I used to steal when I was younger. Little things: tiny metal earrings in silver and gold, intended to arm all the way up your ear like the studs on a portcullis. A delicate chain necklace. Rings I’d slide out of their cardboard binding and slip onto my own fingers. A coyote tooth—this a gift for an old boyfriend. An ivory tube of oil paint, gum erasers, a lump of quartz. The jewelry was rarely to my taste, the objects strange and unworkable. My thefts accumulated in my room with no place to go. They crowded my desk like a magpie’s nest: a dark glass bottle of sandalwood-scented oil, paint keys too small for the tubes I used in my studio, a blue glass marble, a silver filigree ring that I bent to fit my forefinger but never wore.
Reflecting on it I’m sure it was a compulsion. I’d do it most often when I was back home in Oregon for breaks, unhappy and nervous, itching to crawl out of my own skin. Only taking something—really, just taking it and slipping out of the store—gave me the rush that quelled the constant anxiety rising inside. I did it almost as frequently when I was drunk, though then it was usually food, which seems crueler: a mottled plum from a storefront while visiting Julian in the city. A chocolate bar from a bodega in Williamsburg. A sleeve of violet mints that made my mouth feel perfumed.
There’s something charming about petty theft, but mostly it’s embarrassing. There’s no point. It gave me a rush that had a definite end, like the kind of casual sex where he hurts your feelings after but you feel, or believe you feel, strong and just fine.
I knew it was bad but it felt nice to be bad in a small, stupid way. The path to dissolution always seems a better course if you choose it for yourself.
Three months ago I did acid with two friends in the middle of the night. It came on crumbling mints wrapped in tinfoil and I flattened my piece of aluminum, running it over my tongue to get the last of the sugary paste, closing my mouth over it to feel the eerie electric taste wriggle over my teeth. High and dazzled, we lay in bed together, watching kaleidoscopic patterns of shadow and light chase themselves across the walls. A poster on my roommate’s door seemed to breathe and sparkle, throwing off light when I slowly moved my head from side to side.
It’s not productive to be enamored of one’s badness. I outgrew shoplifting after about a year. The things I stole when I was eighteen have become simply things I own, and there are fewer of them. Still, you find a badness to replace the other badnesses, which is in turn just another way of avoiding the hard work of reality.
Every time I do hallucinogens I have some kind of revelation. That night, we crowded into the shower together, in our underwear, and turned on the water, and spun in happy, rapturous circles, clinging to each other, our elbows and shoulders bumping against the tile.
Theft is easy, it’s just sleight of hand. Its premise is invisibility. Its effect is practically nil. Sometimes I think of all the people who have ever loved me and it seems like one long prank I pulled, some trick I did with my hands that I’m not sure I can do again. Sometimes I worry I’ve stolen my way into someone’s heart, taking up space meant for someone better; someone else.
But here is the revelation I had that night: Love is work. I’m not sure how I got to that place, only that when the thought entered my head I circled it again and again, observing it from all angles. Nothing comes easily, nothing comes without trying. You can’t steal your way to joy. Love is work, but work is all it is.
A memory. It’s November—it’s December—it’s January. I’m on the phone with Chris. Sometimes we are easy and sometimes we are hard. Right now in this moment that I conjure we are listening to each other, for the pulsing heart of the other, so intently I can feel him on the other end of the line, waiting for me, waiting for him, both of us waiting to know what to say to make it work again.
Love is work. Happy New Year. We carry on, and on.