Warnings for underage drinking, mentions of self-harm and crappy fathers and child abuse.
After he finishes his history test, Grantaire asks for a pass to go to the bathroom. His teacher writes him out a pass without even looking at him—and better yet, he notices, the pass is written in pencil, which means that he can change the date and time and keep reusing it when he wants to get out of other classes. He takes the pass and slips out of the classroom without having any intention of coming back before the period is over.
On the way to the bathroom, he swings by his locker and grabs the small flask of alcohol he keeps tucked behind his school books and old art assignments and the roll of gauze he keeps in his backpack. Both fit in his pocket without any conspicuous bulges.
He goes to the bathroom back near the multi-purpose room because there aren’t as many classrooms back in that wing of the hall and the bathroom is almost always empty.
It’s empty now.
He pulls the flask and gauze out of his pocket—taking a moment to take a swig before setting the flask on the counter near the sink—and pulls up his shirt to better examine the bruises on his ribs in the mirror. The bruising is purple and green, covering most of the left side of his body. He presses one hand to the bruises, double checking to make sure that his sense that the pain is getting worse is because he’s stiff from sitting still all day and not because his ribs are cracked and broken.
He’s had plenty of experience to be able to tell the difference.
His dad had been drunk last night (not surprising) and angry (also not surprising) and Grantaire had gotten a spot of paint on the floor—which he could have cleaned up in about five minutes if his dad had given him the chance before chucking a chair at him. He had more than sixteen years of experience to know how to handle his dad’s temper and it involved appearing weak and submissive and not getting up when he was shoved down—all skills he had learned from his mom before she died—and while it still meant that he was covered in bruises more often than he wasn’t, it also meant that his dad lost interest quicker and would go back to watching his old porn videos before any permanent danger was done.
Once he’s satisfied that the pain he’s feeling from his ribs is just from normal stiffness and not from anything more dangerous, he rolls up his left sleeve so he can change the bandage on his forearm. Eponine will be upset to know that he started cutting again—it’s been months since he last cut and he knows that Eponine was proud of him—but it’s not like this should be surprising. He’s always been a screw up and he’s heard from childhood that he’ll never amount to anything. Being drunk at school, slicing up his arms, using his allotted lunch money to buy weed of Montparnasse—this is what his life amounts to.
He unwinds the bandage around his arm, wincing when the threads of the gauze pull open the newly scabbed over wounds. He rinses his arm under water to clean it out a little, pats his arm dry, and winds the new bandage around it. He’s just finishing when the bathroom door slams open and scrawny freshman rushes in, heading straight for the stalls. He doesn’t bother to lock (or even close) the stall door. He just drops to his knees and lurches toward the toilet. Grantaire turns away just in time to hear the younger boy start to throw up.
Grantaire throws away his old and used bandages and takes another swig from his flask. Part of him knows that he should just leave now—his school is lax (which he thinks has something to do with the fact that it’s primarily a school for the arts and the faculty just seems to accept that teenage experimentation with drugs, sex, and booze is to be expected) but he knows he could be suspended for being caught on school grounds with alcohol—but he lingers, part of him figuring that the other kid might want something stronger than water to rinse his mouth out with once he’s done puking up his guts.
The kid emerges from the stall a moment later. His face his pale and clammy looking and his hands are trembling. Grantaire’s surprised that he recognizes the kid. He doesn’t know many other students—a natural drawback of being the one student in this school from the wrong side of the tracks—and he barely knows the underclassman at all.
But this kid is in his health class. Grantaire hardly pays attention in health class (there’s only so many times that he will listen to someone tell him that his drinking problems will give him early liver failure) and he sleeps through it most days without paying any attention to the other kids in his class, but this kid is…unique. Even for an arts school. He’s hard to miss.
He’s the kind of kid who flouts the school dress code (slacks and conservative collared shirts) by wearing pastel-colored cardigans and can often be seen with a flower tucked behind his ear or twisted into his shaggy hair. He presses flowers between the pages of his textbooks and has poetry scrawled on his arm. He’s only a freshman, but Grantaire remembers seeing him run with the cross-country team after school in the fall. And, if he recalls correctly, the school recently honored him and a few other students for winning some sort of award for creative works.
Jean, his mind supplies. Jean Prouvaire.
The kid wipes the back of his hand across his mouth and offers Grantaire a wobbly smile—which is a little bizarre because he just violently puked into a school toilet. He’s a strange looking kid, with brown hair that’s long enough to tuck behind his ears and wide brown eyes that make him look perpetually surprised. He’s all skin and bones and sharp angles and he looks like one good gust of wind will knock him over.
“Oral presentation,” he says, as though he feels the need to excuse his behavior. “Bad nerves.”
