Jae Johnson

LIFTING

Dev wanted to know why I was wearing Celeste’s clothes. We were on the porch. Dev lay on the sagging couch, on his back, staring at the ceiling, snug in a leather jacket, jeans, and Timberlands. I sat in the red leather recliner pulling at the collar of the cable knit cardigan that had belonged to my mother, Celeste, and someone else before her, and possibly someone else before her. It was powder blue, pilled, fraying at the edges, and fastened up to my neck with round wooden buttons as large as half dollars. Celeste had gotten it fifty percent off at Goodwill. When she was alive, she only shopped at second-hand stores because there were too many cast-off things in the world. There was a big patch of garbage somewhere in the Pacific. There were dogs and people in shelters. Things that were new and then used and then thrown away. She was against all that. They never go away, those things, she said. They’re still around, piling up. Might as well use them again.

I caught Dev stealing a look at me, at my brown face, at my lawless curls. He turned quickly to the ceiling when I caught him looking as if to say, I was not looking at you; get over yourself.

“It’s the sweater,” he said, turning back to me, recovering. “I’m fascinated. It’s so bad that I’m starting to like it.”

He turned back to the ceiling, watched the silver wind chimes that hung there, watched as they tingled in the bracing March breeze.

“I dig those chimes,” he said. “I’ve never seen them here before. Where’d you lift them?”

“I bought those?”

I winced. I hadn’t meant to ask a question. I meant to make a statement. He smirked.

“No, seriously,” I said. “I got them downtown at Freeman’s . . . I gave up shoplifting for Lent.”

“You’re not Catholic.” He laughed, still incredulous.

I smiled, fingering one of the sweater’s buttons. “The Pope is,” I said. “And I like him. He has kind eyes.”

“So, you’re telling me that you, you, went to Freeman’s and bought these.”

I nodded.

He frowned, his olive cheeks reddening, his eyes hurt—like I went straight and didn’t tell him or something, and how could I do that? I understood, because we just knew we were the only ones in the support group who still lifted from time to time. It was our secret joy.

“I can’t believe you spent money on that,” he muttered.

“You said you liked them.”

He shrugged, turning away from me and the chimes. He looked down at his boots, folding his arms under his head. “You look ridiculous in that sweater.”

The sweater was scratchy against my neck and smelled faintly of rose and Indian ambrette. I pulled the top button out of its hole, struggling with it as if unearthing a world. I slipped my hands into the deep square pockets and fingered the old package of menthols that was in the right side one, tugging out the crumpled package. I plucked a limp cigarette from it, and stuck the filter end in my mouth, sucking on its staleness with my tongue. Celeste was smart and health conscious when it came to what she ate, but cigarettes were her weakness, and cancer ate her pancreas. It had been a year since she died in her bed on second-hand sheets and a small, lavender pillow I lifted from the Walmart Super Center. She wanted to die in our house, the one she paid for with her teaching income and her savings. The house was her most favorite secondhand thing. “It’s called The Plymouth,” she told me after some internet scrolling. “1934. From Sears and Roebuck.” Celeste thought the original owner chose the Plymouth for its porch. That’s what she would have done.

Dev watched the cigarette as it dangled from my mouth. I snatched it away, placed it back in the package, and slipped the package into its sweater pocket home.

“I thought you’d be impressed about the chimes,” I said. “Proud of me or something.”

“I’ll be proud of you the day after Easter,” he said.

“You think I won’t make it?”

He shrugged.

“I thought that was the point,” I said.

He looked at me, his face softening as it would sometimes like he wanted to hold my cheeks in his palms. “I thought we were incorrigible,” he said.

Sometimes Dev would give himself away with big words. His father was a professor at Northeastern and his mother owned the city newspaper. When he was a teenager, they sent him to a fancy prep school like the one in the movie The Emperor’s Club, starring Kevin Kline. That’s the only way Dev described the school, and that was all he’d ever say about it. He would say his parents had high hopes for him–not hopes, Dev would correct. Intentions. Intentions for their only son, Dev Banerjee, who was essentially raised by a housekeeper. Dev said that hope takes heart. Intention takes will.

