Title: Fake Plastic Trees
Author: Green Quarter
Archiving: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/greenquarter.htm. Applause and accolades to Kim for her awesome and able archiving.
Disclaimer: Characters of Popular are not mine. The title is taken from a Radiohead song, which is not mine either.
Feedback: Always appreciated, at above address.
Note: This fic is set in season one, and riffs on plot points from “Fall On Your Knees,” and “Ex, Lies and Videotape,” so those are the spoilers, if anyone still pays any attention to that. I’ve taken some liberties with the parentals’ back stories, but not too many, hope you don’t mind. I’m not a lawyer, so any legal stuff in the story is strictly fiction, I have no idea if this could ever happen. Oh yes, one more thing, it’s all in Brooke’s POV.
Today had just about been the longest day ever, and of course, it was Monday, which only made the day suck that much harder. It seemed like all the teachers got together and decided to inflict mass retribution, all giving obscene amounts of homework just to prove some kind of point. Then Glamazon practice went long because Mary Cherry could not get that herkie to save her life, and we had to do it over and over and over. And to top it all off, there was nothing good in the refrigerator. At least Sam wasn’t around to annoy and irritate, as was her wont.
But what’s this? Two letters sitting on the kitchen counter delivered registered mail, one addressed to me, and one to Sam. The return address read from the Law Offices of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The hell? I slid a butter knife between the folds of the vellum envelope and withdrew a single sheet, half expecting the expensive paper to be saturated with perfume; it was too nice in quality to be used merely for business purposes. It wasn’t a love letter, however, but a strongly worded censure from the legal counsel of Enterteenment Today and Ms. Jamie Gunn, producer of said TV program.
I turned when I heard the back door open, and watched Sam enter wearily, dropping her bag right in the middle of the kitchen floor where she knew I would be sure to trip over it.
“Hey,” she sighed, “what a day.”
“Tell me about it,” I replied, “and it’s about to get worse.”
Sam frowned. “Meaning?”
I picked up her envelope and tossed it to her. “Meaning we’re going to get sued by Enterteenment Today for breach of contract.”
Sam’s eyes grew round, and her mouth opened like her doctor had asked her to say ”Ahh,” only without the sound effect. It would have been funny if the charge weren’t so serious. It was an extremely rare event when Sam was at a loss for words. She tore open the envelope and scanned the text of the letter. “Contract? I don’t remember signing any contract, do you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “In Principal Hall’s office, the day we met Jamie.” The slick Hollywood producer had whipped out the contracts so fast it wasn’t surprising that Sam had forgotten. Sam glanced up at me; I could tell she remembered now. We had both signed without a second thought, and Principal Hall had insisted on making copies for us. I wasn’t positive, but thought that mine was probably somewhere in my locker at school. “I don’t suppose you kept your copy?”
“I must have,” Sam said, already moving to the stairs, her head bent to the letter once again.
I had to smile with satisfaction when I saw her stumble over her book bag, that was usually my job, but she kept walking, barely noticing the obstacle in her path. I cut up an apple and slathered it with some peanut butter, then took it with me as I followed Sam upstairs.
It had been over a month ago that we finished working on the ten-minute segment for Enterteenment Today on the pitfalls of fame in the world of a popular teen, using Josh Ford as our subject, only to destroy all of our hard work and replace the segment with an apology of sorts. We explained in a short, videotaped message that we couldn’t in good conscience submit something that went against the wishes of the subject, who was a good friend of ours. It had been one of the few times that Sam and I agreed on the proper course of action, feeling guilty for using Josh purely for selfish purposes. Now it looked like our good intentions were coming back to bite us in the ass, because we really had erased not only the edited segment, but all of the footage Sam and Harrison had shot as well. Prison jumpsuit orange is so not my color. We were fucked.
Sam’s door was open, so I entered without knocking and sat on her bed. She was standing over the open drawer of the filing cabinet next to her desk. I ask you: what teenager has a filing cabinet in which to keep all of their “important” papers? She had this really involved filing system for her Zapruder stories and whatever the hell else she kept in there, but for once, her anal-ness had paid off, as she had found and was now poring over the contract we had signed with a look of concentration.
I looked around Sam’s room and was struck at how neat everything was. Ever since she had moved in there was never a book or an article of clothing out of place, almost as if she didn’t want to give up any personal information by leaving a stuffed animal on the bed or something. Would it kill her to hang up a few posters? She did have a few framed photographs sitting on her dresser, including the one of our newly formed family unit that I had given her for Christmas.
She extended her arm towards me and snapped her fingers, holding out her hand, but didn’t look up from her reading.
“What?” I asked, not having a clue what she wanted.
“Apple?” she demanded.
What a snotty brat. But I grudgingly handed her a chunk from my plate, anyway.
After another few minutes of eating and reading, she put down the contract and picked up the letter again, frowning at it like it had ruined her day, which I guess it had. It had certainly put a damper on mine. Then the wrinkles in her forehead became a little less pronounced, and she looked at me.
“Okay,” she said, picking up the contract once again, and read aloud. “’All materials produced become the sole property of Enterteenment Today and its parent company, including any and all exposed film shot in support and development of finished segment.’ So they have us dead to rights on that one. But,” Sam then looked again at the letter and started reading.
“But, what?” I asked impatiently.
“But the letter is only a warning of what they are planning on doing. I think it’s a scare tactic.”
“Well it worked, I kind of have a little pee running down my leg,” I joked. “So what do they really want?”
“I think they just want their segment,” Sam directed her gaze at me.
“You mean do it over?” I wailed. “We can’t do that to Josh, Sam,” I shook my head. “No. I won’t do that to him.” I was surprised at her. She was just going to cave in to the man like that? So much for her championing the cause of the underdog and all that.
“The contract doesn’t specify what the subject has to be,” Sam explained, sitting down next to me. “We just have to do another segment, it doesn’t matter what the story is.” She pointed to the letter. “They’re not filing the suit until the end of the month, so if we can get it done by then, we can avoid this whole mess. I think they just want what they are legally entitled to, they don’t want to take us to court any more than we want to be taken.”
“Oh,” I said. It made sense. But what a pain. I wished I had never met Jamie Gunn. It was my own fault for being swept up in my own stupid dreams of being Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Or was it William Hurt? Whatever. “Sam, the end of the month is only ten days away, we’ll never get it done in time.”
“We’re going to have to, unless you want to become a number on a shirt pocket, smoking cigars and slinging hash in a women’s prison,” Sam replied pragmatically, folding the letter and getting up again, beginning to pace. “Why don’t we do the teen runaways idea I originally pitched? Or maybe we could do something on the homeless in general,” she brainstormed, head down as she wore a path in the carpet.
“What is it with you and teen runaways?” I asked. “God, Sam, if we only have ten days, we have to keep this simple.”
“Well, what do you suggest we do, Katie Couric?” Sam asked, exasperated.
“I don’t know, but not something where we’re going to have to do a lot of legwork to line up a bunch of interviews, there’s no time for that,” I returned, reasonably.
Sam stopped pacing and looked at me. “You’re right. I have to scale down.”
Hello? I’m a part of this too, dumbass.
“How about something with Carmen becoming a cheerleader? Or maybe we could profile Lily and one of her causes,” Sam started pacing again.
“No way, Sam,” I shook my head. “How is that any different than invading Josh’s privacy?”
“Arghh! How come you always have to be right all the time?” Sam exclaimed, raising her fists to her temples, acting about as dramatically as possible.
“Just trying to be the voice of reason,” I said, trying to hide my amusement.
I had to admit that there were moments during that project when Sam and I really clicked. It was like we were on the same wavelength and could finish each other’s thoughts or something. I mean, yeah, she is a total pain most of the time, but it really felt good when she complimented me on my interviewing style, or asked me for my input on different shots or whatever. Then the project was over, and not long after that, Emory Dick’s trial had put us back on opposing sides. Two steps forward, two steps back. Not that it mattered to me whether or not we got along. I had enough friends and a life of my own to worry about without adding high-maintenance McPherson to the roster.
“If we can’t do something about people we don’t know, and we can’t do something about people we do know, where does that leave us?” Sam faced me, hands on hips.
I didn’t know, isn’t she the one that’s supposed to have all the ideas? I was about to shrug my shoulders and leave the room, and tell her to get back to me whenever she thought of something, when an idea, fully formed, popped into my head. “We should do the story about us.”
“Huh?” Sam was frowning again.
“We should do a story about how second marriages and high divorce statistics and other factors impact the life of the modern teen.” I thought the idea was a good one, and ways to augment it came tumbling out of my mouth before I could censor them. “We could do the segment in three parts: an interview of you, an interview of me, and one with Dad and Jane.” I looked at Sam and tried to gauge her reaction, I could never tell if she was going to love something or hate it.
She peered at me with those beady brown eyes for a few moments. “A journalist shouldn’t be a part of the story,” she finally objected.
