Title: Here’s Where I Stand
Author: Green Quarter
Archiving: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/greenquarter.htm. Heaps of hosannas on Kim at the Realm for hosting.
Disclaimer: Characters of Popular are not mine. They belong to somebody who is not me.
Feedback: Always appreciated, at above address.
Note: This fic is set during the summer between graduation and Sam and Brooke’s departure for college. Although it can stand alone, it was written as a prequel to “The Mercy of the Fallen,” which can be found here: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/green_quarter/mercy.htm if you’re interested.
This fic is a Sam/Brooke story, but it is kind of different in that it mainly focuses on Sam, and how she plays the cards that life has dealt her.
The title was inspired by the lyrics of the song of the same name, on the soundtrack to the movie, Camp.
“Get out of my face, Brooke.” Sam warned playfully, as she butted Brooke with her hip and stood her ground.
“What’s the matter, can’t take it?” Brooke baited, all elbows and hands waving in her face, playing a mean intimidation game.
Sam faked to the left, then dodged to the right, but Brooke was on her like white on rice. Jesus! It’s only a gym class game of basketball, on the last day of school no less, and Brooke is acting like it’s March Madness, Sam thought exasperatedly. And we both suck at basketball!
“I’m open,” Sam called to Popita, who was indolently dribbling the ball at the top of the key while chatting with Mary Cherry, although Sam was not, in fact, open.
Poppy couldn’t care less if Sam was open or not, she threw the ball underhanded in Sam and Brooke’s direction. Sam made a desperate lunge for the ball, fingertips grasping, but Brooke’s superior arm length allowed her to tip the ball out of Sam’s reach. Brooke scrambled after the ball and awkwardly dribbled it down the court, looking behind her to see if Sam had given chase.
Sam stayed where she was, bending over and resting her hands on her knees, watching as Brooke skidded to a stop about five feet away from the basket. Brooke took careful aim and made her shot, and Sam saw her clench her fists at her sides as the ball wobbled and bounced on the rim before falling through the basket with a swish. Brooke jumped in place and pumped her fist in the air, as Mary Cherry ran over to congratulate her.
“Brookie, slap my palm,” Mary Cherry said, holding her hand up.
Brooke high-fived Mary Cherry and then turned to Sam and yelled across the gym, “Ha! Suck it, McPherson!”
Sam shook her head and smiled in spite of herself. She and Brooke had been on friendly terms for quite a while now, their senior year spent in relative harmony, but sometimes that old antagonism would pop up and color their interactions, and there didn’t seem to be anything she could do about it. She was just glad that it seemed to manifest itself in harmless ways, like competing for their baby sister Mac’s attention, or bickering over the largest pork chop, or battling it out on the basketball court.
Sam threw an aggrieved glance over to their gym teacher, who had looked up from the bleachers where she was making notations in her role book and seemed to realize she was fighting a losing battle. All the students were standing around talking in groups of twos and threes, and the only student that appeared to be benefiting from physical education this period was Brooke McQueen. Finals had ended the previous day, and for seniors, this day was an annoying formality, as no one, present teacher excepted, was holding a class.
Sam slowly followed Brooke, Mary Cherry, and Popita out of the gym after class was dismissed. She looked around at the gym and noted that it would probably be the last time she would ever be subjected to forced exercise in a gulag-like setting. It was a good feeling, but weird, too. She cleaned out her gym locker and made her way into the hallway where, as usual, Carmen and Lily waited for her so they could walk to their next class together.
“So, how does it feel, Sam?” Lily asked. “No more gym class, ever.”
“It would have felt better if Coach didn’t make us change and I could have just sat around on the bleachers all period like you guys did,” Sam grumbled. She had complained all semester about having to take a different gym class than Carmen and Lily. “And Brooke chose the last class of the year to go all WNBA on me, she actually forced me to break a sweat,” Sam said incredulously, she still didn’t know where Brooke’s exuberant hoop dreams had come from.
“Well, you’ll never have to endure the sweet stench of moldy gymnasium ever again,” Carmen comforted.
“Can I get an Amen for that,” Sam testified. “Now only two classes left before it’s really all over.”
“Except for commencement,” said Lily.
“And Sugar Daddy’s party,” Carmen added, with a grin of anticipation.
Sugar Daddy had invited the entire senior class to a huge bash immediately following commencement exercises, which were being held tomorrow, and Sam and her friends were really looking forward to it. Sam grinned, and put gym class out of her mind as they headed down the hall together.
Sam turned around to see Brooke heading her way.
“Are you still going home right after school?” Brooke asked. It had become standard practice for the stepsisters to share a car to school if their schedules coincided.
“Yeah, Magic Johnson. Are you?”
“Yes,” Brooke replied, snickering at Sam’s comment. “I just thought I would check to see if your plans had changed. I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”
“Okay, see you later, Brooke.”
Sam leaned against her car and waited for Brooke. She could see her across the parking lot waiting for April Tuna to finish signing her yearbook; April appeared to be scrawling War and Peace longhand into the back flap of the book. When Brooke finally made her escape, she threw her stuff onto the back seat of Sam’s ancient convertible bug and sat in the passenger seat with a sigh. “It’s over. Can you believe it?” she asked Sam.
“The end of an era,” Sam returned as she tried to start the car. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the engine turned over and she labored to put the car in gear. The clutch was going, in fact, pretty much everything mechanical was failing on the car, and she just hoped it would last until she started college in September, when she wouldn’t need it anymore.
Sam ignored the grinding noises coming from the engine. “So can I ask? What did April Tuna write?”
Brooke flipped back to April’s entry and said, “Oh God, it goes on and on, it starts with ‘Dear Brooke McQueen, let me first say thank you for walking in front of me in the hallway on the second day of freshman year, you were the bomb in that pink cashmere twin set…’ I’ll read the rest later.” Brooke paged through the book, idly looking at the pictures. “You still haven’t signed my book, Sam,” she remarked.
“I know,” Sam replied “I’ll get to it. It’s not like I don’t know where you live.” She looked over at Brooke and smirked at her. “Hey, you want to get a movie or something tonight? Only this time I get to pick. I can’t believe you made me suffer through The Bodyguard last time.”
“Well, I didn’t know how bad it was going to be,” Brooke protested defensively. “I had never seen it before, and I like that one song that Whitney sings.”
“Which one?” Sam cracked, “There’s only about eighty of them. Every two seconds she’s bursting into song, and then the inevitable early nineties sax solo comes cheesily wailing through the soundtrack.”
“I know,” Brooke said, chuckling. “And what do you think the wig budget was for that movie? Whitney had a new one in practically every scene. I love how they showed her getting her hair done, like she was fooling anybody. She should’ve been like, “Oh, it’s time to do my hair? Here take it, I’ll go practice my next number or something.’” Brooke mimed removing a wig from her head and flinging it in Sam’s direction.
Sam guffawed. “Well they saved money by letting Stone-Faced Costner do his own. Now that was an attractive hairstyle, except for the attractive part. How does that guy keep working? He should change his name to Kevin ‘I can’t make a facial expression or my face will crack and fall off and then I won’t be able to make a movie about post-apocalyptic mailmen that nobody will see’ Costner.”
“Exactly,” Brooke was now cackling. “I was looking forward to seeing Whitney before she became all crack-addled and sweaty, but that movie was just awful. Thumbs wholeheartedly down.” She paused. “We should be movie critics,” Brooke mused, “‘cause we tell it like it is.”
“McPherson and McQueen. Save us the aisle seats.” Sam headlined. “Hey! We should rent “Glitter” tonight. I bet that will have plenty of stuff for us to make fun of,” she looked over at Brooke and grinned evilly.
“I can’t,” Brooke said apologetically. “I’m going out with Harrison tonight.”
“Oh,” Sam said. “I guess I’ll call Carmen and see if she wants to see ‘Glitter,’ then.” She should’ve known, it was Friday night, after all. Come to think of it, Carmen would probably have plans already, as well.
“No! I want to make fun of Glitter, too. Rent something else, please?” Brooke turned in her seat and pleaded with Sam.
“Okay,” Sam laughed, taking her eyes off the road to glance at Brooke’s pathetic expression. We’ll string Mariah up by her hoochie low-riders another time.” She jiggled the stick shift as she tried to maneuver it into third gear.
“We should have taken my car today,” Brooke noted, watching Sam at last find the gear she needed, “Yours is not long for this world.”
“As long as she makes it until the end of August, I’ll be happy. She’s been a great little car to me,” Sam patted the dashboard fondly. “She deserves a rest.”
“Yeah. It’s a good thing you won’t have to drive it all the way to Chicago,” Brooke said, referring to the location of Northwestern University, where Sam would be studying in the fall. She turned in her seat to face forward, and looked out her window at the familiar scenery passing by. “What are you going to do, Sam, so far away from home?”
Sam didn’t really understand the question. “Um, take the el?” Maybe Brooke was referring to the transportation issue.
“No. I mean, aren’t you going to be homesick?” Brooke asked, still looking out the window.
“Yeah, I guess. Isn’t everyone?” To tell the truth, Sam was not a bit apprehensive about leaving home. She was excited to go to a new place where nobody knew her, and she could start fresh with an absolutely clean slate. Sure, it was kind of depressing thinking about leaving her friends and family, but she’d come home during her breaks, and Chicago was a only short flight away. Maybe this question was more about Brooke feeling anxious about leaving home than about Sam being far from it. “But you can come visit me in Chicago, and I’ll come to Stanford and visit you, and we won’t be homesick,” she said, trying to make Brooke feel better.
Brooke looked over at her and smiled, but didn’t say anything.
“I hear Chicago has a great basketball team,” Sam continued with a grin, “you could come watch a game, since you’re so intent on becoming the next Michael Jordan, from what I saw today in gym class.”
It looked like Brooke’s momentary serious mood had lifted. “You’re just jealous of my moves, Sam,” she said, airily.
“Moves?” Sam asked skeptically, rolling her eyes, “I saw no moves.”
Brooke punched her lightly on the arm.
“So you’re taking up boxing, now, too?” Sam joked, as they pulled into the driveway.
Sam wandered aimlessly around the house that evening, at a loss. Her Mom and Mike had taken advantage of her Friday night loser status and had gone to the movies, asking her to watch her baby sister Mac. Sam didn’t mind that in the least, she loved hanging out with Mac. Her little sister wasn’t the most scintillating conversationalist, having mastered only mama and baba so far, but Sam couldn’t help smiling while she played with Mac. The little girl was like an instant upper. Plus it would give her more time to coach Mac on how to say her name, so she could beat Brooke to the punch, thus proving that Mac loved her more. Now, if Mac would only get over her problem with the sibilant “S.”
Tonight they played with blocks; Sam would stack them up five or six high, and Mac would knock them down with a swipe of her hand, giggling madly every time. But she had just put Mac to bed and had lost her playmate for the evening.
There was no homework to be done, no newspaper articles hanging over her head, her hours had been cut down at Kranky’s; she had absolutely nothing on her agenda. She went into Brooke’s room and took her yearbook from her desk, then went down to the kitchen and sat at the kitchen table, intent on writing a nice message for Brooke.
She knew that their relationship was pretty complex. They had begun as bitter enemies, forced to associate with each other because of their parents’ relationship. Even the smallest incidents became fodder for the continuing contention between the pair. There had been times even in the early days of their acquaintance that Sam realized that Brooke was not the popularity-crazed she-beast Sam had made her out to be, but a genuinely nice person with whom she had a lot in common. But after investing so much in not liking her, Sam had not known how to put aside her habitual dislike and be nice to Brooke. It took something as life changing as Brooke’s accident to make Sam realize that their petty feuds were stupid and inconsequential.
The vicious triangle they had set up between themselves and Harrison, which led to the horrifying events that night of the Junior Prom last year had left Sam feeling disgusted with her selfish actions. The car accident that left Brooke in the hospital for nearly three months had made it patently obvious; the message was received loud and clear. She vowed to herself as she had sat by Brooke’s broken and battered body that she would never let her petty jealousies get the best of her again. She had spent all last summer trying to make it up to Brooke, in an attempt to assuage the guilt she felt for her part in bringing about that mess.
Harrison, on the other hand, had stayed far, far away. Sam could kind of understand it in retrospect; he had chosen Brooke, who had inexplicably run away right after hearing that, which resulted in her near death in a car crash. Sam had gone to see Harrison and had made it clear that she was fine with his decision, and had hinted that Brooke would probably like to see him, but Harrison had still stayed away. She had been very disappointed in Harrison at the time, and they had nearly stopped being friends over it, but sometime late that summer, Harrison went to visit Brooke and they became inseparable. They were the cutest couple at Kennedy, almost nauseatingly so.
No, not really nauseating, Sam thought. They were very cute together, and Sam was happy for them. She had realized she hadn’t really wanted Harrison as a boyfriend, but had felt threatened by what she perceived as Brooke horning in on her territory. The accident made her see things more clearly.
She had found somebody new by the time they got together, anyway. A nice guy named Gavin who she had met at the hospital while visiting Brooke. He had always seemed to be in the cafeteria when she went down to get a snack or something for Brooke, and so they struck up a friendship. He was a volunteer as part of a co-operative program at his high school, which is why Sam saw him so often. They had started dating, and had a good long run of it. Sam had broken things off with Gavin a few months ago, but still liked him as a friend, and was now taking a break from dating.
It turned out that Brooke’s so-called best friend, Nicole, had been responsible for the accident. Nobody Sam knew, including Brooke, knew what had happened to her, it was as if she had disappeared, like Keyser Soze, with the lingering threat of returning to wreak more havoc someday in the future. But that was fine with Sam. The girl had been the bane of her existence for her whole high school career, and she had been glad that she hadn’t had to deal with her for the last fourth of it. It was because of Nicole’s disappearance that she and Brooke became closer. Not that Sam would ever contemplate becoming a cheerleader or anything, but the time usually spent shopping or gossiping with Nic was sometimes spent doing things with Sam. And she and Brooke still had their moments of unrestrained bitchiness towards each other, but they also laughed a lot, and enjoyed each other’s company.
So the matter of boiling down all that history into a pithy yearbook entry weighed on Sam. She didn’t want to screw it up, and she didn’t want it to be lousy because even though it was something that Brooke would only look at, maybe, once every ten years, it was for posterity. Her pride in her writing ability wouldn’t let her do a half-assed job, and she was feeling the pressure. She had signed all of her other friends’ yearbooks without a second thought, she didn’t know why this one was giving her so much trouble.
She turned when she heard the kitchen door open, and Brooke and Harrison came in, laughing.
Brooke saw Sam sitting at the table and declared, “Sam will settle it. Sam, who would win in a celebrity death match, Jim Carrey or Mike Meyers?”
Sam tented her fingers and pretended to think hard about the question. Brooke and Harrison stood over her, waiting for her answer.
“It is my considered opinion that the victor in a celebrity death match between those two comedic thespians would be…” she paused for dramatic effect, “Jim Carrey.”
“Ha!” Brooke turned to Harrison and pointed in his face, grinning.
“Sammy, why?” Harrison whined, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “Mike Meyers is tough! And he’s funnier.”
“Agreed. Mike Meyers is definitely funnier, and not nearly as annoying as Carrey,” Sam conceded. “But, tough? I don’t think so. This is celebrity death match, Harrison, and I have two words for you. Cable. And Guy. That is some twisted shit.” Sam leaned back and folded her arms like she had just proven her point.
“That’s exactly what I said, Sam,” Brooke looked at Sam with her eyes wide with surprise.
Sam looked at Brooke and grinned at her, and they both turned to look at Harrison with matching smug expressions.
Although their argument made no sense, Harrison knew there was no chance of winning when he was being double-teamed. “Whatever. I guess mediocre minds think alike,” he said with a sly smile.
“Why, I oughta,” Sam said threateningly.
Brooke didn’t bother replying, just got up and put Harrison in a headlock and started to noogy him to death.
“Okay, uncle!” Harrison protested, laughing and trying to avoid Brooke’s knuckles.
“Say you’re sorry,” Brooke demanded.
“Sorry, sorry,” Harrison said immediately, his hands raised in surrender.
“Good.” Brooke instantly stopped with the noogies and smoothed Harrison’s hair down, giving him a quick kiss on the top of his head before sitting back down. She saw the yearbook on the table and reached for it. “Is that mine? Did you sign it, Sam?”
“I tried,” Sam sighed.
“What’s the matter, no room to sign anywhere in the most popular girl at Kennedy’s yearbook?” Harrison asked, gazing moonily at Brooke.
“Oh, please,” Brooke scoffed, “there’s plenty of room.” She flipped the pages to find some space for Sam.
“No, that’s not it,” Sam said. “Inspiration has left the building.”
“It’s just a yearbook, Sam, not your college application essay. Just write anything,” Harrison said.
“Let her take her time, Harrison,” Brooke smiled at Sam. “Someday I’ll be able to say that she signed my yearbook after she wins the Pulitzer.”
“Oh stop! I’m blushing,” Sam jested, but her skin had turned a little pink. She decided it was time to adjourn to her room and give Brooke some privacy. She got up from the table and started for the door. “Good night you guys, don’t forget to take your cap and gown out of the plastic, you don’t want to be all wrinkled for the big day.”
Even in the last official event of their high school careers, Sam and Brooke were linked. They sat side by side on flimsy folding chairs that were sinking in the muddy turf of the football field, waiting for one of the most boring rites of passage to be over. There had been few highlights: naked guy, who unzipped his gown and flashed the graduates on his way to collect his diploma, the football team, Josh included, mooning the bleachers where all the parents and relatives sat, Emory Dick trying unsuccessfully to start the wave, beach balls, bubbles, etc. All the usual things that make a tedious affair even more tedious. At long last, the band struck up a reprise of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and the newly graduated class shuffled out the way they had come in, in that age-old tradition of high schools everywhere, alphabetical order.
The procession seemed to stop when the students reached the track, and everyone was just milling around congratulating each other and searching for friends and family. Brooke turned to Sam and smiled tentatively. “Well, I guess it’s official.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed, waving her diploma, “They can’t take it away from me now.” She took off her mortarboard and looked at it for a moment.
“Congratulations, Sam,” Brooke reached out and gave her a quick hug.
“Yeah, congratulations to you, too,” Sam smiled. “We did it.” God, that sounds so corny, she thought.
But Brooke grinned. “Yay, Go us!”
Lily and Josh materialized through the crowd, closely followed by Carmen.
“Sam, congratulations!” Lily said, and threw her arms around her.
Carmen made it a group hug, and crushed both girls to her, tears in her eyes. “You guys, I’m so proud of us.”
“Me too,” Sam said, feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“Guess what I got for graduation, guys?” Carmen asked, as they separated slightly but kept their arms around each other. “A car!”
“No way! That’s great Carmen,” Lily exclaimed.
“Yeah. It’s not new or anything; Leo fixed it up for me. It’s really only four cinder blocks away from being a white trash lawn ornament, but it’s all mine,” Carmen said excitedly, as they stood in a row with their arms around each other’s shoulders. She turned to Brooke. “Congratulations, Brooke.”
“Thanks Carmen,” Brooke smiled warmly at Sam’s group of friends, now after three years, pretty much her friends too.
Sam put her arm around Brooke’s shoulder so she was included in the group love.
Sugar Daddy suddenly appeared and clapped his hand on Josh’s shoulder and said, “Yo, dude, times a’ wastin’. We gotta go pick up the kegs, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Josh grinned, and gave his wife, Lily, a quick kiss before running off with Sugar Daddy.
Just then Sam heard her mother.
“Here they are, Mike. Ooh, come quick, this would make a great photo!”
Sam finally got a visual on her mother, who was carrying Mac in one arm and dragging Harrison behind her with the other.
