Lydia C. Buchanan
I confess: I have the shoplifting bug, self-diagnosed, undiscussed with anyone besides my conscience and now you. I find myself walking around stores, looking at the earrings and the socks and the tea—anything smaller than my fist— and thinking to myself I could take that. Right now. I could slip that inside my purse and walk right out. No one would stop me. I’m sure no one would stop me. And then it would be mine, and I would have done something.
Sure, it’s criminal to steal from a small business—I’m thinking of local bookshops or hardware stores where the owner is drinking cold coffee behind the counter. But it feels barely a crime to slip something away from a big retail store. Let’s picture Nordstrom, the prize jewel of thefting locations, the coup d’etat for those of us with the urge to pilfer. There you are, strolling through all that upscale New Yorker self-absorption and quietly robbing it, devaluing it under their upturned noses.
What is the word for a sin you only commit in your dreams? Where is that verse where Jesus says hating someone is the same as murdering them? The evil is in your heart just as much as it’s in your hands.
Two months ago, I got married. Three weeks before that, I finished grad school. In just a matter of weeks, my life —my job at the university, my friends from school, the homework and grading I spent my other hours on — dissolved. Now, I’m unemployed.
The day after my graduation — a half-hearted affair because we’d all done it at least once before — I moved out of the apartment I’d lived in for three years, the longest I’d lived anywhere post-childhood. I took the world maps and the outdated photos of my family off its yellow walls, rolled up my rugs and squished them into the already-full closets in my now-husband’s bigger apartment in the shadow of the local, southern, country club. I mean, our apartment in the shadow of the country club, Cape Fear Country Club. It’s just around the block from the new place, planted right where all the houses start to sprout columns and circular driveways. This is North Carolina, where columns are everything.
Now, I, we, live in the top floor of what used to be a family house. There are lawn chairs on our front porch, and a thousand tiny lizards that skitter when you go to check the mail, but no real columns to speak of. What a relief. I think I would have had a true breakdown if I had lost everything and moved into a house with columns.
This life is temporary. I haven’t taken down my husband’s Soviet Art Inspired Star Wars posters or rearranged the kitchen cabinets so the glasses are on my level because in three weeks, we’re moving to Boston, my personal Mecca. In three weeks, we’ll skitter away, far away from the country club.
But for now, I am unemployed. He’s working from his office in the second bedroom. I’m working from bed sending fleets of job applications into the void. I make goals. Five applications a day. If I’m feeling down, I let myself off at three.
Some days I try to get out, to see the trees and the Spanish moss and remember the world is still out there, with the lizards and not behind a screen of silent, potential employers, but—I repeat myself—this is North Carolina, North Carolina in mid-July. The humidity is always somewhere between 80% and 100%. You step outside and your entire body is instantly damp and you don’t know if it’s sweat or the water in the air or something else or all of the above. At night, it gets dark and the bugs get louder, but nothing else changes. I’m not sure that we ever have dew in the morning, just the same sludge of water hovering in the air.
Instead of going for a walk like I would anywhere with reasonable weather, when I need to get out I drive to the library. It’s not very nice either, sort of dark and despondent, but it’s air conditioned and free. The other place in town that’s air-conditioned and free: the slowly emptying mall. Every visit, there is one less store, one more grate pulled down. Still, the mall is a dangerous place for me to be these days, what with the boredom and the unemployment and all, but so is staying inside my house for too long. I get restless and wild either way.
I’m living off my husband. He doesn’t call it that. He would never call it that. But I do and it’s what you think of yourself that matters.
I go to the mall anyway.
Under those fluorescent lights, the ones that hang straight down out of the flat white ceilings, everything looks like a computer screen, but more intense. Barely real, the merchandise starts to whisper. Over here. Look at how shiny I am! How pretty! No over here! Feel how soft I am. 100% Pima Cotton. I’ll never shrink, never wrinkle. Nothing will ever change me. How easily do you think I could fall into your purse? I bet I could do it in three seconds. Three seconds and we’re out of here, just you and me baby, on the lam. Thelma and Louise, minus the death. Let’s take to the road.