“Sam, desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s doable in ten days,” I said with finality. “Unless you want to study for the SAT’s in the prison library,” I added.
Sam eyed me speculatively, and seemed to have become convinced. She had a habit of staring while she was deep in thought, and at this particular moment, her eyes were boring into me as the wheels turned in that pea-brain of hers, and it was kind of disconcerting. I tried to stare her down, but she wasn’t even seeing me, so I just sat there, fidgeting with my now empty plate, waiting for her to snap out of it.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll start doing some research about the effects of broken homes and remarriage on adolescents. First thing tomorrow I’ll book the equipment we’ll need and some time in the editing room. What are you going to do?”
“The six hours of homework I was assigned?” I said, more snippily than necessary.
“I have homework, too, Brooke, you have to help.” Sam crossed her arms.
“All right,” I relented. “I’ll start drafting questions for your interview and the one with the parentals, but how can I interview myself?”
“I’ll do that,” Sam replied. “But let’s get one thing clear. You can’t be pulling any of your high maintenance shenanigans, okay? We just don’t have time for you to take five hours deciding what shirt you want to wear.”
I was so offended. Was she actually calling me high maintenance? When she was the one who held everybody up deciding on the exact right wording for the introduction of our original segment, like it was going to the Sundance Film Festival or something. “Whatever, Sam. You just do your part and I’ll do mine, and we can try to get through this without killing each other.”
“Actually, that would make an even better story,” she smirked at me. “Salacious scandal as scrapping soon-to-be-stepsisters snuff selves in sanguinary and sordid but ultimately silly scuffle,” Sam announced in her best Ripped from the Headlines voice. “How’d you like that alliteration?” She raised her eyebrows.
What a goofball. This was going to try my patience to the utmost, I could tell. “Sam, do you deliberately wait until I have only one nerve left and then take malicious glee in stomping all over it?”
“It’s just a natural talent, I guess,” Sam was still grinning, which for some reason annoyed the shit out of me.
“I’m leaving before you make me have to hurt you,” I said, collecting my plate, turning away from her irrepressible cheeriness. What does she have to be so happy about? She and I have just added about fifty hours of work to the next ten days, and she looked almost jovial at the prospect.
“Fine.” I got up and left, closing the door behind me with a force that was closer to a slam than a click.
The cursor blinked away, mocking me with its expectant blinkyness, while I sat, utterly uninspired, in front of a blank Word document. I had already changed the font to Times New Roman, which I thought was appropriately hard hitting and news-like, hoping it would spur some kind of thought process, and I could get these interview questions done, but I had nothing. Nada. After getting Trig, English, French and Biology out of the way, there were very few synapses firing for the Enterteenment Today project.
Now, I usually didn’t spend much time thinking about Sam, my nemesis-cum-housemate, unless she had done something to piss me off, which was admittedly a frequent occurrence, and then I would only dwell on the many and varied ways I could return the favor and make her life a living hell. But this project was forcing me to think of her in a different way, to see her not just as the bane of my existence, but objectively, as a girl who had lost the only family she had ever known and who was compelled to find a place for herself in a situation she hadn’t chosen. Taking our personal history out of the picture and looking at her as the victim of her mother’s decisions made her appear very sympathetic indeed, and I didn’t really like it. It made it harder to dislike her if I was identifying with her plight. Which, of course, I would have to, since, there we were, sitting in the same boat. But the fact that I, too, was a casualty of my father’s whims didn’t really seem to factor in so much.
I could admit to myself that, despite all my protestations in the beginning, having Jane and Sam around had made the house a much livelier and happier place to be. After years of just my father and me rattling around in this big old place, which, let’s face it, sometimes felt like mausoleum, I enjoyed Jane’s maternal presence in the kitchen, and even, god forbid I mention it, the comforting sound of intermittent bursts of rapid fire keyboard action coming from Sam’s room. Like now, she was probably busy typing up a production schedule or getting her own interview questions done, or maybe she was just drafting her Academy Award acceptance speech for best documentary – short subject.
There was something about Sam, she had a single-minded ruthlessness for getting things accomplished, and she never procrastinated. It was so annoying. It was kind of ironic that I was the one who consistently got the better grades, because I seldom did more than what was required to just slide by, while Sam attacked each assignment like it was her bid for the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe there was something to all her bitter accusations that popularity had an effect on how teachers viewed someone.
Wait. What am I doing? Am I actually finding validity in one of her weak, syllogistic arguments? Only someone like Sam could make a fallacious deductive leap like “Brooke gets good grades, Brooke is popular, therefore all popular people get good grades unfairly.” I’ve definitely spent too much time at the computer tonight; the glare from the monitor must be affecting my brain, or something.
I leaned back on the two rear legs of my desk chair and thought of the way Sam and I had interacted since we had become aware of each other’s existence at the beginning of the school year. I had only known her for about six months, which seemed incredible because it felt like she had been making my life miserable for eons. At least our encounters had taken on the satisfying predictability of a mathematical equation. If someone like Pythagoras was to write a theorem based on Sam’s and my arguments, it would go something like this:
Sam(x) + Brooke(y) / Brooke(x) + Sam(y) = n.
Where x = bitchy remarks concerning intellect, friends, social standing
y = insults about hair, face, body image, etc.
n = someone leaving in tears and/or frustration
Usually there were an equal number of x’s and y’s and all those disparaging comments just ended up canceling each other out. Rarely did either of us gain an advantage in these sometimes-epic battles of the barbed tongue, it had been weeks since any tears had been shed due to creative invective or spiteful verbal abuse.
Which is why, I suddenly realized, Sam was changing things around on me. I brought all four legs of my chair back to the floor with a thump. It was true that things had been relatively tranquil for the past little while, and I couldn’t remember when it started. It had to be the calm before the storm. Sam was gearing up for something new and different, and it was sure to make me look like an ass. Maybe she was trying to lull me into a false sense of security before striking in some new and dastardly way, but then maybe she was just getting tired of the repetitive nature of our arguments, as I was, and didn’t want to participate anymore. Whatever she was up to, I had to stay vigilant; it would not do to be caught unawares with an adversary as formidable as Sam.
I had to be really tired if I was using Algebra to deconstruct my relationship with Sam. I was never very good at Algebra anyway. I shut down my computer, the interview questions would have to wait until tomorrow, anything I did now would just be crap, anyway.
I looked up from my fruit salad to see Sam approaching my table, carrying her lunch tray precariously in one hand. Dear god, she didn’t think she was entitled to sit with me just because we were working on a project together, did she? She ignored the other occupants of my table and stood before me.
“Brooke, can I talk to you for a second?”
“What is it, Sam?” I replied, shortly. Mary Cherry and Nic were looking disdainfully at Sam as if she was a piece of crud that had landed on their Miu Miu slingbacks, but she hadn’t even noticed.
Sam looked pained at needing to ask for privacy, and I was intrigued. I got up and steered her by the elbow away from the table, noticing that her posse of neo maxi zoom dweebies across the cafeteria were rapt with attention. I guess it did warrant a mention on the nightly news if Sam was making an overture towards the enemy.
When we were a sufficient distance away from the prying ears, but not eyes, of my tablemates, I turned to her, “What?”
Sam put her tray down at the empty table next to us and looked at me. “About the TV segment thing, it occurred to me last night, as I was making up some interview questions, that this is some really personal information we’ll be discussing, that has a possibility, however small, of ending up on national television. Stuff about your mom, and everything,” Sam looked down, trying to hide her embarrassment. “I just wanted to make sure you still wanted to do this.”
She was so sweet. How thoughtful. “I appreciate that, Sam, but what choice do we really have? Besides, it’s not going to be a picnic for you, either, with your father. Are you comfortable with that?” I knew Sam’s father was a touchy subject, but nothing else. She didn’t talk about him, well, not to me, at least.
“I’ll be fine,” Sam nodded briskly, moving to pick up her tray. “So, I was able to get the camera and the DAT, and I thought we could get my interview over with today, after school, and then… What?”
Sam had obviously seen my guilty expression. “I didn’t have time to do your questions, yet,” I confessed, it sounded lame even to my own ears.
Sam dropped her tray back to the table with a thud. “God, Brooke, I only asked you to do one simple thing and you couldn’t even do that. If we can’t get this done, need I remind you that it’s both of us who will be receiving visitors through bullet-proof glass, not just you,” she huffed.
Forget what I said, she’s not sweet. She’s a sanctimonious pain in the keister. “Well, excuse me if I needed a few hours of sleep last night, and can’t fuel myself with smug self-righteousness like some people I know,” I glared at her. “What’s the big deal? If your questions are done, you can do me today, and I’ll do you tomorrow.” Wait, that didn’t sound right.
“Whatever,” Sam muttered, obviously swallowing the retort that had been on the tip of her tongue. “Okay, but we’ll have to do it right after school, I have an editorial meeting at four.”
