In 2015, I started working at a grocery store in Boston. I worked not at the large, central store, but at the tiny store, known affectionately as “B street,” which was a short walk from my apartment.
All my friends worked at B street, and for a brief, beautiful moment, we were all trans there. Almost all of us, anyway. The only thing that made getting up at 4:30 six days of the week bearable was the fact that I knew I was going to be on the opening shift with one of my friends. We would arrive groggy, hungover, and in full makeup.
Sometimes we would completely ignore the first few customers who showed up promptly at 6 and continue to blast the most obnoxious music possible through the tiny store while we got our 6 a.m. bearings: Tori Amos, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” the full score of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At one point, the score of Sondheim’s “Follies.”
Customers complained about us, but what the fuck could they do? Say we were too excited about show tunes?
We were the majority. For the first time in all our lives. A trans majority.
I’ve never been happier in my life than I was working that job, with those people.
My friend, Jamie, the manager and head barista at the time, brought up the subject of shoplifting at Sephora.
They told us about going with an ex-girlfriend. They had a system where she would point to whatever she wanted and Jamie would discreetly snag the item in question. They did this multiple times, apparently, and no one was ever the wiser.
We all soon started admitting that we, too, had a thing about shoplifting from Sephora specifically. There were so many factors to it: that so many of the items were small enough to slip up a long sleeve, that most items of any size could be easily palmed in the direct moments after being asked, “Can I help you with anything?” That a “shopping basket” was optional.
And the fact that makeup, for all of us, was everything.
When I worked at B street, I often went to sleep with a full face of makeup on. I applied mascara, eyeliner, and a pastel blue wash to my eyelids before hitting the pillow at exactly 9 p.m., wiped from yet another day of waking up at 4:30. In winter, I would walk to work in the pitch dark of the morning and check my eyebrows in the bathroom mirror just to make sure they hadn’t smudged overnight. Usually, my friend H. would be right there with me, asking what soundtrack to use to blast the customers away.
An eyebrow pencil, I think, was the first thing I stole that spring. Followed by a sky-blue chalky eyeliner, Sephora brand. It took me a minute to work up the courage to pocket certain items. I knew they had to be small, pen-sized, or it wouldn’t work. I had to actually buy things as well, in order not to seem suspicious.
That’s how you start: You buy what you need and take what you want.
I could only stay in Boston for about a year and a half. I knew that to do the things I wanted do in life, I had to leave. I had to leave even though I had the closest thing to a family in Boston. I had a boyfriend, friends, people I loved working with. People who seemed – for the first time – to love me for exactly who I was.
I left it behind, perhaps because the feeling of being loved unconditionally has always felt wrong to me.
I went to L.A. and I’ve been here for about four years. I’ve visited (and stolen from) many Sephoras since coming here. I got obsessed with skincare. I busted through eyebrow pencils at the alarming rate of about one every two months.
Then I lost a job, moved into a too-expensive apartment, and had to move back in with my parents in 2019. Luckily, H. had since moved to the small Massachusetts college town where I’d grown up. In between feeling like a failure, a fuck-up, and an addict, I got to spend time with one of the people who loved me in a real way.
We went to the mall and tried on lipstick the week before Thanksgiving. We wiped off the testers with pieces of Kleenex, considering ourselves extremely sanitary. We talked about which Laneige fruit gloss smelled the best, and which eyeshadow palettes we were excited about. We bitched about how people think you’re stupid for caring about makeup so much. We agreed that people who weren’t trans couldn’t understand the thrill of finally having some fucking say over your appearance as an adult. They couldn’t understand, we knew, the wonder of painting your eyelids so you could look less human and more alien – more like yourself.
Those things are even more important when you’re depressed, exhausted, and too broke to buy the crayon-like Sephora-brand eye pencils that pull across your eyelids and come out patchy–never mind the latest Naked Heat palette.
Later that winter, H. got sick. Nobody knew what was wrong with them. In December, they spent a few weeks in the hospital where I was born. As a trans person, your body keeps betraying you, and this stuff is often part of it. Hospital visits were always grim, but full of laughter because it was the two of us. We talked about makeup and skincare, the things that kept us feeling sane that winter.
I remember going from work – another grim cafe job – to the tiny mall in Hadley before heading to the hospital for visiting hours. I picked out some things I knew they’d love–a grapefruit Laneige lip gloss, some lotion, and lipstick we’d tried on together before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t find it, but the tester was still there. So I pocketed it and paid for the rest.
When I showed up at the hospital, they put on the lipstick at once. I put on mine, a similar shade of burnt orange. We looked at each other, and for a second, the lipstick was enough to forget that H. was in the hospital, and had no idea when they were getting out, or what kind of a fucked-up road was ahead for both of us.
This is how I get back at the world. It’s how a small part of my anger about systems and structure and the bullshit of everyday life gets exorcised. When I steal I feel like I’m close to getting away with something real. In high school, somebody – a teacher I guess – told me that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There is if you steal it.
I can’t remove myself from the world, and I can’t do much to change what I hate about it. Shoplifting at Sephora is a compromise. It’s getting back at the world for every time I’ve had to buy tampons or dress “professional.” For every time the world rejects me.
It’s one of the tiny ways of getting back at a society I hate, especially since it hates me right back.
I have to make my own happiness. All trans people do. Nobody else is going to do it for us.