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.
I watch as Brooke ascends to wakefulness, rolling over onto her back from her left side, which I know is most comfortable for her injured right shoulder. She reaches out toward the other side of the wide bed and raises her head in confusion when she comes up empty. I am warmed by the knowledge that I am the first thing she looks for this morning.
She turns her head and sees me sitting in the chair, then lets her head drop back against the pillows. “What are you doing over there? Come back to bed, it’s early,” she smiles.
“Okay,” I don’t hesitate, even though I should confess right away. I shove the guilt to the back of my mind. What harm will a few more minutes do?
She is close to the edge of the bed so I clamber over and lay down beside her. Immediately I am pulled into a full body hug that lasts for a good long while. I have never felt anything nicer. I just want to stay like this forever.
“I just want to stay like this forever,” Brooke sighs into my shoulder.
Whoa. That was freaky, but cool. “Me too.”
“What – stay like this forever?” I take her question at face value even if she is asking something else; something that makes my heart beat a little bit faster. “I think we might develop bedsores.”
Brooke giggles. “Yeah, and we might have to go to the bathroom eventually.”
“How would you eat with your mouth practically attached to my neck?”
“And you’d probably start to smell a little funky after a while.”
“Me? You too, sweetheart,” I object, laughing.
She retreats slightly from our embrace and gazes at me thoughtfully.
I think she’s going to comment on my term of endearment, which just kind of slipped out in jest, although I do mean it. I’ll call her every cutesy name in the book if she wants me to. But she doesn’t say anything about that.
“What’s this all about?” she asks, plucking at the fabric of my shirt. “And why were you sitting over there?” she nods towards the chair. “Do I snore? Or kick?”
“No!” I protest violently. “I just woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t want to wake you, that’s all.”
Brooke looks dubious.
“Okay, I woke up because I had a bad dream,” I admit. I’d like to leave it at that, but Brooke wants details.
“A bad dream?” she prompts.
“Well, not a bad dream so much as a…” God, how do I explain? “Brooke, I’ll tell you about the dream thing in a minute. First I have to tell you something else, something really important.”
Brooke waits silently for me to continue, her features schooled in a grave expression.
I hesitate. She looks like she’s bracing herself for bad news and it tears at my heart. I can’t blame her for thinking I’m going to disappoint her again, but my hesitation comes from not knowing how she feels now. She loved me once; have her feelings changed? Does she still love me? Much as I would like reassurances from her, that won’t be possible this time. She courageously stepped into the breach to tell me how she felt the night of the accident and now it’s my turn. I now realize that she’s always been the brave one and I’ve always been the coward. How she could possibly want me after the hell I’ve put her through is a mystery. Whether she does or not I can’t go another minute without telling her. I’m the one that has to take the leap of faith – right here, right now.
“I love you, Brooke.”
Her eyes close and she remains completely still. I can’t gauge her reaction from this. Absurdly, I wonder if maybe she hasn’t heard me, though her ear is inches away from my mouth. It becomes imperative that she understands what I’m saying.
“I said, I love you,” I repeat. Then I break forth with a torrent of words that I didn’t know was waiting to come out. “And not just a sisterly kind of love, or the kind of love you have for a best friend. Not that I don’t want to be your friend; I totally do, but I want to be more than that. I want to be your, um, girlfriend. I want to go on dates with you and make out with you at the end of them. I want to get into bed with you at the end of the day and maybe do stuff like we did last night and wake up with you in the morning. I want to make you dinner even though I can’t cook, agonize over what presents to buy for you at Christmas, write you pages long love letters, and ask your opinion on the most trivial matters in my life. And I want you to be able to rely on me for everything. When your shoulder hurts I want you to use my body as your pillow.”
Eyes are still closed. Is that a good sign or bad? I press on.
“This may seem kind of sudden, this outpouring of emotion, but it’s been brewing for a long time. You and I both know it. I love you. And I really mean it, just like I meant it when I said it before.”
Those hazel eyes have opened and are now looking deep into mine, they are changing color as she soberly regards me; and there is a crease between her eyebrows that tells me there’s a problem somewhere.
“Which leads me to the bad dream,” I continue. “It wasn’t a bad dream. It was a memory. It was THE memory. It all came back like it happened yesterday: the restaurant, the accident, I saw it all,” the tears come and threaten to spill over. “I saw you, everything that happened to you in horrifying detail, Brooke. It was so scary.”
