A Box of Problems

I recently read an article about trends in grocery store thefts. Do you know what the number one shoplifted item is in the US?

You’ll never guess.

It’s cheese.

I shoplifted something exactly once in my life. But it wasn’t cheese.

In 1984 I had dropped out of college, moved to New York City and was working a low level administrative assistant job in a fraying non-profit that paid almost nothing. I was nineteen years old and had crappy health insurance. When I got sick my medical response typically consisted of waiting for the problem to go away.

Since I was young, healthy and lucky this strategy usually worked. But one day my medical luck ran out. I was experiencing discomfort in my nether regions. I itched like crazy and when I peed it felt like I was expelling hydrochloric acid. One friend I confided in suggested I drink a lot of cranberry juice. That didn’t work. I had to do something.

I’d never had anything resembling women’s health care. Never been to a gynecologist or Planned Parenthood. Nothing. This was before you could look everything up on the Internet. I was at a total loss as to what to do.

I know now that I had a urinary tract infection. Back then all I knew was that I was incredibly uncomfortable “down there.” But I didn’t know why and I didn’t want to spend a hundred dollars, which was a significant chunk of my monthly take home pay, to go to a doctor to find out.

I did have a vague awareness of a product called a “douche.” A product that had something to do with feminine hygiene. At this point I was getting desperate and was having trouble walking normally. On the fifth day of this misery I decided to stop in at my local drugstore on the way home and see if they carried douches.

The Astoria, Queens Duane Reade was a big store with long aisles and harsh lighting. I went in and made a beeline for the Feminine Care aisle. There, among the tampons and maxi-pads, was the item I sought. There were several brands, but I’d heard of Massengill, so I gravitated toward that one. If I was going to experiment, I should go with the leading brand. I also figured that if they could afford to advertise on television they probably hadn’t killed anyone with their product.

On the box was a whispy-haired woman – smiling demurely, her eyes lowered – wearing some kind of pastel-colored chiffon top. She certainly didn’t look like she had a raging infection in her most personal of areas.

But there were a couple of problems. Problems that can be encapsulated in two words: poverty and shame.

First, there was the matter of cost. At this point in my life I was bringing home well under seven hundred dollars a month, net. In New York City in 1984 that bordered on poverty. Much of that went to rent. When I saw the price on the box, I couldn’t believe it. Eight dollars. Eight dollars! Eight dollars was a big portion of what I spent weekly on food.

Then there was the shame. At nineteen I was sheepish enough about broadcasting the fact that I had a vagina. I certainly wasn’t ready to let everyone in that store know that I had a diseased vagina. To make matters worse, this box was huge. What the hell was in there? A bicycle pump? There was simply no way to purchase this item with any discretion whatsoever.

So there I was. Barely able to stand still, such was my physical suffering. But light in the wallet. And heavy with shame.

Today I look back and can’t understand why this thing cost so much. Maybe it was a multi-pack, which would explain the giant box, but I was too freaked out to notice. In any case, this was the item that I was sure would fix things. The thing I was intent on bringing home. It had to be this douche. This Massengill douche. But every time I tried to picture myself carrying it up to the counter, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I realized that I had another option: I could steal the douche. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that about the only thing that would be more embarrassing than buying a douche was to be caught stealing a douche.

You know how it is when you’re drunk but you’re somewhere – like on a job interview or at a funeral – where you’re not supposed to be drunk? So you try to act not drunk, and that ends up being just this incredibly exaggerated version of a sober person? That’s how I was acting. In fact, I was overacting. I was overacting as a woman shopping for a douche.

I was loitering, peering over the tops of the shelves and monitoring the ends of the aisle to see if anyone else was around. This was in the wintertime and I had a fairly heavy coat on, a double-breasted Navy pea coat that I’d picked up for about ten bucks at a Salvation Army. It was roomy and dark colored. I figured if I could squirrel the douche away in my coat I could probably escape undetected.

