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
I feel a foot nudging me in the shoulder. I'm awake.
"I'm going out in fifteen minutes. Be ready if you want to come."
Brooke continues walking past me to the bathroom, enters, and shuts the door. I sit up and look at my watch. 9:00PM. I've slept a good four or five hours and I feel refreshed - and clean too - after the hot shower when I first arrived.
I take a look at my surroundings, pretty much seeing it for the first time since I hardly noticed a thing in my earlier weariness. The room is basic, but very nice considering my standards have been quite low so far on this trip. A large bed dominates the room, its velvety-looking coverlet pulled down, exposing the blindingly bright white hotel linens. There are two floor-to-ceiling windows that flank an overstuffed chair, the upholstery worn and faded, and a side table. A dresser and credenza sit side by side across the room. A few tatty throw rugs cover the terrazzo floor on which I now sit in my sleeping bag. The floor is very hard. Brooke's pack sits on a luggage rack in the corner, a mountain of clothes piled on top of it and shopping bags and shoeboxes surround it like acolytes at the altar of cast-off fashion. I see the dark silhouette of buildings against a dusky pink sky out the nearest window; night is fast approaching.
Brooke comes back into the room looking like a million Euros.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"Out. Are you ready?"
"Do I look ready?" I say, groggily scratching my head and gesturing to the boxers and tank top I'm wearing.
"Well get moving," she replies, walking to the credenza and picking up two empty green wine bottles. She sits down on the bed with the two bottles in her lap, looking at me expectantly.
"You said fifteen minutes. It's been, like, four."
She sighs dramatically and looks like she's about to give me an earful. I don't want to hear it.
"Just give me the remaining eleven minutes and I'll be ready." I stand up and pull my toiletry bag from my pack and excuse myself into the bathroom.
The tiny room smells like her. Well, like her perfume anyway. Her cosmetics and HABA products are scattered all over the sink, just like at home. I hurry through my ablutions and re-enter the bedroom to find Brooke exactly where she was but now on her back, staring solemnly at the ceiling. She sits up when she sees me and watches while I pull some clothes from my pack and change. I feel her eyes on me as I take off my boxers and pull on a pair of cargo pants. I turn my back to her and peel off my tank top, furtively reaching for my bra and top while I feel a blush start to rise on my chest and neck. She's still staring appraisingly when I face her again.
"What?" I say defensively.
Her eyes drag upward from my outfit to my face. "Nothing. God! Can we go now?"
"Almost." I reach down to the pillow that's lying on my sleeping bag; the one Brooke grudgingly donated from her bed. I grab my money belt from underneath it and put it on. It contains all my money and my passport. I never go anywhere without it, and I wear it even while I'm sleeping when I'm in the hostels, but not here. I'm thinking I can relax my guard a little bit here in Brooke's nice room. I wait for the snarky comment from Brooke regarding the geeky money belt but she doesn't say anything, she merely takes it all in. "Okay. Ready."
"Finally." Brooke locks the door behind us and we walk down the three flights to the street.
"I'm going to be annoying and ask you again," I say. "Where are we going?"
"We're going to hang out. Don't you ever just go out and see what's going on when you're visiting one of the million places on your itinerary?"
I don't answer. The truth was that I rarely went out in the evenings, preferring to go to bed early and make use of the cooler early mornings. If this makes me a nerd then hand me my pocket protector.
The air has cooled considerably and Florence in darkness seems like a different city. I look at Brooke cradling her two bottles in her arms and then I see a trash bin a few yards ahead. "There's a garbage can," I say.
Brooke gives me a weird look. "Yes, Sam, that is a garbage can. Astute observation on your part."
I'm only trying to be helpful. "Aren't you throwing those bottles away?"
Alrighty then. Whatever. We continue walking, Brooke leading us into what seems like a more residential part of the city. We enter a small piazza where some boys are kicking around a soccer ball by the dim light of the street lamps. On the far side of the piazza is an older man standing next to a hot dog cart. Brooke calls to him. "Federico!"
He turns and smiles. "Ciao, bella bambina. Hello, pretty Americana. Come stai? And you have una regazza stasera. Qui e? Who is she?" He adds for my benefit as he looks at me curiously.
"This is my step-sister, Sam," Brooke introduces me as Federico takes the two bottles from her and begins to fill them from a spigot attached to the hot dog cart, which I see now is not a hot dog cart but some kind of homemade, slapped together beverage vending cart.
"Hello, buona sera" I say, trying out one of the few Italian phrases I know on the old man. "What's in the bottles?"
"Vino bianco. Frascati." He smiles and hands me the second bottle, now filled with white wine.
Brooke hands him some money and says, "Ciao, see you tomorrow night, probably."
"Arrivaderci, Federico," I say, a bit too exuberantly, feeling bolder with my non-existent Italian skills. Brooke looks at me and barely restrains her eyes from rolling. Retracing our steps back to the city center, we turn a corner and suddenly we are in the piazza del Duomo. The enormous cathedral that architecturally and spiritually dwarfs all other dwellings in the city, even in darkness its multi-colored oddness is striking. It looks like something ingeniously built with interlocking marble bricks in coordinating colors of malachite, terracotta and dirty linen. Featuring one of the largest domes in southern Europe, in the daylight the tiles on it shine the burnished color of Siena stone.
Tourists and locals alike are milling around the piazza, sitting on the shallow steps that lead to the rear of the Duomo or in front of the gigantic bronze doors of the baptistry. Some Italian youths, shoes shiny and hair styled with more product than I use in a month, are perched atop the iron railing surrounding the campanile, surveying the scene. There is a group of young backpackers sitting in a circle, one of whom is picking out the intro to "Wish You Were Here" on a heavily stickered acoustic guitar.
Brooke and I find a place to sit on the steps where we can see pretty much everything that is happening. She clinks the bottle I've been carrying with her own, pulls the cork out and says, "Chin chin," before raising the neck to her lips and taking a slug.
"The whole bottle is for me?" I ask.
"As much as you want to drink, sis," Brooke says acerbically.
