Closer to Her
I put my hand over my heart and stare at myself in the dressing room mirror. My eyes wander over my 14-year-old body and the bad thoughts creep in—fat thighs, frumpy, stringy hair. I shake my head, then my arms, picture the bad thoughts flying off. I roll my eyes and sigh—my version of a silent prayer that one day it’ll be that simple. Big breath in. “Confidence,” I think and let my chest rise, my stomach pull in. On the exhale, I will my shoulders down and back. Satisfied with my posture, I instruct myself like a theater teacher, “Think pleasant yet busy.” My face transforms into an older woman, one who doesn’t have the patience for late buses or screaming children. The thought transports me into character. When the perfect twinge of annoyance crosses my lips, I know this is my moment, and off I go, sashaying through the store.
Pleasure rushes up my neck as the backs of my fingers brush the cashmere V-neck cardigans on my right and the pastel shift dresses on my left. My stride slows at the faux fur purse, but I curb the desire to touch it. Total indifference, I remind myself, as the double glass doors come into view. I close my mouth, suck my lips tight to my teeth, and step through the sensor detectors. I have not considered what I will do if they go off. But I know I will not run; if I run, I am criminal. My hands reach for the door’s gold push bar. It swings open almost before I push, and I imagine I hear a faint, Please, please, after you, Madame.
But when my feet hit the sidewalk, I return to my ordinary self with heavy steps and hand-filled pockets. At 19th and Market, I hear the familiar metal-on-metal screech of a trolley. I tear down the stairs, run as if being chased, and jump onto the 34 just before the doors close. I find one of the good single seats and I am free. Safe. A closed-lip grin spreads over my face. I look straight ahead, but all I see is the light blue V-neck J. Crew sweater in my backpack, the biggest and most expensive thing I’ve stolen yet.
Shoplifting started in seventh grade with barrettes and lip-gloss. By eighth grade, I’d advanced to slinky underwear. And in less than a year, I’d mastered thin t-shirts. At first I was shocked by how easy it was. In one of those downtown stores that has everything from paperclips to hairspray, I stand in the candy section and look both ways, making sure I’m alone in the aisle. Subtly, like I’m looking for something specific, the limited edition Snickers with marshmallow perhaps. And the minute I think that, I am looking for it; I actually picture this fantasy marshmallow Snickers. That’s the key – being so sneaky, I fool myself. Then, in one swift movement, I turn my back to the end-of-the-aisle mirror, and my hand zooms out of my sweatshirt pocket and nabs a candy bar so fast that, even if the manager is watching, he’s unsure what he just saw and wonders if this is what his wife meant when she told him his mind’s going soft. As he shakes his head and wipes his glasses on his shirt, I smile, say, “Have a nice day.” I walk out, just like that.
From ages 11 to 16, I had regular tantrums about two things: Buying clothes and choosing what to order at restaurants. In both cases nothing looked right. At a diner with my family, trying to choose between mac and cheese and a burger and fries, I would stare at the menu until the words blurred and tears dropped onto the plastic. Everything is bad for me. I’ll be fat forever, I thought. My parents, bored with my self-pity, would order without me. I was left hungry and full of self-hatred. Buying clothes with my mother meant having her bear witness, in the cramped quarters of a dressing room, to all the bulges and the early stretch marks, witness to the sad fact that what we thought (hoped) was my size didn’t fit. Nothing fit. Especially me.
Still a year before my first period, the tantrums were my real initiation into adolescence. I remember the rumors in fifth grade that Rochelle Tia James had sex with Trey King in the basement bathroom. I was thrilled and afraid by this news. It was the proof that what I was seeing around me was really happening. Boobs were sprouting. Boys were bestowing attention on the pretty girls. I studied these girls, their ponytails slick and shiny, their tight jeans in tropical colors like coral and turquoise, and their high, small breasts strung up in lumpy new bras.
The observing quickly turned to yearning, and by the time freshman year of high school rolled around, I’d been yearning to be attractive for a good five years. The craving had seeped all the way in—I felt in every pore that I was not the right kind of girl. I daydreamed about being pretty, imagined it was a lifestyle. My fantasy me was skinny with long, thick hair, and boys were all around me. I was the perfect mix of quiet-yet-friendly, saucy but with a positive attitude, able to smile when I was mad and even kind of mean it. More than anything, my fantasy me was drop-dead sexy. But at the end of each daydream, there I was, with my loud cackling laugh, my bordering-on-rude bluntness, and my constant string of questions that made my teachers sigh and give me that look. Though I longed to be approved of, admired, lusted after, I never admitted it. Instead I said strong-woman things like, “I don’t care what they think about me. I like who I am,” complete with neck swiveling and a hip thrust. But I think when I said those things, I was just trying to drown out the whispers I kept hearing, telling me to become this right woman, the pretty one in my daydreams. Her.