My mother hoped. She hoped I would stop being so materialistic, stop thinking more and new things would satisfy me when they clearly never did and would not. Celeste hoped I would stop shoplifting. She even considered sending me to Nigeria when I was sixteen to meet my father and his family who she may have imagined lived in huts and wore colorful scarves as clothing. Maybe she thought her simplicity wasn’t enough, but a second-world country would set right priorities for me. What did she know? She only knew my father, Mobo, and very briefly. He was an exchange student when she met him, a deep chocolate brown with dazzling white teeth and a “brooding quality”—so different from her, a ginger-haired white girl with hippie parents and an unclouded frame of mind. Celeste never told Mobo about me. She wanted something of her own, just the one thing.  And that was fine by me. I didn’t want to go to Nigeria. Besides, I was sure they had malls there, too.

I nestled deeper into the recliner. It didn’t match the couch but came from the same garage sale. I silently played the game Celeste and I used to play, the game of beginnings, which is what she called it. Only now I had to play it alone. This recliner began in a Chinese factory and traveled by ship to Sears, and a pair of newlyweds who enjoyed the Sears tradition and thought Sears would last forever bought the chair with the first of their savings, but when their marriage busted up within two years, as most new businesses do, the wife gave the recliner away to a coworker she barely knew, because it was her husband’s only favorite thing. It occurred to me that if they had boosted the recliner, he wouldn’t have gotten so attached to it. I shook my head, letting the image of that long-ago husband, defying love and responsibility with a stolen recliner, dissolve behind my eyes.

No more lifting. No more lifting.

“Maybe we should go to a meeting,” I said to Dev.

He closed his eyes and sighed. I knew what he was thinking. At the meeting, Barry would drink too much coffee and talk about sitting in strip mall parking lots watching the shoppers stream in and out of stores, hoping that just seeing the bags would relieve him. Lula would go into detail about another fight she had with her older son and how she almost stole something because of all the stress. Judith, who facilitated the meetings, would press everyone, in turn, to answer the terminal question of why. Why do you lift? Most would say I don’t know. I used to say it, too, but I knew why. I lifted because I wanted things that only ever belonged to me. I wanted to be the beginning of everything in my drawer, on my back, and in my hands. I hated Celeste for telling me it was wrong to want that. I damned all the cast-offs that concerned her, and I prayed to the sky that the Pacific garbage patch would grow to the size of a continent.

And then I would get on the bus and go to the Target in the next town and steal something I didn’t need or want.

Dev opened his eyes and fixed them on the chimes that were tinging.  “I feel like a live volcano sometimes, like the top of me is going to blow off,” he said. “I lift and it’s better. The meetings? Not so much.”

He smiled, and I felt as though I could look at his lips and his long body lining the couch for many hours.  I felt the same on the miserable first day I met him at the mandated shoplifter’s support group. He wore a pressed button-down collar shirt, crisp jeans, and his boots. He would have looked so earnest if it weren’t for his fierce expression and the balled hands he rested in his lap. He had sat opposite me in the circle, allowing me to steal easy glances. I felt restless looking at him. Thirsty.

“I want to go to the mall,” he said now, chuckling.

“I do, but I don’t,” I said.

He nodded, his smile fading. “I know.”

“Scooch over,” I told him, rising from the recliner.          

I sat next to him, close enough to lay my head on his shoulder. He let me, leaned into me a little. He put his arm around me and cupped the brown curls that brushed against my collarbone. We often sat this way, usually in front of the TV. We liked thrillers and horrors. They made us laugh. Now, we sat on the porch’s couch for long, still moments smelling the neighborhood’s reluctant chimneys and listening to the chimes.

“You never try anything,” I said.

I felt him tense against me and take a careful breath. “If we were recovering alcoholics, we couldn’t even date,” he said. “If we were in AA—”

“We’re not in AA,” I said.

