Mary came to camp with overalls and a train conductor’s cap, which she wore everywhere. She was 11 or 12, same as the rest of us. Bubbly. Laughing. Long sun-streaked hair. Pretty. With dwarfism.
Our cabin had an overnight once at Inspiration Point. After much chatter, eventually each girl fell asleep in her sleeping bag, the lake water lapping serenely against the rocks below us. Only Mary and I remained awake, talking quietly.
“Look up there,” she said. The sky was full of stars, big and small, and across them moved lights, some golden and some white. Some were slow, some so fast across the sky.
“What are they?” I said.
She explained about unidentified flying objects and aliens and outer space, and we watched those mysterious moving lights until we, too, fell asleep.
One day, one of the girls in our cabin called Mary a name. Maybe it was “dwarf.” Mary didn’t take it lying down.
She sat on her bunk (the upper one) and said calmly, “Just because I’m short doesn’t mean I’m less than you.”
The other girl stood imposingly in the middle of the cabin. She had the new height and fresh looks of a girl just entering puberty. She was confident that the rest of us would join in bullying Mary, so she continued to call Mary names.
Mary slid down from her bunk and grabbed some kind of stick. Her voice and the other girl’s rose higher, the space between them quickly closed. They were almost ready to start hitting each other.
Then one girl and then another added her voice to Mary’s. There was a beat of silence.
The attacker looked out at the rest of us, standing behind Mary. Her mouth opened to say something. Then she closed it. She was beaten, and she knew it. She left the cabin, humiliated.
I remember so clearly the way Mary looked and sounded during that fight. Her face glowed, her eyes snapped. She seemed almost to vibrate, so filled was she with the confidence of her cause.
I remember that moment because eight years later, I ran into her again.
I was in college leaving a restaurant near campus when I recognized her at the bar. I don’t know how I recognized her, but I did. It was something about the way her face moved.
“Is your name Mary?” I asked.
Her eyes slid toward me, then down. No smile. “Yes,” she said after a moment.
She had a cigarette in her hand. Her beautiful sun-streaked hair had been clipped, feathered, bleached and permed. Her clothes were in fashion but lacked personality. Gone were the overalls and the ever-present train conductor’s cap.
“Didn’t you go to Camp … ” I gave the name of the camp.
She seemed in no hurry to reply.
She wouldn’t look at me. She was with a friend. I saw bitterness and resignation in her expression, things I had never expected to see in Mary’s face.
I was too full of my own insecurities to go further, wondering, for instance, how having such a friend might affect my ability to meet men — things that make me cringe inside now and feel small.
I left the restaurant, but those two images of Mary have never left me.
Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for Post-Gazette.com (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1923).