I take a small experimental sip. It is cool and fruity and astringent at the same time. Very refreshing. I drink some more. "This is really good," I say, "thanks, Brooke."
"Yeah, it packs a deceptive wallop though, so watch out. These aren't very special grapes, and people make this stuff at home in their yards, but it's damn tasty. Frascati means fresh grapes or something like that. Not too long ago what you're drinking was still maturing on the vine," Brooke informs me.
I take out a cigarette and offer Brooke the pack, remembering how she joined me in my vice earlier. She refuses.
I'm impressed with this latest display of inside knowledge. How has Brooke gotten to know this place so well already? Everyplace I've visited it seems like I'm still looking for a coin or a pebble or something with which to scratch the surface by the time I leave. I'm a little jealous of Brooke's facility with all things Italian. "How do you know so much about this place?"
Brooke shrugs. "I listen. I watch. I just take it all in."
I do all that. What am I doing wrong?
Abruptly Brooke says, "Listen, Sam, I don't want you to think that I'm being nice under false pretenses, but you must realize that I'm making a Herculean effort to get along with you. I need to tell you something."
My suspicion is immediately raised; I've been waiting for something like this. I nod warily and wait for her to continue.
"When I first saw you in the piazza this morning, I wanted to go to you but I didn't. Then when I saw you again, I figured someone or something is trying to tell me something and our paths were meant to cross."
I understand everything she is telling me but I have no idea what it means.
"The thing is, I've been trying to decide if I should stay in Europe or go home, and you are the only one who can help me make the decision."
The hell? Since when do I have so much power? And why is she considering leaving? It's obvious how much she's enjoying herself, and if I'm completely honest, she is way better at this traveling thing than I am. "Why would you want to leave? Florence fits you like one of its famous handcrafted leather gloves. I've never seen you more at home, except maybe in front of the mirror in the Novak at school."
Brooke doesn't answer at first, looking away and taking another drink from her bottle. "I'm just about out of money," she finally says quietly.
Out of money? Three weeks in and she's out of money? My mind goes directly to the piles of shopping bags and shoeboxes in her room at the pensione. Continental fashion does not come cheap. "Spend a little too freely in Milan, Brooke? Jesus Christ, how could you be so stupid? Haven't you ever heard of a budget?"
"You know what? Forget it. I don't even know why I brought it up," Brooke says angrily. "I knew you would be this way, lording it over me like you're so much better than me. Give me my wine back," she puts the cork back in her bottle and stands up, holding out her hand.
"No way, Indian giver," I reply mildly, holding the bottle out of her reach. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be such a jerk about it. Let's try and figure this out. Sit down."
Brooke sits again with a thump and rests her chin in her hand. We sit in silence for a few minutes, and I can feel her ire dissipating. Soon I hear Brooke quietly singing along with the guitar, "We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year."
"I didn't know you liked Pink Floyd," I comment.
"I don't," she returns, "but I seem to hear it everywhere I go on this continent."
"Yeah," I agree. "Are they stuck in the seventies or what? It must be really easy to play on the guitar or something."
She makes a noise that could be a laugh, could be a snort, I'm not really sure which.
"Why don't you just call your dad and ask him for more?" I ask, the easiest solution and most straightforward. "He could probably order more traveler's checks for you to pick up at the closest American Express office. You know, like those commercials."
"He warned me not to ask for more money," she replies glumly.
I frown. "He didn't say that to me."
Her eyes slide over to mine. "You don't have a history of maxing out his credit cards."
It's true. After she had healed from the accident, Brooke went out and spent money like they were going to stop making it. Our parents let her spend for awhile, thinking Brooke was compensating for nearly dying and would regain her equanimity eventually, but when she didn't after months and months of excess they cut her off and put her on a fiscal leash.
We lapse into silence again and I mull over her problem as the guitar begins to plink out the opening notes of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." God, don't they know anything from this century? Okay, Brooke has no money, and can't ask for more. It's not like she can get a job and she wouldn't want one even if she could. She doesn't know anyone in this country or any other in Europe that she can ask for the money, in fact the only person she knows here, as far as I know, is me. As that fact sinks in I begin to realize why I'm so important to her decision-making process.
"You want me to give you some of my money," I say, looking at her intently.
She glances at me, then looks away, saying nothing. I take a long drag on my cigarette, my cheeks hollowing with the exertion. She wanted me to reach the conclusion myself so that she was spared the indignity of asking. She's played me like a Stradivarius. I have been led, step-by-step, to this inevitable deduction and I resent her for backing me into a corner. How can I possibly say no to her? I would look like the biggest asshole on the planet. But have I been staying in the dumpiest dumps in Europe and saving my money for a great souvenir or to splurge on a pricey dinner just so she can spend all her money on frivolous bullshit and then come to me, her human ATM, when she's empty?
Suddenly I'm infuriated. The lungful of smoke I violently expel is filled with vitriol. Of course Brooke has an ulterior motive. My loneliness has made me blind to something I should have spotted instantly. Brooke doesn't have it in her to be kind for kindness' sake, at least not since the accident. Buying me lunch and wine, letting me stay with her, they were all ways to lull me into a false sense of sisterly affection when really she was just waiting to extract her pound of flesh, or pound of cash, in this case. She could give a shit about me. The realization stings even though I should have known already.
A man is approaching us with a great big smile on his face. I frown at him but he keeps coming. He's tall and slim with a thick shock of hair that falls in his face and a well-trimmed mustache. He calls out to Brooke. She smiles and waves in return. He insinuates himself in the space between Brooke and the stranger sitting on her left, taking the bottle from her and giving her a kiss on the cheek. He takes a sip from the bottle and hands it back.
Watching him drink reminds me of my own bottle and I raise the bottle and swallow, but the wine has become warm and cloyingly sweet. I put it down next to Brooke and hammer the cork back into the neck, pounding it down with the side of my fist.
The man puts his arm around Brooke's waist and begins talking excitedly in heavily accented English about something I can't follow before Brooke interrupts him.
"Giacomo, this is Sam. Sam, Giacomo." She waves her hand back and forth to indicate who is who.
