Charlotte Quinn is six the first time I see her, with fine yellow hair and a pink birthmark she’ll have on her cheek til she’s ten. She uses her mom’s phone to document the world from three-and-a-half feet: milkweeds in a post-industrial lot, colours in a pool of spilled diesel, a piece of foil glimmering on the sidewalk like a crushed Christmas bauble. Hers is a world of strange beauties.
At thirteen she dyes a purple streak in her hair, and overnight her body grows and curls in all the right places. I knew her mom at thirteen, before her family moved away, but Charlotte is nothing like her. Charlotte bites her nails down to the quick and they bleed, and she is failing math but doesn’t care. Charlotte is going to be a singer, a star. She loves cotton candy indie pop—Tea Breeze, the Gecko Lips, Creamgeek, the Duckies.
At sixteen, Charlotte has a boyfriend named Jackson Marks, but everyone calls him Jax. Jax wears bracelets and rides tiny BMX bikes and doesn’t know how to spell “wierd,” even though he finds it is the best word to describe most things. She loves him because she is young, or because she’s a 70-30 straight-gay split and digs his David Bowie-style androgyny. Although, Charlotte doesn’t know who David Bowie is. She didn’t know the Nazis were real until that World War II epic was rereleased in digitally-enhanced 4D and the Holocaust started trending. But that’s kids these days.
When Charlotte goes on vacation to Montreal with her family, she writes, Jax baby I wish u wur here! and Jax u would luv this poutine! and there it is, 750 calories of cheese curds and potatoes sopping with grey gravy, and Charlotte will eat it all without gaining an ounce because she is sixteen and made of magic.
Charlotte Quinn shares what she is thinking. Like how she can’t stand the feeling of squeaky clean, is disturbed by the way soap makes skin stick momentarily to other skin. And how she wants to star in a horror movie, but only if she can play the victim and the hero, and only if she gets to scream.
Charlotte Quinn shares what she is dreaming. Primarily, of rooms. Of houses with secret passageways and hidden doors. Low ceilings and dim, flickering light bulbs. Beds still warm from sleep, with knobby old fabrics in cream and pale pink; stuffed animals in orgiastic piles. Every time she thinks she has seen all the rooms, she finds more. Desks covered in papers, papers covered in handwriting. Half-empty teacups, lukewarm.
It’s all given so easily. Charlotte’s relationships and hobbies, moods and dreams. Her various appetites. Reality Me™ virtually re-creating her multi-dimensional soul. Information compiled from everything she has ever said or done online and all those quizzes and questionnaires she loves to fill out. Mapped out in text, photos, videos, graphs, charts, maps and statistical analysis comparing her to everyone in her cohort. I watched Charlotte grow up, and now she is grown and I am still watching.
True, the data show her to be rather average: average IQ, average life expectancy, and average life satisfaction quotient, teenage moodiness taken into account. Slightly above-average popularity. But she is a personality type L, the equivalent of the antique Myers Briggs ESFP. Extroverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving, a lover of beauty and excitement, the kind of person who explodes like a firecracker all over your life.
A woman like Charlotte would never be into a guy like me, and that is precisely why I’m in love with her.
* * *
This is what the universe knows of Terrence J. Parker. I won an award for playing the saxophone in ninth grade (true) and I hold an undergraduate degree from MIT (untrue). I share my name with an attorney from Omaha, Nebraska and a football player from Detroit, Michigan. I have contributed nearly four hundred and twenty video game reviews to The Midway, the No. 1 video game site of 2019, which has gone downhill in the last few years (true). I have a receding hairline and, like Charlotte when she was younger, a birthmark on my right cheek. There’s nothing you can do to keep your mug off the Internet, although I have flooded it with digitally altered photographs of strangers, so good luck figuring out which one I am.
I fight the uncontrollable urge to disclose as much as possible. Mostly, I watch.
