She walks into the lunchroom, feet following the rhythm of those of the three girls who walk in by her side. Veering through the mess of chairs and tables, this quartet makes their way to their favorite lunch line, with their favorite lunch lady.
“Ew, there’s water on this plate!” wails one of her friends.
“Oh my god, that’s gross…” agrees another.
She picks a wet plate up with two fingers acting as tongs, her nose wrinkled distastefully.
“This fork is bent!” Disgust has crept into her voice.
The lunch line, which barely stretches to the salad bar, creeps along sufficiently, but elongates as seniors weave in and out, grabbing cutlery and discreetly cutting the line.
Juniors, sophomores and freshmen do nothing but accept it, their eyes revealing annoyance but their mouths clamped shut. One look is all the seniors receive, along with the silence that feeds their self esteem and fuels their brashness.
As the quartet nears the serving line, she overhears conversations.
“How are you?” a boy inquires of the lunch lady. “Your hair looks great today,” comments another. “How’s your husband’s back, is he doing any better?”
She rolls her eyes.
“Can-I-get-chicken-and-broccoli-please-thank-you.” Every word is no different than the next.
She stands off to the side, waiting for the rest to get their food, and they all walk over to a table together, their steps falling into synchronization with ease.
As they eat, the food gradually leaves the plates; about half ends up in their mouths.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him enter the lunchroom, alone, marching along to his own beat.
Watches him grab a plate, make a sandwich and contemplate mayo or mustard, and sit down at a table by himself.
He takes a bite of the sandwich. Reaches for his phone. Scrolls and taps around for a few moments, and then stuffs it in his pocket. Chews the sandwich while looking down.
After a while, his eating slows down and he looks up, meets the eyes of his peers and nods in acknowledgement.
No redness behind the ears, no bashful duck of the head, taking his sweet time to finish every last bite of the sandwich.
Finally, when he’s good and ready, he gathers the crumbs on the plate, stands up and tosses the whole lot, and walks out of the lunchroom just as he walked in, marching along to his own beat.
She wonders, does he always eat alone like this? He normally sits at a table with other individuals. But watching him today, you’d never know that.
A shriek of laughter interrupts her train of thought, and her eyes refocus on her three friends sitting in front of her, chattering away about a new movie.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” one asks.
“I’m eating…why do we always have to be saying something?” she say through a mouthful of broccoli. Chew and swallow.
Her friend shrugs.
“Come on, I’m done. Let’s go,” another says.
The girl looks down at her half-picked chicken and sighs. She stands up with her friends and walks to dump her food.
A tray of leftover fries sits abandoned on a nearby table. Up ahead, she sees another plate of bread crusts and scraped peanut butter waiting idly.
So easily, she could just reach across while walking by…
But she pushes that thought away and follows her friends to the trashcans.