Police car lights at dusk

Thoughts Going Through My Head When You Arrested Me at Walgreens

By Kate Wisel

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The first taste of trouble is like bread. If you eat it, you’re going to want more.

The security guard watched me walk out into the sparkling parking lot with the Differin and the polish rammed up my left sweatshirt cuff. The foil blister pack of sleeping pills and the Snickers up my right. Then he called you.

You should have seen the way you looked, barreling through the disheveled back office with a Glock on your painted-on pants, chest pumped with your little life vest, your walkie talky garbling nonsense like a High-Tec baby monitor.

I wanted to be like, Who cares? I steal because I’m paid less than you, but it costs more to be me. If you think I feel bad about it, I don’t.

But I’m no idiot—I knew my rights. Stayed mute while you stood in front of me with your hands on your hips like Buzz Lightyear. 


I was thinking, This guy’s probably been in a lot of Walgreens.

And he doesn’t get laid a lot.

But then, shit. 

I looked into your shifty eyes and realized we grew up together.

I guess it’s trippy—whole decade and some change since high school.

I thought you were thinking the same, but you averted your eyes and smacked your gum, seized by what—excitement? Arrogance? Pity?

It occurred to me that maybe you are who you are because you were bullied back then. 

Your backpack held together by duct tape. They called you Duct Tape Fag, you smelled like pencil shavings, and I heard they made you hold your hand out so they could burn it at a party. 

You weren’t even bad looking. Just mopey, a little off.

When the security guard left me in your charge, for a second, why’d you hesitate?  

I turned to face the bulletin board so you could cuff me, all the store’s victims staring back at me in their red vests and unresponsive-to-treatment acne.

Then we walked down the vacuumed aisles. Walgreens, which, by the way, has theft built in to their budget. The CEO of Walgreens is a Republican who vacations in the Seychelles while his employees eat dinner from cans. I know because I’ve seen Undercover Boss.

Those drugstore bulbs lit strips of ads, and what I wanted you to understand was that every pixelated model’s gaze was directed towards me. How they chinned their shoulders with digitally altered lips, their enamel falsely intact, their saturated hair blown back with an obscene amount of volume.

Never mind the sprawl of cosmetics pressing in from either side: lip gloss, lip liner sharpeners, lipstick to brighten your smile. Sponges for concealer, foundations in every skin shade plus primers to blur your face. Clear eyebrow gel, eye shadow pallets, eyelash curlers, mascara, eyeliner to intensify your stare. Bronzer for a sun-kissed glow and powder for a sheer complexion. Matte blush, liquid blush, gel blush, powder blush, shimmer blush, glittery blush, tinted blush for a post-sex flush. Nail filers and polish ranging in color from Starter Wife to Fairytale to Just an Illusion. Cotton swabs, nail polish remover. Potions, lotions, dyes, combs, elastics, scrunchies, clips. Picture machines as large as photo booths rifling out designer makeup at the denser airports. Every billboard on every highway aimed to destroy every woman who speeds past. Not even the tampons in the dispensers in the bathrooms are free anymore. 

Even when we bleed, we pay for it. 

Can you name an arena where men are expected to buy as much crap, with the exclusion of protein powder and boner pills? Men go to Supercuts for a buzz, hand the barber 15 bucks while women fidget in salon chairs, scalp singeing under twisted tinfoil like a satellite that a homeless man in New York City sculpted. Wasting hours upon hours of their day when they could be working, earning, saving. 

And don’t get me started on the vitamins. Rows upon rows just so we can live longer to buy more stuff. 

So, what? I steal fish oil pills to glow from the inside out.

Shape at the newsstand? Mine. Grapes at the supermarket? Free.

Pens at the gynecologist, yanked from their chains, their silken, fast-drying ink.

In the parking lot, you went to open the door and for a second, I was like, Chivalry’s not dead?

Then I was just in the backseat of a cop car.

Buckling the fat, old-school seatbelt. The kind that hung loose in my grandfather’s Buick.

You remember that guy?

As you started the car I thought of all the things I’d ordered online: lace-up heels, an electrode neck massager. Moon Juice serum tucked under tissue paper, bathed in confetti, the homeopathic-looking vial’s sleek design like bleeding gasoline in a puddle. Pathetic five-pound weights. Fifteen-pound weights. Fingerless gloves.

