The Tightrope Walker
For a time in my twenties I stole things. Not anything that was actually for sale; I had my standards. But tips that other people left on bars, restaurant silverware, sugar packets, samples of eye cream at makeup counters, rolls of toilet paper were all fair game. I picked flowers from my neighbors’ gardens and sometimes their vegetables—tomatoes, cucumbers—whatever was in season, I needed. Mints that were available in restaurants, I grabbed fistfuls of, but only if they were wrapped—again, standards.
I wasn’t a bad person; I gave back by leaving things in places. Sweaters on park benches, movie passes in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, eyeglasses I no longer wore in the lost and found at work. I volunteered in the pediatric ward of a local hospital—dozens of Band-aids, splints and thermometers disappeared. I regularly visited with my elderly neighbor, a woman who had survived the sinking of the Titanic, raised six children, buried two and stopped talking to the rest. When she died in her sleep at age ninety-five, I cleaned out her apartment, taking knick-knacks, the curtains from the bathroom window and her mortar and pestle. And once, but only once—because again, the standards, I slept with another woman’s husband.
It wasn’t like I needed anything. I had a job. I was a secretary in a law office—personal injury. My boss, Helmut, a robust man, often walked around wearing a neck brace. Of course, Wite-out, pens, staplers, and once an electric pencil sharpener jammed the pockets of my coat. I had a photo of Helmut’s least favorite son stashed under my desk. He was handsome, but I knew from his father’s stories, that he was feckless and had no scruples.
And I had a boyfriend. I’d recently taken up with a slender and generous man named Sweetwater. We met in line at the bank on a windy Friday afternoon. Sweetwater was behind me and asked if I had a pen he could borrow. “Of course,” I said and handed it to him—the law office’s logo prominent on it. “Don’t worry about returning it,” I told him. Two Fridays later, the perpetually penless Sweetwater was in line next to me again. This time, he grabbed my hand and wrote his number on it. “Call me,” he said, his only bold move ever. He was a gentle soul.
But like most bad habits, things escalated and my once ironclad standards started loosening up like tectonic plates. I still maintained the “nothing for sale” principle, but I starting taking clothes from my building’s laundry room and so had to sneak in and out, terrified of, but also a little thrilled at the thought of running into my neighbors in the lobby. I soon, found though, that most people don’t know what they own. I also stole their mail—magazines, birthday cards, subscription renewals. Sometimes I would take their bills and pay them—on time and in full. What’s a three quarter sleeve, white cotton blouse compared to that?
I hopped fences in the middle of the night and swam in people’s pools. I kept up with the news by swiping papers from their driveways—I knew to mix it up so no one got suspicious, just thought when it happened to them it was unfortunate, not the sign of the downfall of a neighborhood. I surreptitiously ate grapes in the grocery store—a lot of grapes. I shamelessly bummed cigarettes off friends and strangers—beyond what was considered good etiquette and got a reputation for it.
What I found was that the more I took, the more I received. I started finding money in the streets practically every day. At first it was just small change—literally—a penny here and there, occasionally a nickel or dime. Then more often than not, a quarter and then bills—fives, tens. After a few weeks crisp twenties practically lined my path. Once I found a fifty in a library book; I folded it into my bra and quietly left the stacks. Then men—strangers, I didn’t know, started inviting me out for dinner. I always politely declined, but not before asking if they smoked.
At home, cable started streaming into my television. “Did you do that?” I asked Sweetwater, though knew he couldn’t have—he wasn’t good with electronics so when he denied it I knew he spoke the truth.
Life was good and getting better. It was my birthday and I was still in my twenties. That day I wore flowers in my hair. At work, Helmut exuberantly sang Happy Birthday to me in German, his double chin protruding over his neck brace; it was embarrassing and I snuck out at three. Time theft. Walking home I got caught in a spring shower. I slipped into a store and took an umbrella from the bucket by the entrance. Somebody would forget to grab theirs. It was my birthday after all. I popped it open and skipped home. In the sky, a rainbow appeared.
That night I blew out the candles and made a wish. Sweetwater and I ate cake for dinner and drank lots of wine. Later, we watched the illicit cable—a documentary about Karl Wallenda. Just before Sweetwater fell asleep on my shoulder, I remembered a girl I knew who died when I was young. We were the same age, but we weren’t friends; we weren’t even enemies. We lived across the street from each other and she used to come to my house and tell me lies. Right out bald-face lies, things that couldn’t have possibly been true—she wasn’t a secret princess; her mother didn’t let her wear makeup to school, she didn’t have a canopy bed—they were all lies—and as I watched Karl Wallenda plummet to his death, I remembered that I let her think I believed them.
Sona Avakian has had work published in Sonora Review issue 56, ZYZZYVA, Instant City, The Sand Hill Review and wrote the foreword for the summer 2010 826 Quarterly. She lives in San Francisco.
Thanks for stopping by the Sonora Review Short Fiction Fortnight. Please stop by tomorrow for JoeAnn Hart.