For more information about J. Koe and her work, visit her website justkoe . wordpress .com.
He was five years old.
His mother had gotten the cake he wanted from the store, the one with all the toy cars driving around its edge. All of his friends were there. Yet Charles remembered he wasn't happy. It didn't feel like it was his birthday.
There was a man dressed up like a giant dancing cartoon character in his back yard. It was one of those obscenely brightly-colored ones which he normally liked to watch. For some reason, he didn't like the dancing man that day.
His mother brought out his birthday cake. He eagerly ran over to it so that he could see the little cars and blow out the candles. The other kids ran over too, and one of them tripped in the process. She had to be bandaged up, and by the time the candles were lit Charles felt his temporary excitement had already faded away.
Then he started crying because he inexplicably felt that his birthday had been ruined. He didn't know why, but he knew that he wasn't going to enjoy it. So he threw a little tantrum. He cried. His mother scolded him and sent him up to his room immediately, where he watched the other kids playing in his backyard at his party, eating his cake.
Happy birthday to him.
He was six years old.
"Does anyone know what the capital of the United States is?"
No one raised their hand to answer. The teacher turned to Charles, the brightest of her first graders.
"Charles, could you please answer the question?"
He sat stubbornly silent, unwilling to do what the teacher asked. Charles resented authority and wanted adults to leave him alone. He was defiant.
Fifteen minutes earlier, the teacher had put him in a time-out for throwing a wooden building block at another student's head. She simply did not understand that the student had been pestering Charles, throwing wooden blocks at him first, and that he was only retaliating. Charles was forced to sulk in the corner while the other kid escaped, without being reprimanded, to tell his classmates. They all gathered to laugh at the one boy sitting alone on a stool, the punished Charles.
Through the rest of the day he continued to sulk. He had been unfairly humiliated and he knew it. The teacher was going to feel the extent of Charles's childish hatred, and stubbornness was his most effective form of retaliation.
"I would like an answer, Charles."
He was dragged off to the principal's office after being uncooperative for another ten minutes, but he would not tell his teacher what the capital of the United States was.
He was eight years old.
Little girls were literally skating circles around him while he wobbled in a loose pair of rental skates. His mother had forced him to try this sport – if it could be called a sport – and expressed her hopes that it would help him develop good balance. It didn't matter that his friends laughed at him as he attempted to trudge around the edge of the rink, displaying resentment in hopes his mother would notice. She never did; in fact, she insisted he continue even though week after week she had to drag him screaming to the rink where his friends waited to taunt him.
"Charles, come on. Behave yourself." His mother yanked the laces of his skates tightly as he struggled to kick them off. "Now go out there and have some fun."
He tried to do as his mother said, but his lack of skill and friends' teasing ruined it for him.
He was nine years old.
For the first time, Charles told a girl that he liked her. They were on the playground together, having both chosen the same hiding spot.
She had shouted, "I got here first! Find somewhere else."
He said he wasn't going anywhere. She tried once or twice more to kick him out, but he wouldn't budge. Then the hide and seek "seeker" stopped counting and they both stopped talking.
They both stayed cramped up in the tiny area under a playground for a good five minutes until the "seeker" found them. Charles began to stare at the girl, her auburn hair, her small hands, her olive-colored eyes. Something new was stirring inside of him, something different. He had never known this feeling before.
"I think I like you."
He was thirteen years old.
His classmates had already started talking about what colleges they wanted to apply to, but he was not ready to grasp the idea of going to somewhere far away from home.
"I want to go to Princeton," said Erica, the girl in math class who always blew the most annoying gum bubbles when the teacher wasn't looking. "I really hope that they'll take me even if I don't have a perfect GPA."
Charles privately doubted that she even had a shot. He knew that she was not doing well in any of her classes; unless she was able to rustle up a miracle, there was no way Princeton would even consider her application.
"I mean, all I need to do is do some volunteering and win a bunch of awards. And I know I'll be able to do it."
The amount of faith she had in her abilities was admirable, but he felt that there was just a little too much of it. There was nothing more irritating than listening to an overconfident person ramble about their predicted success.
"Where do you guys want to go?" she asked after noticing that none of her classmates were responding to her self-absorbed monologue. The teacher heard her and shushed her students, but the moment she returned to the front of the classroom, the conversation started up again.
"I just hope I get in somewhere okay," said the kid with the glasses whose name Charles never remembered. The other kids chimed in with their opinions about which colleges they thought were the best. As the volume of the chatter slowly increased, Charles suddenly decided to express his own opinion. His comment killed the conversation and shocked his peers into silence.
He was twenty years old.
Now a sophomore in college, he had outgrown most of the awkwardness which had haunted him throughout childhood. However, some of it managed to cling to him and continue to wreck his hopes of ever being normal.
He tried his hand at romance for a bit, hoping that he would get a smooth entrance into the dating world. After entering his first relationship, he earned a quick exit after failing to properly answer the classic question "Does this make me look fat?" when his girlfriend asked it for the first time. Needless to say, he did not handle it well. He was rather depressed after this breakup; his roommate had to do a lot of talking just to get him out of his initial funk.
"It's your first time, buddy," his roommate said five weeks after Charles confirmed that his new ex-girlfriend had meant everything she said in the voicemail she left. "Five or six times later, this one's not going to matter."
