To begin with, I didn’t steal The Shirt. I got it for Christmas from my Nana, which meant my mother bought it and signed Nana’s name to the card, because lord, shopping takes so much out of you and just go ahead and add that to my account, honey.
The Shirt itself was nothing to write home about. It was silver and velvet and fitted with one of those non-functional, Liliputian-scaled breast pockets that were a thing for about a minute and a half in 1994. It came from the Gap because, again, 1994, and in those days none of us would have been caught dead in khakis but we’d tacitly agreed it was okay to shop there, because we were doing so ironically or post-ironically and our middle class mothers needed a place to buy Christmas gifts because they were worried we might catch something terrible, like lockjaw or poverty, from thrift-shopping.
I don’t know the exact count on how many people got The Shirt for Christmas that year, but I’m guessing it was a fair number of us, even among the admittedly miniscule student body at my women-only liberal arts college in Virginia. I didn’t think too hard on it, most because by February, I’d basically stopped wearing anything I didn’t pull out of a dollar box at the Salvation army, and so I was surprised when I opened my campus mailbox around Valentine’s Day and found a letter informing me, in police-report style terms that I had been accused of stealing a silver velvet t-shirt, size large, from the dorm laundry room by a girl on the first floor I knew only by her enthusiasm for tie-dyed Dartmouth t-shirts. She reported that I’d been seen wearing something similar “in what looked like several sizes too small and looking very guilty” around campus. I’d appeared to her suspicious, unreliable, weird. Not like the other girls.
That part was probably true. I was fat, as she’d so kindly pointed out. I had purple hair. I didn’t really hang out with my classmates. I was in the process of trying to transfer. Not like the other girls was my mantra, my raison d’etre. The only thing I had in common with her at all was a silver t-shirt, owned by thousands of girls and probably a few gender-non-conforming dudes.
I figured I’d clear it up in a jiffy. After all, I hadn’t done it. I went to Dartmouth T-shirt’s dorm room. Her roommate opened the door and promptly shut in my face with a she doesn’t want to talk to you until Honor Court, thief. I called my mother. She was livid. She told me to go to the Dean’s Office, which I did. He told me he’d already heard from my mother, my grandmother and the manager of The Gap at the Asheville Mall. Receipts had been faxed. He said I was very lucky to have such a charming mother but none of it mattered because I would be judged by a jury of my peers. They would decide whether I appeared innocent or if I were guilty. They would determine how I should be punished, if I should be allowed to continue as a student at Women’s College or be expelled. “That’s how honor court works. Your friends and classmates decide”
I didn’t have many friends on campus. I said so. He told me I should be more social, that it would be a shame to squander the opportunity to befriend so many bright young women. He smiled, in this greasy, invidious, limp mustache in a Confederate uniform way, as if to say, you brought this on yourself, weirdo. If you’d just go to an ice cream social like a nice southern girl and learn to ride a pony or something, none of of this would have ever happened to you
I’d never wanted to go to Women’s College. Everyone knew that. Probably even the Dean knew that. But I had no intention of getting expelled either. I’ve always been a solid You can’t fire me, I quit sort of person. I’d survived three years of high school with little more than a few demerits for dress code violation. If I was going down, it ought to be for open rebellion against an oppressive regime or actual commandeering-a-ship-on-the-high-seas piracy, or, like, maybe stealing the horses from my debutante classmates, selling them on the black market, and using the money to pay tuition at a college I actually wanted to attend.
