, and after which the staff stopped all unnecessary communication with me. She knew she had hurt me, and I had so much anger at her for letting it happen. I just wanted it all to be over.
I was back in the foreign city, which was soon going to be my home. Again, I was alone and away from my family as I traversed what was about to become our new life. I visited our new home and picked up the keys. I went to my new workplace for my orientation and picked out my new desk. And, I walked around the city again to explore through the lenses of a new beginning. But then I saw it – the bookstore where I bought the lunch bag. I was immediately reminded of the decision made months ago that I would make sure that the staff who wanted that bag would get one once I moved here. I was torn. As the weeks past since I sent the letter, I began feeling guilty. Maybe I was too mean, or perhaps I was in appropriate in sending the letter in the first place. I didn’t owe her anything… especially a gift for no good reason. But, despite everything that happened, she was still the same kind hearted person who deserved kindness in return.
Despite my incredible uncertainty on whether I should get her the lunch bag, I felt compelled to buy it. I tore through the shelves of lunch bags, looking for the same blue bag with cartoon cats. There was a new cat pattern, but not the old one and I was surprised to discover how disappointed I felt by this. And so, I left the bookstore empty handed and feeling defeated that I was no longer in a position to make the difficult decsion that still rolled around in the basement of my mind. I later found myself searching out other locations of the same bookstore, hoping I would find the lunch bag somewhere else. I felt like a robot under some kind of other control, with no choice but to go to another store and locate the lunch bag. I boarded the train and headed to another branch of the store and again, rifled through the stock of lunch bags to find the same one as before.
And then I found it.
I stared at the lunch bag in my hands. What was I doing? Why was I buying this bag for someone who had hurt me so badly? Why did I care about a promise I had made (not even to her, but to another staff who was also involved in the decisions) about a stupid lunch bag that she probably wont even remember. I was so angry at myself. Who does this to themselves? Or even to the people who really don’t deserve it… Or does she deserve it, regardless of everything. I was confused, angry, hurting, and uncertain. Yet, I left the store with the lunch bag under my arm and a decision to think about it later, when my head was clear.
I didn’t check a bag on the plane. The lunch bag with the mischievous cats poked out of my carry-on bag and started at me from under the seat in front of me. I couldn’t escape the torture of the lunch bag. I stopped to visit a friend and I asked her what she thought about it.
“Don’t give it to her. She deserves nothing from you; not even the energy you are putting into this decision. “
Part of me knew she was right. But why did I care so much? And about a stupid lunch bag, no less.
It was Wednesday morning, and the barbecue was that afternoon. Only a few days had passed since my conversation with my friend and I still hadn’t made a decision. My lack of certainty came more from my refusal to think about the situation rather than an inability to make the decision. This barbecue would be the last time I would ever see this staff before I permanently moved across the country. So, I once again haphazardly threw the lunch bag into my shoulder bag and left the house. I vowed to do whatever I felt was the right thing once I got there.
Even with the lunch bag under my arm, I was nervous about seeing the staff, as it was the first time I would be seeing her since everything happened. I didn’t want to go, but again, it was mandatory and I was still a resident after all. I arrived fashionably late and presented a happy and jovial version of myself. I ate lunch with my colleagues and pretended like I was excited to be there. And when I saw the staff, I thought to myself, “I bought the stupid bag and I brought it here and why the heck would I do all of that and not give it to her?” Regardless, I was nervous and afraid – I knew she wanted to see me about as much as I wanted to see her. I worried that the gift would seem insensitive or like a final jab saying “look, I can be a nice and decent person, even when you can’t.” Regardless, the decision was made.
I approached the other staff. The one with whom I made the plan with so long ago to make sure we got the other staff her lunch bag. I pulled the bag from my purse and showed it to her. A look of surprise and realization came over her and she looked at me with elation.
“I can’t believe you got this. You are just the sweetest person ever!”
“I need you to give it to her,” I said.
“No, I think it would be better coming from you.”
“No, really, I don’t think she wants to get it from me. But I want her to have it, nonetheless.”
“Really. You should be the one to give it to her.”
I turned away and faced the staff. She was occupied with a group of other residents but I approached her anyway. When she saw me coming and I immediately sensed her discomfort. I was right: she wished there was a way to escape. When I was standing next to her, I pulled the lunch bag out of my purse again and handed it to her. She acted like she had no idea what it was, even though I knew she did.
“What is this for?” She asked me.
“I know you really wanted this, so when I was away last week, I picked it up for you.”
“Oh, thanks. You really didn’t need to do that…” Her voice trailed off as she turned the lunch bag over in her hands. She stared hard at it and then continued, “You know, if it’s okay with you I’m going to give it to my son. He really likes cats. He’s actually going to be here soon and he’ll be so excited.”
“Well, it’s yours,” I said, “you can do whatever you want with it.”
I walked away from her and the lunch bag, and I left the barbecue before her son arrived so I didn’t have to see what she decided to do with her gift from me.