Middle School

2 – Lunch

In biology, Mr. Cohen was explaining genetics. He was getting all the kids with brown hair and brown eyes to say what color hair and eyes their parents had, and making a chart on the board. Then he was doing it with kids who had different colored hair and eyes. Parents’ colors, kids’ colors. His point was to show what genes were dominant, which were recessive, and what happened when people who had these genes had offspring.

Chad was in this class. His hair was about half blond and half brown. I don’t mean it was streaked, I mean it was a very light brown. I was sort of daydreaming, watching him. I did a lot of that. I was afraid my grades might start slipping because in the classes I had with him, I wasn’t now paying as much attention as I used to. But I saw Mr. Cohen put Chad’s hair under the blond listing, his eyes in the blue category. I was going to have to check that out, his eyes. I hadn’t realized his eyes were blue. They must be really dark blue, I thought. Cool.

He put me with the red haired kids. I hated my hair. Red hair, and curly to boot. Hazel eyes. Big ears. Dork.

Just something else to be embarrassed about, red hair. Skinny and short, too. At least I didn’t have acne. Yet.

My mind got to wandering, half thinking about what Mr. Cohen was teaching us, half thinking about Chad. Thinking about red hair and brown/blond hair, and blue eyes and hazel eyes, and what the kids would look like. I was sort of far away in my own world of make-believe when the bell rang.

I didn’t know most of what had happened during the class! I’d probably missed some important stuff, but it didn’t bother me. I was kind of lucky because I was smart enough to be able to read the textbook and figure out what the teachers were explaining to us, most of the time. I hadn’t thought much about that before, but now I knew how lucky I was. This way, I was able to get away with watching Chad instead of paying attention.

We had lunch next. Lunch was a relief and a problem all at once. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, so I couldn’t sit wherever I wanted. I usually sat with the kids I’d also sat with last year, kids I was sort of friends with but not real good friends. None of them was anyone I hung with except during school, and then mostly at lunch.

It was the same group every day. Brittany, Ashley, Tom, Mario and me. We all came together at lunch mostly because we’d started doing so in sixth grade, and by the time we were in eighth, inertia having the effect it did, it just came natural. Not that I objected. Having someone to sit with at lunch was one of the most important things at middle school. If you had to sit by yourself, you weren’t only a nerd and a loser, you were an obvious nerd and a loser; everyone could see it plain as day and there was no hiding it. Sitting by yourself at lunch was to be avoided at all costs. Sitting with these guys was protection for me the same as it was protection for them. I didn’t know if the rest of these guys thought about that like I did. But they were all smart. They probably realized it just like I did. We might be called the brainiac table, or the nerd table, but once everyone else had categorized us, we were then accepted for what we were and left alone.

I was sitting next to Brittany. She was sort of good looking, and sort of heavy, and being sort of heavy was a real bad thing to be in middle school unless you were very outgoing and had self-confidence out the ying yang, which she wasn’t and didn’t. But I liked her, and had an idea she might have had a crush on me. I didn’t have one on her, but liked her well enough. Just not that way. I was a kid who might be gay. She was a girl. Maybe she liked me, and wanted to kiss me, and wanted me to do stuff to her. Eeewww.

I was sitting facing the serving line. A lot of kids brown bagged it, but the school did have hot food and a selection of sandwiches, four day old sandwiches from the looks of them, but even so, the kids who bought their lunch each day were in the majority. I usually brought mine. Mom made it for me and knew what I liked. Also, it was safer that way. The days they served fish, well, you never knew what day that was going to be and I brought my lunch.

Brittany was talking about a movie that was opening this weekend, and I was half listening, half watching the kids walking through the serving line making faces when they saw what was being offered. Chad walked in. He usually brought his lunch, too. I didn’t know for an absolute fact what every kid in the school usually did for lunch, whether they bought or brought, but I did know what Chad did. Chad usually brought one. Today, he picked up a tray.

I was thinking about that and watching him while Brittany was talking about the movie.

“I heard there’s sex in it even though it is PG. Some gory parts, too. Some kid at camp gets chased through the woods and you can’t see what’s after him but can hear this awful breathing.”

