The Dinner Lady

People think I’m weird because I don’t like butter. They say, “what’s wrong with butter?” as if I could produce an answer that would satisfy them. “Nothing,” I always say; except the way it sticks to the bread, existing in this gross mid-point between solid and liquid, making my mouth feel wrong. “I just don’t like it.”

After taking a bite, I place my sandwich back down in my lunchbox, and slide it off to the side. I login to the computer – admin for both fields, because teachers are smart – and load up internet explorer. For the last week, I’ve been playing a flight game. I enjoy the way the plane rolls when I tap the keys, the way it rises when I hold the accelerator. I’ve gotten into a routine, tuned myself to the calming movement on the screen. I type in the address only to find the website has now been blocked.

“No one else today?”

My breath tightens for a moment, and I look up to see the Dinner Lady coming down the steps. She comes in some days, asks me about how things are. I know she’s part time, but I haven’t been able to work out any kind of pattern in her appearances. Don’t they give you schedules? I think they give you schedules.

“No one else today,” I reply.

“God, I don’t know how the hell you see in here,” she says, turning the light on.

“With my eyes,” I say, smiling. Unless my eating is particularly loud, people walk through the hallway without turning to notice the kid sitting in the alcove. At first I kept the light on, but I quickly became tired of people asking me what I was doing inside.

Behind me, she opens the door to the main hall, and steps inside. I hear her pulling off a chair from the one of the stacks along the edge of the room, and a moment later she returns, setting it down next to me.

“What happened to Elliot?”

“He’s sick,” I say, “He wasn’t in for register this morning.”

“That’s a shame.”

I take another bite of my sandwich. Usually I’m a fast eater, but with someone else present I always take the time to be extra careful. I pause, looking directly at the screen, so as not to talk with my mouth full. Mum tells me that it’s easy to forget, which means it’s important to remember.

“So what Joshua did was get bright idea of playing football inside the dining hall,” the Dinner Lady says. “Anyway, long story short, bam, he hits a table and now there’s food all over the floor. I came in here to hide.”

I sent my sandwich back down, turning to face her flicking me a guilty little smile.

“Is he going to get in trouble?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Good,” I say.

The Dinner Lady says nothing. She maintains the silence until I move my hands away from the keyboard, her eyes intent on studying my reaction. I don’t know what she thinks she’ll be able to work out. I’m not very interesting.

“Was that the wrong thing to say?”

She shakes her head. “How you been doing lately? With everything?”

“Fine,” I say, which isn’t a lie. Ever since I got the diagnosis, people have been asking me big questions like this. They never sound big, they’re the same questions I’ve always been asked but I can tell that isn’t the whole truth. It would be a lot easier if adults said whatever it was they wanted to say, because when they don’t, all that happens is that old words become new. Why does anyone think that would make it easier?

“School’s gotten easier,” I say, realising that her silence meant I was supposed to continue speaking.

“Are people being a little nicer now?”

“I think so,” I say, taking another bite, expecting the Dinner Lady to ask something else, but she’s still sitting there, waiting for me. “Mum says that people just need to get to know me, and that it’s easier one on one.”

She nods, and rubs the left side of her face with her finger, my words only registering in so far as she can tell when I am and when I am not talking. I’m not stupid, I know she’s come here to say something specific, but she still hasn’t managed to work out the right way to do so. I used to be so sure that feeling went away as you got older.

“What is it?”

“Joshua.”

“Oh.” I look at the table, bite my lip. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it was good that he’s getting in trouble.”

The Dinner Lady laughs, for a moment, before placing her hand on top of mine. I tense up, but after a second I realise that she isn’t grabbing or restraining me. I can feel the slightest shiver pulse through her hand, and fall onto mine.

“Just tell him to sit somewhere else, alright?”

“What?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I, uh –” Her hand tightens around mine, and I look back in her direction. I don’t like to make eye contact often, it’s too much of a commitment. Her eyes look so much older than the rest of her.

“Okay,” I say, and she takes her hand away.

She gives the table one last tap before standing and picking up her chair. I turn back to the computer to find something new to do to past the time; there’s still thirty minutes of lunch left and I’m going to need to occupy myself somehow.

I call out to the Dinner Lady as she’s walking up the steps, making sure that she turns the light off before leaving.