Elizabeth shares every class except choir with Lily and Theo. She tags along with them to Future Planning in the computer lab third hour and sits next to Lily in Honors Junior English fourth hour. They compare schedules on the way to the cafeteria, in case Lily and Theo need to give Elizabeth a tour during lunch, but it turns out all three of them have Mandarin III and Physics together.
“Maybe you should just join choir too,” Theo says, elbowing Elizabeth. They’re a similar height, and Theo’s elbow lands at exactly the right spot on Elizabeth’s arm. “Are you an alto or a soprano? You seem like you could be either.”
Lily tries not to shove her nose too deep into Theo’s sleeve, but the closer they get to the cafeteria, the more confusing the smells get. And Theo smells so good that he’s whetting her appetite.
Ducking her face, Elizabeth lets out a tiny, nervous laugh. “I’m not so good at singing.”
“Most people just need a bit of practice,” Theo says. He peeks down at Lily when her nose collides with his sleeve, and quirks an eyebrow before turning back to Elizabeth. “We could totally help you.”
That only makes Elizabeth more nervous. Her shoulders tense, rising up past her chin, and she shakes her head vehemently. “No. I- I really don’t feel comfortable singing. Thanks for offering though.”
Theo flounders after that, clearly aware that he pushed something he shouldn’t have, but not sure where to go from there. He sends Lily one of his little fix-this glares and gently nudges her face out of his arm.
“You play any instruments?” Lily asks, before leaning back into Theo to breathe.
“Upright bass,” Elizabeth answers quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the growing cafeteria noise. “Though I didn’t practice much over the summer. And I don’t really want to join orchestra.” She looks away, like there's more to be said, but keeps her mouth shut.
It's chill. Lily and Theo don't know her well. There's probably some requisite friendship level before they can unlock her tragic backstory.
"Bass is cool," Theo says. He drags Lily off his sleeve again and flicks at her ponytail. "Lily and I would be so down to just jam with you on jazz tunes or something. You should hear her improvise."
"Oh my god Theo," Lily grumbles. He has both hands on her shoulders now, and he uses them to steer Lily right in front of him, like she's his personal battering ram. Last year, she would have been fine with it, but now she's upwind of Theo's buttery magic smell, and the cafeteria makes her eyes water.
When they reach the lunch room, Elizabeth scoots in towards Theo like she can hide behind him, which makes Lily all sorts of jealous. Her nose hurts. The place smells a little bit like extra greasy cheese and whole-grain bread, courtesy of the terrible pizza in the kitchens, and a lot like that one obligatory potlock Lily attended after church for her older brother’s graduating class. It’s a funny mix of awesome and terrible, and sometimes the two are not mutually exclusive. Lily thinks she smells stinky tofu somewhere.
“Is our spot from last year open?” Theo asks, peering over Lily’s head. She’s not sure why he asks her. She can’t see much beyond the writhing mass of bodies.
“It’s open!” he shouts, answering his own question. “The freshmen didn’t steal it. Thank god.”
Because she literally does not care, Lily lets Theo shake her by the shoulders before he takes the lead. He pushes and darts and weaves like a secret agent, and Elizabeth follows in his exact footsteps, because she’s tall enough to do that. She laughs, bright and throaty, when Theo nearly knocks over a dinky frosh, and Lily kind of hates herself for thinking it’s a nice laugh.
Lily makes it to the table well after Theo and Elizabeth sit down. They have their lunch sacks out and splayed across the flimsy plastic table, and Theo’s eyes gleam when they land on the container of jambalaya in Elizabeth’s hands.
“Dude,” Theo says reverently as Lily slides into her seat. “Jambalaya? I’m so jealous. That stuff’s way better than fried rice.”
“Your mom makes fried rice with shortening, Theo,” Lily points out. “It’s literally the best fried rice.”
“Hey, don’t expose my mom’s culinary secrets.”
“Your mom’s culinary secrets come from Benihana.”