At nighttime parties, in a spread of trees us city kids called woods, I felt sexy and feminine in my stolen clothes, tight and soft everywhere. I touched and flirted with boys so cute I would’ve turned down wrong corridors in school just to avoid eye contact. The power I felt in the woods, with my hand on that boy’s arm, made me high, higher than the booze or the weed. I was this close to sexy, this close to Her. I could feel it.
Like those nights in the woods, every shoplifted t-shirt or skimpy pair of underwear was another thing I managed to get over on the adults, over on authority, over on the voices that said, You don’t know anything – you’re just a chubby kid. Walking out of a store without paying was a game, and if I won, then I didn’t just beat the big bad guy at the end of round one. I beat the cameras, the end-of-the-aisle mirrors, the check-out girls, the dressing room helpers, and the detectors at the store exits. Stealing meant beating the whole system. Though I didn’t know exactly what all “the system” entailed, I knew for sure it was the homing ground for the voices I heard.
Amidst the confusion of shopping being the torturous experience with my mother (where the bad voices were loudest), and shoplifting being a sort of weapon against the greater system, a romance bloomed — I fell in love with clothes. By myself in the dressing room, with no other gaze but my own, I began to have glimpses of feeling beautiful. I’d turn and, through a blouse’s well-placed cut-out, I’d see a part of my body I felt good about — a stretch of forearm or a shoulder blade. It was peek-a-boo surprise saying, “Look! You’re sexy there, there, and, huh! There!” The clothes were art, costume, dress-up, and I started seeing logic and beauty behind the pairing of this skirt with those shoes. I found hope loitering between the sweaters and the promise hiding among the threads. I told myself that this one paper-thin, scoop-neck shirt would make Justin want me, or these stretchy skin-tight jeans would make my ass would look so squeezable that Sean wouldn’t be able to hide his smile.
This textile seduction gave me the slightest taste of feeling attractive. It was powerful, and I’d wanted it for so long that it blinded me to my own hypocrisy. So while like the quintessential teenager I stormed around calling out the double standards of adults and society, I didn’t realize that while I stole clothes and “duped the system,” I was doing it for clothes that supported this “right” womanhood. I wasn’t stealing baggy sweatshirts and math books. I was stealing lip gloss, shirts that minimized my belly while maximizing my breasts. I told myself the stealing was about fighting Her, but each see-through, low-cut top was an attempt to get closer to Her. But we want what we want, and I wanted both: I wanted my pink lacey bra and my anger. I wanted my rage to affect someone, something, some system. Fooling the system that helped create these lies about beauty and womanhood, one baby blue sweater at a time, gave me a feeling of power, and I was hungry for it. So I marched with fervor right onto a dangerous trajectory. The clothes got heavier and more expensive, the stores got bigger, and the excursions became premeditated missions.
My final mission was with Tina. Just a year older, Tina seemed to have mastered female teenage cool. She was gorgeous, thin, and grown up. Across grade, race, and gender, everyone had a crush on Tina, even if they didn’t realize it. When she was a sophomore, Tina had a hip-hop nonchalance to her. Her Italian background supplied her with long, thick brown hair which stood static in a messy knot held by a pencil. It was oh so casual. Just a haphazard slip and cascades of hair would wash down her shoulders. Tina’s baggy jeans ended at the wide-open mouth of her tan Timberland boots, which were splattered with magic marker block lettering — the signature clue that sexy graffiti-skater guys had been there. Tina’s Timbs sang of her connection with those boys. Her shoes indicated a reality I coveted — she was friends with these guys and she was wanted by them.
But the next year I watched Tina transform herself. One day she arrived at school with a pixie hair cut. Blond dye had turned her dark hair orange, but she was still the hottest orange-headed pixie I’d ever seen. Her baggy jeans were traded for denim mini skirts. Her thin legs were made even longer by the designer heels that replaced the Timbs. Overnight, it seemed, Tina had given up on being down-and-hot, and decided to trade it all in for smokin’ hot. If the bad voices had ever spoken to Tina, I was sure they’d stopped now. They didn’t need to; Tina was Her.