“You remember now?” Brooke asks, her voice neutral like Switzerland. Her eyes are two emerald drills boring into me.
“Yes. You were so brave. You told me you loved me and I knew it was true. And I told you I loved you and I meant it. I made you so many promises that night and I didn’t keep any of them,” I’m crying now, but I can’t stop talking, I have to get it all out. “But I did – I do – love you. I’m so sorry, Brooke. I wish I was there. I wanted to be there like I promised.” It sounds so feeble, how is she ever going to know I’m for real? “I don’t know what I could ever do to prove how sorry I am. If I had it to do over I would be with you every second. I don’t know if you could ever forgive me, if it was me I don’t think I could.” I try to press her to me, clutching her back into a hug like we were a few minutes ago but she is resistant.
“You remember now,” it’s a statement this time, not a question. I feel her pulling out of my embrace. She sits up and swings her legs out of bed, grabbing my robe from last night and sliding it over her shoulders, tying it tightly around her. “Now you remember.” She gets up and walks to the French doors, throwing the drapes open to reveal the bright light of morning. “The timing must be significant,” she says softly, almost to herself. Brooke stands before the stunning view of the city in silence, arms folded. I can’t even imagine what the expression on her face looks like.
After a few moments she speaks, and I endeavor to compose myself so that I can give her my full attention. I scoot to the edge of the bed and rest my feet on the floor, sitting up straight with my palms on my knees in an attitude of alertness.
“You know, Sam,” Brooke starts conversationally, “in the past year or so I’ve thought a lot about fate; about destiny, and chance, and signs, and about finding meaning in seemingly random occurrences. Actually, you’re the one who put the idea in my head in the first place. Remember, Sam? That night? You said it was fate. But of course you remember. Because you remember NOW.” Her voice has gradually sharpened to a razor edge. “Now, just when I think I’ve found a way to live with the capriciousness of fate, when I finally learn to let go of some of this anger that has been eating me alive.…” She turns to face me and exhales, her breath directed upward and blowing a few blonde wisps from her eyes. The edge is replaced by weariness when she says, “I had my cards all lined up, ready to play by the rules of the game. At last I was able to be content with my hand, happy with it, even, until you took the rest of the deck and flung it up in the air. In case I thought I had any control over what fate deals me, your little pronouncement this morning is the emotional equivalent to fifty–two pickup.”
“Brooke, I’m so-“
“Sorry. Yeah, I know.”
She sounds so sad.
“The thing is, I’m sorry too.” Brooke leans against the glass and gazes at me. “We are in quite the predicament now, Sam.”
“Just listen for a second. I don’t think you know where I’m coming from and I have to make sure you understand.”
Up until very recently, I have hated you,” she states bluntly, making me flinch. “And I’m sure you know that it wasn’t some namby-pamby kind of hate like when somebody says they hate arugula or Tom Cruise or doing laundry. It was a visceral, consuming hatred that kept me company while I was in the hospital, gave me energy to get through the days, fueled my dreams at night. I’m not kidding, it was intense.”
“Yeah, well, now you know why I despised you so much, right?”
“Yes,” I answer miserably.
“I had good reason,” Brooke asserts.
“Yes, you did,” I acknowledge hollowly.
“I couldn’t believe you didn’t remember. I just refused. At first I thought there had to be a reasonable explanation why you weren’t there. Maybe you got hurt too. Maybe you were lying in another room in a different wing, incapacitated or something. I didn’t know. The things that went through my head,” she laughs harshly, it sounds like sandpaper against rust. “Then I wondered if I was making it all up, that the touching scene by the roadside was simply a figment of my imagination. There wasn’t much head trauma but sometimes the brain does funny things. But I knew what I said and I knew what you said back to me because I wasn’t remembering with my brain, I was remembering with my heart. And yeah, my heart took a severe beating and for awhile it couldn’t be counted on to reliably pump all that blood through the ventricles and aortas and whatever, but it believed you when you said you would be there. My gullible heart,” her eyes are pinning me, holding me in place with her indictment of my cowardly inaction, but then they drop to the carpet. “Yours is dyslexic, mine is gullible. We’re both impaired.”
“Brooke, please-” I start.
