We all have one. One person that we still remember to this day. The one that made your life a living hell…a neighbor, a student, or a teacher. Whoever it was, you remember those moments that it all became clear how much you really loathed them: riding on the bus and making you feel like a fool the whole ride to school; or maybe it was a teacher that constantly picked on you for answers that you never had; or that same kid who every time he saw you between first and second period would pass you in the hall and try to trip you.
Charlie had them all.
Everyone looked at her as though she was an abomination. Everywhere she turned, someone was spewing hurtful remarks. Gut-wrenching remarks. She was fat and weak. People used her as their personal ego booster. Who knows why kids say the things they do? Self-esteem? Popularity? A dare? They all had their reasons. Especially Aaron Paulson.
Aaron came from a wealthy family; he was smart, two years older than Charlie, and on the wrestling team. He was popular, like his brother three years before him, and there weren’t enough curse words in the dictionary to come close to how Charlie felt about him. He wasn’t a very good-looking boy, but he had many friends and was known for his wit and insults.
He was the worst to Charlie. He sought her out between classes to torment her. Went to her house on weekends and threw eggs, garbage, dog feces, toilet paper, anything he could find toward the front door. He would find out which boys she had crushes on and walk with them through the halls so that they could be a witness to her humiliation. In an attempt to get what few friends she had to turn their backs on her, he would spread rumors and tell people what a horrible person she was. He was very good at what he did; successful in most of the goals he set out to accomplish with Charlie. Just when she was starting to define herself, he would distort her. When she felt like she would finally gain ground, he would stomp on her. And if she had a day she was feeling normal or even special, his success in making her feel grossly appalling never failed.
Charlie heard that Aaron went on to attend school to become a doctor or a lawyer. And there was Charlie, at age twenty-three she was a part-time hostess and living in her parent’s basement.
Somewhere in the middle of it all had to be a reason. Character-building? Facing adversity? A lesson?
No. Charlie concluded that most people just suck.
She felt like if she had to lose the weight to gain popularity, she would have been doing it for the wrong reason. She never really got used to the insults; rather she got closer and closer to feeling as though she deserved them. The teasing only progressed as the years passed.
She had a few close friends she grew up with and they stayed her friends through school, but as the years went by, they all had found different cliques to be a part of and spent less time with Charlie. They found boyfriends, got jobs; got busy. She didn’t mind that. She figured out a way to manage being alone. After all, if you’re not fit company for yourself…
Eventually, after high school, she found a few people like herself — outcasts, black sheep. She started to feel a little bit better about her place in the world, but never better about her body and image. Her self-esteem had plummeted so low that it would take years of healing to repair. Outwardly, she seemed confident and tough. It took a long time to create that disguise, and she found it worked well and people left her alone. But even her few friends didn’t know how poorly she thought of herself.
Aaron and all the other guilty ones would never know what they had done to her. After years of severe depression and thousands spent on therapy, she came to realize she didn’t trust men. They had always been the source of her ridicule, shame and self-loathing. She had learned to associate them with harm and distrust.
By this point in her job, she had managed to remember some of the servers’ names. There was Marco; a small Italian guy who had large brown eyes and spiky black hair. He dyed the spiked tips orange and red; it looked like his hair was on fire. He had character and didn’t care what people thought of him. He was bursting with restless energy and always gave Charlie compliments.
Then there were a handful of servers she considered the “elite.” The untouchables. Charlie was better off not knowing much more. It was a crowd that never really accepted her, or anyone else not exactly like themselves.
Jesse wasn’t like the others that worked in Delivery. Most of the guys were younger, late teens and early twenties. Jesse seemed to be a bit older and didn’t have many friends at work. He made small conversation with his coworkers, but she never saw him sharing a beer after work with anyone besides his buddy Jake. Even that was rare. He was a growing mystery for Charlie that was begging to be solved.
Paulina and Angie were sisters and definitely the most hospitable and friendly to customers and new employees. Charlie grew up across the street from Paulina and Angie. They would spend some time together in the summers during sleepovers and playing video games. But Charlie’s fear of being publicly ridiculed kept her indoors and away from joining activities like her friends. And that became a cycle. The sisters became her idealized version of life. Everything seemed so much easier for them – they were smoother, happier and were able to discard nasty words and not let things ruin their day like Charlie would. As they grew older, they didn’t have much in common to talk about, so they slowly didn’t interact much at all. Charlie stayed home with more solitary pursuits – fine arts, movies and crosswords.
The day after her initial encounter with Jesse, work was busy. The kitchen was a disaster. The dishwasher had called in sick. One of the prep cooks had quit – eliminating four menu items for the afternoon – and the manager, Karalee, arrived late, leaving Charlie to do much more work than nine dollars an hour was worth. But it kept her on her toes and made the day fly.
“Thank you so much. You saved us today,” Karalee said, practically bowing to Charlie once the lunch rush was over.
“No problem! I like keeping busy,” Charlie said, wiping the beads of sweat from her brow.
