My hand looked like a toy wrapped in his. I had the fleeting thought that he could rip my entire arm out of my socket and eat it and I would not be surprised. Somehow, despite this, I managed to say, “Hi.”
“Whatcha got for lunch today, Irv?” Layla said as he lowered his huge girth onto the last open bench. “Anything good?”
“Dunno yet.” He unzipped his backpack—God, his wrists were thicker than my legs—and pulled out a large insulated cooler. As he opened it, I saw it was packed with plastic bags, which he began unloading. One had what looked like chicken legs. Another, some kind of grain. On and on, they kept coming: edamame, a stack of hamburger patties, hard-boiled eggs. And finally, at the very end, there was a bag packed with cookies.
“Score!” Layla said, seeing this. Irv grinned, suddenly looking much less intimidating. Like he might pull out your arm, but not eat it. “Toss those over.”
“I don’t think so.” He wagged a huge finger at her. “You know the rules. Protein first.”
“Irving. For God’s sake. I already have one diet nag in my life.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Mac said, eating another grape.
“Protein,” Irv repeated, waving his hand at his substantial meal. “Your choice.”
“Fine. Give me a couple of eggs.”
He handed over the bag, and she opened it, taking out two, then passed it back. Irving held it to me. “Egg? Whites are the perfect protein.”
“Um, no, thanks,” I said, holding up the grilled cheese I’d gotten. “I’m good.”
“Lucky you,” Layla grumbled, peeling an egg. “If I showed up with one of those, these two would never let me hear the end of it.”
“But you wouldn’t show up with that,” Mac said. “You’d just get fries and call it lunch. And fries aren’t a meal.”
“Fine, Grandma. Just shut up and eat your grapes, would you?”
In response, he threw one at her. It went wide, though, and hit me square in the face. As it bounced off, rolling into the grass, I saw his eyes widen, horrified.
“Nice, Macaulay Chatham,” his sister said. “Is that part of your game now? Throwing food at pretty girls to get their attention?”
I was pretty now? And then we were both blushing.
“I wasn’t aiming at her,” he said, clearly embarrassed. To me he said, “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Although I can see that as the beginning to a great love story,” Layla said.
“Here we go,” Irv groaned, eating half a hamburger patty in one bite.
This Layla ignored, pulling a knee up to her chest. “Seriously. Can’t you just see it? ‘He threw a grape at me on a sunny day, and I just knew it was love.’”
“That,” Mac said, spitting out a seed, “is the stupidest one yet.”
“Which is really saying something,” Irv added.
She made a face, wrinkling her nose, then said to me, “These boys have no sense of romance. I, on the other hand, am a connoisseur.”
“You call yourself a connoisseur of everything,” her brother pointed out.
“Not everything. Just candy, French fries, and love.” She smiled at me. “All the important stuff. Seriously, though, I know the start to a good love story when I hear it. I should. I’ve read hundreds of them.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really?” On his bench, Mac sighed audibly.
“Oh, yeah. It’s, like, my thing.” She peeled the second egg. “Romance and instruction manuals.”
“But not romance instruction manuals,” Eric, who I hadn’t even thought was listening, added.
“Seriously, though,” Layla continued, “I love reading about how to do things. Even if it’s something that, like, I will never do in a million years, like weave a rug or grout a floor.”
“Wow,” I said.
“I know. I’m, like, a process addict or something.” She ate the egg, chewing thoughtfully, then swallowed and added, “Or, you know, a connoisseur.”
Truth: I was having trouble keeping up. Not just with this conversation, but the people actually having it. I’d spent so much time alone lately that I’d forgotten what it was like to be relaxed in another person’s company. I liked it.
After that first lunch, I began eating with them every day. Once the bell rang, I’d get something to eat from the food trucks, then cross the grass to either join whoever was already there or stake out the benches until they arrived. Foodwise, every day it was the same. Mac and Irving brought their lunches. Eric was partial to a fruit punch and buttery grilled cheese from the cafeteria. And Layla looked for fries.
She hadn’t been kidding about the connoisseur thing. This girl took her frites seriously. It wasn’t enough for them to be potatoes and fried, all that most people, myself included, really cared about. Oh, no. There were specifications. Required seasonings. Rules about everything from temperature and packaging to whether the ketchup was from a packet or a bottle. (This last one had subrules and addendums, as well.) Going to look for fries with Layla was like tagging along with my mom while she perused office supplies, requiring both patience and a substantial time commitment. By the time Layla got what she wanted, I was often finished with my entire lunch, if not already hungry again.
“What’s most important is the shape,” she explained to me the first time I joined her on this quest. “They should be long, not stubby. Decent width, but not thicker than a finger. Only the most basic seasoning, nothing crazy. And served hot.”