Lily’s mother has no culinary secrets. She makes spaghetti from a jar and barely knows how to read a recipe. Her father is equally lazy, except on days when he gets a hankering for Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Side-eyeing Theo’s leftover stir-fry, Lily pulls a peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwich from her ratty paper lunch sack and chows down.
Maybe she should take up cooking.
Elizabeth smiles at them as she stands up to head for one of the microwaves scattered around the cafeteria. “What’s a Benihana?”
As Theo stands with her, he blinks. “You don’t know? It’s that kitschy Japanese restaurant chain? Also ignore Lily. She’s just sour that my parents are cooler than hers.”
They head off together, and Lily wishes she had something to eat that wasn’t handheld. She’d like the satisfaction of stabbing something right now. “My dad’s beef noodle soup is better than your mom’s!” she shouts.
Theo doesn’t hear her. The cafeteria is too loud.
Zhang Public Highschool has a cafeteria so brand-spanking-new that it sparkles despite the abundance of food waste and dirt and other terrible things that coat its floors. It’s a tall space, with a grand promenade of clerestory windows on one side and a massive opening to the school’s courtyard on the other. Their climate is too warm in summer to open the windows up, but once September and October are in full swing, the whole cafeteria becomes one big breezeway.
The student council even makes a fuss about it every year at the fall assembly. Their ultra-sustainable, open-air cafeteria is a point of pride.
When the hour is right, usually when school lets out for the day, sunlight sails in through the clerestory windows, hitting like sparkly yellow spotlights on the tables below. But right now, with the sun just left of overhead, the cafeteria is dark and shadowed against the bright noon light outside.
Lily chews on her peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwich and watches Theo and Elizabeth. She can’t always see them. A huddle of large football players sits at the table between hers and the microwave, and they move their heads to and fro to the loud, low beat of ‘dude’ and ‘bro’.
In one moment of clear vision, Theo and Elizabeth are just chatting idly, like acquaintances. In the next, Theo gets that glimmer in his eyes that he always has when he’s about to tell a joke. When Lily spots them again, Elizabeth is laughing, a hand over her stomach, head tilted back, like she’s never heard anything funnier in her life. Lily doesn’t know if she should be jealous of Theo or of Elizabeth. Maybe she should just be happy they’re getting along. She wants them to get along.
Eventually, they make it back. If either of them have food that smells good, Lily can’t tell it apart from all the junk around her. The air keeps swirling, tumbling towards the vents in the walls that lead to the air-conditioning system. Lily wonders what she’d smell if she stuck her nose in the exhaust.
“Did you miss us while we were gone?” Theo asks. Elizabeth snorts at that.
“No,” Lily says, with her mouth full.
The returning party sits down, and both their legs knock against Lily’s, and probably each other’s, as they settle back onto the plastic seats. Theo and Elizabeth hunch like the giants they are as they tenderly grope for the less-hot areas of their tupperwares.
“By the way, Elizabeth,” Theo says, with a note of practiced casualness. He cracks open his stir-fry, and a billow of steam curls up from his food. Lily tries to get a whiff of it, to see if she can distinguish real smells from magic smells. “Do not ask about Lily’s sandwich.”
“What’s wrong with her sandwich?” Elizabeth asks.
“He just said not to ask,” Lily mumbles. The peanut butter glues her gums together, and the raisins catch in her teeth.
Theo shovels a giant cube of fried tofu in his mouth and screws up his eyebrows in disgust. “Raisins!” he hisses. “She puts raisins in her sandwich instead of jelly!”
“You like oatmeal cookies,” Lily points out, her mouth still encumbered by peanut butter, “with craisins.”
“Those are both extremely disgusting.” But Elizabeth smiles as she says it, her spice-stained teeth glowing. “Why raisins?”
“It keeps the bread from getting soggy,” Lily says, because it’s true. It’s the only culinary secret her mom has that’s actually worth using. And honestly, jelly is slimy.