Days before she met the novelist, Cora went to the library and brought home a stack of plastic-sleeved hardcovers with one-word titles like Heirloom and Ruffian and Seductress. Her favourite was an early effort with an unusually loquacious title: The Illegitimate Prince’s Child. At first it was unclear who was illegitimate, the prince or his child. It turned out to be both. During the Hep C Support Group at the drop-in, Cora read aloud sentences like ‘Evelina knew Rolf would never marry her if she revealed her true station, but having been a bastard himself, how could he inflict the same fate on the unborn child inside her?’ She regaled the needle-exchange staff with passages from Ruffian, substituting clients’ names for the well-endowed hero’s. She knew she was being inappropriate but she couldn’t stop. She studied Yvonne Borneo’s soft-focus author photos and imagined the hilarious incongruity of her vaunted good works – scattering gold pieces to hookers as she was borne down Mission Street on a litter, that sort of thing – and now that the appointed time had arrived for them to meet, she wanted Yvonne Borneo to deliver. She wanted a white mink hat and coat, a thick tread of diamonds across the collarbones, peacock-blue eyeshadow and sharp swipes of blush and impossibly glossy lips: the rigidly contoured, calculatedly baroque opulence of an eighties soap star auditioning for the role of tsarina. And Yvonne Borneo disappointed her by showing up at Capp Street Women’s Services in a plain taupe skirt and suit jacket. Her sole concession to decadence was a mulberry cashmere scarf, soft as a runaway’s peach fuzz, held in place with a metal pin shaped like a Scottie dog’s silhouette.
‘Well, you’re just a tiny little mite,’ was the first thing she said to Cora. Her voice was butterfat-rich but filmy, like an old bar of dark chocolate that had taken on a grey cast.
The novelist/philanthropist was more vigorous than her wax-figure photographs, and at the same time much frailer. She thrust her shoulders back with a martial bearing when she laughed, which was often, but Cora noticed her hands trembling slightly when they weren’t clasped in front of her. Her hair was beginning to thin. She was grandly imperious in a merrily half-ironic way. When Cora offered her a slice of red velvet cake, which she’d read was the novelist’s favourite, Yvonne said, ‘Bikini season’s upon us. I daren’t indulge!’ Yet she didn’t flinch at the posted Rules of Conduct, scrolled in silver marker on black paper, hung above the TV in the main lounge, and frequently amended for circumstance. In the past few months, necessity had compelled Cora to add ‘no showing genitalia’, ‘flush the toilet after you shit’ and ‘don’t jerk off in the bathroom’. This last rule was intended for the pre-op MTFs.
Yvonne read the rules from top to bottom, and when she was done she ruffled herself slightly, as though shaking off a light drizzle. Then she smiled brightly at Cora.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Girls will be girls.’
Cora reminded herself that Yvonne Borneo was not easily shocked. How could she be? Her only child, a girl named Angelica, had stepped in front of a bullet train at twenty, after years of struggling with schizophrenia and – it was rumoured – heroin addiction and sex work, although Yvonne had never confirmed this. She focused on the schizophrenia, referring to her late daughter as having ‘lost a battle with a significant and debilitating mental illness’. The foundation she established after Angelica’s death, the Angel Trust, gave money to provide mental health care for young women who had ‘lost their way’ and were at risk of suicide.
Angelica had been the same age as Cora. As teenagers in the same Utah behaviour modification programme for troubled youth, they had known each other slightly. Cora was waiting for the right moment to tell Yvonne this. She tried to engineer an interval of quiet, seated intimacy, lowered voices, eye contact. But Yvonne moved too fast and talked too quickly, asking about city contracts and capital campaigns and annual reports, and Cora needed her money – the money from airport book sales and Hallmark Hall of Fame movie rights and the pocket change of millions of frustrated housewives – so badly she could hardly keep the desperation out of her voice. The city cuts had been devastating.
The Department of Public Health’s deputy director, who had set up this meeting, warned her to cover her tattoos.
‘Even the ones on my face?’ Cora had said.
‘I forgot about those. OK, just don’t say anything about her daughter being a dope fiend.’