“Harrison, go over there and get in the picture. Sam, put your little hat back on. Mike, where are you?” Jane stage directed them while waiting for her husband.
Mike McQueen finally caught up with his wife and started taking pictures of Sam and Brooke and their friends. Mary Cherry and Poppy had found the, by now, large cluster of people and were striking poses with abandon. After Mike had snapped every possible combination and permutation of the group, they began to make plans to change and head over to Sugar Daddy’s.
Sam walked with Carmen and Lily over to Carmen’s new car so they could admire it properly. After checking out all the bells and whistles of the stylish 1989 Buick Skylark, Carmen and Lily departed in the new old vehicle, and Sam walked across the near empty parking lot to her decrepit Beetle. She and Brooke had driven over together, but Harrison had taken Brooke back home to change. Sam put her key in the ignition and tried to start the car, but nothing happened. Her poor little beetle didn’t even try to turn over.
Sam stepped over the threshold to find a scene of absolute pandemonium. If the Bernadino home had had rafters, students from the graduating class of Kennedy High would surely be swinging from them. She saw that the party must have gotten underway quickly, as calling Mike and having him return to the school to give her a jump had only taken an hour or so away from her recreational time. Sam looked around for a familiar face, but realized there must be teens packing every available nook of Sugar Daddy’s sprawling abode.
Sam turned at the sound of her name, and saw Brooke barreling towards her, a crazy grin on her face and a weird light in her eyes.
“Sammy, Sam, Sam, Sam,” Brooke chanted, “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you for hours.” She took Sam’s hand and led her into the living room, over to the crowded couch, where she waved her other hand in a shooing motion and a few students scattered to make room for her.
“You have?” Sam asked, marveling at the power a tipsy Brooke could still wield over their ex-classmates.
“Yesh,” Brooke said, then stopped and put up her hand. “I mean, yes,” She corrected, laboriously pronouncing the word without slurring. “I’m not drunk.”
“Heaven forefend,” Sam agreed, smiling. She had seen Brooke in much worse states than this, and Brooke was always a cheerful, touchy-feely drunk, and so funny to watch.
“So what was it that I had to tell you?” Brooke looked away and scratched her chin, frowning and trying to remember. She turned back to Sam with the inane grin re-plastered to her face. “Oh well. All gone. Can’t remember,” She sing-songed. She suddenly grabbed Sam’s arm. “Sam! Oh my God! You have to do a shot with me!”
Sam watched her reach next to her for a bottle she hadn’t seen Brooke carrying. Brooke unscrewed the cap and was about to take a slug straight from the bottle, when she stopped and said, “No. Wait. We’ll do this the civilized way.” She poked the guy sitting next to her. “Get me two cups, from over there,” Brooke ordered, pointing to the corner where some guys surrounded one of the kegs. Then she gave him a thousand megawatt smile and said, “Please?”
Sam shook her head in disbelief as the guy got up to do Brooke’s bidding. “Okay, Bossy Boots,” she said to Brooke, laughing.
“Bossy Boots,” Brooke tittered, covering her mouth with her hand.
When the guy returned, Brooke had Sam hold the cups while she carefully poured a measure for both of them, her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth in concentration. Sam didn’t even know what they were drinking, but figured if Brooke could handle it, then she could too. She envied Brooke’s happy state and wondered if it was too late to try and catch up with her.
“Okay, down in one,” Brooke said, holding up her cup.
“Cheers, big ears,” Sam saluted and knocked back the shot. The liquid blazed a path down her esophagus and exploded into her stomach like a mushroom cloud. She spluttered as she felt the fiery brew burn in her belly. “What the hell is this stuff?” she demanded, reaching for the bottle.
“It’s ta-kill-ya,” Brooke snickered, pointing at Sam’s reaction.
Sam looked at the label and read the brand: Tequila Zapata. The orange price tag read $4.99. They couldn’t get anything better than this cheap rotgut, she wondered. “Brooke, the literal translation of Tequila Zapata is shoe tequila. That ought to tell you that this isn’t exactly top shelf.”
“Shoe tequila!” Brooke fell back on the couch, dissolving in a fit of giggles. Sam just watched her, bemused by this little seen version of Brooke. She was on the verge of being out of control, and it didn’t happen very often. Brooke wasn’t exactly a heavyweight when it came to drinking; she had better start pacing herself, Sam thought. She put the bottle of tequila on the floor and shoved it under the couch with her foot.
Suddenly Brooke sat up ramrod straight and said, “I remember what I was going to tell you.”
Sam thought she looked almost sober, as Brooke turned to look at her seriously in the eye.
“I’m going to break up with Harrison tonight,” Brooke disclosed.
Sam was shocked. “Brooke, why?”
Brooke gestured vaguely with one hand. “Because.”
“I’m not trying to tell you what to do, Brooke, but maybe you should wait until tomorrow to do something like that.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Brooke said absently, her attention directed across the room, where Harrison had just entered. Brooke got up and walked over to him.
Sam looked on in horror as Harrison smiled with pleasure at Brooke’s approach. She couldn’t watch; she got up and left the room through another door, one that led to the kitchen. She was relieved to find Carmen, Lily, Josh and several others gathered around the kitchen table playing quarters. Lily pulled up a chair for her and Josh poured her a beer from the pitcher on the table.
“Sam, what happened to you? We left you hours ago,” Lily asked, concerned, and slightly buzzed.
“My car died,” she replied briefly, taking a hefty swig of her beer, determined to get her own buzz on.
“Have you seen Brooke?” Carmen asked. “She’s already halfway schnockered.”
“Yeah, she’s definitely on a mission,” Sam said, slightly worried. But Brooke could take care of herself, and she would know when she had enough. Hopefully she would stick to beer now that Sam had hidden the cheap tequila. She wondered if Brooke felt she needed Dutch courage to break up with Harrison. Whatever. It was none of her business. She put it out of her mind and took another pull from her beer.
“So what are we playing here, guys? Thumper? The vegetable game? What?”
Much later, Sam and Carmen were coming back from an interminable wait for the bathroom when Sugar Daddy came up from behind and hung his arms around their shoulders.
“Hey ladies, we need some more girls for this game, yo, come on!”
“What game is that, SD?” Carmen asked.
“Just come on, you’ll see.”
Carmen and Sam allowed themselves to be turned around and led into the dining room, where the table and chairs had been pushed aside and about twenty teens sat in a loose circle on the floor. Lots more people were standing around outside the circle, an audience for what was about to happen. As Sam and Carmen took their seats for the game, Sam saw Brooke and Harrison sitting next to each on the far side of the circle, their heads close together as Brooke whispered something in Harrison’s ear. She guessed that Brooke hadn’t gone through with the breakup after all; in her sozzled state she had probably forgotten about it.
“Okay, everyone, we’re about to get all old school up in the hizzy,” Sugar Daddy announced. “The game we’re about to play,” he presented an empty wine bottle of green glass with a flourish, “is ‘Spin the Bottle,’ just like we played in junior high.”
Amidst the cheers and hollering, Sam heard a commotion at the other end of the room.
“Outta my way, y’all,” Mary Cherry pushed several people aside and sat in the circle several places down from Sam. “This may be my only chance to lock lips with Joe, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it, Brookie,” Mary Cherry waved her finger in Brooke’s direction.
Brooke just stuck her tongue out at Mary Cherry, and linked her arm with Harrison’s possessively.
And so the game began, and Sam grew bored with it quickly, just as she had grown bored with the same game back in the seventh grade, when the mortification factor was high and the boys seemed to become slobbering saliva machines. She was barely paying attention as people took their turns and the crowd’s responses ranged from laughter to jeering to raunchy catcalls. She had just decided to get herself another beer when a hush fell over the crowd and Carmen nudged her with her elbow. Sam looked at her in confusion, and Carmen nodded towards the center of the circle, where the green bottle was pointing at her.
Sam sighed. “Who is it?” she asked resignedly.
Sam watched unbelievingly as Brooke crawled towards her on all fours, in a parody of sexiness. When she reached Sam, Brooke sat back on her haunches and looked at her through drooping eyelids. Sam could see the answer to a challenge in the set of Brooke’s jaw, but there was something else, a tentativeness, maybe nervousness, hidden behind her placid, booze-soaked expression.
The crowd recovered and found its voice again when it realized that neither of the stepsisters was protesting. Sam was too stunned at the suddenness of her situation, and Brooke was obviously not backing down now. Somebody yelled out, “Stepsisters!” And from the crowd a chant of “Go, go, go,” gained momentum and volume.
Brooke took a breath, shut her eyes, and quickly pressed her lips against Sam’s in a sweet, chaste smack. It was so quick that Sam didn’t have time to react, really. Soft, was the only message her brain was sending her. Brooke’s lips were so soft.
Immediately, the crowd turned on them. The “Go” chant had become one long extended “Nooo” of disapproval.
Sam looked around, frowning, wanting to tell them all to fuck off, but then she noticed that Brooke had a smile on her face.
“Well, Sam,” Brooke said, one eyebrow raised in devilish amusement, “should we give them a show?”
“We don’t have to do-“
But Sam never finished her sentence, because Brooke pounced on her, grabbing her by the neck and seizing her lips with her own. Sam was overwhelmed by Brooke’s intensity, and at first it was all she could do to just hold on and let herself be thoroughly kissed. Brooke took advantage of Sam’s open-mouthed surprise and pushed her tongue past Sam’s lips, recklessly exploring her moist interior. Sam closed her eyes and sighed into Brooke’s mouth, surrendering to Brooke’s near-attack on her mouth and lips. She recognized the stale and sour taste of beer and tequila on Brooke’s breath, but it did nothing to mitigate the deliciousness of their interaction. Sam felt an unfamiliar rush of desire course through her from deep in her belly; it ran through her body like a brush fire and set all her nerve endings ablaze. She responded with a force she had never known in her short life, and began to battle Brooke for dominance, pushing her tongue into Brooke’s mouth, their teeth colliding in the frenzy. She heard short little moans of varying intensity coming from Brooke like punctuation; a comma moan when Sam pulled Brooke’s lower lip between her lips, a semi-colon when she bit down and gently nibbled on it, and an exclamation point when she sucked Brooke’s tongue into her mouth and lashed it with her own.
Amid the indistinct roar of the crowd, one screaming voice somewhere behind her penetrated through Sam’s lust and she heard the phrase “Take it off” repeated over and over in a high-pitched male squeal. Her eyes opened and she came back to herself, realizing the spectacle she and Brooke were making of themselves. She grabbed Brooke’s shoulders and gave her a slight shove away from her, abruptly ending the kiss. Brooke’s eyes were still closed and she was breathing heavily, her reaction time lagging by several seconds. She appeared to be lost in a haze of either passion or drunkenness; Sam couldn’t tell, but figured it was probably the latter.
When Brooke’s eyes finally snapped open, she blinked several times, and looked to be struggling to reconcile what she had just done and with whom she had done it. Sam could see that her drunken bravado had deserted her, as she awkwardly scooted back away from Sam, sending the bottle skittering across the floor to where Mary Cherry was sitting.
“Well, I don’t know how anyone is going to top a lurid and dirty display like that one, but I’m sure gonna try,” Mary Cherry said gamely, and set the bottle spinning once again.
And the game went on. Sam couldn’t look at Brooke, who had returned to Harrison’s side. She couldn’t look at anyone. She couldn’t explain the voracious reaction she had to Brooke’s kiss; not to herself or anyone else. Realizing her hands were shaking, her whole body trembling, in fact, she strove to get control of herself.
“Wow, Sam. That was something else,” Carmen said with a mischievous grin. “Have you two been practicing at home or something?”
Sam smiled weakly in return.
“Are you okay?” Carmen asked with concern.
“I’m fine,” Sam tried to act like everything was normal. “I’m going to get another beer, you want one?” When Carmen shook her head, Sam got up and left the game, heading not for the keg, but the front door. She quietly left the house and escaped to the deserted, darkened front porch, leaning against the stone wall, and tried to make sense of what had just occurred.
Okay, she thought, what the hell was that? Calm down. It was just a kiss. No need to make a big deal about it. Sam pressed her hands to her flushed cheeks and tried to take deep breaths, to slow her thudding heart. Her mind was racing and she couldn’t think. The beer she had consumed wasn’t helping, and yet she was suddenly feeling pretty sober.
Just a kiss? Sam had never felt anything remotely like that. She’d had boyfriends, had let them run the bases, she’d even lost her virginity with Gavin, because she was tired of waiting and wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. There had been nothing fuss-worthy about their awkward grapplings one afternoon at Gavin’s house while his mother was at her Weight Watchers meeting, but this? This was definite cause for making a fuss. This was a fuss in all caps and neon lettering in a very flashy font. Maybe a nice sanserif.
No. It was just a kiss, she insisted to herself. It’s meaningless. A one time only, never to be repeated, stupid, drunken mash with her stepsister, of all people, that is best forgotten. Sam lightly touched her lower lip with two of her fingertips and remembered the feel of Brooke’s silken lips, nearly swooning from the memory. Well, that’s new, she thought dispassionately. Never swooned before. Objectively thinking about this at the moment was a near impossibility, Sam decided, and she resolved to give it an in depth analysis sometime later, when seventy different emotions weren’t running through her like the bulls at Pamplona.
Just then the front door swung wide and a tall blonde figure lurched past her at full speed, hit the porch railing and doubled over, emptying the contents of her stomach into the bushes below in a very loud and obvious manner.
“Oh God,” Brooke groaned, sounding like a mortally wounded water buffalo. She stayed bent over, breathing heavily and hiccupping, waiting for the next wave.
Sam sighed and pushed herself off the wall to go and stand beside Brooke, leaning over to pull her hair back from her face to get it out of the way.
Brooke flinched in surprise. “Harrison?” she asked, turning her head to see. Her face was pale and her eyes were watering, and Sam wondered how she could still look pretty, even at her worst.
“No, it’s me,” she said, and stroked Brooke’s back soothingly with her free hand.
“Sam, thank God it’s you,” Brooke said with relief, right before calling Uncle Ralph again.
“Brooke?” Harrison came out on the porch and saw his girlfriend. “Brooke, you’re in the lead for the girls! No girl will be able to touch fourteen seconds,” he crowed proudly.
“What are you talking about, Harrison?’ Sam asked, irritated. This should have been his job, and it was like he hadn’t even noticed that Brooke was heaving her guts out.
“Keg stand competition,” Harrison elaborated.
The hell? Sam looked at him in utter disbelief. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to encourage a girl who has been drinking for hours to dangle upside down over a keg and chug directly from the tap for fourteen seconds? Or any seconds?” She was practically yelling at him. “No wonder she’s spewing like Old fucking Faithful! Your girlfriend, Harrison, is sick. Can you not see that?”
“Standing right here,” Brooke said meekly from her still prone position over the railing.
“Yeah, Sam?” Harrison indignantly returned, ignoring Brooke. “Well, your stepsister is a big girl. She should be able to take care of herself.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Sam had completely lost her patience with him. “Go do something useful and get me a glass of water and some napkins or a towel or something.”
“Why? Will it give you more time to suck face with my girlfriend?” Harrison goaded.
Sam gave him a withering glare, barely knowing how to respond to such an inappropriate accusation. “You are such an asshole.”
“Please, Harrison, just do what she says,” Brooke cajoled, standing upright and turning around to face him, before a look passed over her face and she quickly spun around and began puking again.
Harrison took a moment to sulk before stomping into the house in a huff, but he soon returned with the items Sam requested. Sam sat Brooke down on the porch steps and helped her clean herself up while Harrison watched with his arms folded, seemingly contrite over his rude remark.
“Do you guys want to go back in?” he asked, moving down a couple of steps to face them.
Sam could see that Harrison wanted very much to rejoin the party, but she also knew that Brooke shouldn’t be here anymore. She turned to Brooke. “I’ll take you home, if you want,” she offered.
Brooke swayed unsteadily as she regarded Harrison. “I’m ready to leave,” she said slowly, staring into Harrison’s face, but her hand reached out and grasped Sam’s.
Sam put Brooke’s hand back in her own lap, and got up. “Let me just go put the top down, the fresh air will do you good. Wait here.”
Sam made sure her car started, then quickly put the top down. When she turned back to the house, she saw Brooke leaning heavily against Harrison, as he led her down the sloping lawn towards the car.
“Are you okay to drive? Are you sober?” Harrison asked.
“Completely,” Sam responded shortly.
Sam got in the driver’s seat while Harrison made sure Brooke was safely ensconced on the passenger side. He closed the door and knelt down to kiss Brooke and whisper a goodbye to her through the open window. Sam wished that Brooke would throw up again right into Harrison’s face, she was so angry with him. She heaved an audible sigh and Harrison got the clue, stepping away from the car. Sam pulled away from the curb and said, “Brooke, if you’re going to hurl, do it outside the car.” But Brooke was unresponsive and her head was lolling against the headrest; she had passed out.
Sam was monumentally pissed off. She was pissed that it had taken her ten minutes to rouse Brooke from her stupor in the car, and now that she had, the girl was a giggling puddle who couldn’t manage a simple stairwell by herself. She was pissed at Harrison for being such a prick and not taking care of his stupid girlfriend. She was pissed that she didn’t have a good time on her graduation day, and had been stuck babysitting dumbass wasted Brooke. She was pissed at her car for making her late to the party. She did not want to be the responsible, sober person tonight; she had wanted to get stinking along with everyone else.
“Come on, you stupid lush, get upstairs,” Sam muttered under her breath, pushing Brooke from behind up towards their bedrooms.
Brooke rested her hands on the steps and looked back at Sam. “I heard that,” she said loudly, and indignantly, but she didn’t lose her idiotic grin.
“Brooke, shut up! God!” Sam whispered, incensed. “If you wake them up, you’re going to be in so much trouble.”
She finally managed to push, pull, and prod Brooke up to her room, where the inebriated one threw herself down on the bed. Sam busied herself with getting the aspirin from the bedside table, and made Brooke sit up as she fished two pills out of the bottle to give to her. Brooke took the aspirin and blinked at them for several seconds.
“Aspirin? We don’t need no stinking aspirin,” Brooke said, a mock sneer on her face, and then she threw the aspirin across the room.
Sam caught the tail end of Brooke’s little act as she re-entered the room with a glass of water. “You’ll thank me for it tomorrow,” she said in a no-nonsense tone, retrieving the aspirin from the floor as she approached the bed. She took a perverse pleasure in making Brooke take the pills that had been on the floor. They were probably a whole lot cleaner than the filthy tap Brooke had put in her mouth for fourteen freaking seconds, she thought snidely, as she put them back in Brooke’s hand.
Brooke took no notice and slapped the pills into her mouth. Sam sat down on the bed and handed her the glass of water, and watched as Brooke took a sip. Sam took the glass back when she saw how precariously Brooke was holding it.
Brooke looked into Sam’s face, smiled her goofy drunken grin, and then hiccupped. Sam thought that if Brooke were a cartoon, she would have two black X’s where her eyes were supposed to be. Brooke scooched closer to Sam and threw her arms around her neck, spilling the water all over the two of them. “I love you, Sam. Nobody else would have taken care of me like you are.” She closed her eyes and didn’t let go.
Sam’s anger dissipated somewhat. “Well, I would love you too if you could hold your damn liquor better,” Sam said grudgingly, placing the empty glass on the bedside table and trying to disentangle herself from Brooke’s curiously strong grip. “But you can’t, so I don’t,” she added childishly
Brooke loosened her hold, but rested her forearms on Sam’s shoulders, keeping her close. “I know,” she said, like she had just had a brilliant idea. “Let’s kiss again. That was fun.” She closed her eyes and puckered her lips, waiting for Sam to plant one on her.