“I can’t,” I told her, “I have practice right after school.” Like I do every day, Sam, duh.
“Can’t you miss it just this once, Brooke? It’s not like civilization as we know it will begin to crumble if you can’t practice a basket toss for one day,” she snarked.
“Why can’t you miss your meeting? I know cheerleading can’t compare to getting your lousy little rag out to all ten enquiring minds that want to know,” I replied, equally sarcastically, “but I’m sure they can carry on without their fearless leader for one day.”
“I can’t miss my meeting.” Sam’s nostrils flared in anger, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Well I can’t miss practice,” I folded my arms across my chest. We were at an impasse.
“Whatever,” Sam said, again.
“Whatever,” I mimicked, childishly.
“Okay, I get it,” Sam bit out.
“Good,” I returned, petulantly. God, why were we such babies?
“Then I guess we’re not doing this today,” Sam sighed, resignedly. “I’ll cancel the gear.” She turned to go back to her side of the cafeteria.
“Wait, can’t we do it at, like, five, or something?” For some strange reason, I suddenly hated the thought of Sam disappointed in me. “And I have a free period this afternoon, I could work on the questions then, if you want.” It was the closest I could come to an apology.
I could see the wheels start turning again. “Five isn’t too late if we do it outside, we could use the natural light,” Sam said, half to herself. “Why don’t I meet you out on the field when I’m done, we can do it on the bleachers.”
Again, something didn’t sound quite right about that last statement.
“You can keep your practice uniform on,” she continued, getting excited, “it’ll be great for the interview, like characterization shorthand. Even the most popular cheerleader isn’t immune from the effects of divorce.” Sam said it like she was reciting a voiceover for the segment.
“But I’ll be all hot and sweaty,” I objected. If there was even the remotest possibility of this being on TV, I was not going to be perspiring when it happened.
“Hot and sweaty is a good look for you,” Sam dismissed, casually.
“What?” I gaped at Sam, just what in the hell did she mean by that?
“I’m kidding, Brooke,” Sam deadpanned, “Sheesh, can’t you take a joke?” She picked up her now ice cold hot lunch. “Do whatever you want, see you later,” she turned and walked away, leaving me to stare at her retreating back as she did so.
Sam showed up just as we were getting ready to rehearse the new number we would be unveiling at the next game. I was confused for a second, it wasn’t even half past three yet, what was she doing here? She stood leaning against the chain link fence that separated the bleachers from the track and the playing field, with her chin resting on her folded arms. Harrison had helped lug the camera equipment, but hadn’t stuck around.
After I noticed she was there, it became increasingly difficult for me to concentrate on the choreography of the new steps, which was frustrating, since I had made them up. It was really unnerving to have her watching my every move, glowering at me like she was Simon Cowell, about to deliver a scathing tirade about my performance. It wasn’t until I flubbed that tricky move at the second verse for the third time that I decided to do something about it.
“Sam, what are you doing here? I thought we agreed on five o’clock.” I belligerently asked as I approached her, peeved at having to give the squad a break. It wasn’t until I got closer that I noticed that she did not, in fact, have the scowl on her face that I thought she had.
“Hey,” she smiled in greeting. “I like that little thing you guys are doing, it looks great.” Sam shuffled her feet and flapped her arms a little, trying to emulate one of the steps in the routine.
I could only stare at her. Was this the same girl who took potshots at cheerleaders every chance she got? This had to be some new elaborate way to make fun of me, and the punch line was moments away. I needed to nip this shit in the bud right now.
“Yeah? You’d better stick to more cerebral pursuits, Sam, because you dance about as gracefully as a hippo on muscle relaxants,” I snapped. “Now, I repeat, what are you doing here?”
Sam’s expression sobered, she seemed stung at my harsh words, and I felt bad. For a second.
“You don’t own the whole damn world, Brooke. I have every right to be here, watching a bunch of clueless klutzes do their lame-ass, Hammer-time dance moves. Even a routine by Sparky Polastri would be an improvement for you losers.” Sam stared defiantly at me, her earlier smile long gone.
I drew in a breath. Invoking a reference to the seminal modern classic, Bring It On, was one thing, but attacking my skill as a choreographer was hitting way below the belt. Before I could form an appropriately cutting rejoinder, Sam was speaking again.
“Look, I’m only here because my meeting got cancelled,” she explained in a calmer tone. “Our advisor had to have an emergency root canal. I thought we could get this interview thing going after your practice.”
“Oh.” That was Sam, instantly reorganizing her priorities and on to the next thing. I should have known. “You’re going to wait around until I’m done?” I thought about moving on to practicing our lifts and stunts, it would be more impressive. Wait, who am I trying to impress?
“Yeah, but first I’m going to shoot some footage of you practicing, it’ll be good atmosphere for the segment,” Sam commented, bending down and opening the camera case.
“Right.” Impressive for the segment, that was what I meant. Everybody loved to watch cheerleaders being thrown around in the air. I went back to the squad and quickly organized them into groups and had them start practicing Cradle Catches. I snuck a look over to where Sam was setting up the tripod and wondered if I should designate myself the flier this time instead of being part of the base, as I usually was.
“What the hell is Spam doing here, B?” Nic asked, ever suspicious of Sam’s motives.
“We have to do a project for Enterteenment Today, she’s shooting some footage of us practicing,” I replied, looking over at Sam once again. She had her eye behind the viewfinder and was slowly panning across the field.
Nic immediately struck a pose, and ran her hand through her hair. “I thought you already did that,” she said distractedly, looking towards the camera.
“It’s a long story,” I sighed, not wanting to get into it. “Come on, let’s get back to work.”
“Isn’t Harrison going to help with the filming?” I asked, a little while later, sitting about halfway up the bleachers and trying to blink the sun’s glare out of my eyes.
“No, he’s going to the driving range,” Sam said, absently, fiddling with the microphone. “I’m going to set this up right outside the shot, just keep your eye on it, okay?” She looked quickly up at me, before moving behind the camera. “There’s hardly any breeze today, so the sound quality should be pretty good.”
When practice had ended, Sam had given me fifteen minutes to go back to the locker room and clean myself up. I did my best, but I took a little longer than that. When I rushed back out to the bleachers, Sam was grinning, saying that she knew if she budgeted fifteen minutes, I would be back in half an hour. Pretty sneaky, sis. She was so pleased with her own cleverness that I gave her a pass and neglected to be mad at her. Didn’t want any frown lines when I would be on camera, either.
“Okay, so, camera one closes in, an ordinary high school in Anytown, USA,” Sam started setting the scene, getting all caught up in her cliché-ridden, TV journalistic fantasy.
“Sam,” I interrupted tiredly, “we only have one camera. Let’s just get on with it.”
“Right,” Sam said, abashed. She squatted in front of the tripod, just below the camera, so that I could talk to her and have it look like I was looking into the lens. And she started asking her questions, starting with basic, general stuff, like how old was I when my mother left, what was my relationship with my father like, that sort of thing. She was a good interviewer, using her questions as a guide, but straying from the script when she thought something would be good for the story. Soon her questions started reflecting recent history, and she had me describe the events leading up to our parents’ decision to cohabit.
“How did it make you feel when your dad told you he was bringing his girlfriend home to live with you?” Sam asked.
“Well, I was pretty resentful at first,” I responded. God, could this be any more awkward? “But it’s really not so bad having Jane around. The meals have certainly improved since she moved in. And it’s not like she’s trying to take my mother’s place, although she’s actually a pretty good mother in her own right.”
“She’s a mother?” Sam prompted.
“Yes,” I said, understanding that Sam was playing the part of the disinterested, impartial reporter, and was simply trying to get the entire story for the viewer, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly irritated despite that fact. “She has a daughter my age.”
“And does she live with you, as well?”
“Yes,” I gritted out.
“How is that working out?”
“Fine.” I said with a warning edge, but Sam didn’t, or chose not to, pick up on it.
“Do you get along?”
“Sometimes,” I replied tersely.
“What is your opinion of your father’s girlfriend’s daughter?”
“Cut!” I sang out, loudly.
“You can’t say cut, I’m the only one that can say cut.” Sam was indignant. “When it’s your turn, then you can say cut, but this is my interview.” She was pissed, and I realized that all the momentum she had been building was lost. “What’s wrong with you? What was the matter with that question?”
“I don’t think people will be interested in what we think of each other. It should be more about what we think of our parents,” I said, defensively.
Sam looked at me like I had lost the plot. “Brooke, the name of the show is EnterTEENment Today. That means that TEENS will be watching it. Do you seriously think they’ll want to know anything about our parents? There are a lot of kids out there in our situation, and I think what they are most interested in seeing is how we are dealing with suddenly having to live with someone who we see on a daily basis at school, but who is completely outside our social circle, not a friend, and definitely not a family member.” Sam stated her case quite convincingly. “And may I remind you that this was your idea in the first place,” she finished exasperatedly.
