Anyone who knew Charles would describe him as nice, not because he was truly kind, but because there wasn’t much else to say about Charles. Standing at five foot eight with a skinny fat build that wasn’t quite a dad bod, he looked exactly like the average married Asian man in his thirties who owned a home in the East Bay. And if you were to meet Charles at a birthday party or a wedding, he would be pleasant enough but you would have a hard time remembering the next day what exactly you two spoke about.
Despite his unassuming nature, Charles would soon become the subject of numerous social media posts and even a newspaper article after a dinner at Giuseppe’s Italian, a restaurant that his wife Amy had booked for a date night, an event that had become increasingly uncommon in recent years given Charles’ busy work life.
On his way to Giuseppe’s Italian with Amy, Charles was skeptical of the restaurant’s quality given its somewhat kitschy name. He very much doubted that the owner was Italian or that the owner’s name was Giuseppe.
But upon their arrival, Charles was pleased to find that the restaurant was quite well-suited for a date night. The walls were decorated with landscape paintings of what Charles assumed was the Tuscan countryside with its medieval villas and rolling green hills. Behind the bar counter, the shelves were stocked solely with wine bottles, a sign to Charles that the restaurant was too serious about their wine pairings to make space for any hard liquor.
“You picked a great spot,” Charles said to Amy once they got their drink orders in. “I was worr-”
It was right then that Charles felt crushing chest pain that expanded upwards into his shoulders and neck, causing him to feel as though his whole upper body was being squeezed in between two massive anvils. For the past several years, Charles' coronary arteries had accumulated a sizable build up of plaque, cholesterol, and other substances, thanks to a combination of poor genetics and his enjoyment of company happy hours and the greasy late night dinners thereafter.
Up until recently, the partial blockage of these arteries hadn’t created any issues for Charles. But when a rupture in the blockage caused blood clots to form, Charles’ heart began to receive insufficient amounts of oxygen, causing him to feel chest pain sporadically in recent days, pain that he had attributed to mere work anxiety. He had been spending the past several months attempting to raise a fresh round of capital for his struggling start up, a process that had resulted exclusively in disinterest or outright rejection.
As Charles began to slump to his left side, he grimaced at the realization that his attempts to keep his company alive had distracted him from the fact that he was dying. By the time Charles crashed onto the restaurant floor, Amy was yelling for help and the young couple seated next to them fumbled for their phones to call 911. The restaurant owner, meanwhile, whose name was in fact Giuseppe, yelled, “Spazio! Spazio!” as he pushed aside tables to create space for Charles to lie down on his back.
To Charles, everything was happening in slow motion. The young couple seemed to take a minute to enter each number into their phones. Moisture around Amy’s eyelids gradually formed into tears as she cradled his head, half-begging, half-praying.
If one were to do an MRI scan of Charles' brain in these final moments, one would have seen Charles’ brain lit up in bright red around the areas corresponding to his hippocampus and amygdala, the parts of the brain where memories lay hidden and where time seemed to move like honey dripping from a spoon.
In this altered state of mind, memories came to Charles with stunning levels of clarity. As though he were revisiting an old book, Charles began to skim through his life, looking for the parts worth replaying and the pieces that encapsulated his being.
He thought of the warm sun on his skin and the comforting scent of sunblock during his summers as a child, when he often engaged in water warfare with his dad who chased him all around their backyard with a water gun until dinnertime signaled a mandatory ceasefire.
He thought of church on Sundays and standing up for an hour in the entry hall far away from the altar - a strategic decision on the part of his parents to prevent Charles from causing a stir - and how during one homily, the priest had talked about the fiery furnace that awaited those who did not give up their belongings, take up their cross, and follow Christ, causing Charles to insist to his parents after mass that they give away all his toys and clothes - even the Bulbasaur plush toy he got from Knott’s Berry Farm the previous week.
He thought of how years after his father died suddenly from a heart attack, he would still see his mom weeping silently on the edge of her bed, clutching his father’s suit which she claimed still smelled faintly of his cologne, a scent that would always bring tears to Charles’ eyes whenever he came across it.
He thought of the bitterness he felt in high school and all the lunches he would eat by himself on that sole bench next to the lockers on the far side of campus until one day, he was joined for lunch by his geometry teacher Mr. Gallego who told Charles about his own father who passed away when he was young and how the pain would never leave and how that was the price of love, a steep cost but something he would pay for again and again and again.
He thought of the rush of college life and his first time listening to ska music at a house party, yelling and gyrating with the crowd as the saxophone player crooned his way into the middle of the dance floor late into the night, only to be interrupted by the cops making their way into the party causing Charles and his friends to scramble over couches and tumble out of windows, sprinting into the night, panting and laughing at the craziness of it all.
He thought of Emma, the slim, brown-haired girl he would sit next to in that cramped lecture hall for multivariable calc and how by the end of the school year she would always save him a seat given their budding friendship, something that could have been more if Emma didn’t have a boyfriend, someone who both Charles and Emma seemed to forget about one day when their hands grazed at the beginning of the class and were nearly clasped together by the end of class, an incident that neither of them would bring up later and one that Charles would wonder about for the rest of his life.
