The email appeared in his inbox from a name he didn’t recognize, Patricia Donlan. When he opened it up and began to read it, it didn’t make sense at first; the writer took off like a runner hearing a starter’s pistol, eager to stake a place on the inside before the first turn of the track. “Dear Tom,” it began, “I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago.” He had never been in school with anyone named Patricia Donlan, but he read on. “I am currently in a hospital in California, waiting for a liver. Last year I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis (persistent liver inflammation). Shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Non-Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver, and I am now in Liver Failure.” The capital letters struck him as an odd formality. “I am using my daughter’s email account so she can keep track of things in case I become unable to respond—explanation below.”
He scanned to the bottom of the page and saw the name “Mary Beth (Schumacher) Donlan,” and made the connection. It was from a woman he’d gone to grade school with. He’d lost touch with her when he transferred to public high school so he could play football, because their Catholic school didn’t have a team. He remembered her as shy, slender, pretty in a quiet way, but not the type who would stand out in a crowd of girls as the most attractive. Something about her—maybe her forehead was too high or too wide. She was smart.
“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” the writer continued. “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.” Who is Gilbert Bythe? he asked himself. He hadn’t read the book, so he stopped for a moment to look up the reference. “I secretly competed against you for best grades in long division and spelling, you probably didn’t even realize it. Like all the other boys, I bet you were too busy looking at Carolyn Schuster’s newly-developed boobs.”
He laughed when he read that. That was true, and he had, for a time, been the favorite of the girl with the earliest-burgeoning bust. Then he had screwed things up. Too embarrassed to buy her a box of candy or a bottle of perfume and carry it past the other boys in class, he had slipped a dollar into her Valentine’s card, then endured a shame worse than the one he had tried to avoid when she walked the length of the classroom and placed the dollar on his desk. “How was I to know?” he asked himself, with a snort and a smile on his face. “It’s what I would have wanted for Valentine’s, it was what my grandmother gave me for my birthday. I didn’t know you don’t give a girl money—I was only twelve.”
“All that is in the past, however,” he read again. “I am now slowly dying, and my only hope is that I can live long enough to get a liver. In the meantime, my medical bills are piling up. I was only part-time at my last job, and didn’t qualify for health insurance. I’m divorced (husband number two), and have a seventeen-year-old daughter who has a tough life ahead of her without a mother.”
It was a sad story, one that caused him to be conscious that he was swallowing, more affected physically than he realized at first. He considered himself fairly impervious to personal appeals; he brushed off panhandlers both morning and night as he made his way through the train station in Boston. He wasn’t in touch with any family members other than two siblings, and with them only to the extent necessary; his father was part of a large Irish family, and his cousins, like their fathers, weren’t successful financially. They struck him as the type who might ask him for handouts, and possibly large ones, if their lives got any worse.
Mary Beth’s name struck a note with overtones, however. He recalled a cold spring day when the kids in his seventh-grade class had, on an April lark, decided to go to the public tennis courts as a group after school. There they had fooled around—since it was a weekday there were no adults to be annoyed by their conduct—and she had come and sat next to him when it was others’ turn to play.
“How are you and Carolyn getting along?” she had asked him bluntly. He wasn’t able to answer right away; they had barely said anything to each other beyond “Hi” during the seven years they’d known each other. He looked over at the court, where the girl he wanted to be his was playing tennis with another boy.
“You should probably ask Marty that,” he said with as much bitterness as he could stuff into the words, not turning his head. She was sitting close to him, on the ground, their backs bowing into a tennis net, and her nearness made him nervous.
“Who should I ask you about?” she said sharply, causing him to turn around and see her staring at him with an ambiguous cast to her lips that was part challenge, part invitation.
“I don’t know,” he had said, and then from someplace deep inside him an impulse arose that caused him to say, “maybe you.” He regretted it almost immediately, but it was too late; some instinctive sense of honor within had told him that when a girl opens up to you in that way, you should yield. She had smiled, and he noticed for the first that she was wearing pink lipstick, which she must have applied for the occasion since girls weren’t allowed to wear make-up at St. Vincent’s.
So that was who was writing to him after—he counted the years; four high school, four of college, three years goofing around, two more years to get another degree, so thirteen. Then thirty years of work—forty-three in all. He was both flattered and non-plussed; what, exactly, could he do for her? If he sent her a check his wife, who balanced their accounts, would see it. She paid their credit card bills, too, and would sometimes ask him about charges she didn’t recognize, so that wouldn’t work either. And then he recalled that he had a budget at work for charitable contributions, he could use that and his wife would never know. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything wrong, either way; it was a worthy cause, and it wasn’t like he was meeting the woman from his past for sex at a motel. It was a simple gesture of kindness, that was all.
“Dear Mary Beth,” he began to write. “Of course I remember you, and fondly. We had that brief thing going there in seventh grade, but went our separate ways. I am sorry to hear about your”—he paused to think; was it an illness or a condition? He began again: “I am sorry to hear that you are not doing well, and of course I can help out a bit.” He scrolled down the screen, which included a link to a site where you could contribute, post a message, and be recognized or not, depending on your preference. At the bottom of the page in small print there was a paragraph of disclaimers; contributions weren’t tax deductible, the site charged a fee and so on. It all seemed well-organized, as the girl had been when she was young.
The goal was to raise $25,000, a figure that struck him as cheap to save someone’s life. He tried to think of something he’d paid that price for—a car a long time ago came to mind–so if it only gave her five more years, it would be worth it. He took out his business credit card, clicked on the link, typed in a contribution of $250, then thought again, and increased the amount to $500. It might be hard for her, a part-time reading instructor at an elementary school in a small town, to find enough people who made as much money as he did, he thought. She was good enough to remember him after all these years, and to recall for him a time when romance might have hurt more when you lost, but was more innocent. He recalled her directness—the skinny little girl who had apparently had her heart set on him, but who had never said anything until their lives were about to diverge forever. He wondered what might have been; if they had connected back then, he might have been spared a long search for a mate that came to its first stop with a woman he had taken away from a friend, an affair that ended in four fairly disastrous years of living together and no marriage. Then four years of dating before he met his wife, a practical woman and a good mother to his children, but a mate of mature reflection, not the object of a youthful passion.
“Are you coming to bed soon?” his wife called to him from the door.
“Be there in a minute,” he said as he closed out of the site with a fumbling urgency, hoping he could clear the screen before she came around behind him for a kiss and saw the image of his short-lived grade-school girlfriend, with her deep-brown hair, violet-blue eyes and a smile that seemed too genuine for one who was dying.
He was at work the next day, filling out a form to explain his contribution, when he received a second email from the daughter’s address. He opened it up and read: “Dear Mike, I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago,” it said, and the text that followed was the same that had been sent to him describing Mary Beth’s current situation. Apparently she had developed a template she was using to save time. He could hardly blame her—after all, she was dying.
“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” it continued. “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.”
He exhaled, then moved his cursor to the “Reply” button. “Mary Beth,” he wrote, “I think you meant this for someone else.”