“Hey Angie, you can go home now,” Karalee said walking past Angie, throwing her arm up to give her a high five.
“Thanks girl!” Angie said on her way to the front. “Ugh, finally! I wish all our hostesses worked like you do,” Angie said to Charlie while rolling her eyes.
“Well, it might have something to do with the fact that you guys only hire fifteen-year-olds.” Charlie laughed.
“Yeah. Lawrence is an ass. He only hires the ones that pique his…curiosity during the interview, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ve noticed. I feel like I’m babysitting toddler beauty queens on Friday and Saturday nights,” Charlie said.
“That’s nothing! Have you seen delivery? I don’t know what’s worse, babysitting infant hostesses or babysitting canned-whipped-cream-huffing delivery drivers. We went through four cases of whipped cream last month! I saw how much we made in desserts; it certainly didn’t justify that much whipped cream.”
“Seriously? Is that why the servers can never get any whipped cream out of the cans?” Charlie’s mouth hung open.
Angie nodded. “Back in the walk-in cooler between deliveries. I’ve busted the guys two times already.”
Here was her chance. Charlie looked around the dining room to make sure he was nowhere near. She hadn’t seen him all morning.
“Well, what about that Jesse guy? He seems a little bit older. Does he do it, too?”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, but I don’t exactly know who all does it. Older doesn’t necessarily mean more responsible. He’s kind of a loner. The only thing I know about him is that he’s into mountain biking or something like that.” Angie waved her hand, dismissing the conversation.
“Hmmm…” escaped Charlie’s lips.
Angie recognized Charlie’s expression and sighed, her eyes serious.
“Get it out of your head, Charlie. He’s bad news,” Angie warned.
“Get what out of my head?” Charlie tried to sound innocent.
“I know that look. And I don’t blame you, but I don’t trust him. You’ve seen the way he hits on the underage hostesses! That’s just…wrong and gross.”
Before Charlie could retort, the bartender called Angie back into the bar, “Hey Ang – eight-oh-two needs their tab!”
“See you tonight?” Angie shouted over her shoulder on her way back.
“Yeah, I’m on a double.”
“I mean it – don’t give him another thought!”
That evening was even busier. Still no dishwasher, but Karalee was able to prep the food to put the four missing items back on the menu. She took one of the hostesses from the front and brought her to the dishwashing station. This made Charlie busier, but she preferred to work alone; then she knew nothing would get screwed up.
“Hey Charlie,” Adam, the manager-on-duty, said with an oily grin.
Adam was inappropriate with all the girls at work. She tried to smile warmly at him while he took the pen and started eliminating servers and bussers from the seating chart.
The rush was over, and Charlie was wiping down the plastic covers and chatting with Adam when Jesse walked in. Under the dim track lighting in the entrance he looked like a god. Casual, solid build, with baggy jeans on; and his face looked like he had spent some time in the sun that afternoon. From behind his glowing form, she appeared. Throwing his arm around Justine, it looked like a date.
Jesse leaned against the counter and started tracing the flyer coupons on the front desk with his thumb, staring at Charlie while Justine took a trip to the restroom. Just staring. He glanced at Adam and Adam knew to leave.
Charlie couldn’t look away, but she couldn’t speak.
He looked like he was trying to work up courage to say something to her. Maybe he’s just trying not to throw up. He reeks of whiskey.
“Hey.” He looked down.
“Hello. May I help you with something…Jesse, is it?”
He smiled, answering her question. “What’s your name?”
“Charlene?” Her full name rolled off his tongue as he glanced at her name tag; his eyes traveling over her body.
“That’s me.” She played coy. Even looked away trying not to act interested in where this conversation was going.
“Am I bothering you?” He looked shocked.
She was a little turned off by his brashness. “Sort of. It’s a little busy here. If you wanted to make yourself useful, you could put on your uniform and help bus some tables. But, I think your little date would be mad. So, if there’s nothing else I can do for you, I’ve got some things to do in the kitchen,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
Continuing to stare in awe, he looked speechless. Finally a small smile escaped one corner of his mouth.
“Have a drink with me.” He paused shortly, waiting for her to speak. “Tomorrow, I mean, just one coworker to another. Just a friendly drink…” he said, when she didn’t respond right away.
She hadn’t answered immediately because she was trying to slow the fluttering in her stomach. She took a deep breath and looked at him with much speculation.
“Okay…” she finally said.
He smiled just as Justine exited the restrooms.
“Did you order our food?” Justine said.
“Oh, sorry I forgot. I was just chatting with Charlie here. Ah, could we get a large Hawaiian pizza, to go?” He placed his arm around Justine again.
“Sure. That will be up in fifteen minutes. You’ll have to sit in the lobby though. The bar doesn’t allow anyone under eighteen.” With a tight smile, Charlie turned on her heel and headed back toward the kitchen.
She didn’t see the wide grin on Jesse’s face on her way to the back.