“So there I was in that hospital bed, like a schmuck, waiting for you to come,” she continues, mowing over my interruption. “And you never fucking did,” her voice has started to rise. “And every time the door would open I’d get my stupid hopes up that it was you and it never was. It was only someone bringing me a message from you: ‘Sam says hello.’” She snorts in derision. “Do you have any idea how that made me feel?” she demands. “After all that you said - and I remember everything from that night – all you could spare me were three words not even said by your own lips. Three words. They were the wrong words, Sam.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“How could you not remember when I remembered it all?” Brooke looks genuinely puzzled. “I remember how angry and freaked out you were. You said so many wonderful things, things that made me want to keep on living, but you didn’t deliver on any of it,” the unforgiving angry tone is replaced by sorrow again. How many hours ago was it that she was gazing at me with fondness and, I know I didn’t imagine it, love?
“When I finally got out of the hospital,” she says, “I took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had changed, you had too. You weren’t the girl I fell in love with. You were, like, forty percent of that girl. All watered down. If I wasn’t so filled with poisonous hate I would have been sad for you. As it was I was glad that you didn’t get away unscathed.”
“You were different too, you know,” I feel obliged to say.
“Of course I was, but I had an excuse. I was in a life-altering accident,” Brooke replies reasonably. “I don’t think I’ll ever completely be that person again.”
“No, I don’t suppose you will,” I say slowly.
“Much as I hated to admit it, the one aspect of me that survived was this absurd and unexplainable attraction I still had to you.” She shakes her head in wonder. “I was so into you, Sam. And you never picked up on it. Before the accident I would do anything to have some interaction with you. I would pick a fight with you just to see your mouth twist while you thought up another put down. I was entranced by the sight of you running your fingers through your hair; I wanted to laugh with delight when you emerged triumphant in a battle of wits with Nic. It didn’t happen very often but it was really cute the way you acted so smug for the rest of the day,” Brooke does this little half smile in remembrance.
Before I can say anything she frowns. “But it doesn’t change the fact that you hurt me more than anybody ever has, even Nic, and I hate you for that.”
She thinks my crime is greater than Nic’s. The thought suddenly occurs to me that there may not be a way for this to end happily.
“Hate is so strong,” she adds. “People are right when they say that there is a thin line between love and hate. It takes just as much energy, maybe more, to keep the fury and anger going. And I was thinking of you just as much after the accident as before, only there was this steady stream of blackness bleeding over everything, ruining it all.
“But love is strong too. And when we started traveling together I started to remember the things that drew me to you in the first place. You had changed, but at the core you were the same. After my screw-up with the money you were kind to me even though I had been nothing but bitchy. I really wanted to stay and see the things I had read about and you didn’t have to be so nice. So thank you for that.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” I say, embarrassed.
“And I tried really hard to get along with you; you had done me this huge favor. But it wasn’t hard at all. I found that I was falling in love with you all over again, although it was a different you: timid, fearful, sullen, reeking like the quality control department at a Marlboro plant.”
“I don’t know how when you describe me like that,” I sigh.
“A charming combination,” Brooke says dryly, with a grudging smile on her face. “At least for me. But I guess I was predisposed. You were more subdued, less fiery, but there was still a spark of the old you. Plus you were so endearingly vulnerable, awkwardly telegraphing your desire so blatantly.”
“You could tell?” I redden at that.
“It’s why I felt the overwhelming urge to kiss you that night,” Brooke nods. “So I relaxed and just tried to go with it, telling myself that it was okay because you didn’t know what you had done. It was nice to let myself have those feelings again, to let go of the anger. And it had been so long, I didn’t think your memory was ever going to come back. I built this elaborate rationalization that I could let myself feel for you again only because you didn’t remember. It was like you weren’t guilty of abandonment if you didn’t know that’s what you had done.” She sighs, “I know it doesn’t make any sense but I wanted fate to be telling me that this could be a new start. I really wanted it to be, even though I knew I was fooling myself.
“And now you remember. And my wobbly house of cards comes down around me and all I can think about is lying in that hospital bed all alone, the pain of not knowing what I did to drive you away slowly mutating into hatred for what you had done to me.” Brooke does this half shrug with her good shoulder. “And that’s where we are.”
“That’s where we are?” I repeat, and watch her nod in confirmation. “So where does that leave us?” I ask, fearful of her response. I get up from the bed and stand in front of her.
“Honestly? I don’t know.” Brooke says noncommittally, straightening from where she was leaning against the window.
Okay. I can live with that, it’s better than an outright dismissal of the idea of us being together, but I need to know. “Brooke, can I ask you something?” She gazes at me, waiting for me to continue. “Do you still love me?”
