I hate hashtags, especially the one that says #winning, because I am never winning at anything, except stealing, I thought, standing in front of the yogurt dispenser with my mini sample cup, trying to decide what flavors to try. I glanced to my right to see if the cashier was looking; she wasn’t. I sampled the dark chocolate and french vanilla, swirled, the key lime, on its own, then quickly moved down the row: strawberry shortcake, tiramisu, peanut butter, cookie dough, jelly bean. There were 14 flavors, and I tried them all.
After ten minutes, I walked out, full of frozen yogurt, and slightly nauseous. If you are what you eat, I was, at that moment, a vat of illegally pilfered dairy product, spiked with sugar and artificial flavorings. I slunk into my getaway car, started my engine, and high-tailed it away, from the scene of the crime.
I’m the mother of two twin girls, Cate and Chloe. They are a blessing and a joy. It’s almost inconceivable to me that five years have gone by since they were born. Chloe is the more sensitive one. Cate is the rebel. I am the tired, slightly overweight mother who is trying to keep it all together. Though having children teaches you—at least in theory—that life is not about having it together. Life is about risk. Life is about sleeplessness. Life is about showing up, and saying yes, yes, yes, like Sally in “When Harry Met Sally,” faking an orgasm in a diner! Because sometimes, just beneath the yes, is a low, guttural moan of no, not now, not ever. But you do it anyway. You get up and help your kids brush their teeth. You make breakfast for 1, 2, or 6 people. You navigate a hellish work commute. You start another impossible day.
I love my family—the twins, and my husband Leon. Leon works in pharmaceutical sales. Pulls a decent profit, enough for me to not work while our girls were young. Now our girls are seven, and I’m looking for a full-time job. In the meantime, I sell skin care: Rodan and Fields.
Some say Rodan and Fields is a pyramid scheme, but they’re wrong. It’s wildly successful, and the naysayers are just jealous. I myself use the Reverse regime. My skin is my calling-card, now. I even look good—ok, presentable—without a touch of make-up. Impossible? That’s what I thought, before trying R & F (and before the introduction of Lash Boost)! My biggest challenge is not to let my saleswoman persona creep into other areas of my life, like in giving friends advice, or trying to get Cate to eat her broccoli, which she loathes.
Prior to having children, I worked full-time at a retail store, Express. I made a living selling racerback tanks and palazzo pants. I well remember trying to negotiate for three days off, over Christmas. I well remember doing my best to stay upbeat on the sales floor when angry, ignoring the varicose veins that crept up my legs after a year of standing upright for eight hours a day, and doing my best to bring in lunches whose odor would not offend my coworkers.
This is what being a good worker actually comes down to: cheerful, tireless labor, for a pittance, and inoffensive lunch smells.
Speaking of childrearing in terms of labor politics deromanticizes the whole notion of procreation, I know, but I’d rather have kids, and negotiate with Leon for seven years off, rather than beg my employer for three days off, I told myself, after 14 months of work at Express.
So that is what I did.
The yogurt is, I’m afraid, just the tip of the iceberg. On my way home I stopped at our local Stop and Shop, and, along with the cart full of groceries, I also walked with a pack of gum and a bottle of soy sauce, tucked inside my purse.
If you’re only as sick as your secrets, as my cousin Dave says, then I am pretty sick, indeed.
I stick objects up my shirt sleeves, down my pants, and into any container, purse, or bag I happen to be holding. Once, I walked out of a department store holding an espresso maker, in the box, proud as Queen Elizabeth at her coronation.
You could say I was a wild teenager. Piercings in the ears, nose, and eyebrow. A diamond stud where a mole would have been, above the lip. Now I have just the holes, not the jewelry. There is a gnawing hunger inside of me. I need to steal, for the object, and for the rush. It used to be cocaine, back before I even met Leon, so I guess you could say I have a safer drug now.
The night of my yogurt binge, I arrived home to earth-shattering news: my mother-in-law Joanne, whom I loathed, broke her hip. After recovering, she’d be moving in with us.
I screamed, I wept, I pleaded with Leon. He remained firm. We revisited the issue the next day. He remained firm. She was recently widowed, and had begged Leon to let her live with us, while she healed, to spend time with the grandchildren (and ruin my life).
The week after I received the news, I was short and snappish with the girls. I was deeply embittered. Why me? Why now? I once read that even primates had a way of obliterating consciousness, by bashing their heads against a rock. I was that primate, now.
That week, I stole, listlessly, some Egyptian cotton sheets from Bed and Beyond. I just shoved them into a large bag, after removing the electronic security device, and sailed out of the store. The girls were with Leon. I tap danced through the parking lot. Sometimes, theft makes me giddy, because guess who is going to sleep like a million bucks tonight? Me.
On my way home, I listened to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” “If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” I sang along, then stopped, hating myself for lowering my ethical standards for a beat. Next was Dr. Dre’s California Love. I listened to it intently.
