Fiction, 6/12/12

The rigors of college life were manageable up to a point, but it seemed to her that she reached that point much too soon, or at least it had all happened so fast. She was a junior, a communications major minoring in anthropology. She was making decent grades and felt pretty happy with her classes and her choices in general. Sometimes she partied and all that, but that sort of thing had plateaued during her sophomore year. She hung out with friends from the dorms still, and her roommates at the new apartments south of campus were pretty fun, too. She wasn’t working a job but she had student loans and a little bit saved up from the summer, enough to be comfortable on. Everything was fine. She would get stressed sometimes about money and school, but it seemed everybody around her did, too, and that made it easier to deal with. But then in February she and her longtime boyfriend started having troubles. They were doing the long distance thing, had been doing it for more than three years, and she was balking now about driving back home to see him. Her coursework had picked up considerably. “It’s so far, and the gas, you know,” she would say to him over the phone, trying to hold her ground. Usually she’d head back every weekend or so, to see him and also visit her folks. “I just have so much homework to do this weekend. And then that presentation…Baby, I just can’t do it this time.” She felt torn but also felt that she was doing the right thing. She simply didn’t have the time or money. It was the sensible thing, she thought.

It was he that first suggested they break up. He mentioned it during one of their nightly telephone chats, just slipped it in like he had been sitting on it for a while. Said something about them not making enough time for one another. At first she was indignant. She’d said, “Are you really gonna do this? Come on. Is it because I’m not driving home as often? Because that is not fair, and you know it.” They would fight over the phone sometimes and there were a couple good tiffs in person, too, but nothing seemed to come of it. Each accused the other of selfishness, the arguments racing round and round with gathering bitterness. During that last tearful fight he had called it off proper. “It’s not the same as it used to be, what we have,” he’d said. “You moving over there has changed things, and you’re not the same, either. It’s changed you. You’re like a different person, I swear. Ask anyone around here—not that you really talk to them anymore.” She was bawling as she drove back to her apartment. It was the middle of the night and she was still buzzed from the wine they’d had at dinner. “Fuck him, the selfish, inconsiderate bastard! God! Let him fester in that dead-end town.” It was a long drive through the dark and the rain but she did it without stopping at all.

For a while she carried on with her classes and homework, a welcome and demanding routine. If anything, she threw herself even more resolutely into her studies. Eventually people pieced together what had happened. Friends, perplexed and concerned by her reticence, offered consolation but she waved them off. “It was bound to happen,” she’d tell them brusquely. “No use trying to change the inevitable.” She ignored his phone calls and texts pleading for rapprochement. He had ceded the upper hand, and she was going to relish it. She knew he wouldn’t come out to see her—he seemed to resent everything about her college life and her college town—and this situation suited her just fine.

After a while her friends suggested she date other people. We’re worried about you, they’d said. You’re overworking yourself at school, they’d said, and it’s not good for you. Let us help you out. Reluctantly she agreed to their matchmaking, if only to humor them. She found out quickly enough that she had little interest in seeing people again, and the few dates she went on amounted to little besides money spent on meals that she couldn’t really afford. She became more fault-finding and caustic in her judgment of her suitors. They were boring and awkward and besides, she had more important things to do. Her friends and roommates saw less and less of her. She took to hiding out in the library for hours at a time, her phone turned off. The excuse of “homework” became the all-purpose snub that even her studious friends thought was bullshit, but no one called her out on it.

Despite her resolve, however, her grades started flagging. It was getting on toward the middle of Spring Quarter, when the trees around campus came into leaf and the slightest hint of sunshine triggered a brave emergence of bared arms and goose-bumpy legs.  Stress and sleep deprivation were a constant menace, more pronounced than ever with all the distractions outdoors. She found herself unable to focus on schoolwork with the same myopic intensity as before. She wondered whether he had started seeing someone else. He had stopped calling weeks ago. She hated herself for thinking it, but there it was: pangs of jealousy. It made her even more agitated and tense. “I don’t give a fuck about him,” she’d told a friend one drunken night, walking home from the bar. “Let him rot in that shithole of a place. I had the good sense to get out.” Soon her grades had slipped to the point where the school took notice: She had been placed on academic probation. She stared at the letter with an icy dread pooling in her stomach. If her GPA fell any lower, it stated, her financial aid would be revoked. She held the letter for a moment longer and then slowly tore it up into tiny pieces.

