When I was in the 4th grade, I started shoplifting. Actually, the first thing I stole was something from my friend, Jacque’s, bedroom. We took piano lessons one after the other at her house every Tuesday afternoon and while I waited my turn with Mr. Fox, I sometimes explored her perfect bedroom. She didn’t have to share with her sister in this enormous white colonial house with black shutters on the windows. It looked for all the world like what I expected a plantation would look like in the deep South – wide bay windows with window seats for reading, and light streaming in from every angle.
Jacque (pronounced “Jackie”) had everything. And I wanted in on that. While it may have appeared as though I, too, had it all – two parents, a large house, enough extra money for piano lessons – there was an undercurrent of danger in my life. Beneath it all was a deep fault line that threatened to shift and rumble at any time and I used to lie in bed at night wondering how it would go. When the ground opened up, who would be swallowed and who would scramble clinging to the edge, screaming in stark fear? I had my moments of wishing for certain individuals to fall endlessly down that dark chasm but that always left me behind. Alone.
And so I felt entitled to any small trinket that would make me feel better. I reasoned that my life was nowhere near as safe and secure, neat and tidy as Jacque’s, and she had so much stuff she wouldn’t possibly miss whatever I took.
She did. And I got caught and that was the end of shared piano lessons. After that day, Mr. Fox with his bulbous alcoholic’s nose streaked with red veins and impossibly large pores, shuffled in to my house once a week, his leather briefcase full of loose sheet music and his pea-green trench coat flapping around his shins. I had been exiled.
And so I started stealing things from the local mini mart, instead. I had lost a friend in the last round of theft and I, who was so desperate for affection, could hardly afford to lose any more. It started with lip balm and I was shaking so badly I had tunnel vision.
I never used it. It sat to the side in the drawer of my nightstand for years. Other items gathered next to it – a butterfly barrette, licorice taffy, a box of candy cigarettes. These were symbols of my entitlement. They were my great, silent, “Screw You!” to the Universe that had placed me with two parents who couldn’t be what I needed them to be. They were a sign that I was allowed to have something that I wanted.
By the time my parents divorced and spread themselves a few states apart, I lost the desire to take anything more. I felt so conflicted about the shoplifting; knowing it was Wrong and that, somehow, it wasn’t going to fix anything, anyway (clearly not, since my family had just come apart like so many dandelion seeds on the wind). Was this Conscience? I didn’t remember details of the bad times – the angry arguments or physical abuse – but I recall everything I ever took that didn’t belong to me. I trace the edges of that Bonne Bell lip balm in my mind’s eye, the opaque wrapper of the black-as-tar salt water taffy. I can still smell the sugary, waxy, dark licorice scent of my drawer every time I cracked it open.
I still feel shame.
Many years ago when Bubba and I were traveling with the girls I did it again. He had been so sick off and on for two years and I was terrified to be so far from home in case he relapsed. He wasn’t scared. That was part of the problem. He was never scared, even when I was calling 911 or racing to the ER myself, two toddlers strapped in to car seats in the back seat as I whipped my gaze back and forth from his ashy face to the road in front of me. His lack of fear meant that I had to hold it all – every sour-smelling drop of it – for all of us.
And then it happened. One night in the middle of the night in a foreign country, he got sick. And I didn’t panic. I got him to the hospital and they spent an entire day inserting IVs and pushing fluids and taking photos of his internal organs. And I spent the day trying to entertain two small children in the park, among a sea of strangers whose language I didn’t speak, not knowing whether he would emerge from that big brick building at all. I fed them and played with them, changed diapers and didn’t let one tear fall. I deflected curious questions about where Daddy was and when he would be back, all the while feeling that old familiar fault line beneath my feet.
He did emerge, grey and tired, and we holed up in the hotel for several days. I put the children down for a nap, got him some tea, and crawled into bed and sobbed. Every time I closed my eyes I saw me, fingernails dug in to the red clay at the edge of the Grand Canyon, alone and dangling.
The next day we ventured out to the lobby of this old hotel, sitting by the fireplace, looking at the views, checking out the gift shop. And I stole a necklace. An inexpensive but beautiful necklace. I told myself that if I got caught, I would simply claim exhaustion and tell them to put it on our tab. But I didn’t get caught.
I love that necklace. I wear it often, but it has a loose clasp and a nasty habit of coming unhooked and sliding down inside my bra from time to time. Every time I put it on I think about that dark, dark time in our lives and feel ashamed. And I think that maybe this is Conscience. I could have afforded that necklace a hundred times over. But that wasn’t the point, was it? The point was that I felt entitled to something. Something free. Something compensatory.
But it didn’t compensate for any of the pain I was feeling any more than that barrette did when I was nine. And none of the things I took had the power to change circumstances in my life. They reminded me, in some small way, that I had self-worth, however misguided. These were symbols that I mattered to me, that I still valued myself enough to give myself something nice. I see the twisted logic in all of this and don’t condone my behavior, but I will forever be grateful that, throughout the darkest periods of my life, I was able to retain some small measure of belief that I deserved something.