Upper East Side December 2005

“Found Objects” =
Upper East Side/Dec 2005

Original Title: Happy Ending

Where: The Regency Hotel, on Park Avenue and 61st Street

Why: It doesn’t usually happen for me this way, but I had an experience and it prompted me to begin a story. As experiences go, this one was brief: on Christmas Eve, my husband, kids and I were having cheeseburgers with my mom and stepfather at the bar of the Regency hotel (a kind of tradition with us). Washing my hands in the bathroom, I noticed a fat green wallet inside a wide-open bag beside the sink. I had a thought along the lines of: She’s lucky it’s me, seeing this wallet, and not a different kind of person. Which led to the question: What kind of person? Who is the woman who would look down while washing her hands, see a wallet, and take it? That question stayed with me. Although I wasn’t intending to work on stories — in fact, I was trying to begin a novel set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II — I sat down with that wallet in my head and a pen in my hand, to see what might happen.

Music: Death Cab For Cutie, We have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes

History: I myself have been repeatedly robbed: by a motorcyclist in Spain when I was 22, backpacking with friends; years later by a guy in Lisbon who tore my purse off its strap and ran away; by a woman sitting next to me in Penn Station as I waited for a train back to college in Philadelphia, who finessed my wallet from my open bag (I caught her and snatched it back, leading to some intensely awkward moments before she left her seat and moved away). Once, in my early years in New York, someone cut my lock at the gym and stole my purse. Later I received a phone call from the thief, posing as a Citibank employee, and she duped me into giving her my PIN number (in the guise of changing it), then went immediately to a cash machine, and overdrew my checking account.

Beginning:

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eyes shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you get back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist said) and take the fucking thing.

“You mean steal it.”

He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she’d used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she’d lifted from her former boss’s lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores — their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her. Only from people.

“Okay,” she said. “Steal it.”