Her mother called the following evening, right as she was finishing dinner and preparing to walk to the library again. “Hey honey, long time no see,” her mother said. “It’s been almost a month now, or whenever it was you had that midwinter break, I don’t remember.” There was a pause, and she realized she was supposed to say something. “I know, Mom, I know. I’m sorry I haven’t called you.” She cradled the phone on her shoulder while she packed her textbooks into her bag, and then she bent down to grab her shoes from behind her bedroom door. In the mirror she noticed how thin she was getting, and it pleased her. She could hear her mother’s television going in the background. Over the phone, someone knocked on her mother’s door, which set the dogs to barking hysterically. “Hey! Chester! Bruno! Quiet! It’s just Janine, okay?” She winced at the rasp in her mother’s voice.Sorry, honey. Your sister’s just gotten here. So, is everything all right? I just…I know you hate it when I ask, but I have to. Is everything all right with you two? Are you two having problems again? I just remember the last time you guys had trouble, you stopped coming home for a month. I’m worried about you, you know?” She shouldered her bag and picked up the phone. Her mother knew nothing about the split, and she intended to keep it that way. “No Mom, it’s just…I’ve just been really busy, is the thing. Been having to stay here over the weekends. I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight, actually. I was just heading out to the library to study. So I can’t really talk, I’m sorry. I gotta go, Mom. Love you.” She was walking now toward campus. “Well, okay, honey. Keep at it. You know I love you too. I’ll tell Janine you say hi.”

She was studying harder than ever now. Her grades climbed up from the brink but just hovered there, perched precariously, waiting for her to let off the pressure even a tad. She was miserable, but not for lack of company, she was certain—thoughts of him rarely crossed her mind. He was out of the picture, excised completely. She was out of sorts in a whole new way. She felt powerless to direct her focus, to assert herself academically with how scatterbrained she felt. Desperate for some semblance of control, she tried to exercise. She started running again, but found that she had lost the patience for it. It bored her, or she was too anxious, or something else, she didn’t know. All she could think of while running was the work she could be getting done instead. Then something happened. One day, while shopping at the department store, she felt a long-dormant itch flare up as she passed the makeup aisle. It was brief, but it was significant. Suddenly she was possessed of an irrepressible urge to steal.

It was a habit she had picked up from her older sister, Janine, while they were in middle school. They would go to the Target a couple blocks from the school and steal eyeliner, mascara, lip gloss, candy—whatever they cram into their pockets and walk out with. “Always act like you’ve got nothing to hide,” Janine had said, and together they had been unstoppable. They’d enter and leave separately and keep tabs on the “loss prevention” officers that prowled the aisles. Janine taught her how, when walking out with a purse full of stuff, to purchase a few small items, so as not to arouse suspicion. She had stopped shoplifting in junior high, after a couple close calls with the rent-a-cops, but Janine kept at it all the way into high school, until she was caught at a Ross trying to steal almost two hundred dollars’ worth of clothing. She hadn’t thought about shoplifting in years. It was stupid, it was wrong, and it was tricky, but of course she knew these things.

At first she started with makeup. This was child’s play for her. She would pull the packages off the shelves, place them in her basket, and nonchalantly walk down the aisle, working the product out of its wrapper with deft, precise fingers. Then she would collect them in her hand and make as if to pull something out of her purse, thereby depositing them inside. It was a practiced, seamless maneuver. The wrappers she would stash in some corner of the store, once she was certain she had not been tipped off by the cameras. Walking out of the store, catching her breath slightly as she passed through the barcode detectors unopposed, she felt again that frisson of illicit triumph, the satisfaction of having taken advantage of something without remorse.

Soon she was stealing food, clothes, books, pens, magazines, pens, anything that was conceivably mobile and small enough to secret away. She was stealing things she had no real use for, simply because she felt capable of doing it. She was emboldened; she felt in control. The haul of merchandise grew, approaching several hundred dollars worth within a few weeks. She could feel the buzz of compulsion whenever she walked past storefronts or stepped inside the supermarket. She had zero desire to steal from people, but stores to her were fair game—there was something deeply impersonal about stealing from a store, whereas robbing a person was almost unthinkably brazen. She knew where to draw the line, or at least she thought she did.

Her friends noticed how dodgy she’d become. She was even more withdrawn than before, and they had stopped inviting her to parties because her excuses had finally worn themselves thin. Her roommates found her sulky and unreachable. They silently pondered the provenance of all the junk in her room, but they didn’t say anything about it to her. By that point they knew she would only get evasive. They could sense that something was wrong, that something deep down had changed in the past month and a half. She claimed to be spending most of her time at the library, and because she was still receiving her student loan checks, they believed her.


When, three weeks later, she found herself standing before a judge after pleading guilty to theft in the second degree, she recalled a question her case worker had put to her: “Have you ever done this sort of thing in the past? Stealing, all that? No? Okay, good. The judge is going to ask you this, and it’s important that you answer truthfully, because it influences how the judge determines your sentence.” In the courtroom, the judge looked through her file, flipping pages. It was a very loud sound, that flipping. “Is this behavior normal for you? Or is it something different? Because, looking through your file here, I see you’ve got no record whatsoever. Not even a speeding ticket. I guess I’m just curious as to what brought this on.” She stared at the judge’s voluminous robe, the pasty hand thrust out from the sleeve. The judge looked down at her through nose-perched spectacles. “No, Your Honor, that behavior was…” A strange word popped into her head, and she decided to go with it. “Aberrant. It was aberrant behavior, and I was…acting…without control. I felt like I could not control myself.” She said this with confidence, and the judge nodded knowingly.


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