March 2012

The Spirits of Imaginary Animals

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I stole a purse from a middle-aged woman at the Claire’s in the mall. She yelled, and they gave chase, but I was faster out the emergency exit. It was just tucked under her arm, no strap, so available amongst all of that pink.

The take was $176 cash, cards, the keys to her home and Honda.

On the keychain, something grey, round, furry and Japanese. I recognized its squashed, smiling face and whiskers, the white belly and pointy ears—a Totoro, a woodland spirit from an 80’s anime. I cupped it in my palm the whole way home, stroking its fur with my thumb.

I threw everything away outside our building except the cash, keys, two tampons and a compact I’d found in the purse. Amy might need those.

I put the other stuff in the bathroom before showing Amy the Totoro. She knew it, of course. The movie had always been a part of her collection, and she liked to say that she’d caught on to Miyazaki before his stuff got so popular. “Aww, he’s adorable,” she said, touching it to her nose. “You found this at the mall?”

I boiled water for ramen in the kitchen and looked out at her. Amy had already hooked the Totoro to her keys, toying with it as she watched TV. Her black hair, her painted eyebrows, her boots.

When she came to the table, the keychain clicked against her thigh. I thought, it’s kawaii, it’s just cute. An anime fetish.

I had trouble sleeping that night. It wasn’t guilt, exactly, but something more fundamental, arbitrary and honor-driven.

Imagine: the myth of the suburban woman on her period buying junky stuff for her daughter at the mall, carrying icons of Japanese spirits in her bag. You wonder how she ended up, how she made it home. I turned to look at Amy. She lay on the bed with her back to me. I felt unbearably exposed.

In the morning, the Totoro had vanished from Amy’s keychain. I speculated that he’d gone back to his tree in the countryside. On my way out, I paid the landlord our outstanding rent.

After work, I drove to the mall and sat on the bench outside Claire’s, watching. I’ve always been the kind of guy who goes back.

I knew the woman behind the counter recognized me—shaved head, earlobes stretched an inch wide, I’m hardly inconspicuous. Inside, she picked up the phone and called security.

I sat there, kneading the little plush totem in my hand, waiting for judgment. I felt myself slipping into folklore. I smelled camphor.