RESTON, VA. — When I stepped out of the bathroom stall at McDonald's, the heavy metal door clanged shut behind me. I jumped as the sharp sound echoed loudly in the small, tiled room. Suddenly I noticed a blond woman standing in front and to the right of me, wearing a bright green shirt and jeans. She clutched a brown folder. Her long hair was tousled. In the second I scanned her, I estimated her to be not adolescent, but older, probably in her mid-20s. She was staring at me intently. As her eyes locked on mine, I knew that she was waiting for me.
She fumbled with her folder and started talking. Her voice was low, and I couldn't hear what she was saying.
"Excuse me, what did you say?"
"This is pretty stupid, and it may be the stupidest question you've ever been asked," she said, twisting the folder open, revealing a pad of white lined paper on one side, loose papers on the other. She kept talking in a low, wobbly voice. Her words were getting tangled up, but "pretty stupid" and "Could I ask you?" kept emerging.
"Uh, oh," I thought, straining to understand what might be happening. My first thought was random: "Here comes a questionnaire."
But something about the encounter and the way it was unfolding made me want to stretch out this moment to gain time to think. Even as I was becoming involved in conversation with this woman, part of me was going into alert mode, watching for signs of danger. Breaking eye contact, I bent over the sink and ran the water. Jabbing at the soap dispenser, I rubbed my hands together and rinsed quickly. Then I turned away from her to get a paper towel. I hoped it would give her time to think better of accosting a stranger in a bathroom for a survey or whatever she had in mind. But when I turned back to her, her face was reddening and her eyes were filling with tears.
"Are you in trouble?" I asked, surprised to hear the sympathetic words coming out of my mouth.
"Yes," she said, sighing. "I've run away. Now I'm going home ... home to live with my parents," she said, sighing again. "I need ... I need $10 for gas to get home," she said. Tears ran down her cheeks and dropped on to her green blouse. "This is my résumé. You'll see I have a good record, and ..." Her words trailed off. She held out a single sheet of paper at me.
To hide my surprise, I bent over her résumé, scanning the words. Another time I might have actually comprehended the words, but in shock, I merely scanned the page. The résumé indicated that the person on it was a current student in the law school of the state university, had graduated from college, and had a work record of significant length. Was it hers?
My interior dialogue began to speed up, two diverging tracks of thought forming. One, what's really going on here? Is she on drugs? Alcohol? Is she having a breakdown? Or, is she scamming me, thinking I'm an easy mark, middle-aged woman that I am? Is there a partner in the bathroom or just outside?
Then the other half of my mind took over. If she's in trouble, as she says, maybe she does just need a little help to get home. She seems ashamed to be asking me for money. Why the résumé if she's a fake? What if she's telling the truth? Am I a fool to believe her?
I looked at her red, blotchy face. She looked mortified, miserable. What if she were one of my adult daughters? Wouldn't I want a stranger to help her find her way home?
People who brazenly ask for money have always made me apprehensive. The men who pace back and forth along lines of traffic at stop lights in the city, or "help" you park your car by waving you into a newly vacated space and then wait expectantly, menacingly, for their handout alarm me. I worry that most money given goes quickly up the nose, down the throat, or into the arm of those who beg to support their addictions.
My desire is to help this woman, not hurt her. What should I do? What's the right thing to do?
This woman offers the currency of my world: a résumé, a well-phrased plea, tears, and a sense of shame.
I look her in the eye and, in my firmest motherly voice, ask her if she knows how she can get help. She nods and says "yes" in a small voice.
"Then will you get help?" I persist.
"Yes," she says, more tears sliding down her cheek.
I open my wallet. I have two 20s and three singles. Enough for each of us to get home. I hand her a 20. She looks surprised, overwhelmed.
"Thank you, thank you so much," she says in a whispery voice. "If you'll give me your address, I'll send you the money back. I'll have money on Wednesday."
"No," I say, thinking I shouldn't give her my address. "That's not necessary."
I turn toward the door and start to walk away. Then I wheel around and walk back to her. I put my hand on her arm. She looks at me, the rims of her eyes red, and I can see she's exhausted.
"I have daughters," I tell her as if that explains everything. "I want you to take care of yourself. Please."
When Kate, my social-worker daughter, calls that night, she listens to me carefully as I recount the experience.
"So why are you feeling bad about this, Mom?" she asks.
"I'm not sure what really happened in there. I hope that by giving her money I didn't enable her to get another fix," I say.
"Mom, you can't know what she'll do, but you did provide her an encounter with another human being, a caring human being," Kate says. "You did the right thing."
But did I? I go to bed and get up thinking about the young blond woman in the bright green shirt at McDonald's who asked me for money. I wonder where she is now. I wonder if she got home and what kind of welcome she found. I wonder if she's coming off a high and pondering where she'll get her next fix. I wonder what the chances are she'll be all right.
Wherever she is, I'm pulling for her to be OK.
• Claudia Chyle Smith is a wife and mother who spent a career in hospital public relations and now writes from the Washington, D.C. area.