I’ve never been competitive. When I was a child, blowing gigantic bubble-gum bubbles was my idea of athleticism. Just the thought of team sports could reduce me to a quivering mass of anxieties: What if I got picked last? What if I couldn’t kick the ball straight? What if everyone made fun of me? By the time gym period rolled around, I would stumble onto the playground already defeated.

In high school I was caught cutting an entire semester of gym class. I told the principal that Aristotle believed gymnastics should be a matter of individual achievement, not team competition. The principal yawned and called my parents.

Now I’m forced to attend off-site corporate-bonding retreats where we learn to be “team players.” I always feel queasy beforehand, and crabby after I get there. I once asked a motivational speaker at one of these events what his own advice had wrought. He spread his arms wide and looked around the audience beaming, as though preaching to a room full of insurance salespeople were proof of his success.

Mechele Shoneman
Morganville, New Jersey

The summer I was twelve, I fought my first and only fight. Word had gotten to me that Shirley, who lived down the street, said I had been talking about her behind her back — a classic pretext for a fight. One day I was riding my bike when I saw her walking toward my house with my supposed friend Wanda. The deliberate manner in which they made their way down the block told me something was up.

I sped home and ran inside to tell my mother that Wanda and Shirley were coming to beat me up. I wanted to hide, but my mom sent me outside and locked the screen door behind me. She knew the rules of the street: you have to stand up for yourself.

I had no choice but to sit in the yard and try to look cool. I watched them approach out of the corner of my eye. As they stood over me, I pretended to be fascinated by the grass. Shirley started throwing leaves and twigs in my hair, and I threw them back onto her feet. She said she’d heard I’d been talking about her, but before I could respond, she jumped on me and started punching. In the distance I heard my mom cheering me on from the front door: “Get her, Theresa. Get her!”

I fought hard, but I didn’t stand a chance. Mom finally stopped the fight, sending Shirley and Wanda on their way. Then she welcomed me into her open arms, as if I’d just won a title bout.

Theresa Baultrippe
St. Paul, Minnesota

As a college freshman, I wanted to join a certain fraternity. Two guys I’d looked up to in high school were members, and I wanted to be part of their community of supportive, articulate, ambitious black men. I studied hard, became active in student groups, and attended as many of the fraternity’s functions as possible.

In spring of my sophomore year, fraternity “rush” was about to begin. Friends of mine were also planning to pledge the fraternity, and we talked about how we could support each other during the six weeks of hazing we’d have to endure. We all assumed we’d be invited to pledge.

On induction night, when the fraternity brothers came in person to invite applicants to pledge, the chapter president knocked on my door. “Sorry,” he said, “we just don’t feel like we know you well enough to invite you to join the brotherhood.” I was devastated and wondered how I’d face my friends, all of whom had called to tell me they’d been invited to pledge.

I later found out that I’d been turned down because some frat brothers didn’t want any “potential homos” in the chapter.

That rejection helped me come out of the closet and into self-acceptance. The following year, I received a chancellor’s award for being the most outstanding man in the junior class. I felt honored — and vindicated. A few years later, the fraternity’s president-elect announced in a chapter meeting that he was gay.

C. Brown
San Francisco, California

When I was a twelve-year-old girl in East Germany, an older friend taught me chess. He had learned the game while a prisoner of war, captured by the Russians during World War II. I was the only child of a single mother, friendless and stuck in a remote settlement. The attention he gave me seemed priceless, but it turned out there was a price: he had to win.

His winning didn’t bother me at first; after all, I was just learning. After a few months had gone by, however, I began to wonder why he didn’t let me win occasionally, just for encouragement. Why did he need such cheap victories?

I eventually grew angry and resolved to beat him. I memorized his moves and learned to recognize some simple tricks. I put him in positions I had been unable to resolve and watched how he extricated himself. Finally the day came when I won. He shook his head, speechless. I felt a deep satisfaction.