The question hangs in the air, she doesn’t answer. I need to fill up the silence to cover my fear that she’s going to end it right now. “Because I love you. I’ll love you forever. And if you need time to figure out how you feel, I can wait however long it takes. I know you have every right to hate me; I hate myself for what I’ve done to you. And I don’t want to make excuses for it because there could never be a good enough reason, but the only thing I can come up with in my defense is that the shock of seeing you almost dead in front of me was something I couldn’t face. A little portion of my brain, or maybe it was my heart, wouldn’t let me acknowledge that possibility, so it shut down completely, refusing to even contemplate a reality where you didn’t exist anymore.”
“But why didn’t you come afterwards?” Brooke asks plaintively. “I can understand your being freaked out right after the accident, but I was in the hospital for five months! I really needed you.”
“I don’t know,” I say helplessly. “I just don’t know.”
Brooke’s eyes fill with tears. “That’s not good enough.”
Emotion wells up in me at the sight of her distress and the knowledge that I am the cause of it, and I nearly start crying as well. “I know, I’m sorry.” I want to put my arms around her and comfort her but I can’t. I’m the reason why she’s so upset.
I take a deep breath. “Brooke, you’ll never know how sorry I am. I failed you and I failed myself. I’m so sorry, but I can’t change what has happened. I would like your forgiveness but I know it’s a lot to ask. Once trust is lost it’s very hard to get it back, I know this. I’m so ashamed of my spinelessness, but maybe I can learn something from it, and become a stronger person because of it. I’m not afraid to say that I love you. If you give me a chance I’ll never stop proving it to you.” I stop abruptly, having run out of things to say.
Brooke slowly shakes her head in the negative. “I want to forgive you, Sam, but I can’t get past my anger right now,” she says, almost apologetically, but with finality.
My heart falls. “I understand.” It’s over. I step back and give her some room. I don’t know what to do with myself. I go to the bed and start making it, pulling up the sheets and straightening the pillows. Brooke doesn’t move, just watches me from over by the window.
“That’s not to say that maybe someday…” she ventures uncertainly. She’s trying to let me down easy, I can hear the pity in her voice.
“It’s okay, Brooke.” I finish with the bedcovers and sit down at the foot of the bed. I’m hit by a wave of grief and I try to mask my weeping by hiding my face in my hands, not wanting Brooke to feel bad.
She comes over and sits beside me, starts rubbing my back. Now I’ve put her in the position of offering me comfort when it should be the other way around. I’m such an asshole. It makes me cry even harder when she puts her arm around me and soothes me with unintelligible words.
“What are we going to do now?” I wail, my face pressed against her shoulder.
“We’ll do what we were going to do anyway,” Brooke replies calmly. “We’re going to see Paris and wherever else we decide we want to go, and then we’ll go home and go to school and live our lives.”
Apart. She forgot to add that to the end of her sentence but it’s understood. It sounds like a death sentence. I have to try one more time. I hate the way my voice sounds when I protest, “But Brooke, this morning when we were in bed you said you wanted to be like that forever. Was that a lie? Weren’t you happy?”
“It wasn’t a lie, and yes, I was happy,” she states. “Sam, you are so dear to me, but when I look at you now I see all the desperate sadness and disgust that ruled me before. Maybe this is good. Maybe you regaining your memory will help me let go of all that bad stuff.”
Brooke tilts my head back and looks me in the eyes. I’m a sniveling mess, all tearstains, and puffy eyes and snot, but she kisses me anyway. She presses her lips to mine in the sweetest saddest kiss. I close my eyes and focus all my senses on her, cognizant that this may be the last time we ever do this. I try to imbue it with all the love and longing that I feel for her. It’s over way too soon.
After she pulls away she says, “I did love you, maybe I still do, but I can’t be with you and have those romantic feelings for you while I’m still extremely pissed at you. It would ruin it. Let’s just be glad that we had this, and that we can come away from this not hating each other anymore. I’m so tired of that, Sam.”
“But we could have so much more!” I can see it’s over; her mind is made up. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?” I ask despondently, already knowing the answer.
“No, there’s nothing to be done,” Brooke exhales, then squeezes my shoulder before removing her arm from around me. “You know, maybe I’m just looking for a sign or something, fate telling me that this is right. But it doesn’t feel right, not right now anyway. I’m sorry, Sam.”
