DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular belong to someone who is not me.
SHOUTOUT: Many thanks to Carla for taking a look and giving me some much-needed input. Eternal gratitude goes to Junebug for advice on all topics medical, grammatical & plot-ical.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Green Quarter
"Are you going to eat that?" I point to the bread roll on Brooke's tray, the one that I had been coveting ever since I was sure she was done picking at the dubious bits of beef and potatoes that passed for airline food these days.
"No," Brooke doesn't look up from her magazine but grabs the roll in question and passes it to me.
I take it, but my eyes are still on Brooke's nearly untouched meal. "Can I have your butter?"
Brooke sighs in annoyance. "Here." She shoves her meal toward my tray table and goes back to her magazine.
"Thanks." I reach over and pick out the softened pat of butter from between barely used plastic utensils and a crumpled napkin, and while I'm at it, I liberate the untouched square of carrot cake that Brooke had ignored, leaving the few leaves of wilted lettuce and single-serving sized tub of dressing that was supposed to pass as a salad on the tray. Painstakingly applying the butter to the roll, I try to block out the image of the carton of Marlboro lights sitting in my bag that I had just bought a few hours ago at the duty-free in LAX. If eating more than my share of lousy airline food would distract me from the nearly uncontrollable desire for a cigarette for a few minutes, then bring on the empty calories.
When the flight attendant comes by to collect our empty trays, Brooke looks up and asks, "Can I get another Tanqueray and tonic, please?"
"Make that two," I quickly add, plucking carrot cake numero dos from my tray just as she's about to take it away. Consuming alcohol might take my mind off needing nicotine, or it might intensify the need by about a hundred. I was soon going to find out.
An unexpected bonus of this two-month, all expenses paid trip with Brooke was the unhampered ability to legally drink as much as I wanted, now that we were headed to the more liberal shores of the European Union. Brooke had grasped this fact well before I had, ordering an alcoholic beverage as soon as the drinks cart had come around. I had never had a gin and tonic before, but I assumed that it was drinkable if the rapid pace at which Brooke was imbibing was anything to go by. The infrequent beer or Bacardi Breezer was the extent of my drinking experience, although my relatively new reputation as a burnout would indicate otherwise. I guess that regularly appearing at the smoking wall between classes is a good way to seal one's fate. By the end of senior year I was both a freak and a geek.
It doesn't seem fair that the acquisition of one questionable habit would knock me even further down the ladder of social success, but I made my peace with the Kennedy caste system long ago. It's not like it matters now anyway, as my career at that bastion of enforced homogeneity ended three days ago. And I have the diploma to prove it.
I wonder how many other people can pinpoint the exact day they knowingly began to blacken their lungs with the harmful by-products of tobacco. I can. It was just over a year ago, in the wee hours of the morning after the junior prom (which I never made it to) that I tasted a cigarette for the first time. There I had stood, in a pool of fluorescent light outside the emergency room doors, wearing a stained and crumpled prom dress. Brooke had been taken inside and was at that moment fighting for her life, when some kind soul offered me a cigarette, saying that I looked like I could use one. I don't remember much from that night, but drawing in that first lungful of sweet, satisfying smoke is crystallized in my memory.
I know all the statistics, my mother is a regular fountain of information about how much damage I'm doing to myself, but I've gotten awfully good at tuning her, and anyone else who informs me that smoking is detrimental to my health, out. Like I'm not aware that smoking is not exactly the best way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Smoking is bad? Gee, never heard that before. If I had any idea that picking up this nasty dirty habit that I love so much would lead to the downward spiral of my already tenuous social status at school would I have still done it? Don't know; don't really care. Things are the way they are, no use trying to change it now. God, where is that woman with my drink? Now that I have something on which to fixate it's all I can think about. Which is pretty much the definition of fixating so I guess I'm doing something right.
Suddenly I feel Brooke's eyes on me. I turn to look and she's staring at my right leg, which I now notice is jiggling incessantly. Expelling nervous energy in an enclosed space is admittedly extremely irritating, and I flush in embarrassment.
"You want to cut that out?" she asks dryly, raising an eyebrow at me in contempt.
I force my leg to stop the offending jiggling. The contempt is nothing new. Brooke has detested me ever since the accident, and to tell the truth I'm not that fond of her either. This trip was our parents' brilliant idea to force us into a little bit of step-sisterly closeness before we depart for separate states and colleges in the fall, a last ditch effort before they threw up their hands in surrender. An added benefit for them was a break from the glacial temperatures that permeate the house when both Brooke and I are occupying it. Now I'm not fool enough to say no to the European Experience as underwritten by Mike McQueen just because there were a few rules attached. Even though we agreed to their terms, Brooke and I had found an easy way around them.
"Jesus, Sam! Will you cut it the fuck out?" Brooke is glaring at me, incensed, because now my left leg has commenced jiggling with a vengeance, the whole row of seats visibly shaking a little bit.
"Sorry," I say, not that sorry. This is what happens when I'm denied nicotine.
"Get up," she says.
"Because I said so." When I don't immediately jump out of my chair she grinds out through clenched teeth, "Get the hell up."
I unbuckle my seatbelt and slowly stand up, mildly curious at what she will do next. She collects her magazine and her ipod and pushes me out into the aisle, shoving past me and up a few rows to an empty aisle seat. She flops down and I can hear her saying something to her new seatmate. I'm kind of surprised she lasted this long sitting next to me, in a middle seat no less.