She was right, of course. I didn’t know what was bothering me about this line of questioning.
“Look, if it makes you feel uncomfortable to say what you really feel about me,” she continued, in a more conciliatory tone, “just pretend that I’m somebody else, like Nic, or someone. Don’t feel bad for telling the truth, I know we don’t really like each other. Don’t worry, I’m tough, I can take it.” She smiled encouragingly, not fazed in the least at the prospect of having her character maligned by me. “The story is more important than my feelings.”
I frowned, finally comprehending what it was that bothered me. If I were to tell the god’s honest truth, the answer to that question would be that I liked Sam. Somewhere along the way I had developed a fondness for this irritating, frustrating, irksome girl, but she didn’t like me, and probably never would. I finally had verbal confirmation on something that was obvious to even the most casual observer. Sam didn’t like me. To actually hear her say it hurt more than I expected, but there was no way she was going to see how her words had affected me. The camera was still rolling, and Sam was looking at me expectantly.
“Okay, let’s finish this,” I said, steeling myself for her questions, but not knowing how I would respond.
“Good. Now then, what is your opinion of your soon-to-be stepsister?” Sam looked down at her notes, drawing a line through something.
I shrugged, a grimace on my face. “She’s all right, I guess,” I said weakly.
Sam looked up at me. “Could you elaborate on that a little bit, please?”
“I don’t think I know her well enough to say, really. We go to the same school but we’re not really friends,” I faltered here, not knowing how to continue. “She seems like she would be a nice person, if I took the time to get to know her better?” I was making a statement but it sounded like I was asking a question, like some idiot who wasn’t in their right mind. Could I be any more vague?
Sam rolled her eyes, but seemed satisfied, nodding, and moved on to other things.
Later, when I was helping her bring back the camera equipment, she commented, “Boy, this was your chance to really let me have it, to get everything off your chest for the world to hear, but you were pretty diplomatic. I thought you would start enumerating your grievances in alphabetical order,” Sam grinned at me and laughed, finding the whole thing funny.
I chuckled weakly in response, standing beside her as she opened the door to the TV production classroom.
She took the DAT recorder from me and said, “Thanks for your help, Brooke. I think we got some good stuff today, I’ll see you later.”
“Do you need a ride?” I asked, masochistically not wanting to leave her.
“No, I have my car,” she replied, withdrawing the videocassette from her bag. “I’m going to stick around and start a transcript of this.”
“Do you want me to help?”
“No, it’s okay,” she assured me. “I know you must be worn out from hoisting Nicole into the air about a hundred times. I finally believe you, cheerleading is hard work,” she smiled.
I should have just taken it as a compliment and felt gratified that she was finally giving me some credit, but it still sounded condescending.
“It IS hard work, Sam,” I said vehemently. “If you actually had enough of a life to come to any of the games you would know that, nerd-girl.”
“Nerd-girl?” Sam repeated, amused. “You lash me with your words.”
God! It was impossible to get a rise out of her. Anything I said was just bouncing off of her, like it didn’t even matter. “Well I’m sick of you judging me all the time,” I shouted. “So I’m a cheerleader, big deal! Get off me, all right?”
Sam’s eyebrows drew together in surprise. “No need to go all super-veiny-hockey-dad on me, Brooke. In case you forgot what the definition was, I was paying you a compliment. It’s supposed to be a good thing.” Sam looked at me, shaking her head in wonderment. “What got into your granola this morning?”
“Whatever, Sam,” I mumbled. I was completely in the wrong, yet I still couldn’t apologize. “I’ll see you at home.” I started walking down the hall, suddenly feeling very depressed.
“Later, Brooke,” Sam replied, I could hear the bewilderment in her voice as I walked away.
I had gone to the one place that could soothe and calm me down after a rough day like the one I had just had, the Beverly Center. I had been intent on some hardcore retail therapy but instead of using the valet as I normally would, I entered the self-parking garage and drove up all the way to the top, slowly spiraling upward through the structure until I reached daylight again. The top level was deserted, so I gunned it diagonally across the white lines marking the spaces and parked haphazardly in the far corner.
I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the building, leaning my elbows on the concrete wall and gazed out to the western sky, I thought it was. Yes, must be west, because although the sun was hidden from view, the low-lying clouds in that direction were an amazing combination of orange, pink and purple. Sometimes the L.A. sky could look like Gauguin painted it, despite the smog.
So was I going to actually think about things, or was I just going to sit here and contemplate the effects of air pollution on Southern California weather patterns?
Sam didn’t like me. It had been easy to not care about that fact when I was actively disliking her as well, but her announcing her contempt for me was the very thing to make me realize that I didn’t really dislike her, and hadn’t for some time. Which was kind of crazy, considering I had probably said something similar, that I didn’t like her, to her face at some point during the time I had known her. What were the words she had used? ‘I know we really don’t like each other.’ It was deceptively mild. The sentence put the blame squarely where it belonged, on the both of us. It wasn’t accusatory, or one-sided, it was a simple statement of fact, from her point of view. She was admitting her loathing but also acknowledging her awareness of how she thought I felt. And on any given day, she would be correct in assuming that I thought her to be the thorn firmly lodged in my side. She had a way of getting under my skin like no one else. So what had changed, exactly? Why was I skulking about the parking garage like Sydney Bristow waiting to intercept the latest Rambaldi artifact instead of perusing the new arrivals in DKNY?
Everyone liked me. Why didn’t Sam? I wanted her to like me. I’m a likeable person, dammit. At the risk of sounding incredibly conceited, I could honestly say that I was well liked among our classmates. I didn’t go around trying to actively alienate people like Nicole, or freaking them out like Mary Cherry, and for some reason I had a knack for getting along with people. I could make anyone like me if I really dedicated myself to the task. Hadn’t I won over the chess club after the whole Homecoming debacle? I couldn’t bear the thought of knowing that a person existed who didn’t like me, even if it was Sam, who was so recently a persona non grata to me.
I could win her over, too, I decided. I could make her be my friend, couldn’t I? A part of me wasn’t so sure. The things that impressed most people about me, the popularity, the status, the way being acquainted with me increased the value of their own stock in the free market economy that was teenage social standing, held no sway with Sam. If anything, they were a handicap working against me where she was concerned, being that she viewed my blue chip popularity with all the distrust and distaste that a sixties radical held for capitalism. She was smart enough to know that all of those things were illusory and meaningless in the long run, so, in essence, I had no real currency with which to barter for friendship. All I had was me.
All I could do is try. I was sure Sam was content in her complacent animosity towards me, but she was about to become the target of a full-scale covert operation. She would never know what had hit her. I wasn’t going to stop and think too hard about my motives, it was enough that there was someone out there who remained immune to the McQueen charm, but she was going to succumb. I was going to see to that.
“Sam?” I knocked on her door and called out to her.
“Can I come in?”
I heard movement from behind the door, and then it opened and Sam was standing in front of me, an expectant look on her face.
“What’s up?” I asked. Was this the charm for which I thought myself so famous? Come on.
Sam looked momentarily disconcerted. “Nothing. Homework.” She gestured to her bed, where nearly every subject was represented by an open textbook. She left the door open and went back to the bed, where she threw herself down on her stomach, her feet up by the headboard, and picked up a pencil, lightly tapping it against her notebook with a vague sense of impatience.
I slouched against the doorframe, not having been invited in, and tried to think of something devastatingly witty to say. But she spoke before my brain could supply the words.
“Yeah.” Donna Karan always knew exactly what I liked. I had just tried it on, and the price tag was making the back of my neck itch.
“It’s nice,” Sam complimented.
“Thanks,” I smiled. “You think I should keep it?”
Sam nodded politely, then waved me in. “Why don’t you come in and sit down, I think the door frame will stay up by itself.”
“Thanks,” I said again. I crossed the room and swiveled her desk chair around to face her, sitting down a few feet away from the bed.
“The stuff I filmed at your practice today came out great,” Sam began, conversationally. “And the sound of the interview is perfect. I was kind of worried about that.”
“Good. I’m glad,” I said, relieved that one of us wasn’t suffering from the loss of language ability. What the hell was the matter with me?
Sam was looking at me kind of funny. Like she couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I’d better just get on with it.
“Sam, remember those tickets you gave me for Christmas? The Radiohead concert?” I asked. “The show is tomorrow.”
Sam looked over at the calendar on the wall by her desk. “So it is. You’re going to have a great time. They put on a great show.”
“Do you want to go? With me?” I watched her closely to see what her reaction would be.
