Title: Innocents Abroad
Author: Green Quarter
Archiving: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/greenquarter.htm; Copious credit to Kim for kindly caring for my crap.
Disclaimer: Characters of Popular belong to someone who is not me.
Feedback: Always appreciated, at above address.
Shoutouts: 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.
Notes: This fic is set in a Post Season Two Junior Prom World. The accident has brought a few changes to our favorite characters and things are a little different here.
“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 Iife, 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 Prato 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?
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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