March 24th, 1984
Claire couldn’t sleep. The night grew shorter and shorter, turning into early morning before managing even ten seconds of sleep for the night. She stared at the wall of her bedroom, refusing to roll over and face the numbers of the clock on her bedside table. If she did, the hours she’d spent in the dark with her mind wide awake would suddenly be far more real.
It wasn’t that she was a stranger to losing sleep. Sometimes she did it on purpose, watching a movie on cable late into the night at the lowest volume. Sometimes the thought of a test the next day churned her stomach just badly enough to not allow sleep. Sometimes, the memory of a fight with her girlfriends kept her awake, even though she knew that it would be quickly forgotten.
Tonight, something was different, and that something was John Bender. She couldn’t believe that in one day – just a few hours – that she had gone from not even considering giving him the time of day to giving him one of her Tiffany earrings.
She loved those earrings.
Try as she might, she couldn’t figure out what had come over her. She thought about everything from the hideous flannel he’d worn, to his face working its way between her legs while he hid under the table, to the infuriating way he had been pretty right about everyone there.
By the time she finally fell asleep, still curled up in a tight ball facing the pink wall of her bedroom, she had yet to find any answers.
March 28th, 1984
Bender hadn’t been in school on Monday, and it was easy for Claire to slide back into her normal routine, friendlier to Andy than she had been before and giving a small nods to Brian and Allison as she passed them in the hallway. Without Bender there, it had been easy.
She should have known that it wouldn’t last forever.
On her way to her fourth period English class, she saw him. Principal Vernon grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, dragging him towards his office and parting the sea of students ahead with his voice. Maybe it was just the sight of her own earring sparkling in his ear as he passed, but she knew she would have said hello to him if he hadn’t been otherwise occupied.
She had said, herself, that she wouldn’t say hello to him in the hallway. She had meant it, one hundred percent, yet now she couldn’t shake the urge to do just that.
March 29th, 1984
“What are you doing here?” Bender asked. Claire didn’t know how he’d managed to notice her. The tiny restaurant, Sarkis, might have more tables and chairs than floor space and enough hash browns piled on the grill to feed the capacity of the restaurant three times over, but one thing it never lacked was a crowd.
“I’m eating here,” Claire replied simply, glaring and pushing her way past him to the counter. “Ham sandwich and cheesy hash, please.”
“I thought you only ate weird fish and seaweed and shit,” Bender sneered. “On second thought, maybe it was just shit.”
“You’re disgusting,” Claire said as she walked away, momentarily thrown off by the slightest hint of a smile on his face. She wanted to keep glaring, but Bender had been right. She almost never came here, though nearly everyone else did. Every teenager from the North Shore swore by it as either a hangover cure or an afterschool hangout.
He didn’t see it, but she smiled, too.
April 3rd, 1984
Claire glared out the window of her health class at the gently falling snow. She wasn’t sure if the glare was because of a class that irritated her every single day she sat in it, or if it was just simply because snow was falling from the sky in April.
She supposed it was both.
Perhaps even more, Bender sitting in the back of her class infuriated her. She favored in the front, half-paying attention so that she could answer questions quickly and accurately if needed with as little effort at possible, but these last few weeks, she couldn’t stop sneaking looks behind her.
Sometimes she would tell herself it was just because of the flannel, but sometimes, she caught looks on his face that made her so uncomfortable that her insides began to squirm. The way he held himself, the ways his expressions turned from annoyance to disinterest to somber as his mind wandered away from even pretending almost to care about the spread of AIDS.
Claire knew something wasn’t right, but she didn’t let herself think about it.
“Claire…” the teacher began, snapping Claire’s mind back to class. They were pairing up for a group assignment. “And John.”
Claire’s friend whispered a remark under her breath about how unfair it was to have to partner with that loser, but as she exchanged a tight nod with Bender, Claire didn’t think it would be that bad.
After all, he still wore her earring.
April 19th, 1984
Claire waited impatiently in her dining room. Bender was on his way over to work on their project, the third time they’d met for it. Claire privately thought that this was probably the hardest Bender had ever worked for anything school-related that wasn’t shop.