"But she was great!" Charles pounded his fist on his desk, making his pencils jump. "I've never been in a real relationship before…who knows when I'll get a second chance?"
"Hey, you have to have confidence in yourself. You'll get a second chance."
He blew his second chance. He also blew his third and fourth chances. Things were not looking good for him.
He was twenty-four years old.
The interviewer was a skinny, bony woman with a cold, pitiless look on her face. She didn't look interested in him, one of the many candidates for the company's only open position. "Why do you think you are qualified to hold this position?" she asked Charles, who sat in the hard wooden chair on the other side of the desk.
"Well, I think…" He rambled on a little about his internships in college before she quickly cut him off.
"What do you think you can bring to the table?"
Charles somehow managed to pull together a complete response and finish saying it before the woman asked another question. He didn't like this woman, and from her lack of interest in him he guessed that the feelings were mutual.
"If you could describe yourself in four words, what would you say and why…"
The conversation continued like that for about half an hour. After scribbling down her final notes, the interviewer abruptly dismissed him. He left the building with his head hanging, sure that this interview wasn't going to help him land the job.
When the call came for him the next week, he wasn't ready for it. The impossible had happened; something good had actually happened to him.
He was twenty-six years old.
"You may now kiss the bride," said the priest. Charles looked at his new wife's face. Her face was a plain face, not as enchanting as his first girlfriend's. She wasn't as pleasant as his first girlfriend either, nor as graceful. But she was good enough, he supposed. After all, she was the only woman who truly loved him. Surely time would help him adjust to married life with her.
Their kiss was strangely brief; neither of them could stand to have their lips touch for longer than a few seconds. But the church still exploded into cheers, and many smiling faces greeted the new couple later at the reception. Charles ignored most of his friends' congratulations and sat quietly with a glass of wine while his bride celebrated with their guests. This might have been the happiest day of her life, but it certainly wasn't the happiest day of his.
It was as if he had suddenly gotten cold feet after the wedding. What had happened? Was he no longer willing to spend his life with her in sickness and health until death parted them? He tried mulling over these thoughts, but the wine was clouding his brain and preventing rational thinking. In the end he simply swept these thoughts aside and decided to jump into the festivities.
He was thirty-one years old.
"The baby won't stop crying," shouted his wife as he searched his desk for an important report. "There might be something wrong with him."
"Then take him to the doctor," he replied, lifting up a book before dropping it on the floor. "I have to go to work."
"When are you going to take a break, Charles? Tell me." His wife appeared in the doorway to his home office and found him rummaging through his drawers and rifling through the piles of paper on his desk. Charles appeared to be too focused to hear her, a habit which she found annoying.
"You never have any time to spend with us. You always say you have things to do." She bounced the baby up and down in her arms, but that only made the wailing louder. "For God's sake, ask for a vacation. You need it."
He didn't answer. Having finally located the report he was looking for, he grabbed his briefcase and brushed past his wife and baby in the doorway.
"Take care of him," he shouted to them as he opened the door. "I'll be back as soon as I can." The door slammed and stayed shut until he opened it again later around eleven o'clock that night.
He was thirty-four years old.
"Bring your child to work day" was the reason why his son was toddling around the workplace late in the afternoon. Charles was confined to his desk, filling out forms that he should have filled out earlier. He trusted that his colleagues would take good care of his son and keep him away from dangerous things like the copy machine.
Through the glass separating his office from the main workspace Charles saw his son holding a can of soda and being led somewhere by a colleague. He made a mental note to not let his child drink soda often.
When the phone rang, he took his eyes off his son and picked up the receiver. "Charles Baxter. How may I help you?"
"Charles, I'm not coming back." His wife's voice was shaking, and he could almost hear the tears that dripped down her face.
"I thought it was just an empty threat." Charles was aware of how hollow his voice sounded, but he didn't care. On the other end she sounded hurt, as if he had somehow insulted her.
"My threats are real, Charles. I know that I can't make you happy, I'm off to actually live my life instead."
"No. I'm done." He heard her hang up and began muttering a string of curse words. She wouldn't really dare to leave, would she? And if she did, what would happen to their son? Charles didn't want to leave his job, yet he knew that his son was precious…
"I don't care!" he shouted to no one in particular while pacing around his office and waving his hands in random circles. "Laura can go to hell for all I care! I just want her to at least come back to tell her son that Mommy's not going to be living in the house…"
He turned around to see his son standing in the doorway, staring at him with the most surprised look on his face. Charles realized that he was still holding the phone and promptly dropped it.
"Sorry. Daddy was just getting a bit worked up…" He tried to force a more easygoing expression to appear on his face, but his son wasn't convinced.
"Are you mad at Mommy?"
Charles didn't know what to say.
He was thirty-five years old.
It was a cold day. Charles was running across the street with a steaming hot cup of coffee without looking at the traffic. The crosswalk was clear the moment he stepped onto it. It wasn't clear the next.
The cars stopped driving, and passerby gathered around the man dying on the side of the street. They couldn't see what he was seeing in his mind. But what Charles saw was each of his memories, regardless of whether they were good or bad, flashing by too quickly for him to reflect on how he had acted. One by one, they offered him glimpses of who he was and how he lived. And then they were violently torn from him as the blue sky became white and his hand fell to the ground.
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