In Cora’s tiny office, Yvonne lingered a few moments before the Dead Wall, which featured photographs of kids who had overdosed or killed themselves or been stabbed. None of these photos were appropriately elegiac, since the bereaved families usually couldn’t be counted on to give Cora a cute school picture or a Polaroid of the deceased with a puppy. Most of the dead were memorialized in the act of flipping off the camera or smoking a bowl.
Yvonne put a hand to her chin. ‘It’s so sad,’ she said. ‘Such a waste.’
‘Yes,’ Cora said.
‘Well,’ Yvonne said. She sat down, crossing her legs. ‘What do you envision the Angel Trust being able to do for you?’
She asked this without real curiosity, her tone silky, keen and expertly measured as a game-show host’s. Cora began to sweat.
‘Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have to lay off any more outreach staff,’ she said. Without realizing it, she was counting on her fingers. ‘And there are basic expenses like rent and utilities. And I’d love to increase Sonia’s hours – she’s the psychiatrist – because we’re seeing a lot more girls with serious mental illness out there right now.’
Yvonne frowned. ‘Well, the psychiatrist’s hours, yes, I can get behind that. But as for the layoffs – it’s always our preference that my funds not be used as a stopgap for deficits in government funding. My board prefers not to dispense bail-out money.’
And this, Cora told herself, was why she hated philanthropists. Their dainty aversion to real emergency and distress, their careful gauging and hedging of risks, their preference, so politely and euphemistically stated, for supporting programmes that didn’t really need help to stay open, but sure could use a shiny new foyer, complete with naming opportunity. This was what she hated about rich people: their discomfort with their own unsettling power to salvage and save, the fear of besiegement that comes with filling an ugly basic need, their distaste for the unavoidably vertical dynamic of dispensing money to people who have none. The way they prided themselves on never giving cash to homeless people on the street, preferring a suited, solvent, 501c3-certified middleman, who knew better. For Cora, the hardest part of running the drop-in was not the necrotized arm wounds, the ubiquity of urine and rot, the occasional OD in the bathroom, the collect calls from prison. It was the eternal quest for money, the need to justify, to immerse herself in the fuzzy, lateral terminology of philanthropy. Over the last ten years Cora had learned that donors don’t give a programme dollars to save it from extinction; they ‘build a relationship’ with the programme. They want ‘partners’, not charity cases. And deep down, they believe in their hearts that people in real, urgent need – the kind of person Cora once was, and the kind she still felt like much of the time – make bad partners.
Cora cleared her throat. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘increasing Sonia’s hours won’t do much good if we don’t have a roof for her to work under, or a way of bringing clients to her.’
She thought she saw Yvonne stiffen. Cora knew she was terrible at diplomacy. When she got angry she preferred to yell; and if she were in front of the Board of Supervisors or the mayor’s staff instead of Yvonne Borneo, she would have. But this woman, this sleek, self-made authoress – that word, with its anachronistic, feline hiss of implied dilettantism, seemed made for her – had to be handled differently. She had no civic obligation to stem disease; she helped at her whim. It had to be some little thing that reeled her in, some ridiculous coincidence, some accident of fate. And Cora remembered her trump card.
There was no time to wait for a transition. She opened her mouth and prepared to blurt something out, something inappropriate and apropos of nothing – I knew your daughter when she was a dope fiend, maybe – when a pounding on the gate stopped her. Then a wailing. Someone was wailing her name.
Yvonne Borneo perked up so markedly her neck seemed to lengthen an inch. ‘Do you need to see to that?’ she said.
Cora excused herself and went to the back gate. It was DJ, a regular client who had come to the door and screamed for her plenty of times before, but never when anyone important was present. Cora had once lanced a six-inch-long abscess on DJ’s arm – she’d measured it – and when the clinic doctor pared away the necrotized tissue, bone showed through. DJ had started coming to the women’s centre at nineteen, freshly emancipated from foster care, clearly bipolar, and Cora had been trying to get her to see Sonia for seven years. She was twenty-six now and looked at least forty.
Today she looked worse than usual, in army pants held together with safety pins and a filthy tank top that revealed the caverns of scar tissue on her arms, the bulging sternum that seemed to twang fiercely under her skin like outraged tuning forks. When she saw Cora, DJ thrust both arms through the bars of the gate, like a prisoner in stocks, and wept.
‘You came to see me when no one else did,’ she sobbed.
‘OK, DJ,’ Cora said. ‘OK.’