She sees right through me? What does that mean? I wonder for the twentieth time as I enter the cafeteria. I managed to avoid my peer helper after my first few classes, rushing out before she could meet me. Did she really think I couldn’t get another class schedule? Maybe next time she won’t underestimate me.
A sweet smell hits my nostrils as I pass the fruit section. It smells like my peer helper, and I’m reminded of my disgust for her. She thinks she knows me, but she knows nothing. She’s a snob, trying to prove something. They’re all the same.
Girls like her don’t know what it’s like to struggle, really struggle.
She’s probably never gone so hungry her stomach knots. Never roamed the streets wondering if she’ll have a safe place to sleep. With a face and body like hers, she’s probably never had to work for anything in her life. The people she represents, the life she lives, it’s all fake.
Javier, my cousin, warned me about her. She’s one of the Big Five, the ones who think they rule this school. Even with her perfect boyfriend and flawless life, she isn’t fooling me.
I hear Javier before I see him. “Diego, aquí.”
Through the crowd, I spot my cousin sitting with a group of Latinos. With his six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame, he’s hard to miss. I approach him. One of his friends mumbles something in Spanish about how tall I am.
“Hey, what can I say? They make ’em big in mi familia,” Javier says, laughing.
Truth backhands me. I realize now that I never actually thought I would see Javier again. After … after … no. I shove the thoughts away. Not here.
“What’s up, ’cuz?” Javier says.
“Nada.” I force a smile, though my relief is real. It’s good to see family.
“¡Siéntate!” Javier says.
I sit. Sitting is usually an indulgence for those who can afford to relax. I pretend for a moment that I’m one of them. My cousin takes a minute to introduce his friends.
“Diego, this is Ramon, Esteban, Juan, Rodolfo, and Luis.”
Ramon and Esteban, with their slight overbites and similar features, must be brothers. Juan has a large head for his small frame; he’s covered in tattoos. Rodolfo has a smile full of white teeth and a dimple on the left side of his cheek. What happened to the other dimple? It’s as though God had an asymmetrical look in mind when He created him. Next to my cousin, Luis is the biggest. He has lots of freckles, splattered on his face like paint, seeping into his skin.
“Welcome to los Estados Unidos,” Juan says, biting into his burger.
“Gracias,” I reply.
My stomach growls, an animal hungry to live. Javier notices.
“Come with me.” He motions for me to follow him through the crowd.
As we walk to the lunch line, I spot my peer helper at a table, surrounded by her friends. There’s one of her kind at every school. The girl everyone hates to love and loves to hate. She’s probably been stabbed in the back countless times. Not that she would know, since everyone acts fake to her face. Her friends remind me of worker bees, buzzing for the queen’s attention. I wonder if she knows that the workers eventually kill the queen.
“When you get to the front, show them your student ID,” Javier says.
The guidance counselor already explained that I get one free lunch a day because of our low income. As we pass the food selections, I cannot believe the prices.
“Are they for real?” I ask. “Six dollars for chicken and fries?”
I have an image of Faith Watters taking out her designer wallet and easily paying for one of the pretentious lunches.
“Yep. Gringos,” Javier says, eyes hardening. He remembers what it was like in Cuba, the struggle.
Just by looking at the lunchroom crowd, it’s clear who the haves and have-nots are. Surprisingly, though, there are more Latinos than I expected.
I grab a burger and make my way to the register. As I pull out my ID, football players in letterman jackets glance my way. Part of me wishes I had it easy like them: popular, at ease, able to pay for things.
I shouldn’t want to be like them.
I don’t want to be like them.
Yes, I do.
The bigger part of me knows that a life like that will never happen for someone like me. It’s just the way things are.
I grab a water bottle and head back to the table with Javier. Do people here know that most of the world doesn’t get water from a bottle, but from a stream or river or muddy ground?
“So, you fittin’ in well?” Javier asks.
“Yep.” For the most part. No one has singled me out for being new.
“Latinos blend around here. One of the good things about Florida,” he says.
We pass a beautiful girl on the way back to our seat. I take a moment to look. She smiles.
“That’s Isabella,” Javier explains. “Sexy, but taken.”
“Too bad,” I say.
I’m not looking for a girlfriend, but it would be nice to have a little fun. I’m almost at the table when someone steps in front of me.
“What’s your problem?” my peer helper asks, one of her friends in tow.
Momentarily shocked by her boldness, I quickly regain my hard stance. Just like earlier, she doesn’t seem fazed by me. She’s either tougher than I thought, or she puts on a great front.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I reply. I try to feign confusion, but a smile creeps through.
“Oh, you think this is funny?” she asks, hands on her hips. For a second, she looks kind of beautiful, eyes hard and old. Wisps of hair fall out of her ponytail and around her face like angel feathers.
“A little.” I grin.
She huffs. “You weren’t there to meet me after your classes this morning. If I report you, you could lose your chance to attend this school.”
Is she threatening me? “Like I said, I already have a mamá. I don’t answer to you.”
I hand my tray to Javier. He sets it on the table so I can deal with her.
“You’re being difficult,” she says.
“So are you.”
What is your weakness? is what I want to ask.
She doesn’t back down. “I’ll be there before the end of your next class. Don’t even think about ditching me again.”
I have to, don’t you see?
“I’m serious,” she says.
This girl is asking for it. I glance at her blond friend, who’s eyeing Javier, not paying us any attention. I wish my peer helper was as easily distracted.
Being tough does not scare Faith Watters. Time to change tactics. I relax and flash a grin.
“Mami, why don’t I help you loosen up a little?”
She blinks, but doesn’t show any outward evidence that my words have affected her. I move close, very close. When I look down at her, she doesn’t look away.
Her eyes remind me of stained glass, bright and cutting.
“We could have a good time, you and me,” I say, mischief punctuating my voice.
“I don’t think so,” she says coldly.
I will not let her upstage me. I give her a long, slow onceover. She dresses older than she is, like she doesn’t belong in high school. I wonder what makes her so uptight.
What are you hiding, chica?
I usually don’t have to try with girls. It’s one of the very few advantages life has thrown my way.
“Oh, come on. You might like Latino if you tried it,” I say, voice low. The guys behind me laugh, egging me on.
“When you’re done with him, I’m available, mamacita,” Juan says. “I don’t mind leftovers.”
She sneers. Good. That’s progress.
“Let me take you out,” I say.
I’m not really going to take her anywhere. I just want to make a crack in her icy shield.
Why do you have a shield, anyway?
“Why?” she asks suspiciously.
Because I know it annoys you when someone else has control. “Because it would be fun,” I say, bending close to her face. “And I can promise you one thing.”
She looks cautious.
It’s a look I know well.
“What?” she asks.
That one night with me will relax you.
Girls like her love bad boys, whether they admit it or not. I imagine it’s similar to visiting a haunted mansion. Exciting, at first. One foot slips through the door, then the next. Heart hammers. Blood races. It’s a rush. A fix. Never knowing what’s around the next corner, through the closed door, beyond the shadows. Trying to find a way out. Not really wanting to leave. Wondering how close a person can come to danger before something bad happens. Looking for the moonlight at the end of the tunnel, an exit.
Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
I can show her excitement like she’ll never experience with that boyfriend of hers.
But I don’t say any of those things. Instead I let my lips brush her ear lobe as I answer.
“That you will leave satisfied.”