I sink back down into my own aisle seat, and look at the only part of my stepsister that is still in my line of sight, her elbow. It's agitatedly moving every few seconds, she's slapping at the pages of her fashion magazine like my face is printed on every page and she can't escape the image fast enough. Like I want to spend any more time in her presence than is strictly necessary either. Whatever. We'll only have to suffer each other's company for a few more hours until we land in Madrid, then we'll go our separate ways. That's what we agreed after Mike and my mom called a family meeting last month to tell us about our graduation gift. I'm really grateful to them for giving me the chance to see Europe, and paying for it as well is so generous. But they had to have known that forcing Brooke and me to travel together was a recipe for disaster. So after they had given us our airline tickets and our Eurail passes and a plastic envelope with a very generous amount in traveler's checks, Brooke and I had a meeting of our own, one that had lasted about three minutes.
"You know that there is no way we could ever travel together, right?" Brooke had asked me that day, entering my room without knocking, which was something that drove me up a wall. Good thing we hardly ever invaded each other's space.
"Not unless they want one of us coming home in a body bag, and the smart money's on you being the bag babe." I had replied.
"That's so funny, Sam," Brooke had said sarcastically, stone faced. "Do you agree that the best plan is to tell the 'rents that we'll travel together and then just do what we want, i.e. go our own ways, when we get there?"
"It's not like they can check up on us or anything," I realized. "Yes, I agree."
"Good." Brooke had left my room right after, and we probably had said about five sentences to each other in the time between then and now, if you didn't include the "Please pass the [insert food item here]" or "You better not use all the hot water" that made up our usual scintillating conversational gambits.
I cross my legs and sigh, looking up and down the aisle for the woman with the alcohol. She's nowhere in sight, probably hanging out in the galley, shooting the shit with the co-pilot or something.
It would've been nice to share my excitement about this trip with somebody. I bought a guidebook, like, the next day and proceeded to highlight all the stuff I wanted to do in three shades of marker, because I'm a big geek, and I know it. Talking to Lily and Carm about it would've felt like I was rubbing their noses in the fact that they weren't going anywhere this summer, and obviously, Brooke didn't want to hear from me.
The flight attendant finally appears at my side with two plastic cups and two little bottles of gin. I pay for them both in a gesture of goodwill and point her in Brooke's direction. We won't be seeing each other for a while, it's like a celebratory parting shot. As I squeeze the desiccated little lime wedge over the tonic water, Brooke turns in her chair and offers me a halfhearted little salute with her cup in thanks. I raise my cup and tilt it in her direction but she's already facing forward again. The slightly bitter, citrusy taste of gin and tonic slides easily down my throat. Not bad.
Trying to ignore the carton of cigarettes, I pull my guidebook out of my daypack and turn to the already dog-eared and heavily marked section on Spain, going over what I want to happen when we land and planning for contingencies and the like. Out of the corner of my eye I see Brooke's seat recline almost down to the lap of the guy sitting behind her. God, I hate it when people do that. Doesn't she have any consideration for that dude? But she's smart to be trying to get some rest. I should do that too.
As far as I know, Brooke hasn't done any preparation for this trip, I overheard her telling my mother that she didn't want to plan too much, and that she just wanted to see where fate took her. Mom had replied that I would probably do the planning for the both of us, and Brooke had laughed a short, unamused little laugh but hadn't said anything else. I remember I rolled my eyes at the whole exchange, but Brooke leaving things up to fate kind of meshed with all the other changes that had occurred in her after the accident. She was in the hospital for over five months, and I heard that some of her rehab was not very pleasant. All I know is what I heard from mom and Mike; I never saw any of it firsthand. And Brooke never talks about it. But I do know what she was like when she was finally allowed to come home, and she was not the same girl I knew before all this happened.
It was like there were two, no, three different Brookes that were discharged that day in late October. The Brooke that was most similar to the girl I had known before was Brooke the Student. She had to work really hard to catch up with the rest of us in order to graduate and then there were college applications and a million other things that we all busted our asses on, so in that respect she was the same. Hardworking and diligent. I don't think Brooke could ever not be a good student. Her dad got her a tutor and she spent most afternoons hunkered down in the dining room with him, it wasn't like she had cheerleading practice to go to anyway, and was soon again easily achieving grades that I had to slave and sweat for. No one was surprised when she graduated near the top of the class.
Then there was another kind of Brooke, one who now cared less about popularity and appearances than April Tuna on her worst day. Sure, she still dressed well and most times looked like she had come from the pages of the magazine she's now reading, but she didn't give a shit what anybody thought of her now. Where the old Brooke would think twice, then a third time before doing anything that might besmirch her sterling reputation, the new Brooke seemed to go out of her way to buck the pristine image she had cultivated so assiduously before. Where before there had been one boyfriend, now there were many - simultaneously. The occasional party turned into going out at night from Thursday to Sunday. Where the old Brooke was dutiful and respectful, the new version was wild and willful. Not caring about anything became her new raison d'etre, and she seemed to be obsessed with fate, destiny and chance. She took things as they came and didn't plan for anything. One would think that her flighty new behavior would cause her popularity to plummet, but in fact, just the opposite happened. She had become Brooke the Survivor, badass and bold. If people adored her before, now they worshipped her, but she didn't even notice.
She declared all extra-curricular activities bogus, and spent all her time when she wasn't studying either with Mary Cherry or with one of her many boyfriends. Without Brooke's endorsement, the Bring-it squad, with Nicole as their captain, was seen as the lamest activity one could hope to join. And membership in all clubs and sports at Kennedy dropped when people heard Brooke decrying them. I lost three people from the Zapruder editorial staff alone.
As for Brooke's new circle of friends, Mary Cherry would have done anything Brooke said, including murdering Nicole if that was what Brooke asked. And like I said, she had lots of gentlemen callers to keep her company. Josh got another short-lived whirl (even though technically he was still married to Lily at the time), as did many other boys in our class, with the exception of Harrison. She never lacked for company, but it didn't seem like she actually liked any of the people she was hanging out with either. Then what the hell do I know? I was a non-entity to her, just taking up space in her home. My status was never more than someone to either ignore or snarl at when we passed each other in the hallway in the middle of the night.
