THE PROMPT–Focus on setting. Go some place you might not want to go: the dentist, the DMV, the principal’s office, Great Aunt Betsy’s parlor, a horror movie . . . any place you want. Go there, and take your reader with you.
MY SUBMISSION–The clock’s hands seem to hasten their pace around the numbers as the lunch hour approaches. The timbre of the tick-tock seems to change, as well. More biting, more grating, more like fingers down a chalkboard. You feel your stomach tighten and spasm in revolt. And even as hunger tugs at your subconscious, and though know you should be hungry, your stomach works itself into intricate knots of nervousness. Lunch is your least favorite period of the day.
It’s hard being the new girl in the ninth grade.
The lunch room crowd divides even before reaching the cafeteria’s red metal doors. The popular girls, pony tails swaying in synchrony, cheerleading skirts barely concealing the round buttocks underneath, bee-bop to their table. No one not in uniform dare sit there. The popular guys, decked out in letterman jackets, buzz cuts, and pheromones wander to their seats at the adjacent table, shooting looks, smiles, winks at their female counterparts. High school royalty.
You scan the room, looking for a spot in the corner, a place where you can be inconspicuous, feeling the only thing worse than eating alone would be finding yourself stuck in uncomfortable conversation with a stranger, your peanut butter and jelly sandwich stuck to the roof of your mouth, binding your tongue with words you struggle to find in the best of circumstances. A lone spot calls from the far end of the cafeteria, where the checkout lady takes money from the school lunch buyers, no attempt to disguise her boredom and contempt as she makes change for a $20-bill. That locale seems safe enough.
You sit on the hard red circular seat, your legs shaky with hunger, the 6:30 AM ham biscuit long osmosed into your blood stream, converted to glucose by your cells, hungrily eaten by your ever-working neurons that tried (and failed) to decipher Trigonometry just 20 minutes earlier. Your brown paper bag, crumpled from its travels in your backpack holds no surprises: an equally crumpled sandwich, the grape jelly seeping through crunchy peanut butter and whole wheat bread, leaving a sticky film on the plastic baggy that contains it; chips from the bottom of the bag, pieces barely the size of a fingernail, stale but salty; two Oreo cookies, edges crumbling into specks of dirt at the bottom of the ziplock bag; the requisite napkin that looks like it’s been used again and again. Same day, same lunch, different school.
The din of lunchroom talk occasionally erupts into discernible conversation. You listen, silently inserting your own comments.
“And then Sarah, well she like totally turned bright red and picked the toilet paper off of her shoe. I would have died!” Yes, do us all a favor and do that already, so we don’t have to listen to your horrible, mundane stories.
“Did you give him the note? Did he say anything? Tell me, tell me!” Yes, he said, “Who’s this from again??”
“Mrs. Elmore had the variable on the wrong side of the equation, but she wouldn’t even listen to me because she had to go on bus duty, but I should have gotten a 103, because that answer was right!” Math geek.
You eat without thinking about it. You eat without talking. You eat with only yourself as company, your only friend, but the best one, for sure.