This short story is something I wrote this time last year and is still a piece of writing have a lot of pride over. Inspired by a character in the novel A Visit From The Goon Squad by American novelist Jennifer Egan, I felt a weird urge to write about kleptomania… Enjoy!
He used to think that the only thing she stole were looks across the office. In retrospect, he should have known that it was because of people like her that luggage should not be left unattended.
The bottle tops that lined the half wall in front of her desk never screamed kleptomaniac so much as obsessive and compulsive, although on reflection the two ailments fed each other’s hungry mouths. She told him that she used them as cheap decoration, and he told her that she drank too many fizzy drinks. Nothing took her breath away like bubbles in her chest from the first sip of pop, she said. But he challenged her and said, ‘Give me a try.’
On their first date, she robbed him of his voice. Her hair was the colour of the leaves that fell from autumnal trees and it flowed like the words from her mouth. She was beautiful and had all the power. His foot tapped the floor with a rhythm not unlike the sound of water dripping from a tap in an empty bathroom with marble tiles on the floor. She took a chip from his plate, or maybe two, or maybe three. When he took a toilet break to smell his breath and tuck in his shirt, his dessertspoon went missing. Her smile was as sweet as the ice cream covered in a sauce the colour of her lips as she offered him hers.
‘Why do you take things like spoons?’ He asks her in a café a year and a half later. He stirs his coffee with a small silver instrument and although the task is delicate, he holds onto it like he would a child in the crowd.
‘Thing theory defines that an object is the sum of everything that has ever happened to it. A spoon is not a spoon.’
She tells him that the spoon was like her, polished clean to be in front of another man. It was mass-produced and unoriginal – when she looked in the mirror, she felt the same way. She tells him the spoon was too innocent for his mouth.
‘But you weren’t,’ he says.
‘Maybe that’s why I took the spoon.’
On their second date, her grip on him tightened. He was an apple on a tree, almost ripe and ready to pick.
‘The bottle tops,’ he started as they walked down the riverside, his arm wrapped around the small of her back, her hand resting in his pocket for warmth, ‘are they really just for decoration?’
‘My mum has always done the same.’
‘Collected the bottle tops?’
‘And lined them up on surfaces – the fireplace, the kitchen counter, her bedside table.’
‘That doesn’t explain why you do it too.’
‘When my dad left,’ she sighed, ‘he threw them all away.’
‘Is that where it all started? The stealing?’ He asks her in the café. ‘Did you
get scared someone would throw everything away, so you took it before they could?’
She fiddles with the metal zip on her coat and pulls it from top to bottom. ‘I don’t know.’
On the third date, she asked if he wanted to come inside. Her house was
the house of an artist. He removed his shoes and felt the wooden floor chill his toes and the smell of incense snuck into his clothes and up his nose like vines on an abandoned building – the aroma was a pair of handcuffs around innocent wrists. The wall was covered in framed drawings.
‘Did you do these yourself?’
‘Are they all related?’ He connected the drawings together. A large illustration of a set of keys was surrounded by smaller images of individual key- ring bottle openers, travel souvenirs and 3D cartoon characters made of lego, on a chain.
‘They’re all lost and found. That’s the name of the collection.’
‘These are amazing.’ He looked around the walls with his mouth a little agape like a nerd in a comic book store. ‘You’re really talented. Why do you work in recruitment when you could have these in galleries?’
‘They’re mine.’ she said, almost too fast. ‘I don’t want to share.’
In the café, he remembers the art.
‘So they were all things you had taken? You’d take them… and then draw them?’ His grip on the spoon in his hand loosens.
‘My therapist said I should be trying to channel it into another form like writing or drawing or music. I guess I couldn’t bear to stop taking things, but I was trying.’ She says to him.
‘So you were seeing someone the whole time we were together?’ He asks. ‘I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want you to call me crazy.’
‘I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want you to call me crazy.’
‘I never would have done that.’ She takes a sip of her drink and composes herself.
‘But you did eventually.’
‘That was different.’
After three months of dating, she’d stolen his heart.
‘I think… I uh… I love you.’ He said, too scared to look her in the eye. He said it fast, knowing she had to be on the next bus. She was going to see her mother and wouldn’t be back for two weeks.
‘I know.’ She said, putting her finger under his chin, and lifting his head to look at her. His heart dropped – did she not love him too?
‘Okay.’ He whispered.
‘I love you too.’ She shared a grin with him like he hadn’t seen before, swiped a kiss, and like that she jumped onto the bus. Like a fool, he smiled the whole way home, but his happiness became confusion when all he wanted was a celebratory cigarette, but there wasn’t a lighter to be found in his house.