Although Brooke’s expression was comical, Sam was drawn to her inviting lips, and felt a wave of heat spread through her. She found herself leaning in, inches away from taking what Brooke so freely offered. She wanted to so badly, but something made her stop herself. Sam couldn’t take advantage. Maybe if she had been drunk too, then they could both blame it on the hooch, but she had nothing like Brooke’s convenient excuse. “No, we’re not doing that again,” she said roughly and stood up, tearing herself away from the girl’s tempting proximity.
She crossed the room and jerked the dresser drawers open one by one, looking for something Brooke could change into. She found a t-shirt and some pajama bottoms and threw them at Brooke. “You’d better change, you’re all wet.” Sam turned her back while Brooke changed, silence descending on the room.
“I’m sorry,” Brooke said, her voice thick. “I’m sorry I made you leave the party.”
Sam turned back around and saw Brooke standing by the side of her bed, an expression of abject misery on her face.
The mood swings of a shitfaced teenager, Sam thought ruefully. She felt bad for being such a bitch before. She knew that if their positions were reversed, Brooke would have done the same for her. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, then laughed humorlessly. “You’re not even going to remember any of this tomorrow.” She stood next to Brooke and pulled the covers down, helping her into bed, making sure Brooke lay on her stomach. Then she retrieved the wastepaper basket from under Brooke’s desk and put it next to the bed, just in case. As Sam flipped the light switch and began closing the door behind her, she heard Brooke mumbling as she fell into the dreamless sleep of the very drunk.
Brooke felt the pounding in her head before she was aware of anything else. After that, she was conscious of the gummy residue at the corners of her mouth, the cotton balls that her tongue seemed to be swathed in, and the foul, acrid taste in her mouth. Why hadn’t Sam made her brush her teeth last night? Wait. Why would Sam… All at once the events of the previous night came rushing back, and Brooke opened her eyes wide. Then wished she hadn’t. If the simple act of blinking was going to cause so much pain then Brooke had a fun day of lying motionless in bed to look forward to.
She opened one eye again slowly, and moved her head slightly to look at the clock. 6:04 AM. Wow. Early. The teeth simply had to be brushed; there was nothing for it. She braced herself, then sat up in bed. Well, that wasn’t so…Ow. The searing pain caught up and it felt like the cymbal guy in an orchestra was enthusiastically playing that really loud part of the William Tell Overture, that part where the cymbals crash about three thousand times a minute, but hadn’t noticed Brooke’s head caught in his cymbal-banging path. She swung her legs to the floor, kicking the wastepaper basket in the process, and haltingly made her way out to the bathroom, only using the walls for support a few times.
In the bathroom, she winced in the bright overhead light and leaned heavily on the sink while doing a painstaking job on her teeth. She looked at her reflection for a moment, but then had to look away from the bloodshot eyes and pasty complexion that stared woefully back at her. After drinking what must have been a gallon of water, Brooke went directly back to bed.
Once she was horizontal again, she waited impatiently for sleep to take her, and hopefully not bring her back until at least six more hours had passed. But the throbbing in her head combined with the neural activity therein was preventing her from slumber. Everything that had happened at the party was playing out in her brain like her own personal horror movie.
The one thing she had wanted to accomplish last night, breaking up with Harrison, hadn’t happened, or at least she didn’t think it had. He had become nothing more than an accessory. Hey girls, what is every stylish, popular, cheerleader-about-town and female high school senior wearing on her arm this season? A sensitive, caring, funny, only slightly self-absorbed man-prop, that’s what! The spark had gone out of Brooke and Harrison’s coupledom a while ago, and Brooke thought it would be kinder to end things now, rather than string him along all summer and break up with him right before she left for college. She was not going to do the long distance relationship thing, not when there was the entire male student population at Stanford University waiting to be met come September.
Oh God, her head. Why had she drunk all of that Tequila? There wasn’t even any margarita mix, and god forbid there be a lime anywhere on the premises. Shoe Tequila, Sam called it, Brooke remembered with amusement. Then she covered her eyes with her hand and grimaced at the thought of what had happened during the game of Spin the Bottle. Having never known herself to have any lesbo leanings, Brooke was at a loss to explain why she had molested Sam the way she had. It was a hot kiss, she thought objectively, and Sam had been into it. Probably just caught up in the moment, like she had been. Brooke had been so mortified, both by her brazen display and Sam’s inability to look at her afterwards, that she had been the first one to volunteer for a very ill-advised kegstand, hoping to obliterate the game, and the kiss, from her mind. The only thing that had been obliterated was her liver. Oh, and her dinner.
But one kiss was excusable, she rationalized, teenage experimentation and all that; although she wouldn’t choose to experiment in front of practically every horny slavering boy in her class if she had to do it over. No, one kiss was fine, but Brooke clearly remembered propositioning Sam again, at the end of the night after Sam had so kindly taken care of her worthless, drunken, upchucking ass. How did she explain that? Sam had been disgusted by it, saying, “we’re not doing that again,” like it was the grossest thing imaginable. And maybe, for two straight girls who had no problems in the dating department, it was. Brooke had no idea why she had thrown herself at Sam; it was mystifying, really. It had to be the noise and the lights and the cheering crowd that had just swept her up in the moment, she told herself, and her inability to back down from a challenge.
Coming up with an explanation and, of course, an apology was going to be difficult, but then Brooke recalled that Sam had given her the key to her salvation. She wouldn’t have to explain if she couldn’t remember. “You won’t even remember this in the morning,” Sam had said; so Brooke would just, not remember. So easy. Problem solved. She felt a niggling sense of guilt about it, she and Sam ought to smooth things over and talk about it, but when given the choice between sweeping it under the rug and an excruciating conversation dissecting her motives, it was no choice at all. Brooke was far too embarrassed to dredge this up in the cold light of day, and was relieved that Sam had inadvertently given her a way to bury it and not deal. She knew Sam would understand.
Suddenly Brooke felt sleepy again, so she gingerly rolled over and emptied her sore head of everything but the image of sawing logs.
Sam wandered down to the kitchen late in the morning, to find her mother emptying the dishwasher, and Mac in her high chair, flinging cheerios across the room much like her sister had flung pain relievers the night before. The determined, petulant expression Brooke wore at the time was indistinguishable from Mac’s now. And they both threw like a girl. Sam shook her head and had to laugh. She had woken up in a better mood than she had been in last night, even if she had been up half the night, tying her brain in knots.
“Morning, Sam. How was the party?” her mom asked.
“Fine.” Sam replied casually. She stole a cheerio from Mac’s tray and popped it in her mouth, grinning as Mac frowned at her and guarded the cereal with her chubby little arm.
“Did everyone behave themselves?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Sam said, caustically, “We all got our bibles out and sang Kumbaya.”
“What time did you get in?” Jane ignored Sam’s habitual sarcasm.
“Kind of early, actually, around midnight.”
“Brooke too?” Jane inquired. At Sam’s nod she asked, “Is she still sleeping?”
“Yes,” Sam had looked in on Brooke on her way down, it looked like she hadn’t moved an inch since she put her to bed.
Sam’s mom started getting ready to leave the house. “We have baby swimming lessons this morning, don’t we Mac?” she said to Mac, lifting the tiny girl out of her chair. “And then I have to go to the mall to get a wedding gift. Do you need anything, Sam?”
Sam shook her head.
“Okay, then, see you later. Oh, Mike had to go into the office. Can you believe it, on a Sunday? He should be back this afternoon.” And with that, Sam was left alone in the kitchen with the Sunday paper and lots of quiet.
Sam had endured a tough night, but had come to a conclusion. She was forced to admit to herself that something had become clear last night; something that she hadn’t even known was unclear. The events that unfolded at the party had led her to believe that she was probably meant to be with a girl, or was bisexual, at the very least. Just stringing that thought together in her head gave her a fluttery feeling in her stomach. This changed everything, and she was very unnerved. Even if she could acknowledge it to herself, could she ever live her life that way? She never pictured living her life as a gay person, hell, she only knew one gay woman, her manager at Kranky’s. She guessed Lily maybe counted as bi, so make that two gay women, kind of, or one and a half. She put a halt to her inner-babble, a clear indication that although she appeared outwardly calm, inside she was freaking the hell out.
Was it strange that one kiss had been enough to make her realize why her few relationships with guys had left her unsatisfied? Makeout sessions with George had left her feeling lukewarm at best, and the actual sex act with Gavin had been something mechanical, with allusions to slot A and tab B not far from her mind. She had never before felt the rush of adrenaline or arousal or whatever it was she had felt last night, and figured that if, or when, she ever had sex with a woman the feeling would be even more intense.
Which led her to the thing that was weirding her out the most: the fact that she had this reaction when she was kissing Brooke, her stepsister, for god’s sake. She was at a loss as to how to deal with it. Although she had no experience to back it up, she wanted to believe that it could have been any girl who would have stirred such a response from her. She absolutely did not have a crush on Brooke. It was not a viable option; wanting to get with your stepsister was so Flowers in the Attic. Creepy. But testing that theory would mean finding another girl to kiss, and Sam had no idea where to rustle up a willing lesbian.
At any rate, she was putting the cart before the horse. She just needed to take it easy, get used to the idea, and maybe do some research. It would be comforting to have something to investigate, even if it was her own sexuality. What would really help, she thought, was talking to Brooke about it. They could clear the air about last night and Sam could tell her about what she was feeling and maybe Brooke could give her some advice, she was good at that.
She heard a tapping at the kitchen door and turned to see Harrison standing there with a sheepish grin on his face. She waved him in and he sat down, placing a paper sack on the tabletop.
“Behold, a peace offering,” he said. He took two Egg McMuffins out of the bag and set one in front of Sam and one in front of himself. “Nature’s perfect hangover cure,” he pronounced.
“I’m pretty sure nature has nothing to do with McDonald’s breakfast food,” Sam said with a smirk. “And I’m not hungover.”
“No? Well, I am. They taste pretty good even if you weren’t an idiot to your friends last night. Sam, I’m really sorry, for everything. I really am an asshole.” Harrison was apologetic.
“Yeah, but sometimes, when the planets are aligned just right, you’re a lovable asshole,” Sam teased, forgiving him. She didn’t know why Harrison had bugged her so much last night. It must have been because she seemed to be the only sober person and had been surrounded by sloshed idiots. “Anyone who comes bearing McDonalds can’t be all bad,” she added, taking a bite.
“I hope Brooke wasn’t too much of a pain last night.”
“Only slightly more than usual,” Sam said.
“Right. I know you just wanted to get her back here so you could make with the smoochies,” Harrison thought he was being funny.
Sam stared stonily at Harrison, making it clear what she thought of his joke.
“Just kidding, jeez,” Harrison said. “Where is she, anyway?”
“Still? No word from the princess’s chamber?”
“Not a peep.”
“Come on,” Harrison said, getting to his feet and grabbing the paper bag. “She’ll feel better once she’s had the cure.”
Sam followed as Harrison bounded up the stairs, and was right behind him after he quietly knocked on the door to Brooke’s room and entered. Harrison went directly over to the bed and sat down, leaning over Brooke’s inert form as he tried to wake her up. Sam had entered the room but hadn’t gone any further. She leaned against the wall, next to the doorway, not sure she should be in here at all.
She watched as Brooke finally responded to Harrison, by rolling away from him and burying her head deeper in the pillows. But he was persistent, and it eventually looked like Brooke thought it would be easier to just give in than fight him any longer, although Sam couldn’t be sure of that. Brooke sat up and leaned against her headboard, and blinked when she saw Sam standing by the door.
“Look out world, it’s Tequila McQueen,” Harrison laughed. “Kegstand champeen and slayer of evil shrubbery, using only the power of her toxic vomit. Brooke, what did those bushes ever do to you?”
Sam was immediately annoyed with Harrison again. Was he trying to make Brooke feel bad?
Brooke put her face in her hands in embarrassment. “You guys, what happened last night?” she raised her head to look at the two of them. “I do remember my little mishap on the porch, in unpleasant flashes,” she looked chagrined, “but the rest of the night is pretty much a blur.”
I knew it, Sam thought to herself. There was no way she could drink that much and not black out.
“In a nutshell,” Harrison said, “you got all kinds of shitty on cheap tequila, and then chased it with beer for the rest of the night. You were the life of the party.”
Sam grew even more aggravated when Harrison insinuated himself next to Brooke on the bed, putting his big sneakered feet on the quilt.
“I didn’t do anything embarrassing, did I?” Brooke asked hesitantly.
“No. No way,” Harrison assured. “Except maybe when Sugar Daddy had this idea for a game of-“
“A kegstand competition,” Sam forcefully overrode whatever Harrison was going to say and looked meaningfully at him. Harrison got the hint and didn’t bring up the Spin the Bottle game.
Brooke was studying Sam, and Sam soon grew uncomfortable under her gaze and avoided looking at her. She couldn’t bear to hear whatever words Harrison would say to describe the kiss between herself and Brooke. Yes, she had thought she wanted to talk to Brooke about it, but that was before she knew that Brooke didn’t remember it. If she didn’t remember the experience, there was no sense in bringing it up, and Sam didn’t know if that made her relieved or regretful. How would that conversation have gone? So yeah, you don’t remember this, but we kissed and now I think I’m gay, how about that. Now she just wanted to save Brooke and herself the awkwardness of hashing the whole ordeal out. If Brooke didn’t remember, she guessed it hadn’t been worth remembering, and she was the only one making a big deal of it. No, she decided, Brooke wouldn’t be hearing of their little snog-fest from her. And Harrison looked only too happy to gloss it over and pretend it never happened.
“I did a kegstand?” Brooke asked, unbelievingly.
“Yeah!” Harrison enthused. “You did great! Good form on your handstand, using the keg as support, and Sugar and Josh held your legs on either side, and you chugged for longer than any other girl, with very minimal sprayage. A little weak on the follow through, as your bush-killing spree shows, but with a little practice, we could take you on the road.”
Sam rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. She was suddenly very weary of talking about stupid drinking games. If she never heard the word kegstand again in her life, it would be too soon.
“And Sam, here, was your white knight,” Harrison continued. “She brought you home and took care of you.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Brooke said seriously, looking at her stepsister appraisingly. “I’m really sorry if I ruined your evening. I know I was in good hands with you.”
“Yeah, well, don’t hate me because I’m dutiful,” Sam said wryly. She watched as Harrison took out the breakfast sandwich and offered it to Brooke, who accepted it hungrily. Sam walked over to the nightstand and retrieved the empty glass and went to fill it.
In the bathroom she let the water run, waiting for it to get nice and cold. She looked in the mirror and wondered if she looked any different than she had two minutes ago. She exhaled. Her life had started up again. It was like the DJ had put his hand on the turntable and stopped the music while she had waited, without realizing it, for Brooke’s sober and coherent reaction to the kiss, and now she knew; it was no reaction at all. Now the record was slowly getting back up to 33RPM and her life would continue as before, except for one enormous difference. She was in love with Brooke. Creepy or not, she knew it was true. It came to her unbidden, and she was calm. The thought had been there, laying dormant, waiting for her to acknowledge its presence all the previous night as she lay in bed, turning over her newly realized membership to the ‘girls only’ club. It made sense, really, when she thought of the passion she had put into her loathing of Brooke in the early days. She had never felt indifferent about Brooke; it had always been intense, and isn’t abhorrence simply the negative image of adoration?
When she returned to Brooke’s room, Harrison was standing at the window opening the blinds while Brooke still sat in bed eating her breakfast. She stopped short about two steps in, looking at their three relative positions in the room. If you drew a line from Harrison to Brooke to herself it would make a triangle. Oh, the irony, she thought. Just a year ago the three of them had been embroiled in a similar triangular affair, and look how that had turned out. The one merciful thing about her situation was that neither of them was aware of her feelings, and that was the way it would stay, she vowed.
Sam was now very relieved that she and Harrison hadn’t mentioned the Spin the Bottle incident, she didn’t even want to think how Brooke would react to some cringe-inducing declaration made by her stepsister. Brooke might laugh outright at her, or worse, pity her. There was no question of Brooke ever returning her feelings; the girl was less than complete without a boy on her arm. But what about the way she kissed you, asked a persistent voice in her head, she had even made little mewling noises. Surely the fact that her subconscious blocked out the memory of it happening should tell you something, she answered back. Brooke would never learn of her little love epiphany, she decided. It was the best thing for both of them, not to mention, her mother would have a hissy if she knew that Sam wanted to get carnal with her husband’s daughter. Is that what she wanted to do? Get carnal with Brooke? Yes, she reluctantly admitted to herself, she really did. So, this was certainly the best outcome to be had from an unfortunate set of circumstances.
Brooke noticed her standing stock-still and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Sam slid her eyes over to Brooke before realizing that there were no thought bubbles over her head, and Brooke couldn’t possibly know what she was thinking. She gave herself a mental shake and approached the bed. As she handed the glass to Brooke, she took great care that their fingers not meet in the transferal. “Nothing, I just remembered that I have to work today,” Sam quickly improvised. “Here, you should drink this, you’re probably dehydrated.”
“What time are you working until? Emory Dick is having a party tonight,” Harrison informed her.
“Well I definitely won’t be drinking any time soon,” Brooke said, her face contorting at the idea, “so if you want to get all silly, Sam, I’ll return the favor and take care of you tonight.” She smiled encouragingly at Sam.
Sam didn’t return the smile. She knew herself well enough to know that she couldn’t get drunk in front of Brooke. Just as Brooke was an affectionate, amorous drunk, Sam became a blithering, blabbering, blubbering idiot when she had too much. And while she may not literally hurl, she could be counted on to figuratively spill her guts all over Brooke. She would avoid that if possible, thanks.
“Thanks for the offer, Brooke, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it tonight.” She started backing out of the room, intent on beating a quick retreat. “You guys have fun, see you later.”
Brooke watched Sam hightail it out of the room. It was like she suddenly couldn’t get away fast enough. The weirdness between them was palpable and it was all her fault. And Brooke had noticed how Sam had not even wanted to touch her as she gave her the glass of water. She was so ashamed. What in the world had she been thinking last night? She closed her eyes and felt a wave of remorse roll over her. Sam’s response was no more than she deserved. She had full-on attacked the girl, no wonder she was so skittish now. Brooke took a small amount of comfort from knowing that Sam didn’t bring up her wildly inappropriate advances, obviously wanting to forget it as well. After all, they were two straight girls, never in a million years would either of them be gay. It was all for the best, really. It wouldn’t be long until both of them forgot all about it, and everything would go back to normal. Right? Right. All the same, she was never going to drink again, she vowed dramatically to herself, even though she knew it was an empty promise.
“So what do you want to do today?” Harrison asked, sitting back down on the bed.
Brooke briefly considered having the break-up talk with Harrison now. Then she decided that she really couldn’t face it with her compromised brain function. Plus, he was being so nice to her this morning; she was reconsidering her earlier decision. I’m such an idiot; I don’t know what the hell I want, she thought. “Honestly? I want to sleep,” Brooke hoped Harrison would get the message and leave her alone for a while.
“I could use a nap myself,” Harrison agreed, lying down next to her.
Not exactly what I had in mind, but at least I won’t be expected to be ambulatory, she thought. The cymbal guy had put down the cymbals, and was now striking her head with a ball peen hammer at semi-regular intervals. She figured when he began poking her with a feather she would be ready to go to Emory Dick’s party. She thought of something. “Hmmm.”
“What?” asked Harrison, putting his arm around her waist.
“Sam never works on Sundays.”
