There were always three options for lunch in my elementary school cafeteria. The two regular entrees varied by day, and if you didn't like either, there was always a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Every morning us kids would sit in neat rows on the technicolor spiral rug and raise our hands when the teacher asked who wanted what.
Paula the lunchroom helper used to think I was anorexic because I never ate lunch. Her job was to walk between the tables and make sure no one was throwing food at each other. Once she saw me throw away my untouched reheated vegetables and after that she watched me like a hawk. I was terrified of her. She was as wide as I was tall and had an incredible booming voice that always made me flinch instinctively, even if she was yelling at someone else. Soon I started coming up with inventive ways to sneak the contents of my tray into the trashcan. Sometimes I would scatter mushy peas surreptitiously under the table without the slightest twinge of guilt; no one thinks about janitors when they're six. I had a vague understanding that the floor in there was like quicksand and everything that sat on it for too long disappeared, which explained why they wheeled the tables in and out after lunch.
Not many kids ordered the peanut butter and jelly, even though the regular entrees were never very good. Hope springs eternal, I guess. Maybe they thought that this month's artichoke burger would be better than last month's, although the artichokes had probably been reused. I would usually just order the first option read out by the teacher, no matter what it was. It didn't matter what I got, since I rarely ate any of it.
Today, though, I was absolutely ravenous, since I hadn't eaten breakfast that morning. When the teacher called my name, I was busy hunting in the classroom cabinets for extra graham crackers and didn't hear her. No luck there -- just a few crumbs and an empty bag. When I snuck back to my assigned carpet square, the teacher immediately informed me that she'd marked me down for a peanut butter sandwich. I protested, but the list had already gone downstairs.
Ever since I can remember, I have hated peanut butter. Chunky, smooth, with chocolate or without, on celery or on crackers, no matter what: I just can't stand the stuff. In some company, this is viewed similarly with hating baseball or Momma's apple pie, which is to say there's something wrong with you if you do. Remember those commercials they used to show at school assemblies? You know, "Just Say No to Drugs" and all that? Yeah, that's nothing compared to what I went through with peanut butter. People would insist that I "just hadn't tried the right kind yet" and would go so far as to shove a spoonful in my mouth to prove their theory.
As soon as the bell rang for lunch, my class lined up in alphabetical order and trooped down the three floors to the cafeteria with me near the end of the queue. The wait was torture, as my stomach was trying to gnaw itself to death. At the same time, I dreaded having to take a bite of that peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I couldn't decide which was worse.
Finally, I reached the front of the line. One of the mesh-hatted lunch ladies leaned over the counter to get a good look at me. She was tall and thin (tall to me, at least) with a beaklike nose and kind eyes.
"And what can I get for you, sweetie?" she asked. I opened my mouth to tell her my order, but just then a familiarly noxious smell attacked my senses. Peanut butter. Even the smell could make me gag. For a second I thought about telling her to forget it, but discarded the idea almost immediately. Paula would surely notice if I didn't even order. Another idea came to mind.
"Can I have..." I began, uncertain. "Can I just have a jelly sandwich?"
"A pb&j, then? Sure thing, coming right up."
"No!" My voice was too loud. "I mean without peanut butter. Just jelly and bread."
"Hmm." The lunch lady regarded me thoughtfully. I noticed that she was wearing a nametag. Her name was Lydia.
"Please," I said. "I'm really hungry and I don't like peanut butter." I was on the verge of crying now.
"I suppose I could do that," Lydia replied, her mesh-restricted mop of hair bobbing up and down as she nodded. I sighed with premature relief and my tears subsided.
The sandwich didn't take more than a few seconds to make. As she slid it on a paper plate across the counter to me, Lydia added, "Don't tell anyone about this. I could get fired, you know."
I froze. Somehow, I had never even considered that possibility, and was so shocked by the realization that I could barely stammer out a thank you. What if she did get fired? It would be all my fault. Suddenly the tiny sandwich on my tray felt like a secret of national importance. I looked around furtively to see if anyone had overheard our conversation, but if anyone had, they hadn't called the police yet. I wondered how long one could go to jail for getting someone fired. Back at the table with my friends, I hunched over my lunch, hiding it with my body and sneaking one bite at a time. The jelly sandwich tasted like dust.
Lunch ended, and I dashed through the doors faster than an Olympic sprinter, hoping no one would catch a glimpse of my guilty face.
That was it, then. They'd throw me in jail before I knew what was happening. I turned around, expecting to see an angry policeman with his truncheon, but it was only Paula, running towards me as quickly as was physically possible for a woman of her stature.
"I saw you eating your lunch today," she said when she caught up to me.
I prepared for the worst.
"I want you to know that I'm proud of you," she continued. "It's important to keep up your nutrition, even if you don't feel hungry. That way you won't fill up on sugary snacks when you get home." When I did not respond, she clapped me on the back in a congratulatory manner and ambled off towards the main hall.
I looked for Lydia the lunch lady the next day at lunch, but she was nowhere to be found.
I never saw her again.