Portrait of Exile at Elementary School Cafeteria: Fiction by María Isabel Alvarez

Lights drop from the ceiling: low, glass-cased, chromatic. The gym is arranged in rows of faux-wood tables, their edges caked in sauce and calcified cheese. Meal trays dolloped with corn slide across brackets. Boys with mushroom haircuts and Michael Jordan jerseys blaze through the aisles, snapping the back-straps of girls poking straws into milk pouches. These girls are belly-soft and scrunchie-wristed. They roll sandwich meat into cigarettes and laugh through mouths fenced in tripwire. Their conversation is a litany of monosyllabic words you don’t understand, but enjoy listening to anyway. Words like ham and cheese and fuck

 You want a sandwich just like theirs. The clean, diagonal-cut of Wonder Bread. Instead, you fork into your mother’s leftover carne guisada. Hover over your plate so no one asks what you’re eating. Words surprise you. You often find them blinking back from all sorts of strange places: toilet-paper dispensers, the undersides of desk chairs, a pair of one boy’s cheating palms. Stamped like monograms across the table, you notice the Olympic rings of bottled water, aluminum coke cans, and next to this, the territorial markings of passing bench warmers: Jill + Mason = <3. Sasha F. was here! Michael Watkins sucks dick. Truths and untruths. A game of who’s who for the vocally inept. And today, etched into the wood like a company tagline, there’s youMaria A. is a dirty Mexicana cosmic blip in lunchtime history.

You feel a strange pang of pride. A warm sense of recognition. Mexican or not, you are memorable enough to warrant your own passive-aggressive sheen of graphite. You scan the aisles for a culprit, a guilty face, someone you can pin yourself on to, someone white, you hope. But no one looks up. All you see are the mouths that feed into the glut of food. A trash bin piling with shriveled milk pouches, lipsticked napkins, the soggy half-chews of personalized pizza. Picking at the strands of your mother’s cold beef, you lean your chin into the familiar contour of your open palm. Wait for the hour to pass.

María Isabel Alvarez received her MFA from Arizona State University and has stories published in Black Warrior Review, Sonora Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere.

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