And pimps be on a mission for them greens
Lean mean money-makin-machines servin fiends
I been in the game for ten years makin rap tunes
Ever since honeys was wearin sassoon
Not finding anything morally reprehensible, I sang along, tapping my fingers on the dash.
The following morning, Cate showed symptoms of a bad cold. After speculating with Leon about who gave her the cold, he decided on me. “You’re the unhealthy one,” he said.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“Not in front of the children,” he said. We laughed.
I never bothered reading about my habit of stealing, or entering therapy over it. Mostly, that was because I couldn’t afford to buy books, let alone therapy. To me, stealing wasn’t really a habit, or even an addiction: it was a way of life. I literally couldn’t walk into a store without at least wanting to steal. 90% of the time, I found a way to take something, whether it was a ball-point pen, or an apple, or even a small plaque hanging in the bathroom. I needed there to be another layer of transaction between myself and the world, to whom I did nothing but smile. At least I wasn’t a real criminal, I told myself. At least I didn’t hurt people, or steal from people I knew, or steal from the poor and vulnerable—I mostly stole from large chain stores, whose very anonymity and corporate greed and price-gauging angered me.
I slept well at night, knowing I was just a common criminal, committing small and forgivable acts of petty theft. And do you know what I really thought about stealing, deep inside my innocent, spiritual self? I thought like Emily Dickinson, who said:
“This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me.”
So there. This was my profit from the world, that never gave to me.
The next day, I threw myself into mom-mode with more-than-usual aplomb. I made the girls anthropomorphic pancakes (Mickey Mouse, with a missing ear and snaggle tooth), ironed, and even played a round of hide-and-go-seek. I was feeling pretty good about myself by noon. Then Leon came home from work early, and lit into me. The house wasn’t clean enough, dinner wasn’t made, there were no vacuum marks on the carpet (the tell-tale sign that I’d vacuumed), and the checking account was dangerously low, again. He screamed and yelled and called me names. After his tirade, he went into the kitchen, to wash the figurative blood from his hands.
At times like these, I thought: I have an asshole for a husband, when all I’d ever wanted was a “un espose dulce,” a kind, gentle man.
I had dreams of becoming a pastry chef until I had two children. Now I am a professional kleptomaniac who decries bourgeois idiocy in her spare time. You don’t believe me? I see the other moms, the rich bitches, at the soccer games, in their BMW mini-vans, with their Chanel lipstick and brightly-colored Gucci purses for which three ostriches were slaughtered, per bag. They and their daughters have shiny, luxuriant hair, and name brand everything.
My daughters want to be friends with the rich girls; they don’t yet understand the concept of class, or, rather, slumming, which is how the parents of the private-school girls with whom my daughters associate through church or sports teams see it.
In the eyes of the wealthy, the lower-middle class are poor peons who actually have to work—and mostly thankless, pathetic jobs—for a living. My family, the Frankenthaler’s (no relation to the artist Helen), skirts just below the median middle-class household income of $56,000 a year. We can barely afford shin-guards for our kids, let alone the dentist. Vacations? Lucky for us, my parents Susan and Bob are happily retired, and sitting on a little nest egg from my father’s 45 years of selling car insurance. They take the girls on a trip to a cabin once a year, in Maine, and once to Disneyland. They pay for the girls’ music lessons: violin for Cate, and piano for Chloe.
Myself and Leon, we’re lucky to have a dinner out together once every six months. Leon gets two weeks off a year, and mostly spends that time doing home remodeling, or mowing lawns in our small community for extra cash.
We decided to give Joanne the third small bedroom that I had been using as an office, for my Rodan and Fields business. I had recently been promoting the AMP roller, which stimulates the skin through micro-needling, so that the—admittedly costly—serum can better penetrate. If it sounds like hard (and slightly uncomfortable) science, that’s because it is!
Cleaning up the office of my supplies and preparing for Joanne’s arrival took two weeks. During that two weeks, I stole: vitamins, deodorant, Febreze, one sirloin steak, and two Van Gogh posters, among other sundries. The Van Gogh posters were for Joanne’s new “bedroom.” Despite my rage over the situation, I wasn’t going to let that affect my daughter-in-law good graces. The night before she arrived, in late October, Leon and I had a talk.
“Three months,” I said.
“A year,” he said. I glowered at him. “Eight months,” he countered.
“Six months, tops, plus you take over dish duty and laundry, or I’m leaving,” I said. “What a sad state of affairs, having to choose between your mother and your wife!”
Leon knew his mother was a difficult woman. He agreed.
On my evening walk, I whistled the melody to Kanye West’s “Mercy,” daydreaming about my passions: phyllo dough. Rosettes. Edible flowers. Cream.
