Cafeteria food was disgusting. There was just something amazingly unappetizing about an indistinct glob of brown stuff that was trying to pass itself off as spaghetti and an apple that may have well been made out of cardboard, for all the papery taste it held. And to make matters worse, they charged five bucks for it, too, an absurd price to pay for being forced to eat shit.
“So, is there a reason you’re eating here instead of in the courtyard?” Julian asked, plopping his bag lunch down on the table beside Raa as he slid into the bench seat opposite him. "I mean, when was the last time you actually ate in the cafeteria?"
"Is there something specific you want, Julian?" Raa asked without looking up from the glob he currently pushed patterns through with tines of his plastic fork.
"I want to know who you're hiding from, and why," Julian said, unrolling the large brown paper sack that held his lunch, pulling out three large slices of pizza and an orange, a half-liter of homemade protein drink following.
"I'm not hiding," Raa said, but as he said it, his head dipped lower and he could not bring himself to look at Julian.
"You're hiding, jock strap," Julian said as he bit into a slice of pizza, leaving Raa to snort at the nickname. Moving his mouthful into his cheek, he said, "So it's either from Taylor, who has yet to stop pouting, by the way, or Marcus. And if it's Marcus, then it has to have something to do with you not calling him-"
"I wasn't able to call him," Raa put him.
"-and he's pissed at you and you don't know what to do about it," Julian concluded, swallowing his mouthful.
"...He's not pissed," Raa said. "He... was hurt, and he really wants a picture so I thought that if he could have one then that would be a way to make it up to him and now he's waiting for me to pose pretty for the camera and I've been trying to work myself up to get out there and just do it already but I can't!"
"Dude, breathe," Julian said, reaching out and laying his hand on Raa's forearm; he frowned at the tremor he felt there. "Have you told Marcus why you don't like pictures?"
Raa closed his eyes and took a deep breath, shaking his head. "I can't tell him."
"Because I just can't!"
"Raa... He'll understa-"
"No, he won't," Raa hissed, standing up fast enough to knock the bench over; it hit the floor of the cafeteria with a resounding bang, silencing the roar of indistinct conversation immediately. "And do you know why he won't? Because it's never happened to him! And it's never happened to you, either! So just shut the fuck up!"
Julian frowned, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked up at his friend with displeasure. "Dude, you are the most blind dip shit I've ever met. I'm black. And Marcus? He's gay. It's happened to both of us, and we both know how much it sucks. But that doesn't stop me from wearing the clothes I want to wear in the colors I want to wear them, and it doesn't stop me from loitering on street corners if I want to. It also doesn't stop Marcus from being who he is. It shouldn't stop you from getting your goddamn picture taken, and it shouldn't make you live in constant fear of-"
"I am not afraid!"
Julian scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, and I'm a white guy from Nantucket."
"You're going to be a white guy with a black eye, if you're not careful!"
"Sure, cover your fear with violence if you want to. Live in LaLa Land with your head stuck in the dirt. But do you know where that leaves you? With your ass in the air looking like an idiot."
Raa shook with anger, his grip on the table ledge white-knuckle tight as he breathed heavily through his nose, eyes spitting fury. "You know what?" he said, voice low and strangled, "You're not worth it."
Julian watched him spin on his heel and leave, heaving a sigh as he shoved his half-eaten lunch into the paper sack and stood, shouldering both his and Raa's backpack. One of these days, Raa would actually remember to take it with him when he stormed off.
The halls of the school were amazingly vacant during lunch, holding a silence that not unlike that of a well avoided tomb. Teachers were safely locked away in the classrooms or faculty lounges or on lunch duty, with the only life being the one or two students who were searching through their lockers and the occasional janitor mopping some mess up off the floors. It was soothing in ways that allowed Raa time to calm down and think, the shaking slowly leaving his limbs.
If Raa was completely honest with himself, he would have acknowledged that what Julian said about covering fear with violence was the truth. It was one of the reasons why he was nearly nineteen and just starting his senior year, and why he was in football in the first place, offering him a place to hit people that didn't lead to automatic expulsion from school. Funny that that was the only reason why he liked football in the first place. The amount of fights he got into between the ages of eight and ten were staggering, leading to moves from school district to school district across three states, causing Aban and Kendall to quit several well-paying jobs, and all because of the shit that went down in 2001.
Raa had moved past most of it, finding ways to hide the fear and the anger, hide his face from photographers as best as he knew how for as long as he possibly could. It was why hearing his full first name made him wince, and why he had not spoken to his family in Lebanon in close to ten years.
Raa's aimless steps lead him to the the doors overlooking the outside tables, the mass of students there laughing and joking and wrestling with each other in small groups of close knit friends. Some waved to others, and half a bologna sandwich flew through the air in a magnificent arch that ended as it bounced off the back of someone's head.
And through it all, in a slender isle between concrete tables, Marcus was sitting on one of the table tops, stylish sneakers planted on a bench as he talked with Derrick and tried in vain to steal his food. The sight was... oddly peaceful throughout the chaos around them.
Marcus had used Raa's full name more than once, and he'd only winced the first time. Marcus' easy laughter had stole away Raa's awkward words on more than one occasion, and made it not so difficult for Raa to be himself. They'd only known each other for a couple of days, but already Raa could feel himself at ease in ways that Taylor had never been able to.
Maybe... Maybe Marcus wouldn't laugh at him and call him an idiot with his ass in the air. Maybe he would help put this fear at ease, too, or at least understand why Raa was going to back out of the deal.
Please... Please let him understand...
Raa took a deep breath and pushed through the doors, the noise that had been muted by glass and concrete just moments before slamming into him like an incoherent roar. He waded his way through the throng, ignoring those invisible voices that called his name, and keep his eyes on the ground, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his jacket.
"Look, there's Raa now," Derrick said, causing Raa to lift his head, eyes narrow in the sunlight falling on them.
"Here," Raa said, raising one hand in greeting. He tried to smile, but it felt so flat on his face, like a stiff mask, that he gave up the effort almost immediately. He nodded to Derrick, heart pounding in his chest as he focused on Marcus. "Can... Do you think we can talk? Alone?"
"If he asks me what day of the week it is, I'll be sorely tempted to answer 'orange'." ~Chang WuFei,