Stolen Shirts


Hannah Elizabeth Benefiel

          A professor once wrote in murderous red ink on my essay:
          “I don’t want this to be just another boyfriend piece.”
          Corporal instinct screams that I write boyfriend pieces. This is the nightmare of my choice. I am a slave to my desired narrative.
          Again. Again. Again.
          Like a cathedral’s calamitous organ on a congregation-less Sunday morning, boyfriend pieces play on an unceasing loop. They do not cling purely to the definition of nonfiction. This term defines the thread I constantly and painfully create for myself. I am tirelessly weaving, pretending, fantasizing.

          I stole two shirts from a boy that I was in a short relationship with in an effort to be romantic, in an effort to be Keira Knightley, to be Natalie Portman. By stole, I don’t mean spontaneously selecting a shirt from his drawer the morning after a steamy recontré. I don’t mean accidentally untangling one of his things from the pile of carnal evidence strewn on the floor. I slept on the futon because he went to bed at 8:30 p.m. A girl must be dismally boring for a twenty-year-old male to go to bed at 8:30 p.m. From my friendless spot on the futon, I saw a Dollar General trash bag beside his desk full of clothes. I remembered the night before as we romantically floated through the Popeye’s drive-thru, he mentioned he planned on donating some of his old clothes to Goodwill. This was my moment—my moment to have a memento from an ambiguous relationship, to give it some sort of concrete meaning in the impenetrable void of “the timing’s just not right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
          I heroically rooted through his charity and selected two shirts that I liked, that I felt best described his spiky hair and blue eyes (were his eyes even blue?). Once, with vodka in the trunk and three pizzas balancing on my knees, I played Beyoncé’s canonical album Lemonade and he asked me to switch it because he needed something more “hype” while we arrived at a party. I wish that I could, in this moment, somehow put into words how big my eye-roll will eternally be. He was all David Beckham good looks and vacuous interior, but I trudged on and taped together my pseudo narrative. Months later he stopped texting me back, but I kept sleeping in his shirts.

          I watched baby sea turtles desert their fragile, fibrous eggs to walk to the ocean’s tentative cradle on the beach of Sur, Oman. The stars that filled the sky were so numerous they seemed to be speaking. The stars, and the stars alone, were the only noise in the reticent night.
          “I must have perfect silence,” the guide told our tour group before we traversed through the dunes. He rearranged his turban and checked the time on his Nokia flip phone.
          “Perfect silence,” he muddled.
          I witnessed the marvel of birth and liberation while peering over a cavernous arribada— a sea turtle nest—alone. My friends were scattered around the dunes and I could faintly hear the tour guide’s militant “shh,” so I was not alone by definition. But in this moment, in this matchless experience, I had no hand to hold. No coat to borrow, no ear to hear my astounded intake of breath.
          I kissed a boy in front of Centennial Library in the drunken rain. Humans bolt to shelter when the first drop slithers down their forehead. But not for this. Never for kissing. Kissing in the rain radiates romance and safety. Why would one ever go inside when they have a glimpse of Hollywood in the drizzle?
          With a torrid force, we decimated the carefully constructed parapets that kept us, irrevocably, friends. Good friends. Best friends. My skin exalted in the destruction of distance.
          Scent, voice, eyes, laugh—familiar. Touch—foreign.
          He was always the solitary builder of our barricade.
          “People are going to see us,” he murmured, pulling the blanket over us as an ineffective tent.
          Oh, God on his holy throne forbid someone see us and give us a concrete concept, a label. God forbid they think this act of ardor is anything more than synthetic romance.