I’d been raised by a mother preoccupied with survival, amid social turmoil and poverty. I grew up feeling rejected by her family, who shunned us because Mom had left my father. Around the age of ten, I’d become fiercely competitive in an effort to prove my worth. Winning made me feel secure in that atmosphere of great insecurity, but it also concealed a deep sense of worthlessness.

Did my chess teacher, dehumanized by Hitler’s army and Stalin’s prison camps, have similar reasons for wanting to win, even over an adolescent girl?

Now I feel only empathy for both of us.

Sigrid McLaughlin
Santa Cruz, California

Every summer since we moved to Texas, my husband, Levi, and I have driven thirty hours to upstate New York to visit his parents. Although they have a fine house, we sleep outside, in a tent my in-laws bought for us, because Levi is allergic to Patches, their beloved dog. They came up with this solution after two trips to the emergency room to treat Levi’s severe allergic reactions.

Our visits have grown shorter each year. At night we quickly get into the tent and try to zip it up without letting the bugs in. Then we lie on top of our sleeping bags and sweat in the eighty-five-degree heat.

One night we heard the sliding glass door open and Patches scurry down the steps. He sniffed around the tent, then chose a spot near our heads to relieve himself. After he’d darted back into the air-conditioned house, he sat at the glass door, looking down upon us. I swear he was smirking.

Tammy R.
Houston, Texas

It begins innocently enough. An old girlfriend of my husband’s sends him an e-mail, which he shares with me. “I hope you remember me,” it reads. “We knew each other in college for about three years.”

“What do you mean we ‘knew each other’?” he writes back. He asked her to marry him, and she broke his heart.

More e-mails pass back and forth, and my husband shares them with me less and less. He begins talking to her by phone. It has been forty years since he’s heard her voice, but it sounds the same, he says. She has been married twice, has one child, and is recently divorced and back in their old hometown.

One night I come home late and find him crying by the phone — gut-wrenching sobs from some deep, forgotten place. Hunched over his desk, his head in his hands, he tries to explain his feelings. He doesn’t regret marrying me, he says, but he is still tormented by their long-ago breakup. I listen and try to be sympathetic. It is hard to hear him talk about how his life might have been different, if only. I don’t exist in that “if only.”

They decide to see each other in person. They need it “for closure,” or “to honor their time together,” or “to see if there is anything there.” Pick one.

“Who knows,” my husband says to me, “maybe we can all be friends.”

The day of his departure, he gets up early to pack. I don’t feel like his wife, but like a daughter seeing her father off on his first date after a divorce. As he heads for the airport, I sit at the table in my pajamas and hang on to my coffee mug as if it were a life raft on a storm-tossed sea.

I could lose him. Maybe I already have.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

In the last seven years, I have left a well-paying job to raise my children; moved from Georgia to Quebec, Canada; survived breast cancer; and begun a new career as a yoga instructor. I’m happy with my life, but I sometimes lose sight of my accomplishments, especially when I compare myself to others.

A woman in my book club is a self-proclaimed “overachiever.” She has a successful career; three lovely children; a handsome, supportive husband; a gorgeous home (and a vacation home); and plenty of money. All before turning forty. At our recent book-club meeting, this overachiever talked about her career problems. She’d interviewed for a high-ranking television job but knew she wouldn’t get it, and this had her in a funk. Her story sparked a discussion about careers. When I didn’t speak up, the overachiever asked how my yoga teaching was going. I said I enjoyed it, though I hadn’t started to charge for classes yet.

I felt like a loser. The sense of competitiveness ruined what I’d hoped would be an intimate evening with friends.

I’d like to blame the overachiever, but I know it’s my own definition of winning that keeps me from enjoying life.

Marci B.
Montreal, Quebec

I’m attending a high-school cross-country track meet, waiting to see one of my children compete. Right now they’re running the girls’ 5K race. Because part of the course is wooded, we lose sight of the runners for much of the competition.

Ten minutes into the race, the lead runners emerge from the woods, and the other parents and I stop chatting and pay attention. As they get closer, I notice that one of the girls in the lead is at least a hundred pounds overweight. How is this possible? I think.