They had mostly been civil to each other. They mentioned nothing: their kiss, her earring, the detention, but the conversations were almost normal. Today, Claire’s impatience manifested in tapping a pencil on a notebook and wiggling her knee up and down under the table, and try as though she might to deny it, she could almost feel her heart grow more and more excited during the wait.
The moment Bender walked through the front door, everything was forgotten. His right eye had swollen up, red and purple colors beginning to invade the light skin. A hand print, clear as day, on his cheek just below, and Claire swore he favored his left leg as he walked to the table in an futile attempt to pretend nothing was wrong.
“Oh my God,” Claire said, hand moving upwards to cover her mouth hanging open in shock. “What happened?”
“My dad,” Bender said simply, but Claire said nothing, the look of shock slowly turning towards concern. “What, you thought I made all that shit up about cigar burns and cigarettes?”
“No, I just…” Claire tried to speak, but she just didn’t know what to say. She’d never actually been faced with this type of situation.
“You’re just here to study?” Bender asked, plopping into a chair and opening the book in front of him to a random page. “Great, me too! I love to study. Can’t get enough of it.”
“So you’re just going to ignore this? How can you ignore it?” Claire asked, unsure if she was worried about how she would react or simply showing concern about him.
“Easy,” Bender said, now flipping through Claire’s notebook for a blank page and rooting through her things for a pen. “We don’t talk about it.”
“You have to tell someone,” Claire said.
“No, I don’t. Sit down.” Bender leaned down towards the table to her as Claire reluctantly lowered herself into the chair across from him. “This isn’t something you need to worry about. This isn’t your life. We’ll just get through this today, have our last meeting next week, and you never have to speak to me again.”
“But I want to speak with you,” Claire mumbled.
“What?” Bender asked.
“Nothing,” she replied, convinced he had heard her.
April 23rd, 1984
“Honey, I’m home!” Bender announced as he walked into Claire’s house for the last night of their project. “Sorry, I just didn’t think I would ever have a chance to be in the Cleavers’ house again, and I just wanted to see what it was like.”
“We don’t actually do that, you know,” Claire said.
“Of course you do.”
“Bender,” Claire began as they took their usually seats at her dining room table.
“I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“The way you came over here the other day,” Claire said. “I just thought…”
“You just thought what?” Bender said, standing up to tower over her and leaning right back down in her face. “You thought that you’d just help poor Bender, the guy no one loves and who can’t possibly take care of his own fucking business? Is that what you thought, Claire?”
“No, I…” Claire mumbled, but even though Bender had paused to take a breath, the silence of his rage was just as deafening. Before she could even get a real word out, he started again.
“It doesn’t matter what you think. You don’t understand, you couldn’t possibly understand.” Bender held his arm out, just like he had a month ago in the library. “You see this scar? You will never have anything like this. No one would dare scar the delicate skin of Little Miss Perfect. Sure, your daddy might be disappointed in you and hate that he doesn’t know how to deal with you, but you get diamond earrings out of the deal. I got this.”
“Bender, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to help.”
“It doesn’t matter what you just wanted to do. You can finish this goddamn project all by yourself. I’m out of here.”
Without another word, Bender ripped Claire’s earring out of his own ear, slammed it down on the table in front of her, and stormed out the front door. Claire watched him stomp across the front lawn, down the driveway, and along the sidewalk until he moved out of sight.
Claire was so shocked that she didn’t even begin to cry until she looked down at the table and saw her earring, glinting in the afternoon sunlight from the top of the pink notebook she hadn’t even opened.
April 24th, 1984
The next day at lunch, Claire absentmindedly chatted with her friends, inserting a “No way!” and a “I love that sweater!” whenever it seemed appropriate, but she was watching Bender. He and his friends had just walked in, their eyes and demeanor broadcasting the look of someone who had just smoked a bowl to anyone who cared to notice, but something didn’t seem right. Bender wasn’t laughing the way his friends were.
As Jennifer droned on with a story about how her manicure had just been absolutely atrocious, Claire watched in horror as one of Bender’s friends started to march towards an unsuspecting Brian, immersed in a physics book with one of his friends.
