Bang. Bang. Bang. I don’t see anyone through the small window on the exit door. The door that locked behind me. When I stepped outside to run away from Gage and his broken Kermit heart. Bell sounds, and students begin to flood the hallways. Someone? Anyone? Just open the stupid door already. But they stream by like I’m invisible. Invisible Meena. For the fleeting moments Gage or Jay make me feel alive, so quickly I return to my usual state. Of here but not all there. I turn around and measure the fence with my eyes. I can climb most trees. Maybe if I start—
“Meena?” Door pushes toward me, and I see Jay balancing his crutches with his books. “What are you doing—? Forget it. Just get back in before you get another deet from Mr. Deadhead. He’s roaming the halls now, pen and pink slips cocked like he’s hunting or something.” Jason laughs at his own joke.
I’m still stuck and struck by the fact that he opened the door for me. What a gentleman! “Gimme your books. Lunch right?”
“Awesome.” Without hesitation, Jay pretty much drops his books into my arms, and we start making our way toward the scents of cafeteria casseroles.
“Oh Jay-son!” Nadia down the hallway coos out his name. “Need help with your tray in the cafe?”
“Nahh. I’m good.” When we pass her, Jason pulls back in his jaw in a yikes to the yikes expression. “If it were up to her, she’d try to feed me too.”
“Don’t you enjoy the attention?” I can’t help but wonder.
“Oh that. She’s just jealous.”
“Only because every girl in this school would give their left arm just to walk next to you.”
“I was talking about you.” Jay’s eyes aren’t laughing. “You’re the reason she’s jealous. She wishes she had what you have that makes me want to be next to you.”
I never saw it that way. “I don’t get it.” Jay makes no sense, and we’re outside the cafeteria doors now.
“Meena. You don’t know me. So how can I expect you to know why I enjoy being with you?” Jay smiles then pushes the swinging door open with the force of one of his crutches. “After you.”
I walk through, my heart stirring with a spice I didn’t know was in today’s recipe. Surprise. Wow. What do I say to his question? Is he inviting me to ask. To know him. To know me. To meet on that bridge. The one not built. Yet.
“Hey, let me play waitress. Tell me what you want, and I’ll bring it over.” I say from behind, offering before I chicken out.
“Sure? You don’t have to.” Jay turns for a moment, maybe to see if I’m just saying it to say it.
He hobbles over to a table with his football peeps, so I put his books next to his spot as Jay swings his leg over the bench. “Why don’t you leave your stuff with me, and put my food on your tray?” Everyone can hear him. Ask me. To share his tray. To stay.
I’m staring at the spot next to him. I’ll be sitting there. Next to him. In a few minutes. Breathe, Meena. Breathe.
“So, do you have any preferences or should I surprise you?” Like you surprise me. Time and time again.
“Surprise me. But don’t bring me anything that moves. Besides the strawberry Jello. A little bowl of jiggle to clean the palette if they have it today.” Jay nods. “Thanks, Meena. I owe you.”
If you owe me, I’m the one in debt. Because right now, my bank account with Jay-dollas is overflowing. Every minute of attention you pay me has me overflowing like one of those treasure chests with the coins falling out. Thinking pirate booty, I don’t notice the person behind me in the cafeteria line, until he says, “Kermit’s alive.”
Gage! “What? You did CPR on him after I left?” Images of The Frog and the Princess reel across my mind. Except—
“More like a transplant. His first heart was damaged beyond repair.”
Ouch! I slide my tray down the counter, picking up two egg salad sandwiches, two Jellos, and two chocolate milks. Transplant implies replacement. Who did you replace me with? So soon?
“Hungry?” Gage asks when I don’t respond to his surgery report.
“Sure.” I ignore the obvious. “Sorry about the stab. I’ll write up the report to make it up to you. Since you did all the cutting.” The last word makes me cringe as I turn my face away from Gage’s view. Stupid. So stupid.
“Meena?” I’m next to pay. Take my offer to do the write-up and walk away, is all I can think. Gage’s hand finds mine. Two fingers really. Gently on top of my hand that grips my tray. With food for Jay and me. “I won’t tell anyone. Okay. I just thought…” Gage lowers his voice so only I can hear. “You’re not the only one hurting around here. That’s all.” And his fingers slip off, leaving trails of himself. Again.
“7145,” I tell the cashier my account number, and inch back to where I left my books and Jay. My eyes can’t help but scan all around. For this other guy who just threw a second detour at my heart’s roadmap today. He’s gone.
What’s that about? And how can you say, “That’s all,” when you leave me with your fingerprints on my hand. On my mind.
I shake my shoulders away from digressions. I don’t want a mirror. I have enough reminders in my life of pain. Sorry, Gage. Keep your pain to yourself. I prefer the place of fairy tales. With a prince who wants me to know him, invites me into his world and asked to build a bridge together.
Mean, Meena. That’s so mean. I know. But I can’t. I don’t have any more room for hurt in my life.
I place the tray down between us on the table and sit down. Our hands clash as I retrieve the Jello. Dessert first, is all I’m thinking until I lose it. The cup of red flips and lands in my lap. And on my shirt. Red. All along the right side of my waist and thigh. Right on top of my secrets.
“Oh shnap.” Jay hands me a bunch of napkins pulled quickly from the metal dispenser on the table. “I am so sorry, Meena. Uhh. You can have mine.”
Or we can—
“Or we can share.” You read my mind.
I like this place. Sunshine. Blue skies. Life after the storm. The scent of green grass after the rain.
Is that so wrong? Of me? Meena. Just me. Another day in the life of Meena. Me. Mean, Meena.
Have you ever stopped asking questions? Because you know the conversation will take you down a road you have no desire to travel. Have you ever felt torn? To know which hurting friend to be there for? Have you been that hurting friend, rejected by a friend’s fear to get involved?