And I think, Yes, Yes, I could! I could.
I stare and fantasize and walk away, feeling a little more alive for having dreamed myself brave enough to do it. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m a little disappointed in myself. Marriage is making me weak.
The other day, I sold my car. It was very old, had no working air conditioning, was leaking all kinds of fluids. For the five years that it was mine, I lived in a state of constant worry that it was about to break, again. I replaced the muffler one spring, then an axle when the mechanic told me my wheels were about to fall off, then the spark plugs and wiring when it only started sometimes, plus all kinds of brake pads and lines and bits, all kinds of fluids and oils and who knows what else. I carried a jug of engine coolant with me to keep it from overheating at stop lights. There was a leak in the system, somewhere.
But my little car, a once-blue Ford Focus hatchback, was the only car I ever owned. I got it just after college and drove—slid—around the snowy Chicago streets in it for a few years before taking it south. The car and I had a deal that it wouldn’t break permanently until I finished my second round of school and we both kept our word, thanks to the lack of wintry weather in North Carolina. Driving it back north was not an option, not a realistic one.
I made a craigslist post and twenty-four hours later a man showed up, poked around the engine, handed over $900 in cash, the most cash I have ever held, and then drove away in my dear old frenemy.
It happened that fast. I was expecting him to want to go home and think it over, for me to have one last night drive listening to an old mix-CD. To say goodbye. I didn’t. It’s gone. I stood at the window and watched my car pull onto the street, a stranger at the wheel and I wanted to shout STOP, THIEF! Instead, I whimpered. Something that was mine was taken, bamboozled in exchange for something as ethereal and distant as cash money.
Instead, my husband gave me the spare key to his car — our car— a car with working AC and heated seats and less leaks. It’s nicer, if that’s what matters.
I’ve decided that shoplifting is one of those things that everyone thinks about at one point or another, but no one ever admits to considering. We know a sin when it speaks to us. We covet and we keep silent.
There is that glittering necklace, no nosy clerks in sight. There is your pocket. Let’s go.
From a legal point of view, the more I’ve been looking into it— and I’ve been looking into it — the easier shoplifting seems. Firstly, because unless someone sees you — me — take an item off of the rack and put it in my pocket, they are not allowed to stop or search you—me. Innocent until proven guilty. A lurking suspicion about the lady with the suddenly-bulging purse doesn’t count.
Secondly, stores rarely advise their employees to be confrontational, even when they see a shoplifter in the act. It’s bad PR. My highly scientific research has found several policies advising clerks to “help” customers instead of creating a scene.
“Sir, I saw you just put that necklace in your pocket, would you like me to hold it up front for you until you’re ready to check out?”
“Ma’am, I see that box of chocolate slipped into your purse, can I ring it up for you?”
Professional, polite, only accusatory in the passive-aggressive sense of the word. North Carolina.
If everyone, at some point, considers theft—and they must, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me—then I suppose only the strong are powerful enough to go through with it. Only the strong beat back their conscience, their fear, and carry off what is right there, ripe for the taking. The rest of us whittle our lives away dreaming, dithering, fearing the teen in the vest who will make us pay for the chocolate.
I like to look at people in the store and suppose we’re all in this petty theft game together. That pastel lady with the crying stroller and the man inspecting belt buckles: my team. We’re playing Robin Hood against big corporations and their billionaire owners, robbing the rich to clothe the poor, righting the scales of justice.
But on the days when I’m feeling particularly low and bored and listless, I start to fear that there is no Us. That it’s just me and a few weirdos bothering to steal things—to pretend that we’re stealing things— that aren’t even worth that much money, that only qualify as “petty” theft. It’s just me, intimidated by teenagers modeling authority.
On those low days, I worry that everyone else is exactly what they seem: a conscientious citizen, quietly following their social obligations, their innate sense of Duty and Morality. They don’t take things they can’t, or won’t, buy because Thou Shalt Not Steal. They don’t even consider it. They are stable, happy, healthy, regular.
Does it still work like that? Did it ever work like that? Up until recently, I would have said it did.