Sam didn’t have to work today; she had lied in order to get out of Brooke’s room. But she got in the car and decided to drive over to Kranky’s anyway. Maybe buy some Melissa Etheridge, since she figured it was a lesbian mandate that she like her music now. She had just needed to get out of there. Obviously, the time she had spent thinking about things last night hadn’t been put to the best use. She had managed to ignore one of the most important aspects of the situation, although admitting a change in sexual preference to oneself is a pretty big deal, and she thought she could excuse herself for the oversight. As she absently made a right onto Santa Monica Boulevard, the logical side of her brain pushed the overwrought emotional side to the background and she began to list the things she knew to be true, or thought she knew:
She parked her car and approached the record store where she had been working sporadically for the past year or so. One or two shifts a week was all that she could manage during the school year, and last summer she had spent most of her time at the hospital. Hopefully Sam could get a few more hours on the schedule. Never before had the summer stretched out so drearily in front of her, with so many long and monotonous hours to fill before her new life in Chicago began.
As she entered the shop, one of her co-workers, Justin, was leaving. A perpetual sad-sack, Sam was surprised to see a huge grin covering the part of his face that wasn’t hidden behind a very floppy hairstyle. He stopped to greet Sam, saying a quick hello, but then took off, seemingly unable to keep his feet still.
Sam continued into the store and immediately deduced from the Rolling Stones playing that her manager, Hopey, was somewhere on the premises. She waved at Dan, who was ringing up somebody’s purchases at the cash register, and looked around for Hopey. She found her in the S’s, alphabetizing Spears through System of a Down.
“Samantha. How are you?” Hopey glanced up from her task to smile. Hopey’s friendly demeanor was slightly at odds with her style of dress. In her trademark black leather pants, today paired with an old, black AC/DC concert t-shirt so faded it was light gray, and her dark shaggy hair, Hopey projected a badass image that screamed “don’t fuck with me,” but Sam had never known a nicer person.
“Fine. Not too busy today, huh?” Sam noted.
“Nope. Should pick up in an hour or two when people start leaving the beach.” The store’s close proximity to the Third Street Promenade usually guaranteed a good amount of foot traffic, it was strange to see a lull in the middle of a weekend day.
Sam got right to the point. “Hopey? I know I’m just a part-timer and everything, but I was wondering if it would be possible to get a few more hours on the schedule this summer. I have a lot of time to kill.”
Hopey stopped what she was doing and gave Sam an odd look. “Your timing is impeccable. Justin just quit.”
“He did?” Sam was surprised; she thought Justin, with his die-hard love of all kinds of music, was a lifer.
Hopey turned around and leaned against the CD racks behind her and crossed her legs at the ankle. A jewel case that displayed the faux-innocent image of Britney Spears was pressed right against her manager’s leather-clad butt, Sam noticed. “Yeah, his band is going on tour.”
“Justin is in a band?” Sam was shocked.
Hopey laughed. “Yeah. Lead Singer. He says that their sound is kind of like Nine Inch Nails meets Wang Chung. I’ve never seen them,” she deadpanned. “Two months traveling packed like a sardine with his gear and bandmates in a cargo van that smells like feet and rancid bean burritos will just about make up for the fact that he left me in a major lurch,” she said with a grudging smile, then she looked at Sam speculatively. “You want to take his hours?”
Justin worked full-time, the day shift.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Sam couldn’t believe her luck, this was exactly what she needed.
“It means working a lot of hours with Ray,” Hopey cautioned.
“No problem,” Sam said immediately. She had never worked with Ray, but had heard stories and rumors about him. She gathered he was a little strange.
“It’s nine to five, five days a week, with one day being on the weekend,” Hopey clarified, making sure Sam understood. “Justin didn’t give me any notice, the little stain,” she said with reluctant affection. “Would you mind coming in tomorrow morning?”
“No, not at all,” Sam assured. This had all worked out so perfectly. “Well that wasn’t so hard. I thought I was going to have to beg and plead and kiss your ass like Britney’s doing,” Sam joked.
“What?” Hopey hadn’t a clue what Sam was talking about.
Sam grinned and pointed at Britney’s come-hither smile juxtaposed with Hopey’s rear.
Hopey looked down and laughed. “Britney wishes she could kiss my ass,” she scoffed, smirking back at Sam. “I wouldn’t touch that skank with a ten foot toilet brush. Now, Gwen Stefani, on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if she wanted to kiss me any old place.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Sam agreed, then blushed when she realized that she had spoken out loud. God, I’m queer for one day and I’m already drooling over women like a post-pubescent boy, she thought, surprised that she had even let herself have those thoughts.
“Oh, really?” Hopey drawled insinuatingly, inviting Sam to continue speaking.
“Um, I really don’t want to talk about it,” Sam muttered, and looked down, utterly embarrassed.
Hopey took pity and let her off the hook. “Well, if you ever do,” she said casually, “I’m here for you. Come on; let’s go take a look at the schedule. I’m going to have fun crossing out Justin’s name.”
Instead of going back to her car, Sam walked west to the park and beach. She stood at a railing at the edge of the park that overlooked Route One and the beach beyond, resting her elbows on the pressure-treated wood and cupping her chin in the palm of her hand. To her left, the enormous ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier dominated the view, while on the right the beach stretched out towards Venice. There were mobs of people everywhere, and ordinarily, Sam would be availing herself of the superb people watching to be had, but today she was deep in thought.
She was thinking about Hopey, and how secure the woman was with her sexuality. It was just an extra layer of her personality, something that made her who she was. Sam wondered how long it took for Hopey to come to terms with herself and if she had any problems coming out. She knew that Hopey was very happy with her girlfriend, a yoga instructor who had a studio nearby. The smile that cracked Hopey’s face whenever her girlfriend came into the store often made Sam want to look away, it was so intimate and radiant. At first glance, they seemed an unlikely pair; the rocker chick and the new-agey natural woman, but anyone could see how in love they were.
For a moment, Sam allowed herself to daydream about the couple she and Brooke could make. They, too, were near polar opposites, opposites were supposed to attract. But the attraction was only known on one side. She saw herself gazing at Brooke from across the table at a romantic candlelit restaurant, or sweetly taking her hand as the lights went down at the movies, or sitting atop the ferris wheel over there, surrounded by the stunning view, but having eyes only for Brooke. She shook her head at the sappy direction in which her thoughts ran, she had never been the hearts and flowers type with any of her boyfriends, and she guessed it was just one more piece of proof that this is what she was meant for. But it was just pipe dreaming, and Sam forced herself to stop pining over what was never going to happen.
So here is where she stood, shedding her former self but not completely a new person either. The summer would be a watershed for her, a separation of her old life from the one that was yet to be. One that she was growing increasingly excited to embrace, regardless of what it meant she would have to leave behind. All that she had to do was get through the next two and a half months and she would be gone. She would be unfailingly polite to Brooke, giving her, and anyone else in her family, no reason to suspect the inconvenient feelings that had sprung up in her. And she wouldn’t wallow in self-pity over the impossibility of her attraction to Brooke. It was just simply not in the cards. Everything would appear to be the same as usual, and she would keep her newfound sexuality on the down low for now, she was nowhere near ready to tell anyone anything. So everything would go back to normal, except she would have a little secret in her heart. Make that two little secrets.
Sam stood at the front door of Kranky’s, an hour before the store opened, waiting to be let in. Ray had seen her but continued counting out the drawer, making her wait. She shifted from one foot to the other, hitching her messenger bag further up with her shoulder, her hands full with her iced coffee and Ray’s hot tea. Sam didn’t understand how Ray could drink boiling hot tea in July, but every day it was the same, Earl Gray with one sweet ‘n low and lemon. Ray had not been happy with Hopey’s decision to get rid of the coffee bar when a Starbucks had opened up next-door a month ago. Sam thought it was smart. It gave the store more room for higher profit margin items instead of barely making anything on coffee. Who comes to a record store for coffee anyway? Subsequently, Ray had given up coffee in protest and now only drank tea. Sam didn’t think Starbucks minded too much.
Ray had apparently finished his task, because he approached the door and turned the key, then walked back to the counter. Sam watched him through the door as her walked away, thinking that if he ever came to work in something other than black Levi’s and a long sleeve black t-shirt, she would faint from the shock. She had to admit that the look worked for his skinny frame and platinum blonde, nearly white, slicked back hair. Sam pushed the door open with her shoulder, then juggled the cups to gain a free hand and lock the door again. She walked past the cash wrap area and deposited the tea, and picked up the dollar bill, neatly folded in half, and two quarters that waited for her on the counter everyday since she had discovered what Ray drank and started bringing it in with her.
Sam listened. The dB’s, she thought happily. She loved this song. Continuing on into the back room of the store, she punched in, and saw that a shipment had come in early this morning, and she would have something to keep her busy all day. She usually processed shipments and took care of inventory while Ray handled the cash register and did some of the paperwork for Hopey. Having worked with Ray for over a month now, they had settled into a routine, but it had been a little disconcerting for Sam in the beginning. Ray wasn’t much of a talker. No, scratch that, he barely talked at all, at least in the beginning. Sam would ask him a question and get nothing in response, or maybe if she was lucky, she would get a weird facial expression, but that was about it. Thankfully, there wasn’t much that needed explaining as Sam had worked evenings for quite a while, and she was grateful not to have to make annoying small talk, so she shrugged it off and just got on with things. She and Ray were the only employees in the store until two o’clock, when the staggered evening shift people started coming in, so it was a good thing that they got along.
The one thing that she and Ray had in common was their taste in music, unbeknownst to Sam, in the beginning. Ray brought in his own music, burned discs that contained eclectic mixes of esoteric and overlooked ephemera from the past thirty years. There was no genre unrepresented, and it was all good stuff, no filler. Sam had never heard of most of the artists and bands on Ray’s custom CD’s but she liked it all. She would often go up to the front of the store and ask who sang a particular song, and each time Ray would take the homemade jewel case from under the register and slide it across the counter for her to look at without a word. As a result, not only was Sam getting a musical education, but also Ray had begun to grudgingly approve of her presence, and now made the occasional unsolicited comment to her. It was as if she had to pass some crazy music appreciation test before she was deemed worthy. She didn’t mind; none of the rumors she had heard about Ray were true, and she liked him more because of his kooky ways.
She found that she was content most of the time while she worked, even customers’ inane questions usually didn’t bother her much, and being at Kranky’s served the purpose of keeping her away from home for long periods of time, as she was now the go to girl when her co-workers needed a shift covered. It wasn’t unusual for her to work another three or four shifts besides the forty hours she worked regularly. Her mother was a little upset with all the hours she was working, and insisted that Sam post her schedule on the refrigerator every week, so she could have the illusion of keeping track of the daughter who would soon be going halfway across the country for college.
Sam had been filling the rest of her time by taking a crash course in all things gay. Hopey had brought in a book called Rubyfruit Jungle, and asked Sam if she was interested in reading it. Sam had been shocked at how much she identified with the main character, and was now hungrily reading anything that Hopey would lend her. After work, Sam would spend her evenings just sitting in Starbucks, or at a table in the back at Mr. Cluck’s while waiting for Lily, working her way through many of the books on her boss’s bookshelf. Subsequently she had read a lot of interesting stuff, including books by Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, and Sarah Schulman. She stood for hours in the magazine section at Border’s, reading most of the gay interest periodicals, and was now riveted by reruns of Ellen Degeneres’ sitcom on Lifetime. She was getting comfortable in her own skin again, and it felt good.
Things had even been okay with Brooke. Their schedules didn’t often intersect, as Sam left early and came home very late most days. So she didn’t see her very often, maybe once every four or five days or so, but when she did she was finding it easy to be pleasant and interested in all that she was up to with Harrison and Brooke’s other friends. She was beginning to think that maybe she had been wrong. Maybe the attraction she thought she felt for Brooke was no more than the heady first flush of realizing her change in orientation, and it could have been anyone.
Sam began to open the boxes in the back room, and started to organize the new arrivals into genre, so they would be easy to put out on the floor later. As she bent over she felt a throb in the base of her skull, it was really painful. When she stood up again, the pain was still there. Weird, she thought, and continued working.
The only dark blot in her life lately had been the demise of her poor little Beetle. Her faithful companion had not made it to the end of summer as she had hoped. She had been leaving work one day when once again, her car wouldn’t start. She had decided to call a tow truck instead of bothering anyone in her family again, and got a ride home with one of her co-workers. The next day when she called the mechanic, he told her he had good news and he had bad news. When she asked for the good news first, he had said, “The good news is, you’re getting a new car!” Sam could almost hear the guy waiting for a rimshot and the laugh track to kick in, but she had been less than amused. God save her from comedian mechanics, but he was right. The prohibitive cost of repairing the little car had made the decision for her, and she went back to the auto shop to collect her stuff and say goodbye to her first car.
She had the option of taking the bus, but the schedule didn’t really work for the times she needed, plus it took forever. Taking the bus in Los Angeles was always an iffy proposition at best. So she dusted off her mountain bike, which she probably hadn’t used since moving into the McQueen home, and started riding to work. What was a ten-minute drive took nearly an hour by bike, but Sam found she didn’t mind. She was able to clear her head and do some of her best thinking while she navigated the local roads to and from Kranky’s, and her legs were looking so buff.
What had been an occasional throb in her head had now become constant pressure. Sam had never felt pain in her head like this before; this was no ordinary headache. She finally couldn’t bear it anymore and went up front to talk at Ray.
When Ray saw her, his expression said, “Wow, you look like shit.”
Sam had become very adept at interpreting Ray’s many facial expressions.
“I’m not feeling well, Ray, would you mind if I went home?”
Ray shook his head. “Go,” was all he said.
When Sam walked out onto the sidewalk, she saw a bus trundling down the avenue, still several blocks off. She decided to give her head a break and leave her bike locked up behind the store; she would worry about getting to work tomorrow later. She got to the stop just as the bus arrived, and she sat down and pressed her fingertips into her throbbing head.
Brooke was slicing peaches and cantaloupe for a fruit salad when she saw Sam through the kitchen window, trudging across the patio, her head lowered. She brightened at the thought of having Sam’s company for an afternoon sitting poolside, waiting for the air-conditioning guy to come, but wondered why she was home so early from work. As she often did, Brooke had checked Sam’s schedule on the refrigerator to see when she would be around today, not that it made much difference, since Sam was never around even when she wasn’t working. When Sam entered the kitchen, Brooke saw that her complexion was an unhealthy shade of green.
“Sam, what’s wrong? You look awful,” she said, alarmed.
“I have a nightmare of a headache,” Sam responded in a monotone, walking directly to the kitchen cabinet and removing a bottle of pills. “I just need to take an aspirin, or ten.” She swallowed what looked like at least four pills, and grabbed Brooke’s water glass and gulped the contents down. She finally put her bag down and sat at the kitchen table, wearily resting her forehead on the surface. “Why is it so hot in here?” she asked, voice muffled from being directed at the floor.
“The central air isn’t working, the repairman is coming later this afternoon.”
That’s great,” Sam sighed, “just great.”
Brooke had never seen Sam so out of sorts. She wished there was something she could do to help.
“Have you ever had a migraine, Brooke?” Sam asked, her head still resting against the table. “I don’t know if this is a migraine, but it’s unlike any headache I’ve ever had. It feels like a sumo wrestler is beating on my head like it was one of those huge-ass Japanese drums.” She exhaled slowly and placed her hands on the table top, using her arms to push herself up from the table. “I’m going to lie down.”
Suddenly Brooke’s afternoon of keeping cool by the pool seemed frivolous and shallow. She couldn’t just sit there while Sam was in so much pain. She went up to her room and googled migraine treatments. She found a site and looked down a list of possible options. Prescription drugs were out, herbal supplements – took too long, holistic remedies – whatever, dentistry? – not happening, acupuncture – she was slightly unqualified, massage. Bingo. She could do massage. She quickly read the short paragraph and closed her browser.
She knocked softly on Sam’s door, and entered when she thought she heard a grunt from the other side. The room was dim, the air was stagnant and the heat stifling. Sam was lying face down on her bed, clothes still on; she hadn’t even taken off her shoes. Brooke opened the windows to at least get a little air circulating, then went and sat next to Sam.
“Sam,” she said, lightly resting her hand on Sam’s shoulder.
Sam turned her head and looked at Brooke blearily.
“I was just reading that sometimes back massage will help relieve some of the pain from a migraine. I could help you,” she said awkwardly, suddenly wondering if this was a good idea. “Do you want to try it?”
Sam looked at her speculatively. “Honestly, if you think it will help, I’m willing to try anything,” she said desperately.
“Okay. Now then,” Brooke turned business-like. “You’ll have to take off your shirt.”
Sam watched her for a minute, like she was waiting for something. “Could you turn around?” she finally muttered.
“Oh, yeah, right,” Brooke jumped from the bed as if she had been scalded. She stood with her back to Sam, wondering why this felt so weird.
When she heard Sam say she was ready, Brooke turned back towards the bed to see Sam lying much as she had been before, only her shoes and socks had been removed and she was naked from the waist up, wearing only her army green cargo shorts.
She clambered onto the bed and straddled Sam’s body, resting her weight on Sam’s bum. Sam moved her arms from where they were at her sides and crossed them over her head.
“Okay, are you comfortable?” asked Brooke.
At Sam’s wordless nod, Brooke collected Sam’s hair in a loose ponytail and moved it out of the way. She lightly dragged her fingertips down Sam’s back, and felt Sam flinch in surprise. “Just try to relax, Sam,” she said.
Sam’s skin felt soft and smooth to the touch, but underneath that, her body was as hard as granite. There was no looseness to the muscles of her back; she was unbelievably tense. Brooke started at Sam’s neck, like her internet reading had suggested, and slowly worked her fingers into the tendons and muscles near the base of Sam’s skull. She spent a lot of time there before moving down to the shoulders, using both hands to grasp and knead the ropy muscles over the shoulder blades. She heard Sam groan, and then felt her let go of whatever resistance she had been holding onto, and her body became much more pliable.
Brooke could see Sam’s face in profile. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, a small pool of drool beginning to stain the pillow. She was glad her ministrations seemed to have the intended effect. She concentrated on one shoulder blade and then the other, trying to dig down between the bone and the muscle, to ease the knots she found there.
Pausing only to wipe the sweat from her brow in the oven-like atmosphere, Brooke toiled on. She worked each vertebra, manipulating the muscles surrounding it. Then she began to move outward from the spine, using her palms to repeatedly smooth the broad muscles of the middle back. With each outward motion, she would move further away from the center, until she was also massaging Sam’s ribs, and once, mistakenly, the sides of her breasts.
She felt Sam instantly react to this; her eyes were shut tight, her whole body stiffened and her hands squeezed into fists over her head. Brooke leaned over and grabbed Sam’s hands, trying to unclench them. “Sam, relax,” she whispered.
Brooke felt Sam grip her hands tightly for a moment, but then Sam released them and opened her own hands, her fingers tensely splayed across the pillow like two starfish. Brooke resumed her position, and sat back down on Sam’s behind, and heard Sam audibly exhale.
The terrain of Sam’s back now a known entity, Brooke let her mind wander as she fixed her attention to relieving the stress that had somehow returned to some of the muscles. Sam had been working long hours at Kranky’s. Although it wasn’t the most taxing job intellectually, all that time on her feet had to be taking its toll. Perhaps that was why Sam was suffering now.
She had really missed Sam’s company this summer. What a difference from last summer, when Sam had been to the hospital to visit her everyday, and had made Brooke’s interminable incarceration pass more quickly. She guessed that she had better get used to Sam not being around, as there wasn’t much time before they both left for school, and then they would go their separate ways, only seeing each other when breaks from their respective schools coincided. It made her feel sad. She hadn’t realized until now how much this accidental friendship had come to mean to her. She had never had a friend like Sam, one who made her laugh so hard when they were just goofing around, who didn’t have any expectations of her, and didn’t make her feel like their friendship was conditional on anything. Who would’ve ever guessed that they could become close friends after their inauspicious beginnings. She would have to figure out a way to let Sam know she would miss her when they went away.