He thought of his first paycheck from the software engineering job he got out of college and how excited he was to send half of the money to his mother who had worked sixty hour weeks at the same Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown for much of Charles’ life, which caused Charles to realize that money was only a vice to those who had too much of it and a lifeline to everyone else.
He thought of meeting Amy at the birthday party of a co-worker, her yellow summer dress catching his eye, and the two of them bonding over the fact that they seemed to be the only single people at the event, causing them to speak late into the night on that couch in his co-worker’s living room, unaware of overstaying their welcome until Charles’ co-worker made a point of walking into the living room to brush his teeth.
He thought of the look of resignation on Amy’s face at their last wedding anniversary when he arrived home late from drinks with co-workers and how he had wondered to himself, when Amy had opened the door, why she was dressed up so nicely on a Tuesday night.
He thought of how over the past decade, everything started to blend together - there was always that new bar or restaurant featured on Eater to try out, that important company milestone that needed to be achieved, and that birthday party or reunion happening in the city that often prevented him from visiting his mom during the holidays -
Suddenly, the blood clots in Charles’ arteries had completely blocked any oxygen from reaching his heart - there would just be a minute before his heart stopped altogether. The ambulance, meanwhile, was barreling through the 280 and was four exits away from Giuseppe’s, meaning that the ambulance would arrive exactly three minutes after Charles went into cardiac arrest.
In one last convulsion, Charles’ brain poured its remaining resources into the vivid recreation of a singular memory.
It was 6:14pm on a Thursday. Charles, along with his co-founder Max, were in the tiny 1500 square foot office on the third floor of that rickety building in the Soma neighborhood of San Francisco.
These were the early days of Charles’ company, before they had an HR department to put rules in place and before Max got pushed out by the board for sexual harassment accusations. By now, everyone else in the company had gone home with the exception of Charles and Max who liked to use these late hours to discuss the meatier, controversial topics of the day.
Today’s topic was the question of what to do about Stacy, the iOS engineer they recently hired last month, who had just lost her husband after a long battle with lung cancer. She hadn’t been to the office for nearly two weeks.
“First off,” Max said as he cracked open a Lagunitas IPA. “By federal law, we’re just required to provide five days of bereavement leave. We’ve already doubled that.”
“Sure, but ten days isn’t much, Max. And she’s got a couple young kids to take care of too,” Charles protested. Naturally, Charles thought of his own mother’s situation when his father passed away all those years ago.
“No one’s making her work here man,” Max said as he shook his head. “If she wants to go, she can. But if she wants to stay, she’s gotta show up to work just like everyone else.”
Deep in thought, Charles walked over to the snack closet and grabbed a bag of barbecue flavored baked Lays. This was the usual dynamic between the two co-founders back in those early days - Charles thoughtfully munching chips while Max took swigs of beer.
“There’s gotta be some sort of middle ground here,” Charles said as he chewed. “Let’s talk to Stacy and tell her we’ll work with her on this. Maybe we can give her the option of taking another few weeks off or taking severance so she has some money to work with -”
“Dude, we can’t just be paying people to not work! And both of your options are literally just different versions of doing just that.”
“Besides,” Max continued. “It was lung cancer he passed away from…”
“Are you serious dude?”
“I’m just saying,” Max said as he raised his palms up to the air. “Lung cancer’s just one of those things where if you’re a smoker, it’s kind of on you. Not that we know he was a smoker, but if he was…”
“Whatever man,” Charles said. “Let’s figure this out some other time. What else did we have to talk about?”
“Um, I guess we could talk about looking for a new office. We’re really starting to outgrow this spa-”
It’s at this point that Charles' heart stops beating.
Now, only the red blood cells that are already in his carotid arteries would make their way into Charles' brain, allowing him to have a few additional moments of reflection before going into a coma.
The ambulance, meanwhile, is now exiting the freeway and needs to cross just a few more blocks before arriving at Giuseppe’s. Left, right, left, the ambulance driver mutters to himself as the ambulance zips through the off-ramp, while less than half a mile away Giuseppe and several of his customers are outside the restaurant, practically in the street, ready to wave down the incoming ambulance, all while Amy, still at Charles’ side, is no longer praying, but whispering to Charles as she squeezes his limp hand, asking him to wait for her on the other side.
Charles, however, is unaware of all this commotion.
His spirit is not circling above his body, allowing him that bird’s eye view of his surroundings as the camera pans to black.
Instead, all he can think about is what in the world he and Max ended up doing with Stac-
whoo - love how you built up the suspense in this one, expanding and dilating the passage of time!
This is not a specific comment to this post but to all your stories, which are wonderful and your kind soul shines through in all of them. The term "heartwarming" is obviously a cliché but reading your stuff literally does make my heart feel warmer, and that is a rare feeling. Good job, keep going.