By Jennifer Maher
Resolve, The National Infertility Association of America, lists a variety of emotional and physical symptoms in response to not getting pregnant when you want to get pregnant. They include but are not limited to:
- Lack of energy (especially when you have an unsuccessful cycle, on medical appointment days, or when you will see a pregnant friend);
- Irritability (snapping at people or making mountains out of molehills)
- Extreme sadness
- Inability to concentrate
Shoplifting is nowhere on this list.
Yet in the nearly three years it took me to conceive, along with over $22,000 in home-refinancing and credit card debt, I also acquired the following:
- One black large-ring pullback belt with double buckle
- A boxy caramel suede jacket with fringe on the front pockets and hem
- Decadent Fig, Orchid Surrender, and Cheating Heart lipstick (Estee Lauder)
- Two bottles of 2006 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir
- The complete boxed set of My So-Called-Life
Much like infertility, shoplifting requires a certain kind of seat-of-your-pants creativity. Some seasoned lifters, for instance, line empty bags with aluminum foil to get past the door sensors; others rig bags with springs or wear enormous coats with hand-sewn secret pockets inside. Whatever the method of concealment, though, recreational shoplifting has long been considered an archetypal feminine vice, an impulsive pilfering of the phallus and the mirror image of castration anxiety. Secreting a skin cream in the feminine folds of your purse couldn’t be more obvious in this respect. Or imagine a necklace up your coat-sleeve, its laminated price tag held fast like a nascent IUD. Think about the fact that just this year in a South Carolina outlet mall, they arrested a woman with over $1700 dollars worth of stolen clothes in an empty infant car seat.
When I finally got caught, it was on the first floor. The first floor of most department stores is the sort of gateway drug of shoplifting because it is full-to-bursting with easily pocketed items such as makeup and jewelry, a whole range of objects no larger than an infant’s palm or a deck of cards. I had just slipped a gold-plated chain necklace with purple lacquer beads into my shopping bag full of already purchased merchandise.
Standing in line to actually pay for something while you steal something else is a trick I thought I was clever enough to come up with on my own although, actually, it’s quite commonplace. Cloaking oneself in the veneer of respectable consumerism has a certain logic: who would suspect someone who is in the middle of paying for something else? The calculations involved in such decisions (how much to spend, how much to steal) are both whimsical and precise, a weighing of the universe against your own held breath and courage. I was actually feeling sort of virtuous that day as I had passed up a display of patterned SmartWool socks, thinking somehow that a pair might be pushing my luck. Then I heard the voice behind me:
“Ma’am, you need to stop right now and come with me.”
Of course I had not choice but to follow him, though he made me walk in front, somehow guiding my elbow without touching me at all. We rose up on the same escalator that, as a child, I used to be afraid would catch my shoelace and crush me. Resort-wear was on sale, and we passed turquoise and pink signs that read “Island Getaway” against a backdrop of pixilated palm trees and sand. I remembered then, oddly, that the first word I learned to read was “Island.” “Is-land,” I pronounced it (with an “s”) to much praise, as I had I tried to sound it out and not just guess, which when it comes to words is just about as much right as wrong. I still cling to this skill—to be able to make a mistake and be redeemed for how I made it—even in the most awkward of circumstances. Perhaps if I just explained to this young man, I thought, as we rode past waffle grills and men’s shirts and thick blue Mexican glassware, that this was all because I was thirty-seven years old and didn’t have a baby. I had made a mistake but I could learn.
Yet I couldn’t speak of these sorts of calculations as we turned right and left nearly a dozen times into the stained off-white recesses of the store, a place where doors no longer whooshed but were opened by punching a code into a metal box above a doorknob. This is where the logic of theft got you, I thought, as I was ordered to sit in a chair with leaky stuffing. This was the place for people like me, people who think the universe runs via a system of payback such that pilfered accessories could balance existential rage.
The gentleman who had caught me on a camera concealed in a mirrored pillar couldn’t have been more than twenty-four years old, with dark hair cut close to his head. He called in a female sales assistant—store policy I later learned—and the only thing between me sitting up straight and passing out in fear was my ability to concentrate on her silver nametag and the garland of irises tattooed around her ankle. Both of them were, I was sure, ridiculously fertile, with at least thirty years of potential baby making between them. She usually worked at the cosmetic counter where they wore white coats. By now I was so used to being administered to by people in white coats that I half-expected her to ask me the date of the first day of my last period and to take out a syringe of Lupron.
“Name?” he asked, as she rotated the ankle of her right leg in a circle and stared at her cuticles.
I learned that if I signed a paper saying that it was my first offense and I agreed to pay the store one hundred dollars and not shop there anymore (though I was allowed, he emphasized, to shop online whenever I wished), I could be let go without involving the police. It wasn’t until he ripped the form off from the top of a pad of them that it really hit me that people did this all the time. I didn’t know why anyone else did it. I only knew that for me it was a way of biding time and ferreting objects away until the empty space was filled. If I had been pregnant, I might call this magpie-like behavior nesting.
