– By Stephanie Jankowski of When Crazy Meets Exhaustion.
I was in seventh grade, having a hard time “finding myself” as I watched those around me submerge, never to be seen again, in the vicious 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 seasoned shoplifters. I remember watching one of them go into a Foot Locker, try on a $150 pair of shoes, pull the ol’ switcheroo, and brazenly walk out of the place in brand new kicks. It was a thing of beauty, so say criminals. It made me jittery every time, but I couldn’t help envy the fact that her money was still in her felonious hand while mine was helping Nike get richer.
Like a chump.
I 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 the day after Christmas, AKA: Everyone Return All the Things Day. 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. All I wanted was a bottle of nail polish. Did I really have to wait in those long lines for ONE bottle of blood red? 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. I was nervous with sweaty armpits 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 the previously agreed upon scheme of feigned browsing until my pals had snatched their stuff, too. I rounded the Beauty and Cosmetics aisle, and in one fluid motion, slyly slipped the little bottle into my over-sized Michigan coat 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 YOUR MONEY AND PAY TAXES!
That was until we realized The Man had followed us, asked to see our receipts, and I crapped my pants.
Something weird happens when I know I’ve been caught and subsequently 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 hangry badger and my Grandma. Kinda like, “Hey, how ’bout I cut you if you so much as look at me wrong.” 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?
Me: No, you can’t.
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?
Unable to produce a receipt, with nothing left to say and 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 in this hole-in-the-wall of an office. I vividly remember looking out into the store from my seat in the corner. Turns out that mirror near the check-out wasn’t a mirror at all. Brilliant.
I focused my attention on Mr. Manager since he had started lecturing us: “I imagine your parents are going to be pretty pissed off. What a shitty thing to do right after Christmas. Why the hell would you steal a bottle of nail polish?! IT’S THREE DOLLARS!
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 underneath 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, sir. Touché.
And then the phone calls home: “Hello. Your daughter was caught shoplifting. You need to come pick her up immediately…” Except for the distinct memory that I couldn’t hear my dad’s freak out on the other end of the phone, the rest is a blur.
True to Italian 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 the 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.
On the drive home, my dad behind the wheel, staring straight ahead, saying nary a word, I felt…funny. I had mentally prepared for battle. Where was it? I was on edge, half expecting to be thrown from the moving vehicle, but nothing. My younger 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. Despite my best efforts to stare out the window, I could feel his eyes on me. 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 flailing wildly, she started firing the second I walked in the 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 What Would Jesus Do bracelets became all the rage. Not that my man JC hasn’t guided me through some tough times, but while everyone was asking themselves what He would do, my mantra was WWDD, What Would Dad Do? There was no way I ever wanted to feel the emptiness that I did the day I broke his heart with my selfish thoughtlessness. Now a parent myself, I can only hope to be half the positive 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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English teacher by trade, smack talker by nature, Stephanie Jankowski loves words, hates math, and has a knack for finding the funny in everyday life. A mother of three in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephanie subscribes to the mantra: “Life is too short. Laugh.” She avoids laundry with the help of Facebook and Twitter, and despite nagging feelings of inadequacy, refuses to quit Pinterest.