Lunch came as a tremendous relief—in all ways but one—and I was ravenous by the time we sat down.
The cafeteria was a huge affair with three buffet lines and a salad bar. Most of the big round tables had six or more people already sitting at them.
I spotted an empty one over by the huge plate-glass wall overlooking the central plaza. I grabbed my tray and sped towards it, but a long-haired guy in a blue-grey field-jacket beat me to it. He put his backpack down next to his tray and flopped down.
I looked around, hoping to find another table with enough space for the five of us. I approached his table, not sure what to do. He was older than me, but not that much, with unkempt coal black hair and a scruffy-looking beard. He reminded me of Charles Manson.
"Excuse me sir," I said in that submissive tone I just can't seem to shake when talking to strangers. I was pretty uncomfortable and shifting from foot to foot. "Are you sitting there?"
Of all the dumb things to say.
He looked up at me without lifting his head or saying anything. I was just about to slink away in shame when my brother and sister appeared at my elbow. We had to sit somewhere, and the sooner I ate, the sooner I could get to the laboratory.
He straightened up and smiled.
"Oh," I replied, mortified by my own stupidity, but not sure what to do next. I felt a sharp spasm in my bladder and tried to cross my legs while standing.
He laughed, and I started to turn away.
"I'm sorry, young miss," he said, standing and pulling out the chair to his left. "I was just joking. Of course you and your...siblings?"
I nodded and he continued.
"You and your siblings can sit here." He began moving around the table, pulling out two more chairs.
I sat down and plowed into my club sandwich.
My parents were not far behind us, and the scary man had pulled out chairs for them too by the time they reached the table. He seated Mother, like a maître d', and then the rest of the 'girls' in turn, before returning to his own chair.
Boys simply cannot use a straw without slurping. Robbie took a long loud drink of his Slurpee and stuffed his burger into his face.
Nothing in the world is more annoying than that congestive warble a straw makes in the bottom of a thick drink. It sounded like he was drinking pudding.
"Robbie," Mother said, picking up her glass of iced tea. The noise it made as she sipped at it made me think of Niagara Falls. "Stop playing with your food. Can't you see it's driving your sister mad?"
I nodded meekly and squirmed in my chair. Dr. Epstein was approaching our table opposite where I sat. He smiled at me with his whole face and approached.
"E-scuse me, Heywoods. Do joo mind eef I e-join joo?"
"Certainly," Daddy said and motioned to the empty seat beside me.
"Gracias," he said and put his tray down. I didn't recognize anything on it.
"I see joo haf met Señor Jackson," he indicated our funky tablemate.
Mr. Jackson smiled politely but seemed a bit distracted. He was scanning the crowd near the cash registers and stood up suddenly and started waving both arms.
He stopped when a small Asian woman waved back and started toward our table.
"Entonces," Dr. Epstein continued while Jackson took his backpack off the table and cleared a spot for the approaching woman, "I hope our e-staff hass not made jour morn-een too un-comfort-able."
"No, not at all," Mother replied automatically. She could receive a colostomy bag with grace. "You have a lovely modern facility. I have seen nothing but professionalism this morning."
"Girls," Daddy interrupted, looking at us in turn, "what has gotten into you?"
My bladder was way too full and I suspected hers was too. Gina was wiggling—not quite so much as me—but she had orange juice for breakfast; I drank coffee.
Why, O God, did I do such a thing? For that matter, why weren't the boys doing the potty dance? Was it possible that they were exempt from giving a quart-sized urine sample after lunch, or did they have gallon-sized bladders?
"Mitchell," Mother scolded him in sotto voce, "you leave them alone."
He gave her a curious look and I could see that she too, sat in no small amount of discomfort.
"What's wrong, dear?"
She gave him the crooked frown and he went quietly back to his plate.
Dr. Epstein rose as the young Asian reached the table and was seated by the scary Mr. Jackson. Daddy stood too, because that's what men do, and gave Robbie a pointed look.
Robbie popped to his feet and nodded at the woman. When she was properly seated the men sat back down, but Robbie continued to stare at her, mouth agape.
"Sit down," Daddy reminded him a bit harshly. "And close your mouth."
Robbie sat, cheeks burning bright with embarrassment and fiddled with his silverware.
"Allow me," Dr. Epstein said with a flourish and exaggerated formality, "to into-duce de Jacksons. Señor Teeper y Señora Diwata. Dey are patients here like joo."
The Jacksons smiled and bowed and Dr. Epstein gestured in our direction.
"And dees are de Heywoods." He pointed us out in turn.
"Señor Meetchell, Señora Beelee, Señoritas R-regina y Dani, and of course Señor R-roberto."
"It's nice to meet you," Tipper said, nodding vigorously and dug into his own lunch. His wife smiled and made a strange gesture. She did not look Japanese or Chinese, she was too dark. And although she had almond-shaped eyes and straight black hair, her face bore hints of Caucasian features. She was as pretty as her name, though, but looked much younger than her husband.
Silence reigned for a pregnant moment; that is to say, no one spoke, but there were all manner of noises: chewing and smacking; the clicking of silverware on plates; and the relentless drinking...and slurping. I felt I was going to explode.
Mother broke the silence.
"Dani, did you forget order a beverage?" She was drinking like a fish, and so was my sister.
I looked around and noticed everyone was sucking down liquids like they were camels expecting a drought.
She handed me her glass of ice-water. "Here, take mine. You must be parched."
"Not really." It was a lie; I was thirsty, but there was no way I could drink any more.
But the cold was tempting as well as suggestive. If I drank it now, and went to the bathroom just a little bit, I'd still be able to fill my quota, as it were.
"I changed my mind," I announced, standing up and draining the glass in one gulp. I set it empty back down on the table.
"Excuse me," I said, as the cold hit me and an irresistible urge flooded my body, "I gotta go," and fled to find the bathrooms as fast as my little feet could carry me.