It didn't use to be that way. I remember from way back in the day, before the junior prom and before the Harrison fiasco, I thought that Brooke had felt at least a grudging respect for me. Maybe I'm wrong and I'm just rewriting history, but I think I remember getting a kick out of matching wits with the great Brooke McQueen. I remember a few times when we actually laughed with each other, but the subject of our joined mirth is now lost to the sands of time. Perhaps there once was a time after I had moved into Brooke's house but before the accident when I actually admired Brooke, when I was beginning to know the person behind the public façade, but it seems so far from the reality of here and now. She was light years away from the person she is here and now. Which leads us to the third Brooke who emerged from the hospital nearly eight months ago.
Brooke the Angry. I guess it was to be expected that Brooke would have intense feelings of anger and rage after the accident. After all, she was the school's golden girl with everything she could possibly want laid at her feet, and her future was a bright light she was steadily moving toward. She was going to be somebody. And then to have it all nearly taken away by the whim of fate and a string of coincidences was almost too much. I'm not sure, but I think she feels betrayed by her body. Cheerleading is a thing of the past, and she has some lingering medical issues, the details of which I know nothing.
She lashes out at everybody. Her father, my mother, her friends, school acquaintances, strangers, no one is immune. It doesn't matter who you are, at some point you're going to feel the wrath of Brooke McQueen. But she saves a special portion of her hate for three people: me, Harrison and Nicole.
It's easy to see how Brooke attained her popularity in the first place. When she directs the full power of her charisma at you, it's impossible to resist. Now imagine how it would feel if she gives you a blast of full-strength antipathy. Both Harrison and Nicole withered in the face of it.
But her treatment of me was different. I remember the day she came home, I was a bit nervous after not seeing her for so long. I had no idea what kind of reception I was going to get. It was all a bit anticlimactic, really. Mike led her in, opening doors so she could shuffle through with her cane, and she paused when she saw me. Then her eyes passed through me like I wasn't even there and she kept moving, out of the kitchen and away from me. I was all ready to welcome her home, awkward as it was bound to be with me being a no show for the past five months, but she made her feelings known without having to say a thing. I wanted to explain but it was obvious that she didn't even care.
It became indicative of our new relationship. She pretends I don't exist until I do something to piss her off, like breathe too loud, and then it's hostility city. I don't know how I became the one on whom she blames the accident, but it's pretty clear that I'm the designated goat. I don't go out of my way to raise her ire, but sometimes some random thing that was fine to do in her presence one day will unleash the hounds of hell upon me the next. Oftentimes she is a tightly wound ball of tension just waiting to erupt. She's totally unpredictable, and that's what began to make me mad. So, recovering accident victim or not, I started to fight back. We were quite vicious with each other for a while, then the emotional toll began to tell on both of us, although I know she'll never admit it. After a few months it was like we retreated to neutral corners, and neither of us really cared to come out swinging again. Avoidance and silence became the order of the day, with a few nasty barbs and catty comments unleashed every once in a while to keep the fires of our mutual dislike stoked. And that's the way it's likely to remain. The forecast on our relationship is partly shouty with a chance of pain.
I swallow the last of my cocktail, then distractedly shake the remaining ice cubes in the little plastic cup. It's been difficult living with a ticking time bomb, not knowing when or if that red LED display is ever going to run down to double zeroes. I only have to deal with her for a little while longer and then it will only be fleeting visits during our breaks from school. I'll have no problem handling that. I do feel a nagging sense of concern for Brooke, even though she's a major beeotch to me on a pretty constant basis. The catalyst for the change in her was not her fault. But she's been such a pain in the ass that I stopped pitying her a long time ago.
My ice cube symphony has woken the guy who had been sleeping in the window seat, and he opens one eye in reproach before turning towards the window, pulling his blanket more securely over him. Oops. Can't seem to do anything right tonight. Transatlantic flights really blow.
I stand among the throng of exhausted people and watch the baggage carousel for my shiny new backpack to make an appearance. It's a brand new morning in sunny Madrid, on the first day of my European odyssey. The airport looks like any other airport, and the signs in Spanish just remind me of home. I'll be spending a few days here, got to hit the Prado and stuff before heading south to the coast. I look around for signs for the bus to the city center I read about in my guidebook.
There's Brooke. She's standing across the baggage carousel and she's reaching for her own new backpack that I hadn't noticed had materialized already. I see her wince as she struggles to shoulder her burden; the damage done to her shoulder in the accident still felt after all this time. Watching her turn to go, I realize that she's going to leave without saying goodbye. She doesn't even turn to look around for me. I watch her walk towards passport control and consider just letting her go, but then I'm running after her.
She casually turns. "What?"
"I just wanted to say goodbye," I say, feeling like an idiot.
"Oh," Brooke is momentarily disconcerted, but then she assumes that maddening expression of bored nonchalance that I've come to know so well. "Bye." She turns again to go.
"Are you going to stay in Madrid?" I press, not wanting to let her leave for some reason.
She gives me an exasperated look. "I don't know, I'll see what happens." She stands there waiting to see if I'm done.
I guess I'm done. "Okay. So I'll see you in Heathrow on the twenty-sixth?"
"Yeah. Heathrow. Bye." Brooke rolls her eyes, and then she's gone. I watch her walk away until her blonde head is lost among the predominantly dark haired crowd of people making their way to the exit, wondering if I should have told her to be careful, or maybe just to have a nice trip. It feels so final, this parting of ours, even though I'll be seeing her again in two months. Maybe it's just being in an airport in a foreign place that makes me feel kind of empty at the sight of her retreating backpack.
But my adventure is about to begin and I can't worry about Brooke anymore. She'll be fine. I return to the baggage carousel where the crowd has dissipated somewhat and see my backpack making the circuit along the conveyor belt all by itself. I grab it and head for the door. It's been fifteen hours at least and god, do I need a cigarette.