As the runners cross the finish line, the overweight girl veers to the left and continues around the track. She has completed only one lap of the two-lap race. We’ll have to wait for her to finish before the next race can begin.

Maybe some parents are thinking about getting home late for dinner, but I’m thinking about that girl out there all alone, how she didn’t look at any of us as she plodded by in her jersey and shorts. The tension is palpable, and a few spectators make jokes, but mostly it is quiet. I think about the courage it takes for her to keep going. Could I do that?

Fifteen minutes later, the overweight girl comes into view, and her teammates run to her, yelling her name. As she crosses the finish line, she is surrounded by dozens of cheering fans.

Anjelina Citron
Bellingham, Washington

In 1987 I went to prison as a sex offender. I met good people in prison and developed a better attitude. The question was, could I maintain that positive attitude following my release?

After I got out in 2003, I moved in with Manny, an old friend of my father’s, who lived in a filthy house and rarely got up from his La-Z-Boy recliner. I served as caretaker and housecleaner, and also paid my share of the bills. Manny complained about my cleaning, and we argued constantly about the pointless errands he insisted I do. I worked hard to control my anger, reminding myself that punching an old man not only was wrong, but would get me sent back to prison.

Finally Manny arranged for a woman to move into the spare bedroom rent-free in exchange for cleaning the house. As I’d done with Manny, I told Patrice I was a sex offender on probation and that I didn’t want any trouble with her. At first she was wary, but eventually we became friends.

One evening I walked in on a heated argument between Patrice and Manny. I tried to referee, but it was too late. Patrice threw a vase at the wall, called Manny a “fucking idiot,” and stormed out. Manny then turned his rage on me. I asked him why he made it so hard for people to try to help him. “I don’t need your fucking help!” he shouted. “I could fuck up your life, you know.”

“Go ahead,” I said, and I went outside to find Patrice. We stood together, staring up at the stars. When we heard Manny’s voice inside, Patrice crept to the window to eavesdrop. “He’s on the phone talking to a cop about you,” she said.

I felt sick. I hadn’t done anything illegal, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be arrested. Even if I was immediately released, my probation still would have been violated. I’d been an idiot. Maybe I deserved to go back to prison.

A cruiser pulled up, its lights flashing. Then a second one. I thought of my friends back in prison, the lifers who’d had faith that I’d succeed in rebuilding my life. A third cruiser showed up. I hadn’t failed those friends, nor myself, I assured myself. I’d done the best I could. When a fourth cruiser arrived, I pulled out paper and pen and wrote down my father’s number to give to Patrice. I asked her to call him if I was arrested.

The sheriff’s deputies were in the house for fifteen minutes. We could hear Manny shouting. When they came out, a deputy explained that Manny was trying to have us evicted, which was a civil matter, not a criminal one. “You guys had better move out,” he said. “The guy you’re living with is a real nut.”

As they drove off, Patrice lit two cigarettes and gave me one. My hands trembled, but at least I knew I wasn’t going to lose my freedom again. Eventually we’d have to go back into the house and endure Manny’s profanities, but for now we could enjoy the cool night.

David W.
St. Petersburg, Florida

Our family didn’t have money, but my sister and I attended an expensive Catholic girls’ high school on scholarship. I loved the old buildings, the tree-filled campus, and the statue of a teenage Mary looking thoughtful, holding a book and a sewing basket. Many girls wore expensive overcoats on the bus, but at school our uniforms allowed me to forget the differences in our home lives.

In my junior year Mother Connelly began teaching English. She was young and confident, much cooler than the other nuns, and I longed to be noticed by her. Unfortunately I was assigned to Mother Morrison for English. I listened enviously as my friends talked about the creative assignments in Mother Connelly’s class. After school, as we waited for the bus, Mother Connelly chatted and laughed with the popular girls in their pricey coats.