“Oh, Brooke,” Sam demurred, shaking her head. “I didn’t give you those tickets so that you would have to invite me. That would have been so lame. Take someone you know you’ll have fun with, someone who likes the band.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I sighed. “I’ve liked them ever since Pablo Honey, but Nic is all about Madonna, and Mary Cherry has that weird Ru Paul fixation, so, as much as I love them, I don’t think either of them would enjoy it. I was going to ask Josh, because I know he likes Radiohead, but I think I would just be sending the wrong message if I asked him at this point. So, really, you would be doing me a favor if you came with me. Plus, I know you would have fun, because you like the music. You would just have to suffer my company for the evening,“ I finished humbly, thinking I had sounded like a blithering idiot with diarrhea of the mouth. I did think that making it sound like she would be doing me a favor was a good tactic, though.
But Sam looked undecided, and the silence stretched out between us. Here I was, asking her out, and she was making me sweat. Well, to hell with her, I certainly was not going to beg. God. A simple yes or no would have sufficed. Hold on. I was NOT asking her out. I just wanted to know if she would accompany me to the concert, as step one in my plan to get her to like me. Currying favor with concert tickets was an age-old tradition. It was NOT a date. But it didn’t matter anyway because she was going to turn me down, I could see it on her face. Maybe if I get up and leave the room right now we could act as if this had never happened. This had been an excruciatingly bad idea. I stood up.
“You know, I forgot about that concert.” Sam said, casually. “I set up our interview with Mom and Mike for tomorrow night, but if we have the show we obviously won’t be able to do it. I’ll go ask if we could switch it to the afternoon, maybe.”
Sam rolled off the bed and left the room, I heard her calling out to her mother as she bounded down the stairs.
I guess that means she’s going with me. I stood there in her room, wondering if I should wait for her to come back. But Donna Karan’s tortuous price tag needed attention, so I returned to my room and surveyed the merchandise I had so recently acquired laid out on my bed. I took off the new shirt and flung it down, reaching for the Marc Jacobs sweater that had been an impulse buy, a very expensive impulse.
Just then Sam opened the door and barged in. “Brooke, my mom said…”
I turned to see her, hand on the doorknob, looking gobsmacked, as she gazed at me in all of my half-dressed glory.
“Jesus, Sam! Knock, much?” Surprised by the intrusion, I clutched the sweater to my chest, good thing I was wearing a bra.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” Sam looked at the floor and started backing out of the room, closing the door as she went.
Oh please, she’s such a prude. I was exposing a lot less skin than the average Victoria’s Secret model. “Wait.” I commanded. She immediately stopped, half in and half out of the room, but didn’t raise her eyes from the ground. I took a moment to put the sweater on before speaking again. “What do you think of this?” I asked, standing before her.
Sam looked up at me, her body wedged between the doorframe and the partially closed door. She appraised my outfit; he eyes raking over my body, lingering over my midsection, and the new garment in question. She took her time before replying, and I felt myself grow warm under her gaze.
“Nice,” she commented, coming through the door once again and leaning against it after closing it gently. “Is it cashmere?” she asked, and watched me nod my head. The sweater was a very simple v-neck in a heatherish green color that was a muted cross between hunter and pea. I had to confess that it hugged my body in all the right places, and draped like it was made of silk. I felt positively decadent wearing it. “The color does amazing things to your eyes,” Sam continued. “Did you know that your eyes can range from the most brilliant emerald to the color of a dark French roast? But they’re usually a tawny, gold-flecked brown, except when you’re yelling at me, then they’re more in the green family,” she smiled ruefully.
I was speechless. Sam barely ever looked at me, how could she know so much about the color of my eyes?
“Definitely a keeper,” she finished, then rapidly changed the subject. “So, does an interview with the parentals tomorrow afternoon work for you? Mom said she would try to get your dad to come home early. Then we can go to the concert after that.”
“Yeah,” I said vaguely, still trying to process the last three minutes.
“Good,” Sam smiled again. “I’d love to stay for the whole fashion show, but I have a lot more homework to do.” Then she left.
What had just happened? Sam and I had just had a civilized conversation that hadn’t erupted in vicious barbs and slammed doors. Quite possibly a first in our convoluted little history. Also, this pleasant behavior? It was throwing me. This was the same girl who said she didn’t like me not three hours ago, wasn’t it? But Sam did fancy herself a reporter, and observation was her stock in trade. I guess it’s only natural that she would notice small details like the color of my eyes. But cluing me in on her observations was something new. What was she up to?
I went to the mirror over my dresser and saw that what she had said was true. The sweater had turned my eyes the color of the Pacific in those moments before a storm hit, when wind and waves had churned the water into a roiling opaque shade of antique jade. Sam was right; it was a keeper.
Sam and I had to practically sign our lives away to get permission to take the video equipment home with us. I was learning a bit more about the camera, and Sam had for once relinquished her talon-like grip on controlling things and had let me set up the interview with my dad and Jane however I wanted.
I had moved the sectional sofa against the wall and had placed the camera facing the loveseat, where the ‘rents were now sitting, patiently waiting to start. A few bright lights were needed this time, as the room was pretty dim. I was sitting on the couch, going over my notes, while Sam finished setting up the microphone and gave the viewfinder a final check. She appeared satisfied, and started the tape. “Okay, Brooke, we’re rolling. Any time you’re ready.” She sat down on the sofa, a few feet away from me, the tripod set up between us.
I cleared my throat and put on my best Barbara Walters, tear-inducing, sympathetic expression. “I thought we’d start with a little background first. Jane, could you tell us a little about your life before you met my father, I mean, Mike McQueen?”
Jane sat up and leaned forward a little, and Sam instantly hopped to her feet and checked the focus.
“Well,” Jane began, “I got married relatively young. Joe McPherson was my high school sweetheart, and the two of us attended the same college. When we graduated we saw no reason to wait, so we eloped. We were young and in love. Joe was an extremely talented writer, and got a job in the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times. I started working for a commercial real estate company in an administrative capacity while I studied for my real estate license. Joe’s star at the paper began to rise, and he began to receive some good assignments for someone so young. He was happy and very fulfilled in his work, he would come home and tell me every detail about his day.” Jane stopped for a moment and smiled wistfully.
I looked over at Sam, but her face was turned away from me and I couldn’t see her expression.
“A few years later I got pregnant with Sam, and although I liked my job and was doing pretty well, Joe was doing well enough at the paper that I didn’t have to work after she was born. I was so happy. We were so happy. Sam was our joy, even when she was screaming blue murder at 3AM,” Jane grinned. “I honestly believed that I had reached the ‘And they lived happily ever after’ part of the story. And for many years, we were content in our lives. Joe and I raised Sam, who was happy and healthy, if not a little obstinate and willful at times, but she was beautiful and feisty and smart and I was thrilled at the person she was becoming.” I saw Jane look over at Sam, who was looking back at her mother, an embarrassed smile on her face.
“But what happens after ‘happily ever after?’” Jane asked rhetorically, sighing sadly. “The fairy tales leave it vague for a reason, I now believe. Joe got sick, and was taken from us so, so quickly as the cancer ravaged his body.” Jane paused, and blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. My father placed his hand on Jane’s back in silent support.
Once again I looked over at Sam, who didn’t appear to be paying attention, she was just looking absentmindedly towards the kitchen. My heart broke to think of her happy family devastated by the whims of fate.
After Jane had regained her composure, she continued. “I went back to work, residential real estate, this time, and Sam and I carried on. Life has a way of forcing you to keep living. I thought that I was done with romantic attachments, and was not looking to replace Joe. Then I went on that cruise that Sam had persuaded me to take, and I met Mike.” Jane and my father looked at each other and smiled.
“Sometimes things happen that you’re not prepared for, that you could never predict, and I think those are the best moments in life,” Jane went on. “If you can leave yourself open to the unexpected, and not close yourself off because the timing’s not right, or you can’t see yourself in a certain situation, or whatever reason your subconscious can come up with, than you’ll be happier.” Jane’s philosophy was laid out simply, and made every kind of sense. How did she get to be so wise?
I noticed that Sam was now paying fierce attention to her mother. She had leaned forward and was resting her elbows on her knees, and propped her head in her hands, turning her ferociously attentive gaze towards her mother, her brow furrowed in concentration.
“I was so unhappy, and now I’m not,” she said, with understatement, reaching for my dad’s hand. “Your father and I knew that bringing you girls into this situation was not going to be easy, but we didn’t think you would want to begrudge us our happiness. It comes along so infrequently. We thought that you were mature enough that, in time, you could see that we weren’t doing it to make your lives miserable. I know it’s been hard on both of you, and I think it’s great that you can work together on a project like this, maybe it means things are improving,” she finished hopefully, looking at me expectantly.
Everything Jane had said was true. I wanted my dad to be happy, how could I not? And there was no question that Jane made him happy.
“Mom, that was awesome, but could you guys answer the questions like you were talking to an impartial interviewer? We don’t want them to know we’re talking to our own parents,” Sam said.
“Oh,” Jane looked a little surprised. “Sure, Sam.”
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t think it really mattered one way or the other, as long as we got the thing submitted in time, but whatever perfectionist Sam wanted.
“Brooke, are you ready with your next question?” Sam prompted me.
