“What would you like on it?”
Nathan stared blankly, looked down at the selection of veggies and meats, then mumbled unintelligibly.
“Could you repeat that?”
“Uh, I’ll have lettuce, tomato, and, uh, what’s that in the corner?”
“The red onion?”
“I don’t think so. The yellow rings.”
“Banana peppers. Anything else?”
Nathan mumbled again, prompting the woman on the other side of the counter to start rolling up his sandwich. She then slid it towards the register and moved on the next person. Nathan wasn’t sure what to do until the guy at the register started speaking in his direction.
“That will be $6.48.”
Nathan pulled out the credit card his parents gave him and started to hand it over. The guy behind the register pointed toward the terminal. After a moment of confusion, Nathan swiped his card, fumbled with the on-screen buttons, and reached for his sandwich, pausing when the cashier slipped in the receipt.
“Have a nice day,” the guy said.
Nathan walked away without reply.
His friends were nearby somewhere. They said they would pick out a table somewhere in the food court, which Nathan didn’t know would turn into a sea of bodies by the time he’d go looking for them.
The sheer number of people made Nathan uncomfortable. He felt, as illogical as it was, that all eyes were on him. In reality, they were anything but. This much even he could see, once he allowed himself to breath.
Slowly he began to weave his way through the tide. Each circular table was surrounded by bodies. May of them were more attractive than what Nathan was used to, and that made him feel even more self-conscious. Suddenly he felt everyone could tell he wasn’t from around here. The place he called home came with significantly fewer stoplights. It taught you how to survive for days without power after a storm, but not how to navigate a crowd and what to say in those awkward moments when you bump into someone.
In those moments, Nathan hated that he didn’t have a phone. It didn’t need a five-inch screen or to be particularly smart. Being able to send texts or, when he was as desperate as he was now, make a call would be nice. But his mom still felt that, at fifteen, he was still too young, and in a place like where they lived, she was never exposed to how many kids were already carrying around phones and had been doing so for years.
Then again, everyone else having a phone seemed to be his saving grace. The people who weren’t talking to others were starting down at their screens. He was an overly self-conscious body moving in sea of downward facing heads.
Then he saw his friends. The four of them were already seated, all flailing their thumbs a the touchscreens in their hands. He sat down without a word. Only a few minutes later did someone look up and acknowledge his presence. By then he had already consumed half of his sandwich. A few more moments passed before any attempt at conversation.
As the group stood up from the table, Nathan no longer saw himself as the socially awkward one, even as he carried his trash to the car because he was too nervous to ask what everyone else had done with theirs.