Gloves I wore as I dialed the 1-800 number to claim they never arrived. The money tossed back into my account like a fish.

I steal because money isn’t real. It is an exchange of energy, and I am after what I’m owed.

Because my mom cleaned houses and my dad left when I was three.

And I saw her do it first. A lady’s gold chain from a silver perfume tray.

I stole her daughter’s loaded Pez dispenser the following Monday.

Because I wanted that grape tape gum that disintegrated on your tongue and the hairbrush that promised to detangle without damaging.

Because when I was a kid, my mom bartended at Sal’s, so every weekend, she dropped Ricky and me off next door at our grandparents.

You know because you lived in that lit-windowed ranch across the street.

You know my grandfather, you know the things Ricky said when I got hammered at that barbeque.

You remember that barbecue?

How it goes is you buy a tub of global anti-aging cell power moisturizer for 95 dollars, slather your skin for three months till it’s reflective as glass. Then you fill the tub with Ponds and get your money back.

No questions asked. Just, How’s your day going? Or Why didn’t the product work for you?

One time I bought a bottle of chardonnay at City Market then sat in my car and thought twice, marched back in, and claimed the bottle was missing from the bag. Like that, two bottles of Chardonnay on the passenger seat as I sped, mistaking the blast of heat on my cheek for the sun, green lights collecting overhead like so much luck.

Cryptic calls were coming through on your radio and the only thing between us was that bulletproof Kevlar. I caught you glancing at me in the rearview then heard your blinker and realized you were only trying to turn.

Ever thought of how Bill Clinton was a good guy and Monica Lewinsky our national whore?

Have you ever felt like you’re frozen on the tracks and there’s a whistle blowing through your head, and if you don’t move, you’ll die?

Ever thought of how Bill Clinton was a good guy and Monica Lewinsky our national whore?

You banged a left and we drove past the squat, depressing building that is Framingham High, where the punks used to come down so hard from grinds, they’d split their skateboards on curbs. Ricky had concussions, the scars to prove it.

And you remember Jay. Or that’s what he told us to call him. That sophomore history teacher, he used to keep me after class.

This was before we started with all the emails. Or, as he called it, our correspondence. He’d flex his French at me, call what we had a “pas de deux.” I just wrote back: Fuck you.

He’d kick his feet up on the desk, our eye contact abnormal, like we were speaking through cigar smoke. He’d call me Little Girl, so I’d say, “Restrain yourself,” and he’d say, “When I show you restraint, you’ll know it,” and I’d say, “Is that a threat, or a promise?”

The first taste of trouble is like bread. If you eat it, you’re going to want more.

But I’ll rewind. That summer before high school, I’d squint to answer the door in my messy bun and Ricky’s boxers, the sun melting the clumps of gel in your frosted tips. Those three frantic seconds when we could have spoken but we didn’t. Then you disappeared to the cool, damp basement to play Call of Duty with Ricky.

Before dark you two would be in our grandparent’s driveway, spinning your bike’s chain with grease to keep the parts moving. I’d be in the side yard, on the diving board, my stomach slapping the surface. The cheap aqua water crawling with dead spiders.

I liked to hold my breath in the chlorine for as long as I could.

Because the women in my family cleaned when they were angry and the men killed time draining Budweiser’s, and at night, I could feel the bats flying over my head in that above ground pool.

I guess I’ve been testing God.

I’m calling that 1-800 number to claim the item never arrived.

Because they have to apologize, and even though I know it’s a script, it kind of helps me.

But then I met Christina. You remember Christina? We’d be in Rampage at the mall, looking painfully sweet save for our eyeliner, chokers, and our garbage bag tans. We’d stuff tank tops into a Jansport then have the audacity to ask for three toothpick samples of orange chicken at the food court.

Were you at the talent show? That time we danced to “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child? It was amazing—when she went left, I went right. She wore the black tank top; I wore the white.

Before that, fourth grade. That winter break Ricky and I went to Florida, and everything changed. Our grandparents took us to Disney where we stayed in a condo with pineapple curtains and a couch with cupholders, a preview of hell’s furnishings, and it was the first time I made myself throw up.

I wanted to be so skinny no one could see me.