‘When I found the drawer of lighters,’ he pushes his drink away towards her, pausing while the bell on the café door rings, ‘and all of mine had mysteriously abandoned me, everything just came together. I was confused.’ He says, running his hands through his hair. His fingers snag on knots, and several strands of his hair come away, wrapped around the ring on his index finger. ‘Even when I bought more, they’d never be in my house for longer than a week.’
‘I’m sorry, Charlie.’
‘I thought I was going crazy. I thought everything I touched was disappearing and finding out it was you… I felt somewhere between really fucking hurt and really fucking relieved. That’s the only reason I called you that.’
She looks up at him and her glassy eyes reflect the lights on the ceiling. ‘I never wanted to hurt you. I loved you.’
After Charlie took her home to meet his parents, he got a call from his mum.
‘Honey, did you see where the last bowl of the porcelain set went? I swear I had them all when I set up the table.’
‘You took my mothers bowl though – who does that?’ He asked her on the day they broke up, frustration in the air as thick as smoke around a bonfire.
‘I wanted to hold onto a piece of you, okay?’ She shouted. In their time together, Charlie had never heard her shout.
‘Well, I hope that’s enough of me to hold onto because you’re losing the rest of me, Issy. You’re crazy!’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-’
‘Shut up, Charlie.’ Issy’s voice was barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the cars on the main road outside.
‘Is this it?’ Charlie asked.
After everything, she took away his friends.
A couple of months later, in an attempt to move on, Charlie asked a girl in the office if she’d like to go for a drink, but she was busy.
‘Oh, I’m actually hanging out with uh… I’m hanging out with Issy tonight. I’m sorry. Maybe another night?’
He felt his heart ache like a snake had wrapped around it and pulled it tight into his chest. He looked up at the streetlights above him on the winter evening to compose himself, put his hands into his pockets with more force than usual, and looked her back in the eye.
‘That’s no problem.’ He faked a smile. ‘Have a good night. Hold onto your purse.’
With that, he walked away and kept up with the cars that were slowly moving through traffic on their way into the city. He went off into an alleyway, he punched a wall, he yelled out. He rubbed his hand, rubbed his eyes, and went back to the pavement along the side of the main road.
‘I felt so lonely when it was all over. You didn’t just break my heart; you broke my head or something. It was like I couldn’t let anyone near me, and when I tried, they didn’t want to anyway.’ He says, his voice as strong as a table put together with PVA glue. He takes a sip of his drink and thinks about looking at her, but he can’t. She’s avoiding his eyes too.
‘I do miss you, Charlie.’
‘You… You ransacked me.’
‘But I miss you.’
‘I miss you too, Issy. I’ve never fallen so hard for someone.’
‘I have something for you.’ She says and brings out a small gift bag from her large handbag.
She’d never bought Charlie anything. On his birthday, she turned up on
his doorstep without even a card.
‘Happy Birthday babe!’ She cheered and stole from him a hug. He was half awake, his eyes heavy and his grey t-shirt a distance from the band of his sweatpants. His hair stood on all ends – he didn’t know where his hairbrush was.
‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting you! Thank you!’
‘Well I was passing through and I thought I should probably see the birthday boy. Quarter of a century!’
Charlie laughed, ‘No need to remind me. Come in before the neighbours start staring at my good looks.’ He winked, she blushed. When she stepped inside, he couldn’t help but look at her hands, expecting a small gift, or even a card. Her hands were empty.
‘What’s this?’ He asks her, taking the bag from her, careful not to knock anything over on the café table. She shrugs and watches him. He puts his hand into the bag and pulls out a rectangular object. He turns it over to see a painting.
‘Oh.’ His heart starts an earthquake in his chest.
‘I thought, maybe, this could be some kind of sorry. I don’t know if it’s too much or if it would just remind you or-‘
‘It’s perfect, Issy.’ He says and cuts her off. Her mouth momentarily hangs open before she closes it and leans back into her chair. The painting has a frame of lighters and in the middle is a painting of a bowl – Moorcroft style, the yellow and green paints blending into each other to create a spring wreath around its edge. The dark blue of the bowl made the flowers shine like lipstick on a collar.
‘Lighters and the bowl… I love it.’
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t fit in your hairbrush.’ She laughs, the giggles as light as Charlie’s shoulders now felt.
‘I never did ask if that was you who took that!’ She puts her hands up.
‘Guilty as charged.’
The two laugh at the table, as though the last year and half never happened.
‘I think this… This is amazing. Thank you. I still stick by what I said that time. You should have been an artist.’ There’s a pause, like the harsh words in their mouths were seized and replaced.
‘I have a bag of your stuff still in my house,’ Issy says, her eyebrows furrowed and her eyes hardly making contact with his, ‘I’ve been trying to give things back.’ There’s a second pause. ‘Maybe we can be friends again. I’ll make us tea or something.’
‘I’d like that.’ He says, his lips turning up like his collar did after their first date, when Issy’s hands got lost in the back of his hair and on his neck.