I felt baffled and jealous. After days of observing and puzzling over how she’d managed to become even more fabulous, I asked her, “How’d you get those shoes?” With mock indifference, she smiled and said, “I stole ’em.” I don’t know why it came as such a surprise to me. I knew she stole just like me. But shoes? You couldn’t hide shoes under your clothes. There would be no hemming and hawing with a security guard about how you “forgot” you had it on. Shoes were risky. Shoes might get you caught, and I knew I didn’t want to get caught. I wondered, Is Tina going out of control, or, I second-guessed myself, Am I just missing out?
I watched her as she stood on the school’s stone front steps in strappy Todd Oldham heels, a sleeveless peach Polo button-down, and a Guess miniskirt she had cut to make even shorter. The breeze blew the fray along the skirt’s bottom edge. She smoked her Newport Light, and hugged her books against her chest. With Tina’s new makeover came a new group of friends — older girls with clothing just as expensive, though most of theirs was bought. They had names like Donna and Monica and stripy blond hair. As I observed Tina’s transformation, learning what I could, I was formulating a decision.
Sitting shotgun, Tina did little shoulder dances to top 40 rap hits. I sat in the back of her new friend Amber’s car, feeling a little out of my element but happy to be included. My friends who were my age didn’t drive yet, so we’d just steal from the stores downtown. We never went to the mall except with our mothers for back-to-school clothes, or for me, the dreaded Jewish holidays outfits. When the three of us pulled up to the Willow Grove Mall, we suited up, sharing lip gloss and snarky commentary, laughing and feeling giddy. This was gonna be fun!
We set to work in the main mall, ripping apart the Juniors section, stripping hangers of the trendy slutty stuff we loved. We were careful, just grabbing a thing or two; a see-through tank top, a pair of sparkly tights. But we didn’t drive all the way out there for flimsy accessories. So we moved quickly, and headed to the big time. Bloomingdales. Bloomingdales was one of those places I’d only heard of, a store I knew nothing about, except that its name was long and it was much too fancy for me.
We wandered through, seeing designer names that made us feel sophisticated, like Gucci (which sounds so much like coochi, we all wanted it branded on the asses of our jeans so that maybe the boys would make the rhyme association and think of us in a sexual way). Without discussing it, Tina, Amber, and I spread out in a W-formation, instinctually knowing not to call attention to ourselves. We were also each being selfish, in search of the best piece of clothing, hoping to find it first. Once one of us claimed it, the unspoken girl code made it off limits for the others. Anyone who broke that code was a hands-down bitch. We were efficient, trained through experience to choose quickly and look like we were browsing and bored. Still silent, we walked into the dressing room. As our individual stalls slammed and locked, we relaxed, and the chatty gossip bounced off the walls. We tried on clothes and modeled for each other, sucking in stomachs, pushing out boobs, waiting for the others to give the yea or nay.
As we discussed the latest school couple that was obviously having problems, we were in our stalls silently ripping off tags and sensors, stuffing various things in our bags, and putting on layer after layer — as much as could fit under the original roomy outfits we’d worn that day. When we were done, we stashed all of the tags and beep-causing items in the pockets of the clothes we’d chosen not to take. Together, now more somber, we walked out of the dressing room and returned empty hangers, bookended by full hangers. A look, a shrug, a nod, and off we walked towards the exit of Bloomingdales, the doors that would spit us back into the center of the mall.
We crossed the threshold and before we could count to five, there were men in suits on either side of us, close enough that we could feel their breath as they gripped our arms. They used authoritarian voices to speak polite words, which meant something else entirely. “Come with us, ladies.” A door the same inoffensive taupe color as the walls appeared out of nowhere and off we went down a concrete stairwell to the bowels below the Willow Grove Mall. Once there and seated, we were told how stupid we were.
We have you on camera
…the empty hangers
I sat staring straight ahead, the anger building in my shoulders with such intensity I could have shot off ammunition just from the friction of my muscles grinding.
I found myself fearless.
Tina and Amber listed off their parents’ names and contact information. But when the buzz-cut, square-jawed guard asked for my phone number, I spat, “I don’t have one.” His eyebrows rose in surprise and he looked at me hard. “Do ’er next,” he shouted to the female security guard, cocking his head in my direction. He must have sensed the artillery inside of me. Within seconds, I found my legs spread as the female guard strip-searched me down to my underwear. I was hidden by a wall just inches from Tina, Amber, and the other guards. The sounds of my clothes being removed filled the windowless room. I tried not to cry as my big thighs stood cold in the air. I hoped more than anything that nobody would stand up and see me.
