July 5, 2014 by JL Walker
18 dollars and 70 cents. That was all. Della logged out and logged back in to see if the number would change. Maybe there was some sort of payment from work she had forgotten about? But her online banking always showed the same amount; that was all that was left in the account. There were just too many bills to pay, no matter how much she had tried to save here and there over the past few months. And her and Henry’s 25th birthdays were only a week and a half away.
Henry was out of town on business, working long hours for a big company, but still with an intern’s salary. He would be back the day before his bday (and 3 days before Della’s) so they could properly ring in their new years.
There was only one thing to do: browse one of the many images-based social networks she was a member of to see what her friends were up to and to get inspiration for her own work. She could think about Henry later.
She was sitting at her studio apartment’s kitchen table, clicking away on her outdated laptop. The rent didn’t come cheap in this metropolis, but they needed to be near the action, near the job opportunities. Their place was small, but it would do for now, until they could afford a better neighborhood.
After exhausting the new posts on her feeds, the browser was directed to her two credit card sites. Both of Della’s cards were maxed out to pay for their recent furniture purchases and some professional clothes to wear to her day job. And with rent, groceries, student loans and credit card minimums due every month, there was no way to save any money.
Della closed her computer. She stared out the window, watching a man in a grey suit cross the street, from one grey sidewalk to another. Henry’s birthday was only 10 days away and she only had $18.70 to buy him a present. Over the past few days she had filled countless virtual shopping carts full of cool thing she wanted get him, only to empty them again because everything was well over her budget. He would love any of the latest gadgets that were on the market, things that he could never afford to get for himself. He deserved a sparkly new toy for his 25th birthday!
She went into the bathroom to wash her face and run a brush through her tangled curls. She looked in the mirror, her strong green eyes staring back at her. She remembered a selfie she had taken the morning of graduation 2 years earlier, with that same defiant expression, at that time framed by her mortarboard and tassel.
There were two important devices that the young couple owned, both graduation presents from their respective parents: Henry had his top-of-the-line smartphone with all the bells and whistles, and Della had her excellent single-lens reflex camera. She aspired to be a 21st-century Dorothea Lange. If only she could capture that same raw humanity, empathy and spirit that Lange had captured during the Great Depression and the war. Her generation’s Great Recession was nothing like those hard times, but there were still great stories waiting to be told through images all around her. She would spend weekends and evenings taking pictures around the city and in her life, analyzing her compositions and relying in part on feedback from a large community of photographers she met know online. And Henry took every opportunity to check something on his phone, he was so proud of it. He loved to keep tabs on everything he did and his phone helped him track his quantified self: sleeping habits, commuting to work by bike, always trying to beat a personal record, always improving something about himself.
Della picked up her camera from her bedside table, its permanent home, clicking through her latest photos. Every once in awhile a smile would light up her face as she remembered the various moods she had captured over the past few days.
Then she went back to her computer and started writing the product description, thinking about the pictures she would have to include. How much could she get for her prized possession? The going rate seemed to be about $250. After attaching the right pictures, she read over the details one last time and clicked the publish button, a fluttering in her chest. Would someone buy her camera?
She was surprised to see a message a few minutes later: “hayden81 has made an offer on your product. Click here if you accept the offer of $250.” Click. And it was done.
Now all that was left was to pack up the beloved object and get the buyer’s contact information. And say good-bye to the vehicle for years of inspiration, creativity and joy.
She ran down the stairs of her apartment with the box tucked under her arm. She could already feel the money in her pockets, enough to get something fabulous for Henry. It was only a matter of days before hayden81 would receive the package and transfer the funds into her account.
Back at her apartment, she opened up her laptop again, and searched “smartphone accessory.” Look at all the amazing things in her price range now! One of her favorite blogs described the perfect gadget: sleek, minimalist design, but with all the latest features for the modern man, this smartwatch would be great for Henry’s long commutes to his office job. He could answer calls while on the road without taking his hands off the handlebars and he could track his other workouts, another passion of his. It was exactly $250, shipping included, and it would take a maximum of 3-5 business days to be delivered. That would give Della enough time to receive payment for her SRL and then buy the watch.
The day before his birthday, Henry opened the door, dragging his battered suitcase behind him. He beamed at Della, then scanned the room, stopping short at the bedside table. His expression changed.
“Happy early birthday! How was your trip? Are you glad to be home? Let me help you with your stuff.”
“Della, where’s your camera?” Henry threw his jacket on the back of a chair. “It’s not in its usual spot.”
“Why do you ask? Don’t worry about my camera Henry, I’m just so happy to see you again and I want to hear all about your trip. And remember, we’re going out tonight to celebrate! Are you hungry? Want to order something?”
He walked over and opened the drawer of the bedside table. It contained the usual odds and ends Della kept there. “So it’s gone? What did you do with it?”
“Well… I sold it actually. I can always save up for a new one, a better model, in awhile. You know I’ve been wanting to upgrade.”
“You mean it’s gone?”
“Yep, just waiting on the better version that should come out soon. Don’t worry about it.”
Henry reached into his suitcase and pulled out a package wrapped in paper covered in black and white photographs: Migrant Mother, V-J Day in Times Square, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, The Tetons and the Snake River.
“Can I open it now? It’s not my birthday yet.” Henry nodded. “The paper is so perfect, I don’t wanna rip it. This box is heavy, what’s inside?”
She carefully pried the scotch tape from the paper, flattening out the creases as she revealed the box underneath. A picture of a telephoto lens appeared as the paper fell to the floor. She let out a gasp. A new lens for her camera. “Oh no, Henry! Well, this will be perfect for my new and improved camera, when I get it. It’s only a matter of time!” Della wrapped her arms around him and tried to kiss the disappointed smile off his face.
But now it was time for Henry’s gift. She had used a tutorial to make an intricate design using humble scrap paper. It was a work of art in its own way, almost too nice to open. She had already taken a picture of her workmanship with her phone so she handed it over.
He ripped open the paper. And stared down with a funny expression.
“What’s wrong, you don’t like it? It will be perfect when you’re biking, and you can check email, texts, make phone calls, everything, without even taking out your phone. Give me your phone, I’ll show you how to set everything up.”
Henry pulled out the chair holding his jacket and sat down. “You should put away our presents for now. I sold my phone to get your lens. Let’s order in. Do you want Thai or Indian?”
Disclaimer If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a very transparent riff on O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” written in 1905. If you’re interested in reading it, the complete story is available on Wikisource.