That spring Mother Morrison submitted an essay I’d written for her class to a schoolwide contest. At our Monday assembly a few weeks later, Reverend Mother announced the essay-contest winner. When I heard my name, I was both thrilled and paralyzed with fear. Unsure whether to smile or look serious, I walked to the stage to receive my medal.

After the assembly, Mother Connelly approached me and said, “I want to see you in my office in an hour.”

Finally she had noticed me. Perhaps she wanted to congratulate me on winning the contest. After math class I hurried to her office.

“I am appalled,” she said when I walked in. “Don’t you know how to act when you receive a prize? You walked up there giggling like a fool.” I had been an embarrassment to the school, she told me. Not once did she mention my prizewinning essay.

“Thank you, Mother,” I said, which was what we were supposed to say when corrected, and she dismissed me. I spent the rest of study hall rummaging in my desk and fighting back tears. I began to think she was right. I was a fool. (I now think she was just mad that one of her students hadn’t won.)

At a graduation party, the seniors did a takeoff on Cole Porter’s “Too Darned Hot”: dressed as devils, they pretended to break the rules and sang, “We thought we were cool / but we’ll never be cool, / because it’s too darned hot.”

It was funny, but not true. They were cool. Even if they talked in the halls, or got caught wearing cashmere sweaters under their uniforms, or never learned to write a decent essay — it didn’t matter. Their success in life was guaranteed.

Lynne Davis
Carbondale, Illinois

At the racetrack we call them “stoopers” — the vagabonds who pick up tickets scattered on the ground in hopes of finding a winner carelessly tossed away. They pump pocketfuls of discarded tickets through the teller machines, hoping for a win of $2.20 here or $1.40 there.

One afternoon, I watched a hapless soul chase a solitary, wind-blown ticket as if it were the last train out of damnation, and I thought, This guy is here every day. How pathetic. Then I realized that I was here every day too.

I trudged to the window and placed another bet.

Steve N. Kobashigawa
Los Angeles, California

My husband, David, works in maintenance at a local nursing home, and I home-school our children. We’re both college graduates, but you wouldn’t know it by our earnings. We struggle financially to raise our eight children.

At family gatherings, we sit out the ritual of showing off expensive new cars. Our old car is held together by duct tape and coat hangers. Unlike our many siblings, we don’t own a home. My husband worries that we are the butt of family jokes. I wonder if they even think of us at all.

Among our siblings and their children, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, and out-of-wedlock births are the norm. Our teens don’t swear, drink, use drugs, or even care much about hairstyles or clothes. Our oldest launched a small business with his own money. Our daughter waited until she was married to have sex and now stays home with their two children and writes and reads voraciously. The two teens who are still at home have jobs and spend their leisure time reading, caring for their animals, and playing with their younger siblings. Once in a while I feel a twinge of jealousy when I see all my siblings’ and in-laws’ possessions, but mostly I’m grateful for how well my children are turning out. I see us as winners, no matter what others think.

Mary K.
Dyersville, Iowa

In my grammar school, the gym teacher was a seventy-eight-year-old man from Denmark whose idea of physical education had been shaped by his service in the Danish army. We spent most of our time marching. Before we could begin to march, however, we had to line up properly. The teacher chose the tall, thin, blond-haired, blue-eyed students to march in front and serve as models for the rest. The shorter, heavier, and darker you were, the closer to the back of the line you were placed. The little Latino kid always brought up the rear.

Brown-haired and a little chunky, I was never a line leader, but I also wasn’t stuck in the back with the kids who, we all knew, weren’t quite as good as those up front.

Sue Davis
Ventura, California

Charlie was my first love. I was twenty; he was forty and had left a trail of broken hearts behind him. Harvard-educated, he would recite poetry to me, staring at me the whole time with his dark, hypnotic eyes.

When I left for college, all I could think about was Charlie. I was indifferent to the boys who expressed an interest in me, no matter how kind or gentlemanly they were. They seemed to embody the adage that “nice guys finish last.”

