"By the way, just so you know, I was totally kidding about the whole 'you being an ugly child' thing," AJ says I walk her to her car. "I mean, you were an ugly child. But I don't care about those kind of things. I really don't. I wouldn't care if you looked like that today. It wouldn't matter to me. I guess, what I'm trying to say is, appearance has never been important to me. I'm all about the heart."
I'm taken aback by her words. "If I still looked like that geeky kid, trust me, you wouldn't even be here right now," I tell her, doubtful of her words – they're so foreign to me. I'm used to people caring about what's on the outside. Somebody taking an interest in me for what's on the inside is so unfamiliar to me.
She shakes her head. "I'd still be right here, Ben. It's never been about your looks for me. Don't get me wrong, you're super blessed in the genes department," she pauses and I chuckle, "but it's your heart. Honestly, I keep coming back for your heart."
"Because I'm so great on the inside, right?" I snort in sarcasm, refusing to believe her.
"You are," she agrees in ease, a smile filtering over her lips. "I knew you were different the second I saw you stumbling out of the bar, hung-over. This guy shoved you out of his way when, in actual fact, he got in your way first. Unlike most people, you didn't retaliate. It really surprised me. I mean, even I was ready to punch him for you. But you...you just apologized. You apologized for something that wasn't even your fault. More people should be like you."
"Like you said, I was hung-over," I reply, trying to convince her otherwise. "Besides, you've seen me, I'm a twig. Who am I going to beat up?"
She laughs. "Oh Ben, you need to wake up and see your potential. I've seen you with your friends and your family. You have something that other guys don't have. You have empathy. You care. You care about people. You love the people in your life. You appreciate them. To me, that's way more valuable than looks."
"I care too much and always end up getting hurt," I mutter, looking at the ground as the terrible memories begin to resurface.
"Yet you still care anyway." She smiles wholeheartedly, leaning against her car door. "And that's freaken beautiful, Benley."
I roll my eyes. "Okay, AJ, okay," I say, willing her to put an end to this conversation. It's making me super uncomfortable. I always seem to be transparent around her.
"Anyway, I'm sorry for laughing," she concludes sheepishly. She unlocks her car. "I had a lot of fun today. I really like your family."
She makes a move to climb into her car, but I grab her arm before she can, suddenly desperate for an answer. "What made you say 'yes' to my mom, anyway? I treated you pretty terribly the last time I saw you."
"Like I said, I guess I'm just a sucker for you."
"You like her yet?" Bell asks me, failing to hide her excitement after hearing about my unofficial lunch date with AJ and my family.
"No," I answer casually, flipping through one of her fashion magazines, uninterested in this conversation. It's when she doesn't say something for a whole thirty seconds that I glance up at her, only to see her glaring daggers through me. "What?"
She glances over at Max. "Hold me back before I strangle him to death."
I arch an eyebrow at her. "Now, now, Bells, that wouldn't be very nice."
"I'm not a very nice person," she replies back wittily.
"It's true," Max agrees with her quietly. Clearly, he's still on the fence about their relationship. Clearly, he still hasn't talked about it with her.
Bell ignores Max, making out as if she didn't hear him. "I'm so sick and tired of you denying yourself someone good, someone who's going to treat you right. Why do you keep doing this?"
I press my lips into a thin line, acting clueless. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Bell makes a move to jump at me. Thankfully, Max places a hand on her shoulder, gently forcing her back down into her seat. "Calm down," he tells her blandly, his heart not in it anymore.
It's obvious that Max is fed up. Bell is either oblivious to it, or she's pretending like everything's fine. Knowing Bell, it's the latter.
Bell 'subtly' shrugs Max's hand off of her shoulder. "You know, Benley, one of these days that girl is going to stop fighting for you. If you don't drop the attitude, you're going to lose her."
"She lives in New York so..." I trail off, uncaring, "I'm going to lose her eventually anyway. She has to go back sometime."
"Mark my words, Benley, your hang-ups are going to cost you. By the time you realize what you have with AJ, it will be too late. You're about to repeat all of Jay's mistakes and it's gonna cost you. Is that really what you want?" Bell asks, sending me into frenzy of depressing thoughts.
Her words are profound and leave me whirling in a bubble of different emotions. Before I can process my feelings, I'm interrupted by the sound of someone entering the Bensten house in a rather loud manner.
"I'm back from my vacay in The Bahamas! Where are ya'll at? I'm expecting gifts!"
I punch my knee in frustration. He's the one that was in The Bahamas, he should be the one bringing us back souvenirs, not the other way 'round. "No offense, Bell, but I was kind of hoping that your brother would relocate to The Bahamas."
"Me too." Bell sighs.
I turn to get Max's opinion on the matter, but his seat is empty. I roll my eyes when I hear him bolting down the passageway in order to meet Troy halfway. Their excited laughter fills the house as the two reunite once again.
Well, life officially sucks more than it did just a second ago.