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Kleptomania in Champagne

The first thing I ever stole in my entire life was underwear. I was three years old and my play-mate, Billy, was four. He needed to pea so his mom took his underwear off in front of me and dragged him to the bathroom to potty train.

I looked at that underwear which had monkey patterns on it. For some reason a crazy urge sprouted within. The urge to take that underwear and hide it in a tiny bag that my mother had got me for Christmas. And so I did. When Billy’s mom returned to retrieve the underwear it was nowhere to be seen. She probably thought she had misplaced it somewhere in the house. I got an adrenaline rush like no other. Stealing stuff was officially fun.

Throughout my schooling years I stole random things. Pencils, rubber bands, erasers, mementos. Mementos were the most fun ones of course. Trinkets such as keychains, photo frames, and cards meant something to people. It’s as though I had a part of them with me which they will never get back.

No one knew about my problem. My best friend didn’t know. My parents didn’t know. When I got a boyfriend in college he didn’t know. I kept stealing his stuff and he didn’t have a single clue about it. From fun it quickly became a habit. I would get anxious if I didn’t steal anything during the day. Days when I wasn’t holding someone else’s items in my hand I would literally be unable to breathe.  The minute I stole something everything would become alright.

I’m not a shoplifter by any means. Things from shops do not belong to anyone so I steer clear from those. What matters the most are things which have a story behind them. The attraction I have to such things are priceless.

As I passed out of college I realized that there is a place where I can steal things with ease and where people often forget their things- a bar. The problem with conventional bars are that there are usually friends who come along and remind the person to take back what they have stolen. It would not benefit me to be a bartender.

And so, I decided to take a gap year before I started officially working like a sane member of society. I told myself that what I do is not normal and this is the last year I would do it. The anxiety of not stealing was increasing day by day. I would fulfill all of my desires this year and drop the idea altogether.

Too bad I got caught before the year was over.

My gap year was supposed to be all around Europe. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Croatia for one month. Throughout my escapades I stole from various backpackers, trains, clubs, and tourist spots and always carried the items around as though they were trophies.

I finally reached this tiny town in France called Champagne and fell in love. Not necessarily with the place, but with the ease of items at my disposal. I had gone for a tour of the Champagne cellar when I saw my chance.

These tours were pretty awesome. They basically covered how Champagne was made from different types of grape and then left to ferment in the wine cellars. These cellars have the perfect temperature to provide the ideal fermentation atmosphere. Some bottles in this cellar were over a hundred years old. Some bottles were the size of a ten year old child.

The most interesting part for me was the end of the tour where they served free champagne or grape juice. I noticed the bartenders serving the juice and people leaving things behind on the bar. Luckily no one could give notice to the person who left their things behind apart from the bartender themselves.

Getting a job as a bartender was surprisingly easy. I didn’t even need to get a serving license and the only requirement was for me to know how to speak English. In no time I was keeping the most prized treasures to myself; wallets, watches, keychains, car keys. I would never think of selling any of these, all I needed to do was possess.

I was working here for a good seven months. There were only two months or so left before I tried leaving this habit for good.

But I got caught.

It was a solo-back packer. A French guy with long brown hair and a mustache. I think he was in his early thirties. He left a handkerchief behind with the name “Francis” written on it. I took it and hid it under the table, reveling in joy. Such a prized possession. I’m sure his girlfriend gave it to him.

I was grinning like a mad fool over this victory when I saw him looking directly at me. One look from him and I knew he knew. He knew I am a thief.

He walked over to me.

Shit. I thought. I’m done for. I’m going to be behind bars. All the things that I stole flashed before my eyes like comets. Shit. Shit. Shit.

“My handkerchief please.” He said.

“Sure Mr. Francis.” There was no point in lying. He had clearly seen me.

“My name is Pierre. Francis is my deceased wife. This is her handkerchief.” He said.

For the first time since I started stealing things I feel a strange emotion. Guilt.

“I’m really sorry, I…” I start

“Come with me. I want to take you somewhere.”