The next summer Charlie announced that he didn’t love me. Devastated, I asked for a hug before he left. Holding me by the arms so I couldn’t move, he gave me a long, forceful kiss, then walked away.

It took me a year to get over him, but I did. I went through a series of relationships after that, some with hard breakups, but nothing like what I’d endured with Charlie.

Then I met Sam, who was utterly different from my first love: kind, decent, and openhearted. After Sam and I became engaged, Charlie heard the news and came to visit me. He told me he wanted us to start spending time together again and asked how I felt about my fiancé, compared to the way I’d felt about him.

“I felt miserable and neurotic around you, and I feel peaceful and happy around him,” I said.

Then Charlie asked for a hug.

Name Withheld

My older brother Michael was of slight-to-average build, but to my eye he was big and intimidating. He was always bragging about beating people up and threatening to do the same to me. Many times he made good on his threats.

From an early age Michael displayed strange behavior, such as tricking me into drinking his urine. Whenever I told my mother something he’d done, Michael would deny it, and she’d accuse me of lying to get attention. I once hid from Michael in the bathroom, and he dismantled the doorknob to get at me. My mother said I must have done something to antagonize him.

Michael had asthma and had been labeled “emotionally disturbed,” so my mother protected him and tolerated his bizarre antics. Whenever I acted out to get her sympathy, I only got punished. I was the “bad one.” He was the “sick one.”

Because I got so little attention at home, I became attached to any adult who treated me nicely. More often than not, this led to some sort of abuse. My self-esteem sank lower, and my mother became even less tolerant of my misbehavior.

My brother and I both ended up in juvenile-detention facilities. Each time Michael was locked up, my mother visited him regularly and sent him money and gifts. Upon his release, she always had a big homecoming planned. When I was released, my mother barely spoke to me and walked swiftly to the car. Struggling to carry all my belongings, I practically had to run to keep up with her.

Michael was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in prison. But my mother never gave up on him.

I recently discovered that my drug-addicted brother has HIV. I have been semi-estranged from both him and my mother for years, hearing from them only when they need money. I escaped the pain of my upbringing and have an education, a home, and a loving family.

So why don’t I feel like I’ve won?

Tanya R.
Chula Vista, California

I’m a winner, lying here in my warm bed, listening to the cold wind rattling the glass door.

I’m a loser, here in this tiny rental with no room for my books and art supplies.

I’m a winner, watching sunsets color the sky above the marsh in ways my paintbrush could never capture.

I’m a loser, living alone after thirty-two years in an unhappy marriage.

I’m a winner tonight, with a sweet, soft-spoken man sleeping beside me.

I’m a loser, having been diagnosed with cancer six years ago.

I’m a winner, having survived.

I lie awake thinking of all the losers trying to sleep in the cold, windswept places on earth. I pray for them, here in my warm bed.

Paula Marston
Fremont, New Hampshire

When I was a senior in college I received my sorority’s award for “the sister who best represented the sorority on campus.” My winning was not a surprise. I’d made dean’s list, been president of Panhellenic (the all-sorority organization), and been tapped for numerous other honors. What did surprise me was that I shared the coveted award with Kathy, the president of our sorority.

I really liked Kathy; everybody did. She was always pleasant and friendly and carried out her responsibilities gracefully. But she was unknown outside the house, and thus not really qualified for the honor. I’d earned the award by excelling. She’d gotten it because she was popular.

I wanted to make people like me, too, but I didn’t know how. My face didn’t naturally settle into a smile, and I generally said what I thought instead of what people wanted to hear. Only later would I realize what I should have said.

I’m still the same way: respected, admired, but not as often liked. I’m someone people fall in behind, but don’t necessarily warm to. I’ve tried to become friendlier and more responsive, but I can’t seem to let down my guard or pick up on subtle cues. I feel like Al Gore in the 2000 election: I’m smarter and more accomplished, but the other guy wins.

