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I was sitting at the same table in the cafeteria that I always sat at, the one in the back. The tray I laid on the sticky surface carried my chicken patty, small salad, applesauce, and the plastic fork I always grabbed but never used. The pile of unused forks in my locker was steadily growing.
I was used to eating alone, and though at first I felt left out, I quite enjoyed it now. Being the third week of school, I was beginning to get even more homework than the loads I’d had when I first arrived. Lunch was my prime time to finish the hardest assignments, when the abundance of petty chatter surrounding me and intruding my concentration slowly became more like silence. I no longer noticed my loneliness while the other kids discussed their plans for the upcoming weekend or what happened the night before. I began to think of it as a blessing as I thought of all the brain cells I was saving from not having any gossip to listen to.
It was no different that Thursday, midday, when I laid down my tray. I pulled out my anatomy homework and spread it out over my table, marveling over the fact that I had a whole 12-seat table to myself while the tables surrounding me were overflowing and packed full of people sharing seats and pulling up chairs. To me, the day seemed to be completely normal and expected.
Then he sat down.
My hand stopped writing, my right foot stopped shaking, yet my head remained tilted downwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his faded blue sweatshirt. My eye traveled downward to his lunch tray, packed full to the point that I was surprised he didn’t break it on his way to my table. MY table. Why was he here?
Slowly I lifted my head. I could feel the stiffness in my neck release as I stretched it out, turning side to side. “Do you want something from me?” I asked in a somewhat rude tone I immediately regretted once I’d used it. If I wanted to make friends in this strange place, I needed to try to be friendly. Happy faces, smiles, the whole nine yards. I needed practice.
“Isn’t this lunch?” he replied curtly, taking a bite of his pizza, if that is what you call engulfing half of it at once.
“Yes. But this is my table,” I replied, picking up the piece of paper that I had been working on and folding it over into my book.
“Hmmm… well, I apologize for not seeing the sign telling me so. If you don’t mind I would like to eat my lunch in silence,” he claimed as the rest of his pizza disappeared down his freshly shaven jaws.
I was stunned into the silence he asked for. What gave him the right to come marching in here and stealing my solace in this desolate community? Who did he think he was, taking up all the space I now so desperately appreciated? My anger was rising, and I noticed that I had picked the fork up off of my tray and my knuckles were going white wrapped around it. My left leg began to shake, this time in frustration rather than concentration. I no longer had an appetite, either.
“Are you seriously that used to eating alone that me sitting here sends you into an angered frenzy? I can leave if you want. Those jocks over there that threatened to stuff me in the nearest trash can for wearing my new shoes look more inviting. Or maybe the table of cheerleaders—being new to this school, I bet I could catch up on the gossip. Make me feel more in the loop. Or wait—better yet—the table over there…” he continued on and on, listing several more things that I didn’t hear. I was caught up on one small detail he had exposed about himself.
“Wait. You are new here?” I said, dropping the fork to my plate and looking him in the eye for the first time. It was a mistake, I soon realized. His bright blue, clear eyes drew me in immediately. His dark, curly hair was tousled around his face, long enough to see the curls but not yet girly.
He took a breath in his speech, reached for his chicken sandwich and took a bite. “Yeah. Been here for an hour,” he said between swallows.
My thoughts turned from anger to curiosity. And slowly, more regret. I truly needed to stop jumping to conclusions. Wasn’t that what landed me here in the first place? “Oh. Well, sorry. So am I. I’m just not used to sitting with anyone at lunch.” I tried to explain away my problem. Again something I needed to work on.
He looked at me with a look of confusion on his face. “How long have you gone here?”
“Since the beginning of the year. About a month ago I drove up from Texas where I lived with my parents.” Immediately I wanted to take that fork I had and smack myself with it. I was giving away way too much information, and that was not something I normally did. And what was with my fascination with that plastic fork today? I never used it. Literally grabbed it in line, left it on the tray, and carried it to my locker at the bell.
“Wait. You have been here for a month and you still sit at a table alone? What, you have some disease I should be aware of?” he replied. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but that was some cruel joke it if was.
Luckily, the bell rang before I had to answer. I glanced at my uneaten tray and gathered my things into my bag before I got up to throw it away. He seemed to realize the conversation was over and hurriedly shoved his mouth full of the rest of his carrots and celery and downed his strawberry milk. As I walked, I realized I threw away the fork. Dang! A month strong before I messed it up. But the last fifteen minutes did more than mess up a silly habit.