The South |

For the Benefit of Others

by Roxane Gay

Whenever my mother explains why she does things she resents having to do she says, noblesse oblige, nobility demands it. She tells me we have a certain responsibility. We must live up to it.

 There are lots of benefits for Haiti in South Florida, hosted by tan, well-heeled people, most of whom have never visited the country. My husband and I are often invited to these events, always loosely named as “A Benefit for Haiti,” or “Help for Haiti.” We sit at round tables with cheap tablecloths and tropically themed centerpieces. We eat catered food. Sometimes the catered food is Caribbean inspired with dishes like jerk chicken or callaloo as if simply serving cuisine from the general region is enough to evoke the spirit of Haiti. I drink a lot at these benefits, sipping gin and tonics slowly from sweaty, tall glasses. I drink until I don’t mind that reggae is playing when it is konpa we should hear. Whether the benefit is in Miami or Naples or Coral Gables, there is always a moment when the benefit’s host stands behind a podium and smiles out the audience with gleaming white teeth. They adopt a compassionate air and speak in clear but hushed tones about the problems of Haiti. They urge us to open our pocketbooks, to help, to build schools and feed orphans and provide desperately needed medicines. I love to look around the room during these impassioned pleas. I love to look at the white people with their shiny faces and linen outfits and expensive jewelry, how they nod and smile and pretend to care so they can feel better about themselves and their tax bracket.

 The last benefit we attended was for the Mother of Mercy Orphanage in Cap Haitien. All around the banquet hall, there were huge, colorful pictures of skinny Haitian children with narrow necks and big heads. Most of the time, the children looked happy. As we walked around the room looking at the pictures of these orphaned children, I said, “At least they don’t have flies all over them like the African children,” and my husband, Michael, sighed. He hates what he calls my attitude.  I have a tendency to make judgments about everyone and everything based on incomplete information and casual observation. “Well, it’s true,” I said. He shook his head and took my hand and steered me toward the bar. As we stood in line, a tall blonde woman who always smelled like too much perfume swept through the crowd and made a beeline toward us. When she was a few feet away, she raised a well-manicured hand in the air, showing off a gorgeous diamond ring. Every wealthy woman in South Florida has a gorgeous diamond ring on her finger and several in reserve. She extended her hand even though we weren’t close enough to reach. She said, “Mireille, it is such a pleasure to meet you again.” I smiled and said, “Likewise.” I turned to Michael. I could not remember her name but she was a regular on the benefit circuit. We also saw her at fundraisers for diabetes and cancer and heart disease. Her banquet-based beneficence knew no bounds.

 Michael cleared his throat and squeezed my hand. “Jacqueline,” he said. “It is a pleasure, as always.”

 I breathed a sigh of relief, and squeezed his hand back, leaning into him, sinking into the warmth of his shoulder. I promised myself to thank him later for doing what he always does—paying attention to the things I choose to ignore.

Later, after being entertained by the musical guest, a once famous R & B band now being kept together by an almost desperate desire to remain relevant, I excused myself from a conversation with a retired lawyer and a soon to retire plastic surgeon about malpractice and elective surgical procedures. I told Michael I would be right back and he said, “Hurry,” because he knew I had no intention of doing so. I sat in the bathroom stall listening to easy listening, Lionel Richie calling out to me, “Hello,” over and over. I wanted to be the one Lionel Richie was looking for. I studied the patterns in the marble floor. The room spun slowly as the drunk I was nurturing settled in. When I knew I couldn’t hide any longer, I exited the stall. Jacqueline was studying her reflection in the mirror, then she painted her lips with a fresh coat of dark red lipstick. She smiled at me. I nodded. She said, “You must have married into money.” I shook my head. I said, “No, he did.” As I walked away, I noticed the reflection of Jacqueline’s lips curled into a perfect, red, “O.”