Chad was making the same sort of wrinkled-nosed look of disgust everyone else was making. I didn’t know what they were serving. I knew it wasn’t fish. No one had cracked open the windows and there was no barfing going on.

“… blood coming from his shirt, and then whatever it is rips his clothes off, and I heard you can see his thing when he’s lying there dead, just briefly, but I don’t really believe it because he’s about our age and I think there are laws about that so I don’t think …”

Chad bought a sandwich. I could see it on his tray, along with some chips and two of those little half-pints of milk and an apple. He paid and was staring out at the room. I took a quick glance and saw his usual table was full. He was late and no one had saved him a place.

“… water and one of the boys gets his bathing suit pulled off by these bullies and they throw it onto the dock where the girls are and all the girls are laughing and calling for him to come get his suit and you can see how he’s all embarrassed and trying to stay up in the water but he has to dog paddle and can’t with his hands in his crotch so he …”

Chad’s eyes met mine. There was an empty chair at our table. There were several empty chairs at our table, if you want the truth. There were every day. I started to look down so he wouldn’t see me watching him, but then didn’t. I met his eyes, and, to my surprise, sort of nodded at the empty chair next to me.

“… cabin has no privacy at all when they’re getting their pajamas on but the showers are even worse, just one big room, and three girls are showering all by themselves, everyone else is back in the cabins, and I don’t know how much they show in the movie, but they’re in the shower naked together, and if they show that part on that boy that’s killed maybe they show something with the girls, too, and you hear this breathing again, it begins to get louder …”

Chad is walking toward my table. It’s difficult for me to read his expression. He has sort of a smile, sort of an embarrassed grin, and reminds me of me when I’m trying to act really cool. He doesn’t need to act cool. He’s got cool down just naturally like A-Rod has his home run trot down; he seems to exude it from his pores. But I have the feeling he’s trying to look that way, look sort of nonchalant, anyway. Maybe he doesn’t know how cool he really is. That he doesn’t have to try. He’s already so cool.

“… cool and it starts and 7:30. That OK?”

“Huh?” She must have just asked me something. I was watching Chad as he maneuvered around the last table and was walking directly toward ours now. Don’t blush, I told myself. Just act natural. Don’t smile like you’ve just been told you have superpowers. Keep your eyes down. Look natural.

“I asked if that’s OK.”

“Oh, sure.” He was here. I said, “Hi,” smiled, and didn’t act crazy. Didn’t blush. I was so proud of myself.

He put his tray down and sat down. The thing was, we weren’t really friends, so this was a little awkward. And, I knew he was sitting here only because his own table was full. But I was about as happy as I could ever be. If I broke my leg walking out of the caf, I could still remember that he’d come over and sat down next to me and be happy, while I was screaming. I was sure I’d remember it for the next month, too, lying in bed getting to sleep at night. Maybe waking up in the morning, too.

He started chatting. I was glad he did, because I couldn’t have. I’m not glib. I’m not a lot of things, and glib is close to the top of the list. But he didn’t have any trouble at all just talking. I wished and wished and wished I could do that.

He talked, I filled in a word or two where I had to, and it was great. Then he started talking about the same movie Brittany had been talking about, and, I couldn’t believe it, asked if I was planning to see it. Was he asking me if I wanted to go with him? No, he couldn’t be. Could he?

Man would that be great, going to a movie with him. Just the two of us. But it was a little strange. Since we weren’t really friends, how would we do that? It would be almost like a date, but it wouldn’t be, either. I knew that.

What it would be would be a chance to get to know him better, and maybe to become friends, and I’d love that. I’d love it! Did this mean he wanted to be my friend?

I was still thinking about that when Brittany spoke up. “Marc and I are going Saturday night. We already made a date.”

Huh? We did? When? And then I realized I probably should have been listening a little closer when she’d been chatting to me while I’d been scoping out Chad in the lunch line.

I was looking at Chad when Brittany said that, and his face seemed to lose some of its animation. He didn’t look sad or anything, just not as enthusiastic as when he’d sat down.

What could I do? I didn’t want to go to the creepin’ movies with Brittany! I wanted to go with Chad! I’d never get the chance again if I blew this. Never! I just knew it. Arrrrrggggg!