Giacomo leans across Brooke and holds out a large hand, copious amounts of wiry black hair sprinkling his wrist and knuckles. "Hello. You are a friend of Brooke's?"
"Something like that," I say. What Brooke and I are to each other is not very clear, but at the moment I wouldn't call us friends. I grind my cigarette into the centuries old stone beneath me. I don't want to be here anymore. I just want to be alone. Maybe I've gotten used to the solitude. I turn to Brooke. "Can I have the key? I'm tired and I want to go to sleep."
"But you just slept for, like, a million hours," Brooke's eyebrows furrow as she reaches in her pocket, handing over the old fashioned looking key.
'"I said I'm tired." I don't look at her as I stand up and brush myself off. "It was nice meeting you, Giacomo. Goodnight."
Brooke calls to me as I turn to go, her voice tight with, I don't know, anxiety, maybe. "Sam, wait. What about "
The question lingers, unasked. She still refuses to humble herself.
Let her be anxious for once, I decide. "I have to think about it." I carefully step around the bodies lounging on the Duomo steps, make my way to the darkened cobblestones, and walk briskly away into the night.
The Duomo is the exact opposite inside as it is on the outside. All the dramatic ornamentation has been festooned to the exterior, the inside cavernous and astonishingly free of the flourishes that occupy most holy places built at the time. It's as if all those laborers hundreds of years ago were too exhausted to decorate the interior after expending so much energy on the outside. I sit in an empty pew in the barn-like interior of this cathedral, an early morning sanctuary where I've come to get away from Brooke and think about things. I didn't hear her come in last night but she was asleep in her bed when I woke up, her hands tightly gripping the covers right under her chin. Before I left I noticed the two wine bottles back on the credenza, both empty.
I had slept too much yesterday and was up at five. I tossed and turned for a while but gave up and left the room when it became light out. It was nice to walk through the city when the streets were empty of the things that crowded them in the busyness of the day like tourists meandering at a snail's pace, Italians sauntering stylishly by, the stalls and vendors infringing on the sidewalk, and the cars and scooters with their choking exhaust. The sun had just burned off the night's chill when I saw that the doors of the Duomo were open so I slipped inside and sat down in an empty pew, two priests tending to the altar in preparation for an early mass my only companions.
I love that although the Duomo is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Florence it still functions as a local parish church. This morning's small congregation shuffles in, mostly old ladies in black fingering their rosary beads, and the lyrical, lilting sound of mass said in Italian begins soon after.
I crane my neck and look up into the dome and think how this cathedral reminds me of Brooke, as everything seems to since seeing her again yesterday. The exterior of this mammoth building is a thing of beauty, its colors shine in the sun and its lines are graceful and elegant. Copied as a masterpiece of design through the ages, the inside is little more than an empty shell. Brooke's looks are striking, the image of her as close to the pinnacle of modern standards of beauty as could possibly be. But since the accident, her interior is a brittle, bitter, black cavity; she's empty of kindness and goodness and everything that accentuated her beauty before.
Everything I think and say about Brooke must be prefaced with "After the accident," because she is such a different person now, but what do I really know of what she was like before? I know that I was beginning to like her; that she had not at all been what my first impression had pegged her to be. And I know that towards the end of junior year I was committed to building a better relationship with her and I think she felt the same. After all, hadn't we been very mature about the whole Harrison thing?
She had been totally kicking my ass in the battle to claim him. God I make it sound like he was the Alamo or something. I had been really caught up in it and it got to the point where I didn't even care if I got Harrison or not, as long as I beat Brooke. Which was so utterly shitty, because I know that Harrison really liked me, but he had liked Brooke for a lot longer. And I know that Brooke really liked Harrison, they would have made a nice couple. Luckily I realized how insane I was behaving and I put a stop to it. That's when I approached Brooke and we decided to compete for him in a civilized way. Things had changed and I tried to treat her with respect because I felt that she had begun to respect me.
Then the junior prom. I wish to god that I could remember what took place that night. Something monumentally significant occurs, where several people's lives were irrevocably changed, and I have absolutely no recollection of it. If ever there was a time for my memory to fail me, couldn't it have happened during something really horrible yet unimportant, like while I'm watching an episode of One Tree Hill? Making a joke about it is the only way I know how to deal with the fact that I may never know what transpired that night. The last thing I remember is sitting down at that restaurant with Brooke and Harrison and the next thing I know, I'm standing outside the hospital in a bloody and torn prom dress.
Of course, I was told there had been an accident. I knew that Nicole had run down Brooke in her car and that Brooke had nearly died in the ambulance. But I couldn't stomach the thought of asking Harrison what had happened during those missing hours, and by the time I saw Brooke again, she had already morphed into the new and not so improved version; asking her was impossible. From our parents she is aware that I have memory loss from that night. She's never offered to fill me in, not that I blame her really. We're trying to get past it, there is no use dredging it all up again.
I've known and lived with post-accident Brooke for over a year. The ambivalent and off- kilter nature of our relationship is nothing new; our natural states towards each other are either loathing or indifference. So I can't understand why I am letting her upset me so much here and now. Shouldn't I have expected her to be cold and calculating, just as she is at home? And what exactly is it that upsets me about her recent actions? I shake my head in confusion and disgust as the answer eludes. Answers to questions about Brooke always elude.
Above the narrow stained glass windows depicting the usual biblical scenes here inside the Duomo, there are gigantic clear glass ones that are letting in broad, sharply defined shafts of morning light that fall over the gathered worshippers. If it weren't for these transparent panes the interior of this cavernous church would be a very gloomy place. The shafts of sunlight are like something solid, so tangible that I can see myself riding one like an escalator up and away from this place, and away from my problems with Brooke.
I return to the pensione with breakfast purchased from a nearby bakery. If Brooke is going to stay in Europe, which my contemplative morning spent in the Duomo had not brought me any closer to deciding, she's going to have to realize that eating in expensive cafés is a thing of the past.
I had left the door unlocked for myself and quietly enter, not wanting to disturb Brooke if she is still sleeping. But the bed is empty and I can hear movement in the bathroom. I get some strawberry jam and my Swiss army knife out of my pack and sit in the chair by the window and begin to make a meal for myself.