“What kind of sign?” I ask miserably, “I can make you any kind of sign you want.”
Brooke laughs a little, but changes the subject. The conversation is over, negotiations are closed. “Come on, you’re a mess,” she says tenderly. “Go get in the shower and I’ll order breakfast. Now that we have some money, let’s do some hard core sight-seeing today.”
Numbly I head for the bathroom and go about making preparations for the day. I brush my teeth and go to the bathroom and take a long shower, hoping that Brooke can’t hear me sobbing over the sound of the spray.
“There is so much money here,” Brooke marvels, fanning out her stack of Traveler’s Checks and counting them again.
We are in the customer service area at the American Express office, sitting in two low blue chairs by the window, both signing each check of our share of the money that Mike has provided.
“I kind of padded the amount a little,” I confess, “and it looks like your dad kicked in a bit more.”
“This is almost as much as what I started with,” Brooke crows.
As soon as I got the money I divided it up evenly. I don’t want to be in control of the finances anymore. I put the wad of checks in my pocket, resolving to find a place to buy another money belt. I’ve gotten used to the security of having it, even though it’s geeky as hell.
“So what do you want to do today?” Brooke asks. “I really want to go shopping. Do you think we could go back to some of those stores we went by the other day?”
Shopping. Some things never change. I watch as Brooke continues chattering happily while she signs her checks, a desolate sadness stealing over me. This is not going to work.
“Then maybe for lunch we could go to that place we saw that looked like it was a prototypical French bistro,” she continues. “We could sit and drink coffee and talk about anarchy or something. We could even smoke some of those French cigarettes, what are they called – Gauloises?”
“I’m trying to quit,” I say. I did have a cigarette out on the terrace while Brooke was in the shower. Hopefully my last.
She looks up from her task. “That’s good, Sam. I’m glad,” she smiles. “So does that sound like a plan?”
I pause, not wanting what I’m going to say to sound like sour grapes. “I don’t think I can do this, Brooke.”
“What?” Brooke queries warily, sounding like she was half-expecting this.
“Look, I want you to have fun and do everything you want to do. Now that you don’t have me holding the purse strings you’re free. You don’t need me tagging along. In fact, I kind of want to be by myself for awhile,” I try to smile to show there are no hard feelings.
“You don’t want to travel together anymore?” She looks at me, her pen frozen in mid-stroke.
“Brooke, you attract people like ants to a picnic. You won’t have a problem finding someone to hang around with,” I reason.
“But I want to hang around with you,” Brooke responds mulishly.
“I can’t do it. You can understand that, can’t you?” I ask, silently pleading for her to make this easy for both of us.
Brooke regards me seriously, then relents, sort of. “Okay, but we’ll still do stuff together today, won’t we? We don’t have to check out of Hotel Fancypants until tomorrow morning. We can go our separate ways then, right?”
I shake my head. “I’m going to do my own thing today, if that’s okay. You go shopping, have fun. I’ll see you tonight back at the hotel.”
“You’ll definitely come back tonight?” she wants to be reassured.
“All my stuff is there, Brooke, of course I’m coming back.”
“We’ll have a celebratory farewell dinner tonight, all right?” She asks gently, then jokes, “Maybe this time we’ll actually eat what we order.”
“Yeah,” I answer distractedly. I don’t know how I’m going to get through sharing the room with Brooke tonight. I pick up my daypack and sling it over my shoulder. Suddenly I want to get out of here as quickly as possible. “See you later.”
“Wait,” Brooke stalls me. “What are you going to do today?”
I frown; I hadn’t actually thought about it. “I don’t know,” I say honestly. “But I’ve got my guidebook, I’ll figure it out. Bye, Brooke.”
I’m already halfway to the door when I hear her say, “Bye Sam.” I don’t turn around.
It’s funny how even when you’re a visitor in a place like Paris, with all the things that make it famous like Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Sacre Coeur you still seek out what’s familiar.
I guess that’s why, after crossing the Seine and walking around all morning and most of the afternoon, I find myself on the left bank in a Starbucks. I’ve covered a fair bit of the sixth and seventh arrondissements, but I couldn’t give a very detailed report about what I’ve seen. I just came in to give my feet a break and to get some bottled water, but once I had sat down I found it very hard to summon the motivation to get up again. My guidebook is in front of me open to the same page as when I first retrieved it from my bag, and I’ve been doing more looking out the window than looking at words.