I am utterly exhausted. There is a high pitched whine sounding in my ears. I think it's just me, but I can't be sure. Night trains are a necessary evil for the backpacker traveling through Europe, especially when they are the stone that kills the two birds of transportation and accommodation. Arriving in Italy at 7AM significantly non-bright-eyed and un-bushy-tailed is not the optimum experience, but here I am, in Florence, still homeless after a futile search for, and now desperately needing, a bed. The shoulder straps of my pack are cutting into my underarms as I trudge into yet another unfamiliar piazza, all I need is a place to sit and rest for ten minutes while I figure out what to do. There. That bench over there will do nicely. It feels like I've been wearing my pack for six days though it's only been about an hour, two at most. I drop it on the pavement and sink gratefully onto the stone bench, resisting the urge to lie down on it.
Florence is one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting, but things have been less than auspicious since my arrival. The three hostels I had tried earlier were all full, although they all said to come back this evening. Pensiones are more expensive and it's too early for anyone to have checked out yet. My thoughts rest on a comfortable room with air-conditioning. Looking at my watch I see that it's just nine o'clock and already it's hot as hell. I pull out my guidebook, hoping to read about some miracle place that nobody has heard of, but the words blur before my eyes and I close the book unenlightened.
I look around, wondering where I am. There is an imposing building with a high tower on one side of the piazza and a fountain in the middle (there's always a fountain) and about a dozen outdoor cafés where nicely dressed Italians and more casual tourists sit having breakfast. I remember the map I picked up in the train station, retrieve it from my back pocket and frown at it for awhile. I learn that the tower building is called the Palazzo Vecchio, and its location north of the tangle of streets that surround the train station means that I am in Piazza Signorile. Good to know, but it still doesn't change the fact that I need a bed pronto or I will die from sleep deprivation. Jeez, dramatic much? But I'm in the land of espresso. Maybe I should down a few to keep me going a little longer.
Dragging my pack behind me over to the nearest café, I take a quick look at the menu that's on display. It's written in four languages, not a good sign. I frown at it for awhile, the instant calculation from Euros to US dollars taking slightly longer than usual this morning, until I realize that I'll have to find a less expensive place to mainline a thimbleful of pure caffeine.
I regard my pack. I have come to hate this receptacle of my possessions. No matter how many times I go through my belongings, divesting myself of all but the most necessary items, it is still as heavy as a millstone and twice as bulky. I heave the thing back onto my shoulders and leave the way I came, remembering that there was a cheapish-looking sandwich place in the next piazza over. That piazza is pretty indistinguishable from this one, except I think there is a church (there's always a church, too).
Actually, I only really hate my pack when I'm in these times of transition. These in between moments, when I've left one place but have not yet settled in the next. The times when I am settled, when I've slept in the same top bunk for three nights running, are when I love my pack the most. I love it for all the familiar things it yields. I love that there is only a thin layer of ripstop nylon between my favorite sweatshirt and me. I've only needed it once so far, in Austria, but it's comforting to know it's there. My sleeping bag is bundled into an impenetrable mass near the top, but is soft and comfy whenever and wherever I free it from its binds: on a train, in the station, in a hostel. I like that all my clothes are mine from before I arrived here on this strange continent, they defined me before and they define me still. My jeans, my t-shirts, my underwear. But most of all I love to open my journal to the back where I've been collecting ticket stubs, museum entrance cards, postcards, brochures and fliers, the actual proof that I've come to a foreign land, and pick out a slightly oversized envelope with contents inside very precious to me.
The envelope is blue, from a graduation card my mother gave me, and has her familiar scrawl of my name on the outside. Inside is not a heartfelt message from Hallmark but a series of photos that I threw together almost as an afterthought right before I left for the airport. There are only a handful of pictures: My mom and dad's wedding photo, my mom and me on the beach in San Diego, a picture of my dad taken the summer before he died, snaps of Carmen, Lily, Harrison and me acting like goofballs from sophomore year, and the obligatory picture of my new "family," mom, Mike, Brooke and me, seated around a table at a restaurant.
The sandwich place is cheaper. I order a cappuccino and some pastries, might as well have some breakfast, and take my tray to a table outside. Thinking of my photos makes me want to look at them, but I don't really want to open my pack and root through all my shit to find my journal right now. Oh, why not? It's not like I have anything better to do. I unzip about six inches of zipper and dig around with one hand, and miraculously, my journal is there. I pull it out and remove the envelope, first lighting a cigarette before slowly flipping through my small talismans against loneliness.
The truth is that I've been doing this too much. I find myself staring at these familiar images way too often, and part of me thinks that maybe I should throw them away so that I'm not tempted anymore. But I never could. Somedays it's all I can do to open up that stupid guidebook and make a plan to fill the next three, twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight hours. I am not a good traveler, not even that great a tourist. If I were, I would be out meeting people, both the locals, who could show me things that aren't in my guidebook, and fellow backpackers with whom I could tag along, maybe stem some of the isolation I've been feeling with idle chitchat on those interminable train journeys that seem to take up the majority of my time.
In the past three weeks since leaving the airport in Madrid, I have found myself shrinking from the friendly overtures made by my temporary roommates and train compartment companions. I haven't a clue why. I'm a social person, a gregarious person even; I never shy away from new experiences. So what the heck is my problem? I should be embracing this experience with both arms; I should have Europe in a headlock, begging me for mercy. Instead I'm wishing for the days to hurry and swallow up the remaining time until I go back to all that's familiar.
I turn to the next picture, revealing the photo of the McQueens and my mom and me, and I study it for a few seconds. I trace with my thumbnail the outline of Brooke's shoulder and arm and wonder how she is doing. She's probably living it up in Monte Carlo or the French Riviera or something.