Brooke opens the bathroom door and doesn't see me. She walks across the room wrapped in a white towel, her hair hanging wetly around her face. My knife makes an audible click when I set it down on the little side table and she turns with a start.
"God, Sam, do you want to give me a heart attack?" She stands uncomfortably, halfway between the bathroom and her pack, and pulls the towel more tightly around her. I find her modesty a bit rich considering the blatant once-over she gave me while I was getting dressed yesterday. She has this put-out look on her face like I'm the hugest imposition in the free world.
"Would you like something to eat?" I say, holding out a slice of warm fresh bread and jam.
She looks at the bread and pauses, like she is confused about something. "In a minute," she says distractedly.
I watch her as she looks through her clothes for something to wear. I can see her face in profile. She looks tired, her eyes a bit puffy, a somber expression on her face. She eventually decides on a lavender cotton cap sleeve t-shirt and a sporty pair of capris, carrying them back to the bathroom to change. She reemerges a few minutes later fully dressed with her hair dryer in her hand. I had decided that the countless adaptors I would need for using electrical appliances in a panoply of foreign countries was not worth the trouble and had resigned myself to looking like a scruffy backpacker but Brooke obviously was not willing to make this concession.
She sits on the bed across from me, reaching for a piece of bread. "Where'd you go?"
"I just wandered around a little. I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep." It occurs to me that maybe Brooke thought that I had left for good, but all my stuff was still here, she would have seen that.
She nods. "I was going to check out the straw market today. Want to come?"
More shopping. "Sure," I say lightly, not wanting to start an argument this early in the day. We finish breakfast and I wait for Brooke to dry her hair and finish getting ready. I pack the leftover bread, some water and my guidebook into my daypack, and Brooke asks if I'll carry her camera, deciding to leave her purse in the room. We make a start, the day already progressing towards mid-morning. Brooke's problem is an unspoken thing between us. I'm not ready to talk about it and I'm guessing that she's too proud to bring it up. I don't really relish being the one holding this over her head, much as she would probably have a hard time believing that. We need to get this sorted out today.
Brooke deftly leads the way through the narrow streets and across the piazza of the church of San Lorenzo, but slows as we round an octagonal shaped building adjacent to the church. "Have you been in here?" she asks me, gesturing to a pair of wooden doors, one of which has a sign posted to it that reads, "Medici Chapel."
I shake my head. I don't remember reading about it either.
"Come on," she pulls me in by the elbow. "You absolutely cannot miss this."
We walk in and pay an entrance fee, and Brooke lingers at the ticket desk, talking to the attendant. I enter the chapel, a large airy cylindrical space that is completely encased in marble. The amazing thing is that the marble that makes up the walls and the altars and the crypts that hold the remains of several very famous Medici family members is composed of a startling array of different, but complementary, colors. And the floor. The floor is magnificent. Inlaid marble in beautiful shades of ochre, ruby, lapis, and an amazing dark jade make up the Medici family crest, which is replicated in a pattern on the floor. I sit in one of the chairs that line the walls and just take in the peacefulness and awesomeness of the chapel.
Brooke enters and sees me. She says, "Sam, come here," in a quiet tone, and although I'm sitting probably about fifty feet away from her, it sounds like she's standing next to me. The room is one of those auditory marvels where it would be impossible to keep a secret.
I get up and go to her. "God, you're right Brooke. This is one of the most gorgeous rooms I've ever been in. I would not have wanted to miss this."
Brooke smiles. "You haven't seen anything yet."
I follow her back towards the entrance where the attendant is waiting for us. He guides us away from the chapel to a spot near the cloakroom where there is a trap-door looking thing in the floor. He indicates that we go down and I descend first, down a rickety little staircase into a tiny room. Brooke follows me, the attendant doesn't.
"What is this place?" I ask in a hushed voice.
"Well, it used to be a storage room for many years, but before that it was an unused crypt." Brooke explains. "Take a closer look at the walls."
I notice that there are low plexiglass partitions set up about a foot away from the walls to prevent people from getting too close. They make an already small room smaller. I get closer and see some drawings, scribblings really, sketches hastily rendered on the only surface available. The style is familiar. Then I have a thought. "Is this ?"
"Michelangelo," Brooke supplies.
"Yeah," Brooke says excitedly. "You know the Medici family, right?"
I nod. "Basically single-handedly led the world out of the Dark Ages, a dynasty that spawned popes, rulers of Florence, and other major players throughout the Renaissance."
"Right. Back in the fifteen hundreds, they were Michelangelo's patrons, commissioning him to do countless works, including the Night and Day sculptures upstairs that you haven't seen yet. At one point the Medicis fell out of favor and Michelangelo was torn, wanting to be loyal to his patrons but fiercely supporting the republic as well. He eventually gave his allegiance to the insurgents who were fighting to overthrow the Medicis. A few years later when the Medicis were back in power and better than ever, Michelangelo had to go into hiding. A priest hid him down here in this crypt where he had to stay for two cold months when winter was coming on. He got his water from that well over there," Brooke points to a corner of the room, "and the priest smuggled food and a few art supplies to him."
She moves closer to the drawings. "See this?" she indicates a lumpish protuberance on the wall. "This is where he stuck his candles, when he had candles, to draw by. That's why all the sketches are close to those waxy stubs. This one is a sketch of the 'Night' sculpture, this one is probably a self portrait," she points to a drawing of a man huddled under a blanket. "And this one looks like it inspired later images from the 'Last Judgment' in the Sistine Chapel."
I looked at the last one with interest. I hadn't been to Rome yet, but the Sistine Chapel was high on my list of things to see once I got there. I thought of a cold and lonely Michelangelo, spending his days of exile here in the darkness of this tiny room with nothing but his imagination and talent to occupy him.
"And Sam, listen to this," Brooke adds, obviously gripped in the telling of the story. "When he got the all clear to come out, he whitewashed over all of it himself because he didn't like anyone to see his sketches. They only found all this in 1975 when they cleared out the junk that was in here because they wanted to make an emergency exit. No one had even painted over his whitewash in all that time." Brooke looks at me, her eyes shining, and shakes her head. "Isn't that incredible?"