* * *
Charlotte is changing. She’s in a band, singing like a rock angel while playing guitar rather badly. She’s still with Jax, but she’s moodier with him, less affectionate. Charlotte is seventeen, a light flickering into adulthood, and I start to feel guilty about watching her. Remembering something a therapist told me once, I convince myself it is time to let go. For two weeks I do not check up on her. It’s almost impossible. I buy myself a box of Lindt chocolates and eat them one-by-one in the bathtub.
On my 42nd birthday my friend Kyle is supposed to come over with Chinese food but his kid banged his head off the coffee table and he had to take him to the hospital for stitches. I put on a collared shirt and go to a restaurant down the street. It’s early November but the place is already decorated with green and red Christmas lights, fake snow. The bartender, a woman about my age, asks if I want a menu. I blurt out that it’s my birthday. Well happy birthday, she says, expressionless. I order a pint of dark beer and a clubhouse sandwich with fries hold the tomato. You got it, she says, and turns her back to me.
I hadn’t counted on the mirror. I’m starting to lose my hair in a serious way and look too earnest in my stupid shirt with my ears sticking out. I force a grin.
The bartender returns with my beer and says cheers. She is about to turn away again so I say, Hey! and she stops, her eyebrows raised slightly in anticipation of some request. I ask for the first thing that comes to mind. Do you have any nuts?
A thin smile spreads across her face. Sorry, she tells me. But your sandwich shouldn’t take long. I watch her walk to the far end of the bar where she is chatting with a young couple sharing a plate of nachos. She gestures with her head in my direction. The female customer is leaning back on her barstool, her fingers grazing the nape of her boyfriend’s neck. Her eyes flick my way, and she stifles a laugh.
I am fire and ice and fire and Charlotte Quinn-aching. I want to scream but instead I eat my clubhouse so quickly it burns my heart.
I can’t get home fast enough. My hands are chapped from the cold, so I stuff them in my pockets. I have spent a long time wondering what I did to deserve a life with so little pleasure and again tonight I wonder.
Hacking into someone’s Reality Me™ account isn’t so difficult; the problem is that you only get a few minutes before the cyber cops figure out there’s been a breach. I’ve experimented plenty, but never wanted to risk it with Charlotte.
She has a new profile picture; she is looking down and her hair, now dyed the colour of ash, falls in front of her face like a screen to keep the world out. But I am already in. I want to take her on my lap and brush that hair from her face. I want to tell her she is the most—the only—beautiful one, and although I would not kiss her for fear of shattering her porcelain skin, I would brush her arms, her legs, gently.
I message her. Hey Char, I type, my fingers shaking. I know what Jax calls her, how he speaks.
An entire minute goes by before she responds.
Wuz up? she finally writes.
He wuz a jerk again @ dinner.
Shit, I say, and I can hear my heart thumping. She is talking about her mom’s boyfriend. Sorry, I tell her.
It’s too easy. The video bloops to life. Charlotte has her hair pulled back into a small, sweet ponytail. She’s wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and little makeup. She is not posing, just sitting there with a neutral expression, reaching for something out of the frame. I can see her bed, covered in a purple bedspread and a pile of clothes. There is a wholesomeness to her tonight that I have not seen for years.
Hey, she says, turning her attention to the computer. I can’t see you. Her voice is clean and clear.
I know, I type. Fixing it. Tell me sumthing.
She gives me the cutest smile I have ever seen, and I feel so powerful, like Gandalf, like Zeus. Then she shakes her head, still smiling. Her video cuts out.
I’ll feel funny, she types.
What? Why? You are so beautiful!
Ur weird today.
No, I’m not. My cat Mr. Briggs jumps onto my lap, meowing, and I push him away. He falls to the floor with a yelp. What can I tell her?
Sumthing’s up with u.
Dunno what you’re talking about, I say.
U aren’t Jax, she says.
What are you talking about? I write again. No, no, it can’t go this way. Mr. Briggs jumps up again and this time I throw him.
Say the secret word, Charlotte tells me.
I’m calling Jax now. And the c-cops.
Then she is offline and I am alone. I spend the night crying because I do not know the word.
Author photo by Pawel Dwulit.