I look closer at the photo. Usually I just shuffle right past this one, I only included it because my mom was sitting on the bed while I was doing my last minute packing. Her smile was huge when she saw me taking it out of the frame and putting it in the envelope with the others. A small, meaningless gesture on my part that I knew would make her happy, it was designed to put me in a good light.
My mother looks totally radiant. I know she's happy with Mike, and this picture is proof positive. Mike is practically showing all of his teeth, he's so damned happy that we're together as a family. Then there's me. I'm presenting a lot of teeth too, but anyone who really knows me knows that I smile real big sometimes when I'm uncomfortable. It's a fake smile; it has fooled people before, and probably will again. Brooke looks perfect, of course. This picture was taken a while ago, way before the accident; she's got this Mona Lisa smile thing happening and she looks genuinely happy.
She hasn't looked like that in a long time. I feel the usual combo of impatience and frustration and guilt when I think about Brooke. I mean when I think about the idea of her, in the abstract. When I try to go deeper and qualify all the feelings she stirs up in me, it's like washing an artist's palette at the slop sink, all the distinct colors run together and turn into a dark mess circling around the drain. I can't have a true, unbiased emotion about the girl, everything is colored by the accident. When I try to remember how I was feeling about Brooke the night this photo was taken, it is still tainted by everything that comes after.
It's all so complicated. For some strange reason the photo makes me feel protective of Brooke, and it reminds me of all of those days I spent outside the hospital, waiting for my mom and Mike to finish visiting her in the months following the accident. Sometimes I would be out there for hours and hours, the parentals convinced that I would eventually tire of waiting and come in and find them and Brooke. It never got through to them, no matter how many times I told them, that I was physically incapable of stepping foot into that hospital. It wasn't like I didn't care about Brooke; I'm not that heartless. If I were I would've just stayed home and watched TV or something while they went to see her. Each time I would try. I would walk with them up to the doors fully intending to walk through, go up in the elevator and down the hall (presumably I'm not sure where her room was) into Brooke's room. But each time something stopped me, and it wasn't just the cold sweat that would break out on my forehead and upper lip or the vertiginous nauseous shaky feeling that would come over me when I tried to walk through that door. I felt immobilized by an overpowering sensation of heart stopping panic, and nothing I could do would make it go away. My mom even mentioned sending me to a shrink to find out what was causing the problem, but she and Mike were so worried about Brooke at the time that they thankfully never followed through on it.
I wanted to see her. I imagined what she must be thinking every time a visitor arrived saying "Sam's outside, she says hi." Because that's what I would do. At one time or another during Brooke's convalescence, practically every member of Kennedy's student body would pass by me with some token gift in their hands and I would say, "Are you going to see Brooke? Tell her I said hi." I wanted her to know that I was there, close by, even if I couldn't be by her side. It's not like calling her on the phone was an option; it would seem so insincere when I wouldn't even visit her. After a while I just started showing up every day, rain or shine, keeping up a stupid pointless vigil out in the parking lot, smoking cigarette after cigarette, not even knowing why I was doing it. And every day I would confront my weakness, phobia, whatever - stepping as close to the automatic doors as I dared, but not close enough that the motion sensors would prompt them to open. I learned early on that a gaping, taunting, wide open door was a hundred times worse than a closed one.
Even though I felt like I was failing her by not coming to see her in person, I still thought that my visits to the hospital grounds had some value. God, I became almost superstitious about the number of hours I would put in every day, somehow feeling that my presence was healing her, that she wouldn't be able to do it without me. I was her parking lot protector, standing in the shadows, ensuring that no further harm would come to her so she could recuperate in peace. Crazy. Then she came home and reality smacked me upside the head.
I stare at that contented expression on Brooke's face in the photo and I'm saddened by its loss, and inexplicably angered that she couldn't find a way to hold onto it. She had it once; does it just disappear into nothingness? I stub out my cigarette and let my thoughts of Brooke fade into the warm Italian sunshine. Wherever she is I hope she's happy, or at the very least, having fun.
Determined to not look at them for at least two days, I put the photos away. The food and coffee have revived me and I need to take advantage of the energy that has returned to my body. I check my watch and see that I've at least wasted enough time so that the Uffizi will now be open, and I'm certain that I can wile away several hours in the world's greatest renaissance art museum before continuing my search for accommodation later this afternoon.
The Visitation. The thing that drives me crazy about renaissance art is also the thing I like about it. The subjects are invariably religious so I see the same scenes depicted over and over again, but the originality and creativity in each artist's representation is what makes it so cool. The Visitation isn't a scene that you see so often, it wouldn't even place in David Letterman's top ten most clichéd religious subjects used in Italian art of the fifteenth century, if he ever decided to do such a top ten list.
I look over at the small white card to the left of the painting, which identifies the artist as Albertinelli. Surely he must be a contemporary of Michelangelo and DaVinci, but I've never heard of him. I am completely drawn into his painting of Mary, visited by Elizabeth. I hearken back to fourth grade catechism and try to recall the circumstances of the image. Mary and Elizabeth are sisters? Cousins? Elizabeth heard that Mary was pregnant? An angel came and told her? No, an angel told Mary. Whatever. It doesn't really matter, what matters is the light shining on Elizabeth's robe, while her face is half cast in shadow. What matters is the look of absolute weariness on Mary's face, as Elizabeth grips her arm in reassurance. It looks as if they are about to embrace, or kiss. Two sisters, one offering comfort, the other gratefully accepting it, and the image warms me.
I come out of the near-trance the painting has inspired in me and hear again the low hum of people murmuring, the quiet snick of flash-less photography, and the creak of ancient wooden floors, buffed to a bright shine by the soles of an untold number of feet. I reluctantly move away from Mary and Elizabeth, allowing the next batch of tourists access to them, and wander into the next room, where one of the big guns of renaissance art hangs in front of a permanent crowd of admirers. It is Botticelli's Birth of Venus, the one where Venus (looking remarkably like Uma Thurman) springs fully formed from the sea on a clamshell. I try to get up close but the crowd is unyielding, so I retreat a little and stake out a place to observe from an oblique angle.
