My Years As A Kleptomaniac
by Jordan Rosenfeld
1984. My breath catches in my throat as my fingers curl around the smooth porcelain bowl, small as a quarter, its pattern surprisingly intricate. The miniature slides on the sweat of my skin and threatens to drop between palm and pocket; I’m an amateur magician not ready for an audience.
As I bike home its illicit weight bangs, impossibly heavy, like a hardback book against my thigh. My hands shake as I set it on the oak table in my steadily-filling dollhouse. The bowl completes a China set on which my tiny family can eat a perfect dinner of mini steak and lobster, so unlike the chipped, mismatched Corningware on which my single father will slap down our usual meal of hot dogs, corn and noodles.
“Where are you getting all these things?” asks my father, mustachioed, Harrison Ford handsome, on his way out, gazing in at the material paradise of my stiff-limbed dolls. We have only purchased a few of these items together, and only a handful more have come from my grandparents.
“From Julietta.” The lie comes out coated in thick saliva. My stomach contracts with the welling scum of shame.
My father’s pursed-lip gaze lingers, scans the new display shelf that houses a tiny Faberge egg, gold trophy, and vase of clay roses. My heart does frantic circuits, thuds against my ribs, before he nods and asks no more.
Or perhaps he asks no more because he, too, engages in a game of secrets. I could as easily ask him where he gets the pungent smelling “tomato plants” as I am instructed to call them, sealed in black plastic squares, which he exchanges for rectangles of cash. The algorithm of the packages’ arrival and disappearance is as mysterious as the method by which my dolls have gone from Spartan poverty to middle-class abundance.
When he’s gone, I pump furious legs on my bike, breath ragged and hot in my chest, to get to Julietta’s house. Pretty, Italian — only a princess’ name should be allowed so many syllables — and the long, flippable hair to go with it. I’m still Jordie, a “boy’s name,” in a sea of pert, popular Jennifers and Sarahs.
Julietta’s house, with its high ceilings and matching furniture, stands among those of doctors and lawyers typical of Marin County. Not like my father with his cardboard acupuncture office and the shadowy business behind it. Julietta is the doted on child of well-to-do parents, the kind of kid who could conceivably afford to recycle her excess to a less privileged friend.
Julietta is my friend because we don’t go to the same school. She knows nothing of the Peacock Gap crowd that torments me, raised as they were from birth in that swank part of San Rafael, clothes crisp like freshly-printed currency straight off the “in season” racks at Macy’s.
Julietta will teach me that my kleptomania can go further: taking turns standing guard, we stalk the mailboxes of her wealthy neighbors, grabbing a fistful of envelopes we slit open later in her room, revealing canceled checks and doctor’s bills, occasionally a letter. It brings the same rush as pocketing dollhouse décor, anxiety’s wild wing beats, and the ensuing release of endorphins when I get away with it.
In the weeks when I shuttle back to my mom’s house twenty minutes away, where dinner is unpredictable, where my mother’s new boyfriend crowds our tiny attic apartment with his glazy-eyed bulk, I feel the faintest stab of remorse about my dollhouse thefts, but I long for the rush, too.
And then one day Julietta teaches me The Game.
“Like this,” she instructs. She turns in manic circles, then flips her hair back and forth until I’m dizzy watching her. Then she backs up against the wall, head bent forward to her knees, her cheeks bulging with held breath. She whips her head up straight, and I’m waiting for her to exhale. Anxious hoofbeats pound through my chest. Her eyes roll up in her head and she slumps to the floor.
She’s not down long, maybe thirty seconds, in which I sit, numb and sweating with terror, before she opens her eyes and smiles wide. Her expression is glazy-eyed like my mother’s, after she inhales the smoke off the silver foil.
“You feel really great when you wake up,” Julietta insists. “Now you!”
My stomach drops out like I’m stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel, the world a rippling blur below. But Julietta is the only friend I have these days, so I follow her lead. There’s a terrifying thrill to holding my breath until my lungs protest in painful spasms. Until dark stars twinkle at the edges of my vision. Until I fall into a dream, impossibly long and full of forgetting. Only to wake, slumped now on my knees on the floor with a feeling of euphoria as clean and light as the ocean biting my toes.
In the space between forcing myself to the edge of blackout and the renewal of waking again, life seems to reboot, and hope reigns again.
A week later my dad catches me with my hand in his gallon jug change jar, full of gleaming quarters and dimes that must be mined with patient fingers, several layers down. My pockets bulge with cached change to feed my steadily growing candy habit.
I hear his cleared throat in the doorway and freeze like a robber caught in an afternoon movie. “Is this how you’re buying those dollhouse toys?” he asks.
Shame is quickly trumped by a stiff indignation. Does he think I’ll give up my secrets so easily?
I extract the change from my pockets, its clatter back into the jar distracting from tears of humiliation clouding my eyes. He doesn’t say anything more, or even stop me when I say, “I’m going to Julietta’s,” just watches me with concern in his hazel eyes. Indeed, I’m on my bike so fast he barely has a chance to ask me more.
I ride in a troubled sweat the half mile to her house and pound on the door, panic a tumble of rocks in my gut.
She frowns when she opens the door. “Oh, hi.”
“Let’s play The Game.” I push past her before she can say no.
She hesitates a moment, looks around as though she’s expecting someone else. “Now?”
“Please?” There’s a desperation in my voice, need crimping my muscles.
I know she likes the silvery fresh feeling too and I’m banking on her need for it.
She chews her lower lip, but then shrugs.
We enter the tunnel of held breath and endorphin rush a couple of times, the shame of my thefts, my father’s sad eyes, blown to particles, diffuse and no longer filling me.
Suddenly, the phone rings in a world so far below us, a tinny sound, as though in a tunnel. It rings and rings and rings before Julietta rises, shakily, from the floor, and stumbles to retrieve it. “It’s your dad.” The size of her eyes tells me he’s upset.
“Where are you?” His voice is like a whisper. I’m having trouble clearing my head — the foggy, inexact geometry of a dream, where nothing fits.
“I told you, Julietta’s!” Even though I’m in the wrong, I’m caught in a stranglehold of defensiveness.
“It’s dinner time. You’ve been gone for hours.”
But we’ve only played the game a handful of times, minutes, surely, haven’t we? Sure, in the grey space between falling and waking, it’s impossible to tell how much time has passed. We prefer the living room with its wide windows, where there is no clock.
We haven’t done anything wrong — we never harm ourselves — but I can’t shake the soul-deep sense of badness at having lost several hours of time in pursuit of this elusive good feeling.
It’s the last time we play The Game, though it’s nowhere near the end of my forays into theft, that deep-pocket, sweaty-palm thrill too necessary to stop, for now.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is an editor, writing coach, and author of two novels and four writing guides, most recently A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE.