The Northshore Mall, in Peabody, Mass., was the mall. Our mall. The competing mall, Liberty Tree, a mile or so down the road, suffered from inferior stores and worse parking. So in the 1990s and early 2000s, Northshore was where the kids from my area congregated, to wander through the department stores, and then on toward J. Crew, for roll-neck sweaters; Abercrombie & Fitch, for boyfriend jeans; and Pacific Sunwear, for anything related to skater culture.
I was 18, and my style was wholly attached to whatever glossy catalog arrived at my mother’s pristine home in Newburyport. My friend was 19, wearing outdated bell-bottoms and driving a very old Nissan that rattled. Filene’s, the week before Christmas, was heady with the spray of perfume.
I didn’t think we were being watched. To me, we were invincible. I palmed a cool, hard MAC foundation compact in my hand.
“I just don’t think this is a good idea,” my friend whispered, though she was usually the one with bad ideas.
I was the one who had left home to go to a good college while she stayed behind. I was the one who had pursued perfectionism — and just this once I wanted to do something a little strange, a little bad, a little raw.
My friend jabbed an elbow into my ribs and gestured toward a middle-aged woman with dry blond hair who stood at the end of the makeup counter. The woman was just minding her business, I said, shopping like everyone else.
So I slipped that compact — a sample, I would later realize — into the sleeve of my coat. It jumped up, a black pebble next to my skin, with such ease that I tried something else: a set of stacked bracelets, jewel-like but not jewels. I could have afforded all of this stuff, but there was no thrill in wielding a credit card at Filene’s around Christmas. The bracelets were pretty. I dropped them into my J. Crew wool pocket. One. Two. Three.
My friend was now overcome with paranoia, and it wasn’t until we turned to leave the department store that I realized she hadn’t been merely spooked from too many years of smoking pot. The woman she thought was looking at us? That was a secret shopper, someone hired by Filene’s to look for holiday-season shoplifters.
A moment later, we were in a dungeonlike room beneath the main floor. Although my friend had been an innocent bystander — an abettor, if anything — she was considered guilty, too.
The room had cinder-block walls painted a green-gray color. On a cork bulletin board, someone had posted a grainy photograph of a previous shoplifter. The offender’s name was written in bold red letters. The message was clear: You can’t leave your mistakes at the doorstep. At least, not at Filene’s.
My friend and I sat at a metal desk, the stolen treasures before us. Even in the fluorescent green-yellow light, the bracelets shimmered. They would have looked pretty stacked on my arm at a holiday party, like tinsel, like the gold curling ribbon my mother used to wrap presents. Even then, the smooth black makeup compact beckoned to me. I wanted to pick it up, to hold it in my hand one last time.
A beefy managerial type entered the room and placed two palms on the metal table. He leaned into us, and we were stuck between him — the corporealness of the man — and our hard, cold chairs. “You were trying to steal a sample?” he asked. He pushed back his thinning hair, in disbelief that I had risked so much for so little.
I clenched my teeth and tried to smile. Was it better to admit that I didn’t know it was a sample or to pretend that I had done it on purpose? Only an idiot would take something that a million people had already used. Only an idiot would steal something that was effectively free.
I’m not sure what the MAC compact had symbolized for me. Risk, maybe. Glamour. Something intangible that I could pluck from a counter.
Upstairs, taking it had felt easy and forgivable. But here in the basement, the consequences were obvious. I could make some of them disappear, but my friend would have a harder time of it.
“I told you,” she said under her breath. “I told you, I told you, I told you.”
The beefy man ran down the list of what was going to happen next. There would be a court date and a fine. But first we were going to have to stand by the wall and have our pictures taken. He also told us we were going to be banned from Filene’s — Filene’s, our favorite department store, and the major entrance to the mall, where everyone we knew, including our parents, did their shopping! — for life.
My friend crumpled at this disclosure. A court date was one thing. Even the fine, a financial burden that was almost insurmountable for her, was something she could accept. But the idea of never walking into Filene’s again, the place where we had shopped for prom dresses and back-to-school clothes, this was a nail in the coffin.
We stood with our backs against those cinder blocks, first me, then her. The camera flashed, and maybe our eyes were open, or maybe they were shut against the light. They never let us see the photos.
Friendships survive all kinds of insults, grave and unserious, and ours survived this, but not forever. I had the kind of life that could permit the wading in and out of trouble. The idea that things were easier for me than they were for my friend would be a slow and simmering realization that began with the set of stacked bracelets and a used makeup compact taken from a Filene’s counter.
We were escorted through a maze of basement rooms and then into the blast of cinnamon and nutmeg and peppermint and warm air and shoppers and good cheer on the floor above. From there we were led to the wide entrance, where, with a gesture that felt almost like a push, we were sent into the belly of the Northshore Mall, never to return, not as friends, and not as enemies, either.
Hannah Selinger’s memoir, “Cellar Rat: My Life in the Restaurant Underbelly,” will be published by Little, Brown in 2025.