I wonder for the thousandth time what Brooke is doing. I picture her in a black turtleneck, drinking real French coffee in a café, discussing Sartre or Camus with some scruffy Frenchman, having a real French experience.
I run my fingers through my hair and resolve to get her behind me, so to speak. We only traveled together for two weeks at most; I can go back to doing the solo thing easily. But I know I’m deluding myself. There’s no going back to the way things were, there will just be me attempting to find a new way to live without Brooke. I suppose I’ll have many distractions when I start school, and Brooke will be so far away at her own school I’ll hardly see her. Which is a good thing.
Enough! I have to stop dwelling. All of this is my own fault and I just have to live with the consequences. I pick up my guidebook and concentrate on the words. I find that I’m close to an art museum, a perfect low-impact way to waste the rest of the afternoon. I stuff my things back in my bag and go.
A few minutes later I weave my way through the disproportional number of foreigners meandering all over the sidewalk that announce better than any sign that I am near a major tourist attraction. The Musee D’Orsay used to be a train station from the nineteenth century that was converted into a museum in the eighties. It’s cool because instead of focusing on a particular period or media, it houses all kinds of art from around 1850 – 1915. So it not only boasts some of the heaviest hitters from Impressionist painting, but also has important collections of sculpture, decorative art, furniture and photography from the same time. It is an obvious art fan favorite, as it is packed with people even in the waning hours of the day.
As I get my bearings in the soaring central hall, a long, wide corridor capped by a vaulted glass ceiling, I feel myself relax a little bit. I amble over to one of the side galleries and begin to immerse myself in the beautiful things that populate this remarkable space. I make my way through the ground floor rooms, inspecting each item, passing quickly by the things I don’t like and lingering over the things I do. Wishing that Brooke were here to explain some of the more inexplicable objects is inevitable, but I shove the thought away and go on.
Entering a room of familiar impressionist paintings, I take my time examining each one. I get as close as I can to observe the brushwork of Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, I’m impressed by the pointillist detail of Seurat’s The Circus, and marvel at how Monet used color in his famous paintings of his garden at Giverny. I understand that it’s become passé to admire Impressionist art, but I can’t help but want to jump right into the worlds that these artists have created. They make a hayfield seem so peaceful, a woman hanging laundry becomes profound.
I approach a painting called Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes by Pissarro, and am immediately struck by my desire to inhabit this painting along with the two figures depicted in the foreground. It is a simple picture of some tall trees, their branches naked and fragile-looking. The snow on the ground and on the roof of the red-brick house in the background reveal that it is winter there, but it doesn’t look too cold. The woman and child in the foreground stand hand in hand; their footprints expose the path they took to reach this exact spot where the artist has captured them for all eternity. The thing that gets me though is the sunlight. It is what makes this painting so warm to me. How Pissarro managed to so aptly convey chilly sunlight in a grove of chestnut trees is a miracle.
I close my eyes. I can feel the crunch of the snow under my feet as I walk over to the woman and her daughter, they speak French so I can’t communicate that well, but we turn our faces to the sun and feel the heat of its surprisingly strong rays on our faces for a few moments.
I know that when I open my eyes I’ll be back in a crowded museum on a sweltering August day, but for these few seconds I just want to be somewhere else. I try not to think about her but as soon as I do she’s there with me, her changeable hazel eyes a shade I have never seen before as she looks at me and smiles. Then she turns to say something to the little girl and her breath is visible in the frigid air. She is laughing. I watch her and realize that here in the French countryside in the late nineteenth century, Brooke is happy. And I’m happy too. Something we couldn’t achieve in reality.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Brooke turns and asks me, her eyes sparkling in the brittle sunlight.
“So beautiful,” I agree. My delusion is so vivid I feel like she’s really talking to me.
“Sam?” she speaks louder, her voice is so real-sounding, coming from my right.
I need to end this daydream slash fantasy whatever; it’s starting to freak me out. I reluctantly open my eyes, back among the teeming hordes of tourists and sigh as I look again at the painting.
“Look at the way the light comes through the tree branches,” Brooke says.
Wait a minute.
I turn to my right and she’s there. Brooke is standing next to me, gazing at the painting. She puts her little digital camera to her eye and takes a photo of the canvas, then she turns to me and aims the camera.
I open my mouth but I’m so surprised I can’t speak, and wonder if I somehow conjured her out of thin air.
