Clara shoved the card in her pocket and walked her tray to a corner table. Her usual spot, hidden on the outskirts of the room where she would go unnoticed, exactly the way she wanted it. The only problem was that today Evan had a perfect view of her. He sat at a table diagonally from hers, surrounded by his friends who talked and laughed and enjoyed the precious time outside of the classroom. He conversed with them all the while keeping his eyes on Clara. She grew increasingly angry wondering how she was supposed to eat with him watching her.
She pulled a novel out of her book bag and started reading. She knew to give herself a few pages and then she would be absorbed in the story, forgetting all about Evan’s stares and her attempts to look pretty while she ate. She read about the heroine, a fierce creature who stomped on anyone who got in her way. She was haughty and beautiful and the men loved her. They worshipped her. To be that vain and beautiful, Clara thought jealously. To command everyone’s attention like that. To be loved by everyone. She wondered what the heroine must have felt to know she wielded so much power.
“Hi Clara,” she heard him say.
She looked up from her novel and forced down the tater tot she was in the middle of chewing. It made her throat ache on the way down. She looked over at the table Evan had just left noticing a few of the students looking in her direction. They were clearly confused as was she.
“Hi,” she replied tentatively.
He sat down across from her. “What are you reading?”
She couldn’t understand what was happening. Why was he talking to her? Why did he come over to her table knowing it would cause a mild scene? His friends were still staring, gawking now that he settled himself across from her to have a conversation.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
Evan smiled. “You don’t know what you’re reading?”
“I think I have to go now,” she said shoving the paperback novel in her book bag.
“Lunch isn’t over yet,” Evan pointed out.
“I guess not,” Clara replied. She looked down at her partially-eaten food. She was still hungry, but there was no way she was eating in front of him this closely. Absolutely no way.
Evan reached over and plucked a tater tot from her tray. “You mind?” he asked as he popped it in his mouth.
Clara shook her head.
“I noticed you read a lot,” Evan observed.
It was true. Clara did read a lot. Reading was her favorite, a form of escape. With reading she could be anyone, anything, and for the time she was absorbed in her stories, her social anxiety disappeared. She was brave and adventurous and clever. Like Beatrice.
“Does Beatrice read like you do?” Evan asked.
“Yes,” Clara replied. “Maybe not as much. But yes.”
“I figured she did. She sounds very smart. And you can’t be smart unless you read,” Evan said thoughtfully.
Clara nodded. She didn’t know what else to do.
“I should read more fiction,” Evan went on. “I read a lot of manuals and textbooky stuff. It’s kind of nerdy. I guess I’m a bit of a nerd.”
He paused for a minute and smiled at her showing his perfectly straight white teeth. She instinctively ran her tongue over her own feeling the slight crookedness of her left incisor, folded ever so slightly over her front tooth. She remembered a dentist once referring to it as a “kicked lateral.” She didn’t like the way that sounded, as though somebody kicked her in the teeth and then laughed about it.
“I should read more fiction,” he continued. “And I work at a bookstore,” he added.
Clara stared at him. He popped another one of her tater tots in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
“Maybe you could recommend some books to me?” he suggested after a moment. “Do you mind?” he asked picking up her milk.
Clara was beside herself. She thought she shook her head.
Evan took a long sip then placed it back on her tray. She watched him lick his lips.
“Don’t worry. I don’t backwash.” He grinned at her and stood up.
“Clara, I’d like very much for you to recommend some books for me to read,” he said looking at the cafeteria clock hanging above them. “Fiction,” he clarified. “Will you do that for me?” He looked down at her, his cat eyes cutting into hers. She was sure that he was being serious and teasing her at the same time. In that moment something floated down her chest to rest in her belly. Something shimmery and warm that made her excited. And terrified.
“Okay then,” Evan said. “I’ll be seeing you, Clara,” and he walked back to his table.
Clara was conscious of two things: first, the intense longing she felt to put her lips on her milk carton where his had just been, and second, the low voices passing by her that said, “He drank her milk!” The bell rang and she didn’t move. She knew she couldn’t. Her body shook so violently that she was afraid to pick up her tray and walk it over to the trash. She knew she would drop it on accident.
When the cafeteria cleared, Clara thought it was safe to get up. She walked her tray over to the receptacle, positioning it over the bin’s opening, and watched regrettably as the milk carton slid out of sight.
© S. Walden, 2012