When I was dressed again in the clothes I’d arrived in, the male guard turned to me and announced, “597 dollars you got here. 300’s a felony.” I must have looked scared then. A felony meant it stayed on my record. It meant I couldn’t get jobs, meant I might not get into college. The promise of college was the only thing that kept me going to high school (well, that and boys). I had to go to college. I pushed my thumbnail into the side of my pointer finger to stop myself from crying, and listed my parents’ names, what time they would be home, and their phone numbers. I willed myself to make a joke, to smile, to even mean it. In the air of forced joviality, I felt my body be fooled, and I relaxed. So did the guards. Eventually, Tina, Amber and I were looking at each other again, talking and laughing. The guard even told me he’d knock it down to a misdemeanor. I was pleased, surprised at how good I was at playing happy good girl. I felt hope that this could all be explained as a big misunderstanding.
But there was no misunderstanding when we were handcuffed and thrown in the backseat of a cop car. At the police station, the three of us were put in one tiny holding room, not wide enough to lie down in. The big window was the one from movies, where the criminal can’t see out but the cops can see in. I had an immediate urge to be the man in the cell, banging on the glass, screaming my innocence.
Tina and Amber were gone long before I got picked up. Alone in the cell, I imagined the punishments I might be given. Summer camp started in eight weeks. It was my escape, a place I felt I was seen and loved for the real me. I waited all year for it, crossing days off my calendar with big red X’s. Would my parents not let me go? When the cell door opened, I saw my father’s eyes, big and disappointed, barely able to look at me.
I felt like hurting myself.
The car was silent on the way home.
The punishment I received was getting grounded for two months and paying for the 175-dollar fine of my misdemeanor (the guard kept his word). This felt bad, but my parents’ anger and disappointment were worse. I didn’t know how to make it better. Sorry wasn’t enough. The gulf between my parents and me was wide. The space between my mom and me, un-crossable. We couldn’t be in the same room without leaving it screaming. Cursing was unacceptable in my family, so once when I was so angry at her, the most livid I had ever been, I curled my hands into fists and bellowed with fury, “I want to curse at you right now!” Silence and surprise hung in the air. I fled from it and stormed up the stairs to my bedroom, and, of course, slammed the door.
I had fantasized before about getting caught shoplifting and my mom coming to get me. I imagined her walking into the police station, and I felt a wicked surge of satisfaction seeing her eyes swim with tears. It made me feel potent and commanding, like I’d pushed something in her and maybe it had moved.
But the reality was nothing like the fantasy. I just felt crappy.
I sat in my room. I ate a lot of cookies. I read. I thought little about the right or wrong of what I’d done. I understood that it was theoretically and morally wrong, but on a practical level, I didn’t think it was such a big deal. My crime wasn’t taking the food from some family’s mouth. I hadn’t stolen from a local mom-and-pop shop. Bloomingdales was going to be just fine.
There were times throughout the stealing years when I had moral moments and heard a small voice tell me what I was doing was wrong. But I’d heard those kinds of voices before, telling me things I didn’t agree with. Don’t do drugs. Don’t listen to rap music. Don’t eat so much cake. I was determined to drown these voices out. Since I had no army, no battle arms to raise against my enemies, I roared with teenage angst and laughed bitterly at the fools who smiled at me as I walked out of their stores wearing seven outfits. It was a thrill that only began to express my fury and my power. It tasted of self-righteousness, stung sour like the pleasure of salt and vinegar, and I think, if I hadn’t gotten caught freshman year, I would have continued with honor-roll-student dedication.
I would have continued until every big store in Philadelphia was barren and bankrupt.
Even if I had all the clothes I wanted and each article was a fuck you to all the people in charge, the amorphous voice that told me I wasn’t good enough — or old enough, or wise enough, or pretty enough, or woman enough — would still have thrived. Tina, Amber and I returned to school the next Monday, eager to share stories of what our parents did to us, acting like it had all been a blast until the annoying adults got involved. But after the one-day story exchange, our trio disbanded. Tina and Amber stayed friends. I watched their fashionable clique roam the school, watched the way they dressed, crossed their legs, watched the boys watch them. I hung out with other kids at school, and we laughed at how hard the fashionable girls were trying. But at home by myself during those months when I was grounded, I wept silently to sad songs by The Cure, hid wrappers of pilfered Snickers in my pajama drawer, practiced crossing my legs in the mirror, and fantasized about the nights in the woods, when I felt closest to Her.
Minna Dubin is a writer, artist, and educator living in Berkeley, CA. She is the founder of #MomLists, a Bay Area literary public art project on identity and motherhood. Her work has been featured in MUTHA Magazine, Story Club Magazine, Panoplyzine, and is forthcoming in The Mom Egg Review. Follow Minna on Instagram at @momlists.