Scenes From an Elementary School Lunchroom
At first I think that surely I can't remember something from such a long time ago. I mean, if I were trying to call on a specific, dramatic memory, I'd have more confidence in my ability, but this? I'm doubting I'll reel in anything of describable value when I cast my line into what have become the murky and age-muddled waters of my memory.
Elementary school lunch wasn't important; it was just another thing that happened every day, in the same place, with the same people. I don't need that information anymore. It has to have been crowded out by important things, I think. But instead of fishing a boot or an old tire out of those polluted waters, when I close my eyes I see into my mind, as if through the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean. It is almost like I am actually standing outside that cafeteria, looking in through the rectangular windows at rows and rows of tables, each one lined with chattering children.
Then suddenly, I'm not standing outside the windows anymore. In a flash, I'm inside the room, where the ambient noise rises ferociously with the spark of my transition. Utensils scrape across and smack into plastic, segmented tray plates that clink against one another and slide along table tops and counters in search of final resting places. Chairs scratch the floor, both meeting and departing table tops as diners come and go. Bags, books, and other items thump and bump as they drop into waiting places, becoming items of secondary importance now that the task at hand is eating, socializing.
Above and beyond these sounds there are the types of audible events that come only from the mouths of humans: talking, laughing, yelling. The majority of this is of the child variety, mostly high-pitched, squeaky and giggly. Most of the yelling is happy, jovial, prankish. Occasionally, there's an angry yelp or an adult admonition. The overarching effect of the mingled, youthful voices in all of their utterances is a feeling of busyness, of pleasant fellowship and mirth.
I feel, in my mind, as if I'm standing there, having entered suddenly, but still separate from all of this, just taking it in with my eyes closed. But the deeper I go, the more I process. I'm allowing myself to sink into those waters and wade out to a place where eventually there's a drop-off. I'm going to fall right in.
It happens, and the next transition hits me with cool, hard plastic under my posterior. My legs dangle towards the floor, and I grasp a metal fork with curiously uneven tines in my right hand.The fork is poised over a pretty ugly example of fruit cocktail. The cocktail isn't half as bad as the rectangular piece of gooey mess masquerading as pizza. I know this and at the same time, I also know I love this disgusting mockery of a real pie, just as I love the grease-laden tator tots that neighbor it in the adjoining tray segment.
I look up and now I'm taking in a sea of faces at my level. Instantly I'm overcome with emotions that blast me almost simultaneously: wonder, excitement, insecurity, awkwardness, need, desire, invincibility.
This is youth, glorious youth. I have more than just miles to go; there's a path stretched out in front of me to what seems infinity. All I can see is shining horizon and I know that forever is just over the hill up ahead.
For a moment, the sounds disappear. For a heartbeat every smell of sickeningly delicious grease puddled over cheap cheese on soggy crust is undetectable. The cool, slick cardboard milk carton under the curled fingers of my left hand disappears. All the children move in slow motion.
I feel like a time traveler in my own mind, and for just that one moment, there's a distinct and deep pain that knifes through me, witnessing this slice of my past, this irrelevant little re-enactment of an any-day sometime so long ago in my life.
I want to stand up and scream, "We are all here again! Back here again! Have we made mistakes!? Let's do better this time!"
But then it all rushes back in with its loud busyness, its irreversible hurrying of children forward into their fates. For a moment, I feel defeated, and then I blink my eyes, and it all swirls away like bath water that flows down the drain, pulling away both the bright, gleaming bubbles and the dirty scum that once clung to you, in the same smooth motion.
As I open my eyes in the here and now, I reflect on that moment at the end, that painful longing to hit the "restart" button. But I'm here, for better or worse, and it's okay if I can't change the things my little self so worried about for that brief spell inside my mind. She forgot for a beat that out here on the other end, I'm not too shabby, and even the mistakes have had a hand in making me who I am today. No regret.
Well, I do kind of wish she had grabbed one of those tater tots and slammed it. This lagging metabolism is a bitch.