I nodded at Sam and turned to my father. “Your turn, Mr. McQueen, could you tell us a little about your previous marriage?” I smiled and hoped he felt comfortable. “Could you answer the same question? What was life like before Jane?”
“Kelly and I met in college,” my father began. “We had come from similar backgrounds in that we were both very much the product of our upbringing. I was raised with certain expectations in place from the time I was very young, and had never really thought to question them. After college, I was going to be groomed to eventually take over the family firm, and as such had to acquire the trappings that a pillar of society possessed.”
I knew all about my dad’s business, and how he had worked really hard after my grandpa died to keep things going, but he was talking about it like it was something he didn’t want, which surprised me.
“Kelly’s parents raised her to become a society wife, plain and simple.” Mike continued, “Even at that time, it was a somewhat old-fashioned way to think, but Kelly loved her parents, and didn’t see any reason to disappoint them. My fraternity and her sorority were often thrown together for mixers and parties, and we found each other, two people whose idea of the future seemed to mesh pretty well. We dated all through college, and both our families wholeheartedly approved of the match, so we threw a huge wedding right after graduation, which made the society pages, of course.
“I threw myself into my work, and was able to find satisfaction in that, but Kelly didn’t have much to keep her occupied, and soon became dissatisfied with her life. I encouraged her to find an interest and take classes, volunteer, anything that would make her happy. Plus, I had hoped that we would start a family and she would find fulfillment in that. She discovered photography, and had a real gift for it, but it only seemed to be a way to fill the hours to her.
“Then we had Brooke, and things were better for a while,” Dad looked at me and smiled.
Even though I knew how this story was going to end, it was still starting to get me upset. And my father had not mentioned the one word that I had been waiting to hear. He continued talking about me and how much joy I had brought to his life and how happy I made him, but I had to know and I interrupted him. “Dad, what about love? Did you and mom love each other?”
He looked at me for a little while before answering, and I felt Jane and Sam’s eyes on me as well.
“I think that if your mother and I had been smart enough to ask ourselves what would have made us happiest when we were young, instead of blindly following the expectations of others, we would not have gotten married,” my father said gravely, watching me closely. “If there is one thing I want to impart to you, Brooke, it is that you must look inside yourself and do what will make you happy, without thought or consideration to how people will perceive you. None of that matters; please, don’t make the same mistake your mother and I made.”
My father was basically saying that he and my mother had never really loved each other. And even after he laid out all the reasons why, I was still asking myself why the fuck had they done it. He had an uncomfortable look on his face, like he knew he had said too much. But we had asked them to be honest, and honest he had been. The silence stretched out, and I realized that I needed to ask another question, but the words were not coming, as there was a lump in my throat roughly the size of an SUV. I took a breath and thumbed through my cards, trying to get a hold of myself, when I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to see Sam looking sympathetically at me.
“We don’t have to finish this now,” she said quietly.
“Yes, we do,” I said determinedly, and swiped at my face, although my eyes were dry.
“Honey, you know that your mother and I –“ my father interjected.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said forcefully, cutting him off. If I had to hear him paying lip service to the fact that they both loved me one more time I thought I would scream. I thrust my notecards towards Sam. “Here. Keep going. I’ll be back in a minute.”
As I left the room I heard Sam smoothly direct the next question to my father, asking him about some of the logistical problems about combining households, effectively moving the interview away from the emotional minefield it had become. I went outside and sat on the deck, taking in deep lungfuls of the evening air, thinking about my place in the mess that was my parents’ fucked up relationship. I supposed that I had been a band-aid to their failing marriage, a way to try and bring them together that had ultimately failed. And there I had been, innocently caught in the middle. I didn’t know why it was making me so upset; I had been through all of this before, why did she still have the power to make me so unhappy? But it wasn’t just her; it was him, too. I was pissed at them for being too stupid to realize that they never should’ve gotten together. But then what would have become of me if they hadn’t? Would I have just not ever existed? That was a question for the fucking ages.
The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could continue to allow them to have power over me by doing stupid destructive things like starving myself down to the weight of an eight-year-old, or get over it and move on, and acknowledge the fact that their idiot choices don’t have anything to do with me. This was all very easy to think about but actually putting it into practice would be another matter entirely. I would just have to keep it in mind. But now I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
I returned to the living room to find Sam wrapping it up. She was thanking my dad and Jane for participating, trying to sound like Tom Brokaw or someone equally commanding, but instead sounding for all the world like the reincarnation of Chevy Chase in the news segment of Saturday Night Live. It was actually pretty funny, but I wasn’t in the mood to laugh.
As soon as Sam turned off the tape, my dad jumped up and ran over to me, pulling me into a hug.
“I’m sorry, Brooke,” he said.
“Don’t be silly, daddy,” I replied brightly, my voice sounding hard and hollow, “you were just telling the truth, which is exactly what we asked you to do.”
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking into my eyes with concern.
“I’m fine.” I looked over to where Sam and her mom stood, watching our exchange with matching somber expressions. Jane had her arm around Sam, and it gave me a pain to think of the loving relationship Sam had with her mother.
For reasons I could not fathom, I moved away from my father and pulled Sam by the arm away from her mother. Sam allowed herself to be pulled, a puzzled look on her face. I gripped her tightly around the shoulder, pulling her close as we stood side by side. I just couldn’t handle the image of Sam standing so close to her mother; I needed her here next to me. “Jane, Dad, thanks for participating in this interview,” I parroted the words Sam had used. “We are going to clean this stuff up and then we’re leaving. Sam is going to be my date for the Radiohead concert tonight.”
Sam gave me a strange look, but didn’t say anything. She probably thought I would dissolve into a puddle of tears if she had objected, which there was no telling, maybe I would have. And I was back to calling it a date, I noted, even though it certainly was anything but that. Since I had come back into the room, it felt like there was a high-pitched hum running through my brain, and I almost asked if anyone else could hear it. I felt off-balance and oddly unsettled, like the way you get when you see the lightning in the distance and are waiting for the sound of thunder to catch up.
That’s nice, Brooke, good, I’m glad,” my father babbled, still looking anxiously at me.
Sam reached up and pried my fingers from her shoulder with some effort. “We don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” she said.
Was she trying to get out of it? She had better not be. “NO.” I said vehemently. “We are going.”
I had to get out of this house, and I didn’t want to go alone. I went over to the outlet and unplugged the camera and DAT recorder. “Come on, let’s get this stuff put away,” I said to Sam, wishing we were already gone.
A little while later, Sam and I burst out the front door, finally free for the night. It hadn’t taken long to get everything packed up, and then to change into clothes more appropriate for a concert, but Sam had taken about five minutes to my half hour, and had patiently waited in the kitchen for me. When I walked into the kitchen and saw her in her Radiohead t-shirt that she had bought at the previous show she had been to, it was all I could do not to call her the nerd she obviously was. But who was I to judge, I didn’t know what to wear either and that was what had taken me so long.
Sam had been chatting with her mom while she waited for me, but got up when she saw me. “Okay, Mom, we’re going,” she said.
“Wait, do you girls want me to make you a sandwich or something before you go?” Jane asked.
“No, Mom, we’re already late,” Sam replied, then looked at me. “You ready?”
I nodded and said goodnight to Jane.
“Have fun on your date, girls,” Jane said, chuckling at the very idea.
“Not funny, Mom,” Sam scowled, and stomped to the front door.
But her scowl was replaced by a look of suspicion when I handed her my keys in the driveway.
“We’ll take my car, but you drive, okay?” I headed for the passenger side, while Sam just stood there dumbly.
“You never let me drive your car,” she said.
“Well I am tonight, so get in before I change my mind,” I replied. “Come on, Sam, you said we were already late.”
Sam shrugged and got in. The truth was that I just didn’t want to face the traffic on the one ten that we would be sure to encounter on our way downtown. I just wanted to sit in silence and not think about anything, and maybe being occupied at the wheel would keep Sam quiet. And it did, she didn’t try to make conversation as we made our way to our destination. I was feeling brittle and breakable, a dozen moods rotating through my brain like scenes from a viewmaster. In quick succession I felt relief at being out of the house, sorrow for my parents loveless marriage, confusion over my father’s advice to me, and annoyance with Sam as all my faculties zoomed in to focus on her index finger tapping on the steering wheel. Although it couldn’t have been making more than a hushed tap as it struck the leather that encased the wheel, in my mind her finger had taken on the decibel level of a sledgehammer being repeatedly struck against corrugated tin, and I glared at it, willing it to be still.
Sam glanced over at me and noticed my insane staring and desisted. “Sorry,” she mumbled. She had obviously picked up on my fragile mental state and had turned off the radio and concentrated on the road as I curled up on the passenger seat and looked out the window. Now that we had slowed down on the congested freeway, the bored people in the surrounding cars had been looking back at me, and had begun to freak me out, so I turned to face Sam and looked at her profile as she navigated the stop and go traffic. It really was nice of her not to demand to be paid attention to, as I would surely be having to do if it were anyone else in the car. I could not see Nic or Mary Cherry picking up on my black mood and willingly allowing me the time to surface from it on my own.
