When you’re in elementary school, who you’re friends with depends in large part on who you’re in class with. I didn’t meet Michelle until fourth grade nor Penny until fifth, by which time groups had started to emerge. I was kind-of on my own. There were plenty of people I talked to and considered friends, but I didn’t really have a group. I remember one day I was wandering through the tables looking for a place to sit and I could sense someone watching me. I looked over and locked eyes with Michelle and something passed between us— understanding. She empathized with my situation and I forgave her staring. She motioned to her table and the people around her and asked me to come sit. It was a kindness for which I will be forever grateful.
The following year, Penny and I officially met in “The Quiet Zone.” This was where you were sent when you were misbehaving. There’s irony in this meet-cute.
Penny had never been in trouble before and would never be again. I, on the other hand, was well-versed in the ways of “The Quiet Zone.” You had to, as the name suggests, be quiet. You had to quietly reflect on what you’d done wrong and write a “plan” for how you would proceed. On the day in question, I was writing a plan about how to not start a food fight in the cafeteria. So was Penny. Only I hadn’t had anything to do with it and Penny had.
It was a pretty pathetic food fight, if you ask me. Definitely not movie scene worthy. A lone pea had left Penny’s spoon and flown across the table at a friend of hers. Which prompted this friend to toss it back. About the same time this exchange was happening, another food product was being aimed by a boy at a neighboring table, and as the lunch monitor was making her way through the tables toward Penny, this boy launched a chunk of his Zebra Cake into the air. What a waste of a Zebra Cake.
I’m pretty sure that was about all there was to it. I don’t believe there was a chance for it to go any further as the lunch monitors were already bearing down on the area, but I actually didn’t see any of it. Which is funny, because I have a clear image of it all in my head. It’s weird how the mind works. Penny’s retelling of what happened almost became the memory. In truth, though, I was sitting at the table directly behind Penny and my seat was facing away from the action. Apparently the lunch monitors didn’t see much of it either, because they came swooping down on Penny, believing her to be the main culprit— the one responsible for everything, including the flying Zebra Cake and the accompanying commotion at that table.
I turned to watch along with everyone else when the reprimanding began. Penny was beat red and too timid to say much. I heard her stammer that she hadn’t done it. That was all I needed. I had the tendency to stick my nose in places it didn’t belong. I jumped up and launched into some ridiculous protest, stating that I’d seen the whole thing, that the lunch monitor was mistaken, and that Penny hadn’t done a single thing wrong.
Since the monitor had only actually seen Penny flick the pea and was just assuming that was the inciting incident, and since I was the usual cause of disruptions, it didn’t take much to invoke her wrath upon me instead. She quickly shifted her perspective and decided that it had, in fact, been me who’d thrown the other food item— the larger and higher hurled one. And so I made the trip to “The Quiet Zone” consoling a tearful Penny and telling her it really wasn’t that bad there.
How prophetic a moment. I was taking the blame for her— or at least with her— and there I was comforting her. This is how much of our friendship would play out in the end. I would protect her; she would let me. I would bolster her up and try to make her feel good about herself; she would leave me wanting. I would support her unconditionally; she would quietly pass judgment on me for my indiscretions. I would fall in step behind her and her boyfriend as we walked the halls to and from class; she would look condescendingly at me and the person I dated senior year.
But for a long time, before such patterns emerged, we enjoyed the irony of the beginning of our story.