In 1982, I stole some beautiful things in Paris. Looking back, I realized I learned how to maintain my composure after earlier failed attempts at thieving. In 1967, I was five when I was lined up with my five older siblings and accused of throwing a half-opened can of Spam behind a box of gift-wrapping paper in the basement. I’d twisted the aluminum key off its track and tried to throw away the evidence. My mother found it months later. By 1980, I wasn’t much better and got caught red-faced and red-handed at an all-girls camp on Lake Sebago. I was a counselor and the last to leave at the end of the summer. When my father came to pick me up, the extra tall, lean, and refined director told my less tall, lean, and refined dad that I’d taken a camper’s riding boots. I’d ridden a horse once, but I thought the boots looked hot on me.
“Don’t worry about it,” my father said, his gruff Italian accent comforting me, as it often had, on the long ride home. He knew the previous years had been tough with the divorce, the moves, my mother’s addictions and affairs, and his limited appearances. He also knew he wasn’t one to preach. At eleven, I was a de facto accomplice in a heist he’d arranged with my mother. One day when my sister was working as a cashier at a local drugstore, he made her look the other way as we left with carts of milk, bread, maxi pads, toilet paper, and anything else we could stuff in them. That was the early seventies when inflation and unemployment were the highest since the Great Depression. My father had lost his job as a mechanical engineer. He found what work he could, driving chickens to markets and pumping gas. But it wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage and groceries for a family of nine. Lore had it he was groomed at the same age he christened me when his immigrant Italian father resurfaced and bribed him to transport bags of cash on trains out of Providence.
In my junior year of college, my mussy, brown-haired boyfriend asked me to go to France on a study abroad program. “Apply for a grant,” he told me, his plump lips framing his straight white teeth.
I pleaded with the director of the program. “I’ve always wanted to study in France. I’ll work harder than anyone.” The suited, young, white man studied me. “I can’t go if I don’t receive the grant,” I said, between bits of saltwater falling from my cheeks. The truth was I hadn’t ever imagined studying in France until then. The opportunity had given me hope: a zipline to freedom, in an adventurous place where my family could not reach me. Within weeks, I received the award and more loans than I could afford and, with my Burger King wages, I bought a one-way ticket to France.
“You Americans,” my host brother Jacques said, smiling at me after I arrived in Strasbourg. His dark almond-shaped eyes and symmetrical features drew me to him, and his French accent and English fluency captivated me. “You have too much weight.” His coarse mustache and silky black hair glistened against his olive skin. I smiled, unsure of how to respond and already believing he knew more about Americans than me.
Each day on my way to Syracuse University’s Strasbourg branch, I passed Gothic cathedrals and self-assured Parisians dressed in flared wool coats, snug pants, and tapered dresses, fashion I believed they had chosen to accentuate already slender figures. “Elle a les grands pieds,” a shoe clerk said, smirking at his coworker. My size nine feet were just another American anomaly, another of my body’s oddities. I wanted to fit in and avoid being pitied in my khakis, docksiders, and large sweaters meant to hide my extra American weight. Mostly, I wanted to conceal my history to evade judgment. I wanted to be cloaked in a bit of mystery, so I’d have a better chance of succeeding rather than being pegged as that poor young woman with a glossy-eyed mother who smelled of vodka and forest skunk in the doghouse near the tracks.
“Did you stop at the patisserie?” My robed host mother asked every afternoon, greeting me at the door of her dimly lit apartment. One of her hands always rested on a protruding belly, her head and forefinger twitching left to right. “Eh?” She waited for my answer, chewing some ephemeral thing. The shaming felt familiar. Some days I told her the truth, but most, I would just say, “No.” I wanted to stop hunting down mille-feuilles and chocolate croissants, but the gooey, sweet euphoria simultaneously beckoned and distracted me. The doughy layers and oozing fillings triggered memories of walks with my mother to our neighborhood patisserie, where she practiced her French buying crusty baguettes and pastel-frosted petit fours. The oven scents enveloped me like a soothing soak in the tub. That was when I climbed trees, played street hockey, and picked raspberries from our gardens, my mom always drowning the fruit in cream and sugar. When she smelled of soap and roses and sang, playing the piano so loudly the neighbors could hear her. When we laughed, the bellyaching, choking-on-saliva bouts of laughter. When rainy days were treasured with sweet tea and cookies, and summers were spent at the beach or on road trips studying maps and visiting relatives on the northeastern coast.