He hunches over the sink to rinse out his mouth.
Grantaire slides his flask along the counter to him. “That’ll work better than water,” he says.
Jean looks at the flask. “What’s in it?”
Smart kid. Grantaire wonders how many kids in this school wouldn’t even bother to ask. “Smirnoff ice,” he says, which he knows has a reputation for being a bit of a bitch drink, but it’s low proof (so he can drink at school and not worry about getting drunk) and it tastes better than cheap beer.
He nods and takes the flask. He swishes the Smirnoff around in his mouth a little bit before spitting it out in the sink. He passes the flask back. “Thanks,” he says.
Grantaire nods and takes a swig of the Smirnoff himself. Unlike Jean, he swallows.
“You’re Remi Grantaire, aren’t you?” Jean asks.
“It’s just Grantaire,” he says. He’s named Remi after his father, but since his parents were never actually married, he still has his mother’s last name. It’s the name he prefers.
“You did that mural down in the music hall.”
It’s not a question.
“Yeah. What of it?”
Jean just smiles at him. The expression is still a little wobbly and his hands still shake, but the smile seems natural on his face, like it’s his default expression. “I just really like it, is all,” he says. “I especially liked <that one part.> You’re really good.”
He turns back to the sink to wash his hands.
“Thanks,” he says. He had done that mural as part of a detention. Last year, he’d gotten caught smoking on school grounds by one of his favorite teachers, who took mercy on him and only confiscated his joint instead of reporting him to the police and doled out two weeks’ worth of detentions, which he was supposed to serve be “using his talents to beautify the school.” He still thinks the whole thing is bullshit—he’s talked to Eponine and knows that in her school (the school he would be attending for if his paintings hadn’t been good enough to get him a scholarship here) detentions involve students sitting quietly at desks for an hour—but he is rather proud of the mural in the music hall. He even took a picture of it to show to Eponine.
Jean dries his hands off on his pants and gives Grantaire another wobbly smile. “Well,” he says, “I’ll see you in health class, I guess. Oh, and be careful with that Smirnoff. I heard that last week Starkey found Alan Hodges with a can of Heineken outside the gym and got him suspended.”
Grantaire screws the cap back on his flask back and tucks it in his pocket. “Consider me warned.”
That day in health class, Jean Prouvaire sits next to him. He doesn’t say or do anything, other than a single nod of acknowledgement in Grantaire’s presence. Jean spends the entire class period drumming his finger quietly against his desk, as though he can’t stop his hands from moving.
It’s like a nervous tic or something.
And it’s a nervous tic that Grantaire is glad he doesn’t have, because he spends the class period sketching the flower that Jean has tucked behind his ear and he needs his hands steady to draw.
At lunch, Grantaire sits alone. He’s got a few friends at this school, but he’s not close to any of them—he lives on the opposite end of town from most of these kids and he knows they’d all be terrified that they’d get shot if they ever set foot in his neighborhood—and the few friends he does have are in an earlier lunch period. So he always sits by himself, either with a book or a sketch book and very rarely with a lunch. Once every few weeks, his dad will toss some cash at him for lunch, but he usually spends the money on booze or weed or art supplies. Before she died, his mother had made he had something for lunch each day, either by giving him lunch money or saving food from the night before for him to take to school with him. But since she died, he’s just gotten used to not eating lunch.
He’s reading a book about nihilism and art during the modern period that one of his teachers gave him to read when Jean Prouvaire sits down next to him. The younger boy pulls out a glass bottle of water with the word Veen stamped across it—seriously, a glass bottle. Grantaire’s not sure if he’s seen anything so pretentious—out of his ritzy, insulated lunch box, but then he slides the lunch box over to Grantaire.
“Someone should benefit from that food,” he says, “and it’s certainly not going to be me.” He gives a nervous laugh. “Help yourself.”
“You anorexic or something?” he asks. The kid is seriously too scrawny to be remotely healthy and Grantaire already saw him puke up his breakfast this morning. He might be hungry, but he’s not going to take food from someone with an eating disorder.
“Not by choice,” he says. “I just get too nervous and then I can’t eat anything. At least, I can eat, but I can’t keep it down. I guess that would be bulimia, not anorexia. But really. I’m not going to be able to eat anything in there, but it’s good stuff. It shouldn’t go to waste.”
Grantaire peers into the lunch box and sees carefully stacked Tupperware containers that seem to be filled with gourmet food. He handles each one carefully as he pulls them out. At the bottom of the lunch box is silverware folded inside a cloth napkin.
Considering how expensive everything else seems to be, Grantaire wouldn’t be surprised it was made out of actual silver.
“What’s got you so nervous?” he asks, pulling back the lid on a delicious looking curry.
It smells ambrosial.
“That oral presentation.”
