Why Did I Steal Nail Polish?
“What were you going to do with this?”
The police officer holds up a tiny bottle of red nail polish. He stares at it, stares at me, then raises an eyebrow, confused and incredulous.
I can’t answer him. I can’t even look at him, or at the item in his hand. Instead I just hold out my own hand, fingers spread, and gesture meekly toward them while staring at the ground. It’s a feeble attempt to mime what should have been an obvious fact: I was going to use the nail polish to paint my fingernails.
He doesn’t comprehend. Or maybe he does, but he’s disgusted by the idea. I can’t really tell, but I assume the latter. I see him squint curiously and roll his eyes before handcuffing me and pushing me into the back of a police car.
I am 16 years old and being arrested for shoplifting. I tried and failed to steal a $3 bottle of nail polish from a grocery store at 3:00 AM on a random Thursday in the middle of a cold Midwestern winter. My parents have no idea where I am. I drove here alone after everyone else in the house was asleep.
I’m scared, panicking, refusing to accept the truth of what is happening. I’m still hoping the cops won’t call my parents, hoping it’ll just be a fine or a warning and then they’ll let me go. Like it’s a traffic ticket. Maybe nobody needs to find out. Maybe I can still keep my secret.
I could have just bought the nail polish. I have money in my pocket. But I didn’t. Stealing it seemed like the only way to get what I wanted. Now I’m under arrest and being driven to a police station. This is not like me. I’m a good kid. I don’t do things like this. I’ve never even gotten detention before, and now here I am on my way to jail. All I can do is shut my eyes tight and think about how screwed I am.
How could I be so stupid? Why am I doing this? Why am I like this? What is wrong with me? They’re going to find out. Everyone will know about me. They’ll know about the other things too. Somehow they will know.
This isn’t the first time I’ve stolen something — just the first time I got caught. I’ve been stealing small items from large stores for several months now, ever since I got my license. It was always so easy before. I just picked up what I wanted and walked out with it. It would have worked this time too, if I hadn’t been stupid enough to try it when I was the only person in the store.
Someone at the station takes my fingerprints. It’s humiliating. Then they sit me down on a bench in the hallway. They’re calling my parents. Fuck! I panic again, imagining the scene at home, the phone ringing in the middle of the night, my parents afraid to answer, hearing the voice coming over that line.
“Hello? Yes, this is the police. Your son has been arrested for shoplifting.”
Their son. Their son is stealing nail polish.
I’m lucky, really. It’s only nail polish. It could have been tights, or makeup, or shoes, or any of the other feminine items I’ve gotten away with stealing. Nail polish is bad enough, but it could have been worse. How in the world would I have explained high heels?
I should have just paid for it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to walk up to the cashier and admit that I wanted nail polish. Then he would know. He would know what I do when I’m alone. He would know what kind of person I really am. He can’t know. Nobody can ever know.
Like that officer. That look he gave me. He knew. I know he knew. Now my parents will know too. I’ll have to confess. I’ll have to confront what I did. What I want. Who I am.
I am those guys I see on TV, the ones getting laughed at for wearing a dress. I am the creepy fetishist that everybody hates. Maybe I’m one of those gay people they talk about in church. That is what I’ll have to tell them. What else can I say? They’ll ask me why I wanted nail polish, and I don’t have an answer that a 16-year-old boy is allowed to give. I don’t have any answer at all. I don’t know why I’m doing any of this. I just know I hate myself for doing it.
Somewhere, in some distant future, a version of me knows why I’m here. She is speaking to me, trying to comfort me, wishing I could understand, but I cannot hear her.
You stole nail polish because you wanted to paint your nails. You want to see what it‘s like to have pretty hands. You want to know what it’s like to be a girl. You want to shave your legs and have long hair and wear skirts and grow breasts because you want to be a girl. You’re trying to be a girl even though everything you see and hear in the world is telling you that what you’re doing is wrong. It’s not wrong. That strange compulsion you feel is me, deep inside you, wanting to be free.
I don’t hear those words. I refuse to hear them. I am a boy. I will become a man. That is all there is to know.
My dad finally arrives. He gives me an angry glare and a pointed, accusatory finger. I am in deep shit. I stare down at my hands in shame, still fumbling for words to explain what I did. I can’t explain it. I really hope I don’t have to try.
To my great relief, we drive home in silence. I’m grounded. I go to school the next day. There’s a rumor going around about me, but I deny it. A few days later, it seems to be forgotten. My court date passes without comment. I begin to hope that my arrest can become just another shameful secret, buried with all the others.
The arresting officer who held up that bottle is the only person who ever asks me why. Why nail polish?
What were you going to do with this?
It’s a question nobody asks, and one I refuse to ask myself. I am not ready to hear the answer.