She renewed her attention on Sam’s lower back. As she leaned over, reaching down to work the flesh near the waistband of Sam’s shorts, Brooke felt a single drop of sweat fall from her brow onto the skin of Sam’s back, just to the right of her spine, near the shoulder blade. Without thinking about it, she lowered her mouth to the soft surface and pressed her tongue there, absorbing the moisture. She noted the salty taste of Sam’s skin, mixed with a hint of peaches that must have come from her own fingers. Then she realized what she had just done.
She looked up and saw that Sam had raised herself onto her elbows and was looking back at her, an inscrutable expression on her face.
I think we’re done here, Brooke, thanks,” Sam said, hollowly.
“Sam, I’m so sorry,” Brooke stuttered. “I don’t – “
“Could you just leave, please?” Sam interrupted, annoyance coloring her tone.
Brooke got up and left the room without another word.
Sam only waited to hear the door closing behind Brooke before she allowed the tears to start falling. She turned on her side and covered her breasts with one arm, tucking her knees close to her chest in a fetal position. What the fuck was that, she thought, anguished. Had Brooke somehow found out about how she felt? Was she teasing her with what she could never have? She now knew that it was hopeless; the situation was just… hopeless. She reached down between her legs and felt the heat and dampness through her shorts that had started when Brooke first began to touch her. She opened the button fly and slid her hand beneath the waistband of her underwear, cupping her fingers against the copious wetness that had accumulated there, and quickly brought herself to a joyless climax. She lay like that for a long time, crying silently in shame and frustration. What was she going to do? She had been kidding herself to think that it wasn’t Brooke that she had feelings for. If the feelings had ever left, they were back now with a vengeance. She realized that the only solution she could see to her problem would arrive when the summer was over, and she would leave this house. But Brooke had accomplished one thing, Sam thought bitterly, her headache was gone, only to be replaced by an ache of a different kind.
Sam had woken up late. She had spent the whole previous day and night in her room, pleading illness when called down to dinner, and sweating her ass off until around six o’clock, when the air conditioning had kicked back in. During the afternoon yesterday, she had furtively watched Brooke through her window out in the backyard, lying in her bikini on a chaise lounge, periodically getting up to cool off in the pool. Sam honestly didn’t know what to make of Brooke’s behavior. She decided to go with her gut and assumed that Brooke was baiting her for some unknown reason, because there was no way that she could know about Sam’s Sapphic tendencies; Sam hadn’t told a soul, except Hopey, who had guessed, but Brooke didn’t even know her. Brooke could do her worst, Sam decided; she won’t get a rise out of me.
Her head felt better, but her little post-massage breakdown had left her as depressed as could be. And when she was depressed, she slept more than what was good for her, and was now scrambling to get ready for work. Her bike was still at the store, and there was no time for the bus; she would have to get a ride. She knocked on her mother and Mike’s door, getting no response. Cautiously opening the door, not wanting to get an eyeful of something that would traumatize her, Sam quickly realized that there was no one in the room; the bed was neatly made. Sam tried to recall if her mother had said anything about where she was going. Oh yeah, some real estate seminar in Newport Beach that she was dragging Mike to for the day, she remembered dimly. That left only one person to ask.
She stood in front of Brooke’s door, doing her mental preparation for talking to her stepsister. She quickly decided to just ignore Brooke’s flagrant violation of her personal space yesterday. Yes, that would work. Remember: be polite, and think before you speak, she admonished herself. She knocked softly and opened the door quietly, seeing that Brooke was indeed asleep. She approached the bed and just stood there for a moment, caught up in how beautiful and innocent she looked, lying on her back, one arm resting on her belly, the other flung out and away from her body, the sheets in a tangle around her feet. Even the quiet snores she was emitting were endearing to Sam. She hated to wake her, but she had to.
She took a step closer and nudged the bed with her leg. “Brooke,” she said quietly. No response. She was actually going to have to touch her. She tapped Brooke on the shoulder with one finger, saying again, “Brooke.”
“Sam?” Brooke squinted at her, then opened her eyes wide. “What is it? Is it Mac?” she asked, worried.
“No, no,” Sam reassured her. “I’m really sorry to wake you. Could I get a ride to work? I’m already way too late for the bus.”
“Your car won’t start?”
“Um, my car bit the dust weeks ago,” Sam said, embarrassed.
“What?” Brooke was awake now. “How come I didn’t know about this?”
“Because I forgot to submit the news to your press office,” Sam said sarcastically. “Now can you give me a ride or not?”
Brooke stared at her, with a solemn expression on her face.
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” Sam was angry with herself for losing her cool. It just hurt that Brooke didn’t even care to know the most basic things that happened in her life. She started to leave the room. “Listen, just go back to sleep. I’ll call Carmen, or Lily, or better yet, a cab.”
“No,” Brooke was adamant, “I’ll take you. Just let me get dressed and get Mac up.”
“Mac?” Sam asked incredulously, “Why Mac?”
“Because Dad and Jane left early this morning for Newport and I’m looking after her today. I just can’t leave her here alone.” She thought for a second. “I’ll have to set up the car seat.”
“I’ll do it. Did they leave it in the garage?”
Sam turned to go, then said, “Thanks, Brooke, I really appreciate this.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be as quick as I can.” Brooke got out of bed and started looking for something to wear.
Sam had just gotten all the straps strapped and the buckles buckled on the car seat in Brooke’s BMW, a hand-me-down from Mike, when Brooke emerged from the house, carrying a wailing Mac in her arms.
Sam felt about two inches tall for throwing the entire household in turmoil. “Here, let me take her,” she said apologetically. “I’m so sorry, Macky,” Sam said as she put the baby in the car seat.
“Try this,” Brooke said, handing over a bottle of formula.
Brooke started the car and Sam sat in the back with Mac, trying to calm her with the bottle. Fortunately, the soothing hum of a car engine always sent Mac to sleep, and she was out again before they hit the first intersection. When Brooke came to a four way stop, Sam said, “Wait, don’t go yet,” and jumped out of the back and slid into the front seat.
“So, what happened to your car?” Brooke immediately asked.
“Well, we all knew she was terminal, but it’s always a surprise when they finally go,” Sam joked. She quickly told Brooke the story of the funny mechanic, and Brooke thought it was the most hilarious thing she had ever heard, laughing loudly.
“Shh, Brooke,” Sam gently reproved, “We don’t want Cry-zilla to start up again.”
“Oops,” Brooke said, looking over her shoulder at Mac, “I forgot. You know, I noticed that your car never seemed to be around lately, but then neither have you, so I just assumed that you and your car were off somewhere having an adventure together.”
“I’d hardly call Kranky’s an adventure,” Sam said dryly.
“Yeah, but, you’re gone all the time, from morning ‘til night. You have to be doing something besides work,” Brooke fished, looking over at her.
“No, just work,” Sam said simply, effectively ending the subject, then she changed it. “Brooke, I wanted to thank you for the massage, it really helped my headache.”
“Oh, Sam, I’m really sorry about, ah, licking you.“ Brooke turned beet red, obviously mortified.
“Not a problem, I just figured you had me momentarily confused with Harrison.” Sam let out her inner bitch for a moment. “I’m glad it didn’t get this far, but just for future reference, I won’t ever need the Happy Ending, okay?” Sam was insultingly referring to the squalid and seedy massage parlors in East L.A. where “massage therapists” included bringing their clients to sexual release as part of the service
Brooke was silent. She stared straight ahead, her hands twisting on the steering wheel agitatedly.
Sam belatedly realized that Brooke was really upset. Wait. If she wasn’t trying to push my buttons, then why did she do it? She was totally confused. How did I become the one that looked like an asshole? Oh God, here Brooke was doing her a favor and she had to go and shit all over it. “Look, Brooke, I’m sorry I said that. I know you were just trying to help. I’m just really crabby today, what with waking up late and everything.” Sam was backpedaling like crazy, but Brooke had turned cold.
“No, I guess I deserve to be called a sleazy massage parlor whore,” Brooke said icily, “by my sister.”
“You don’t! I’m sorry! I was just trying to hurt you, okay?” Sam didn’t mean to say that last part; she was just so flustered.
Brooke pulled into a space in the Kranky’s parking lot, and turned to face Sam. “Why?” She was genuinely flummoxed, and her expression was one of hurt and anger.
Sam looked at the floorboards. She knew why, but there was no way in hell she would ever tell Brooke. So she quietly said, “I don’t know.”
Brooke faced forward and put the car in reverse, obviously waiting for Sam to get out. “Well I don’t know either, Sam.”
“Thanks for the ride, Brooke, I’m sorry, really-“
Sam stopped speaking when she heard Brooke sigh impatiently. She glanced back at Mac and then got out of the car, watching as Brooke burned rubber out of the parking lot. She kicked the pavement in consternation. She was such an idiot. All her good intentions for being polite, and for not letting Brooke get to her went down the toilet at the first moment of tension. And the ironic thing was, she guiltily thought, if Brooke ever offered her a Happy Ending, either the sexy kind or the storybook kind, Sam didn’t think she had it in her to turn Brooke down.
When she entered the store, she went right over to Ray and apologized for being late. He shrugged, but also actually used his words and said, “Feeling better?”
“Yeah,” Sam sighed despondently.
Ray tossed her a disbelieving look.
“Really, my head feels better.” Sam insisted. “I’m just feeling a little sad, that’s all.”
Ray nodded sympathetically, then reached under the counter and changed the CD to some real, crying-in-your-beer blues.
Sam was wallowing, something she swore she would never do, but she couldn’t stop herself. It didn’t help that Ray was aiding and abetting her. He had turned Kranky’s into “All Sad Songs, All the Time.” It had been going on for three days now. A customer would come in looking for “Walking on Sunshine,” and leave with Leonard Cohen’s boxed set. Between listening to the likes of Patsy Cline, Bright Eyes, Concrete Blonde, and too many sad country songs to count, and thinking about her tattered relationship with Brooke, whom she hadn’t seen or spoken to since that day in the parking lot, Sam was one big scab of raw emotion, that she couldn’t help picking at.
She hit the wall during the third repetition of the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” While she could agree with Morrissey’s sentiments, she had had enough. She stopped restocking the chart toppers CD bins and went over to where Ray was filling out a Soundscan report behind the register. “Ray. I love you, mean it, but you’re just enabling me. If I have to listen to one more sad song, I’m going to get on a plane, go to London, find every member of the Smiths and force them to listen to “Who Let the Dogs Out” on perpetual repeat.” Sam had finally reached her limit.
Ray grinned cheekily and immediately stopped the music. Just seeing Ray’s grin made her feel better. Sam grinned back and shook her head. He had been waiting for her to put a stop to it, she realized, and it only took her three days to figure it out. Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” now filled the store, its uptempo horn intro heralding a happier day at Kranky’s. Ray picked up a flier and handed it to Sam. It was for a show that night at the Troubadour. “Wanna go?” he asked.
“Rilo Kiley?” Sam asked, surprised. She liked the female-fronted indie rock emo-ish band, but didn’t think they were Ray’s cup of tea. “Do you even like them?”
“Sure,” Ray shrugged. “Guest list,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Sam didn’t even question Ray’s mysterious musical connections anymore. She couldn’t guess how old he was, but she knew he had been on the scene a long time. She considered the show. After having to scrounge up things to do to keep her away from the house, she would be glad to have a bona fide event to attend. “Okay, I’m in,” she said. It would be better than closing down Starbucks yet again, or hanging out at Mr. Clucks waiting for Lily to get off. Sam went back to restocking.
“Excuse me, young lady, do you have O-Town’s greatest hits?”
Sam didn’t even turn around as she said, “Sorry, O-Town doesn’t have a greatest hits CD.”
“Are you sure, Miss?”
You’ve got to be kidding me, she thought. This time Sam did turn around, and saw Carmen trying to keep herself from laughing.
Sam should’ve known. “Don’t you mean O-Town’s greatest hit?” she said, laughing. “Disguising your voice as a little old lady’s was a nice touch.”
“Yeah, I thought so,” Carmen agreed.
“Long time, no see, Carm, how are the kids?” Sam asked after Carmen’s job as a camp counselor, teaching dance to happy little campers.
“Talent-less,” Carmen said briefly. “Thank God, we’re on a break in between sessions, I was going nuts. They all want to shake their asses like Beyonce. Six year olds!” Carmen said, appalled.
“That damned Beyonce,” Sam railed, “it’s all her fault.”
“She ruins it for everyone,” Carmen vehemently agreed, then snickered. “So, you busy tonight? You want to do something?”
“I just made plans with Ray to see a show in West Hollywood tonight,” Sam gestured at Ray, who was still behind the counter. “You want me to see if he can get you on the list?”
“Ooh, the list,” Carmen was impressed. “Is that a record store perk?”
“I think it’s just a perk of knowing Ray.”
“He’s kind of cute, he sort of looks like Spike, from Buffy,” Carmen appraised. “Oh, wait, is this, like, a date with you two?”
“A date?” Sam raised her eyebrows. “No. No way. Why? Do you like him?”
“Maybe,” Carmen said with a grin.
“Hang on, I’ll go check and see if it’s okay.” Sam returned a minute later, nodding her assent. Ray had been unable to keep his eyes off of Carmen the whole time Sam was talking to him. Maybe Silent Bob and Chatty Cathy would make a good match, she mused.
Sam and Carmen followed Ray into the club, after being checked off on the guest list, and even got wristbands that proved they were over twenty-one, even though they hadn’t even been carded.
One of the first people Sam saw was Hopey, sitting at the bar with her girlfriend beside her. Sam went over and said hi, and introduced Carmen to her boss. They stood around and chatted with Hopey while waiting for the show to start. Sam noticed that Carmen and Ray seemed to be getting on well.
After Sam had finished work, she had ridden to Carmen’s house and hung out with her until Ray came to pick them up at ten o’clock. Sam had let Carmen have the front seat of Ray’s ancient wood-paneled Wagoneer, while she shared the back seat with the front tire of her bicycle, which was a little big for the cargo area. She didn’t think Carmen had noticed Ray’s near silence through her perky chatter, Carm probably thought he was just a good listener.
Carmen and Ray excused themselves to get closer to the stage. As Sam watched them go, Hopey leaned in and said, “Is that your sweetheart?”
“No, she’s just a friend,” Sam said, then smiled, a little sadly. “I don’t have a sweetheart.”
“Well, you have somebody who’s making you miserable,” Hopey noted shrewdly.
Sam was unnerved by Hopey’s perception.
“The three day sad music binge,” Hopey disclosed. “I heard about it.”
“Oh. I thought you were a psychic as well as a badass,” Sam said wryly.
“So, spill. Who is it? Anyone I know?”
“No,” Sam looked at Hopey with all the misery she was feeling. “It’s my stepsister, and she’s not gay. And she’s, you know, my stepsister.”
“Ouch,” Hopey winced, sympathetically. Then her attention was caught by her girlfriend, who had turned back towards her after finishing a separate conversation. “Samantha, this is Maggie. This is the girl who’s been borrowing all of our books, Mag.”
“Oh, it’s nice to finally meet you. You should come over and look at what we have instead of relying on Hope’s choices,” Maggie said warmly.
“Thanks, I’d love to,” Sam replied. “Do you guys like this band?”
“Not really,” Hopey said, “They’re not really my thing, but Ray and I know the booker here, so we hang out here a lot. We all used to play together, back in the day.”
“Really?” Sam was impressed. “Were you in a band?”
“Yeah, we were pretty good, too. Ray is an amazing guitarist and songwriter.”
“Wow, I never knew.” Sam was surprised.
“He doesn’t play much anymore, it kind of leads down a self-destructive path for him. But he’s been sober for years. He takes comfort in routine, these days,” Hopey said with a touch of wistfulness. “He really likes you, you know. He’s going to miss you when you go off to school.”
Sam didn’t think anyone could see her blush in the dimness of the bar. She liked Ray too; he was different than anyone else she knew. Wait, she frowned, Hopey didn’t mean in a romantic way, did she?
“Relax,” Hopey said, aiming her perception at Sam again. “He knows you’re gay, He just thinks you’re cool. There aren’t many people that don’t get on Ray’s nerves, but you are one of them.”
Just then a roar sounded from the crowd, the band was making its way to the stage.
“That’s our cue to leave, Samantha,” Hopey had to yell in Sam’s ear. “Try to have a good time tonight, forget about your stepsister for a little while. Besides, that girl has been checking you out for the last ten minutes,” Hopey nodded towards a girl about Sam’s age standing about ten feet away. Hopey moved past her, and Maggie gripped her arm affectionately and mouthed a goodbye, then the pair was gone.
Sam ordered two Rolling Rocks from the bartender and looked over at the girl Hopey had pointed out. It was time to get with the gayness, she resolutely decided. She needed to move on, this situation with Brooke was only making her unhappy. She squared her shoulders; here goes nothing.
Sam walked over to the girl and offered her a beer, which the girl accepted with a surprised smile. She was definitely family, Sam decided. She looked like a little punk rock skate rat, with her short, blonde, spiky hair and her eyebrow piercing. The girl wore a Goonies t-shirt and sported the requisite baggy Dickies. She was cute, Sam thought, as they smiled goofily at each other. Rilo Kiley was proving to be a band that Sam could definitely appreciate live.
Sam sat in the backseat of Ray’s Jeep, turning over a Troubadour matchbook in her hands. Carmen was sitting up front with Ray, talking a blue streak about the concert and about Duke’s, the diner they had gone to after the show for a quick bite. Sam and the Goonies girl, whose name was Grace, had hung out all during the show. At one point, Grace had gestured to the balcony, and she and Sam had gone up there and found some space in the back row of the bleacher seats. They had sat there for awhile, listening to the music, because they couldn’t see much from those seats, and Grace had taken Sam’s hand. Sam’s heart started beating faster and she moved closer to her new friend. Grace took the initiative and kissed Sam first, but Sam had wanted it and returned the kiss with alacrity. They had sat up there for a while, taking advantage of the darkness, and got to know each other a little better.
As she rubbed her thumb over the digits imprinted on the matchbook cover in ballpoint ink, Sam took a moment to evaluate. It had been… nice. Definitely better than kissing a guy, but it wasn’t exactly pyrotechnics and choirs of angels like what she had experienced with Brooke. She feared that the kiss she and Brooke shared on graduation night would be the high water mark to which all other kisses must measure up, haunting her love life until the end of time. But it was a little premature to go making that prognostication.
She thought it must be pretty late, and looked at her watch for the first time in what seemed like forever. Oh my God. Sam was shocked to see that it was after three in the morning, hours past her curfew for a weeknight, hell, for the weekend, too. She was praying that everyone would be asleep as Ray rounded the corner onto her block, but when she saw all the lights blazing at the McQueen residence, she knew her goose was cooked.
Ray helped her get her bike out of the back, and she said goodnight to him and Carmen before meeting her certain doom.
She let herself in the front door, and waited for the influx of people to come out of the kitchen. It only took a few moments. “Sam?” her mother asked, coming through the doorway first. “Oh thank God,” she said, her eyes closing in relief, before opening again in anger. “Where the hell have you been? You got off work at five. We’ve been calling your cell phone all night.”
Sam remembered her cell phone, switched off and sitting in the outside pocket of her messenger bag, which was currently located in Carmen’s bedroom. Whoops.
“Did it ever occur to you to call?” Mike reprimanded, looking really tired. “A simple phone call is all we ask.”
Sam saw Brooke come out of the kitchen now, looking a bit guilty. She did this. She woke them up, Sam thought, feeling betrayed. She shot Brooke a death glare, and shook her head in disbelief. Priceless. Well, time for some damage control.
“Mom, Mike, I’m really sorry. I was out with Carmen and some people from work and we just lost track of time. I left my cell phone at Carmen’s by mistake. I swear, I’ll never not call again. I’m so sorry that you were woken up by this. It won’t happen again, I promise.” There. That ought to cover it.