Nancy Wick
Seattle, Washington

My husband and I are filmmakers who’ve done environmental documentaries. Recently we were invited to a huge fundraising party for an environmental-education nonprofit. I secretly hoped a party guest might offer to underwrite our next film. On the way there, we discussed whether we’d have to rob our meager savings to get through the holidays.

The party was at a billionaire’s mansion, where the décor was flawless and the food and drink were plentiful. A silent auction featured everything from European vacations to diamond jewelry. No one seemed to be talking about environmental issues. I wondered if these patrons understood the origins of the diamond jewelry for which they were bidding. Did they know of the exploitation involved in mining diamonds? How many of these people, who had so much, had ever attempted to conserve anything?

I felt reluctant to mingle and was more comfortable talking with the people serving hors d’oeuvres than with the ones eating them. After a couple of drinks we left to go to the seventieth-birthday party of a cameraman we know. There we felt at home.

As I climbed into bed that night, class distinctions were still on my mind. In my dreams I befriended the billionaire hosts of the fundraiser. We walked around the mansion chatting like old friends while I cleared away dirty glasses and plates.

Name Withheld

In junior high, I hung two posters in my room: one of boxer Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, who’s lying flat on his back in the ring; and one of actress Jaclyn Smith, of Charlie’s Angels fame, in a clingy nightgown.

When friends asked about the Muhammad Ali picture, I would talk about the courage Ali had shown, becoming a conscientious objector after being drafted to fight in Vietnam, and his friendship with Malcolm X. But I wasn’t really drawn to this image for political reasons. What I loved was the pure, visceral power on display. To me it represented victory. I’d had some small experience with winning and longed for the intoxication of it, the shuddering thrill of conquest.

Come to think of it, the Jaclyn Smith poster represented the same thing.

Greg Priest
San Francisco, California

My best friend in elementary school had it all. Her mother made her fabulous clothes; she got to read Forever, a racy novel by Judy Blume; and she had dozens of Barbies and all the best accessories. In contrast my mom made me practical clothes in bland, neutral colors, and thought Forever and Barbie dolls were too sexy.

Every spring our school held races in which all students had to compete. The competitors were divided according to grade level, and then by running ability: slow, medium, and fast. Each year I was in the fastest girls’ heat, and my friend was in the slowest. She always won her heat; I never won mine.

For the fourth-grade races, I practiced hard. This year I wanted the blue ribbon. In the trials to determine the fastest runners, I came in second, which strengthened my resolve to win.

On race day I ran as fast as I could, but the girl who’d come in first in the trials still beat me. After I was awarded the red ribbon, I saw my best friend with her blue ribbon. Sensing my disappointment, she whispered, “It’s easy to win; just run really slow in the trials.”

Lara Simmons
Seattle, Washington

Growing up in Africa, my five-year-old daughter is keenly aware of her privileges. One day we passed a truck with bars along the side. It was loaded with men, women, and children, their expressions beyond hope or despair. “They’re like animals in a zoo!” my daughter said.

Their homes had been demolished in the Zimbabwean government’s Operation Clean-Up, a crackdown on illegal dwellings and street-vending intended to drive poor people out of the nation’s capital. An estimated hundred thousand people — including the elderly and people with HIV and AIDS — have lost their homes. Many came to the city in search of a livelihood and don’t have the money to return to their rural homelands.

Today my daughter and my husband come home from grocery shopping with three feather dusters and tell me the story of how they got them: as they loaded the groceries into the car, a man approached them, looked nervously around, and whispered, “Feather duster?” My husband says it reminded him of being offered crack at Grand Central Station.

My daughter loves using her feather duster when she helps the housekeeper. “Isn’t it good that we bought these?” my daughter says. “The man didn’t have any money to get home, but now he does.” I picture him sitting outside a hut in the African bush, the ground dry and cracked. He has nowhere else to go.

Judith Sherman
Dulles, Virginia

In his fifty years, Bill hadn’t gotten far by most people’s standards. He had little schooling, and he parked cars at a second-rate restaurant. I parked cars there too, but I was just a kid. It was 1959.