I think how lucky I am that Brooke has brought me here to a place I never would have found by myself. "It really is," I agree. "I think Michelangelo is just about the most fascinating man who ever lived. Thank you for bringing me here."
"I thought you might like it. I thought it was amazing when I first saw it."
"So do the curators here keep it a secret?" I ask. "How did you find out about it?" I suspect Brooke's Italian gentleman from last night, Giacomo, showed this to her.
"No, not secret, but they don't advertise either, as you can see. I think they just want to keep the numbers down because the room is so small. This was one of the things I really wanted to see in Europe." She hesitates, then continues speaking as she turns away from me and leans over to get a closer look at one of the sketches. "I read about it when I was laid up in the hospital. My dad bought me a bunch of really great books on all different periods of art. At first I just looked at the pictures, but they started to intrigue me so much that I couldn't help reading the text too. If anything good came out of that horrible time in my life, it was my dad figuring out a way to distract me from myself. Awakening my interest in art history was just a bonus."
I keep looking at the drawings, but I have this heightened sense of awareness. I think I hear the florescent light bulb buzzing in the ticket taker's booth one floor above. This is the first time Brooke has ever spoken of the accident to me. I didn't know about the books, or her new interest in art. I want to ask her about everything but I don't know how. I don't know how to pry open this crack in her armor any further. The thought of actually talking to her about this scares me to death. I don't know what to say but I have to try. I turn to face her. "Brooke "
"Will you be going to Rome? If you're interested in Michelangelo, that is the place to go," Brooke says as she straightens and looks at me, hands on her hips.
And just like that, the moment has passed. Her expression is serene, but closed.
"Yeah, it's next on the list, actually," I let the opportunity go, maybe I'm not ready to hear about it yet, anyway. "Really, Brooke, thank you. This has been a highlight of my trip so far," I say sincerely.
"Don't worry about it," Brooke says casually. "I've become a pretty big fan of Michelangelo, myself."
"I can see that. You know a lot more about him than I do." I think about this mutual interest for a second, and try to think of other things we might have in common. "If we were to do a Venn diagram of you and I, we could put Michelangelo in the overlapping part," I joke. I'm finding it easy to picture us together in Rome, discovering the treasures of the Vatican, Brooke teaching me all she has learned.
Brooke looks at me. "You mean one of those two circle thingies that show the relationships between two elements?"
"Yeah." She's such a brain. What a textbook definition. We can do this, I realize. We can travel together.
"Well, Sam, in order to show any kind of relationship between two elements, the circles have to be overlapping at least a little bit. Unfortunately, the circle that is you and the circle that is me do not overlap in any way. In fact, our circles are probably about as far from each other as they could possibly be." She turns her back on me and starts back up the rickety staircase.
Jesus. That was so cold. What just happened? We were having a nice time, weren't we? If Brooke's intention is to keep me off balance by lethally swinging her moods around like a blunt object on a chain then she's doing a hell of a job. From zero to bitchy in 2.2 seconds. I can't travel with her, it would be insane.
We walk in silence to the straw market. This smaller market appears to be strictly for tourists, with all kinds of Florentine tchotchkes for sale. There is an enormous bronze sculpture of a boar in the middle of the market. It is said that if you rub the boar's nose you will return to Florence someday. I'm thinking that an awful lot of people have taken this bit of trivia to heart, as the boar's entire snout is shiny with the polish of a million grubby hands. As I stand near it waiting for Brooke to finish looking at some stationery, I self-consciously give it a covert swipe.
I get distracted by some leather backpacks, and wonder if it would be a good investment to take to school in the fall, then I think of what Lily would say and I decide against them. When I turn back to Brooke she is still a little distance away, but Giacomo, the swarthy Italian, has appeared on a Vespa scooter and Brooke is standing close to him, flirting with a smile on her face while he sits astride, motor idling. I turn my back on them, annoyed beyond sense, and stroll further down the street. Suddenly I want to put more space between them and myself.
There is a used book stall that has a bunch of musty looking leather volumes that warrant my attention. I am quickly engrossed in a book with wonderful pictures of Palladian architecture, something else I've been learning about here in Europe. An insistent beeping pulls me out of the book and then I hear my name being called.
"Sam! Sam!" Brooke is alone on the scooter and beeping that tinny little horn at me, desperately trying to get my attention. I put the book down and go to her.
"What?" I say sullenly, wondering where Giacomo has gone. I bet she's going to desert me for an afternoon ride with tall, dark and hairy.
"Come on! What are you waiting for? Get on!" Brooke says agitatedly.
Brooke sees this. "Look, I'm sorry about before. I was being a bitch. Just come with me, please?" She glances back over her shoulder.
My eyes follow hers and see Giacomo looking towards us over the heads of a gaggle of slow moving tourists. I don't think, I simply get on behind Brooke.
She lurches away, apparently not having mastered how to drive one of these things and I grasp her waist in fear as she dodges people and things, narrowly avoiding an accident several times in the crowded narrow streets. As she navigates away from the touristy center of town and into the business district where the traffic is heavier, I clutch her even closer, the flow of cars streaming by on all sides of us causing my heart to leap in terror about every three seconds. I am painfully aware that neither of us is wearing a helmet.
We enter a roundabout that is teeming with traffic, cars and motorcycles and scooters careening around at breakneck speed. Brooke gutsily enters the flow and I just about have a cardiac arrest. She tries to overtake a slower moving truck but there is a tiny Fiat in the space where she needs to go and she's beeping and yelling and guns it forward. Miraculously the Fiat moves over and we squeeze through and speed by the truck.
I am so not down with this. "Brooke, stop! Let me off!" I scream in her ear. I can see her profile obliquely and am surprised to see her face lit up in a huge grin.
"No way! This is an express scooter!" she hollers back, embracing the traffic and the speed and the danger. She increases our speed and runs a yellow traffic light. I wrap my hands tightly around her waist and rest my forehead on her shoulder; I don't even want to look anymore. I feel her stiffen when my arms go all the way around her and think maybe she'll dislike me touching her enough to let me off, but then I feel her shoulders relax and she actually leans forward with her need for speed.
