Coral Kelly Ragognetti
"There was a woman once," he mused nostalgically as the corners of his mouth stretched to form a smile, "but she wasn´t for me." His expression fell flat. He rubbed his forehead rhythmically, his fingers spreading wide as they reached his widow´s peak and back together again as he lowered them to the bridge of his nose. But she was for me and I for her.
His coffee, the same over-sugared elixir he´d always sipped, sat still and tepid on his kitchen table. The New York Times lay scattered, folded and dog-eared, near the mug. A self-proclaimed avid reader, John was unable to complete a column that morning, not even in the sports section. His eyes followed the lines like a typewriter and he appeared to be engaged, but he was not.
"So what was she like? When did you meet her?" Matthew´s question was out of curiosity, perhaps even a stab at bonding with his aging, widowed uncle, but John had not spoken truthfully of her to anyone. He had mentioned her name in casual conversation with friends, family and even his late wife, but the true nature of their relationship was never unveiled.
"Like I said, she wasn´t for me. There isn´t much to tell, anyhow," he lied as he reached for his coffee.
"Oh, come on, Coach. I need to know that good men, successful men, struggle with this sort of thing at some point in their lives. I know you loved Aunt Helen, but did you ever slip? Even just once?" he prodded.
"Matthew, you came over today to speak to me in confidence about your life,” John retorted, "not, I assume, to pry into mine."
"No—I’m—look, I need some answers. I need to know that I have not ruined everything in my life. I need to know that being human, being a man, means that sometimes we make mistakes." Matthew let out let out a guttural sigh, damp with shame and regret, as his head fell against the back of the chair.
John could not commiserate and he had yet to answer a bevy of his own questions. He was in no position to provide an expert opinion on the topic. John felt no shame, and the regret he harbored had nothing to do with what he did, but rather everything to do with what he failed to do. He could have been happier. He could have had the life he believed was the right one—with her.
"Coach Brander, here´s your coffee," she announced with an energetic smile. "Five sugars and a splash of half and half, right?" Charlie was a bright, proactive assistant who managed to make friends with almost everyone she encountered. John admired her social finesse. She had an air of optimism and naïveté that, at times, caused him to feel cynical and jaded. Perhaps it was because he was older, he convinced himself, by ten years or so, and had experienced more reality and pain than she had in her brief twenty-five years. Why would one smile and laugh as much as Charlie did otherwise?
"Thank you, Charlie. I didn´t even have the chance to ask for it," he lauded.
"I know. I just figured with the day you´ve got ahead of you, a little caffeine might perk you up," she chirped sweetly, playfully tilting her head to one side. "Your first recruit is here. Should I bring him in or would you like a few minutes?"
"We might as well stay on schedule. You can send him back. Thanks again." He gestured to his cup of coffee and tried to muster a smile as genuine as the one she wore without fail.
Charlie turned on her heels and John watched as she strode away.
"Oh, I almost forgot," she said abruptly, interrupting his stare as she turned, "here´s The Times." She pulled the newspaper from under her arm and lay it on his desk, noticeably flustered. "Sorry about that. Forgot it was there," Charlie defended with an awkward smile, gently tugging her blond ponytail. "And I´ll have some more game tapes for you this afternoon. I´m just working on a few edits."
"No worries. Thank you." A grin escaped him, but she was oblivious and out of sight with the click of the door latch.
That night, John took the tapes home for review and, with his wife and daughter on either side of him, he played and paused the high school football videos, making intermittent notes.
"That guy looks strong, but he´s fast, too. Maybe he should be a quarterback, Dad. See him? Number twenty-seven?"
He wasn´t thinking about twenty-seven or quarterbacks or the upcoming season defending a national championship. His thoughts were with Charlie. He felt different with her, happy, alive, and youthful. At home, he had to take care of everyone, but at work Charlie took care of him.
