Chapter 23. Cafeteria

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.

Call me! Had been spray-painted in green on the double doorway that led into Lourdes' courtyard, one word on each door. The security lock had been replaced and the doors newly painted.

The words unsettled her--not because they were a new brand of graffiti, the work of artist types (though she did not know the difference, then, between anglos and artists) instead of gang-bangers and other taggers, the art types asserting their ascendance, no, their presence. No, they unsettled her because she had been calling Lourdes, repeatedly, and was either being ignored or the message wasn't being passed along. Usually, Lourdes called back.

Marisol rang the buzzer. There was a new lock on the double doors; they used to stay open. But no one answered. She knew there were people home--including Lourdes, almost certainly. There were always about twelve people in the two-bedroom apartment. They had a lot of visitors from down south, which was one of the reasons Marisol and Lourdes rarely hung out at Lourdes' place. There was nothing to do in an apartment filled with people, and she didn't like being appraised by strange men. Her stepfather, Frank, had told her not to go to Lourdes' home at all. But that was no reason to stay away.

She walked down to the main drag--where they still had drag races--hoping to see her friend at the bus stop. It had been two days since the bus ride when Lourdes had stomped off, tears in her eyes, because Marisol wouldn't say why she was riding past her home stop. And she hadn't seen her at school, or after, at Walgreens or 98 cents.

At lunch, Marisol finally spotted her. Her lunch buddy had not waited. She was up near the front of the cafeteria line. To get there Lourdes would have had to leave class early. Sometimes they didn't even get their food before it was time to go back to class. A couple of the teachers sold muffins for a dollar--a loss probably--because there were kids who didn't have time to eat. And they didn't have money to buy food outside of school. But Lourdes usually waited for Marisol.

She hurried to her--the other kids wouldn't let her get in line, but she could slip Lourdes some money to get her something.

"Lo-lo," she called out, "I've been calling you. Where--"

She stopped speaking and walking at the same moment as she took in Lourdes' stony expression--affectless, like one of the thugs. Lourdes raised her eyebrows in a blank what? Expression as another girl, whom Marisol recognized from the neighborhood and rarely noticed at school, turned and regarded her the same way.

"What, you're not talking to me? Just 'cause I--?"

The two new friends looked at each other and then both turned their backs. Other kids in line were staring at her now, hoping for a fight. She heard murmurs and mockery but didn't take it in as she stood in place, too stunned to speak, and feeling ambushed.

Lourdes turned. "What are you standing there for? A handout?" But her face was not so stony now. Her eyes were flashing anger, and Marisol thought she saw pain, too, before the other girl turned back toward her like a hoopoe bird, her chest stuck out. She had overplucked eyebrows. And now Marisol saw that Lourdes had plucked hers down further, too.

Looking at that pair of stripped brows, she saw the next weeks pass in front of her. She saw the hallway taunts, getting shoved in the bathroom, the escalation to threats as they tasted blood when she cried. She saw herself leaving school early and walking north on the boulevard to a different bus stop. She heard the edge in Frank's voice as he told her it was her fault--she should have stayed away from Lourdes to begin with. Section eight, he'd say, shaking his head and looking at Marisol. I told you.

And how could she explain that as much as she feared Lourdes and dreaded going to school, she knew that Lourdes did it because she was defenseless.

Marisol walked out of the cafeteria, wiping her eyes so hard she scratched the skin of her lower lid. She patted the pocket of her hoodie. She felt the hard shape in place.

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