The cafeteria buzzed with chatter as every student shuffled through the endless lunch line, squashed the cheesey mashed potatoes onto their plates, clattered their trays on the plastic tables, and murmured about the next hour of classes. The conversation of the swarming students rose and fell as the ocean, at times it would be unbearable and unable to hear one’s own thoughts, at others the smallest whisper could be heard by someone on the other side of the spacious room. With its vaulted ceilings, it carried an echo like none other, so that as the noise rebounded and redoubled, it amplified to a great roar.
It was here, in this most unromantic of places, that Dido, clutching her Passion Fruit Brand grape juice in one hand, happened upon one table, previously occupied by undesirable nerds and geeks, which was now in the hands of mysterious men, laughing at the inside jokes and praising the great one-liners and comebacks of their own kind. As her eyes scanned the rows of the comrades, her eyes fell upon one, stronger than the others, taller than the others, darker than the others, who shone with confidence yet was reigned in by slight resignation and gleamed with pride yet was repressed by enough humility, who made her heart skip a beat, made her knees shake, and made her mind forget her friends sitting at the far side of the cafeteria and sparked her desire to get to know this great leader who had led her heart away.
She took a sip of her juice and strode forward with her shoulders square back. As she approached the center of the table, where he sat, the crowd parted to let her through, the conversation died down to a murmur of what it had previously been, and the eyes of the strange men were all fixed on her. The one in question was laughing at some unimportant joke told by one of his companions. As his eyes nonchalantly reached her, they locked in place, and the smile fell away to a mouth slightly gaping, eyes slightly shining, heart slightly fluttering.
She strode towards him, looked him straight in the eyes, and asked, “You don’t seem too familiar. Are you new here?”
The roar of the whole cafeteria had reached one of its valleys at Dido’s calming voice. The unexpected silkiness of the words caused him to stumble slightly in his words, “I- I am.”
“I’m Dido.” She held out her hand. “And, welcome to Carthaginian High!”
He got the message. He shook it, adding just enough strength to attempt to impress. It worked. “Aeneas,” he stuttered out. “And, thank you.”
Dido and Aeneas locked eyes briefly, but she broke away to gesture to the others sitting at the table. “I don’t mean to exclude your friends, of course. Everyone’s welcome." She turned back to him. "You just looked like the leader of the group.”
“He did used to be a team captain,” piped up one seated member.
Dido briefly glanced at the unnamed voice, but focused her attention back towards Aeneas. “Oh, team captain?” she proposed. He picked up the slack.
“Yeah, we all used to play at Trojan High last semester - I was a wide receiver - but.... well... you know.”
Her tone snapped to sympathetic. “Oh, yes, I heard.” She pulled a chair from the table next to them and sat down next to Aeneas. A silence emerged. Shifting eyes filled the conversation with awkwardness, pondering how to progress further, how to break open the unbroachable subject.
As a lumberjack studies a tree, tracing around the foot, following the roots, scanning the tall trunk, deciding the best way to strike with the ax, in as few swings as possible, to fell the mighty beast and carry the wood back to the fireplace to warm the hearth.
Dido offered the setup: “But, it never hurts to hear a first-hand account of what happened.” Cautious, she added, “If that’s okay with you, of course.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s fine,” Aeneas deflected, but then said, “Like, it does hurt a little bit still, but it’s-”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“No, no, I do want to. Really.” With this, he sat back, ordering out in his mind the events: the successes, the defeats, the joys, the miseries, the cheers of victory, the cries for help, the journeys, the labyrinths, the pain. Finished, he jumped onto his chair and began:
“RAGE: Sing goddess, Achilles’ rage, black and murderous- no that’s not right.”
He paused, ignoring the disgruntled looks and annoyed comments thrown at him for interrupting their conversations with his loud roar. He switched some things around in his mind, remembering again how he was supposed to start, Dido all the while gazing up at him. Finally, Aeneas began his tale...