Wanted to surf at Daytona Beach but choked so hard on saltwater when I couldn’t get up on a monster wave.

And you remember my grandfather.

How he taught you to mow the lawn when your dad got sick. My grandfather’s shirt tucked into his shorts, his bicep tattooed with a mutilated USN and a faded-green bald eagle.

You remember what Ricky said at the barbeque. What he did to me.

I told my grandmother the first time it happened. She cleared my plate, said, “Let’s just keep this between us.”

That night she made me pray the rosary.

All she cared about was Jesus. Not seatbelts. Not sunscreen.

I loved her with a homesick dependency, but she used to whip combs through my snarled hair and said I needed to try harder to talk to God.

On the phone, she says, “I’ll pray for you,” and I say, “I’ll pray for you,” but I don’t mean what she means. So, these days, I never call her back.

I steal because God’s not watching, idiot.

I steal because I kind of want him to watch.

Because they’re finally admitting aliens exist.

Because wildfires.

And I liked Mary Magdalene better.

Despised and resented the fact that something impossible was growing inside Mary.

Now you were driving through Memorial Park, past Johnny Cline’s, that kid who upgraded and called you Nippledick. I dated him after high school.

Once, on the topic of being a leg, ass, or titty man, I told him that all sex under patriarchy was necrophilia, and he said, “What?” And I said, “When you objectify a disembodied woman, you’re only fucking an idea,” and he said, “You say things that make people angry,” and I said, “Good,” and he said, “You say things just to scare people,” and I said, “You should be scared.” And because we were at the dinner table, he said, “You need to apologize to my dad. Right now.” So, I looked at this hunched over man with his silver crew cut and a bleeding piece of steak on his fork, and said, “I’m sorry you’re not smart enough to get my joke.”

I steal in honor of Christina. Because when we were 20, she had this boyfriend who liked to hit her. Then he’d hit her harder, and she’d kind of like it, too.

The harder the blows the more it felt like how she felt inside. But then one New Year’s he knocked her out so hard, she needed surgery. Her slugged eye squinted shut, her broken jaw and overbite. By this point, she was just slicing apples at the daycare, on government health insurance. The doctor who saw her said she saw women like her and marked her surgery non-cosmetic, so she didn’t have to pay.

But now, when she opens her jaw, it clicks on its hinges, and when she speaks, she’s never sounded the same.

I call stealing “offsetting” and I’m aware of the fact that I’m fooling myself but isn’t everybody?

Okay, I’ll come clean. Christina wore the black tank top. I wore the white tank top.

I steal because stealing is a feminine art and there is no such thing as morality in art.

One time, after history, Jay said, “You’re too smart for your own good, kid.”

This was after I found out about his wife.

I said, “So now my intelligence is a problem?”

I was starting to feel carsick, and it was like you knew because you rolled down my window.

In came the sawdust smell of trees and I thought of our woods. We must have been seven and eight, Ricky and I flashing through the trees where we called out in our secret language and ruled our rickety little house with the pots and mud sink. You’d just moved across the street. I can still see you by the clearing in the green mittens your mom made, waiting for us to ask you to play.

That same year, hellion that I was, I spat at the photographer when he told me to smile, so my school picture was just a pixelated backdrop.

Because my grandfather used to follow me around with one of those handheld cameras, zooming in and out on my dripping wet bathing suits, my dirty blond bangs cloaking my eyes. In one video, with the lens bobbing around my neck, he says, “You’re pretty.”

My raspy voice says, “I’m not pretty. I’m handsome.”

Once you know how to make a knife, you know how to use it.

But then I grew up and learned that if I wore less, I was more likely to get what I wanted.

Consider all the energy it takes to flirt with the mechanic who fixed my struts and gives me my oil changes for free.

Because there are things I can’t change.

But I could change myself. Be what I imagined Jay wanted. I only thought I existed when I could see the way he saw me. Songs wildly better—the lyrics I imagined as my voice.

He’d ignore me in class, and like a resting ham, I thrived on his neglect.

And on the pain. The world so diminutive in his absence. Senior year, and his wife had found the thousands of emails, so it ended in the usual way, badly.

Everything deleted. Like we’d never existed.

I steal because there’s no one here to stop me.

Except you.

Because my therapist asks why I say what I think when she asks how I feel.

