It usually took the New Kids two weeks to dump me, three weeks at the most. Melanie Prince-Parker was the quickest. She moved from West Hartford to Willingham when we started eighth grade. I couldn’t make her sit across from me for more than five minutes of lunch, and at the end of the first week I spotted her in the middle of the popular girls’ table.
I wanted to know how she did it.
I wanted to be Melanie Prince-Parker.
I used to watch her at lunchtime, first sitting at a table on the same side of the cafeteria, then moving closer and closer until one March day I set my tray at a corner of the table where the popular girls always sat.
The girls instantly stopped talking. Melanie scraped her chair back and stood. I lowered my gaze but could feel her glare on my face.
Without a word, Melanie pushed my tray from the table.
I jumped backward. The clatter of plastic on tile broke the silence. The tip of the apple pie stuck out from an edge of overturned plate. Oily tomato sauce spread from a pile of sloppy joe toward the bun that rolled away. Wilted lettuce curled up next to the pale green tray.
Kids surrounded me, shouting. Voices rose from the chorus.
What was she thinking?
You don’t do that, sit anywhere you want.
Look, she’s crying again. Crybaby Kiara!
Through blurry eyes, I stared at my trembling hands. A clear droplet splashed on my wrist, but I hadn’t heard myself crying with all the noise, the kids laughing.
Anger surged from the pit of my empty stomach. My ears burned. I had a right to sit where I wanted. This wasn’t kindergarten where they assigned seats in the lunchroom.
I picked up the tray.
For a moment, I caught Melanie’s eyes. Scary eyes. Deep brown irises. My mind flashed to my mother’s eyes, what they looked like whenever I made Mami mad. Melanie wore black eyeliner like Mami too.
I hadn’t seen those eyes since Mami left last month.
I raised the tray above me, a batter waiting for the pitch.
Melanie placed her hands on her hips and opened her mouth. Her soprano harmonized with the chorus around me.
“Don’t be stupid, Kiara. Put the tray down.”
I swung at the light brown face that contained those evil eyes. The tray slammed into her face. Shock waves vibrated in my arms and spread to the rest of my body. I let go of the tray. It bounced on my foot before hitting the tile with a thud.
Laughter turned to screams. Melanie’s nose spurted blood. Past her lips, down her chin, onto her pink sweater.
Then somebody’s huge arms locked around me and carried me away.
Away from the cafeteria—and out of that school.