"So it is you," a voice to my right says. I know that voice.
I turn and it's Brooke. Brooke McQueen, my stepsister, last known whereabouts the airport in Madrid, is standing next to me with an inscrutable look on her face. I can't tell whether she's pleased to see me or not, but I'm thrilled to see her.
"Brooke! Hi! What are you ? Okay! Obviously you're here looking at the art, like I am. Wow. What are the chances? Of all the gin joints in all the world and all that. How are you? I can't believe it! You look really great. You-" I hear myself babbling and I know how foolish I sound but I can't help it, and Brooke thankfully interrupts my diarrhea of the mouth.
"Relax, Sam. And keep your voice down, people are trying to enjoy the art."
"Right. Sorry," I lower my voice to a whisper. "How is your trip going? Where have you been? Where are you staying? When did you get here?"
"Fine. A bunch of places. At a pensione. Last week," Brooke replies to my onslaught of questions in sequence. "Look, why don't we just keep looking at all the pretty pictures first and then you can cross-examine me after, okay?" A small smile softens Brooke's words, but I can tell she's already exasperated with me.
"Okay." I turn my attention back to Uma on the half-shell, but I can't concentrate at all. I keep glancing after Brooke, like she might disappear if I don't keep my eyes trained on her. She's pushed her way to the front of the crowd and is looking intently at the canvas, then she takes the digital camera her father gave her from her purse and one-handedly clicks away for a few minutes, inspecting the images she's creating as she takes them.
There's nothing weird about this, Brooke's passion for photography is one of the only aspects of her personality that made it through the accident intact. Maybe it's the digital camera she's using instead of her mother's old 35mm that's throwing me. She looks over and catches me staring at her. She aims the camera at me, takes a shot, then stuffs the camera back into her handbag as she slips away from the throng of people.
I've lost her but she can't have gone far. I find her in the next room where she is gazing at Michelangelo's Holy Family, the one where Mary looks like she's a professional body builder as well as the mother of Christ. Sometimes Michelangelo went a little overboard with the musculature, in my admittedly meaningless opinion. I stay back, not wanting to intrude upon her museum experience, but I've been through all these rooms already and the only thing my eyes seem to want to examine is her.
Her hair looks longer and lustrous, although its only been about three weeks since we've parted. I think the clothes are new; she looks as stylish as any of the cosmopolitan Florentines cluttering the landscape, not at all like a grubby backpacker like I do. The shoes have definitely been acquired recently, they're Italian and expensive. I notice the purse again, also new. It looks something like the leather goods I saw for sale this morning as I walked through the Mercato Centrale. Brooke looks great, as if she was sprung fully formed from a clamshell at the Gucci boutique or something. I, on the other hand, look like I've recently been run over by a garbage truck, with body odor to match.
She has to notice me following about five paces behind her, but she never turns to me, never once asks what I think about this painting or that, never asks my opinion about Michelangelo's lesser works. She is so self-assured, like she belongs in this foreign life. As she begins the descent down a wide marble staircase that signals the end of the gallery rooms, I hurry my steps to catch up with her.
"Did you know that all the art work in this museum was moved to the second floor after the Arno flooded its banks and damaged a lot of priceless stuff?" I ask, trying to impress her in the lamest way possible, and why am I even trying to impress her?
"Really?" she seems interested. "When did that happen?"
"Um, sometime before the second World War," I fudge, not at all sure of the answer. Note to self: don't try to impress when you don't have the full story.
She suddenly stops and turns to me. "Sam, I'd like to catch up. I know it's a little late in the day, but would you like to go somewhere and have lunch with me?"
The formalness of the invitation and her sober expression pull me up short. It's like I'm a chore that she feels obligated to complete. My pride takes the hit and absorbs the spike of humiliation I feel, but there is no way I will refuse. Just because she and I have met serendipitously thousands of miles away from our home, it doesn't make us friends. We're not friends, but she is a sorely needed dose of familiarity in this strange place, and whether I like it or not, I need her. I smile at her and reply with equal formality. "Yes, of course, Brooke. That sounds really nice. I just have to get my pack from the coat check and then we can go."
"You still have your pack?" Brooke asks.
"Yeah, Brooke, luggage is kind of essential to the whole traveling thing," I crack, not really sure what the question means, therefore responding with knee-jerk sarcasm.
"I'm just surprised you're still carrying it around from this morning," she says.
Now I'm totally confused. "What do you mean?"
"I saw you in the piazza this morning," Brooke reveals. "You sat on a bench for awhile and checked out the café where I was having breakfast, and then you left."
I open my mouth and then close it again. I simply don't have words. Brooke saw me this morning and didn't even try to make contact. She was probably sitting not ten feet away and never felt the urge to call out to me. I just look at her for a minute, trying to decide if I'm the crazy one or she is, but then I give up because I'm realizing that this is typical post-accident Brooke-like behavior. Also I'm pretty hungry and at this moment I just don't care. "I'll meet you outside, just give me a second," I mutter and make a beeline for the coatroom.
Back outside, I'm instantly submerged in the sultry, sweltering afternoon heat. I see Brooke standing a few feet away, idly perusing some postcards. With an additional foot in height and doubling my circumference, I feel ungainly and awkward and sweaty beside her as we begin to walk. She seems to know exactly where she's going, so I don't comment and allow her to lead the way. I'm quiet, still digesting the news that she had seen me this morning, but so is she.
