posted May 18, 2009 at 1:25pm
The other night at a gallery opening, a beautiful woman I don’t know very well approached me in tears.
“I need to tell you I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you know why?”
Back up 20 minutes. I was having a pleasant conversation with this woman and her date, a writer in from LA to do a travel story, and we were chatting about — oh god, I can’t remember what. It’s been two days, my memory doesn’t last that long anymore. Anyhow, something struck all of us as dumb and to tell you the truth, these days I’ll see it coming before it’s out of your mouth. It’s as though the sound (and there was considerable background noise that night — lots of people, kids screaming, a fire roaring, DJ blasting, traffic) fades away and the person’s mouth gets super big and the words come out really slowly.
“That’s so retarded.”
She said it. I didn’t flinch, and neither did she, but for less than a split second, I saw it — the “OH FUCK, I JUST SAID THAT’S SO RETARDED TO THE MOTHER OF A KID WITH DOWN SYNDROME AND NOT JUST ANY MOTHER OF A KID WITH DOWN SYNDROME, THIS ONE BITCHES ABOUT EXACTLY THIS ALL THE TIME. OH FUCK” look on her face.
And then the conversation continued — seamlessly, as though nothing had happened, I think the date said something like, “Yeah, that’s so stupid” and after a few minutes we all drifted into conversations with other people the way you do at gallery openings.
For me, the worst part these days isn’t when someone says it. It’s when they realize they just said it. And so that half a split second after she said it was what bugged me. But like I said, it was kind of a crazy night, and I moved past it because really, what are you going to do? It’s true that often I call people out, point out what they just said. But sometimes you don’t need to say a word.
This was one of those times.
Twenty minutes later I turned around and there she was.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. “Really, I mean it. It’s okay.”
“No, I do. It was a horrible thing to say,” she continued, the tears welling up. “I can’t believe I said it, I’m so upset that I said it.”
The date walked up and confirmed this, said she was so embarrassed he’d told her that if she didn’t apologize, he was going to do it for her. I winced.
“I hate being that person who makes anyone feel uncomfortable about saying anything,” I told them, even though all three of us knew that it’s more complicated than that. She’ll probably never use the word again, at least not without thinking about that night at the gallery. And that’s exactly what I want, right? For people to be aware of how wrong it is to use the word retarded?
Yeah, it is. But it’s not a sweet victory, or even bittersweet. Instead, the whole thing left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. Of course there’s no turning back now — I’m not about to embrace the word retard, to “take it back.” (I hate that shit — I mean, really, who ever wanted the word cunt in the first place?!)
I’ve set the wheels in motion and now my mere presence during cocktail party chatter is enough to bring a grown woman to tears and now I’m not really sure what to say about it. I hope I didn’t ruin the rest of her night, because truly, she didn’t ruin mine. I just hope she knows that.