She noticed me studying her and looked over and smiled uncertainly, seemingly trying to gauge where my head was at. I decided to let her know I wouldn’t bite her head off if she spoke in my presence. I turned on the radio to hear the latest hip-hop clone act going on about bitches and hos, as usual. Why did LA radio suck so bad, I wondered. I turned it off again and looked in the armrest and glove box for any CD’s I might have left around, but didn’t find anything that would put me in the mood for Radiohead. I sighed and looked at Sam. “I got nothing. You didn’t happen to bring any CD’s with you, did you?” At Sam’s wordless headshake I said, “Well I guess it’s unavoidable, we’re going to have to talk to each other.”
Sam nodded but didn’t say anything.
“So why do you think all the radio stations in Los Angeles suck, Sam?”
“You mean why do they suck besides for the fact that nearly all the stations have been bought out by one massive corporation, that doesn’t care about putting anything unique or interesting on the air but is only concerned with making a profit? Or the mindless tools they hire to program and DJ at said commercial stations who would rather keep their cushy job than go against corporate policy and play something other than the five internally mandated sucky songs that are in heavy rotation? Or the way that when you turn your radio on randomly at any given time you are more likely to hear an ad than a song? Or because this is such a large urban market that the stations try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, shoving the blandest, the most by-the-numbers, most monotonous music down our throats in an effort to keep everyone happy, and thus pleasing no one?” Sam either had run out of breath or out of ideas, I guess it didn’t matter which.
“Yeah, besides that,” I grinned.
“Haven’t the faintest idea,” Sam smiled back.
And that was all it took. She had done it. Thoughts of my parents had left and I was back in the moment and happy about it. I should have let Sam open her mouth sooner. I chuckled at her goofy response and shook my head. I looked out the window to hide the huge grin that had suddenly come upon my face, having no way to explain my extreme mood swings. Maybe I was going through menopause. Nah, too young. I looked into the car next to me as we were at a standstill and couldn’t believe what I saw.
“Sam, look at that guy,” I discreetly pointed to the car in the next lane.
Sam leaned forward and looked past me. We both watched as the guy shoved his pinky way up his left nostril, digging for gold.
“Oh my god,” Sam breathed. “Does he think he has a force field or something around his lame little Civic that prevents us from seeing his dirty disgusting habits? He must have an itch in his brain he’s trying to scratch.”
Maybe he left something up there like his house key or a ficus plant or something,” I giggled.
“Should we out him?” Sam asked, raising her eyebrow and grinning evilly at me. “Obviously his mother failed him if he’s picking his nose practically in public like this. He should have tinted windows if he’s going to indulge in socially offensive behavior of this kind.”
Sam waited for my input. Sometimes you just got all caught up in your own little world when you were driving, I kind of felt bad for the guy. On the other hand, he was plainly visible to anyone driving on Route 110, Southbound, and it would be totally hilarious. I looked at her and nodded, praying he didn’t have a gun.
My window instantly started coming down, Sam’s finger had been poised on the control at her side. She started honking and pointing towards the guy, yelling “Nosepicker!!” and other choice pejoratives at him.
But the guy was oblivious, closed up in his car with the radio on. I started yelling too, and waving my arms, but the guy leaned over and changed the radio station or something, pulling his finger from his nose. When he straightened up again he noticed the two of us acting like monkeys at the zoo, but I guess he couldn’t make out what we were saying, and he actually smiled and waved, then pulled his car ahead ten feet.
The two of us lost it, cackling like a couple of witches doped up on nitrous oxide.
“How frustrating is that?” Sam asked after she could breathe again. “Foiled in our judgmental attempt to bring basic hygiene and good manners to America’s roadways.”
“So frustrating,” I agreed.
“We’re going to hell,” Sam commented casually.
“Probably,” I responded, not the least bit worried about it.
Inexplicably, our lane started to move, and we passed the guy again, but he wasn’t doing anything more offensive than sipping from a Starbucks cup just then. We finally got past the congestion and began to pick up speed, my hair was ruffled in the breeze coming in the open window, and I heard the whooshing sound as we passed the cars in the next lane over that meant we were actually getting somewhere. Sam was about to raise my window again when I told her no, and aimed my face directly into the evening breeze. It felt good against my skin, and although I squinted into the increasing wind, I couldn’t stop the tears that escaped from the corners of my eyes, and trickled back horizontally towards my ears. Whether they were tears of sadness, or happiness, or merely wind-induced I couldn’t say, but I preferred to designate them tears of contentment. And I almost forgot to remember that the girl beside me didn’t like me at all.
The supporting act had already finished, but Radiohead had yet to go on. The house lights of the Staples Center were still on as we emerged from the short tunnel that brought us out to the floor. Sam had purchased floor seats, which were general admission. I had never been to a show like this, where the floor was just a mass of people standing around, surrounded by tiered seating where you had an actual assigned seat. It didn’t seem very fair to me that we would be stuck behind all of these people just because we showed up a little late, but I resigned myself to watching Thom Yorke and company from way back here at the rear of the floor section.
Sam was trying to tell me something, but the noise of the crowd made it nearly impossible to hear. She put her hand on my shoulder and put her mouth near my ear.
“I didn’t pay all that money for us to stand way the hell back here,” she said, her warm breath tickling my neck. “Follow me.”
And she started aggressively pushing and loudly excuse me-ing her way towards the stage. Her voice carried over the crowd and most people moved aside without comment. We had gone about a third of the distance to the stage when Sam pushed her way between two very big guys who didn’t look like the typical Radiohead fan, which was the introverted, moody, black-rimmed glasses, indie rocker navel gazing type. These guys were no-neck meatheads who would have looked more at home at a Limp Bizkit show. As soon as Sam passed by them they immediately closed ranks, and although I screamed excuse me, they didn’t budge. I felt a mild sense of panic at the thought of being separated from Sam, and frantically tried to remember what section the car was parked in. Then I saw Sam’s hand reach up between their two massive heads and I grabbed it and she pulled me through, as they reluctantly let me by I saw Sam shoot the pair of them the dirtiest look ever.
I continued to trail behind Sam, not letting go of her hand until we had staked out a space for ourselves about ten feet from the stage. She grabbed my shoulder again and leaned in.
“Better?” she shouted.
“Much,” I screamed back, nodding my approval. She looked extremely satisfied with herself, and I could feel the excitement rolling off of her in waves, as she stood on her tiptoes and scanned the stage for a sign of the band. Her enthusiasm was infectious as I turned to face the stage as well, purposely brushing my arm against hers, just to feel her comforting solidity next to me. I could still feel the imprint of her hand in my palm, and wondered what she would do if I took hold of it again now.
Then, as if they were waiting for Sam and me to find our spot, the house lights dimmed and a deafening roar sounded through the arena, followed by a single note of feedback channeled through the Marshall stacks on either side of the stage. The blue filtered stage lights came up and the show began.
Hours later, my ears were still ringing, and Sam was still excitedly discussing the show as we pulled into the parking lot of Pink’s. We were both famished and I let Sam take control, content to just follow her lead on this date. For some reason, I was now very comfortable with calling our evening a date, it had been nicer so far than any of the ones I had been on with Josh or anyone else for that matter, but when I had said something to that effect as we left the concert, Sam had frowned and become silent for a few minutes, visibly distressed by the label I had given it. I turned the conversation back to the set list, and Sam had relaxed again, and began expounding on her theories about Thomas Pynchon’s influence on the lyrics of OK Computer.
We slid into a booth at Los Angeles’, maybe the country’s, most famous hot dog stand, and rested our weary legs for a few minutes. The floor was a great place to see the show, but it sure did a number on your feet. Pink’s was an LA landmark, and had been around since the dawn of time, probably. Hundreds of headshots of famous and not so famous actors lined the walls, and just about everyone in the city had been here at one time or another.
“What do you want? I’ll get it.” Sam asked and started to get to her feet.
“No way. You gave me the tickets, at least let me buy you a hot dog,” I objected.
Sam sat back down. “That seems fair. Okay, here’s what I want: a stretch chili dog with mustard and extra onions and no, I repeat no, relish. And a diet coke. Please.”
Heartburn on a bun. I got up and went to the counter and quickly returned with our order.
“Did you know that Bruce Willis proposed to Demi Moore here?” Sam asked conversationally as she took a drink from her soda.
“Really? I thought it was Sean Penn who proposed to Madonna,” I replied, grabbing some napkins from the dispenser on the table. Then I thought about both of those celebrity couples. “Doesn’t matter anyway. Neither of their marriages lasted,” I commented with not a little bitterness.
