A name is loudly called as the conversation of the mothers sitting at a table next to me fluctuates in volume. I take a seat while ice tumbles from the soda machine into an awaiting cup and shockingly high heels click from carpet to the hardwood floor and back again. An overwhelming joy washes over me, and silence over comes my senses as I gaze at the cliché, giant and unearthly boring paintings which adorn the walls. I settle into the half-table half-booth in the northwest corner of ‘our Panera’ just as I have many times before. The only difference this time is my lack of company. Uncomfortable in my lonesomeness, I awkwardly shift in my chair. This has been the place where we have all grown up together. This is a warm and homey refuge of which we have all relied on, where we have learned from and about, laughed with and at, and loved each other every moment. Panera is the place where I have learned who my true friends are, a place radiating warmth and love that runs deeper through its walls than any pipe ever could.panera.jpg

The tan, almost golden, walls wrap the thick and regal smell of fresh baked bread and expensive perfume into a euphoric cloud inside the room. Painfully preppy women and teens wander about the restaurant in their immaculately pressed oxford polo shirts and jeweled headbands, gleefully gossiping about their neighbors. As the cook behind the counter calls out in a bored tone, “Melissa!” and a small, youthful and immature looking girl loudly patters up to retrieve her salad and heads back to a table with her friends, I am reminded of the first time my friends and I came here in the 7th grade.

During the last period of one frigid and unpleasant day, my friends and I decided that we wanted to go somewhere after school. I think that what we really wanted was to feel cool enough to do something with our time other than sitting in our overly cleanly family rooms and watching Ellen. With none of us being even near the age to drive, we were left to brainstorm places we could experience the thrill of freedom, when it occurred to my best friend that her school bus dropped her just several blocks from the shopping center that housed a Panera Bread. We all agreed that Panera was the perfect place to fuel our hunger, both physical and metaphorical. I had never been to a Panera before and the second we walked into the store from the bus stop I knew that this place was something wonderful.

As we cross through the threshold into Panera, a certain youthful euphoria seeps into my veins, my heart shakes with an instant terrified anxiety as the back of my throat dries over. It is nothing other than a horrifying festive sensation. Middle schoolers from the school just down the street are parked throughout the place, crawling over the booths, cheerfully throwing food and flirting with one another at decibels that shoot arrows at my eardrums. It looked just such a raucous situation, a beautifully raucous situation that I instantly yearn to join. We order our food, (cinnamon crunch bagel with a side of nutmeg cream cheese, $2.06) and assemble at the only table big enough to seat our large group of 7.

The table I sit at now.

There is a certain comforting familiarity in the sticky fake leather booth seat that I am currently in, and as I trace my fingers across the Formica-like table top, I feel as if I could predict each bump and ridge on its face. I like the uniformity of this location, it feels as if I know, somewhere deep within me, that this table that has experienced all the best memories of my life, and that without out it, I wouldn’t be whole. Continuing to run my fingers over its edges, I am embracing everything it stands for, extracting every happy memory from it surface with just the light touch of my thumb. I was a part of something, we all were a part of something. We had a place, a consumer’s home away from home. There was no going back, and that’s a good thing.

I am shaken by the muted wail of the Mitchel Musso ringtone coming from my bag, and as I gaze at the caller ID the display says “Shannan Cell Calling…” I grin, Shannan is the rambunctious, hilarious, and free-spirited girl who always finds a way to make sense of hard times by bringing smiles to the faces in her company. The others, Annie, Katie and Shannon are equally distinct. Annie is flamboyantly immature, always looking for a new thrill to shake her life into sync and continuously willing to sacrifice anything reach her dreams; while Shannon is like a emergency shower in a Chemistry classroom, shy and closed off until you pull the cord, at which point she overflows with warmth and friendship. And then there’s Katie. Katie the rebel, the reckless, and the beautifully irrational. These girls have, more than this room itself, created my image of Panera. They are the reason I never think twice about spending seven dollars on a sandwich; I know that they will always wait at the end of the line, ready to take a seat and divulge their newest and deepest secrets.

From that Thursday on we went to Panera at least once a week throughout the seventh and eighth grades. While we told our parents were doing homework, we were actually spying on the Cherry Creek boys at the table next to us, scrutinizing the girls that they were sitting with, or texting the guys we liked and loudly gossiping about it.

Slowly, as our infatuation with the West students began to diminish, so did our numbers in attendance. From seven to six and then four, until not only was the whole group never together any more, but Panera was almost always never the meeting place. Before I knew it, the summer of eighth grade was pulling to a close and while the group was back to the almost original seven, we were all heading in different directions. Three of us went to Arapahoe, two off to Littleton, and one was Regis bound. Not only were we leaving our Panera days in the past, but our times of being a close group were drawing to an end. Acknowledging that it was time to grow up, we steered clear of our old stomping grounds for that last sacred summer.

It was a text I received on the first day of freshman year that made me realize that we didn’t need Panera to be whole, we just needed to make sure that the distance never came between us. She had said something like, “Know that I will miss your faces every morning. But I will get through the week knowing that I will see them every weekend, this friendship is stronger than the names written on the outside of our schools, we can do this.” And I think we all knew what that meant, my hunch was assured when that Friday morning I received another text saying, “Panera time, girls?”

And just like that first day, as I walk into Panera with my fellow AHS girls I can feel a gaping look interrupt my face when confronted with the image of all the girls sitting at our table. Katie, Annie and Shannan are playfully throwing bread crust at each other and laughing loudly through their lemonade-slurping straws. I hurry over to the congregation, feeling Shannon and Sami following closely behind. After the long-winded exchange of hugs, smiles and deafening squeals of reunited delight, we all find our way into our usual seats around our table. While popping a once projectile-bound piece of smooth and buttery crust into my mouth, I can see that nothing as frivolous as different schools and nothing as stupid as ‘being too cool or too old’ for Panera is ever going to hold us back from being with each other. I grab another jagged piece of crust off of the corner of a nearby plate as serenity quickly overcomes the table with each occupant realizing the importance of this enlightenment. An involuntary smile overtakes my face, and as I flick the crust across the table at Shannan I realize two things:

1. We are back.
2. We had never really left. This is how it was supposed to be. We work together, we’re happy together, it clicks.