By Morgan Givens
“You want the spinach or the corn as your side?” The cafeteria woman stood behind the gleaming silver buffet trays, the steam from the food rising up and misting the glass. The tag with her name across, Gloria, hung crooked on her chest. She raised the ladle in her hand, pointed it at Travis. “Son, I said do you want the spinach or the corn?”
He jumped slightly, pulled from his thoughts. He’d never eaten school lunch, his mom having packed his meals almost every day when he and Michael were growing up, and they never looked anything like this. He pointed at the dark, nearly brown, sludge the school was attempting to pass off as a healthy vegetable, “Uh, are you sure that’s spinach?”
“You saying you don’t want it?”
“I’m mostly saying I don’t wanna die.”
“Boy, get up out of my line.” She shooed him away, the irritation on her face softened by the slight smile that pulled at her mouth before she turned to the kid behind him, “you want the spinach or the corn?”
Travis paid for his lunch, fishing the crumbled bills from his pocket, and slapping them into the hands of the cashier before he entered the dining hall. He tried not to stand out, but being the new kid at school was like being the patch update for a video game that only made the glitches worse. Everyone noticed and they cared. He picked up the juice from his tray, took a sip, hoped he looked nonchalant enough to hide the rising, embarrassing, panic that he didn’t have anywhere to sit. He began walking down the first aisle in the cafeteria he saw, scanning for an empty seat, even as his classmates thumped backpacks and slammed books into potential safe havens. “I cannot believe I’m gonna have to eat in the bathroom.” He muttered, turning towards the exit doors.
“Travis, over here!” Tracy called out to him, waving him towards her, and he sighed in relief. “Move over, Krista. Dang, let him sit down.”
Krista didn’t look amused and took a bite from the limp fry that hung between her fingers, “this the one you was talking about?”
“Y’all were talking about me, huh?” Travis waggled his eyebrows. “Wanna share what was said?”
“You wanna know what we was talking about?” Krista slid down a seat, ignoring warning glances shot her way from Tracy, patted the empty space between them. “Sit down and I’ll tell you, but you gotta make — ”
“Krista! Stop playing.” Tracy rushed out, rolling her eyes as she looked over at Travis. “All I said was there was a new kid in school. It ain’t all that important. Believe me.”
“Ah, if you say so.” He looked down at his tray, trying not to stare at her too much, wondered if her eyes were always that perfect shade of amber, knew that if he told her there were verses of poetry floating around in his mind, already, when he looked at her that she would write him off as a weirdo stalker.
“So, where are you from?” Krista asked, hurrying on before he had a chance to respond. Cutting him off as he was about to speak. “Me? I’m from Puerto Rico. I’m practically first generation.”
“Girl, why are you lying? Your parents are from The Bronx and your little brown ass was born two whole miles from here.” Tracy said.
“You can’t tell me what I am! Ain’t that what all these identity politics is about? I define me.”
“What you’re defining is nonsense.” Tracy laughed, taking a sip from her drink, and after a moment, Krista and Travis joined in the laughter, too. Their own little island in the midst of the cafeteria’s madness. For a moment he felt at ease. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to make friends and fit in and the stress of his first day began to melt away, until he was nearly as relaxed and free with them as he’d been with his best friends in California. They didn’t know anything about him but what he shared, and that was good enough for him. “Okay, so we’re kinda into astrology.”
“She’s into it, not me.” Krista shook her head. “If I brought that mess into my house my mom and pops would flip. Do you know they thought Harry Potter would turn me into a devil worshiping satanist?”
“What?” He choked on his rubber nuggets, “but it’s such a great series. My eleventh birthday had owls.”
“Hand to god. My mom knew a guy who knew a guy and we had owls flapping around my party. In hindsight, not the brightest idea, but I loved it. So, it’s whatever.”
Her mouth fell open, and Travis, sensing an opportunity scooped a grape from her tray, took aim, and tossed it into her mouth. “bullseye!”
She chomped down instinctively, torn between irritation and laughter, chose a mix of them both, “you’re really trying it, huh? You’re such a nerd.”
“Never denied that.”
“Would you two please.” Tracy looked between the both of them, waited for their restrained chuckles to disappear, “As I was saying. Astrology. Travis, what’s your sign?”
“You do know that pick-up line died in the early 2000s, don’t you?”
“Quit playing, what is it?”
“Ohhh, son,” Krista leaned forward, “Tracy’s a pisces and apparently y’all are supposed to be like, super compatible.”
Tracy ducked her head, embarrassed, couldn’t meet his eye directly, “I really just wanted to know so I could — what are you doing?”
He had pulled his phone from his pocket, busy scrolling through it, small smile pulling at his lips, “I just wanted to check how compatible we actually are. I mean, as friends or — ”
“Or what?” Devon suddenly stood at their table, smirking down at Travis. “I’m gonna do you a favor,” he wedged himself between Travis and Tracy. His massive bulk pushing them both to the edge of their seats as he thrust a meaty finger in Travis’ face. “You’re new here. You don’t know how things operate. Now, Tracy has a soft spots for losers. That’s not me, but probably you. No offense. And you’re aiming above your league. Take your shot, sure, but don’t act like you’re Steph Curry.” He talked with his mouth full. Pieces of food falling from his lips, seemingly oblivious to the shared looks of disgust that passed between everyone else at the table.
“I don’t know, man.” Travis shrugged, “apparently we’re super compatible. She’s a pisces. I’m a Taurus…I also don’t talk with my mouth full.” He trailed off, finishing in a whisper.
“What was that?” He took a bite of his cheeseburger, continued speaking as he mashed the food between his teeth, using his tongue to dislodge a piece of meat that had become lodged in the back of his mouth, before flicking it on Krista’s napkin. “Doesn’t matter, not important.” He said as Travis shook his head.
“Dude, that is so gross. C’mon.”
“You’re fine Krista, stop your whining. And you’re a Taurus?” He asked, turning his attention back to Travis, “Ain’t Taurus’ a cow, or bull, or some shit? How you gonna be a bull with a chest like that?”
Travis froze, felt the panic begin to rise within him like bile. His mind racing. Had he not worn his tightest binder? Was his chest showing? He couldn’t pull it tighter here, not in front of so many people. He shoved himself up from the table, “I actually have to go,” and began stumbling towards the exit, Devon’s words chasing after him as he slammed through the double doors, speed-walking, nearly running to the closest bathroom. Barreled inside, stared at himself in the mirror. His jaw was still decently sharp, shoulders still broad enough to not draw attention, not make people wonder, and his breath slowed as he turned to the side. Perfectly flat. It was all in his head. His curves were still safely hidden. They didn’t know.
They still didn’t know.
His secret was still safe.
He was okay, for now.