Because I’ve sat there for three years as she listens to me lecture like a professor high on diatribes and I’ve never once said how I feel.

About the wooden blade Ricky carved which he hid in the woods in our house.

He was trying to build a world I could be in.

And he showed me what he’d do.

Once you know how to make a knife, you know how to use it.

Because my grandfather stayed the same. Dirty rice teeth, the silent treatment, pushing a mop across cafeteria tiles. But Ricky was growing bigger, stronger, smarter.

His graduation—that barbecue hazy with sweet-smoke and liquor.

My little cousins making swords of dripping red popsicles. My grandfather grilling. My grandma clearing paper plates. My mom at the rock concert that was her latest boyfriend’s face. You and Ricky coming through the gate with your skunk smell. Ricky endlessly banging the tops off Corona’s.

Me and you behind the pool while my cousins played Red Rover, thrashing their chests across locked arms.

I said, “Hi.” You said, “Hi.” You looked away. I looked away. Wanting to kiss but we were shy. Nothing could save us. Nothing could happen.

But my grandfather saw us. And Ricky watched him watching us, the possessive way my grandfather watched me—and Ricky snapped. Just like that.

You held him back as he got up on my grandfather’s chest, threatening him.

Whiz that he was, Ricky sold his soul to raise capital for corporations like Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil.

But I’ll never stop loving him for that.

Recently I told my therapist I steal because maybe I am trying to stuff amorphous ideas like space and time with the fragrant promises of retail.

It’s possible I was flustered and forgot the get-well card was tucked under my armpit at the self-checkout.

Self-checkout: the klepto’s favorite invention.

The barbecue was over, plastic chairs on their sides. My mom holding my cheeks on the steps, whispering she was sorry, she didn’t know.

And I believe her. We’re fine now.

But still.

She liked to ignore what was so obviously there, like the time she let me drive drunk on her Xanax.

I have this recurring dream where I’m in an oversized Celtics jersey and I’m doing figure eights on this frozen pond while Joni Mitchell sings “River” but no one’s watching.

My therapist said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I don’t know what I want.”

But then I walk into Target. Target will tell you what you want.

She said, “Last week, you mentioned you don’t cry. I was curious why.”

I said, “Because I’m not a basket case.”

Because I don’t care about the American dream and the American dream doesn’t care about me.

After high school, I wasn’t the same. Dropped out of Simmons and now Sallie Mae is after me and my wages are garnished like a drink.

You were turning into the station, and it was all becoming real.

You were going to book me, and nothing else mattered. The sucker-punch landed; I was just this giant loser.

Have you ever felt like you can’t feel your fingers when you’re driving, so you bang them against the wheel?

You pulled into a space.

Jay knew how I felt about astronomy. About Hemingway. He knew about the thing that happened to me.

I don’t know how I knew this, but the same thing happened to him.

I guess it can happen to a guy.

Maybe it was the last time I told someone how I felt.

All I wanted was for him to be proud of me.

To be good at something like I’m good at stealing, but it means I’m not really here. I’m just a floating pair of sunglasses on the security cam.

No exchanges. No receipts.

Meanwhile the Earth is on fire.

My fine lines getting finer.

While in the U.S. alone, over one hundred billion dollars is owed in unpaid child support. Women retire with 30 percent less in their savings. Are three times as likely to be depressed than men.

I thought if I could understand the galaxy, I could understand myself.

You cut the engine and I saw you after your dad died in your old driveway. You’d taken the semester off. You were staring at something in your hand, maybe keys, snow hissing past your head. I’d taken the semester off, too. Permanently. I lived with my mom, the clicking of the old school calculator as she counted her tips. That whole winter home, I ate raspberry Danish in the dark. I didn’t have a job. I was broken.

But then I saw this clip of David Blaine holding his breath under water. I rewound it, trying to grasp the art of endurance. Then I cleared my room and stretched like it was the 80s, tied my shoelaces so tight my toes were anesthetized, my workouts a mix between ballet and torture. Then I moved out, got my own apartment with Christina.

Our place above that CVS in Dedham. I slept like a rock, the deepest sleep I’d ever got, floating above everything I’d ever needed.

In the precinct’s parking lot, you opened the door and it smelled of rain and metal and when I emerged from the car the sky was slashed, a scary violet.