She leads me back through the Mercato Centrale and down a few narrow streets. I feel like we're going in the direction of the train station but I can't be sure. We stop at a nondescript door that says Palle D'oro, and Brooke says, "This place is pretty reasonable and the food is good."
I nod and we go inside. The noise level registers like a drastic change in temperature, and the place is packed with Italians even at this late hour. There are no tables in the room, and people are just standing around eating, leaning against the bar or standing at a little shelf built into the wall where they rest their food. Brooke snags a place along the wall just as two men are leaving, and I follow her over, trying not to bump too many people with my pack.
"You want the pasta of the day?" Brooke raises her voice a little in order to be heard.
"What is it?"
Brooke shrugs at me then looks at some of the surrounding people's dishes. "Looks like some kind of red sauce. With meat in it."
I nod again and Brooke heads for the bar. I turn around and lean my pack against the wall, then shimmy my shoulders out of the straps, letting it slide to the floor. I'm very pleased with this neat accomplishment and look to where Brooke went and see that she's returning with two glasses of red wine. She hands them to me and returns to the bar, quickly coming back with a pair of steaming bowls with a few slices of crusty bread balanced on top of them, napkins and silverware sticking out of her purse.
We stand and eat, too busy with our food to talk. The pasta is outrageously good, the best meal I've had in a while. Fresh farfalle pasta coated in a spicy, cheesy tomato gravy with huge chunks of fennel-riddled sweet sausage. It's heaven, and I say as much to Brooke.
"Yeah, this place is great. I've come here a few times already." She eats like an Italian, spoon in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other, using the bread to push the pasta onto the spoon.
We continue eating in silence, the place not really conducive to conversation, and I wonder why she brought me to a place where it would be a challenge to talk. I have a million questions for her, starting with one that I need answered immediately. "Brooke."
She looks up from her food inquiringly.
"Why didn't you say anything when you saw me at the café this morning?" I try to keep my voice neutral, and the plaintive note that has crept in bothers the hell out of me.
Brooke takes her time chewing and swallowing, and reaches for her bag, which she starts to paw through. Finally she says, "I wasn't sure if we were fated to meet, or if it was just a coincidence that we ended up in the same place at the same time." As she speaks she pulls her camera from her bag.
This fate crap again. Everything has to be about fate or destiny or some shit. I should've known. Before I can make the snotty comment that's on the tip of my tongue she continues talking while fiddling with her camera.
"But then I saw you again at the museum and it was pretty much a sign," she hands the camera to me and I see that she's scrolled to a picture taken at the Uffizi. In the tiny viewfinder screen there is an image of me standing before the painting of the Visitation. The painting itself is lit up, the two sisters are gorgeously vivid, and I am a dark silhouette before it, my back to the camera, my hands clasped behind me and head tilted to one side. It's an amazing photo, I wonder how she pulled it off.
"Good picture." If that isn't an understatement.
"Yeah," Brooke agrees, and takes the camera from my outstretched hands. "It's weird. Both times you weren't even aware of me. We could've gone on in our parallel existences here in Europe, never intersecting, and you would have been none the wiser. I could've just not said anything at the museum either." She looks at me speculatively.
I don't know how to respond to that. Wait, yes I do. "Well I'm really glad you did. It's so nice to see a familiar face."
She nods and focuses on her plate again. People are leaving in droves, before I know it Brooke and I are among a handful of people left in this funny little restaurant, and I hear for the first time the soft strains of jazz in the new quiet. I wolf down my food in what seemed like three and a half bites and now I stand watching Brooke eat as I worry a piece of bread into tiny little crumbs over my bowl. I don't know what to make of her behavior. I'm kind of bewildered by my own as well. I can't remember a time when we have been so civil towards each other. Has the alien setting in which we find ourselves done so much to bring about a change? I'm mildly suspicious of Brooke, but able to ignore it because it feels so good to have someone to hang with.
In the newly-empty front room, I see that there are a few vacant barstools lined up at the bar. With hand gestures I obtain permission from the server to drag them over to where Brooke is standing. We settle down on the chairs and I continue to watch Brooke as she finishes and pushes her bowl away. I take out my cigarettes. "Mind if I smoke?" I never ask permission but today I do.
Brooke shakes her head and it's her turn to watch me as I light up and toss the spent match into an ashtray. The Italians are my people. There are ashtrays and smokers everywhere. I feel like I've come home.
My thoughts return to the Uffizi and the Visitation, and the feelings it induced. "There was something about that painting," I say, "I couldn't stop looking at it."
Brooke nods in understanding. "What was it that drew you to it?" she asks, emphasizing the word you, leading me to believe that she was attracted to it as well.
I think about it for a minute. I'm not really sure what it is. Who can say why anything evokes an emotional response in anyone? "Maybe it's the feeling of comfort I get from it. That theirs is the kind of relationship where they are there for each other in times of crisis, two sisters who can lean on each other unconditionally. It's the kind of bond I'd like to have with Mac someday, it's the kind of bond I'd like to have with you."
As soon as it's out of my mouth I regret it. It just tumbled out before I had a chance to censor it. I don't even know why I said it, I only know that right now, here in this restaurant in a city in Italy, it's true. Brooke is watching me closely, but her eyes are flat, emotionless. She kind of does this snort of disbelief and takes a sip from her wineglass.
"Cousins," is all she says.
"Mary and Elizabeth are cousins, not sisters."
"Okay, but still-" I begin to say, but Brooke interrupts me.
"We are not sisters, Sam. We have never been sisters, nor will we ever be sisters," she states emphatically, looking me in the eye levelly, and leaving me in no doubt of how she feels.
Something inside me deflates. I don't know if it's just the novelty of seeing Brooke in a new context, one that is outside our ordinary day-to-day existence in L.A., or simply a product of my seriously solitary status of the past three weeks, but I feel chastened and ashamed at wearing my heart on my sleeve. This never would've happened at home. Is it even a valid emotion? We sit in silence. Brooke is gazing at me with a calm that's almost eerie. The expression on her face is so opaque it's like looking at nothing at all.
