by Elizabeth Emerald
As I returned to my table Friday night, after some 20 minutes on the dance floor, I was surrounded by fawning admirers. They had gathered, in awe—not of my awesome spectacle of spasticity, nor of my glamorous gown and its elegant accouterments—but of my astounding act of kindness.
My surprise shower of thanks—more like a deluge of congratulations—was initiated by my having spent all that time—20 whole minutes—dancing with that “poor little girl.”
That “girl”—Mary Catherine Bates—was nearly 39. Her birthday was September 19th, she told me. She’d been was born in 1978, the year of the Big Blizzard, she said.
I had trouble making out a lot of what Mary Catherine said. The music is too damn loud in these places. For years, I’d called “Marlene” by the name “Molly” because I’d misheard her; for the same reason “Chuck” has been called “Doug” and I’ve been called “Lynn.”
I’d met Mary Catherine a couple of times before; the last time, I’d recalled the “Mary,” but had concatenated it with an “Ellen”. Friday, I scored two for two: Mary Catherine.
Mary Catherine’s hair had out-pinked mine when we first met. That bonded us right there—she volunteered her bottle’s label and vice versa. L’Oreal “Cherry Cordial” for her; Manic Panic “Vampire Red,” for me.
Mary Catherine’s hair was by now back to brown. She was thinking of getting golden streaks, she said. Again, I had trouble hearing her. I kept having to stoop and ask her to repeat herself. Mary Catherine is much shorter than me—probably by six inches. I’m not even 5’1’’ myself—so I’m normally the “stoopee” in attempted club conversations.
Apart from being unusually short, Mary Catherine has remarkable features. Her neck is thick, and her chin appeared sunken into it. It appeared to me that these striking anomalies constituted a syndrome of some sort, though whatever it may be, it clearly doesn’t affect her intelligence. Indeed, Mary Catherine was a sharpie when it came to who’s who in pop music.“Stevie Wonder?” I asked; “Stevie Wonder,” she concurred. “Chuck Berry,” I stated; “Fats Domino,” she corrected.
Amidst the musical “Q and A” Mary Catherine mentioned that she has OCD. “Which sucks,” she said.
Indeed it does, I agreed. Though mercifully, I’ve been largely free of symptoms for the last 50 years, as a 9-year old I was tormented by thoughts of germs and contamination, to the extent of scrubbing my hands until they were bloody hunks of meat. (These days, I am blithe about the threat of microscopic critters. My motto: if you can’t swat ‘em, don’t sweat ‘em.)
Then Mary Catherine fed me another spoonful of alphabet soup: besides OCD, she told me, she has DS.
Down Syndrome. "Which sucks too," she said.
I wouldn’t know about that; I will take the word of one who does. All I know is that I enjoyed Mary Catherine’s company and conversation. So, you see, my friends, I am not the paragon of charity you make me to be. No extra credit accrues for those 20 minutes I spent on that “poor little girl.”
“Mary Catherine” is her name.
As I had expected, my cousin Janet’s voicemail message oozed gratitude for my generosity. I’d sent her a check to help with expenses during her post-surgical convalescence period, which would be sans salary. It was just two weeks after Janet had started working that she was diagnosed—for the second time—with breast cancer. Though her job would be held for the two months she’d be out, her leave would be without pay. Thankfully, her medical expenses would be covered; nonetheless she’d need money for food and rent.
Janet rambled on, saying she felt guilty taking my money, insisting she’d only cash the check if absolutely necessary, that she’d tap her retirement funds, exhaust her savings first. Janet wrapped up with these words: “After all, Liz, you aren’t a wealthy woman.”
Ah…but Janet, you got that wrong—I am indeed a “wealthy woman.” That’s “Wealthy” with a capital “H.” Trite but true: if you have your health, you have everything—and so far, so good. For me.
Not so good for cousin Janet. She’s got the cancer gene, is what she’s got, and it got her good: “Take Two.” And the surgeon advised that Janet permit her to “Take Two” as well; i.e. both breasts—off.
And off they came. Two weeks ago now. Janet still has not cashed my check. I won’t push her—the point of my sending money was to ameliorate her stress, not exacerbate it—but I would be pleased should she decide to accept it.
“Pleased” is not quite the right word. “Relieved” is more to the point. For, you see, the primitive part of my brain considers the check to be a pre-emptive appeasement offering, of sorts. To forestall the wrath of the Fates; specifically, those capricious demons who bestowed the big “C” on one of Janet’s erstwhile pair of same—leaving her an A-minus cup size, pending protracted reconstruction.
“Pre-emptive appeasement” is not be confused with “sacrifice.” For me, the check I sent Janet is just a number on a slip of paper, an entry in a ledger.
So, you see, Janet, really—there is no need to thank me. No need at all.