Her name was Mary.
I was twenty years old when I first saw her in the parking lot of Mimi’s café.
Ricky and I were lingering after a breakfast date. We had time to kill before our work shifts started up. I was a waitress at a local café and he delivered pizza for Domino’s. We met in our pre-Calculus class at the local college, both of us sensing a kindred, carefree spirit in one another.
We were both perpetually broke, but we didn’t care. We were young, healthy. Carefree.
Old enough to be considered adults but too young to have taken on any of the stress and responsibility that inevitably comes with the position, it was an easy time of life.
That morning we’d driven across town to splurge on a restaurant breakfast we really couldn’t afford. We stuffed ourselves to the brim, then put the rest in a Styrofoam “doggie bag” box. We dawdled at the table until our waitress began to glare, both of us loathe to let the morning end.
We finally trickled outside to linger in the parking lot, sitting cross-legged on the tailgate of my old Ford Ranger as we laughed at each other’s jokes and stories. The sun baked down on our doggy bag of leftovers as it sat forgotten on the hood of our car. It wasn’t much – a few spoonfuls of chicken pot pie and maybe the remains of some kind of appetizer. By the time we got home it would probably be inedible, but we didn’t care. Our bellies were full, and we had more important things to attend to – like laughing and flirting.
She was tiny, almost frail. Sun-baked, wrinkled skin stretched tight across feathery bird bones. Her hair was an indeterminate color – neither grey nor brown, and was tied back in a limp, greasy ponytail. Even without standing I could tell her head wouldn’t reach my shoulder, and her painful thinness made her seem even tinier. Her eyes were large, a clear soft hazel with a gentle, sorrowful look that made me feel like giving her a hug.
You could tell at a glance she was homeless.
“Hi,” I said, watching her curiously, waiting to see what she wanted. Beneath my gaze she blushed, hands twisting the corners of her baggy t-shirt. She looked for all the world like a kid hauled into the principal’s office, trying to find the courage to explain away some naughty behavior.
“I was just wondering,” she took a deep breath, “I was just wondering if you guys were going to.. you know. Eat that.” She gestured with her chin at the Styrofoam container on the hood of my car. “If, you know, you weren’t.. I was, uh,” she trailed off, deeply embarrassed, before finishing in a rush of words. “Wondering if I could have it.”
It was one of those moments when you are embarrassed simply to be you. It was like shoving a wad of pizza in your mouth at the exact moment a “Feed the Children” commercial comes on.
We couldn’t say yes fast enough. Even so, I found myself blushing. The thing I remember most about the first time we met up with Mary was how embarrassed we all were.
Don’t get me wrong – Ricky and I were happy to share. It’s just that it didn’t seem right, that we could sit there so nonchalantly in our mall-bought clothes and leftover restaurant food, while yards away from us there was a woman. Starving.
The lazy warmth of the morning was doused in an icy dose of reality, and it was a shock.
Mary was embarrassed to be asking. She lingered by the food, embarrassed to pick it up, but too hungry to leave it behind. She chatted with us for a few moments, asking us our names, and trying to make the situation less socially awkward than it already was. Hunger was getting the best of her, though, and I could see her gaze flitting to the box every few moments. When she finally did reach out to pick up the box, I looked down at the pavement. It seemed wrong to watch her.
Once she was holding the box, there seemed little to talk about. Mary made a lame excuse about having to go, and Ricky and I echoed it vaguely.
I squirmed when she said thank you – especially because she really meant it.
As she turned to walk away, shoulders square in her too-big t-shirt, I met Ricky’s eyes. There was a silent moment where we just stared at each other. I remember clearly that we both nodded at the same time, and both stood up at the same time.
“Mary!” I called out.
I watched her shoulders tense and felt a little sick inside. What did she think I was going to do? Yell at her? Take back my half-eaten food?
“Hey, Mary!” Ricky echoed.
We bounced down off the truck, jogging after her across the parking lot.
“Would you, uh…” I felt embarrassed to be offering. “Umm… would you like some more food?”
She looked up at the two of us, wary and tense, waiting to hear the catch.
“I mean, uh, I can’t give you money because I don’t…” I trailed off again, embarrassed. How do you tell a homeless person that you won’t give them money because they’re homeless?
Ricky stepped in, smoothing the situation over. “Would you like some groceries?”
Mary’s fingers tightened around the box. “Well, uh, if you guys wouldn’t mind…”
She tried to sound nonchalant.
“Sure, what do you need?” Now that the embarrassing part was over, I was feeling more upbeat.
“Maybe some peanut butter?” She sounded hesitant, as if unwilling to believe her good fortune. “Maybe a bag of wheat bread? Is that too much? If it is, just anything will do.” She sounded so apologetic.
“We can get you more than that,” Ricky said softly. “Are you sure you don’t want some meat or cheese?”
She shook her head. “It spoils. Peanut butter and a loaf of wheat bread would be great.”
We left her in front of a Barnes & Noble, driving quickly. I think we were both afraid she might lose her nerve and leave before we came back.
We dashed into a corner store, trying to strike a healthy balance between what would last, what she could physically carry, and what our overly-strained pocket books could afford. We bought her two loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter, some crackers and a couple of other munchies. We splurged on one or two pieces of fruit and a big carton of milk.
We asked for everything to be triple-bagged to make it easier to carry before practically flying back to the parking lot.
She was still there.
She couldn’t say thank you enough.
And when she saw the carton of milk, her face lit up with a brilliant, infectious grin that transformed her face. She looked decades younger.
In the warmth of the morning I felt myself grinning back at her without even fully understanding why.