"Tell me about your trip so far," Brooke suddenly switches gears, and reaches for my cigarettes, shaking one out. "Can I bum one?"
I nod, speechless. I'm still trying to settle down from our last exchange, and to my knowledge Brooke has never smoked. I realize she's waiting for me to say something as she lights up and inhales with practiced ease. "Well, after I left Madrid, I went to Seville, Barcelona, Malaga, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Bern, Zurich, Interlochen, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich."
Brooke raises her eyebrows. "Wow. That's a lot of places. You're just checking them off the list, aren't you."
"There's a lot I want to see," I reply defensively. "What about you? Where have you been?"
"I went to Barcelona too, stayed for about a week. Then I went to Milan, now I'm here."
"I don't subscribe to the theory that you have to pack as many places into your travels as humanly possible," Brooke continues, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth. "I just want to take my time, get to know a place. I want to stay in Tuscany for awhile. I really like it here."
It certainly sounds like Brooke is condemning my traveling modus operandi and I try to control the impulse to get huffy. "I'd like to stick around and get to know a place as much as anybody, but I don't know when I'll be able to come back. I want to see as much as I can, then I'll know what's worth coming back to."
Brooke isn't really listening; she seems supremely bored. She changes the subject again. "Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere yet." I look at my watch. "I have to get on that. Where are you staying?"
"A small pensione off the Via Del Corso. It's pretty nice. A friend found it for me."
I wait for an invitation to stay with her but none is forthcoming. I either have to leave now to join the queue outside one of the hostels or find some other place to stay. I could always ask her if I can crash at her pensione. My pride is telling me not to bother, to just go, but I lack the inertia in this cool, comfortable oasis here with Brooke. Conversational rollercoasters aside, I'm relaxed here with her.
"You want another glass of wine?" Brooke asks, getting up from her stool.
I should really go but instead I say, "Yeah, sure."
When she returns I ask, "So who's this friend who found your accommodation for you?" I don't really care if she thinks I'm nosy; I'm curious.
"This Italian guy I met in Milan, some relative of his owns the pensione. Everybody's related to everybody in this country. I've met some really fantastic people so far." She glances at me. "How about you?"
"Tons of great people," I reply quickly. The conversation dies as I contemplate the lie I just told. "Actually, I've been having a hard time. I don't know what's wrong with me, I have all these opportunities to meet people but nothing ever comes of them," I confess. I look at my hands in my lap, not wanting to see Brooke witnessing my failure. "You're, like, the first person I've talked to in days."
"Aww. Have you been crying yourself to sleep in your lonely hostel bunk every night, Sam?" Brooke asks, bitingly amused.
Even though she's not that far off the mark, anger flares through me at her callous enjoyment of my troubles. I guess it would be too much to expect a little sympathy.
"I don't cry. I haven't cried since my dad died." I fling the words at her, hoping she'll feel bad, but she gets angry herself.
"Yes you have. You're a liar," she says coldly.
"I have not! And I'm not a liar!"
Neither of us is willing to escalate this in a public place. We stare at each other, at an impasse; her eyes, previously expressionless are now flashing and fiery, they have turned the green of a stormy sea that only appears when we are having the worst of our fights. No matter what is happening I always notice when they change from her usual tawny hazel because the color is so striking.
She looks away. "Whatever. I have to go." She slides off her stool.
I'm immediately contrite, even though I'm still pissed off. I have no idea why she was so adamant about calling me a liar. "Wait. Please. At least let me pay for lunch," I say, grabbing her arm, trying to stall her departure.
"I already paid," she says icily, glaring at my hand. "Now let go of me."
I stand up. "Then I owe you. Let me buy you dinner." She's shaking her head. "Come on, Brooke, please? Look, whatever it is, I'm sorry. How about we rewind the conversation to right before we both got upset and forget about it? We're in this great city of art and culture and awesome food. Can't we just try to enjoy each other's company for a little while?"
She looks from where my hand is still gripping her arm into my eyes, undecided. It fleetingly occurs to me that we are almost mirroring the pose of the painting, but then I'm trying to think of anything I can add that will further defuse the situation.
"Come on, please?" I say again. When in doubt, beg.
"Just because you're a loser who can't make friends, I'm supposed to hang out with you?" Brooke asks, but she has that small smile back, and I know it's her twisted way of trying to make peace.
"Yes, I admit it. I'm a loser. Please be my friend," I'm smiling, swallowing one's pride gets easier the more one does it. I let go of her. If she won't be my sister, maybe she'll be my friend. I decide to push my luck. "And please give me a place to stay tonight so I don't have to sleep in a dreaded hostel for once."
Brooke's smile fades; she doesn't say anything.
"Or not," I hastily add. "I don't want to impose." Suddenly I realize that the friend she mentioned might still be in the picture and might be more than a friend.
After a moment's deliberation, "No it should be fine. You'll have to sleep on the floor, though," she warns.
"That's okay, I can do floors." Strangely, I'm elated at the prospect of sleeping on Brooke's floor. "Do you think we could go there now? I'm in desperate need of a shower."
"Yeah, you are," Brooke acknowledges, and sighs. She frowns for a second, her eyes reflecting what looks like uncertainty or doubt, then her expression returns to opacity. "Come on, it's not that far a walk."
She heads for the door, and I hurry to struggle into my pack and follow. Suddenly I'm exhausted. I've been running on empty all day and the fuel I've just put in my tank has made me so sleepy. I'm pretty sure that spending time with Brooke has contributed to my pooped state, but as thorny as she is to deal with, I'm really glad she's here. Then I suddenly remember something Brooke said earlier. She said that seeing me the second time in front of the painting had been a sign.
A sign of what?
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