Helen and I remain fixed in my rental car. I do not suggest moving the conversation, lest I snuff out the glowing ember of her story. But I need to pee.
“My neighbor brought over one of those little computer pads, you know,” Helen says. “She said, Now, Helen, you’re not going to believe this. She was right. And wrong, I suppose.
“I’ve seen Virginia in every kind of temper, so that didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the number that showed under her video. It was over a hundred thousand. That was the shock. Who are all these people wanting to watch a person suffering her worst moments?”
Sometimes when Helen asks a question, it is clearly rhetorical. Sometimes, though, she seems to search my face for an explanation. I will let her down, but she’s used to that.
“I don’t know,” I say. It’s weak, but there it is. “I think maybe for people who have never lived with the mentally ill, they don’t humanize what they see.” They, not we. A tactical error on my part, perhaps.
“And you? What on earth made you want to watch it?”
“I didn’t seek it out. I wouldn’t have ever known about it except that it was sent to me.”
“But you did see it. Did you watch the whole thing?”
I am caught. “Yes, but I abhorred the thing. It was vile and vicious.”
Helen smiles. This is not the smile she wore when she saw her daughter. This is an angry sort of smile that twists my insides.
“You still watched it,” she says, her voice even. “You and everyone else. Millions, now. You watched it and you had no right. There used to be a day when people’s worst behavior was seen only be the ones closest to them.” Helen’s voice crescendos with every word. “Virginia has to live with herself every day, whether y’all see it or not. She’s the one who pays for her own bad behavior. And now she pays for yours, too!”
Shame heats my cheeks. This would be the perfect moment for an apology, but Helen launches from the car and slams the door. Unwilling to follow her and unable to leave, I sit still for a full fifteen minutes.
The older woman, the fierce mother, props open her screen door before carrying out a tray with sandwiches, tea, and two glasses. I don’t want to face her. I want to sink into the ground and pretend I never intruded, never turned the knife of social callous. Out of some misplaced confidence in me or simply midwestern niceties, Helen has prepared a meal for me, and I don’t get to absolve myself from attending.
Approaching the porch, I know I shouldn’t ask for a bathroom first. My mind still wars over the things I want to say and the things I must not say.
“Have some refreshment,” Helen says.
“Thank you,” I say but I don’t sit. “I want to apologize for coming here and uncovering such deeply personal wounds. Please forgive me if I’ve said or done anything to cause you more pain.”
“It’s just not that easy,” she says. “Forgiveness isn’t mine to give. And I’m not sure I’d give it anyway.”
I stare at the green carpeting.
“Let’s have some sandwiches. You like ham?”
“Yes. Thanks. Um, do you mind if I use your bathroom?”
“Go ahead, there’s something I want to show you anyhow.”
Helen abandons the meal tray to lead me into the house. She leaves me at the door to a bathroom overly hot from a lit gas stove on one wall.
“I trust you to find the kitchen when you’re done,” she says.