Chad kept chatting like nothing had happened, but when he’d finished his lunch, he told me he’d see me around, then left.

I spent the next two days trying to think of a way to get out of the date with Brittany. I couldn’t think of a thing that wouldn’t be a lie or that wouldn’t hurt her feelings, and I didn’t want to do either of those. I kept thinking, but it didn’t do any good.

So, I went to the movies with Brittany. She was a nice girl. I was very comfortable with her, and even thought of things to say when I had to. We had fun. We did.

I walked her to her door, afterwards. I didn’t kiss her. I don’t know if she expected me to or not. It was my first date, but I hadn’t asked her, she’d asked me, and I hadn’t known it was happening at the time, when I’d agreed to go with her.

I was proud of myself that I hadn’t hurt her feelings by backing out. I was proud, but kept thinking I’d blown it big-time.

When I got home, I sat in my room, stewing, for the longest time, feeling sorry for myself. Then, to my surprise, I did something I never, ever, thought I’d have the nerve to do. But after sitting and feeling awful, I just did it. I picked up the phone book, looked up Wilkinson, found Chad’s number—does it sound dorkish to say I’d found out where he lived, and so knew his address—and dialed his number.

He answered the phone.

I’m not good on the phone, but I was feeling strange, and unhappy, and sort of desperate, and like I’d missed out on something really important, and it would have been too awkward, even for me, to call someone up and then not have anything to say, and so I forced myself to talk.

“Hi, Chad. It’s Marc. You know, from school?”

I heard him laugh. “Hi, Marc. Did you think I’d forgotten who you are since yesterday?”

“Uh, no. Not really. I just thought I’d call, and—” And what? Darn, this was hard. I didn’t know what to say to someone I didn’t know all that well. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. “—And, uh, well, you know.”

He obviously didn’t have a case of the awkwards like I did. He didn’t even seem to think it was weird I was calling him. “How was your date?”

“I just got back. I dropped Brittany off. Then I thought I’d call you.”

“Why?” He didn’t sound upset or anything, just curious.

“Uh, well…I called you because I wanted to talk.” I sounded nervous. To me I sounded nervous. I don’t know how I sounded to him.

“OK. Go ahead.” I’d swear I could hear a note of humor in his voice.

“Uh, Chad… .” Damn. I tried again. “Well, uh, what’s going on?”

He laughed. It sounded so good, I stopped being nervous. I guess I could have thought he was laughing at me, but I didn’t think that because it didn’t sound like that, somehow. It just sounded like he was happy.

“It’s almost 11 o’clock. What’s going on is I was thinking about going to bed.”

“Oh. Well, if that’s it… .” I wanted to hit myself in the head. I hated myself. I’d run out of small talk.

He was a much more comfortable talker than I was. “Marc?”

“Yeah?”

“How was the date?”

“It was fine. You know, she asked me, I didn’t ask her. She asked me, and we had a good time. I didn’t kiss her goodnight or anything.”

“Whoa. TMI. I’m glad you had fun. How come she asked you?”

“I guess she wanted to go out with me.”

“And didn’t you want to go out with her, too?”

“Well … I don’t know.”

“So why did you say yes then?”

“I didn’t know I had, at the time. I was distracted.”

“How’s that? A pretty girl asks you out, and you’re not paying attention?”

I finally realized where this was heading, and that I had to be careful. But I could do that, and this gave me the opportunity I’d been looking for to do some damage control. “We’re just friends, and just went to a movie together. Sort of like if I’d gone with you.”

“Oh, are we friends?”

Oops. I played that back about four times in a millisecond. No, it wasn’t sarcastic. It was, well, it sounded like it might have been…hopeful.

“I hope we are. I’d like to be.”

He was quiet a second, then said, “Me too, Marc.”

My great discomfort on the phone seemed to be disappearing. And for some reason or other, after he said that, it seemed to have vanished. I talked, and he talked, and it was like no problem at all. When I hung up that night, I caught a look at my bedside clock radio and the numbers on it said 1:02. Wow! Over two hours of talking.

I lay back on my bed. I felt exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. And very content with myself, for once.

I felt lighter than air, and like I was glowing. I started to smile and then couldn’t stop.