Exactly one week after we were assigned our roles, Keisha had to get her braces off. Days where Keisha isn’t in school feel super weird because she’s sort of like my security blanket. As I enter the cafeteria during junior/senior lunch period, I feel naked … exposed. I haven’t stepped foot inside the cafeteria all semester. After getting food poisoning from some rogue strawberries circa fifth grade, Dad has been adamant about me taking my lunch every day.
You know that scene in Mean Girls where Janis is explaining to Cady about all of the various cliques in the cafeteria? Well, it’s the same sort of the same thing at Shenandoah. The Varsity football, basketball and baseball players all sit together at one long table at the front of the room. The tennis, golf and other lesser sports all sit at tables orbiting the main jock table. Peppered throughout the rest of the cafeteria are the band kids, the gamers, the academically-challenged and the my daddy drives a Bentley and makes six figures crew.
I’m about to go eat in the courtyard when I notice Nick sitting in the far corner. I move quickly through the room and pretend I don’t see Leah waving at me. Nick barely acknowledges me as I take the seat across from him. There’s a half-eaten cheeseburger, three tater tots and a brownie on his tray. Nick has a nice body – we had PE together last year – so I wonder how he maintains it eating the bio-waste the cafeteria passes off as food.
“Is it okay that I’m sitting here?” It’s a dumb question because I’ve already pulled out my Tupperware container of carrots, celery and peanut butter.
He shrugs and pokes his finger into the chocolate flesh of the brownie.
A lengthy silence follows and I’m reminded why Keisha and I are besties. I hate silence. It makes me super uncomfortable … like I am now.
“Um, Nick.” I pluck a napkin from the holder and dab at the corners of my mouth. “Are you okay?”
For the first time since I’ve arrived at the table, Nick looks up. His eyes are usually a warm hazel but now they’re red and puffy and I want to pull him into the biggest hug because I recognize that face. It’s the same face Dad had when he came into my bedroom when I was twelve to deliver the news.
He sniffs and swipes the back of his hand over his eyes. He puts his other hand up to partition himself away from the rest of the cafeteria.
“I am fucking miserable,” he finally says. He raises his gaze from the table and locks eyes with me. “He’s everywhere. He’s in every single one of my classes because last year when we made our schedules, we thought it would be great to have all our classes together. Senior year was supposed to be perfect but now I’m sitting across the room from the only person that matters and I cannot …”
I open my mouth to speak but for literally the first time in my life there are no words. No funny quips. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
“I love him,” Nick continues. “More than anything.”
I want to say something to make him okay. I can’t stand seeing Nick Ramirez not be okay. But I’ve never been a love and I’ve never known what it’s like to lose someone you can’t live without.
“You know my brother?” he asks.
I nod. Nick has an identical twin Nathan and they’re as different as night and day. Nathan runs with an interesting crowd. I barely see him around but I know he’s here because rumor has it he has the highest GPA in the school.
“Since literally day one Nathan and I have had this bond. We think the same thing. He finishes my sentences and vice-versa. It used to trip our parents out when we were younger.”
Then Nick does something I haven’t see him do all semester. He smiles. It’s the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen and I feel a rush of happiness and relief wash over me. He reaches for a tater tot which is probably cold since lunch is nearly over and dips it in the puddle of ketchup.
“That’s how it is with Andy,” he says before popping the tot into his mouth. Nick chews with his mouth open which would usually bother me but somehow him doing it is very endearing.
“It can still be like that.” The words are out of my mouth before I even realize I am speaking them.
Nick shrugs and sags in his chair. “I used to think that. The two of us would stay up until three o’clock in the morning talking about the future. What we’d do next summer. Would we go to the same college or not. What would we do after college. Would we get married some day? Have kids? A dog and a cat … even though I’m allergic to cats.”
He laughs which is another thing I haven’t seen him do since the start of the semester.
“Andy used to talk about us moving to New York City after graduating. I’d become a Physics professor at NYU and he would tackle Broadway. He wants to play Danny Zuko in Grease. That’s like his dream role.”
“I remember him mentioning on the first day.” I notice the smile is gone again. “Nick – high school doesn’t last forever. We just have to get through the rest of this year and after graduation and then you and Andy can do whatever you want.”
Nick looks up at me and scoffs. “You obviously don’t come from a big Italian family?”
I shrug my shoulders and say, “Can’t say that I do. It’s just me and my Dad. My older brother lives in Portland.”
“Well, Andy comes from a huge Italian family … and I’m talking Italian Italian. Both his parents moved here from Italy in the 70s and immediately started a family. Andy has four older sisters, all married … with kids. Lots of kids. Andy has fifteen nieces and nephews.”
I’m trying to imagine Everett having fifteen kids. I’m also trying to imagine buying presents for fifteen kids.
“Andy was sort of an accident. He’s ten years younger than the youngest sister so his parents are super protective of him.”
Dad’s very protective of me but he’s always let me do my own thing, make my own decisions. That’s probably the two of us are so close.
“When they came over here,” Nick continues. “They were looking for the American Dream … you know the whole if you work hard you can do anything. I think it’s bullshit but Andy’s parents really believe in it and they think Andy is their American Dream and I was the guy who was standing in the way of it.
“It’s funny. I assumed Andy being gay would be the thing they’d flip out over but when he came out to them Freshman year, they were so supportive. Especially his dad.”
I watch as Nick fiddles with a salt packet. The sadness is gone leaving only bitterness.
“Who would’ve thought I’d be the thing they couldn’t handle.”
I let several moments before I open my mouth to speak. Being friends with Keisha is witty commentary back and forth for hours. But no one sees the other moments. I’ve nursed Keisha through several breakups and heartaches and God knows she’s been there for me in my darker moments. I want my words to Nick to be intentional because I have never seen a person so broken before and it physically hurts me to see him like this.
“I wish I had the words to make all of this better for you,” I say. “But I don’t. I’ve never been in love. I hope to one day be. The way you describe it, it sounds like it’s worth all the bad stuff.
“Perhaps I’ve overstepping my boundaries but I think … no, I know Andy feels the same way about you. I can see it. Every time you walk in the room I can see him light up and almost immediately the light goes away because he’s remembering you two aren’t together.
“All I can say, and it’s an easy thing for me to say because I’m not in your shoes is to please, hang in there. I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books and people spend their whole lives looking for something you found when you were fifteen years old. My dad says anything worth having is waiting for. Wait for Andy. I have a feeling he’s waiting on you.”
I watch as Nick bites his bottom lip. Before he has a chance to respond the bell rings and lunch is over. Nick looks up at me with the most sincere look on his face.
“Tristan, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” I say feeling my face flush with warmth.
“No, I mean it. Thanks for dragging me back from the ledge.”
All around us chairs are scraping the floor and people are emptying their trays into the tall, blue trash barrels at the entrance. Nick and I slowly stand and start gathering our things.
As we leave the cafeteria, Nick turns to me with a wan smile on his face. I know my words haven’t erased his pain but I hope they’ve made things a bit easier, at least for a little while.
“I’ll see you in Theater,” he says, hiking his backpack over his left shoulder.
I wave him goodbye and watch as he disappears into a sea of students moving towards their next class of the day.
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