She’d witnessed fights before – what high school student hadn’t? – but never so unprovoked and certainly never involving anyone so close to her heart. She watched as he grabbed collar, pulled it back to choke him before he even had a chance to retaliate. She saw Bender run up, screaming in his friend’s face and tearing him off Brian. She let herself relax for a moment before the two supposed friends looked at each other, fury in their eyes, and began throwing punches.
Before she knew what she was doing, she sprinted towards them, leaving her own friends behind and yelling at them to stop. No one listened to her, but it didn’t matter. A few moments later, a dean marched the four of them straight to the principal’s office.
She sat herself in a hard plastic chair in the waiting room outside Principal Vernon’s office, last in line after Bender, Bender’s friend, and Brian. When his secretary finally called her name, she walked slowly across the floor, heels click-clacking their way to an identical plastic chair across the desk from Principal Vernon.
“Why did you ask me here?” Claire asked as she sat down, adopting an air of contempt and crossing her arms in the way only a spoiled girl from the suburbs could manage.
“Well, you did try to stop the fight, Claire.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No,” Principal Vernon said, closing his eyes for a second while he drew in a deep breath before continuing. “I wanted to talk to you about John Bender.”
“What about him?”
“You’re good for him.”
“What?” Claire said, shocked. She had expected to be asked if she’d seen him fighting any other times or if she knew anything about a dime bag the cops had found in his locker.
“You heard me,” Vernon said. Claire knew that he hoped she would say something, anything else, but he was the one who needed to talk. “Look, Claire. Did you ever wonder why the five of you never got in trouble for ignoring my assignment? Did you wonder why I let you do the things you did in there?”
“No,” Claire said quietly, all defiance gone from her voice. “I hadn’t.”
“Well, I’m not stupid,” Vernon said. “Yes, I know you all think that, but I’m not. I may not like every student that goes through my halls, and I may not think every choice I see made is a good one. But I never want to see a student of mine hurt.”
“I believe Bender told you something about his home life.”
“Yes, sir,” Claire said, unwilling to admit anything more than that.
“I really shouldn’t be telling you this,” Vernon said. “But I think it’s important that you know. The counselors at this school have tried for years to find out what happens at home for Bender, why he is the way he is, but the truth is, we haven’t been able to catch his father on anything. We just haven’t. I’m hard on him, yes, but he needs it. For awhile, I might have forgotten why I did this, but a friend of mine pointed out to me recently that I haven’t been running the school quite the way I should. Ever since, I’ve been trying to make it right.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, Claire,” Vernon said quietly. “He’s different when he’s around you.”
After a few more minutes of conversation between Claire and Vernon, she left his office. Bender was walking down the hallway, having just left the dean’s office with his suspension.
“Hey, Bender?” Claire said, a sudden memory of their random encounter in a restaurant weeks ago giving her the courage to speak. She was relieved when he turned around rather than ignore her.
“Would you like to grab some Sarkis sometime?”
Bender’s expression softened in the way Claire had only seen once before, right after they had kissed for the first time.
“I’d like that.”
May 17th, 1984
“Principal Vernon?” Claire said, tentatively sticking her head around the corner into his office.
“Yes, Claire?” he said more pleasantly than she’d ever heard him before.
“I just thought you should know,” she said, looking down at the floor. “Bender asked me to prom.”
June 17th, 1984
Claire and Bender were doing something Bender had never done before.
He was going to have breakfast with her and her parents.
She knew he wasn’t afraid of people; in fact, he feared very little. What he didn’t know was how to deal with parents that, while maybe not parents of the year, didn’t completely hate or resent their children. Claire smiled when he reluctantly asked if he needed to dress up for brunch since his own parents had never taken him to anything fancier than McDonald’s for a breakfast out.
The meal passed uneventfully, though Claire noticed Principal Vernon watching them from a booth on the other side of the restaurant, but she didn’t pay him any mind. Fending off the awkward silences that ensued with Bender sitting inches from her parents was enough to occupy her mind.
Three days later, a card came in the mail, a simple thank you card with nothing written on it other than an illegible signature, but Claire knew who had sent it.
The only thing she didn’t know was that he was thanking her for more than just helping save one troubled teenager.
He was thanking her for reminding him why he had taken the job in the first place.