I think of myself as an independent person. I haven’t lived within driving distance of home since high school. For the past three years, I’ve put myself through grad school, lived alone. It was heaven, if heaven has its moments of loneliness. But mainly, I reveled in ownership. My living room, my bedroom, my thermostat, my galley kitchen wide enough for a single, standing body, my dirty dishes keeping each other company. All mine, just mine.
When I got engaged, it was confusing. I wanted it. But it was strange, to walk around wearing that symbolic rock on my finger. Attached to my body: a beacon of public announcement of a deeply private decision, a town square clock ticking on my one-bedroom solace. Now, I’m married. I walk around wearing a golden ring. I share a bed and couch and cat and someone else’s income. Some people assume they’ll get married. I never did. I never planned for any of this. And yet here I am, someone who shops in the middle of the day.
When I was growing up, right around the non-meltdown of Y2K, celebrity shoplifting scandals were en vogue. Amanda Bynes, Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears.
None of it made sense, ungrateful celebrities. These women had all their own money and lots of it. They could do and purchase whatever they wanted. Their moms weren’t around to refuse to buy them the new Harry Potter Lego set, so why bother to steal it. Get it the real way, millionaire lady. Theft, celebrity theft, was one of those pointless risks, like not wearing a seatbelt, letting your sister hold your ice cream.
Shoplifters of the World, I see you now. These are not crimes of passion. They’re not a Shakespearean, I can’t go on without you, dear heart, let’s die together, or the more sinister If I can’t have you no one will. Only the weak shoplift out of love for the merchandise. It’s about thinking to yourself, Yeah, I could break the rules. I could break them right now. And I could get away with it. Wouldn’t that be delicious. Let’s try, me and you diamond-encrusted watch. Rules are for suckers. I do what I want. And that’s the moment it would be perfectly natural to silently snap, the way all good-girl-gone-bad women snap, quietly and privately so their husbands and country club rivals can hardly tell. It’s a crime of desperation, to feel the blood pumping in your veins, to stand on the line, not the sideline and run for victory, victory, victory or death!
I have no country club rivals. Soon, I’m getting a job and my husband is going back to school. Soon, I’ll be keeping him.
Maybe I can dream of that, and it will be enough to keep the desperation at bay.
Here I am, standing in the middle of Belk, fighting off the urge to shoplift, wondering how long the idea of stealing— knowing that I could do it, will suffice for the real thing. How long until the imagining, the plotting, doesn’t get me high enough anymore? How long until I start to act. Less than three weeks?
I coach myself: Three weeks. This will get better. The adjustment of getting married. The confusion of compromise. The dependence. I’ll build a life again, as soon as we get to where we’re going. The unemployment will go away. But will the shock of not being able to look at everything around me and say Mine?
I tell myself: This is Belk. Come on. Save it for Big Corporate, for a store people above the Mason-Dixon line have heard of. Bloomingdale’s. Neiman Marcus. Harrods.
I retreat to my dreams. Shoplifting, as I dream of it, is perfectly solitary and secret. To pull it off, I don’t want, or need, anyone else. Less is more. Making decisions with other people is draining, confusing, complicated, conspicuous. Not shoplifting. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure. I name the location and the rules and the prize. I must smile at two employees on my way out. I must exit through the main entrance, not the side. I plan my own path. I make changes as I go. I tell no one. It is none of their business. It is my business.
Even better: If you shoplift, you get to display the fruits of your labor. They’re real, and tangible, and visual. Nothing like a digital job application that no one will ever even respond to, not even with rejection. Nothing as abstract as a diploma. When you shoplift, you hold a thing in your hand and, if you’re successful, it stays in your hand forever. Mine. I worked hard, I put it all on the line today and in exchange, I earned something we can all see. Look. Necklace. No one, no one besides me, will ever know what it cost.
Lydia C. Buchanan’s essays have appeared in Cartridge Lit, Meat for Tea, Entropy, NoWhere and other publications. Her essay “Maximalism” was named Notable in the Best American Essays 2022. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and currently lives and teaches in Boston.