I saw a therapist for a while over my anxiety about not being able to get pregnant but not about my shoplifting; it seemed too personal. Her assurances that I had come from “a long line of women who were able to have children” didn’t work for the obvious holes in its logic: anyone who has been born should therefore never suffer infertility. She prescribed me anxiety medication by consulting a laminated circular chart.
Years later, and after I finally had a baby, I learned that she had long been on a kind of informal shoplifting “watch list” at one of the more expensive boutiques in town. She hasn’t been arrested for a number of reasons, I suppose, chief of which includes her being white, in her late sixties, recovering from throat cancer, and recently divorced from her husband of forty years who left her for his Japanese teaching assistant. (In a small college town information like this spreads quickly).
I imagine my therapist, even now, arms full of Academic Woman of a Certain Age clothing—long, flowing caftan-like tops with nubby printed textures connoting either travel or a degree in anthropology—clothes meant to encase their wearers like so much flocked wallpaper. When she hands over her Visa Gold she nicks a scarf, say, or a free-trade wallet whose earmarked profits benefit children in Guatemala with cleft palates. The clerks in the store keep a lookout and try to sense when she might take something in order to distract her, like shaking a bright plastic toy in the face of a crying infant. No one really has the guts to actually call her on it, and the store must make enough money from what she does buy that they can afford to leave her alone but for the watching. My reaction to this information is a combination of repulsion and sympathetic joy.
The fear of getting caught, as any therapist will tell you, is an endemic part of the thrill of shoplifting. The pounding of blood in the arms and neck, the panic-static in the eardrum, the bursting open of the department store’s heavy glass and metal doors and into the air of the known world abruptly accessorized by what you both do and do not deserve. Thus the final steps out of the store are the scariest, and the most thrilling. I would draw this part out, lingering at the edge of tile and concrete, fingering the perfume bottles in an approximation of calm, my attempt to look less criminal and more casual consumer, a hassle-free flaneur with time on her hands and the world at her feet, a pantomime of the person I wanted to be. Not a thirty-seven-year-old academic whose left hip was covered with raisin-sized bruises from hormone injections. Just a woman. A woman shopping, as women do, for something warm and soft.
Of course, the stealing only quelled my pregnancy obsession for short periods of time. I still zealously counted the days of my cycle, took my temperature and recorded it in shaky print on a series of post-it notes next to the bed, bought package after package of ovulation kits and debated on the toilet seat whether the cervical mucous stretched between my fingers was, in fact, an inch or more in length, and if the opening to my cervix felt like more like my lips or my nose (the former connoted the approach of ovulation, or was it the latter?). For three years I would periodically sneak my index finger into my underwear to check for blood as the twenty-eighth day approached, the absence of which would mean I could breathe for the next hour. When my period came, as it inevitably did, the pelvic tugging and the thick molasses cramps became yet one more sign of the fact that the more I wanted something, the less likely I would be to get it, that I couldn’t count on getting what I wanted without subterfuge. Once stopped at a red light (probably on day twenty-six or twenty-seven), I reached up under my skirt with my left hand only to see the man in the SUV next to me raise his eyebrows and smile. You’d think that such embarrassment would warrant something good later to make up for it, but still that month my period came. Later, standing in line buying tampons, I palmed a tin of mints the size of a swallow’s egg.
Statistics vary, but most agree that women are born with a finite number of eggs, somewhere between one and two million. Approximately 750 eggs are “lost” each month and even fertility specialists throw around the term “shelf-life” to refer to the ways in which a woman’s eggs begin to diminish in quality after her twenties. One doctor called it the “dried macaroni problem.” If you have a box of dried macaroni on your shelf, you can expect it to last for years and years. However, the longer it sits inside your dusty cupboard the more likely it is that when you set it to boil, some of the individual pieces will have deteriorated.
I have never stolen a box of macaroni.
Part of what makes shoplifting seem alluring is also that you can pretend that you are striking a blow against the facts, against a world where the age you are able to pay your bills and live without three other people splitting the rent is also the age at which your peak fertility begins its precipitous drop. Stealing then felt to me like a swipe against Mother Nature and Father Capitalism at the same time. After all, that sweater at the Gap? It was made by fertile women at maquiladoras being paid cents a day.
Across the parking lot from my pediatrician’s office is a large department store whose red star signals its function as a space of gratification, both imaginary and concrete. When I carried my son into and out to of my car for his first checkup, I was afraid someone would stop me. I love him so much that I’m still not convinced he will disappear into thin air for everything I have ever done.
Two weeks ago, I saw my old therapist on the front steps of our local organic grocery store. It was October, and she had just tucked her cell phone into her wool pocket after calling (I imagine) for someone to come and collect her. By the time I was finished shopping, I saw her get into a taxi and leave the store’s order behind, turning her back on shelves, radio frequency identification tags, video cameras, prices for objects per can and box and gram and ounce. Before she stepped into the cab, her long linen skirt brushed against a pile of pumpkins arranged by the entrance, their round ridged orange skin fairly glowing in the shadow blue of early evening. They were still sitting there as she drove away. Right out front. Anyone could have taken one.
JENNIFER MAHER is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has published scholarly and creatively in a variety of venues including Brain, Child, Bitch Magazine, and Feminist Media Studies. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Indiana.