For West Greenville High School, the third Wednesday of the month is something special. On these days, the lunch ladies dress up like French chefs and offer the student body a taste of something foreign: Country Fried Steak in aju sauce, vegetable medley, yeast roll or wheat toast (your choice), homemade cherry cobbler, and white or chocolate milk.
What this means in English is a fried hamburger patty covered in brown goop, unsalted (therefore school board approved) peas, a cold roll, and something with red jelly inside. Milk is always just milk, no matter how many ways you try to cut corners.
“Want your roll?” June asks, her mouth full of peas. We’re sitting at our table in the back corner of the cafeteria, apart from the rest of Second lunch and away from Mrs. Carmichael, this weeks lunch monitor. Self-imposed isolation or basic high school survival techniques? Dear reader, you decide.
“For a quarter.” I’m not hungry, not for this anyways, but why not jack with her a bit? Sadistic games can be the best, especially between friends.
“I’m not giving you a quarter.” She scoops another spoonful of peas into her mouth and works it around for what seems like forever. She once told me to chew my food twenty times to “get the benefit”. It’s something she got from a movie. At first, I thought it was a joke, but apparently, she’s taken it as gospel.
“No quarter, no roll.” I place the roll beside my tray. It might as well be a thousand miles away, surrounded by armed natives, and protected by several blood-curdling curses.
“Fine.” She leans over the table and spears my country fried hamburger with her fork and places it on her plate, returning with a spoon for the peas.
“How can you eat that stuff?” I ask. It’s an honest question. For being as chunky as I am, I’m a finicky eater and have never taken to school food. “This crap is gross.”
“I’m hungry, unlike some people, and it helps to keep up my figure.” She slaps her butt. “This Latina a** needs a lot of filling. Besides that, it’s free. Thanks, Democrats!” She sings this last part out as if to a Secret Santa.
“Mine’s not free. My parents work for it. They also pay taxes. So technically they pay for yours too.”
“Well, excuse me, Ronald Reagan. I didn’t mean to give you Republicans another reason to hate me.” Apparently, chewing every morsel twenty times may be a necessity but not talking with your mouth full-that’s optional. “And I’m getting that roll one way or another.”
“Nothing I life is free. Especially, not this roll. This will be your first lesson in Capitalism.” I sit the roll on the seat beside me.
“Great now it’s going to taste like butt.” She says, still eyeing the roll and smacking her lips in pantomime. She knows she could take it by force is she wanted, but whats the fun in that? “But I still want you, my carb-rich friend.”
I stare off, feigning disinterest, and am met with a depressing sight. For thirty minutes a day, Second Lunch pulls together most of the sophomore class, with each clique and sub-clique divided between rows of long rectangular tables. The hierarchy isn’t as strict as junior high, and a few people have already transcended adolescence and are now social butterflies, fluttering between groups with a revoltingly natural self-confidence. Most though, are still worker ants, keeping with the program.
Mrs. Carmichael, slouching beside the main double doors, stands out like a ham in a synagogue. Her thin, pale body is swallowed by a shapeless beige cardigan and wrinkled ankle length skirt. She carries the weary, worried look of a middle-aged woman whose daughter might be on drugs and whose husband may have intestinal cancer. The rumors abound.
“You’re going to be a butt about this, aren’t you?” June asks. She hits me with a pea, squandering a three or four calorie morsel to get my attention.
“Tell me why I should give up a perfectly stale roll for no quarter?”
“Because you’re nice. And besides, I don’t have a quarter or a dime or a nickel or two pennies to rub together.”
“Poor Mexicans only want sympathy.” I toss the pea back at her, embedding it in her thick black curls. “Just like the blacks.”
A look comes over her face, hard and tight, and I know I’m walking a thin, dangerously entertaining line.
“Ok.” She says, the look giving way to something else. “Lets compromise. I don’t have a quarter, but I can trade.”
“For the moment, I’ll prove that you and your mom and everyone else are right about me.” A strange smile comes across her face.
“Ok.” Should I be worried?
“Nothing gets a girl wet like thinking she’s right,” June stands, “Hola Mamacita! I have many babies to feed; I wash dishes, I clean house!” A harsh Mexican accent rises from her throat and echoes through the cafeteria. The world spots and stares. “Oh, Mamacita! Where is your husband? Le daré el herpes!” She begins gyrating her hips. She’s surprisingly limber.
“Quite!” Blood rushes to my face, stinging my cheeks.
“We give tequila; we give tacos! Mamacita, we cut your lawn!” Shaking her spoon and fork like maracas, she begins twerking. A few boys at the a**hole table hoot. I shrink to the size of a toddler.
“Shut up!” My voice comes out a high, frantic squeak. Mrs. Carmichael walks towards us, arms crossed.
“Oh, Mamacita me so hungry!” She shakes her maracas at me and then the roll. I throw it at her. She catches it one-handed and sits down. “Gracias Mamacita.”
“Is there a problem Mable?” Mrs. Carmichael asks me. Even up close she appears slight, a girl wearing her fathers winter coat.
I shake my head.
“Ms. Rodriguez?” Her brown eyes grow wide as she pushes her glasses back to the bridge of her nose. I realized, almost as an afterthought, that she must’ve been pretty at one time, beautiful even, all long before life sank it’s incisors into her, tearing flesh from bone, her heart from her chest.
“Just enjoying being Mexican,” June says, her mouth full, the roll already half gone. “We must celebrate our heritages.”
“June,” Mrs. Carmichael smiles an exhausted smile, “sweetheart, you may speak Spanish and have the skin and hair too suit, but you’re no more Mexican than I am.” She points a thin, tired finger. “No more dancing.”
We watch as she walks back to the leaning wall, quieting the a**hole table along the way. The world returns to ignoring us in less time than you’d think possible.
“Satisfied?” I ask, still embarrassed, still red, my temperature raised to that of a low-grade fever.
June looks at me, chewing, her smile barely contained.
“What?” I ask. “You embarrassed us.”
She crams the last of the roll into her mouth. “I told you I’d get it. One way or another.”