          I got my first tattoo on the Turkish side of Cyprus during a cerulean summer. The sunlit room reeked of black licorice-flavored hookah and fear.
          “Sorry…where he is I do not know, sometimes he is late,” a tattooless assistant, Jelly, bumbled in admirably spliced English just as the man we waited for pressured the door open. Jelly fluttered explanations to the Artist as he stood by the window, thumbing the aluminum tab of his Heineken back and forth, back and forth. I informed the Artist, via Jelly’s Turkish, that I wanted the word “patience” in Arabic on the back of my neck. Sabr. Jelly pulled up an empty white screen on a computer then loaded my intended design. I watched it flicker on the screen.
          “It’s too big, I think. Smaller, maybe smaller.” I was nervous.
          Jelly’s lawn-like eyebrows clamped together in concern. She let out a muddle of words directed towards the Artist, who grunted in return. He diplomatically inhaled from his vape pen and then exhaled as his figure relaxed against the window sill. He mumbled a few words, and Jelly responded with an uneasy laugh.
          “He says if is too small, it looks like…a tropical insect?”

          I said the words for the first time at eighteen because these were the words I was supposed to say to a boy while wrapped listlessly in blankets strewn on my bedroom floor.
          “I love you, Mack.”
          “Do you?”
          Whispered, screamed, uttered, cried, roared, howled, the four strung words have the same effect: oblivion.
          “I love you,” said Lizzy to Mr. Darcy, ambling through an aurus field.
          “I love you,” said Cinderella to Prince Charming, whisked off in a pumpkin.
          “I love you,” said Rose to Jack, grasping tightly to his raft.
          “I love you,” said my mom to my dad after he burnt the Costco bacon.
          “I love you,” I said to a rumple-haired boy who held me convict in his starless eyes.

          “I love you, Miss Hannah,” gushed an elf-like girl as she flicked her ponytail behind her shoulder and then reached for my chalk-drenched hand. On my final night of teaching English in Asia, Meko bought me strawberry-swirl ice cream from a truck for one Hong Kong Dollar. Teachers will claim they don’t have favorite students, but I’ll concede I still keep Meko’s picture in a frame and she will never lose ownership of a tiny room at the back of my heart. In her crow-colored eyes, I was a goddess, a genius, a master of the English language and of life—certainly invincible to the heartbreak rendered by any reckless boy.

          I left the cramped bathroom of an apartment at 2:37 a.m. Just go back to the party.
          I grasped at my torso to readjust what was disheveled and distressed. I realized through the
          Franzia fog that my blue Old Navy top was torn at its buttons. I sat down on a futon and counted the bulbs on the strung-up Christmas lights. One, two, three.
           The shirt was ripped, destroyed beyond repair because of impatient, immovable hands. Before, his hands have brushed my knee to wake me up after Star Wars: Rogue One; his hands hold open the door to Chipotle; his hands lift the needle of a record player to play me his favorite Daft Punk song; his hands put honey in my tea when I’m too tired to get up. Tonight, his hands forcefully took what they were looking for—if only it was what they were looking for at 2:25 a.m. My mind hastily tried to untangle and retie first the shame from other party-goers’ critical stares then the tiny throbbing thought that I was taken. Cheap. Used.
          Four, five, six.
          “We’ll end up together, he and I,” I determined. My fluttering thoughts were not deterred by the fact that he was dating another girl.
           “I should go,” I said. Nobody objected.

          The millennial universe focuses on relationships bred from Disney Channel adolescence and Twilight as the pre-teen Bible. Our Little Mermaid childhood collides achingly with a no-strings-attached society. The idea of romance trudges hopefully along through Tinder dates, frat parties, and un-replied text messages.

          Stop the charade, cease the narration. Immerse in the real. Quit creating a shoddy narrative of shallow affection when tangible love exists away from gaudy nights. With each morning sun comes the opportunity to go and to give.
          Someday this recklessly radiant adventure may involve going with another who wants to drive through the night and sleep on the floor. But you will not find him by writing a storybook. You’ll find him when you’re chasing the radical possession of your very own life.
 

In the middle of the Northwest Ohio cornfields, Hannah teaches freshman composition at the University of Findlay. While she wades through the academic world of "publish or perish" she thrives on running to the Riverdale soundtrack and drinking craft flights over heated conversation. She’s just taking everything 24-hours at a time.

This is Hannah Elizabeth's first published short story. 

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