After I’d been there for about five minutes, scoping out the situation, I decided that it was now or never. The longer I waited the more I’d risk arousing suspicion. So I went for the douche. Crouching down in the aisle, I grabbed the giant box and shoved it down the front of my coat. Then I had to button the coat. This was a challenge. I have 34Cs. They’re real. The area on top of a pair of 34C breasts is a terrible place to try to hide anything. But I was afraid that placing the douche box anywhere else would risk having it fall out.

So I opened my coat and jammed the box down onto my breasts, attempting to flatten it, and them, as much as possible. Then I buttoned up my coat and wrapped my scarf loosely around the whole mess in an effort to conceal my crime. My chest looked absurd, like a penguin’s. I attempted to slouch as much as possible, drawing in my chest, trying to make it concave.

Now I had the douche sort of concealed. The next order of business was getting out of the store. Should I just leave without buying anything? Or would that arouse more suspicion than if I bought some token item? But standing at the counter, I’d be subject to extended scrutiny. So I opted to saunter, then scurry, then bolt. I sauntered down to the end of the aisle and turned into the front of the store, where the cash registers were. Everyone was busy. Good. I was on my way.

As I went into scurrying mode, however, something on the periphery of my vision caught my eye. Up above the registers was a long row of security monitors, each trained on a specific aisle of the store. I picked out the douche aisle and half expected to see, through some horrifying wrinkle in time, myself, still there, still hunkered down, shoving a giant douche box into my coat. But I wasn’t there anymore. Now, on another monitor trained on the front of the store, I did in fact see myself from an angle, looking up, slack-jawed and alarmed. I was like a dim-witted football fan who sees herself on the JumboTron but can’t work out which way to look.

I froze in the center of the monitor, not daring to turn. I knew what my chest looked like. More like a chest freezer. The situation was getting desperate. I was carrying a purloined feminine hygiene product on me. It was time to bolt.

Anyone looking at monitors would have seen my bloated figure running out of range, blurring across multiple monitors in multiple directions. I prayed I could make it out to the street. There I’d have a chance of either running or jettisoning the douche.

Then I was outside. As I made my way down the sidewalk, at a pace that I hoped was a happy medium between assertive and carefree, I waited to feel the clap of a hand belonging to the store’s loss prevention enforcer. A claw that would put me in a Vulcan death grip and drag me back into that scary little windowless interrogation room reserved for people who steal cheese and douches.

What would happen to me? Arrest. Jail, maybe. Jail? I’d die in jail. I’d seen those movies. I was not the plucky survivor type. I’d be ganged up on, violated with a broomstick, scalded with boiling water, pressed into service as some burly woman’s bitch, by the end of the first day. Then there’d be the court appearance. Would this be petty larceny? Is that a misdemeanor? I couldn’t go prison for this, surely. Prison would be worse than jail. And what about bail? Who would I call to help me post? How about the woman who told me to drink cranberry juice? Would I lose my job? Maybe I could plead poverty. I could certainly plead shame. Or stupidity. This was pretty stupid of me.

With each frantic step, I waited to feel that hand, to hear a voice or footsteps. But nothing happened. Once I was a few blocks away from the store, I slowed down and relaxed a little. I was fairly sure that I was in the clear. Had I actually gotten away with this theft? I had. With that realization came an odd little thrill. I’d successfully stolen something. This was the most exciting thing I’d done in months. I was a criminal now. Me! A criminal! A successful criminal.

Then I caught my reflection in a window. Beneath my inadequate scarf I was uni-breasted. It looked like I’d shoplifted a stereo system. You would have to have been blind not to see the large rectangular object straining the seams of my coat.

I have to conclude from this that for one reason or another no one at Duane Reade cared that a woman was shoplifting an eight dollar douche. Maybe they can’t even give the things away.

I never shoplifted again, even at times when I could have used the financial breathing room shoplifting provides. It was too terrifying. And, of course, wrong. But, having done it once and gotten away with it, I can kind of see why someone would find it fun and convenient enough to make into a regular thing.

By the way, after all that the douche didn’t help. I still had to shell out around a hundred dollars to go see a doctor and get an antibiotic. I could have bought twelve douches for that.

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