Art can quell one’s respect for convention and sense of preservation. Because of that natural truth, I used to spend my lunch period sketching sculpture prototypes, trying to drain the haze of them that mudded my mind, alone in a stairwell. Hiding out under the steps during the lunch period wasn’t technically allowed, but teachers walked up and down the stairs all the time and didn’t say a word. Some of them looked down at me with lips pressed together and eyebrows pressed inward, but others didn’t even glance at me. I knew I was breaking a rule, but I had to honor my art. The stairwells were only off-limits to stop the addicts from smoking out of sight, after all. Though, the two of us weren’t very different in what we did and why. The only real distinction was that I wasn’t just hiding from the eyes in the cafeteria, but the mouths and ears as well. Those first few weeks of my senior year at a new school was one of quiet lunches spent hunched over messily scrawled ideas or staring blankly at a textbook page, pretending to study to make myself feel like a real student.
One day, none of particular monument, a teacher I didn’t recognize saw me. She careened off her path down to the nook where I was curled around my sketchbook with half of a sandwich hanging out of my mouth. Her form blotted out the flourescent lights of I associated with these sanitized hallways as she loomed over me, hands propped on her hips as she launched into a lecture. She wasn’t one of the familiar faces who passed through this starwell regularly. I don’t know if I set my water bottle down with too much force or bit into a fruit too loudly, but something summoned her to leave what she was doing and track down my quiet little corner. Maybe I was wrong and she was just going to a meeting that took her off her normal schedule.
She stomped up and began reprimanding me for breaking the rules and soiling the integrity of the school. That was all I heard before I tuned her out, looking off into some corner with a cobweb strung across it. When the drone of her voice quieted, I mumbled an apology and left. I didn’t even look her in the eye. Something drew tight in my stomach as the metal door crashed shut behind me. It felt final and reverberated through my heart and mind with that sense of finality that doors closing often have.
The days blurred as I spent my lunch periods in the hallway. The teacher from before seemed like the type to patrol the stairwell to make sure I wasn’t still there. Eating outside of teachers’ rooms or the cafeteria I think was frowned upon, but there wasn’t any set rule about being in the hallways. The teachers couldn’t touch me now.
Again, the course of my life came down to someone passing by out of chance. A classmate taking a different stairwell or going to the restroom at just the right time shaped me more than anything else in my life.
It was Connie. She worked at the same pizza place as me, but we didn’t talk much. We usually worked in different stations in the kitchen, and she was already close to the others by the time I started there. My coworkers weren’t exactly eager to open up their social circles to me, so I was content to put pepperoni on cheese for six hours and leave without saying a word.
I don’t know what moved Connie to come up to me while I stared blankly at a random textbook page, but she approached and gently kicked my foot. I didn’t look up at her until she did.
Her style was functional, and she wore it well. It wasn’t a shock to see her clothes outside of work. We had to wear t-shirts branded with company logos and stupid jokes aimed to create the illusion of casualness. I was surprised at making eye contact with her for what might have been the first time. She looked worried.
She asked me something, but it was distant as I sat thinking about what I could sculpt based on her. Maybe a stylized take on an oven? I blinked a few times and her eyebrows knit together.
I asked her to repeat herself, and she did. She was asking me if I usually ate alone, more impatiently this time. I said yes. She called me a loser and laughed. That stung. But then she asked me if I wanted to go eat with her and her friends. In retrospect, it could have been an ambush. I could have been jumped and gotten my lunch money stolen like a nerd in a bad 80’s movie. But at the time, something glazed over my judgement. Call it divine providence or desperation, but I blindly agreed. Connie pointed me toward a classroom at the end of the hall and said I could head in, she was running to the bathroom. I loitered outside of the door until she came back. She gave me an odd look when she saw me waiting, but motioned inside as she entered. I followed.
I didn’t know the teacher whose room the group ate in. That didn’t say much though, I only knew the handful of teachers I was taking classes with that year. The room was alright though. Lots of inspirational posters. And the teacher seemed nice. Her hair was blonde and it looked soft. Eventually she was a mild nuisance; she had a habit of eavesdropping and telling us to change the subject if we got too off-color. But at that point, her kind wave was a comfort as I entered the room.
There was a small group of underclassman sat against the wall beside the door, but Connie went over to meet a table of four others sitting in the opposite corner of the teacher’s desk. I pulled up a chair on the outside of the group. Connie didn’t spend time on introductions, but in time I came to know everyone at that table to what I hoped was a great degree. I didn’t have many examples to go off of. They were impactful, though, that much can be sure.
Jace was the most fashionable of us all, which honestly wasn’t a very hard thing to be. His eyes were clear and green, and his hair was a shock of spun gold. His style was offbeat and odd, but so was he.
Most of the group, I would later find, loved art, but Payton let it shape their personality the most. They wore lots of yellow. Paint stained their hands, almost everything they wore, and the wire rims of their glasses. They would draw at tables with us when they weren’t picking pigment and graphite out from under their nails. At first I thought that they were looking for attention, but that idea faded quickly. They legitimately loved art. Payton was hopelessly in love with not just the creation of art, but anything they could do to attribute time to it. Reading, discussing, looking at photos. Their love was pure, though. They weren’t obsessive. That fever had its own aura that Payton never carried. They were like a ray of light in the gray burden of artistic genesis.
Addison was encumbered by every artistic outlet not loved by Payton and myself. She couldn’t draw or sculpt, she admitted, but she was a kindred spirit. She loved film and literature and music. She told me that she loved bending others’ emotions to her will through what she did. She was unbound and wild. I liked her.
I wasn’t sure how Lily ended up with the others. She was bubbly and kind. The others seemed to speak cautiously around her. They always watched their words and discussion of anything bordering on a secret was immediately dropped in her presence. But she was nothing but trustworthy according to me. She had heat, though. She could go from stubbornly loyal to fiercely belligerent at just a few wrong words. I avoided the brunt of that, I think. Did that mean she liked me? I wasn’t sure.
It was odd seeing Connie interacting with others outside of a workplace. She was the blunt one, a girl who others would call rude, without a customer-service smile plastered across her face. Her attitude didn’t seem to bother the group. I don’t think they had much of a choice. From what I gathered, the five of them were outcasts who had rallied together after their sour lots in life had left them lost. I don’t have a timeline for their meetings, but that concept seemed true enough.
That was a fair deduction on my part given the fact that I first entered into a conversation comparing the harassment each person had experienced over the past week. I didn’t think that was a thing people discussed so openly. Jace had toilet paper thrown in his trees and Connie had been shoved against a locker. I awkwardly added in that my car had been egged, undercutting the already muddy conversation. That seemed to earn me some sort of badge of honor. Michelle and Lily, who were sitting in front of me, seemed like they didn’t notice my presence until then. They moved their chairs to make room for me at the table.
Even though I was now fully integrated into the circle, those were the only words I spoke during that whole period. I tried to learn more about each of them as they spoke, but my mind quickly spiraled into my art. I saw the way the light played off of Jace’s jewelry. The way Lily’s hair curled around her glasses. Back to Jace, this time the way his jacket folded across the table. And how it curved along the contour of his chest. I made myself look to Connie. I revisited the ideas I had had earlier. What could I make out of a pizza oven? I wanted to sketch, but I didn’t know if anyone here was nosy enough to stare. I later knew that they weren’t, but I never had the most trusting disposition.