It's pity that I feel in my heart for them. No amount of tanning and padded bras can disguise the fact that they are skeletons. Their pale skin, stringy bleached hair, wide, sunken eyes - that's fashion, honey. Not beauty.
They sit at their usual table, staring at one another, avoiding the food in front of them as if it was poisoned and crawling with maggots. I can't hear what they're saying from where I'm sitting, but I have heard enough in the past to last me a lifetime: backstabbing lies, sugarcoated with over-practiced kind smiles.
Everyone knows their names, but nobody knows what they're thinking. They gossip about fashion and boys but nobody discusses what's going on at home. And nobody cares. It's just a mask.
And then a shriek pierces the dull hum of cafeteria sounds. I stare at the popular girls' table, and so does everyone else. Emma is shouting, Chelsea is crying, and Karen looks like she's about to faint. Emma pushes her tray at Chelsea, who apparently has done or said something to upset her. Somebody yells "Fight! Fight! Fight!" and a couple other people join in.
But Emma gets up and storms off. The cafeteria descends into silence. The remaining blondes whisper to one another, and eventually get up and leave. Everyone starts to talk again, trying to guess what's going on. I finish my fries and leave. Word will get around soon enough.
I realize I need to use the washroom, but I'll bet my fake pumps that the popular girls have the main floor bathroom occupied. So I try the second floor girls' room: empty. I choose the wheelchair accessible stall because there's a bit more room to breathe. I can hear the door open and someone comes in. It sounds like she's crying softly, her sniffles echoing off the tile floor. I know it's not polite to listen, and I'm not even sure she noticed I am here, so I clear my throat quietly. A stall door bangs shut and she starts coughing. No, retching. The sound makes my stomach churn and a faint smell of bile reaches my nose.
I roll my eyes in disgust, pull up my pants and flush, planning to vacate the room as soon as possible. But while I'm washing my hands, watching my sad expression in the mirror, there's a woosh as she flushes the toilet. She emerges, wiping her mouth with a crumpled ball of toilet paper.
It's Emma. "I think that salmon was a bit off," she supplies, with a guilty attempt at a smile.
I don't say anything. Just turn off the tap and reach for a paper towel. There aren't any. I proceed to wipe my wet hands on my jeans. You didn't eat any salmon, I want to tell her, you had one glass of milk and threw the rest out. You're not fooling anyone. Most girls don't even bother to make excuses anymore. I walk around her and pull the door open to leave.
I hesitate. So she remembers.
"That's your name, right? We used to be friends, way back when were kids."
She had lived just down the road. Her dad was my dad's boss. We did everything together. It feels like two lifetimes ago.
I don't know what to say. I like Emma the way I remember her - a sweet little girl who loved playing Barbies with me and showed me how to wear perfume. But I don't want to be friends with this girl. The only reason she would hang out with me is to look thinner by comparison.
She seems to take my silence as an invitation to share her life story. "Oh my god, you must hate me. I moved away and we promised to write and phone all the time, and then I stopped. I guess I just got so busy and made new friends... and I got so caught up in... everything was perfect and now it's..."
Tears start to run down her cheeks again, her mascara smearing as she tries to wipe them. "I just don't know what to do," she whispers between sniffs.
I watch her, unsure whether she is crying over a broken nail or heart. Either way, compassion begins to rise in my heart. She's not a bad person. She's a beautiful girl, trapped in a battle that she can't win - the fight to be loved. Even when she was little, her mom was always on diets. Her dad never really came home from work. Even if only half the rumours are true, she's been through a lot of boyfriends.
"What happened in the cafeteria?" I ask, gently.
Emma looks at me, her eyes wide under sticky wet lashes.
Three girls walk in, talking and laughing loudly. Emma dries her eyes, fixes her makeup, and leaves the bathroom. By the time she hits the hallway, her smile is plastered back on, her famous sashay exuding confidence.