“Wasn’t that this morning?”
“Oh, no,” Jean says. “I’ve got it last period. I’ve just been worried about it all day. All week, actually. It’s not that I mind talking in front of people, but this presentation is worth like half my grade, and if I fail this class, my dad’s going to be seriously pissed, so there’s a lot riding on this. And he’s already annoyed that my grades last term weren’t quite on par with what he wanted. I had some trouble with chemistry last term.”
“You’re a freshman and you’re already in chemistry?” he asks. He’d taken biology as a freshman, and even then most the kids in his class had been a year older than him.
Jean drums his fingers against the table again. “Yeah. My dad said that if I wanted to come to this school, I couldn’t let my grades in ‘real’ subjects falter, which I guess is why he keeps pressuring me to take more advanced classes, especially math and science classes, which is a bit dumb because I don’t even like math or science. I can do well at it, but I have to work at it.”
The curry is as delicious as it smells and that’s enough to let Jean stay with him at the table, even though he’s rambling like he’s been dying to tell someone all of this. “Why don’t you drop to easier classes? The counselling office would let you.”
“They might,” he says. “But my dad won’t.”
“Well, how’s he going to know?”
“He’d see it on my report card, for one.”
Grantaire hadn’t thought of that, because his own father has never once shown any interest in how he’s doing in school. “But that’d be at the end of the term,” he says. “By then it’s too late.”
Jean takes a sip from his fancy water bottle. “He’ll still be mad—and he’ll be upset that I went behind his back like that. He’ll just take it as another sign that I can’t do anything right.”
The words sound too familiar to Grantaire, who’s spent most of his life being told that he’s worthless and that he’ll never be able to do anything right. He casts Jean a sideways look. “He ever hit you?” he asks.
“He doesn’t touch me at all.”
Jean somehow makes that sound like the saddest thing in the world, though Grantaire’s certain he’d give anything if he could get his dad to stop hitting him. Being ignored by the man would be wonderful.
“Well, that’s something, at least,” Grantaire says.
“We don’t have to talk about my messed up relationship with my dad,” Jean says. “What’s that you were reading when I sat down?”
Grantaire passes him the book and then continues to eat. On top of the curry, there is also a small salad with some sort of fruity dressing, a chunk of a fresh baguette, and a piece of cake that looks absolutely sinful. He supposes that Jean must be nervous a lot to be this skinny if this is how he normally eats.
“You know,” Jean says conversationally, “I’ve never been that big of a fan of nihilism. I think it’s depressing.”
“It’s honest, is what it is,” Grantaire says.
“How bleak,” he says dryly. “If nihilism is true—which is problematic in itself, isn’t it? Because if the belief that there is no absolute truth is true, doesn’t that make it an absolute truth?—then what’s the point of everything? Of anything?”
“There is no point,” Grantaire says. “That’s the point.”
“Then why do we put up with all this shit?” Jean asks. “If there’s no truth and no light and no beauty, then why do we even bother to stick around? I suppose some people might need nihilism to justify the stuff that’s happened to them—like only in a world where nothing means anything can bad things happen, because if bad things happen in a world where there is a God or some sort of absolute goodness, then how do you explain away the pain you feel?—but I just…I can’t, you know? I can’t believe in nihilism, because all I get from it is that I should just give up. But if there is something absolute, then I can believe that maybe all of the bad things mean something, you know?”
“Bad things don’t mean anything,” he says. “Shit happens, and that’s it.”
“Fine there, Mr. Cynic,” Jean says. “You can believe that if you want, but I prefer to live in a world with goodness and truth and beauty. I like being able to look at something beautiful—whether it be a garden or a piece of art—and know that there’s more of that in the world than the darkness I’ve seen. I like to think that I’m part of something larger than myself, and I like to think that everything we experience and everyone we meet has intrinsic value and meaning. If things have value and meaning, then there’s a hope that you can take awful things and turn them into beautiful things. You can’t do that with nihilism.”
“You actually believe all that, don’t you?” Grantaire asks.
“Well, I think you’re nuts,” he says. “But to each his own. Whatever helps you get through the day, I guess.”
“I suppose I’ll just have to have enough optimism for the both of us,” he says. “If you’re determined to be such a pessimist.”
“I prefer cynic.” The bell for the end of the lunch period rings and Grantaire packs up the empty Tupperware containers into the lunch box. “Thanks for the food, Jean,” he says.
Jean smiles. “I prefer Jehan. Same time tomorrow?”
Grantaire blinks, having not expected that sharing lunch with the kid one time to become a regular thing. But he thinks it might be nice to spend more time with this thin, angular kid who always seems caught between a nervous breakdown and endless optimism. “Sure,” he says. “Same time tomorrow.”