My few campus friends came up with all sorts of interesting small acts of defiance. My downtown friends–mostly boys, and thus truly ambivalent about Women’s School as concept—were bolder. My favorite notion was that I should find a Steve McQueen type to steal the Dean’s Beemer and maybe drive it into the Chancellor’s swimming pool. I didn’t know any Steve McQueen types. I had a crush on a red-headed townie that liked weird funny novels. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me back though. Not in that way. Certainly in no way that would lend itself to futile and dangerous grand gestures
But they were all convinced I was innocent. I didn’t feel exactly innocent. I felt, actually, like I’d been busted with the right charge, but the wrong crime. Because I was a thief, just not a thief of silver velvet t-shirts. Instead, I took diner mugs and ashtrays, candles, hymnals, and unattended holy books, the Sunday Times that was still delivered weekly to the professor on sabbatical, dog-eared, mass market romance novels from beach houses and bed and breakfast bookshelves, gas station toilet paper, bank pens, motel towels, drinking glasses, motel ice buckets, Kleenex, dining hall hot sauce, three or four bottles of terrible Chardonnay from an alumni weekend fundraiser, a tray of cubed cheddar cheese and grapes from the same event, cigarette lighters, a semi-functional table lamp left on the sidewalk outside the admissions office, a broken garden statue from the lawn beside the chapel, a fishbowl full of brightly colored condoms from the university infirmary and a globe sized half-shattered disco-ball left under the Donations sign at a local Goodwill after hours. And that’s to say nothing the stories I was encouraged to steal and weave into fiction in writing workshop. Or other people’s experiences which I pilfered and remade into my own in order to make myself seem less like the total loser nerd virgin that I was at age 18.
Ironically, my friends at women’s college were far more brazen and adept at theft than I was. They could leave Thalhimer’s with a season’s worth of unpaid-for cashmere sweaters under their college logo-ed anorak and confidently stroll into a Virginia convenience store in broad daylight, clearly stuff two bottles of wine and a carton of cigarettes into their shirt and walk outside without as much as a second glance from the cashier. I lacked their audacity. I didn’t have their looks, their confidence or their resources to finagle my way out of getting actually, seriously busted. And sometimes I struggled the square the morality, like, you’re shoplifting five dollar earrings while wearing pearls, right? What gives? But I didn’t say anything, because what did I know? I was, after all, a lying total loser nerd virgin. And shockingly, they still wanted to be my friend.
The day of my honor court trial my mother took off work and drove to Virginia. She came with my aunt and my grandmother. I put on my nice, non-dollar-box- clothes and brushed my hair. My friends sat around me in the dim of the Administration lobby after hours. We made small talk, bolstered by the occasional—everything will be fine. I watched the yellow plane of light shine under the conference room door and wondered if they’d started without me.
I want to say we sat there for hours, but in reality, it was maybe ten minutes before a few women, upperclassmen, emerged from the room. The dean followed and announced that my accusers had bailed on honor court and as such, the entire proceeding would be canceled and charges against me dropped. He coughed awkward, gave a little oh, the capricious whims of silly women! shrug and hoped we weren’t terribly inconvenienced.
My mother was furious. My friends relieved. And I don’t know how I was. I stood there in the slant light of the dim lobby, watching those shiny haired girls wander off giggling down the stairs, clearly relieved at not having to sit through another lame honor court, thinking my peers, those girls count as my peers, thinking, they could have expelled me, thinking, is this karma for the cheese tray?
“You don’t belong here,” said my mother, on the way out of the administration office. “As soon as this school year is over, I promise that you don’t have to come back.”
I’d spent seven months in Virginia in a state of petulant, overgrown adolescent rage mostly built on disappointment that I could not, for reasons entirely beyond my control be where I wanted or who I wanted to be. I talked shit about the school for stupid reasons. I catalogued all the reasons I thought I didn’t belong there without ever really believing I really didn’t belong there. And with that thought came the first earth-shifting, discombobulating tremor of what if I don’t belong anywhere at all?
The morning after the mistrial, I found a copy of “The Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet outside my door
“I think maybe the universe is trying to send you a message,” said one of my friends, when I asked if she’d left it.
“That I should plan a heist?”
“That you should steal away from this place, before someone tries to say you did.”
Three weeks later, at the end of the semester, I left Women’s College for good.
And yeah, I took couple rolls of toilet paper for the road.