She takes the shot, then puts the camera in her handbag, never taking her eyes from me. “Really beautiful,” she says. “Hi, Sam.”
“Hi,” I manage to get out.
“What is it with us and museums?”
“I don’t know.” Okay, somehow we are both here at the same place at the same time. “What are you doing here?” I ask, trying to recover my equanimity. “I thought you were going shopping.”
“Got bored. Needed some culture.”
“And I tried the café thing, but it wasn’t much fun by myself.”
“Oh. Well…” I’m having trouble holding up my end of the conversation.
“This place is great,” Brooke comments, looking around. “So much great stuff all in one place, and it’s so much more manageable than the Louvre.”
“Yeah.” I agree, even though I’ve never been to the Louvre, and neither has she. I gaze at her in wonder, not caring much about the art anymore. It’s only been a few hours since we’ve left each other in the Amex office but I’m so glad to see her, and the degree of gladness makes me sad.
“What was it you said when we met in the Uffizi?” she asks, trying to remember. “‘Of all the gin joints’ or something? That’s from a movie, right?”
“Casablanca.” I’m disconcerted by the change of topic, but I go with it.
“Right,” Brooke nods. “The movie that Harry likes, but Sally doesn’t.”
“Something like that.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“When Harry Met Sally?”
“Casablanca? Yes. In history class, when we were learning about the Vichy government. Didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t have Mr. Fisher for history.”
“How does the line go?”
“’Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,’” I recite.
“Yeah. I like that line.”
“Me too. Brooke?”
“What are we talking about?
“I guess…” She stops to think for a second. “Coincidence.”
“Mm-hmm. And signs. Like, what are the chances that two people will randomly end up in the same foreign country at the same museum at the same time? And what are the chances that the same two people will meet again in a different museum in a different country just a few weeks later? It certainly defies logic.”
This conversation defies logic, but Brooke seems to have some kind of point she’s trying to make so I’m willing to follow the convoluted tributaries of her thoughts. I struggle to keep up. “You think it’s a sign?”
“A sign of…?”
“Do I need to spell it out?”
“I would appreciate it.”
“Before I spell it out for you I just want to apologize for this morning at the American Express office. It was selfish of me to think that you would still want to travel with me. I should have thought about how hard it would be for you. I made a mistake.”
I was doing fine until she had to bring this up. “A mistake?”
“Yes. Is there something wrong with your hearing?” she frowns with concern. “You keep repeating me.”
“No, I just want to be sure I’m getting it all. This has been a strange conversation so far and I don’t want to miss any of its twists and turns. Now, you were saying?”
“The thing is, I’ve been doing some thinking about all the things we talked about this morning and I think I’ve finally got it. There was nothing deliberate in your avoiding me after the accident, nothing malicious. Your brain was protecting you from what it thought you couldn’t handle, and whether I like it or not, I have to respect that. There’s nothing either of us can do about it now anyway.”
“Contrast that with this morning. When you walked out the door I knew exactly how much you were hurting, because I’ve been there. And it didn’t have to be that way.”
She pauses to gather her thoughts and I wait patiently for her to go on.
“Do you know what you did for me last night? That was major, Sam. I didn’t think I would ever be able to get over what my body looks like now, but you are helping me to do it. For that reason alone I’d be a fool to not try and make things work between us. More than that, when it sunk in that you were really going to leave, I realized I was hurting myself too. Why should I deny myself the pleasure of being with you because of this perverse need I have to punish you? If I’m completely honest, that’s what I was doing,” she admits, her tone ashamed. “I guess I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me. It’s true that I’m still angry at you, but not angry enough to want you to suffer. I love you too much for that.” Brooke looks at me assessingly, trying to gauge how I’ll react to her brutal honesty.
I smile. “You love me?”
Her features relax with relief at my response. “Yes, get the wax out of your ears,” she grins. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Good. That makes me happy. You make me happy, more happy than angry. Life is too short to not be happy.”
“I’m happy too.”
“Well, again, that’s good,” she pauses. “It doesn’t bother you that I would deliberately try to hurt you?”
“You had your reasons, and you put me out of my misery after less than a day. I’d say you were very generous with my penance. And anyway, it doesn’t compare to the amount of guilt I carry around now.”
“We have to get over this,” Brooke says soberly. “You, the guilt, and me, the anger. It could do a lot of damage somewhere down the line if we don’t deal with it.”
“What do you think? Therapy?” I conjecture.
