Characters copyright © 2013 Lauren GilleyThen
“Mom got our lunches wrong again,” Jordan announced and his thin, tanned legs folded up, dropping him cross-legged on the grass beside her. He leaned back against the hot bricks of the bell tower and dropped his gym bag off his shoulder, offered his sack lunch to her and reached for hers.
Jo had discovered as much in first period when she’d peeked into her brown paper bag and found an apple and two lidded plastic dishes, one full of crunchy peanut butter, the other cold hash browns. Barf. She accepted her own lunch – turkey and lettuce on wheat, chips, a warm Coke – and settled her shoulder blades against the bricks, eyes moving out across the campus that lay stretched before them: a maze of cobbled walks, Bradford pears with shiny dark leaves, and a collection of old brick buildings that all smelled of damp and BO inside.
Their high school had once been a college, and its campus was large and sprawling. Jo liked being outside better than most anything, so the walks between buildings during class change were her favorite parts of the day. And she liked eating lunch outside – always up against the bell tower across from the senior building, on a patch of Bermuda grass, tucked out of sight from most of her classmates. She liked school – the place; her studies; the smell of clean filler paper and freshly sharpened pencils; the colorful blocks on the periodic table of elements; the big windows outside her biology classroom; biology class itself – but the people made it a miserable place. Being small and tomboyish and unaffected and uncouth had never been such a burden as it was now that she was in high school. Her Freshman year was fast becoming a sort of torture test, one in which she let herself go numb and suffered through without any great emotional attachment to anything. She had girlfriends – Megan and Claire who sometimes laughed at her instead of with her – but her brother Jordie was still her closest friend. Jordie…and Tam.
Tam counted double because he wasn’t her brother.
Under a warm glazing of afternoon sunshine, she unwrapped her sandwich, took a bite, and scanned the knot of students on the green in search of him. She spotted him because he was the only student not lingering and laughing, but instead making a bee line for the bell tower, ignoring all the laughing, chattering peers around him. Jo’s eyes skipped over him and she opened the tab of her soda, took a fortifying swallow.
Tameron Henry Wales, eighteen-years-old, six feet even, might have been a senior, and he might have been her brother Mike’s best friend, but she was the one he found at lunch every day, and her stomach just wouldn’t stop somersaulting at the thought. Today, he was in his usual tight jeans and a pair of scuffed black Converse sneaks, a long-sleeved white shirt beneath his black t-shirt, the white sleeves pushed up to his elbows. His black hair – longer and spiked in the front, standing up on top – had a brown sheen in the sunlight.
“My subtle sister over here,” Jordan quipped before he bit into his apple, and she realized she was staring.
Jo transferred her gaze to the toes of her sneakers and reached for her Coke again, watching Tam in her periphery as he left the brick walk and came to sit down across from them on the grass, hands braced back behind him, long legs stretched out in front.
“Hi!” Her voice was a happy chirp, and she hated it, wished she was more sophisticated than that, but when she met Tam’s blue eyes – and damn, they were blue – he was smiling at her. One of those white, straight, shark smiles of his that flashed his sharp canines.
“S’up?” Jordan greeted, prying the lid off his hash browns. He forked up a big bite of cold, greasy potatoes and popped it in his mouth, reaching for his plain peanut butter while he chewed.
“That’s sick,” Tam said of his eating patterns, but Jo watched his eyes track the fork, a familiar, hungry light in them.
She didn’t know, because no one would tell her, exactly why Tam’s home life was “shitty,” but she’d accepted it as fact and wouldn’t push her friend about it. He was too proud to be pushed. So instead she brought him things – her mom’s cookies, an extra bag of chips, a half a sandwich – and pretended her mom had packed her too large a lunch and that she wasn’t going to eat whatever it was anyway. Today, she had two oatmeal raisin cookies as big around as teacup saucers, white frosting drizzled across the top. She pulled them out and the sun caught the sugar-glaze sheen of the frosting, flashing bright as a new coin. Tam’s eyes snapped to them.
“I don’t like oatmeal,” Jo lied. “You want these?”
His lips parted, gaze trained with laser precision on the cookies; Jo could see the faint shadow of his tongue ring. “You’re not going to eat them?”
“No.” She extended them in offering, holding the bag by the seal, the cookies dangling.
He took them gently, but then his manners dissolved; the bag was open and he’d demolished one in the span of a heartbeat. The second one he consented to actually chew, and Jo decided she would only eat half of her sandwich.
“Do you have practice?” he asked Jordan between bites.
Jordan was eating peanut butter with a spoon like that was normal, and nodded. “Yeah.”
She was a geek for thinking it, but there was something centering about being surrounded by her family. Tam and Mike and Jordan and she had been a foursome for so long now that, even without Mike – especially without him, more like – she’d long since stopped trying to belong anywhere else. Content to listen to them talk about Jordan’s track practice, she nibbled at her food and stared unseeing across campus, letting the sun warm her face.
Tam said her name three times before she realized the conversation had been turned back on her. “What?” she asked, glancing to his face, struck for a moment, as always, by the lovely way he looked in her eyes.
He grinned at her and her insides turned to melted butter. “Mike and I are going to Wal-Mart after school. You wanna come?”
For three broke high school students, a trip to Wal-Mart meant packs of gum and magazines; skulking through the aisles as if they had money to spend and more important places to go once they left. A little play acting at adult life. A place to kill time and reflect on the boredom and dissatisfaction of being too old for childhood and too young for the rest of their lives. For her, it was thousands of square feet in which she could play the part of Tam’s shadow without her mother watching.
“Mike won’t like it,” she said.
Tam shrugged, gave her another of those melting smiles. “Mike can get over it.”
“I keep telling her only dogs can hear her when she gets like that,” Jordan said as he dropped down onto the bench beside Jo.
His wife, crouching in front of the stroller, her floral skirt fanning around her, stuck out her tongue at him. Ellie was nineteen and more than a little bit stunning – not that she knew it. She was also crazy about Willa. “Your Uncle Jordie is a grouch,” she told the baby with a blinding smile. “We won’t listen to him.”
“Nobody ever does,” Jo assured, and her brother snatched the Subway bag out of her hands in protest. “Yeah. I think what you meant to say was ‘thanks for lunch, sis.’”
He shot her the bird instead and Ellie laughed as she scolded him.
They were at one of the benches that lined a stretch of drive that connected campus to parking deck, the sun beating down on the blacktop and sending up heat mirages thick as smoke. The college was busy in the way of mid-semester: the foot traffic lazy, the AC units thumping. The campus, even more expansive than when Jo had been a student here, was green and carved with sidewalks, original buildings shaded by new editions. The crepes were in bloom and walking beneath them, headed toward her, was her six-foot blue-eyed husband.
She glanced down at her scrub top from work – spattered with something brown she’d rather not think about – and wished she was dolled up for him…or, at least, as close to dolled as she ever came. But they didn’t live pretty lives. She had the rest of the afternoon off; she had Will, and she had lunch – all that and the tumble of memories watching her skater boy walk through the sunshine brought to the forefront of her mind.
Sometimes, she thought, life turned out to be an adventure. But sometimes, it turned out to be a butter yellow afternoon that belonged to the people who mattered, and that was better than even the grandest of adventures.