The life you steal may be your own

Sometimes I try to steal a life. Mostly I don’t hurt anybody in the process.

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The last life I tried to steal was a well-off San Francisco homeowner. The apartment across the street was for sale--$1.3 million for two bedrooms and a view. My husband and I walked up the stairs, taking off our shoes and putting on the little shower-cap looking foot covers at the top. We went into every room and talked about what we liked and didn’t like; what we would change. We loved the kitchen. We didn’t love that the toilet was in a separate water closet across the hall. I loved the bathtub. Zack didn’t love that the shower head wasn’t mounted.

I guess we’re all strangers to other people’s lives, and sometimes to our own. But in the lives I steal, I never bite my nails.

In high school, I stole the lives of people who weren’t anxious. People who were louder, funnier, less scared. In college I was pretty happy, and went maybe two and a half years without stealing a life. If I think back to elementary school, I remember willing myself into other lives almost every day. That was before I knew what anxiety was.

Almost anything I can say about anxiety I can also say about life. Anxiety makes you a stranger paying rent to live in your mind; but life can do that, too. I suppose the more precise thing to say is that for an anxious person, the reality presented by anxiety lines up exactly with the reality presented by life. They are the same thing, so to escape one is to escape the other. That’s why stealing a life is so attractive when you are an anxious person — you can spirit yourself away into another story entirely, borrow confidence, replace your bad habits with someone else’s good ones. Sure, you’re comparing the worst of your insides with the best of their outsides. But it feels good.

I never steal the life of someone with less than me. I only compare up. “Up.” Which might be part of the problem.

It can be really fun to steal a life! Like right now, I am sitting outside at a coffee shop in San Francisco (outside! in June!), drinking semi-cold coffee, pretending I am a writer. There is scarlet bougainvillea growing so heavy it’s about to fall over across the street, and next to me, a woman with two dogs, a cup of tea, and a camera. She hasn’t taken a single picture the whole time we’ve been here. Two blocks away is the San Francisco Mission, and a mailwoman just came by to buy a couple of pastries. “Good, huh?” she said to the woman behind the counter. This is a nice life. I think I’ll keep it for a while.

The stealing is mostly an escape, though. I have to remember that, because I’m tempted to steal every day. My default would be toward the “half-known life” that surrounds my heart, like the one Herman Melville wrote about in Moby-Dick. I read it for the first time in high school, in an English class with a teacher who sucked at his teeth when he was thinking hard, and even then I knew that’s what I would settle for most days. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so the saying goes, but I don’t want to venture. Venturing is terrifying.

I might steal the life of a prince next. Or a stunt double, or a pastor, or the woman across 16th Street who is watering the flowers in her window bed. Anyone who doesn’t bite their nails. Anyone who isn’t scared.