I would never steal from someone I love.

Except love.

I was too hot-cheeked to look at you.

But one time you’d been too hot-cheeked to look at me.

That weekend you got beat up outside your house.

I’ll never forget the bikes piled on the sidewalk like some tacky city-art installation, how the boys hit your back like they were chopping wood. And you, emerging from the crowd with dirt caked into the cuts on your cheek, your hair sticking up in every direction, half-way handsome. I just stood there as you limped off, and you wouldn’t look at me.

Ricky saw it, too, but by then he was a brainiac truant, synthesizing acid, pretending he didn’t know us either.

Maybe he was tired of trying to protect people.

You walked me through the station. I wasn’t getting free. You cleaned my finger then pressed it down into the ink.

You remember how we sat next to each other that whole year in Astronomy?

I wanted to know everything about space.

How far Earth was from each star and if that changed? What were sunspots? Why did they appear dark? Where did asteroids come from? How was the moon formed?

I laid out my color-coded binder and when we took notes, I tried not to blink, used arrows as shorthand so I wouldn’t fall behind.

I needed something big to believe in. Universal laws. Something I could trust.

I knew it wasn’t true, but I pictured every person like they could be their own galaxy, pre-packaged and complete.

I thought if I could understand the galaxy, I could understand myself.

But it wasn’t that simple. Astronomy was hard. I didn’t get it.

I got behind on notes. Ms. Rice’s chalk clicked out hieroglyphics and I’d lose grasp on how the planets were related and how they were related to us. I’d space out, the bell would ring, and it felt like any other alarm.

I just couldn’t learn.

Nothing is worse than not understanding something you long to learn.

But you always had the answers.

We never spoke a word, but by finals, you sensed I needed help, shifting your paper to an angle I could look at.

I would’ve failed that test without you.

Space stumped me then, but it scares me now.

When Earth ends, will we bypass Mars and occupy some unidentified planet?

This is when my therapist tells me to pause, take deep breaths, tap my shoulders. To place my fears into this invisible container she asked me to name.

I’m ashamed of the name.

And of the way you asked if my last name was still the same. 

You took my mugshot and when the light flashed, I thought of this night I did DMT.

One hit, and I zoomed back from Earth, hooked to a star. I hung there for ten seconds, relieved to notice the Earth’s wholeness, despite me.

Then I was cut from where I hung and dropped down into my future where I crawled on the warm, fragrant grass towards my daughter. She was sitting by a fence, three years old. I wasn’t told who she was, I just knew her.

She’d been inside me.

And when I reached out to touch her.

I knew she was God.

On the grass, I wept. And it wasn’t good, or bad. It just was.

Then I came to on the bed.

After that street fight, you weren’t the same. You started wrestling and you were good at it. You whittled down but got cut, all your muscles hard as football pads, indestructible. You were ready to crush someone, to fight.

My grandfather must have thought he’d made an impression on you. Maybe you didn’t know this, but he was on one of the B-29’s that bombed the shit out of Pyeongyang. He saw the way you tapped the backboard obsessively, how you dropped to do pushups on that cool, malleable asphalt. You weren’t shy anymore, you were strong.

You walked with such authority down the hall that no one even looked at you. 

Except me.

I saw you this one time in the hallway, walking up to that senior girl. She was shoving binders into her tricked-out locker. Her face caked in powder; hair so bleached it looked gummy to the touch. She glanced back, saw you coming for her. Your stride courageous, lips sensitive. You reached out to touch her shoulder, your fingers hovering in the air. But the girl freaked out, turned from her locker, pretending you didn’t exist, then got lost. You were frozen in the hallway, looking like you wanted to cry, but you couldn’t.

I was that girl.

My jaw clicks when I scream.

I’m sorry you couldn’t cry.



Kate WiselKate Wisel is the author of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, winner of the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, selected by Min Jin Lee. Her fiction can be found in places that include Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Tin House online, Adroit Journal, The Best Small Fictions 2019, Redivider (as winner of the Beacon Street Prize), W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction America, and elsewhere. She lives in Milwaukee, works as an assistant to music critic Jim DeRogatis, and teaches at Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University.

Header photo by Yevhen Prozhyrko, courtesy Shutterstock.

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