At last, we welcomed the enfeebled Joanne into our small home. I cooked her breakfast—small, flat pancakes, nothing like the funny faces I made for the girls. We got her situated in the spare bedroom, and then I served her a cup of coffee on our sun porch, the pride and joy of our small home. She asked to be left alone for an hour, to enjoy the birds—ornithology was among her hobbies, with her late husband Walter—and I was more than happy to oblige.
I ran an errand, then, to the hardware store, to buy new screws to tighten my license plate. At the hardware store I also stole: wingnuts, a Snickers bar, and a Swiss army knife. I added up the value of my theft in the car on the way home. $14.00. Not bad at all.
When I got home, I found Joanne wandering the home like a ghost. I offered to take her to the library, with the girls, to get a new book. She agreed. An hour later, we were home, and I again situated Joanne on the porch with her Barbara Kingsolver novel. Before I walked away, she pulled me closer to her with a spidery, veiny hand. “Honey,” she said. “Have you thought about getting some help with the house cleaning? I could give you the number to a very good woman, a real professional. She would have this place back to normal in an afternoon.”
“What do you mean ‘normal’? I have two young children! And it’s not even messy!” I could feel the heat spread from my chest out to my extremities, like wildfire.
“Honey, I understand. It’s hard.”
“Joanne, can I get you anything else right now? An iced tea with cyanide?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I asked if you’d like an iced tea.”
“That sounds lovely, thank you.”
Reading novels is indeed a middle-class pastime, I decided, because no one else has the fucking time! I felt like destroying something. I instead decided to attack my face with my AMP roller, micro-needling it until the surface was red and flushed. I coated it with extra serum, then moisturizer, then eye cream. Nothing helped. I felt like screaming, for hours. I instead began to cry, inside my bathroom, my only private space apart from my family and mother-in-law.
Cate must have heard me crying, because soon there came a knock on the door.
“What do you want,” I said.
“I want to help,” she said. “Are you sick, Mommy?” I opened the door a small crack. Her precious face appeared, slotted into the door.
“Can you get your father?” I heard Cate’s feet pattering away. A minute later I heard Leon’s voice.
“What is it,” he said.
“I can’t do this,” I said, through the door. “Joanne belongs in an assisted living facility, run by professionals, not young mothers trying desperately to get their lives back on track!”
“You know we don’t have the money. And you said six months.”
“Leon, I don’t know if I can last six days.” I flung open the door. “Look at me! I’m breaking out in hives, and I’m supposed to be selling high-end skin care! I have a demonstration on Tuesday—do you think I’ll sell much product looking like this?”
“You look great!” he said, lying through his teeth.
“Two months,” I said, slamming the door.
My skin calmed down by the time of my presentation, and it went well. A friend of mine hosted the event; there were seven women in attendance, all eager to sample products, especially the Micro-Dermabrasion paste. Rodan and Fields representatives rarely host house parties—the consultants don’t need to. But I was looking for a way to give my business a boost. I enjoy talking about my membership in a growing team of 100,000 other consultants, and about the growth of the business since its 2002 inception.
The two hours passed quickly, aided by white wine and refreshments, and, by the end of the party I had sold two starter kits (about $175 each), and three sets of anti-wrinkle patches ($220 each), among other sundries.
I drove home in high spirits. Maybe I, too, would be driving a white Lexus (Rodan and Field’s pink Cadillac) sometime in the next five years!
I stopped off at the convenience store on my way home, and pocketed a lighter while paying for a diet coke. Then I stopped at the grocery store, and slipped a jar of Indian simmer sauce into my purse at the checkout. Who leaves Indian simmer sauce next to the mints at the grocery store check-out line? It was just asking for a good home. I came home to a dinner prepared by Leon, for our awkwardly-expanded family of five: swordfish, steamed broccoli and wild rice. Joanne was unusually nice, until the end of the meal, when I reached for a second serving of rice. She patted my hand. “Is that really necessary, honey?” she said. “You’re getting a little . . . hippy.”
“Hippy!” shrieked Chloe. “Mommy is a hippopotamus!”
“I made pineapple upside down cake,” said Leon hurriedly. “Mom? Liz?”
In an act of almost sublime self-control, I walked out of the room without saying a word.
Later, I returned the kitchen to confront Joanne, telling her exactly what I thought about her comment, and where she could shove it, after retracting it and apologizing. Achieving success, I then told Leon about my skin care party. “How much did you pocket?” he asked. I stared at him in alarm, thinking he was referring to my shoplifting.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“How much of the net profit do you get,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Enough. Plus bonuses, like free jewelry!”
Infuriated, I walked out to the porch, forgetting Joanne would be there.
“Excuse me,” I said, upon seeing her. Then I noticed she was asleep in her chair, snoring. Her book was spread half-open in her lap. In others, this scene might have inspired tenderness, over our shared human weakness. In me, it inspired disgust.