"Where are we even going?" I yell when I realize she's not about to slow down.
"I don't know," she laughs. "Where do you want to go?"
I don't answer. Brooke slows for a second as we approach another roundabout, a green sign with three arrows pointing in different directions. She takes the route marked "Fiesole" and guns it again. I guess we're going to a place called Fiesole.
The traffic thins and we begin to ascend. We zip through the outskirts of Florence and abruptly find ourselves on a more rural road heading out of town. I have raised my eyes to get a look at our surroundings, and find us gaining enough altitude to see that we are climbing out of the valley in which Florence sits. Brooke's hair has been whipping around getting in her eyes and in my face. I brave the removal of my hands from around her waist and take the hair tie out of my own hair. I put it around my wrist and gather Brooke's hair. She flinches when she first feels my hands but then she realizes what I am doing and slows so I can complete the task. I think I hear her say thank you, but then I'm preoccupied because my hair is even longer and is now more unruly than hers was. I take a pen out of my pocket and twist my hair into something vaguely bun-like, securing it with the pen. It kind of works.
My arms immediately return to Brooke's waist, hands sliding over her shirt to grip her around the ribcage. Brooke has reduced her speed, we are both enjoying the scenery now and there is no reason for me to be holding on so tightly, but I find I don't want to let go. I scooch my rear-end up toward her so that her bum is resting snugly between my thighs. I feel like I'm draped all over her. I rest my chin on her shoulder, then move my face lower so my mouth is pressed against the bare skin where her shoulder meets her neck. If I pursed my lips I would be kissing her. I don't, but I want to. What is happening to me? I feel ridiculously pleased when she relaxes into me.
The higher we go, the more breathtaking is the view. As the road switches back on itself we get glimpses of the whole of Florence laid out before us. A few kilometers on we stop at a turnout in the road where the view has made it an unofficial scenic overlook. I reluctantly get off the Vespa and stretch my legs, walking over to a low stone ledge behind which is a precipitous drop. I stand there, my brain registering the view but not really appreciating it. I am too busy trying to guess why I was so loathe to detach myself from Brooke's nearness. Even now I want to touch her. I feel her tap me on the shoulder.
"Can I get my camera out of your bag?"
"Sure," I turn my back to her so she can reach into my daypack without me having to take it from my shoulders. When I turn around again the camera is in my face and I hear the click of an exposure taken.
"Smile," Brooke says after the fact. She looks at the image she just took and laughs. "You look confused."
Gee, you think?
She doesn't share the photo with me, instead pointing her camera to the view, taking a few shots of the panorama before us. "Get over there," she says, "I'll take your picture."
Dutifully I pose and she takes the shot. "Do you want me to take your picture?" I ask.
She's walking back over to the Vespa. "No, I'm going to try something." She puts the camera on the scooter's seat and looks through the viewfinder. She has me sit down on the ledge a few feet over. Setting the timer, she then hustles over to where I am and sits down next to me, putting her arm around my shoulders and smiles big for the camera. "Say fromaggio, Sam," she jokes.
After the shot she lets me go. "There. Proof for the parentals that we actually spent some time together on this trip," she says breezily. "Aww, it's nice." She looks at the image before turning off the camera. Coming to stand directly in front of me, she gives me a little smile before reaching out and grabbing my shoulders. She spins me around and opens my daypack, depositing the camera back in. "You want to drive?" she asks.
"No," I say a bit too quickly. Brooke is in an awesome mood, as cheerful as I've seen her in a long, long time. I briefly wonder if she has suddenly become manic depressive, because she's doing a great job of showing her manic side after the wild mood swings of this morning. Why is she making me so nervous? And why do I prefer to assume our previous positions instead of trying out the Vespa for myself?
"Are you sure? It's really fun once you get the hang of shifting," Brooke regards me with her hand at her forehead, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Why the hell is she being so NICE? I have no clue how to react to this. "Yeah, I'm sure. I want to be able to blame you if we get into an accident," I joke feebly.
Brooke's smile disappears, and I realize how crass I've just been.
"I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that." God I am such a jerk.
"You said it to remind me why we are not friends," Brooke smiles again, but it's brittle and false. She mounts the bike and starts it up, then lets it idle. "Are you coming?" she says dully, not looking at me.
I get on behind her and she accelerates almost immediately, but I'm used to her driving style now. I trust that she'll get us to our destination, wherever it may be, in one piece. I put my hands lightly on her waist, not daring to hug her from behind like before. I've thoughtlessly destroyed the buoyant mood between us, and I feel lower than a toad. At the same time, I can't help but wonder if her sunny disposition now and her affectionate attitude toward me is an apology for her all over the map behavior today. Or maybe it's an elaborate subterfuge to get me to hand over my money.
We continue to the top of the road and into the tiny little town of Fiesole. There is one main piazza and all the business establishments surround it. I spy a vegetable stand and ask Brooke to stop. She does without a word. I get off and tell her I'll be right back, she nods solemnly and says she'll wait with the scooter. As I walk across the piazza I'm distracted by a little store that says "Salumeria" out front. I'm intrigued by the cured meats and salamis hanging in the window so I go inside and quickly come back out with a small black plastic bag. Then I spend a few Euros at the vegetable stand. I put everything in my daypack.
"Do you want to stop and look around this town? It seems pretty cute," I say hesitantly when I return to where Brooke is waiting for me.
She shrugs and looks around her, seemingly unimpressed.
Maybe we need a little more driving time for her to forget my insensitive remark. I get back on the Vespa. "Let's keep going then."
After Fiesole, the landscape gets even more rural. Fields blanketed with sunflowers and grape vines and tall grassy stalks of young wheat flank the road. The Tuscan hills look deep purple and mauve where the sun spills over them at a low, afternoon angle. Ancient looking stone farmhouses dot the countryside in varying stages of inhabitability, from decayed and crumbling to expensive-looking and well cared for. The light is golden. Everything is kissed by this golden sunlight the likes of which I've never seen before. It kind of makes my stomach hurt it's so beautiful. But maybe that's just my appetite.