"John," Helen whispered with a gentle elbow, "Macy has an idea. You heard her, right?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. I was just thinking it over." He put his arm around his daughter. "Good eye, Mace. You may be onto something here. Not bad for an eight-year-old." He squeezed her petite shoulders and glanced at the clock on the VCR. Eleven and a half hours until I see Charlie again.
Months passed, fast days and slow nights, without so much as a kiss, yet John´s feelings for Charlie continued to surge. Sometimes the unexpected meeting of eyes, a glance that lingered longer than it should, or a brush of the shoulder sent his thoughts whirling. What would life be like with her? What would one night be like with her? What would her lips feel like against mine? Her body against mine?
Their relationship had become more playful, more intriguing, and he began to get a sense of mutual attraction.
"John, are you ready?" Charlie asked coyly, gazing at her notepad.
For you? Right now, right here? I thought you’d never ask.
"For?" he probed as he turned his head slightly away from her with a sly smile.
"For Bradley Strasford, tight end, Mitchell Owens High School?" she quipped, full of professionalism. "Nice try though," she giggled, brushing off his innuendo.
Perhaps John was over-analyzing her actions in an effort to conjure up a fairy tale affair. He wasn´t sure if Charlie felt the same, but it didn´t stop him from incessantly tossing the idea around in his mind.
By the time her two-year anniversary with the college arrived, John was utterly smitten, if not deniably in love. An occasion of this caliber called for celebration and he decided to ask her to dinner to show his appreciation. Of course, John had been planning and imagining an evening alone with her for some time and he arrived at work early, donning his nicest black suit in her honor. He sat fidgeting at his desk, waiting for her, shifting his tie, combing his hair back with his fingers, and shuffling papers so as to seem preoccupied.
You know what today is right? How about dinner after work to celebrate? No, that won´t work. Good morning Charlie! Congratulations on making it two whole years putting up with me! He imagined her glowing grin as she realized he had remembered. Would you like to grab a bite this evening to celebrate? We´ll put it on the team account, a business meeting, you know?
"John, may I come in?" Coach Martin, head of the Athletics Department, eased through the doorway. "May I sit?"
"Of course, Buster. Please. Sit," John encouraged as he pushed a stack of team letterhead to one side. "What brings you down to this end of the hallway? Big recruit heading my way?" he questioned with a smirk. "Where´d you find this one?"
"No. No recruit. What´s with the suit though?" Coach Martin gazed at John warily.
"Oh, this?” He touched his lapel. "Guess I just felt like feeling important today," John replied as he cut his eyes playfully to one side and shrugged.
"John, look. I´m not good at this sort of thing so I´m just going to come out and say it."
John´s heart began to race. Does he know about us? Have I been too obvious? He wrestled his fingers beneath the desk. "Okay, what is it?"
"Charlie, your assistant." Buster paused with a deep inhalation and rested his knuckles against his lips.
John could feel his heartbeat in his stomach. Did she say something about me? I would never want her to feel uncomfortable. Oh, what did I do?
"We received a call from her parents early this morning," Buster continued, "and she was in an accident." He slowly shook his head and lowered his eyes. "She didn´t make it, John. She passed away in ICU late last night."
"Charlie? Charlie was in an accident?" John questioned, stunned and unable to absorb the news.
"Yes, Charlie. I´m terribly sorry. It´s a devastating loss for the entire department. I know how great she was around here and everything she…" Buster trailed off as he glanced around the office.
"Uncle John, I promise it will stay between us. I can´t take back what I´ve done and I need to know I can move on," Matthew broke in.
John set his mug on the table, his fingers laced through the handle, and looked out the kitchen window.
"Matt, sometimes we can´t move on. There are some things that cannot be taken back or changed.” He took a deep breath. “Sometimes wonderful people, ones we love, are taken away from us too early, without explanation, and the pain lingers," he admitted.
"I wasn´t referring to Aunt Helen," Matthew argued politely.
"Neither was I."