“I have policies,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to say. No twenty-five-year-old virgins.”

I winced. “I’m twenty-six.”

“You’re not helping your case.” He chuckled.

“Well, that policy is super specific and cruel,” I said.

“It’s not my fault that you’re still a virgin.” He eased, pulling me closer. “What the hell were you waiting for?”

I softened against him like warming butter. “I’ve been busy paying consequences,” I said.

“I’ve been on probation and done countless hours of community service, too,” he said. “I still found time to fornicate.”

“I guess you’re better at multi-tasking.”

He laughed for a long moment, shaking his head, his black-as-motor-oil hair slipping into his eyes. But then, his energy shifted—it coiled and thickened as he loosened his hold on me.

“You make me angry,” he said slipping his arm from around my shoulders. “You’re so fucking . . . pretty. With those stupid freckles. Who has freckles? And you say cute things and you want to be a good person and you . . . randomly like the Pope because of his eyes . . . . And you smell shockingly good. It makes me want to punch you in the face. Seriously. Move away from me before you get hurt.”

I laughed. I kissed his cheek, pinched it. His face was red and hot. But he wasn’t joking. He moved away from me on the couch. I moved closer and kissed his lips until I felt him yield.

“I have policies,” he said holding me away from him by the shoulders. “Taking somebody’s virginity—”

“That sounds old and stupid,” I said.

“Taking somebody’s virginity is real,” he said. “The person who does that sticks to you for the rest of your life. I would be in your history book until the day you died. Page thirty-two. My picture plus commentary: It hurt; it was quick; and then I realized I hated him.”

I would be in his history book, too, I thought. Maybe just a footnote on the page that listed all the things he ever took. I didn’t care. I pressed his leanness against me and waited for him to give.

***

It did hurt. It was quick. But I didn’t hate him. I held him as he cradled his head against his folded arms and looked above him. I nestled my head into his armpit listening to him breathe, careful, careful. His body, languid and pliant moments ago, seemed taut now. His foot twitched under the bedsheet, little give anywhere else. He strained against everything.

“What do you want to do now?” I asked.

He breathed deeply, that careful breath. “I want to go to the mall.”

I closed my eyes against him, my eyelashes brushing the hairs of his armpit. I squeezed him slightly, then let go.

“I don’t want to,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “Your mom’s clothes. The chimes . . . I know.” He turned to look at me, his eyes sad.

I moved my head on his chest, looking past him. Celeste’s sweater lay in a pale blue heap on an old chair, the button-hole eyes looking at me, telling me that it wasn’t too late to make her happy.

“I gotta go to the bathroom,” Dev said. “I’ll be right back.”

He rose from the bed, teetering on his feet, still in his socks, which were red like open wounds. He grabbed his shirt and pants and cupped himself with one hand. I lay there as he left the room, noticing the throbbing pain between my legs ebbing. His worn boots lay where he tossed them, near the dresser drawers. I had never known him without them. I played the game of beginnings with his boots. The wheat-colored things were made by brown hands in the Dominican Republic and shipped to the US for retail distribution. Dev went into The Shoe Depot where the boots were displayed on open shelving, still in their boxes. His size was on the bottom shelf. He squatted, removed the boots from the large square box, slipped them under his oversized coat, and walked out while the only clerk on duty helped another customer.

Or, this time, Dev bought the boots, paid instead of lifting, and that’s why they were so dear. But as the sky darkened through the bedroom window, I knew he was leaving them behind. I knew he was gone.

When I got out of bed, I slipped on my clothes and Celeste’s sweater, and I pushed my feet into Dev’s Timberlands. I trudged outside onto the porch and fell onto the couch in the strengthening breeze and falling dusk. I listened for the chimes, the ones that belonged to me and no one else before or before. I didn’t hear them. I looked up for them, but they were gone.


This story previously appeared in The McGuffin, under the pseudonym Jade McGowan.