I was in seventh grade. Maybe eighth. I was having a hard time “finding myself” as I watched those around me submerge, never to be seen again, in the various social cliques of middle school. Preps? Brains? Jocks? Bad Girls? I owned an argyle sweater, had a 4.0 GPA, played softball, and had a smart mouth. Where the hell did I fit in?
Certainly not in a department store manager’s office, with him on the phone yelling at my parents to come pick me up because he had caught me shoplifting…
Some of the people I hung out with were pro shoplifters. I remember watching one of them go into a shoe store, try on a new pair of shoes, leave her old ones in the box, and brazenly walk out of the place in brand new kicks. It was a thing of beauty. So say criminals. It made me nervous and jittery every time, but I couldn’t help envy the fact that her chore money was still in her pocket and mine was helping Foot Locker and Aéropostale get richer.
Like a chump.
I had witnessed successful thievery so often that I just assumed people never got caught. It just didn’t happen. Until it did and it was me.
It was right after Christmas, and we were still on break from school. Christmas Cash burning a hole in our pockets, friends and I met up at a local store, one we frequented for school clothes, supplies, and other teenage necessities (new issue of Tiger Beat magazine, anyone?!). There were customers everywhere. Making returns, taking advantage of after-holiday sales. Everywhere. All I wanted was a bottle of nail polish. Did I have to wait in those long lines for ONE bottle of nail polish? Surely not. Plus, I was thirteen years old, read: more important than everyone else in the place. The polish was, like, $3.00, so who cares, right?
Still, watching someone else swipe stuff (did you just whisper Swiper, no swiping?) was entirely different than actually doing it myself. My armpits were sweaty, à la Saturday Night Live’s Mary Catherine Gallagher, but I was determined to avoid wasting precious minutes of my life waiting in those ridiculously long lines. Waiting and paying was for suckers.
Polish in hand, I continued my feigned browsing until my pals had picked up their purchases, too. I rounded the Beauty and Cosmetics aisle, and in one fluid motion, slyly slipped the little bottle into my over-sized Michigan winter coat’s pocket. Done. Like a boss.
We made it to the exit, walked through the doors, and felt the freedom of the December wind whipping at our faces. Steps away from the store, we began giggling because we had stuck it to The Man!
TAKE THAT PEOPLE WHO WORK HARD FOR THEIR MONEY AND PAY TAXES!
That was until The Man followed us, asked to see our receipts, and I crapped my pants.
Fortunately, it was only a figurative crap; we all know I’m capable of more.
Something weird happens when I’m incredibly nervous and backed into a corner: I cannot. stop. talking. And it’s not like a, “Hey, how are the kids?!” sort of thing. It’s a cross between an angry badger and my Grandma. Kinda like, “Hey, how ’bout I cut you if you don’t get outta my face.” In short, I’m mouthy. And the day that store manager asked to see the receipt he knew I didn’t have was no exception.
Manager: Can I see your receipt?
Manager: Because you don’t have one.
Me: Because I threw it away.
Manager: I don’t think you did. I think you put a bottle of nail polish in your coat pocket and now you’re trying to leave the store without paying for it.
Me: Are you calling me a liar and a thief?!
Manager: That depends. Is there a bottle of nail polish in your pocket and do you have a receipt?
Nothing left to say, seriously contemplating making a run for it, I was terrified. The thought of what my dad was going to do to me when he found out…I shuddered.
We followed Mr. Manager back inside and he shoved us all in this hole-in-the-wall of an office. Then he started lecturing us: “I imagine your parents are going to be pretty pissed off. Why the hell would you take a bottle of nail polish?!”
I, of course, countered with: “Would you mind watching your language? We’re not swearing at you.”
Mr. Manager’s eyes widened at my audacity; I felt boob sweat pooling under my coat as I prayed he didn’t smack me across the face. Instead, he laughed.
“Right, you don’t swear; you just steal.”
Touché, Manager. Touché.
And then the phone calls home: “Hello. Your daughter was caught shoplifting. You need to come pick her up immediately…” The rest is a blur. I do, however, distinctly remember how surprised I was that I couldn’t hear my dad’s freak out on the other end of the phone. Hmmm…
True to form, my dad was livid. But rather than his head pop off his shoulders and explode into the atmosphere, or his voice boom as he listed sordid details of my punishment, he did something far worse. He gave me something I didn’t expect, something I haven’t been the recipient of since.
As we drove, my dad behind the wheel, staring straight ahead and saying nary a word, I felt…funny. I had mentally prepared for battle. Where was it? My little brother sat between us on the truck’s bench seat, providing the only physical buffer, and made no attempt to hide his smug satisfaction that finally, I was the one in trouble instead of him. I could feel his eyes on me, despite my best efforts to stare out of the passenger’s side window. Except for the kid’s oh-so-pleased Cheshire cat grin, there was nothing said or done in reaction to my crime.
There was no yelling.
No demands to know what the hell I was thinking.
And it was the worst punishment of all time.
When we got home, my mom was waiting for me in the kitchen, “loaded for bear,” as she would say. Arms crossed over her chest, she started firing the second I walked in the back door. It didn’t matter, though; she could call me every name in the book, shriek obscenities, and tell me one million times how I had disappointed her, but it just didn’t matter. The damage had been done. My dad’s refusal to speak to me was worse than anything my mother could throw at me. And, if I recall correctly, she just may have thrown something at me. The sound of silence was more than my loud mouth, know-it-all teenage self was equipped to handle.
A few years after “the incident,” those WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets became all the rage. Not that my man JC hasn’t guided me and carried me through some tough times, but while everyone was asking themselves what He would do, my mantra was WWDD, What Would Dad Do? Because there was no way I ever wanted to feel that emptiness like I did the day I broke his heart with my thoughtless and careless ways. I can only hope to be half the parental influence to my kids that my dad has been to me. A little less hairy, maybe not quite as loud, but still. The man is good.
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