Cafeteria Friends

Being a bit socially awkward I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. There were a lot of kids to choose from because over 630 graduated with me. I didn’t know most of them. But I made a few new friends in the fall of my sophomore year in a corner of the cafeteria behind the vending machines at lunch time.I remember the first full day of school and the overwhelming since of dread as I sat in the shortened study hall just before my new lunch period. I didn’t know any of the kids sitting around me and as I watched them they seemed to be avoiding eye contact with me. Our teacher ignored all of us. He seemed to be annoyed at having to sit with us in the windowless basement room down the hall from the large cafeteria. The smells of cooking food wafted in and added to my discomfort.Eventually the clock ticked down to the appointed time and the bell rang. The room quickly emptied, the teacher going first and I walked out of the room alone down towards the cafeteria. Inside the large, noisy room was full of kids who all seemed to be sitting or standing in line with friends. They all seemed to be engaged in animated conversations as I searched in vain for even a casual acquaintance. There was none.I started to get in line for the school lunch of the day, or the optional hamburger and French fries but at the last minute I changed my mind and headed towards the dark and hopefully quiet corner where some vending machines stood in a line. I could buy a Hostess fruit pie and a Pepsi and not have to get in line and carry around a tray looking hopelessly for a friend. And I figured I could quickly eat and then wander the halls until my next class.
When I peeked around behind the vending machines for maybe a temporary seat on top of one of the radiators I was surprised to see a few kids that did seem slightly familiar. I recognized Randy from last year’s English class. When the teacher asked him to go up to the front of the class to give his oral report he wouldn’t get up or even answer her. He just sat frozen at his desk, not moving. Some of the other kids snickered and the teacher asked him again but after a few minutes of awkward silence she ignored Randy and asked someone else.Also sitting there was a girl named April. She had been in my 9th grade biology class. She seemed to always have her hand cupped around her eyes while her long reddish-brown hair hung down across the sides of her face. Whenever I saw her in the halls she’d be hiding her face with her hands and her hair. She was always looking down and seemed afraid of looking up. I felt sorry for her but hadn’t a clue how to talk to her. Also, in the dark corner behind a large vending machine sat a very small boy. His name I found out later was Mason. He wore thick, black glasses and didn’t look like he was old enough to be in high school. With no others to sit by and no place to go I took a breath and sat down. And so it was that during the first semester of my sophomore year I sat behind the vending machines with Randy, April and Mason and the very few others that would come and go. We hardly ever spoke to each other or acknowledged each other. But I knew I belonged there that first day. When I walked up to the radiator Randy and April shifted so I could find a seat in the corner hidden from the rest of the noisy cafeteria. And a month later when I had been in the hospital for a couple days and missed school in October I didn’t think anyone would notice. But Mason watched me buy my Hostess blueberry pie and cup of Pepsi and sit down on the radiator. “Have you been sick?” He asked me with an earnest look of concern on his face. I noticed Randy and April seemed to lift their heads toward me, just slightly.“Yeah,” I said with embarrassment. “I had like, some minor surgery. But I’m okay now.” “Glad you’re okay.” Mason said with a hint of a smile. A new boy was sitting with us that day and he seemed to nod at me. I nodded back. And then on my way home from school we walked along the same street for a couple blocks. I adjusted my stride and we walked side by side, not talking.“I don’t know if I’ll be able to be in school anymore.” He said as he looked at me with a reserved smile. “No?” I asked. I noticed his curly hair looked tangled and his jacket was too small.“Yeah. My Dad died and I’m trying to find work. My Mom and me need the money. ‘Sides I don’t do so good in school anyway.” We continued on in silence for a bit then he said, “You know anything about furnaces?”“Not much.” I shrugged.“I couldn’t get ours working last night. It’s getting cold in the house. I don’t know why it quit. The pilot light wouldn’t stay lit.”“I can ask my Dad,” I offered. “He knows how to fix lots of things.” He nodded his head and turned down the next block. I wondered what it would be like to have to fix the furnace for my Mom.The next day the new boy was sitting by Mason, eating what looked to be a skimpy peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He looked up at me and grinned. “Hey!”“Hey,” I said hesitantly. I still didn’t know his name and was too bashful to ask him. “I talked to my Dad about furnaces.”“Yeah?”“I think there’s a thing…” I tried to think of the word. “Oh, maybe thermo-couple? My Dad said they go bad and then the pilot light won’t stay lit.”“Hey! Maybe that’s it!” The boy said. “Thanks!” A couple days later he sat down next to me on the radiator. “You know your Dad was right!” He said. “It was the thermo-coupler. I’m sure glad I talked to you.” I saw April and Randy look towards me. “The furnace works now!”Mason said, “Good job, Paul!” with an approving smile.“But this is my last day,” the new boy announced with a bit of pride. “I start work tomorrow at a garage.” As the bell rang the new boy put his hand out towards me. “I’m going to miss seeing you at lunch, Paul.” I shyly shook his hand and we grinned at each other.In December, getting close to the end of the fall semester Randy, April, Mason and I were just sitting down in our usual spots, quietly eating our lunch as the normal cafeteria din filled our ears. A girl with sad eyes, and flattened hair, wearing a black leather jacket peeked around the corner of the largest vending machine. She jumped when she saw us back there and started to turn away.“There’s room,” Mason spoke up. “If you don’t mind sitting with us.”“No, uh…” the girl in the jacket mumbled. “Okay.” She said as we moved over to make room. The radiator was getting warmer each day. “Thanks…”“I’m Mason. That’s Randy, April, and Paul. I guess this is kind of our spot for lunch. But you can sit with us.” Mason smiled and the girl with the sad eyes seemed to relax a little.“Yeah. I’m…uh, my name is well…Valerie.”“Are, are, are you new?” April spoke with a stutter and hearing her speak almost startled the rest of us. She quickly cupped her hand over her eyes.“Yeah.” Valerie sighed. Suddenly she looked right at me. “I’m in a new foster home and had to change schools. This is my first day.” She rolled her eyes as she opened a paper lunch sack. “I’m just a little worried about my brother.”We ate in silence for a few minutes then April spoke again. “Is, is, is your br, br, brother in school here t, t, too?”“Naw.” Valerie looked up at April. “They had to split us up. He’s back in a different town and school. He’s only 8 and not very, you know. He has a hard time.” Her eyes looked wet and she wiped her cheek with her hand. She looked at the floor and chewed slowly.“S,s,sorry.” April answered. Then it was quiet again. I looked down at my shoes, not knowing what to say. We met for lunch each day until the semester ended. The last day we sat together again and with but a few minutes left of our lunch period I struggled with wanting to say something but not knowing what to say. I was going to miss my cafeteria friends. After a few minutes of silence I quietly stood up and started to walk away.“See you, Paul!” Mason hollered after me. I turned to wave at Mason and then saw them all, Randy, and April, Mason and Valerie all looking at me with kind smiles. I hated to go. But I was already walking away so kept going.The next semester I found my old friends to sit with in the cafeteria but I felt guilty. I checked a few times by the vending machines and never saw anyone sitting there that I knew. I nodded at the kids I did see back there. But they avoided eye contact. In my senior year Mason was in English class with me but I never saw him again in the cafeteria. Randy signed my senior yearbook when I asked him to. He never said much to me, but he wrote, ‘you always say hi to me. Hi, Paul. Randy’. I once saw Valerie with another guy in a leather jacket on a motorcycle and she waved to me. And though I often wondered about April, but I never saw her again.I often thought of my cafeteria friends. Having no friends we ended up together, sitting behind the vending machines on the radiators, sharing our lunch and our time together. And with very few words, we became friends.