We head inside and Cameron immediately starts stripping off layers, walking through the building without bothering to wait for the host to come check in with us. I leave my jacket and scarf on, trailing behind him. I’m still fucking freezing.
He leads me to the back room of the restaurant where there are more tables. In the corner, there are two or three pushed together hosting a group of at least ten people. One of the guys at the table spots us coming and waves to Cameron, who raises his hand uncaringly in response.
We cross the room and before I have a chance to get the lay of the land, Cameron pulls out an empty chair.
“Right here,” he tells me, pointing at the open spot.
I sit down quickly and give the people on either side of me a quick once over. The girl to my left looks pretty alternative. Her head’s shaved and she doesn’t even bother looking at me. The guy on my right seems like he might be nicer, but before I get the chance to say hello, Cameron puts his hand on the guy’s shoulder.
“Move your ass, Patrick,” he says with a laugh. “I’m gonna sit here.”
The guy named Patrick scoffs. I don’t expect him to get up, but then he does. He relocates to a seat across the table and Cameron sits down next to me. Then he reaches into the breadbasket at the center of the table.
“This place has really good bread,” he says to me. “It’s super fresh.”
“I can’t really eat bread,” I say.
He quirks an eyebrow.
“I can’t have gluten.”
He scoffs. “What, are you on a special diet or something?”
“I have Celiac,” I say, opening up the menu in front of me and scanning the options. “I can't have anything with gluten.”
“Sure you can’t,” he says with a chuckle. “Whatever, California.”
Wow. Thanks. Now I feel all weird and self-conscious. Does he really not believe me? I know there’s a stereotype about where I’m from, that people are really into their fad diets, but that’s not me. I don’t get the chance to continue the conversation though, because Cameron starts talking to the person sitting across from him.
“Matt, did you see the shit that went up in Stewart last weekend?” Cameron says in disbelief, and the guy lets out a laugh.
Stewart is one of our school’s galleries. It’s the space that the photography and digital media students share for their senior exhibitions. People each get their own wall for one or two weeks in the spring, depending on how many of them are in the department that year.
“I fucking hate photo majors,” Matt replies, rolling his eyes. “Everything they do is so cliche. It takes no skill.”
The girl seated next to him punches him in the arm, hard.
“You don’t know anything about photography,” she exclaims. “You’ve never set foot in the darkroom!”
Jeez. This is a lot. I like what’s up in that gallery right now.
I don’t say that, though. I feel like if I disagree with any of these people, they’ll just assume I don’t know anything about art. Or, worse, they’ll attack me. They’ll stare at me and roll their eyes, asking me who the fuck I think I am. They’re all probably older than I am too. I know Cameron’s a senior. He’s twenty-two. I’m only a sophomore.
I’m nobody really. None of them have asked me my name and I feel too uncomfortable to introduce myself. I’m surprised Cameron hasn’t introduced me to these people. I have no idea who any of them are. Still, I feel kind of star-struck sitting next to him, having him pull me into his life like this. So, I keep listening to him chat with his friends. None of them even acknowledge that I’m here.
Eventually, the waiter comes and I end up ordering a salad because it’s the only thing on the menu I know I’ll be able to eat without asking if it’s vegan or gluten-free and embarrassing myself. While the waiter goes around the table jotting down the other orders, I find an opening to talk to Cameron again.
“Where’s Avery?” I ask, hoping she’s planning on showing up later so there’s at least one more familiar face.
“Oh,” he scoffs. “She’s at home playing house with her girlfriend.”
“Yeah. Fuck, they get so boring when they’re together, Rudy. They’re so damn domestic.”
I don’t get why that’s a bad thing whether or not it’s true, but I don’t try to argue. Instead, I just give a nod and mumble, “Oh.”
I wish I knew what to say.
Inevitably, Cameron turns away and starts chatting with his friends again. He starts talking about a new project he’s working on but doesn’t give the details. His friends pry, but he still doesn’t give in. Instead, he says, “You guys will see soon enough.”
“Is it another installation?” the guy named Patrick asks and Cameron nods his head.
I zone out.
Why am I here?
I want to ask him, but I feel like it would be a stupid question and I don’t want to draw attention to myself.
I keep sitting there silently and inconspicuously, feeling like I’m eavesdropping because of how heavily I’m being ignored. I’m eventually uncomfortable enough that I pull out my phone to preoccupy myself with, but when I reach into my pocket I accidentally elbow the person next to me.
“Sorry,” I apologize quickly, yanking my arm to my side.
The girl, who’s the only person other than me to not say a word to the group this entire time, gives me an annoyed look.
“Who are you?” she asks bitingly.
“Um, Rudolf,” I tell her, my jaw tightening.
She looks me up and down. “One of Cameron’s friends?”
“Uh, yeah,” I say, glancing over my shoulder at him. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention though.
“Right,” she snorts, turning away from me and going back to sipping on her beer.
Why is she being so rude? She doesn’t even know me. None of these people do. Cameron doesn’t know me, either, to be honest. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who does know me.
I stare down at my phone. I scroll through Instagram, then check my emails and whatever else I can think of doing. Soon enough, the food arrives and I tuck my phone back into my pocket. I jab my fork into a piece of lettuce and take a bite.
Cameron ordered a hamburger. As soon as he spots my food, he snorts and points at my plate.
“Seriously? A salad?”
“It was the only thing I knew I’d be able to have.”
He looks skeptical but doesn’t keep hassling me. I keep munching on my leaves, doing my best to tune out the conversation that’s mostly devolved into people taking turns trash-talking someone in their classes. After what feels like a long time, the waiter finally comes back around to collect empty plates.
“Are you all together? Or separate?” he asks while juggling several dishes at once.
Several people from the table chime separate, but before the waiter has the chance to leave Cameron snaps his fingers to get their attention and then points to me and himself.
“We’re together,” he says, which surprises me. The waiter nods before walking away.
“You didn’t have to do that…” I say.
He waves a dismissive hand, acting like it’s no big deal, but it is to me. I’m not used to being treated like this. I don’t think I’ve ever been treated like this by someone who didn’t want something in return.
The girl with the buzzed head sitting next to me looks humored.
Cameron doesn’t bother responding. Instead, he just gives her a mean look.
Once everything is paid for, everyone begins to disperse, saying their goodbyes. I follow Cameron back out into the parking lot and say, “Thank you.”
“Yeah, sure,” he replies carelessly. "No problem."