“You bet your ass, you’re sorry,” her mother was still livid. “You’re grounded, Sam. Your life is work and home. That’s it.”
“What?” Sam screeched. “You’re grounding me? But I’m leaving for school in, like, a few weeks, Mom!”
“Well, we have to get our last licks in while we still can, Sam,” Jane said sarcastically. “I’m going to bed.” Jane stalked upstairs to her bedroom, Mike not far behind.”
“Sam,” Brooke began.
“Save it, Brooke,” Sam said wearily. “Whatever you hoped to accomplish by this, it worked. I’m so utterly miserable I could cry. Is that what you wanted?”
“No! God!” Brooke was visibly upset. “I really was worried, Sam! I hadn’t seen you since that day in the car so I waited up tonight to make sure I got the chance to talk to you, and when it got so late, I panicked. I’m sorry!”
Sam barely heard Brooke’s lame excuse. She could try to find all the substitutes she wanted, she realized, it didn’t change the fact that none of them would be Brooke. She felt a bleakness enter her heart. It hurt so much that the object of her love didn’t love her back. She looked despairingly at Brooke and wondered why, with all the people in the world, it had to be her. And now it looked as if even their tenuous friendship was crumbling before her eyes. “I’m having flashbacks to sophomore year, Brooke. I thought we had become better friends than that,” Sam laughed mirthlessly. “I guess I thought wrong.”
Sam was done listening. Whatever Brooke was saying, and she was definitely saying something, Sam was beyond hearing it. She trudged up the stairs like a battle-weary general, and closed her bedroom door, vaguely aware that Brooke had stopped talking.
Sam entered the kitchen around noon the next day and saw her mother reading the paper, dark circles noticeable under her eyes. I did that, Sam thought, guiltily. She hoped Jane wasn’t still as pissed as she was last night. She had rarely given her mother cause to be that angry, well, okay, maybe a few times. Sam sat down at the table, waiting to be acknowledged, but her mom only flicked her eyes up at her, and then back down to the Arts & Leisure section.
“Mom, can we talk about this, please?”
“I don’t know what there is to say, Sam. You acted like an immature brat, and now you’re being punished like one. You won’t weasel your way out of being grounded.” Jane still didn’t look up from the paper.
“I don’t care about being grounded. I’m just really sorry.” Sam needed to do something to alleviate the desolate ache within her. The melancholy she was feeling over Brooke was reaching its cold tentacles over everything else in her life, and she was desperately in need of a little human kindness. Was it too much to ask for it from her mother, she thought, despondently. She waited for her mother to say something. “You know, this would be a little easier if you could bear to look at me,” Sam’s breathing hitched as she fought a sob rising in her chest, she was suddenly on the verge of tears.
Jane heard the change in her daughter’s voice and looked up, immediately alarmed. She quickly put the paper aside. “What’s wrong, honey? You can’t be this upset about breaking curfew.”
Finally hearing concern in her mother’s voice was enough to open the floodgates in Sam’s bruised heart. She hung her head and started to cry. Her mother was around the table and sitting next to her in a moment, and pulled her distressed daughter into her arms.
Sam couldn’t speak. All of the confusion, pain, and heartbreak she had been feeling since the day she graduated had finally caught up with her, and she was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotion. Sam clung to her mother as if she was all that was keeping her tethered to the earth.
Her mother rocked and soothed her, exhorting her to let it all out. It was many minutes before Sam was becalmed.
When Sam had collected herself somewhat, her mother noted with understatement, “This is not about your curfew.”
“No,” Sam laughed a little as she reached behind her to the counter for a box of Kleenex.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Jane tried to catch Sam’s lowered gaze.
“I do,” Sam admitted, “but it’s hard.” She had to say something, she was obviously at her emotional breaking point. It could only help. She sat and tried to come up with an eloquent way of breaking the news.
“It’s okay, Sam,” her mother said, “You can tell me anything. You know that.”
Sam remained lost in thought for longer than Jane’s nerves could stand.
“Sam, you’re beginning to worry me,” she said.
“It’s not anything bad, Mom,” Sam reassured, “despite the fact that I nearly washed us both away in a flood of tears.” Then she amended her last statement. “At least, I don’t think it’s anything bad, I can’t speak for you.” She raised her head and looked her mother in the eye.
“I’ve been having a rough time lately, Mom,” she began to explain. I found something out about myself earlier this summer, and it’s taken some time for me to get used to the idea.” Sam paused. “I’m gay, Mom.”
Her mother opened her mouth, but nothing came out, so Sam continued.
“I know, I know. I’ve had boyfriends, I don’t play sports, I don’t mind wearing a dress, but trust me, it’s true. I’m actually pretty pleased about it. Like I said, it took a while for me to wrap my head around it, but now that I have, I’m amazed I hadn’t seen it in myself earlier. It feels better, more natural, to me. Things suddenly make a whole lot more sense. This is who I am.”
“Well, it’s certainly better than your having murdered someone, or being pregnant,” Jane was struggling with the news, but was calm. “Which were some of the things that were running through my head.”
“Now, why would you equate being gay with murder?” Sam chastised gently, trying to put it in perspective for her mother.
“I’m not, Sam, I’m not,” her mother assured her. “It’s just that in those fraught moments before you said it, I was thinking the worst, and this is so far from the top of the list in terms of bad things… and I just blurted that out. I’m sorry, please don’t think that I think that,” Jane stopped, and laughed shortly. “Did that make any sense?”
“Well, I understood it,” Sam said, smiling with relief.
“Was there anything that precipitated this change?” her mother asked wonderingly.
“Yes,” Sam replied simply, “I kissed a girl.”
“Oh. Are you,” Jane was hesitant, “dating her?”
“No,” Sam sighed, her expression turning somber, “she’s not interested. That’s pretty much the reason for my recent diluvial incident.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” and Jane was truly sorry that her daughter was unhappy. “I don’t know how she could she turn down a prize like you, but then I’m biased.” When Jane got up this morning, the last thing she thought she would be doing today was comforting her daughter on the loss of a female crush. This is one of those moments, she realized, that define parenting. She paused, and mother and daughter looked at each other in silence. “Sam, I love you. I love you now, and I’ll love you always, even when I’m angry and upset, like last night. Just know that I support you and love you, no matter who you decide you want to love, okay?” She opened her arms and Sam went into them gladly. They shared the moment, both relieved for different reasons. Then Jane added, “But you’re still grounded.”
They both laughed, Sam was nearly giddy with relief, but her mother’s laughter was tinged with sadness. She would be strong in the face of this news for Sam’s sake, and wouldn’t start thinking about the implications this would have on her daughter’s life just yet, she thought.
“You know, I was secretly hoping you would do something naughty and I would have to ground you, just to have you around before you leave me forever,” Jane confessed.
“So now the truth comes out,” Sam said, grinning, but also feeling bad that she had never considered how her mother must have felt about their impending separation.
“I’ve missed you so much this summer,” Jane admitted, “it’s like you were already gone.”
“Well now you’re stuck with me,” Sam said, groaning, “And I only have my own gross stupidity to blame.” The world had seemed as black as coal last night, but now things didn’t seem so bad. She thought that today had the potential to be a good day. Then Sam thought of something that gave her pause.
Jane looked at her. There was a look of apprehension in Sam’s eyes.
“Do you think Dad would have been okay with me being gay?”
“Sam, your father loved you more than he loved himself, and wherever he is, I’m sure he still does. There is no way that something like this would ever stop him from loving you. Don’t ever worry about that.” Jane hastened to reassure Sam.
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. She was happy, she realized, happier than she’d been in a while. Having finally let go of this secret had done wonders for her spirits. She gave her mother one last quick hug before saying, “I have to get ready for work, I’m filling in for somebody tonight.”
Her mother looked over at her schedule on the refrigerator. “On your day off?”
“Yeah, no rest for the wickedly intelligent,” she snarked, realizing she had called herself both stupid and intelligent in the last thirty seconds. Then she thought of something else. “Mom, I don’t care if you tell Mike about me, but could you not say anything to Brooke? I should tell her myself.”
“Of course, Sam.”
“Thanks, Mom, for everything.” Sam said, before leaving the room and turning her mind to the conversation she knew she had to have with Brooke, a tough conversation that she was not looking forward to.
Sam stood in front of the mirror, wearing her bathing suit for the first time that summer. She didn’t like what she was seeing. Her body was fine, she had to admit she was looking damn good from using her bicycle all summer, but the amount of sun she had gotten while riding to and from work had snuck up on her. She was chagrined to see a very noticeable farmer’s tan on her arms and legs. Her skin was brown on the parts of her body that were exposed, but deathly pale everywhere else, where her shorts and tops had masked the sun. It was so not a good look, and she was going to try and start fixing it now on her day off, with nothing on her agenda but sitting by the pool, and doing some reading. Sam didn’t want to be known as the two-toned freak when she arrived in Chicago in a few weeks time. She had skulked around this morning and overheard that Brooke was going to a pre-fall sale at Barney’s with Mary Cherry, followed by a spree at Pottery Barn for an early start on dorm room decorating. She’d have the place to herself.
Things still weren’t great between her and Brooke, since the emotional upheaval of the previous week. Sam tried to go back to her ‘respectful and polite to a fault’ scheme, but Brooke was barely speaking to her anyway. She was still very confused about all the miscommunication and misunderstandings that had occurred between them, and her mind just went around in circles the more she thought about it. She just thought it was easier for everyone if she continued to stay away from Brooke, which was harder now that she found herself at home more often.
She took the book she was currently reading, along with a large white envelope she had received from Northwestern a few weeks ago and settled down out by the pool, turning her chair to face the sun. She began to go through all the materials in the packet, reading with interest about all that would be coming at her in just a few short weeks. Then she came to a light blue booklet, not much more than a pamphlet, really. Her university had sent her an assignment already. It was Plato’s Symposium, and she was expected to participate in a seminar about it during freshman orientation. Each new freshman was randomly sent either an excerpt from Plato’s Republic, or the Symposium. The object was not to learn about Plato or whatever, but to give incoming students a feel for how classes were run in their new environment. Group discussion and challenging the instructor were apparently encouraged, and it all thrilled Sam to pieces. It would make a nice change from the dictatorial teaching style of one Ms. Bobbi Glass, that was for damn sure.
Sam began to read, expecting it to be a dry, tediously academic subject, but was pleasantly surprised to find that Plato’s Symposium was anything but boring. As she sat reading the photocopied booklet, she discovered that the gist of the thing was a bunch of hungover ancient Greeks trying to decide if they should get wasted again, then each taking a turn to expound upon the meaning of love. She was thoroughly engrossed, and completely taken by Aristophanes’ version of the origin of love.
Aristophanes held that people didn’t always look the way they do today. A long time ago, he said, people were creatures that had four arms, four legs, and two faces. There were three sexes: the children of the sun, who had male qualities, the children of the earth, who had female qualities, and the children of the moon, who had a combination of both. These creatures became too powerful and willful for Zeus’s liking, and he needed to do something about it. He thought about killing the lot of them, but realized he would be robbing himself of the sacrifices and offerings they gave in their worship of him. So he decided to punish them (and increase their number twofold, thus gaining more worshippers for himself) by splitting them down the middle, forever separating each being from its other half. After these new human beings had been divided into two parts, they would come together in a mutual embrace, trying to grow back into one, but they never could in the same way again. And that became the natural state of humanity, to be always searching for that other half, to want to find the person who would make you whole. “And the reason is that human nature was originally one, and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love,” she read. Sam thought it was a wildly beautiful allegory, and mildly subversive, as well.
She put her reading down and considered this. Sam wondered how many people actually found their other half. And what if you had more than one love in your life? Like her mother, for instance; who was the person she was supposed to have been separated from, her father or Mike? Then she thought about herself and Brooke. What happened when one person recognized their other half, but the other person didn’t? And what if she was wrong? What if she was deluding herself by thinking that Brooke was the one, and there was actually somebody else out there in the world with whom she was meant to be? Was she to spend her life figuratively bashing herself into Brooke, fruitlessly trying to join herself with someone who didn’t want her?
She suddenly became infuriated with Aristophanes, for making her think about these things. But then, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that this really took free will out of the equation. If she and Brooke were destined to be, then they would come together eventually. And if not, then she would hopefully someday find the one for whom she was intended. This made her feel peaceful in a way that she hadn’t felt in weeks, maybe months. She could just leave everything up to the fates. This was all assuming Aristophanes was right. And she wanted him to be right; because she couldn’t continue on this way, it would kill her. It was already killing any relationship she had built with Brooke over the past three years, and she didn’t want that. She wanted to laugh again with Brooke. She wanted the fun Sam back, the one who enjoyed herself on occasion, and wasn’t such a wretch to be around.
She got back to her reading, resolving to do two things: she would try to make peace with Brooke, and salvage whatever she could of their threadbare bond. They were stepsisters, after all, and would have to associate with each other for the foreseeable future. Even if Sam couldn’t have her heart’s desire, they may as well be pleasant to each other. She also decided to sign up for a philosophy class at her first opportunity; she wanted to find out more about good old Aristophanes and guys like him.
A little while later, Sam saw Brooke and Mary Cherry, loaded down with shopping bags, come around the back of the house, heading for the kitchen door. She didn’t do anything to call attention to herself, but Mary Cherry saw her, and did a double take. The girl lowered her sunglasses down her nose and stopped Brooke, pointing at Sam, saying something that Sam couldn’t quite hear. Brooke glanced over, and tried to move Mary Cherry along in the direction of the house, obviously not wanting to spend any time in Sam’s presence. But Mary Cherry was not to be dissuaded; she dropped her bags and walked straight through the hibiscus bushes, making a beeline for Sam’s chair.
Polite, be polite, Sam thought. She put on a smile and said, “Hi Mary Cherry, did you have a successful shopping trip?”
“Well, if it isn’t Farmer Brown! And white!” Mary Cherry looked Sam up and down, taking in the tan lines that were in all the wrong places. “My God, Spam, how could you let yourself get into such a state?” Mary Cherry asked, truly appalled at the skincare regime, or lack thereof, gone horribly awry before her.
“I didn’t mean it,” Sam said defensively, as she watched Brooke approach, “it just kind of happened.”
“When I see a travesty of this magnitude, I just have to do my civic duty and share my wealth of knowledge in all things beauty-related.” Mary Cherry tapped her finger to her chin a few times. “Spam, I’m going to give you some free, unsolicited advice. Here’s what you do: you get yourself some sun block, SPF 800 or so ought to do it, and you apply it all over your tan parts. Then you get yourself some Crisco vegetable shortening and slather it all over your non-tan parts. If the sun stays as strong and hot as it’s been lately, you should be all evened out in about an hour.”
“Or fried extra crispy like the Colonel’s secret recipe,” Sam said impudently. Brooke had come closer, but was still keeping her distance. She had taken up a position behind Mary Cherry, but Sam could only see her profile, she was facing the pool and her expression was aloof.
“Mark my words, Spam, you could have an all-over luscious skin tone the color of burnt sienna, just like George Hamilton, in only a few hours. That works for some people, you know, but not me with my flawless, porcelain, milky-white skin.”
Sam knew there was no arguing with Mary Cherry. “Thanks for the advice, Mary Cherry. I’ll get right on that.”
“Well, I guess my work here is done.” Mary Cherry turned to Brooke. “So how about it, Brookie? Are you comin’? Stupid Bill is gassin’ up the plane, and we’ll be departin’ for Tuscaloosa in two hours. Momma wants me to be there when they break ground on the new library she’s payin’ for to get me into the University of Alabama. The Cherry Cherry Library,” Mary Cherry announced, “don’t it sound grand, y’all?” She looked at both of the girls expectantly.
Sam nodded amiably.
Brooke turned to face Mary Cherry and Sam. “I’m sorry, Mary Cherry, I have to baby-sit Mac tomorrow.”
“Aw, that’s too bad, hon. There would probably be secret dirty fraternity rituals and hazing of some sort goin’ on. Oh, well, gotta fly, bye girls,” Mary Cherry waved, and then started to go. “Oh, and Spam, I like those shockingly well-defined calves your sportin’ these days.”
Brooke looked at Sam’s legs for a moment before turning to follow Mary Cherry away from the pool.
“Brooke, can I talk to you for a second?” Sam hurriedly asked before Brooke had a chance to escape.
Brooke stopped and half-turned back towards Sam, then looked to where Mary Cherry had picked up her shopping bags and was leaving the backyard without a backward glance. Sam saw that she had no excuse for leaving now. Brooke reluctantly walked back to where Sam was sitting and stood before her, her arms crossed over her chest. Brooke’s posture wasn’t exactly screaming ‘uncomfortable,’ but it wasn’t using its indoor voice either.
“What is it, Sam?”
Now that she had Brooke’s full attention, Sam didn’t know what to say. “How was the sale?” she asked lamely.
Brooke’s brow furrowed in confusion. “It was fine.” She looked away. “Actually it wasn’t fine. I got the date wrong and it was the last day of the sale instead of the first day, so there wasn’t much of anything left. Didn’t stop Mary Cherry from buying up half the place, though.”
“Oh.” Sam frantically wracked her brain for something else to say. When she couldn’t come up with anything, she watched Brooke as she turned to go again. She sat up and leaned forward. “I don’t want to fight with you anymore,” she said in a rush, and a little more loudly then she intended.
Right away Brooke turned, stepping closer to Sam’s chair, and immediately replied. “I don’t want to fight anymore, either,” she said earnestly. “I don’t even know why we’re fighting.”
“Me neither. We were getting along so well there for such a good long while,” Sam said, sadly, and a bit guiltily. She knew that most of the blame rested on her shoulders.
“Why do we?” Brooke asked, bewildered. “Argue, I mean,” she clarified. She sat down on a neighboring lounge and looked at Sam, waiting for an answer.
Sam shrugged. “Actually, I don’t think we argue that much. It’s just all the tense, long drawn out silences that last for days afterwards that really get me down.” She had a proposal for Brooke. “Do you think we could, I don’t know, start over, or something? We only have a few weeks before we both leave, and I, for one, would be much happier if we weren’t at each other’s throats the whole time.”
“I’d like that,” Brooke smiled hesitantly and sat back on the chaise, her body going limp.
They sat in silence for a little while, unsure how to pick up the strands of their friendship.
Then Sam noticed Brooke looking at her legs. “Don’t look, I know how bad it is. The worst is the line right below my ankles.” Sam pointed to where her tan started above the place where she was usually wearing sneakers. It looked like she was wearing little white socks.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” Brooke agreed, grinning. “Mary Cherry is right, your legs are so toned,” she said wonderingly. “Have you been going to the gym?”
“No, I’ve been riding my bike to work.”
“I thought you were taking the bus.”
“I do, sometimes,” Sam explained, “but I like riding my bike. Sometimes I just get in the zone and the hour just flies by and I’m home in no time.”
“It takes an hour?”
“Almost. More like forty minutes now. In the beginning it took longer.”
“So all of those times when you come home late you’re riding your bike in the dark?” Brooke looked at her with dismay.
“Most of the way is well lit. And I bought this really geeky jacket that has reflectory stuff all over it,” Sam explained, a little defensively. “And sometimes I get a ride with Lily.”
“I would have given you a ride whenever you asked,” Brooke declared. “Or you could have borrowed my car. It’s not like I’ve been doing anything besides sitting on my ass all summer.”
“That’s not true,” Sam protested. “You take care of Mac all the time. You must be saving Mom and Mike a fortune in child care.”
“They’re paying me, Sam,” Brooke said dryly.
