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I had French with Kate Williams and Ben Miller in eighth grade.
There was something about Kate that I felt drawn to. She wasn’t particularly pretty; her flat brown hair was a deep contrast to her pale skin, eyes a plain brown and paired with bulky glasses, comprised of thick thighs and a body that would never be considered skinny no matter how much she exercised.
Sometimes her skin was laced with ink, doodles that would turn to tattoos in later years, sometimes clumped with scars she tried to cover with long sleeves. She thought I was funny and laughed at my jokes, but there was something behind her smile that hinted at something deeper, something that cried of sad lonely nights and a life that I would never fully comprehend no matter how hard I tried. There was something inside her that was broken, beautifully tragic, and maybe I found her so fascinating because humans are attracted to destruction.
Our French class was run by an Indian woman who barely spoke English, let alone French, and who was so oblivious I almost felt sorry for her. Kate and I would sit in the back of the room and snicker along with our class whenever she made a mistake, and soon the entire class became a test of how much we could make fun of her without her knowing. I was her prized student, the one whose answers she used for the answer keys and who all the other students would have hated had the class not been such a joke. If it taught me anything it is that middle school students are ruthless and teachers, especially the clueless, are often the most vulnerable prey.
Kate and I became friends, and we sat together everyday. I didn’t talk to Ben until Valentine’s Day, when we were making cards in class.
“Kate, I wrote you a poem,” Ben said, holding up a lacy heart-shaped piece of paper. “Will you go out with me?”
Ben was six feet tall, a sheath of blonde hair and freckles and blue eyes. He was hilarious; everything that came out of his mouth was outlandishly funny and entirely inappropriate. He was all wit and cunning, the definition of a smartass, but having known him since fourth grade I knew he also had a stepdad he hated and that there was something slightly broken inside of him too.
Kate rolled her eyes and smiled. I presumed he was joking, but was surprised to find his poem was actually really good and discovered that he was dead serious. They started officially dating in March.
I loved being a third wheel. They shared their world with me and I basked in it. They were not a perfect couple, they fought all the time and half the time made jokes about how ugly the other one was, but they meshed well.
The broken part of him complemented the broken part of her. They genuinely loved each other. In his journal, he wrote about how his favorite day of the year was when they sat on his roof together and watched the sun set, her hair flying in the wind, tinted red from the sunlight, and he thought to himself, god, she is so beautiful.
There were rumors about them of course. “She’s such a slut, did you hear what she let him do to her?” But they were spread by jealous girls who had never had a glimpse of what real love was, and I felt so lucky to be trusted to share in their love for each other.
He got in fights over her; she broke down crying sometimes. She screamed and shouted and threw things; he punched walls. He smoked pot, sometimes until everything went blurry at the edges, and she did too. They both drank until they couldn’t remember.
People talked about him, they spread rumors and told lies and also truths he never wanted unearthed. She didn’t believe them and when she did, she always listened to him first before listening to the others. She never left him, until she did.
It was the little things they did. When she held his hand in class or when he called her more beautiful than any model he ever saw. When she comforted him after his grandfather died. Sometimes just the way he looked at her was enough, as if she was the most beautiful thing he ever saw.
When they broke up, I almost cried. Now I see her and she is still sad and I am sad now too but sometimes we sit together and smile at each other and the world is a little less sad. When I see him, he is high or he is smiling or he is happy or faking it, but he is still broken. We are all broken, that is the one thing that never fades.
Last night I saw them, two years since that French class, drunk on dance music and high on pot. She was settled into his lap, a straw dangling elegantly between her fingers like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, smiling up at him. Just the way he looked at her was enough.