“Die,” I thought. “Just die.”
The next morning, I woke early. I stared down the ugliness in my soul, confronting the fact that I had wished my mother-in-law dead. Then I got out of bed, and began my day. At lunchtime, I got on the computer, and started hitting up all the job sites, beginning with Indeed. “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” I told myself, quoting Lao Tzu.
After applying to a few administrative assistant positions, I then had the temerity—or is it gall?—to look up registration at the Culinary Institute of America, which was a 40 minute drive from where we lived in Germantown, New York. More than anything, I wanted to learn to make exquisite French delicacies: opera cake, profiterole, macaron, custard tart, café liégeois. Pastries that took hours to make, and seconds to eat. Concoctions of pure fantasy that dissolved in the mouth, leaving the diner transported into dream.
A month later, I was accepted into CIA’s Associate in Occupational Studies (AOS) in Baking and Pastry Arts degree program. It was a 21-month program that I planned on taking two years to finish. The girls were in second grade—they could go to aftercare on the days I had school.
My Rodan and Fields business wasn’t thriving, but I was plodding along (about five sales per month). Joanne was making herself at home in my home, but we’d found an affordable senior living facility in Hudson, NY, where she would be transferring in three months, bringing the grand total of my in-law endurance to four months. Because an end was in sight, I grew more charitable, tolerant, and kind. When she called me thunder-thighs, I asked her if she had taken her medication that day; when she told me my crepes were runny, I asked if she had forgotten to put her dentures in.
At night, I worked out with free weights in our basement. My arms were starting to resemble wiry rods.
My parents took me out to dinner to celebrate my acceptance into culinary school. “I already have a bachelor’s degree,” I told them. “And this program isn’t free: I have to take out loans. This is not something to celebrate!” But inside I knew it was. I, at 37, was following my dreams. Maybe in a few months, I would find something to crow over at the end of a day, other than my daughters’ report cards and stash of stolen goodies.
We went to Gigi’s, in Rhinebeck, to celebrate. I had parmesan fries and a beet salad; my parents both had pizza. For dessert, they let me choose. I choose two: a lemon curd tartlet and a torta della mela—a warm apple cake with vanilla gelato, and caramel sauce.
“This is heavenly,” said my mother—also my first Rodan and Fields customer—digging in to the cake with a warm glow in her eyes. My father agreed.
I smiled, feeling validated about my chosen vocation by the parental unit. I shared with them, then, the story of why I want to become a pastry chef. “At my job at Express several years ago, one of my coworkers brought in monkey bread one day, to share. You could pull it apart with your hands, its gooey, doughy deliciousness. I almost fainted, eating it. When roused, I thought: I want to make others feel this way, some day,” I said.
“You want to go into debt learning a difficult trade, as inspired by a piece of sticky bread?” my father asked. My mother gave him the look, then patted my hand.
“He didn’t understand the poetry behind your vision,” she said. “I do, honey, I do.”
From the restaurant, I pocketed a container of hand lotion, and a tableware setting. It calmed me.
Home, I put away the lotion, and the tableware, after reading to the girls and putting them to bed. Then I retreated to our bedroom, and pulled out a box from under the bed of things I’d stolen that weren’t edible or useable or for others: a meditation book. A worry doll. A black choker. Incense. I thought about the history of stealing, not just objects: stealing time, stealing hearts, stealing intellectual property through plagiarism. I thought about injunctions against stealing, from the Ten Commandments—thou shalt not steal—to the sign in most places of business, “Shoplifters Will be Prosecuted.” Leon walked in. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Thinking about the difference between desire and need,” I said.
“What are you, a Buddhist?”
Joanne suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Hi lovelies,” she said. By now I knew her routine. Two Manhattans after 7pm and she was brimming over with nostalgia and maternal solicitude.
The girls clamored in behind her. “Can we come into your bed, Mommy?” they asked.
“Five minutes,” I said, motioning them over. They clambered into bed, followed by Leon, and Joanne just stood there, towering over us like an ineffective body guard. “Good night, Joanne,” I said, wrapping the black choker around my wrist. She walked away, mumbling.
Then I took out Chloe’s favorite book, Eloise in Paris, and began reading. We hadn’t even gotten past the point when Richard Avedon takes Eloise’s passport photograph, when the girls fell asleep. I carried them to their bunk beds. Everything in their room had been paid for, I thought. “Good night, girls,” I said, to their sleeping forms.
Then I, too, crawled into bed with Leon, looking forward to 7 hours of sleep, a blessed interval when I could exist without trying to acquire goods to survive, or, in a few rare cases, to have not a room, but an object of my own.
Virginia Konchan is author of a chapbook, Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), her fiction has appeared in Queen Mob's Teahouse, StoryQuarterly, Joyland, Memorious, Requited, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and an Associate Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, she currently works as an Editor for Sheep Meadow Press.