Nine Years Ago
Kaizen knew his father by all the times Kaizen had needed guidance and gotten nothing. There was a vast emptiness marking those places in his life where he thought his father should have been. A parent to attend parent-teacher conferences. A teacher to help him with his math homework. A friend to play catch with on the everlasting summer days.
None of the people entering the Mercado house were ever Kaizen’s father. There were the rich men, like the banker with his sleek gelled hair and tittering words. Then there were the poorer men, such as the mailman with freckles and an Irish lilt. None were too poor, mind you. They all had to pay.
Some would stay the evening, although others left before. They never stayed more than one night. Kaizen didn’t see them too often, except when one caught his eye and sneered. “Bastard child,” they would say.
Kaizen had never known his father. And, he figured, he would have preferred not to have known his own mother. It was all easy work for Kai’s mother; after all, she traveled with the billowing beauty of a thousand butterflies. It was just that beneath it all, she was hollow—nothing but a husk, devoid of her once overwhelming passion.
Then there were all the children at school whom he struggled to ignore. The ones who knew all too well what sort of household Kaizen came from. “Is it true your mother slept with the mailman?”
Kaizen couldn’t wait to go to college.
Four Years Ago
He skipped seventh grade. He also skipped ninth. And then he was fifteen and a senior, praised for his brilliance and unwavering work ethic. After all, he wouldn’t be getting a scholarship to an Ivy with only a 2370 on his SAT, or anything below an A+. He also had to take his APs, and maybe he would take the ACT too, if he got the chance. Then again, it didn’t need to be an Ivy; it just had to be far away.
His daily routine had become fixed: wake up, go to school, go home, do homework, grab dinner, study, sleep.
Sometimes he saw his mother.
Sometimes he even spoke to his classmates.
Usually, however, he went through the days in a daze. Days blended into weeks and weeks blended into months until he found himself in the running for valedictorian.
The day he went home to tell his mother, she wasn’t there—just like usual, he reminded himself. He was sorry he had thought she might care. Sorry he had thought things might be different once he had done something she could be proud of. He decided he would give her the silent treatment for a week.
In the end, he wasn’t sure if he was the one ignoring her, or if she was the one ignoring him.
Then he got a seventy on a test, and his teacher asked if everything was alright.
He told her everything was fine, thanks. He liked her a lot; she was the first person who really seemed to care. She was the first person he had said anything to in a while, and he hadn’t felt that good in a long time. He went home with a smile on his face.
When he finally got the nerve to ask her mother to sign his college applications, she was silent. And then:
“You want to go to college?”
He didn’t respond.
“There are schools that want to admit you?”
Silence. He could see her shock, and maybe just a bit her pride.
“Look at you. All grown up, and going to college….” She shook her head, smiling absentmindedly. Neither she nor her parents had received anything past a high school education.
Kai looked away, hating her happiness. As if she had ever done anything for him. He left, ignoring what she said afterwards. He would not be like her, ever.
Standing at the podium, Kai addressed his valedictory speech to the faces he had never seen, the parents of students he didn’t know. He swallowed the sudden urge to call his mother and ask her to come. He knew how things would go. There was a reason why he had told his mother that there was no graduation ceremony.
“…. A Roman Censor named Appius Claudius Caecus once said, ‘Every man is the architect of his own fortune.’ When I go to Brown this fall, I will be a first-generation college attendee. Every one of you here today can be a first. Moving forward from today, remember that you are the architect of your own fortune. Thank you for coming, and best of luck.” And then people were clapping—for him!
He stood there, gaping at the applause.
Three Years Ago
He was trying to juggle three jobs whilst studying for his midterms. He needed to maintain at least a 3.8 GPA in order to keep his scholarship. It wasn’t that it was difficult, really, to keep up his grades—after all, he didn’t have any friends to distract him. It was just that…
Sometimes, he wondered what he was working towards.
Three Months Ago
He was a senior in college, and had been offered a place in medical school. This time, when applying, he forged his mother’s signature. He never called her, going home during winter and summer vacation only because the dorms were closed. Even then, he rarely spoke with her.
Three Days Ago
Kai’s phone rang.
“Kaizen, I’m waiting for you outside.”
“Doesn’t term end today? I can’t have you wasting my money on transportation fees.” As if she even paid his bus fare.
“Mom, I’m staying here until graduation. What are you talking about?”
“Look, Kai, we don’t have time to negotiate. “
Kaizen hung up.
He’s still not sure what happened after that. It wasn’t as if she knew which dorm he was in. Then again, he figured she was probably drunk. Maybe she was prank calling him from home. Yes, that had to be it; she couldn’t possibly be waiting outside in the cold. No, he shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving her outside.
