Alas!

It’s not that I shoplifted per se, I don’t even shop – let alone for clothes. I’ve evolved past the “hunter-gatherer” stereotypes. Moreover, I have the fashion sense of a color-blind chameleon, which is to say I wear a lot of black.

Many women dress to camouflage their perceived flaws. I dress not to be naked. My measurements are standard-issue for a display model. I could almost be a mannequin ? my gaze is sufficiently vacant (men think this is “mysterious,” when I’m actually bored). In real life, I’d never make it as a garment golem ? I can’t muster that hard, pinched, self-conscious look molded into every plaster countenance. I suppose if I had a steel rod in my butt I’d appear self-conscious too. Also, I have nipples.

Moreover, I loathe the notion of planned obsolescence. How does a pantsuit expire? An arbitrary expiration date has to be built in otherwise our closets would be vaults.

To wit, fashion’s planned obsolescence begins with its terminology. Like Orwell’s NewSpeak, those who control the language control the wee minds of fashion consumers. Though one wouldn’t be cremated in last year’s hip-huggers, you would strut in the synonymous “low-rises.” The same for floods versus capris; boot-cut versus bellbottoms; apples versus oranges.

The last article of clothing I can actually recall thinking about was my cow-eyed co-worker’s clingy black sweater. Vera had a darling number made of black cotton-rayon blend (she was told it was knit from the wool of a black sheep) with more cling than a monkey with abandonment issues. And it was machine washable.

It was the kind of sweater that was prevalent on the backs of last year’s freshman art students, if you pay attention to those things, which I don’t. Vera never wore it ? it hung unceremoniously on the back of her chair ? a bear skin rug used as a bath mat. Oh, but I loved it, it was so sweet and pert, all horn-rims and licorice sticks. I loved that sweater the way one love’s a girlfriend’s kid brother ? cute, but nothing to be done about it.

Last week, after Vera had left work early for a Botox seminar, I noted a chill in the air. It was too warm for my jacket but too cold to forgo an additional layer. So I commandeered Vera’s sweater. I had every intention of returning it the next day but then I had one of those nights – drinks Downtown. I got popular with some out-of-towners, took first pick and left the sweater somewhere between the room Jacuzzi and slouching past the checkout counter.

Even though I could convince dim Vera that she had lost the sweater herself (“No dear, you only dreamed you had a sweater on your chair like the time you dreamed that married man was your boyfriend”), I decided that I would replace it with an exact duplicate.

I ventured into the Fashion District. I perused clearance sales galore. I discovered style, erstwhile and otherwise, was bought and sold by the pound. Some of the joints confused “off the rack” with “off a missing palette” or proffered brands that were close cousins of more familiar name brands as if the family moniker was slightly altered by generations and geography. Anne Taylor and Ann Tyler shared genes as well as dress patterns.

The air-conditioning in these places is always cranked too high – I suppose the fragile stock required refrigeration otherwise it would spoil.

“You can only remove five items at a time,” belched a top-heavy matron who seemed to be ensconced in an iron corset. On her lapel was a security badge inscribed “detective.” She looked as if she were forged from the bow of a steamship.

“You are only allowed five items in the dressing room, Miss.”

“I’m not going into the dressing room,” I replied, shifting the weight of a dozen possible facsimiles of Vera’s sweater from arm to arm.

“You can’t go in the dressing room anyway. You have too many items.”

“I get that. I’m not going into the dressing room. I’m not trying these on.”

“You better. There are no returns, no store credit,” the detective rumbled. “You want to go into the dressing room?”

I stared at her blankly.

“Well, you can’t.”

She was playing good cop, bad cop with herself. Someone had mistranslated pret-a-porte as rent-a-cop. Theretofore, the closest brush with surveillance I’ve had is fixing my lipstick in a 7-11 video monitor. That, and I once had a boyfriend who claimed that the “call-waiting” beeps on his telephone were an FBI wiretap.

I naturally resisted the idea of being groped by the long arm of the law. I prided myself on never having cried my way out of a speeding ticket, nor cranking up my water bra to avoid a point on my license, which is why I was particularly perturbed by the trouble that would befall me at the checkout stand.

I should have left with the merchandise in hand, but I got greedy. I spied another candidate for Vera’s sweater at a cluster of racks near the men’s department and scurried away from the huffing security guard.

This sweater was the twin sister of Vera’s, a canoodley cutie with shiny, pucker-lip buttons. I made an instant decision that I would keep it and leave one of the inferior sweaters on Vera’s chair.
I tried to take the sweater from its hanger, but its sleeve snagged on something within the rack. I knelt and parted the garments as if opening the curtains of a puppet theater before taking my bow.

Butterflies erupted in my stomach.

Inside stood a little ragamuffin girl with scattered blond tresses and an ersatz goatee of chocolate ice cream on her chin. She clung to the sleeve of my sweater, smiled and padded deeper into the rack.

“Hey, kid, what’s the deal?” I scolded as I followed her on my knees until we lighted upon a clearing ? or rather an encampment where a handful of other tatterdemalions seemed to have made a nest.

“I am Esse,” she began, then introduced the others, each slightly older, as “Emme, Elle and Criselle,” the last being a shade shy of puberty.

“She’s big, huh?” Esse said proudly of her capture.

Redheaded Elle seized my purse and immediately began foraging for candy. She delighted in the discovery of some breath mints and a cigarette lighter, which she tossed at the sleepy-eyed, bespectacled Emme.

“It lights the way,” Emme cooed as she flicked the lighter, the flame dancing in her glasses.

Criselle, the oldest, looked like an informed queen, pale and gauzy. She preened a moment and finally, after appraising the treasures of my purse, which were now piled at her feet, ordered that I be “Tagged.”

The chirping waifs tackled me and as I struggled to bat them off, they snapped security tags to every stitch of clothing I was wearing.

“Alright you little bitches,” I bellowed as I tugged at the radio-activated security tags strewn over my body like leeches. “Give me the goddamn sweater! And my lip gloss!”

I rended the sweater from Esse’s little mitts, grabbed my tube of lip gloss from the floor and darted through the thicket of remaindered clothes items back toward the cashier.

Alarms began to trumpet as I neared the door.

“I said five items!” the rent-a-cop crowed, as she clutched my arm and marched me to the cashier.

There, I was summarily charged for all the clothes on my back – again – before the guard would detag me.

At the office the next morning, I draped the sweater, my sweater, my new sweet as cotton candy sweater over the back of Vera’s chair. And neither of us was the wiser.

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