“Oh.” Sam said. “Then I should have been getting rides from you. You haven’t been doing anything but sitting on your ass all summer,” she kidded, smiling. She had been too proud to ask Brooke or her mother or Mike for rides to work. Looking back now, she thought it was probably pretty stupid of her. “Can I have a ride tomorrow?” she asked cheekily.
“Sure,” Brooke smiled. “I think I’ll go put on my bathing suit,” Brooke said. “Are you going to be down here for awhile?”
“Good. Do you need anything while I’m inside?” Brooke asked as she got up.
“A bucket of Crisco,” Sam said matter-of-factly.
Brooke laughed as she went inside, and Sam thought it was nice to hear it again.
That went well, Sam thought, smiling with relief. She was honestly happy that it looked like they would be able to get along. She would simply push any inappropriate thoughts that sprung up to the back of her brain. She could do this.
Brooke returned with bottled water and a bowl of grapes. She settled down in the chair next to Sam, stretching like a cat with contentment.
“So, how’s Harrison?” Sam asked conversationally. “I haven’t seen him around, lately.”
“You haven’t seen anyone around lately. You’re too busy selling CD’s and riding your bike,” Brooke remarked, not unkindly “He’s fine. He’s playing a lot of golf lately, trying to get as much in while he can.”
“Really? That’s fascinating. I’ve always found golf to be the most interest…zzzz,” Sam pretended to fall asleep mid-sentence. “What is it with men and golf? It’s not even a sport. It’s just an excuse for guys to walk around and talk smack, just like a bunch of old biddies gossiping on the porch.”
Brooke laughed. “Not to mention the fashions. There’s entirely too much plaid going on in that sport for my taste. And sweater vests,” she added with a shudder. Then Brooke turned serious. “I’m breaking up with him.”
Sam looked at Brooke, listening. She couldn’t help remembering the last time Brooke had said this.
“I should have done it months ago. But it just kind of gathered its own momentum, and it became easier to stay together, rather than trying to stop the boulder rolling down the hill.”
“You’re not happy?” Sam asked.
“It’s more like I’m not anything. He’s just become routine. When he’s not around, I don’t miss him. I don’t get butterflies in my stomach anymore when I’m with him, my heart doesn’t even beat faster when we kiss.” She looked at Sam, “Was that too much information?”
Sam shrugged noncommittally. She had been there. “That’s kind of what happened with me and Gavin, except I think it was mutual. We just kind of fizzled out. But I don’t think that Harrison feels the same way you do.”
“I know he doesn’t,” Brooke agreed, a pained look on her face. “I’m such a procrastinator.” She looked at Sam. “You and Gavin seemed so good together.”
Sam grimaced. It was so clear now why they hadn’t worked out. She had never been one to discuss her relationship to death with others, preferring to keep things private, but Brooke looked extremely curious. It would make a good opening for coming out, she mused, but she was too chickenshit. “We just weren’t compatible,” was all she said.
Brooke looked dubious at the vague non-answer, so Sam threw another tidbit out there.
“Plus, the sex wasn’t what I hoped it would be.”
Brooke looked taken aback. Now who’s giving out too much information, Sam thought, irked at herself. Why did I say that?
“That’s a shame,” Brooke said sincerely. “I figured you and Gavin were…” She hesitated.
Brooke nodded. “I guess intimacy can ruin a relationship just as easily as strengthening it.”
Sam nodded. Truer words were never spoken, Brooke, she thought.
The conversation hit a lull, as both girls became lost in their own thoughts. Then Brooke looked at the large envelope and assorted papers in Sam’s lap. “What’s all that?”
“Stuff from Northwestern. Would you believe I have homework already?” Sam went on to explain about the assigned reading, enthusiastically geeking out about Plato. “It was nothing like I thought it would be, I really enjoyed it. If you have some time, you could read it, if you want.” Sam handed over the booklet for Brooke to look at.
“Thanks,” Brooke leafed through the pages. “I will.”
“I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Sam quickly said, afraid she had made it impossible for Brooke to say no.
“I want to,” Brooke assured her, smiling. She picked up the book that had lain untouched next to Sam’s chair all afternoon. “What else are you reading?”
Sam held her breath as Brooke perused the book jacket and read the blurb inside the cover. It was one of Hopey’s, The Well of Loneliness. A landmark of lesbian literature, it was written in the 1920’s and was the first book to portray a lesbian theme, and was the subject of a notorious obscenity trial back in its time. Sam was enjoying the story, but ultimately, the self-hating and melodramatic heroine was someone with whom she could not identify. “It’s pretty good,” Sam said, ”but I can’t really relate.”
“Well, why would you?” Brooke asked sensibly. “It’s about a bunch of old-timey lesbians in war-torn England.”
Sam could have let this pass, but she was tired of evading the issue. She had let her first chance go by, she was going to take this one. Coming out to her mother had shown her that the world wouldn’t end if she cracked open the carapace she had been wearing all summer and let out some of the things she had been holding within herself. Regardless of how Brooke would respond, Sam had to tell her.
“That’s not really what I mean,” Sam began. “The characters in that book are filled with self-loathing and despair because they feel that they have been marked with some kind of otherness that they can’t accept in themselves. I haven’t felt that way at all since I discovered that I’m gay.” She watched Brooke closely for her reaction.
Brooke’s head had been lowered, as she had been studying the cover of the book, but she swiftly raised it when she heard what Sam said. “Are you serious?”
Sam looked into Brooke’s eyes, hoping that the gravity in her expression would be enough to answer the question. Who would joke about something like this? Brooke was searching her face for a sign of, what? Sam didn’t know. She resisted the urge to fill the silence with explanations, to start babbling away with any words she could think of to say. Instead she just stared back at Brooke, and waited while realization sunk in across her features. It was as if all the clocks in Los Angeles had stopped while Sam waited for Brooke to say something.
At last, Brooke tore her eyes away from Sam’s and looked at the azure water of the pool. “Well, that’s certainly a contributing factor as to why things didn’t work out with Gavin,” she said.
Sam barked out a laugh. It wasn’t funny, but it was so totally not what she had ever expected Brooke to say. Brooke looked back at her, and her confused expression just sent Sam over the edge. She was gripped by gales of laughter so fierce, she could barely speak. “Yes,” she wheezed, “I suppose,” between bouts of laughter, “it is.”
She saw Brooke crack a tentative grin at Sam’s uncontained fit of giggles. Sam could only shake her head helplessly and wipe the tears from her eyes while the laughter controlled her. This is ridiculous, she thought; pull yourself together. She made a Herculean effort to gather her wits and apologized. “I’m so sorry Brooke,” she apologized breathlessly. “You must think I’m crazy, besides being gay. I think it was just a nervous reaction.”
“Okay,” Brooke said carefully, justifiably acting like she was dealing with a mental patient.
Sam smiled ruefully. “Let me try that again. It’s only the second time I’ve come out to anyone, so pardon my inexperience. Yes, I’m gay. I realized it earlier this summer, I’ve come to be pretty happy about it, and it was time to finally come clean.”
“I’m happy for you, Sam, if you’re happy,” Brooke said, seriously. “When did you know? How did you know? Are you seeing anyone? Do you have a girlfriend?”
Sam sobered at the barrage of questions. She should have been prepared for them, but she wasn’t. How could she answer honestly without telling Brooke how she felt about her? She was silent.
“Oh! I totally get it!” Brooke slapped her hand to her forehead, then looked at Sam knowingly.
“You do?” Sam asked fearfully.
“All those extra hours working at Kranky’s, my ass,” Brooke crowed. “You were out with your girlfriend, weren’t you? I knew it! I knew you were up to something besides work.”
Sam simply stared at Brooke, astonished at her exultant attitude. She wasn’t aware that Brooke had been keeping tabs on her comings and goings.
“So who is she, Sammy? Anyone I know?” Brooke asked lightheartedly, now curious.
Sam was somewhat disconcerted, although grateful too, to find that Brooke had passed right over the surprise and shock stage and had gone directly to prurient interest. It was almost as if her sexuality was a non-issue. She now felt better equipped to deflect Brooke’s questions.
Sam picked up a grape and threw it at Brooke. “None of your beeswax, McQueen.” Sam snickered when she saw the grape bounce off Brooke’s forehead and land in her lap.
“Nuh Uh, Sam” Brooke scooped up the grape and beaned Sam in the neck with it. “You’ve been an absentee stepsister all summer, and now you have to pay. With details.”
“My, my, it certainly is a scorcher today,” Sam fanned herself with her hand and grinned at Brooke, “I think I need to cool off.” With that she leapt from her chair and dove into the pool.
“Hey, wait, no fair,” Brooke complained, although Sam couldn’t hear her.
Sam moved under the water, the only sound was the rushing of blood in her ears, and the beat of her heart. That was one way to escape the inquisition, she thought wryly. But she had to come up for air sometime. And she had instigated this herself by making her announcement to Brooke. Sam decided that if Brooke persisted in this line of questioning, she would tell her about Grace. After all, she may not have been the defining lesbian experience for Sam, but she was a legitimate experience none-the-less. And Sam could just vague up the details if need be. She felt bad for using Grace this way, even though the girl would never know it, and felt even worse when she remembered that the matchbook had gone through the wash and she now had no way of getting in touch with her.
She broke the surface at the far end of the pool, to find Brooke standing over her, hands on hips.
“You didn’t think it was going to be that easy?” she smirked.
“I’m not telling you anything unless you get in the pool,” Sam stalled. Then she made a lunge for Brooke’s ankle, even though she would never pull Brooke in.
“Whoa! Okay, I’ll do it myself.” Brooke stepped back from the edge and started walking around to the shallow end.
Sam turned her back to the pool wall and propped her arms on the pool’s edge, dangling herself in the water as she watched Brooke walk around the perimeter of the pool. She allowed herself to really look at Brooke for the first time in a long time. Her simple black bikini showed off her lithe body to extreme advantage, and the even tan she had acquired over the summer just improved upon perfection. It’s no wonder I have it so bad for you, she thought.
“Sam, are you checking me out?”
Sam raised her eyes to Brooke’s face and saw that Brooke had caught her looking, her features composed in a sly smile. Snagged.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a newfound appreciation for the female form,” Sam evaded answering the question outright, then ducked under the water, effectively ending conversation for a few moments at least. She swam underwater towards the shallow end, and saw Brooke’s legs and torso appear incrementally as Brooke made her way down the semi-circular steps that led into the pool.
When she came up for air and turned around, she saw Brooke doing an efficient crawl across the pool. Sam stood up and leaned against the pool’s edge and let the sun warm her face and upper body, watching as Brooke executed a passable kick turn and started back towards her. When Brooke touched the wall at the shallow end, she dipped her head back and smoothed her hair, breathing heavily. She moved to the steps and parked herself on the third one down, the water line hitting her at just above her breasts.
“Okay, details,” Brooke slapped the water by her side, indicating that Sam should sit next to her.
Sam made a big show of splashing over to where Brooke was seated. She told Brooke a tale that included an elaboration on how she genuinely felt about her new chosen lifestyle, a physical description of Grace, and a changed timeline regarding when and how she had met her fictitious girlfriend. She spoke honestly and from her heart about the awakening she had when she had kissed Brooke, only she substituted Grace’s name, speaking slowly and deliberately, not wanting to let anything slip. She ended the story with the news that she and Grace had broken off their “relationship” last week when Sam had come home late and had been grounded. Sam didn’t want to be forced to produce this figment of her imagination; she could just see Brooke suggesting that Sam bring her girlfriend home for dinner.
Sam felt awful. She never knew she had such a facility for lying; she ought to consider a career in writing fiction, she thought disgustedly. The lies actually manifested in a bad taste in her mouth, like ashes. She sunk below the surface and took some chlorinated pool water into her mouth, welcoming the chemical taste. Here she was trying to be honest about her life, and she ended up telling more lies than ever. But she truly felt that if Brooke knew where her real feelings were directed, she would forever lose the fragile friendship they had just begun rebuilding.
Brooke elicited an appropriate amount of sympathy over Sam’s breakup, and put her arm around Sam’s shoulders. Sam shivered at the contact, but couldn’t look at Brooke. She wondered if she owed it to Brooke to just confess her feelings, consequences be damned. Maybe it would be better than all of these untruths. No. They were stepsisters; it was just too weird. This was for the best.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out with her. You’ll find someone better; I just know it,” Brooke said reassuringly. “I don’t give a flying fig which gender you like, as long as you’re happy. You deserve to be happy,” she finished, kindly.
Sam chanced a look at Brooke’s face and saw only concern and warmth there. She smiled. “Well, I’m at a loss, I don’t know what a flying fig is.”
Brooke nudged her in the shoulder, grinning, but remained serious. “I’m honored that you told me, Sam. Who was the first person you told, Lily?”
“How’d she take it?”
“Pretty well, considering she thought I was about to get sent to the big house for whacking somebody,” Sam replied.
“What do you mean?” Brooke’s expression changed before her eyes to the confused face that had caused her such mirth earlier.
Sam laughed a little. “Nothing. Never mind. She took it really well. Very supportive, it couldn’t have gone better.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. Your mom is the best.”
“Yeah.” Sam should have been happy that Brooke had responded so well to her news, and she was. She just had never thought that it would be such an empty happiness.
“So, you’re gay now,” Brooke mused.
Sam tried to drag herself up and out of her somber mood. “Yep, it’s true. All gay, all the time, twenty-four, seven. Sun-gay through Satur-gay. I’ve tested positive for the presence of gay,” she joked.
“Does this mean you’ll be cooking lentils to take to pot luck dinners, and wearing flannel every chance you get, and spelling woman w-o-m-y-n?” Brooke asked with a mischievous grin.
“Hey,” Sam protested with a small smile. “I may be gay but I’m not that gay.”
“Aw, Sammy, you’re our little gay of sunshine,” Brooke giggled, squeezing Sam’s shoulder.
“Well, I’ve got to make gay while the sun shines,” Sam returned, a real smile creasing her features.
“You could be the mayor of the town of Gay-ville, in the great state of Gay-ifornia,” Brooke swung, and missed.
Sam rolled her eyes but gamely continued, “I’m the quarterback of the Green Gay Packers.”
“You’re a Gaylord in the Knights of the Gay Table,” Brooke liked that one.
“Your favorite movie is To Live and Die in L Gay, or is it Gays of Thunder?” Brooke grinned and rubbed her chin comically.
“Ew, I hate Tom Cruise!” Sam objected, giggling. “No, it’s Groundhog Gay.”
“I thought it was Gay it Forward. No, no, wait, it’s Remains of the Gay.” Brooke cackled.
“Ha! No, it’s Gay Anything. ‘I gave her my heart and she gave me a gay,’” Sam quoted, holding her sides and gasping for breath.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being Gay, starring Daniel Gay Lewis,” Brooke hardly got it out for laughing so hard.
By this time, the pair was doubled over, leaning on each other for support, and splashing each other as they tried to regain their composure. Every time one of them would get control of themselves, the other would break forth in a renewed fit of giggles, and so it went until the sun started to go down, and they were as wrinkly as two old prunes.
Sam couldn’t remember the last time she had been so silly and laughed so hard, she was grateful to Brooke for giving her her laughter back. She didn’t think it was possible for her to love Brooke more than she did at this moment. As they wrapped themselves in towels and collected their things, Sam stopped and simply said, “Thank you, Brooke.”
“Anytime, Sam,” Brooke replied, not really knowing what she was being thanked for.
She couldn’t resist one last attempt as they walked to the house together. “Hey, waiter, there’s a gay in my soup.”
“Ugh, Brooke, that was so lame.”
Brooke sat on her bed, flowery wrapping paper spread out before her. She was wrapping a going away present for Sam. She had spent a long time trying to think of a good gift, but in the end had gone with something prosaic and slightly egotistical. She had looked through her photographs and found the best one of the two of them. It had been taken last year after they had met Wanda Ricketts and had sat outside the school eating pie. Brooke thought they both looked good in the photo; they both seemed happy to be in each other’s company. A sterling silver frame completed the gift. She put the present in a gift bag along with one of the many gray Stanford t-shirts she had bought on her last visit to the campus, thinking she would give Sam the bag at the airport tomorrow.
The three weeks since Sam had declared her change in sexual preference had been among the smoothest in the sometimes-rocky history they shared. She thought Sam had become much more relaxed and cheerful since making her disclosure, even though it appeared to Brooke that she was still hurting over her breakup with the girl who had broken her heart. She would sometimes look at Sam and see a wistful faraway expression in her eyes.
Sam’s becoming a lesbian was something Brooke had never seen coming, and was a path that she couldn’t ever see choosing for herself, but she figured love made one do some pretty funny things. The words Sam had used to express the feelings she had when she kissed that girl for the first time had made Brooke feel envious. None of the boys she had dated had made her feel anything like what Sam had described. She briefly thought of the kiss she and Sam had shared the night of the graduation party. Sam liked kissing girls now, she thought, but she didn’t like kissing me. Brooke felt an irrational stab of hurt go through her. What was she thinking? She wasn’t gay, and the stepsister thing was just…ew. Personally, she thought Sam’s ex must be some kind of idiot. Sam was a great girl, a real catch.
Brooke had bent over backwards to be nice to Sam, and made an effort to spend as much time with her as she could, so Sam wouldn’t have time to brood. But it still seemed like Sam was holding her at arm’s length a little bit, and Brooke couldn’t figure that out. It wasn’t anything she could put her finger on, and she would be hard pressed to come up with an example of it, it was just a vibe she was getting from Sam.
Other than that, things were great. They were spending a lot of time together as a family, too. She had seen Jane surreptitiously wipe a tear from her eye one day last week when, after a marathon game of Monopoly, Sam had whooped in triumph and thrown all the bank money in the air when she had crushed Mike, her most worthy opponent, who had hung in there long after Brooke and Jane had ceded defeat. When Brooke had asked her for the secret to her game-playing success, Sam had simply said, “Trust in the top hat,” and nodded sagely, like she was Yoda or something. Brooke grinned at the memory.
They had finally watched Glitter, and had inevitably found much to make fun of, as well as other movies that were ripe for the snarking. It had become one of Brooke’s favorite pastimes, sitting in the darkened living room beside Sam, one of them making some comment that would set them off, and then having to pause the movie lest they miss some other feeble line or horrible wardrobe choice because they were laughing too hard.
They went shopping for school stuff together, and had each tried to help the other sort through their belongings and decide what was necessary for dorm life. They had shared the emails they had each received from their future roommates and pored over every line, parsing the comments for signs of an impending freakshow, wondering whom they were destined to be living with. Sam had said that after Brooke, living with anyone else would be cake, but Brooke knew it was only a joke. Mac had also benefited from their renewed closeness, as Sam now helped baby-sit whenever she wasn’t at Kranky’s these days. All the good times they had been having just hammered home to Brooke how much she would miss Sam.
Sam was expecting a ride from her, on this, her last day at Kranky’s, but Brooke thought she should make sure Sam hadn’t made any last minute changes in her plan. Picking up the phone and dialing Sam’s cell, Brooke heard the shrill ring tone echoing in Sam’s room next door. Honestly, why did she even have a phone if she never had it with her, Brooke thought, exasperated. She used her phone constantly, and couldn’t imagine leaving the house without it. Her father had gotten a good deal on a family plan a while ago, and Brooke had been psyched to receive the new phone, but she remembered that Sam had merely thanked Mike and went back to whatever book she had been reading. She decided to leave a message anyway in case Sam checked her voicemail from the store.
“Hi, it’s Brooke. I was calling to see if you still wanted me to pick you up at five, but your phone is here. So if you check your voicemail,” she trailed off. Then she somehow found herself adding to the message. “Anyway, Sam, I just wanted to say how glad I was that we patched things up. I’ve really had fun hanging out with you these last few weeks. I’m going to miss you, and I hope we can still be close, even though we’ll be far apart. I know we’ve had our ups and downs, but I think that you’re really great, and I think you are going to do well at school and everything. I really love you, Sam, um, like in a sisterly way. I think you may be the best friend I’ve ever had.” She paused again. “Well, if your plans change, call me back. Bye.”