Three Hours Ago
Kaizen was valedictorian again.
Again, his mother wasn’t there.
He repeated the words of Appius Claudius Caecus. It was just like the speech of years before. After all, little had changed. Even when given a new beginning, he had made no friends. It was best to just be unknown; that way, nobody could ask him why his parents never called or sent letters or came to visit. Nobody could ask why his mother wasn’t here listening to his speech.
“Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”
He had imagined four years ago that things might have changed when he came to Brown. That he might have changed his own fortune. Were the words he was speaking even true? He panicked, momentarily, before reminding himself: I—I am valedictorian.
His mind just observed, watching as he recited his speech in a calm, emotionless, and self-assured tone as if he weren’t screaming at himself to run, run right now, because there was nothing here for him.
Three Minutes Ago
The first (and only) person to congratulate him was his physics professor, who shook his hand, saying, “Congratulations, Kaizen.”
He pronounced his name to rhyme with “raisin.”
Kaizen nodded, and walked away. Away from the auditorium, and away from the families who were full of life and pride and happiness. He didn’t have any friends here. In all four years of college, he had made not a single acquaintance.
I—I am in control, he reminded himself. I’m going to go to medical school and get a degree, and then I’ll earn enough money to support myself. I will be strong and alone. Alone because I want to be. Not alone because I’m friendless or heartless or hated or unknown or—
He rinsed his face in the dorm sink and glanced at the mirror. Looked away. He hated seeing his own face. It was so similar to his mother’s, what with his sharp nose, high cheekbones, and weary brown eyes.
Three Seconds Ago
He bumped into a wayward junior who glared at him. The junior saw Kai, the Kai of nine years ago. Or maybe he recognized the face of Kai’s mother, who had been on campus only days ago. Hurrying away, Kai realized what it was that he had been looking for.
Ambling across campus, he searches the skyline. He wonders which building would ensure for him a fatal fall. He wonders if he will feel the impact, and if it will hurt. He wonders if his life will flash before his eyes.
Nobody will miss him. Nobody will miss Kay-zin, because he never existed. Nobody will miss Kaizen, because nobody knew him.
Three Seconds Later
He will be climbing a set of stairs. He will think he is preparing to die. But instead, it turns out that he will be too afraid to jump, too afraid that he will jump and not die.
Three Minutes Later
Instead, he will be writing a suicide note. He will be planning to hang himself in his closet—but would suffocation hurt? If nothing else, he is afraid of pain. Always, he has not wanted to feel pain.
Three Hours Later
He will not believe that he is alive three hours later. He will be upset, then scared, and then just exhausted. For him, this has been a long, long day.
Three Days Later
Kaizen will have left school and gone home. He will have received an information packet with forms to fill in order to enroll in medical school. He will not know what to do.
Three Months Later
Kaizen will still be alive. He will not yet have had the nerve to kill himself.
Sometimes, living is an act of cowardice.
Not speaking to your mother is an act of cowardice.
He does not want to know what it is that his mother does. He has never wanted to think that his mother cares, and that she tried—that she gave herself up in raising him. After all, he has wanted to distance himself from her, always.
Three Years Later
He will be in medical school, and he will have to take a class on gynecology. The professor will say to the class:
“Your mother sacrificed a lot to have you. Probably still is sacrificing a lot.”
All that calcium and oxygen. All those antibodies and vitamins. And maybe much, much more. Kaizen almost sends a mothers’ day gift this year.
Four Years Later
Kaizen will go on his first date, with the girl he thinks is the love of his life. He won’t be sure how it happened. After all, that’s how relationships work. But then he’ll break up with her, and feel the pain of losing the only one he ever loved.
He will wander, for a time. Perhaps he will lose many jobs. He will see within himself the emptiness he has seen in his mother.
He will call her, on the phone, for the first time in a long time.
“Thank you.” He will have said these words for the first time in two decades.
Nine Years Later
He will have a daughter. He will have married and divorced. He will be a practicing doctor, and he will love his child more than anyone else in the world.
When she grows older, he will see bits of himself in her.
Maybe, for a long time, she will not speak to him. But then he will speak to her, because he does not want her to go through the pain that he did. He will take her to see his mother, and he will have his mother move in with them. No longer will he be ashamed of her, because he himself will have chosen wrong and done wrong, time and time again.
Sometimes, when he is tired, he will look up at the skyline. Holding his daughter’s hand, he will ask her how marvelous it would be if they could fly.
Jennifer Lee, Age 14, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Gold Key