At eleven, the piano along with most of our furniture disappeared when my parents divorced. “I can’t take anything that reminds me of that house,” my mother told my younger brother and me. “Or your father.” I wondered what horrific things he had done for her to cut this final cord. I’d heard their arguments. She was known for oversharing. I heard he had followed her and listened to her conversations with a man she had met at a local college where she was taking classes. Years earlier, when I was just six, I’d heard her on a call with my father’s colleague. “He cashed out all our savings. Even the kid’s accounts, and plans on leaving with a woman from work!” She raged and called anyone who would listen, pacing the house for what seemed like days. That was at the end of the most glorious summer we had ever had, after my mother had spent most of her father’s inheritance renting a beach house on a cliff overlooking a grand expanse of the ocean in Middletown, RI. Some weekends, my father made the trip from Providence to Middletown. But our family priest spent more time with us that summer than he did, holding church services on our rolling lawn and meeting us at the beach.
After the divorce, we took our beds, bureaus, and a bookcase filled with my mother’s journals, family photo albums, and a few books from our colonial near Brown, with its barn-like garage and stained-glass windows, to a rental on a former junkyard, a block from commercial railroad tracks. Remnants of tires, metal pipes, and grocery carts poked up from patches of grass surrounding the home, whispers of trauma that had begun to emerge.
By high school, my mother stashed vodka in her bag, bookshelves, and car. When she wasn’t working or sleeping with sedatives and men she met in jazz clubs by the Seekonk River, she shared her pot with me. She thought that sharing the pot would help calm our anxieties. Instead, charading as a bonding moment, it temporarily anesthetized us, assuaged her guilt, and planted the seeds of my addiction. “My father made these when I had a cold,” she told me and handed me a hot toddy when I was sick one day. I’m not sure why she thought that would be a comforting thought since she had also told me how he had been an abusive alcoholic. But like my relationship with her, her relationship with her father, a failed newspaperman, had been conflicted, layered with love and disgust.
After moving into the rental, my younger brother and I were often left alone. Our bodies slowly began to swell from the pasta, potatoes, and PB & J’s we largely ate that never seemed to fill us. So I stole tea and crackers from Sister Mary’s library office where I worked in exchange for tuition after school. I wanted my siblings to come back around our top-heavy Lazy Susan steadying glasses of milk and plates of hamburger helper from the minor quakes set off by the jockeying of arms and legs around the table. Inevitably, the two-toned, brown ceramic pitcher of equal parts powdered and bottled milk would spill, sending the back of my father’s hand careening against the shoulder of the offender. “What’s the mattah with you?” he’d ask, never wanting an answer. I missed how my mother had begun experimenting with food before our family split up. Instead of one-pot meals, she made ambrosia, baked Alaska, and vichyssoise after befriending her French professor. Just the thought of ice cream baked in a cake covered with sugary singed egg whites made my mouth water.
In France, the fat shaming from my host family coincided with my growing infatuation with Jacques. I began to eat less. At night, we lay on his wiry twin bed, tucked against pale walls bathed in yellow light listening to older American pop bands like the Alan Parsons Project and Rupert Holmes. “If you like Pina Coladas…,” pressing play and then rewind over and over on his cassette player. He was gentle, and the first person I’d been with who rarely drank and didn’t smoke. I wanted his self-assurance. Most nights, I never left his bed. By then, I had severed my relationship with my American boyfriend, whose primary focus had become Alsatian beer. “I’ll never marry you,” Jacques told me one night. “You aren’t Jewish.” Just then, his mother poked her head in the doorway of his room, shaking her head and forefinger from left to right.
“No,” she said. “Never.” They were a family of conservative Jews from Morocco who had traveled north after WWII. At the time, I didn’t understand the extent of his family’s torment. I knew they had experienced prejudice and pain. I had seen disdainful glances tossed their way and the armed guards at local temples. And because of that, I believed he would understand my sorrow. I knew our pain was not the same. But if he understood how to persevere in the face of trauma, I thought I could learn from him and possibly do the same. At twenty years old and having known Jacques for just a few months, the idea of marriage was absurd. But I wanted his empathy and his love. So I focused on eating less.
