I was at a crowded resort pool the other day. All the chaises were taken, staked with flip-flops and folded towels, goggles, magazines, and cans of spray SPF. We were fortunate enough to spot a family as they began to gather up their stray belongings, complete with fluorescent water noodles and sippy cups. Phil stayed in the sun. I dragged my chair beneath a tree, in the shade, beside a woman in a pale blue bikini. Her hip bones were erect, her chest sweating as she took in the sun just beyond the tree’s shade. A nano by her side, she was reading The Kite Runner from behind her Gucci sunglasses. I sized her up, not out of judgment but envy. She was a guest at the hotel, I presumed from the boarding pass she used as her bookmark. And on the ground beside her was an oversized suede bag, a designer bag for which she surely paid well over $3000. She seemed to have the life I once had, the life a lot of my friends still have, where you can afford, or pretend to afford, such luxuries for yourself. This isn’t a tale of, now that I’m married my priorities have shifted, or now that I’m a mom, I miss being single. This isn’t about life swap.
After a bit, she put her book down, pulled up her hair and went for a dip to cool off. Not one dimple. Not a sag or a wrinkle. Fake breasts. I turned my gaze off her to Phil, to see if he was watching her walk to the pool. I’m sure he saw her, just not at that moment. And I wanted to look like she did, sure, to look as shapely and toned, to have those breasts and a barely there boy band ass. But I don’t want it enough to have to work for it. I’d rather look and live like I do and just complain from time to time.
She resumed her position, facing the sun. And I wondered if she worried, as I did, about skin cancer. A while longer, once she was dry, she slipped on a pair of black flip flops and a Juicy strapless terry dress. Black. She tucked her nano and book into her oversized bag and made off to the buffet area for some food. She wasn’t going for drinks because there were waitresses for this, and because she already had two full cups of icy lemon water beneath her chaise. Perhaps she was going to pee. But she was gone for a long time. Wait, she left her bag? Right there beside her chair. A towel still secured her spot on the chaise, and she was somehow confident that in the very crowded resort, out of desperation, no one would steal her chair or handbag–clearly not a New Yorker. And not all that practical. Who brings a suede bag to a pool where it can so easily be ruined?
I began to play out the repercussions of thievery. It was busy enough, too busy, ironically, for witnesses. I could certainly pull off carrying that bag as if it were my own. Then I began to wonder, what else does she have in there? My God, how can she be so trusting? I would never leave such a beautiful item alone for the taking. I would at least ask the stranger beside me, “Do you mind watching my things for a moment?” Because in doing so, they’d somehow be responsible. But asking nothing of anyone like that, well certainly she deserved to lose her valuables. I could leave this way, I thought. No one would see. I could be any hotel guest. I could take off to my car and I’d make off the owner of a fantastic bag, and nano, and who knows what else.
I could entertain this because I’ve never stolen a thing in my entire life, aside from… well, twice. Once I stole the flowers from our neighbor’s yard. I picked them for my mother. And that night, my father made me return them, apologizing for taking what did not belong to me. And one other time in fourth grade when I stole the clove-laden orange a girl named Zulema had made. We were all given an orange and brought in our own cloves. Our project was to insert the cloves in a design, and then to hang the perfumed oranges as an ornament in our homes. I suppose I didn’t like mine because I managed to take Zulema’s. And when our teacher discovered that hers had gone missing, she detained all of us, insisting on checking each of our knapsacks. I stood on line as she checked each of us, and when it came close to being my turn, I moved toward the back of the line, pretending I’d forgotten something. I remember with amazing clarity, how Mrs. Kalb had assumed it was Marc Pegnotta who’d taken Zulema’s orange because he was so insistent on leaving. “I’m going to miss my bus! I don’t have it!” I remember him yelling. And she fought with him, insisting he open his backpack. And he kept trying to zip past her, and with all of her attention focused on him, I was able to go unnoticed when I pulled her orange from my bag and left it in a corner at the back of the room. Mrs. Kalb checked my bag, found nothing, and let me go along with the others. Although I didn’t get away with Zulema’s orange, I did get away with it.
The following morning Mrs. Kalb sat us all down on the carpet toward the entrance of our classroom. She began to lecture us on taking things that aren’t ours. Then told us how she found Zulema’s orange, but the paper in which it had been wrapped was now torn and crumpled, obviously shoved into someone’s bag. And then I remember her looking each one of us in the eye saying, “You know who you are, and you should feel very badly about yourself.” And I remember thinking, she has no idea it was me. And I continued to be one of her favorite students. My report cards said so. She confided that, in writing, “one of my favorites, so spirited and such a delight.” It all would have changed if she knew the truth about me. That I was the one who deceived her. That morning when she spoke so purposefully to each of us, she said the only one we were fooling was ourself. But that wasn’t true. I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew what I did. I was fooling her. Still, I didn’t like the idea that she would have stopped liking me had she learned this new piece of information about me. And I have never stolen anything since then. Not a thing. Ever. (Is it really stealing if you return clothes with the tags still on, even after you’ve warn them?) It wasn’t because of some lesson learned. I just knew, maybe, that I wouldn’t like me knowing I was capable of hurting other people like that. There are other people though who aren’t so worried about what they think of themselves, but spend their time concealing the things they fear others won’t accept about them. He won’t love me if he knows this. She won’t stay if she finds out. They’re still who I was, as a fourth grader, duping my teacher by hiding from her of what I was capable. Trying to control how she felt about me by limiting her full knowledge as to who I was. And I feel sad for these people, people who are ashamed, who spend so much of their energy hiding parts of their lives from public view. From their own husbands. People very close to me, whose secrets I know, and also know they don’t share with the people they should. They’re worried people will judge them, and moreover care about the fact that people will absolutely judge them. It’s a fact. Our really worry should be devoted to why we care so much what other people think of us, our breasts, our cellulite, or our thieving natures. And instead of masking, or knifing, the bits of ourselves we don’t like, we should try living more honestly, boldly, admitting our mistakes and making allowances for our imperfections.