The worst thing Vanessa ever did was steal a man’s laptop. And jacket.
She often went to the café with the stained-glass windows in the late afternoon, after her shift at the halfway house. Today she got an Earl Grey tea and splurged on a raspberry scone. The man was already sitting at the next table over, working on his laptop. He nodded at her as she sat down and made no effort to help her with the pile of things she was balancing: her purse, a steaming mug of tea, a small plate, the newspaper, and her red cardigan slung over one arm. It would have been nice, she thought, if men were still pulling out chairs.
She discovered the round table was wobbly, so she ripped out an ad page in the newspaper, folded it into a perfect square, and slid it under one of the legs. “Smart,” the man said. Vanessa nodded. He continued, “Originally I was sitting there. But then I moved over here.” Vanessa said nothing and turned to the crossword. His comment was what Vanessa’s mother would have described as “non-information,” something Vanessa’s father was full of apparently.
It had already been a long day. Unlike her average workday which consisted of folding laundry and playing boardgames with adults with schizophrenia, today Vanessa attended a conflict resolution workshop. It was led by a man with a distracting mustache and a woman in a pencil skirt that prevented her from taking regular-sized steps. Vanessa learned about empathetic listening and different kinds of conflict styles. Hers was Avoidance, as determined by Moustache. Three other people also got Avoidance, and so they all stood around a poster board and wrote things down like, “Don’t enjoy fighting,” and “Choose my battles.”
After the lunchbreak, they had to role-play conflicts from their own lives. A woman with a nose ring had a boss who didn’t check in with her enough. A man in a Golden Gate Bridge t-shirt felt ignored at management meetings. A woman organizing a social justice event was not getting enough help with outreach, and a man retiring at the end of the year hated his board of directors.
Vanessa’s conflict was that a coworker made too many boob jokes. She had not confronted him about this. In the role play, she played the part of Boob Man, and Nose Ring asked her if there was any conflict at work he wished to discuss. Vanessa/Boob Man said, “No, everything is great at work.” Everyone laughed and Pencil Skirt said, “You were supposed to come with an example where both parties are aware of the conflict.” Vanessa and Nose Ring spent the rest of the exercise talking about shoes, and the recent Planned Parenthood debacle.
Now, at the café, Vanessa had finished her scone and was trying to think of a seven-letter word for renegade. The man next to her stood up suddenly, put his phone in his pocket, closed his laptop, and said, “Watch my stuff? I gotta tinkle.” Vanessa nodded.
As a regular, Vanessa knew that the bathroom was down a long hallway, out a side door, and down an alley. She also knew that no one over the age of three should use the word tinkle. She looked around. There were a few tables of students from the Jesuit college around the corner working on homework.
She stood up and bussed her mug and plate. She put on her cardigan, slung her purse over her shoulder, and nonchalantly slid the man’s laptop into his black backpack. She grabbed his brown leather jacket from the back of the chair, and the backpack, and quickly exited the café. She knew this would be the last time she’d come here, so she inhaled deeply as she left, logging the smell.
Outside, Vanessa’s eyes widened, her heart raced, and she began to run. Her purse bonked against her side and the man’s bag jiggled up and down her back. She clutched the leather jacket against her chest. Glancing over her shoulder, she didn’t see anyone following. She ran two more blocks and turned the corner to the bus stop. Just her luck, the 40 was approaching. She boarded and walked straight to the back of the bus, past people on their phones paying attention to nothing.
The ride home was quick. By the time she ran up the three floors to her studio apartment, she was breathing heavily, and her back was sweaty. She ripped off the backpack and tossed it on the couch with the jacket. The cat was desperate for food so she opened a can. She filled a glass with water and chugged it in the middle of the kitchen, staring over at the bag and jacket.
It was dark outside before Vanessa felt ready to unzip the backpack. She pulled out the laptop and slid it under the couch. She found a notebook with just two pages filled in. Meeting notes. He was preparing for a presentation on sales numbers and forecasting. In the middle pocket was a banana, which Vanessa peeled and ate in three bites. There were two pens, a news magazine, a granola bar wrapper, and a folder from a real estate company containing fliers of homes for sale. Vanessa reached down to the bottom and felt around. There, amidst the crumbs, she felt something small and round, with rough edges. It was a pretty shell, white on one side, and mother of pearl on the other. She put it on her coffee table, next to her Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure and a book of places to visit before you die.
Vanessa showered and changed into sweatpants and her Warriors t-shirt. She put on the stolen brown leather jacket and looked in the mirror. It was huge on her and smelled of cigarettes. Leaning in to stare at her reflection, Vanessa said in the creepiest voice possible, “I gotta tinkle.” She burst out laughing and fell to her knees. She rocked back and forth with laughter, smacking her palms on her thighs. Before today, the only thing she had ever stolen was a 99-cent bottle of silver nail polish when she was 12. Now look at her. One conflict resolution workshop and she’s a criminal. She kept laughing until she got hungry and made some pasta.