“I’d like to see the therapist who could take on us and our issues,” Brooke replies facetiously.
“There are many.”
“Yep.” Brooke agrees.
This conversation is surreal, but I like the way it’s going. “Do you want to maybe get out of here? Finish talking somewhere else? I’m getting kind of hungry.”
“Are you done? I’ve been here for a few hours. How about you?”
“Not that long, but I’m done. Maybe we could come back tomorrow and you could tell me everything you know. I missed not having a private art expert at my disposal.”
“Tomorrow?” Now Brooke is the one repeating. But she gets it. “Okay, as long as you don’t mind me dragging you to a few other museums as well.”
“Not at all. It’ll be fun. So it’s all right if we travel together?”
“Fine with me,” Brooke is grinning like a lunatic. She really does look happy.
We start to make our way to the exit. I think maybe I have a really big smile on my face too.
“Wait a second,” I suddenly remember, stopping in the middle of the grand central aisle. “Weren’t you going to spell something out for me?”
“Oh yes.” Brooke clears her throat and says, “Due to the fact that fate has seen fit to bring us together once again, I can draw no other conclusion than we are meant to be together. But I was going to tell you all of this when I saw you at the hotel tonight anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if fate has anything to do with it or not. I don’t put much stock in fate anymore; I do what makes me happy.”
“That sounds very wise.”
“You know this isn’t going to be easy?”
“Nothing worthwhile ever is,” I say.
We start to move again, Brooke reaches for my hand and we stroll out the doors and across the road to a sidewalk that runs parallel to the Seine. The sun is setting and a glorious golden light suffuses the evening sky. If they were alive, one of those Impressionist painters would do a good job of it, I’m sure. I’m feeling hopeful and peaceful and serene, but I also have this jumping out of my skin type feeling that is making me kind of antsy. This must be what love is supposed to feel like.
As we cross the bridge that takes us back to our hotel I say, “Brooke I want to stop right here and kiss you a thousand times.”
Brooke stops in her tracks and gazes at me, a smirk playing over her lips. “How about one quick one here and nine hundred ninety nine back in the room?” she bargains.
“Deal.” I look around and see a few people sharing the bridge with us, but I don’t think they’ll mind a little bit of PDA from a couple of wacky American girls. I take Brooke in my arms and kiss her firmly and quickly, reveling in the feel of her soft lips. That I’m even allowed to do this makes me giddy. “There’s more where that came from,” I promise.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Brooke gazes at me fondly, holding my face in her hands for a few moments. She looks deep into my eyes and murmurs, “I forgive you.”
I make a sound that’s halfway between a sigh and a hoot. It’s not very dignified. All the tension leaves my body and I feel like my limbs are made of rubber bands. “You forgive me?”
Brooke smiles in amusement, then leans in and puts her mouth right by my ear and loudly repeats, “I forgive you.”
I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry so I do neither. My arms go around Brooke’s waist and I’m squeezing her so tightly. “Thank you,” I mutter into her neck. “Thank you.”
Brooke doesn’t say anything more. When I release her she scrutinizes my face, squinting because of the lowering sun just behind me. She nods her head with an air of finality, of approbation of her decision, and we begin to walk again.
We stroll in comfortable silence, each lost in our own thoughts. Mine are of an exceedingly pleasant nature; I’m imagining all sorts of scenarios where Brooke and I are contentedly doing mundane things together like driving in the car, folding laundry and looking up movie times on the internet. Thoughts like these lead to contemplating a long happy future with Brooke, but my mind inevitably stumbles over an enormous obstacle looming in our paths.
“I just thought of something Brooke.”
“What happens when we have to go to school?”
“Hmm.” Brooke considers.
“USC is very far from Princeton.” I state the obvious.
“It is. How about this: we find a good long distance cellular phone plan, do the best we can, and re-evaluate over Christmas?”
“Sounds reasonable in theory.”
“That’s all we can ask for.”
It’s a big thing, and it’s happening very soon. We’ll be leaving Europe in a couple of weeks and departing for school a few weeks after that. I would expect to feel apprehensive about our imminent separation but I don’t. Right now it’s enough that we’ve come this far. We’ll use the time we have and somehow make it work the months we’ll be apart. I think we can do it; I'm optimistic that way.
We make it back to the hotel but somehow dinner doesn’t get ordered until many hours after we return. In case you were wondering, it takes quite a while to get through nine hundred ninety nine kisses.