"Hey, you want to stop for lunch soon?" I yell over the sound of the motor.
"Do you see any place to eat around here?" I detect the sarcasm in her shouted response.
"We don't need a restaurant," I say, then see an intriguing sign, the print too small to read at this distance but the oversized picture of a wine bottle over it telling me what it is. "Let's see what that place is," I point to the sign but Brooke has already flicked her left indicator, although there isn't another vehicle in sight, and hasn't been for miles.
We travel up a long gravel driveway to the dusty parking lot of a working vineyard. There is a small timber building that looks like a gift shop and a few picnic tables situated under some trees. Brooke cuts the motor and we go in the little shop, which may not be a shop because although there are shelves to display goods for sale, there are no actual goods on the shelves. I ring the little bell by the till and we wait.
"I bought some food in the last town. We could eat at one of those tables," I suggest.
"Okay. Maybe they'll sell us some wine here. That'll be my contribution." Brooke says evenly.
I silently question the wisdom of drinking wine when we have to somehow return to Florence later but I don't say anything about it. Instead, "So Giacomo doesn't mind you borrowing his scooter all day?"
"He didn't really have a choice now, did he? I just took off on him," Brooke chuckles. "A few days ago I asked him if I could go for a ride and he said yes. When we saw him earlier he offered to take me for a ride, but I wanted to drive, not sit on the back."
"You just rode away?" Duh, Sam, you were there when it happened.
"Yeah, that's why I was in such a hurry," Brooke smirks.
"I don't think he's going to be too happy with you."
"Probably not," Brooke agrees, unconcerned. "He was getting a bit too clingy anyway. It's time to cut him loose."
She's so casual and cool about it. She just used him up and now she's throwing him away when he's no longer of value. So she didn't want to go for a ride with him, why did she want me to come along? Oh yeah, she needs me. For the moment. "Why did you stop for me?" I ask, wanting to hear what kind of spin she'll put on her answer.
Brooke turns to look at me but doesn't answer. After a moment she shrugs. "I don't know. You were just there so I stopped. I guess I knew you wouldn't bug me about going home to meet your mother. I already know your mother," she laughs shortly, then adds, "At least you know my history. You definitely won't be asking me for something I'm not prepared to give."
Okay. Not what I was expecting to hear. I have no idea what it means but pick out one thing from her response. "Giacomo wants you to meet his mother?"
"Wow, he must really like you."
Brooke shrugs again, then says jokingly, "What's not to like, right?" Her eyes flit away and she stares into nothingness, her posture is stiff and uncomfortable.
"Right." I agree, just to say something. She looks at me sharply, then leaves the little shop. I watch through the grimy window as she walks towards the Vespa. Well that was abrupt. I don't know if she's pissed at me or just bored.
An elderly woman in a long black dress and green Wellingtons comes into the shop. "Buongiorno," she says, and follows it with a string of unintelligible (to me) Italian. Somehow I manage to convey my desires to her and leave the tiny little store with some mineral water and a bottle of red wine with no label, the vino di casa, the old woman called it.
When I return to Brooke, I see that she has discovered a storage space under the seat of the scooter, which is now lifted on hinges like a great big open mouth. Inside she has found a helmet and a dusty, grass stained wool blanket. "The tables are in full sunlight," she says, motioning to the picnic tables I mentioned earlier. "Do you want to find some shade?"
"Sounds good," I say, and follow as she grabs the blanket and heads away from the farm buildings and up a gentle rise towards a copse of trees a few hundred yards off. As we approach we must reach the high point because all of a sudden we can see that the ground slopes down into a valley and there is a large cypress tree in the middle of a field that looks to have been fallow for quite a while. All that seems to be growing is grassy weeds punctuated by a few wildflowers and dandelions. We pass our original destination without a word and continue on to the enormous tree with its far-reaching canopy of green branches. Brooke spreads the blanket and I immediately kneel on it and start to remove the food I've bought from my daypack.
"I'm starving," I say, "aren't you?"
Brooke watches as I unpack some red ripe tomatoes, grapes and pears from one bag, and some fresh mozzarella, mortadella and olives from another. I hand her my swiss army knife and the tomatoes.
"Can you slice these for me?"
I take out the bread from this morning and begin to make sandwiches for us. Two each with a little cheese left over. Brooke passes over the plastic bag on which she cut the tomatoes, and I hand her my handkerchief along with her share of the food. I gave her the messy job.
"This is good," Brooke says, after eating a few bites of her lunch. "Do you do this a lot? The picnic thing, I mean."
"Yeah, almost every day."
"This thrifty girl-scouty thing you've got going on doesn't really mesh with the ruthless-journalist-turned-burnout rep you cultivated at school," Brooke says around a mouthful of sandwich.
Interesting choice of words. "You think being branded a burnout is something I intentionally cultivated?" I ask incredulously.
Brooke frowns. "Well, weren't you out at the smoking wall with the rest of the stoners, freaks and social lepers between nearly every class period for the whole of your senior year?"
"That's the only place where we were allowed to smoke. Just because I smoke cigarettes, tobacco-filled cigarettes," I stress the word tobacco, "it doesn't make me a stoner. I've never even tried pot."
"Oh. You're not missing much."
"You see? You see the double standard at work here?" I know I should just leave it alone but my mouth feels like participating in a little rant. "I get branded a stoner when I've never even gotten high, and you have and you're still the world's most precious golden girl."
"I'm not a golden girl," she dismisses. "And if you want to try marijuana just go to Amsterdam. I hear they have loads of the stuff there."
I'm totally exasperated. "That's not the-" It's not even worth it. "Never mind, Brooke. Just don't believe the hype."
"Got it. Can I have that other pear?"
I hand it to her, still kind of upset at her judgment. I just want to change the subject. "So Giacomo likes you, but you don't like him?"
"Oh god, why do we have to talk about him?" Brooke says, wearily. "We've just reached the stage where he wants to have sex and I don't. It always happens. I meet a guy, we get along, he wants to have sex, I put him off, he gets impatient, we break up. End of story."