When my jeans began to hang loosely from me, I tailored them to fit so tightly that I rivaled the French women I had envied. “Eat something,” Jacques said, offering me a piece of bread one morning. “You’re not eating anything.” It was the confirmation I needed as I began my transformation. The change had triggered a power shift, and a certain exhilaration set in.
Before Christmas, our class took a field trip to Paris. Strasbourg is an Alsatian city best known for its German influence, sparkling wine, and the Petite France District, where ancient timbered houses line canals connected by cobblestone bridges. It was quaint but I wanted to visit flagship department stores and museums of famous French sculptors in the City of Love. I wanted to see the latest in fashion draped on slinky Parisian models like those in Vogue and Elle magazines. If I could begin to look like them, I wondered what other possibilities existed for me. “Go to school and travel the world,” my mother had always told me. “Before you settle down.” I wanted to see the cake-like tiers and spires trimmed in gold of the Paris Printemps. So, when I finally arrived to see the grande dame of department stores, my head tilted back and my lips turned up at the spectacle.
Inside, beyond racks of taffeta dresses and weighty-shouldered suits, were rows of kitten-soft pink and blue cashmere sweaters. My only experience with something so silken was when I’d worn my grandmother’s chocolate-peppered fur coat in high school. Or rather, it wore me. She moved from Nova Scotia to New York 1919 after being offered a spot at a nursing school to help fight the flu pandemic. She wore those achievements with such pride and sternness people paid attention to her. That’s how I felt when I wore the fur coat, even if its satin lining was torn and hung askew from my shoulders down to my uniform navy knee socks.
In Printemps, I took a fluffy pink pullover off the rack and found an empty suite of dressing rooms. I removed my gray rayon and cotton turtleneck and slipped the cashmere sweater on. Its feather-like fibers brushed my exposed flesh. The V-neck framed my small breasts perfectly, and the gently cinched waist minimized the soft round of my stomach. My abdominal muscles clenched as I removed the sweater and put my shirt back on. With one finger between two of my house keys, I pried the front and back of the security tag apart, detached it from the garment, and pushed the broken pieces under the bench with my big American foot. Then I rolled up the buttery knit, pushed it into the bottom of my backpack, and left.
Outside, a warm chill rose in me despite the December temperatures. It lingered into the metro and along the rocking and rolling of the train ride to the Rodin Museum. I knew my offense would never affect the owners of such a palatial company. Instead, I thought about the perfect anatomies I’d seen of European sculptures in art and textbooks, and about how my new sweater would complement my figure and might distract from my lack of fluency and sophistication. At the Rodin Museum, a maze of dormant rose bushes and boxy evergreens greeted guests. The formidable mansion had housed dukes and duchesses. At one time, it was also a brothel, then a convent, and an apartment building before finally being transformed into a museum after the artist’s death in 1917. As I walked through its gates, I remembered roaming Swan Point Cemetery with my mother in Providence, past headstones and ponds spotted with lily pads and reflections, and through thick green gardens dotted with figures of those buried there. The Thinker, in its heroic size and stature, sat opposite the entrance to the Rodin Museum. His head rested in his hand. I wanted to be bold and thoughtful, to know that I was brilliant like Rodin had. Inside the 18th-century building, the head of a female bust tilted up as if The Scream was rising from the dead and mouthing silent cries.The desperation felt familiar. Then I saw flashes of shouting, slapping, and falling.
I wound my way through the museum towards The Kiss, with its two nudes wrapped in each other’s arms. My eyes traced the light along the chiseled tissue and bone of the slippery white marble, while my fingers snuck touches. I wondered if I could create that type of love in my life if I memorized the shape of the figures.
In the gift shop, the buzz of receipt printers and benign conversations replaced the echoes of shoes striking marble. Carousels filled with glossy postcards tilted and swayed. One by one, I removed pictures of The Scream, The Thinker, and The Kiss from their metal slots. I walked towards a rack of scarves and feigned interest in two of them. When the cashier’s attention turned elsewhere, I slipped the cards into my bag and left the shop, too elated to feel anything else.