It seems ridiculous now, but it took me a long time to notice. I was in college, living in a house with four other women, and busy as a music major keeping up with piano and voice practice, theatre studies, and classwork. Mostly I went home to sleep, then got up and spent much of the day on campus.
Sara lived in the finished attic of our rented house. Her space was large and had its own small kitchen. She wasn’t a student; she was a friend of my roommate’s who needed a place to live. We agreed, since we had met her and we were happy to divide the rent between five people instead of four.
I liked Sara. She was nice and seemed to fit in with us pretty well. She was fun to talk to, had a job, and never said anything mean about anyone.
One morning I looked for my favorite T-shirt and couldn’t find it. Then I lost track of my red, sporty, cotton sleep-shirt, the most comfortable thing I wore at night. A blouse went missing, then a good pair of jeans. My warmest mittens were gone.
At first, I didn’t worry about it too much; I figured I'd misplaced them somewhere in my messy closet or lost them at the coin Laundromat. I had one bottle of drug store perfume I liked. I couldn’t believe how fast I was using it up.
After a while, I started to wonder why I had become so absentminded. It’s true I wasn’t the most organized person. I tended to throw clean clothes into the nearest drawer, not worrying whether they belonged there; and I rarely took the time to clean my cluttered closet.
My dresser was covered with whatever notebooks, pens, and other loose items I was using at the time. But I had never had such difficulty forgetting where I put things.
One April evening, it was unusually hot. We had no air conditioning, so I pulled out my round, small metal fan, plugged it in, and aimed it toward my bed. Despite the heat, I managed to fall asleep with the breeze of the fan keeping me reasonably comfortable.
I woke up to a soft noise—someone was creeping into the room. I had a moment of panic, then realized the person was Sara. I knew because she was right next to my bed, about two feet away from my face. She unplugged the fan, grabbed it, and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
My jaw opened as I sat up. Did she just take my fan? It seemed too absurd for my sleepy brain to believe, sitting in the near pitch-black dark. I didn’t want to deal with it right then, but I knew I was going to have to confront her, something I was loathe to do. In those days, I was terrified of confrontation.
The next day, I was sitting on the couch in the living room doing some homework. Sara came down the steps and headed for the door.
“Sara. can I talk to you for a sec?”
“Sure.” She walked to the couch.
“Why did you take my fan last night? I was obviously using it.”
Sara’s face turned red. “Well… I was just… it was so hot up there. I really needed it.”
I stared at her. “Even though I was using it? I was hot too, you know.”
“But it was so much hotter up there.”
“You need to get your own fan then, okay? Don’t do that again.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking abashed. As she turned toward the door, I caught a whiff of her perfume.
It was mine. She had taken my fan and used my perfume.
As soon as she left, I went up to the attic to get my fan. I found it right away next to her bed. When I unplugged it, something in a folded pile of clothes caught my eye, something red: it was my lost sleep-shirt. Underneath it was my blouse. Then I pulled out a T-shirt.
Sara kept her clothes in several folded piles on the floor since she had no dresser. I went through them all, my head shaking in disbelief as I pulled out jeans, shirts, blouses, books, pens, and notebooks—all of them mine.
Without my realizing it, she had stolen a good third of everything in my room. She also had a few of my stuffed animals and some items from my dresser, and the the now-empty bottle of perfume I found on the floor.
I carried three big armfuls of stolen items into my room and dropped them on the bed. The pile was easily three feet high and four feet wide. There were so many things it was going to take at least a hour to get it properly sorted. I left the pile there, needing to get back to my work.
Sara came home about an hour later and found me still doing homework on the couch.
My heart was beating hard because I knew she wasn’t just a jealous roommate taking one or two things she coveted. She had taken items that didn’t even fit her, that she would never wear or use. She had taken advantage of the fact that I spent most of my time on campus and wouldn’t notice when things slowly began to disappear. Something bizarre was going on.
Sara asked if she could go into my room and borrow something. I can’t remember what it was; I just remember thinking that if I hadn’t mentioned the fan, she would have just gone in and taken what she wanted to “borrow.”
I stood up. “You can go in there, but I’m coming with you.” We walked up the steps and into my room. Sara saw the pile on my bed and stopped dead in her tracks. Her face froze.
I pointed to the stolen goods. “I found all of this stuff in your room. Why did you do this? What made you think you could just take my stuff?” I was trembling from confronting her, and from just plain anger.
Sara stayed frozen for a moment before speaking. “It’s just that I don’t have any money, it’s not my fault…” She started to cry.
“That doesn’t explain it. You can’t even use most of this stuff.” I pointed at her. “Stay out of my room or I’ll call the police.” I honestly didn’t know if I had the guts to call the cops, but I was so angry in that moment that I didn’t care.
“No!” she cried. “I’m so sorry. I can’t help it.” She covered her face with her hands.
“Sara, if that’s true, then I think you’re a kleptomaniac. You have to get help for that.”
“If you’re sorry you’ll get help.”
Sara left to cry in her room.
I don’t think she stole from me again, though I regularly searched her room to make sure. I told my other roommates what happened and they checked their things; they all had something missing that they found in Sara’s room, but only a few items. She had, by far, stolen the most from me, probably because I was there the least.
I no longer felt safe living there and decided to move out. When I visited a few months later, everyone had put combination locks on their doors. Apparently Sara was still at it. No one was willing to kick her out, knowing she had no place to go.
Years have gone by and I now live and work in another state. My memory of that time is vivid; it was the moment that I truly understood that people who seemed nice, even people I genuinely liked and considered a friend, were capable of betrayal.
Even now, it is very difficult for me to trust my friends. This, ultimately, is really what Sara stole from me. I’m still working to get it back.