As I moaned about the heat one July night, Bill shared some wisdom: “Did you ever plop a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle of a cantaloupe and eat it on a hot summer day? Now, that’s nice.”

I tried it, and it was nice. Damn nice.

He called his small house a “castle,” his run-down car “Sweet Bess,” and his plain-looking wife “God’s jewel.” I thought of other adults in my life: a doctor who was leaving his wife and kids for his nurse; a rich salesman who couldn’t stay sober. Bill parked their Caddies and MGs, and they tipped him half a buck — a buck if they were drunk — and smiled at him as if he were some poor soul, never realizing he had the peace they yearned for.

Carl Koestner
Albuquerque, New Mexico

My father taught me to play chess when I was nine. He commented on my moves, explaining which ones were careless and which were strategic, always emphasizing that you had to think two or three moves ahead. The first time I beat him, he nodded and said, “Not bad, kid.”

A few years later my mother left my father for another man. My father started cruising the bars every night with a baseball bat under his car seat, and some mornings I’d find him passed out in the driveway. I began setting up the chessboard and challenging him to a match each evening after supper. It didn’t matter whether he got me in checkmate; if he stayed home, I won.

Name Withheld

I was a skinny, cross-eyed runt of a kid. The Irish nuns and priests at school told me I was unteachable and bound for an early death, which would make the world a better place. I was illiterate until my eighth-grade English teacher taught me to read using hot-rod magazines. In exchange, my mother had him and his male partner over to dinner every Wednesday night. My homophobic father never noticed anything unusual.

When I was twelve, an operation straightened my eyes, and in high school I was allowed to attend classes with the “normal” students, one of whom asked, “What are you doing in here? You’re so dumb you can’t even talk to yourself.” What saved me was my aptitude for math. Brother Lawrence, our geometry teacher, would call on me to explain theorems. To my surprise, I could.

Over the next three years I aced every math, chemistry, and physics test I took. There was a chart on the classroom wall, made to look like a horse race, that showed each student’s cumulative score. On parents’ night, when another parent asked my mother where my horse was, she proudly pointed to the finish line, far ahead of the pack.

Every year at graduation, the best math-and-science student in the senior class received an award, but the year I graduated, no award was given out. Maybe they couldn’t stand to see a loser like me beat all the rest. I was too busy planning to run away with my pregnant girlfriend to care.

My marriage right out of high school put an end to my mother’s dream of college for me, but I believe if I hadn’t gotten married and started having children, I would have ended up dead as my teachers had predicted. Four of my best friends from childhood died before the age of thirty. I am glad to be a loser and alive.

Daryl Rush
Piedmont, California

The checkout line at the supermarket was moving slowly. I hoped the well-dressed young man in front of me would speed things up; he had only two items. When it was his turn, the cashier rang up his purchases: a pregnancy test and a lottery ticket.

I silently wished him luck.

Dale Horton
Gresham, Oregon

My Siamese cat died in May. A month later, my friend and mentor passed away. Then my house was struck by lightning, frying both my answering machine, which held old messages from my late friend, and my Internet connection, which I needed for my job. It didn’t matter anyway, because I soon lost my job, having unwittingly trained my replacement in Bangalore, India. To cheer myself up, I bought a big orange chrysanthemum. Carrying it home, I fell and twisted my ankle.

After my ankle felt better, I went to the gym, where my MP3 player got stuck on the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow.” I threw it in the trash on my way out. In the parking lot my car’s right front tire was flat.

When my computer’s hard drive crashed, I decided it was a sign: everything ends; some doors have to close for others to open. That evening the long-lost love of my life left a message on my new answering machine. I called back, envisioning a renewed romance. Instead, he told me he was getting married on New Year’s Eve.

It’s hard all right, this life. But I’m not beaten yet. Today I bought a new iPod and an Ace bandage for my ankle, potted what was left of the mum, made plans for New Year’s, and restored my hard drive. Then I wrote this.

Kimberly Hodges
Annapolis, Maryland