He is going to take me to the cops.

“Don’t worry it’s not the police.”

“My shift ends in half an hour.”

“I will be waiting.”

My shift ended and I had wishfully thought that he would not be there. But he was. Looking at his face made my heart pang with guilt and frustration.

“Have you been to the Reims Cathedral?” He asked me

“No, not yet.” The Reims Cathedral in Champagne is well known for its gothic interiors and stained glass windows. I have never gone inside despite working right next to it. In fact, I have never gone into a church.

“Are you ashamed to face God?” He asked.

Yes. I am ashamed to face God. How can I not be after stealing so many things? After getting a kick out of other people’s misery. My reason for existence is this disastrous kleptomania.

He looked at me as I did not answer.

“We are going there. Come.”

“No. I…I can’t.” This was my reflexive answer. I can’t do it. I can’t face myself, what I have done so far. Going in front of God is doing exactly that.

The man didn’t look disappointed though.

“My wife was a kleptomaniac.” He started.

I looked at him in shock as I wasn’t expecting that.

“She used to steal stuff all the time. As she approached her late thirties she would cry every day. Why is it only me? Why can’t I be normal? She would regularly ask me this. We have a child, a son who is twenty years old now. One day, fifteen years ago, she stole his favorite blanket just for kicks. Our son cried for days but she never returned it. She didn’t tell me where it was despite my pleas. I accepted her despite this disease, but it was a mistake.”

“What happened to her then, was she able to recover?” I asked

“She committed suicide a few months after stealing the blanket. She thought that her habit was a danger to her son and that it can’t go on. She never went into a church either because she never wanted to face god and herself.”

What I just heard was terrible. So terrible.

“I was planning to quit in two months myself.” I said.

“My wife tried too. She tried multiple times. But she never bothered introspecting. When I saw you at the bar, I noticed you looking at my handkerchief with the same hunger in your eyes that my wife had. I couldn’t save her but I will try to save you. Come to the Reims Cathedral or I will tell the police about you.”

I followed him to the Cathedral. It wasn’t because I was scared of the police. But because this man’s story moved me. Maybe it’s time for a real change.

I entered a church for the first time in my twenty-eight years of existence. It was so peaceful, so serene. Soft melodic hymns added to the spiritualistic atmosphere. Pierre took my hand and led me to the podium in front of God. I stared at the cross for what seemed like forever. But in truth, I was looking at myself. The tears started rolling out before I knew it.

All the things I stole, all the people I upset. Why, why did I have to do it? There was no real reason. I have a disorder and I knew what it was called but I never took the ownership to do anything about it. I never saw a counsellor or anything. I continued living this sort of disgusting life.

Pierre hugged me as I wept and wept. Human connections are frail yet so strong. I didn’t know Pierre and here he has saved my life in many ways.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Was all I could say.

“It will be a long journey ahead for you. But I’m sure you will recover.” He said.

Pierre and I parted ways at that church but I took it upon myself to improve. I went back to my hometown and gave back all the things I had stolen to the people I knew. I admitted my disorder to them and was surprisingly accepted. The stuff I stole from people I didn’t know, I gave to charity. It was painful to let go of the stuff but it had to be done. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I started seeing a counsellor twice a week. She advised me to slowly taper off kleptomania and if I had to steal, to steal from people I knew and then give them their things back. I had to allot days of the week where I don’t steal at all and keep increasing the number of days as the months pass by. The anxiety rapidly increased at first when I didn’t steal anything for some days. But slowly it had reduced. I also started visiting the local church on Sunday.

Now a year later, I hardly every steal. I do every once in a while, but I am determined to stop that as well.

Every night before I go to sleep I pray for the soul of Francis, Pierre’s wife. I also thank Pierre. I intend to go back to Champagne and visit the Reims Cathedral once again where my recovery started. I might even go the Champagne cellar, but this time, not as a kleptomaniac bartender, but as a tourist.

Source of Keychain: Souvenir shop in Reims, Champagne

This is a work of fiction





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