"Wait a minute." How do I put this delicately? Brooke has gone out with tons of guys, often staying out till all hours with them. The implication of her statement is that she hasn't slept with any of them. "You are not sexually active at the moment?"
She shakes her head. "Not since junior year. Does that thing have a corkscrew?" She points to my knife.
"You mean not since senior year, when you hooked up with Josh when he was separated from Lily?" I want clarification here. Lily was beyond upset about that.
She looks at me like I'm certifiable. "No, that's not what I said and it's not what I mean. I didn't hook up with Josh senior year." She picks up the knife and pries open the corkscrew attachment. "What even makes you think that?"
"It was all over school! You humiliated Lily!"
"Josh and I are friends, Sam. All we ever did was talk. Can I help it if the rumor mill was wrong about us? I was suffering from a real shortage of friends after the accident, not that I expected you to notice. It was clear to me that the last thing you were interested in was being my friend. Josh was very kind to me. Maybe I helped him a little bit too. He was hurting a lot."
"You're trying to tell me you didn't have a fling with Josh halfway through senior year?" I stick to the point, hearing what she said about me but finding it too preposterous to bother dignifying it with a reply.
"I'm not trying to tell you, I am telling you." She starts twisting the corkscrew into the cork, her tone defensive.
"And all those other boyfriends, do you mean to tell me that you didn't sleep with any of them?"
"Are you calling me a slut, Sam?" The look in her eyes is bordering on dangerous.
"You called me a burnout," I say, flustered, regressing to school playground logic.
"Well, as you say, don't believe the hype. And anyway, who made you district attorney in charge of prosecuting my sex life? For the record, I haven't slept with anyone since Harrison John, spring break of junior year. And he and Josh are the only two people I've ever had sex with, not that it's any of your damn business!"
"Okay, I'm sorry." I hold up my hands in a gesture of surrender, backing off. She's really adamant about this.
"Do you believe me?" She is pinning me with her eyes, as she pulls at the corkscrew, trying to release the cork.
"Yes, I believe you." I do. I've never seen her this resolute. It's almost like it really matters whether I believe her or not.
Brooke finally manages to work the cork out of the bottle, but the released inertia jerks the bottle in her hand and she is suddenly covered in red wine. "This is fabulous, just fabulous," she sighs, shaking wine from her hand and putting the bottle down.
I pick up my handkerchief, which is really just a ratty old navy blue bandana and try to help blot the wine that is quickly staining her shirt. She bats my hands away as I pat gently at her chest.
"I can do it Sam, thanks," she says, then grabs the bandana from me. "I said, I CAN DO IT!"
I pull my hands back as if I've been burned. I hand her the bottle of water I bought and watch in silence as she uses the contents to clean her hands. She looks up at me somewhat guiltily.
"I know you were just trying to help. I just get a little weirded out by people touching me," she explains.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know," I really am sorry. And I'm still thinking about what she said earlier about all her boyfriends. If I was wrong about that, what else have I been wrong about? I feel like I'm looking at a stranger, although a very familiar one. God knows I haven't been close enough to touch her in a very long time, but I was touching her today on the scooter and she didn't seem to mind. Then I remember the feel of her back stiffening before it relaxed against me. And after that I remember the feeling of warmth that spread through me as I held her, like coffee and smokes on a really cold day, and I'm suddenly blushing.
"It's okay," Brooke takes a swig of the wine. "God, it's warm," she says, grimacing.
"I want you to be able to stay in Europe," I say abruptly.
She looks at me, waiting for me to go on. I realize she's been waiting for me to say something about it, and I feel horrible for making her wait.
"We'll share the money I have left on one condition," I say, coming up with the condition as I speak.
"Well, what is it?" Brooke asks when I don't continue.
"I want us to travel together," I say it in a rush, hardly believing it myself. The sudden truth is that I can't imagine continuing this trip without her. I know I'll be sorry later, probably, and she may not even go for it, but I think it's the right thing in my gut. She's a natural born traveler, assimilating new cultures seemingly by osmosis, I could learn so much from her if we don't end up killing each other.
Brooke just looks at me, presumably debating how diplomatic her refusal should be, but when she speaks I get a surprise.
"Okay, but I have a condition of my own: you slow down the pace a little, I physically can't travel that much. My shoulder starts to kill me after wearing my backpack for a while and my knee can't take walking with all that additional weight."
"Oh my god, of course." The fact that I never even thought about how carrying a pack would affect her battered body fills me with shame. "We can plan our itinerary together," I choke out, as my control over things slips away and I mentally begin to cross entire countries off my list.
Brooke smiles like she can see exactly what I'm thinking. "I hope we know what we're doing, McPherson. It's altogether possible that by the end of the summer, you, me or Europe may not live to tell the tale of us traveling together."
"I know," I smile ruefully back. "You're not going to make me go shopping every day, are you?"
She sniffs as if she's offended, then grins. "You're not going to make me sleep in a grotty hostel every night, are you?"
"I think our skill at compromise is about to be severely tested."
"Yeah, just thinking about it is making me exhausted. I'm just going to shut my eyes for awhile." Brooke lies back and curls onto her side, using my daypack as a pillow.
I begin to clean up the remains of our lunch, re-corking the wine and packing up the garbage in one of the plastic bags. As I look for the cap to the water bottle I hear Brooke say, "Thanks, Sam," in a sleepy voice.
"Don't worry about it," I reply softly, although I don't take my own advice. Now that I have proposed this plan, I'm filled with doubt. I know we're going to argue about everything from where we eat and sleep to who's in charge of the money to who gets the bathroom first. And her crazy mood swings will not be the easiest thing to deal with. I guess we'll just have to take it a day at a time.
I'm not tired. I light a cigarette and watch Brooke as she sleeps. She is hugging her arms around her waist like she's trying to protect herself, and it reminds me of how I kept my vigil in the parking lot while she recovered from the accident. It makes me wonder if this is what it would have been like to watch over her if I had actually made it into her hospital room.
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