Brooke put the phone down and looked at it for a moment. That was a bit much. She collected the wrapping paper and scissors from the bed and started downstairs. As she passed by Sam’s room, she stopped, and bit her lip. Coming to a decision, she entered the room, now looking barren with most of Sam’s personal stuff packed and sent off to her school already. Sam’s phone was sitting in its charger on her desk, and Brooke picked it up and dialed the voice mail access number. She waited until she heard herself say “Hi, it’s Brooke…” and then pressed seven for delete.
Sam stood on the longest line at Mr. Cluck’s because it was the one where Lily was behind the register. She was on her lunch break from Kranky’s and was changing up the tradition a little. Many times over the summer, Sam had come to Mr. Cluck’s after her shift and spent her evening hanging out and talking with Lily during the lulls. But she saw that Lily wasn’t very surprised to be seeing her in the daylight, she knew that Sam was leaving tomorrow for Chicago.
“The usual, Ms. McPherson?” Lily asked as she slapped a tray on the countertop and put a placemat on it.
“Yes, please, Mrs. Ford,” Sam replied grinning. “You have a break coming up, right?”
“Yeah, in five minutes,” Lily put a Chicken Caesar Salad and a diet Coke on Sam’s tray, and Sam retreated to the dining area.
“So how many days left?” Sam asked when Lily joined her at her usual table in the back.
Lily sat down wearily and sipped from her soda. She had long since passed the point where she could actually stomach any of the food that Mr. Cluck’s served. “Seven.”
Josh and Lily were going to be attending UCLA. Lily had worked very hard to secure on-campus couples housing for Josh and herself, and had lined up work-study jobs for the two of them as part of their financial aid package. Seven was the number of days before the semester started, until they moved out of her mother’s house, and Lily’s last day at Mr. Cluck’s. Excited didn’t even come close to describing Lily’s state of mind.
“How about you? Excited? Nervous? Sad? Scared? What?” Lily asked.
“All of the above,” Sam replied. “But I didn’t come here to talk about school.”
Lily raised her eyebrows in inquiry.
Sam was getting good at having this conversation. “I have something to tell you. I have been going through some personal stuff this summer and I wanted to tell you,” she hesitated, and then continued, “that I’m gay.”
“Well it’s about time,” was all Lily said.
Sam was floored. “You knew?” She watched Lily nod, a smile on her face. “How?”
“Have you forgotten that I’ve had my own struggles with sexuality, Sam?” she asked. “You have sat here in that seat, night after night this summer, reading the official lesbian coming out reading list. I read a few of those books myself, dork,” she said affectionately.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Sam was still shocked.
“Because it’s not my place to confront you about it,” Lily explained. “When you were ready, you would share. I’m glad you didn’t do it in an email or over the phone from Chicago. Time was seriously running out.”
“You’re so smucking fart, Lily,” Sam grinned.
“I do have a question for you, though,” Lily said. “What happened to make you start thinking about it?”
“There was a little incident that I had with another girl,” Sam said vaguely. “It kind of changed my whole entire life.”
“Was it Brooke? At Sugar Daddy’s party? I didn’t see the game, but I heard about it,” Lily asked shrewdly.
“No, it absolutely was not Brooke,” Sam hotly denied. It was like Lily had thought about all of this beforehand, and was ready to fire away.
“Okay, okay,” Lily backed off. “I’m just saying that if you are crushing on Brooke, maybe you should tell her.”
“I’m not,” Sam repeated with finality. Then she looked uncertain. “Lil, I’m not hot for Brooke, but what if, in some crazy bizarro and totally hypothetical world where nonsensical things happen as a matter of course, I was. Why should I tell her?”
“Don’t you want to know if there is the slightest chance that she could like you back?” Lily asked, reasonably. “Even if she doesn’t, and laughs in your face, at least you tried. Then you’ll know, and you can move on. It takes two to tango, Sam, and from what I heard, you two could move to Argentina and enter contests.”
Sam flushed crimson. “But in the crazy hypothetical world, as well as in this one, isn’t the whole stepsister issue kind of hard to overlook?” she asked tentatively.
Lily shrugged, unconcerned. “It’s not like you’re related by blood.”
Sam didn’t say anything for a few minutes. It was impossible. Brooke didn’t even lean that way. And she didn’t think she’d be able to take it if Brooke laughed in her face. She would rather not know. God, she was such a pussy. If she couldn’t sack up and let Brooke know how she felt then she deserved whatever she got, or didn’t get, in this case. Looking steadily at Lily, she said, “Well, that would certainly be a tough situation if I was in love with Brooke.”
“I guess it would be,” Lily said, carefully, looking sadly at Sam.
Sam was extremely grateful to Lily for keeping up her tattered charade, the girl was a good friend, and she was going to miss her incredibly. She looked at her watch and saw that she was already late in getting back to work, but what were they going to do? Fire her? It was her last day.
“It’s such a relief to have told you, Lil. Now I have to tell Carmen.”
“Oh, she knows,” Lily said casually, then looked askance at Sam. “I didn’t tell her, Ray did.”
“God. The guy never opens his mouth, yet he manages to spill my secrets,” Sam said, indignant. She had known that Hopey and Ray had discussed her, but she didn’t know that Carmen knew. So Carmen and Lily had obviously discussed this. Whatever. It didn’t even matter.
Now comes the hard part. Sam stood up and opened her arms to hug Lily. “I know you are going to do great, Lily. You and Josh are really on your way, now.”
“You, too, Sammy. I’m looking forward to seeing your by-line in the L.A. Times one of these days,” Lily let Sam go, and watched as she threw away her trash and headed for the door. “You better keep in touch, Sam,” she called after her.
Sam turned around and said, “I will. You better too.”
Brooke usually found Sam waiting outside whenever she came to pick her up, but she was a few minutes early, so she parked the car and went inside the store. She saw Sam in the back of the store, helping a customer in the Show Tunes section. After Sam located the desired disc for the customer, she saw Brooke and smiled.
“Hi,” Sam said, steering Brooke in the direction of the front counter. “I just want to say goodbye to a few people and then we can go.” She turned her attention to one of her colleagues at the register. “Hey, Dan, have you seen Ray?”
Dan frowned. “I think he left,” he said.
“He left?” Sam was distressed.
Brooke turned to see a woman approaching who could have stepped from the pages of a rock music magazine, a magazine like Rolling Stone but ten times cooler. Brooke thought she exuded a mellow yet edgy sensibility, if that were at all possible. She was kind of intimidating.
“Hopey,” Sam said, “I was just about to get going. Oh, this is my stepsister, Brooke, by the way. Brooke, this is Hopey, my boss.”
Hopey turned her gaze to Brooke with interest. She held out her hand and Brooke shook it. “It’s nice to meet you.” Then she looked at Sam again. “We just got the new U2 in. Do you think you could put it out on the floor before you go? Everybody else seems to be busy right now.”
“Um, sure,” Sam said uncertainly. “I’ll be right back, Brooke, this shouldn’t take long.”
Brooke glared at Hopey. Who did this Joan Jett wannabe think she was? Sam had worked her ass off for her all summer, and now she was squeezing every last drop of work out of her before she left. Rude much? She didn’t care if it did look like Hopey, what kind of name was that anyway, could pound her into the ground, she was going to give her a piece of her mind.
But Hopey was looking at her, an amused expression on her face. “I’m not really a slave driver,” she said, “Just wait.” And she nodded towards the door to the back room, where Sam was entering.
Brooke heard many voices raised in a muffled shout of “Surprise!” When she turned back to Hopey she saw the woman had broken out into a full-blown grin.
“Come on back,” she said to Brooke, “we’re celebrating.” Then she turned to Dan. “I’ll send someone out to relieve you in a few minutes, Dan. Can you handle it out here?”
“No problem,” Dan said. “Save me a piece of cake.”
Brooke stood in the backroom, surrounded by the detritus of old promotional campaigns and almost the entire staff of Kranky’s, in front of a large cutout standup display of the Backstreet Boys, circa Millennium, that had been defaced to near unrecognizability. Music was playing and there was lots of animated conversation and laughter. She watched as person after person congratulated Sam, and thought Sam herself looked a little dazed by the attention. She saw Sam beam when a tall platinum blonde guy approached her and produced a stack of what appeared to be homemade CD’s, which he then handed to her. Sam flipped through them, visibly moved. It didn’t look like a word had passed between the two of them, as Brooke watched Sam throw her arms around the man and hug him for a long time.
Brooke turned to see Carmen standing next to her. “Carmen, hi, what are you doing here?” she asked, surprised.
“Ray told me about the surprise party for Sam,” Carmen disclosed. “I’m crashing.” At Brooke’s blank look, she pointed out the blonde fellow. “That’s Ray. He and Sam have been shift partners all summer, they’ve gotten pretty close. Sam introduced us, and now Ray and I have gotten pretty close, too,” she grinned.
“Oh,” Brooke was a bit overwhelmed by the sudden awareness of this other part of Sam’s life that she had known nothing about. Sam was obviously well loved here at Kranky’s, she thought, as she watched Hopey join Sam and Ray and start talking with both of them. It was like they were a family, the way they were treating each other with such warmth and gladness. She was suddenly struck by the fact that all these people had probably seen more of Sam this summer than she had. These people seemed to know Sam better than Brooke knew her herself, she thought, as she watched Sam burst out laughing at something Hopey said, then look quickly at Ray to see what his reaction would be.
There were entire sections of Sam’s life, big sections, Brooke realized, that were closed to her. Her job and the people she knew here at the record store, for one thing, and her new gay life, for another. That Brooke would not be a part of Sam’s college life, either, filled her with something akin to desolation. She wondered how well she really knew her stepsister, anyway. Brooke thought she knew everything there was to know about Sam, after all, how much could you hide from someone who lives in the same house as you? But she was wrong, she thought. It made her feel kind of empty, for some reason. Was it her fault? Had she been oblivious to what Sam had tried to show her? Or did Sam deliberately hide large portions of herself from view.
“Look at her, Carmen, she looks so happy,” Brooke said pensively
“Yeah, but I bet she’s a little bit sad, too,” Carmen replied. “I think she’s really going to miss this place. And I know they are going to miss her. Ray thinks the sun shines out of her butt. It’s kind of annoying, actually.”
Brooke nodded morosely, feeling happy for Sam, but a little bewildered too.
It was still supposed to be business as usual at the record store, so the party didn’t last very long. Ray and Carmen had taken off, after Carmen had said her own goodbye to Sam, and now Hopey was walking Sam and Brooke to the car.
“It’s going to be tough not seeing your face around here, Samantha. It’s also going to be a lot harder for these slackers to find someone to take a shift now that you’re leaving,” Hopey said, smiling. “I bet you’re going to miss your stepsister too, right Brooke?”
“No, Brooke is going to take Stanford by storm. You’re looking at the next Big Woman on Campus, she won’t have time to miss me,” Sam answered, self-deprecatingly.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Hopey returned.
They had reached the car, and Sam turned to Hopey and hugged her fiercely. “Thanks Hopey, for everything,” she said, “I couldn’t have made it through this summer without you.”
What was that supposed to mean, Brooke wondered.
“Anytime. Come back and see us sometime,” Hopey replied.
“I will.” Sam said with emotion.
Sam had tears in her eyes, Brooke noticed with shock. In her experience, Sam was not a crier.
As Brooke turned the car out of the parking lot she said, “That was nice. They sure do like you.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Sam replied absently, smiling faintly in her direction.
Then Brooke quietly said, “I am, you know.”
“You are, what?” Sam asked, as she turned away from Brooke in her seat for a last look at Kranky’s.
“Going to miss you,” Brooke elaborated.
“I know,” Sam sighed. “And I’m going to miss you, too,” she said, but she was still looking out the window, and didn’t turn to face Brooke. They rode the rest of the way home in silence.
Sam was walking determinedly down the concourse at LAX, five paces in front of the rest of her family. The day had started on a wrong note when Mac decided to have one of those mornings, when she was happy with nothing and let everyone know it. The little girl brayed and bawled and got red in the face like she was a baseball player going nose to nose with the umpire. No one could soothe her except “Book,” Mac’s best friend forever and her most recently acquired word.
Then after loading the car and finally getting on the road, they had hit traffic on La Cienega, before hitting more traffic on the 405. Sam thought everything would have been easier if she could’ve just taken a cab, like she had suggested. And now they were all moving as if they were wearing lead boots. Were they trying to make her miss her flight, she thought in frustration.
Sam took a breath and tried to calm down. She had plenty of time. This morning had been hard. Her mother had been close to tears from the time she woke up until pretty much right now, and Mike had been quieter than usual. Mac had certainly not helped with her mood. Brooke was the only one who was acting normally, and for that, Sam was grateful. She hadn’t let herself think about how she wouldn’t be seeing Brooke again for months, probably.
She had finally been able to just unclench over the whole ordeal with Brooke, and had simply tried to enjoy the time she had left with her. They had so much fun these last few weeks, Sam was really sorry that she was leaving. But she thought that perhaps the reason why she had been able to enjoy Brooke’s company and ignore the pangs in her heart was because it was a finite chunk of time, and she knew the moment of escape was imminent.
Things would get better. She would be far away and starting a new life without Brooke, without the impossibility of being with Brooke. She would have all sorts of new challenges and endeavors to occupy her time, and would hardly be thinking of Brooke at all. She would meet new people and make new friends, and maybe even find someone who she could love unreservedly. This was good. It was right. Now, all she wanted was to get gone.
Earlier this morning, she had gone back up to her room for one last look around, as her family was out in the driveway, stowing her suitcase and putting Mac in her car seat. There was nothing she had missed; everything had been packed away, the room as impersonal as one in a hotel, as if she would never be returning. She went down the hall and pushed Brooke’s door open, standing in the doorway and surveying the controlled chaos of Brooke’s yet to be completed packing job, she was leaving three days after Sam. Her eyes fell on a shaggy stuffed dog, a present from Harrison. For all that Brooke talked about it, she still hadn’t broken up with him. Across the room in Brooke’s bookcase, she saw the blue leatherette spine of her yearbook, wedged between a dog-eared copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary and last spring’s Vanity Fair Hollywood issue. She realized she had never signed Brooke’s yearbook, and thought back to that day before graduation, before everything changed. Would she go back in time and do things differently if she could? She honestly didn’t know. She had closed the door and joined her family in the car.
As she walked through the airport, she checked her watch again, then patted her jacket pockets, searching for her boarding pass. Brooke had caught up with her and tapped her on the shoulder. Sam half-turned but didn’t slow down. She watched as Brooke rummaged in her bag, and pulled out the Symposium booklet that Sam would need for orientation. She had completely forgotten about it.
“Sorry I had this so long,” Brooke apologized, trying to smooth the wrinkled paper and straighten the bent pages. “I put it in here the day you gave it to me, I read it weeks ago when I brought Mac to gymboree one day.”
“Thanks,” Sam took the booklet and shoved it in the side pocket of her messenger bag.
“I, uh, really liked what that one guy had to say, about the gods splitting everyone in two and always searching for your other half and all that,” Brooke said, steering Sam out of the way of a courtesy cart that went beeping by.
Sam nodded. She couldn’t believe Brooke was trying to have a discussion about Greek philosophy now. Any other time before today, and Sam would have killed to be having this conversation with Brooke, but now it was too late.
“Yeah, I liked that part as well,” she said distractedly, she still hadn’t found her boarding pass.
By this time they had reached the gate from where Sam’s plane was departing. Her mother and Mike rolled up with Mac in her stroller, as the gate attendant called for all passengers seated in rows ten and higher. Sam finally found her boarding pass in her breast pocket, put there so she would remember where it was. She turned to see her mother barely able to contain her tears.
“Aw, Mom, don’t cry,” Sam pleaded, as she closed the gap between them and hugged her tight. “I’ll probably be so homesick I’ll have to call you everyday.” She closed her eyes and basked in her mother’s love for a few moments. “I love you.”
“Oh, I love you, too. Call twice a day if you want to, I won’t mind,” Jane laughed a little, as they separated, and wiped her eyes with a tissue.
She stood on her tiptoes and gave Mike a kiss on the cheek. “Bye Mike, thanks for everything,” she smiled at him. “One down, two to go.”
“Good luck, Sam, be good,” Mike replied, smiling, grabbing her around the shoulder in a quick hug.
Sam kneeled down in front of Mac. “Well, Mac, this is it. Lay off those hazel nut lattes, they’ll make you cranky, and stunt your growth.”
“Book! Book!” Mac gurgled happily, no sign now of her rotten temper.
“No, not Brooke, Sam, the cooler sister,” Sam corrected, smiling. She leaned in to kiss her sister and Mac took the opportunity to grab a hunk of Sam’s hair, giggling gleefully. As she tried to extricate her sister’s sticky fingers from her hair, she saw Brooke go behind the stroller and retrieve something from the storage basket underneath. “Come on, Macaroni, United Airlines waits for no one,” Sam said, prying herself loose.
When she stood up she saw that Brooke was holding a white gift bag with flames of purple and gold tissue paper poking out of the top. A present, Sam realized. Why hadn’t she thought of that? And the purple and gold, Northwestern’s school colors, was a nice touch. Brooke was such a classy girl.
“I didn’t get you anything,” Sam said, as she took the bag from Brooke’s outstretched hands.
“It’s nothing big,” Brooke said shyly, “just something to remember me by.”
As if I could ever forget you, Sam thought. “Thanks.”
“I know you’ll do great, Sam,” Brooke continued awkwardly. “Good luck.”
“Yes, you too, good luck.” What more was there to say after that? Stay tough, she thought, don’t start crying now. It was time for the Government Sanctioned Officially Permissible Stepsister Hug. Sam put the bag down on the floor and wiped her palms on her thighs. They approached each other and embraced, but Sam didn’t let it become one of those insincere hugs where the two people looked like the capital letter A, only touching at the shoulders. She pulled Brooke to her at the waist, so that they were connected from shoulder to thigh, and Brooke’s arms tightened around her neck.
To Sam, it felt like one of Zeus’s own lightning bolts had struck them, not breaking them apart, but fusing them together in a warmth that was both new and familiar at the same time. Four arms, four legs, two faces. She closed her eyes and breathed in, trying to burn this moment onto her senses. She knew Brooke. She was written indelibly on her soul. Sam knew Brooke in the same way that her blood knew how to get from her heart to her brain.
“My other half,” she murmured mournfully into Brooke’s shoulder, sending it out into the world as an appeal, or a request, or a plea to Aristophanes, or Zeus, or whomever was in charge on this particular day.
“What?” Brooke asked.
Sam stepped back and looked into Brooke’s slightly dilated and unfocused eyes. “Nothing. We’re sisters. We’re friends.” It would have to be enough.
“Yes.” Brooke answered, her eyes clearing but expressing confusion.
Sam heard the gate attendant announcing the last call for passengers and stumbled backwards, looking at her entire family. The corners of her mouth turned upward in a reasonable facsimile of a smile and she waved, and turned to go, heedlessly forgetting the gift bag on the floor at Brooke’s feet.
Don’t look back, she thought, as she handed her boarding pass to the attendant and disappeared down the Jetway and into the hopeful ambiguity of her future. Her new life was waiting.
Here's where I stand
Here's who I am
Love me, but don't tell me who I have to be
Here's who I am, I'm what you see
Here's where I stand
Here's who I am
Help me to move on
but please don't tell me how
I'm on my way, I'm movin' now
- Michael Gore & Lynn Ahrens
“Here’s Where I Stand”
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