Sam looked like she wanted to kick herself for bringing it up. “Well there has to be something good that came from those relationships,” Sam said philosophically. “Bruce and Demi had all those kids with the crazy names who’ll probably be hitting our movie screens in a few years time. We have that to look forward to,” she grinned. “And if Sean and Madonna had never gotten together then the world would have been deprived of the stunning cinematic achievement that is Shanghai Surprise.”
I smiled half-heartedly at Sam’s attempt to cheer me, but I was still dwelling on the futility of marriage.
“And look at Demi now,” Sam continued. “She bought herself a brand new body and found a strapping younger man to babysit her kids.”
“I don’t know, Sam. It makes me wonder why people even bother. The odds are stacked against them from the very beginning,” I said glumly. “Like that song in the second encore tonight, ‘Fake Plastic Trees,’ it’s about a couple who are so miserable, and their lives are so empty, I couldn’t help comparing them to my parents.” I really loved that song; it was sadly beautiful and had a haunting melody that progressively built to a resounding finish. I had hoped all night to hear it, but as I listened to the desolate lyrics tonight, the song had taken on new meaning to me, becoming emblematic of my parents’ empty marriage.
“That’s my favorite song,” Sam stated, “I told you I loved it when they started playing it tonight.”
“Oh, is that what you said? I thought you said ‘My gloves are long.’ No wonder it didn’t make sense,” I said, smiling a little.
Sam smiled too, then said, “I could tell you didn’t hear me, you just smiled politely like you were thinking, ‘Shut up, Sam, I’m trying to listen here.’ But I get a different meaning out of that song. To me, the heart of the song is in the third verse, when he switches to the first person and sings about his fake plastic love, like his feelings aren’t really real, or valid, unless the object of his love returns the sentiment. ‘If I could be who you wanted,’” she quoted from the song, her eyes focusing on something over my left shoulder. “I think it’s about unrequited love,” she finished, and punctuated her explanation by taking a big bite of her hot dog.
I thought about it. A case could definitely be made for Sam’s version, but I was sticking with mine. “I still think it’s about a miserable couple,” I maintained doggedly.
“Tomato, tomahto, Sam,” I cut her off rudely, just wanting to end the discussion already.
“I guess it is open to interpretation,” Sam conceded lightly, then tried a ham-handed segue into a more cheery, or at least less volatile subject. “How can you come to Pink’s and not get chili on your dog?” she asked.
“Very easily,” I answered dryly.
Sam looked over at my hot dog. “He looks so naked with only a thin strip of mustard to cover him up,” she said sadly.
“Please don’t assign personal pronouns to my food, Sam, I’m trying to eat here,” I said, slightly amused but not ready to give up my grumpiness.
“But chili and hot dogs go together like…” Sam looked up at the ceiling and tried to think of a good simile, “… Christmas and credit card debt.” She looked at me expectantly, hoping to get a laugh, but I was unmoved.
“Spring Break and underage drinking?”
She’d have to do better than that.
“Courtney Love and crazy?”
“Demi and plastic surgery?” She brought it back to our earlier conversation, and I had to give her credit, she was trying so hard.
“Madonna and… the Kabbalah!” She said triumphantly, and I finally let out a grudging guffaw. “You’re lucky you laughed. I was just about to go all Forest Gump and say peas and carrots.”
“And I’m eternally grateful that you didn’t,” I smiled. It really was kind of her to go to such lengths to cheer me up.
Sam concentrated on her chilidog, and we ate in a comfortable silence for a little while. After a few bites, she looked around the busy restaurant and sighed wistfully.
“My dad and I used to come here all the time,” she said.
That was the difference between Sam and me. Even though remembering her dad made her sad, she still had all these fond memories of their times together, while remembering my mother just made me sad. Period.
“I remember this one time when we came here when my father was trying to help me figure out the solution to a problem I was having. I was in the third grade, and I was having issues with this boy in my class, Charlie Kaufman. My father knew something was wrong but I hadn’t told anyone about it until we came here and, giving me his undivided attention and employing all the tricks of his trade, he got me to spill the whole sordid story. I cracked like a walnut, I crumbled like bleu cheese,” Sam grinned ruefully.
“You could’ve made a salad,” I said, smiling, “what happened?”
“Charlie was this big, dumb, inarticulate kid in my class who, now it seems so obvious in hindsight, had a big old third grade-sized crush on me. He wasn’t a bully exactly; I just think he had a hard time expressing himself. But at the time all I knew was that he was terrorizing me by chasing me on the playground from the moment recess started until the bell rang, and knocking my books off my desk, throwing my pencil case out the window, taking my homework, and generally making a nuisance of himself any way he could.”
I grinned at the thought of a mini version of Sam in the third grade, forlornly watching her pencil case fly out the window. Then I thought of the whimsy of the school zoning board, which placed Sam and I in separate primary and middle schools even though we had only lived a few miles apart. All that time she had been growing up a short distance away, neither of us knowing that fate and our parents would bring us together in high school.
“So I tell my dad the whole story with all the gravity and ponderousness of the most melodramatic nine-year-old alive, and my dad considers the matter very seriously, although he must have been trying not to laugh,” Sam continued with a smile, “and he gave me some advice.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Sam, you should try killing him with kindness,’” she revealed. “I totally didn’t get it. It might have been over the head of the average third-grader, but my dad explained the concept to his exceptionally intelligent daughter… and I still didn’t get it. I did not understand how being kind to someone who was being mean to me could ever be a solution, but I thought my dad was pretty smart so I decided to try it his way.
“The next day, I was super nice to Charlie. I gave him some of my unicorn stickers, and let him have backsies on the lunch line, I even gave him a piece of my watermelon Bubblicious, which was my favorite flavor and very hard for me to part with.”
“Grape was my favorite flavor,” I interrupted.
Sam made a face, “No wonder we don’t get along.”
“We’re getting along now,” I replied, feeling a bit stung, but pushed it from my mind. “What happened? Did it work?”
“Well it sure confused the hell out of him. Plus, like I said, Charlie was a few crayons short of a sixty-four pack, and when he tried to chase me at recess that day, he was chewing watermelon Bubblicious and, unfortunately, he blew a big bubble while running which ended up all in his hair,” Sam smirked at the memory. “He became too busy starting fights with the boys who made fun of his new haircut to bother with me for awhile.”
I laughed. “You tell a good story, McPherson.”
“Thanks, Sam said proudly, “I’d like to think it’s my father’s legacy. And that was pretty good advice, too, even though it didn’t work out the way he planned. I’ve been trying to follow it again lately, with, um, mixed results.” Sam looked down at her half-finished hot dog, which had been ignored while she told her story.
“Why? Is someone giving you a hard time?” I could feel my fists clenching at the thought of it. “Who is it? Is it Nic?” I knew my voice was getting louder and more agitated and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to control it.
Sam raised her eyes to me in surprise. “No. It’s nobody,” she backtracked, trying to calm me. “Don’t worry about it, forget I even mentioned it.”
I knew I couldn’t pursue the topic without sounding like a total ass, so I let the subject drop.
“I think I need some extra onion,” Sam said in a strained voice. “I’ll be right back.”
Oh god. What is wrong with me? Why am I acting like an overprotective freak? All I want is for Sam to be my friend, right? So why am I pretending I’m on a date with her? People don’t want to date their friends. And she’s not my friend, and at this rate, she never will be because who wants to be friends with a moody irrational psycho?
Okay. Relax. Breathe. Just keep your lip buttoned for the rest of the night, got it? If you don’t say anything more, maybe you can keep your embarrassing behavior to a minimum. I honestly didn’t know why I was behaving so erratically tonight, I can usually be counted on to act appropriately in social situations. Here she comes, just act naturally.
Sam returned with a little paper ramekin filled with onions and began sprinkling them over the last bit of her hot dog.
“That’s a lot of onions. You better be careful, Sam, or you won’t get a kiss at the end of our date.” What the fuck? Why did I just say that? There definitely was something wrong with me, as evidenced by the obvious disconnect between my mouth and my brain. I couldn’t even look her in the face to see what her reaction to that little statement was, so instead I just looked at the table, and saw Sam’s hands put down the onions and lie flat on the table. She began to drum the fingers of her right hand impatiently; I knew she was waiting for me to look up at her.
“Okay Brooke, that’s, like, the third time you’ve mentioned this so-called date tonight, which means it qualifies as a running joke.” Sam had decided to speak even though I hadn’t looked up yet. “However, the fundamental rule of a running joke, or any joke for that matter, is that it be funny, which, I’m sorry to disappoint you, it’s not. So, please, knock it off.”
There was something in Sam’s voice that compelled me to look at her, a weariness that I had not expected. Anger or ridicule, maybe, but not this tired pleading I thought I heard. Her eyes betrayed nothing, and she defiantly picked up her oniony hot dog and finished it, brushing her hands in finality after the last bite.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked me, collecting the soiled napkins she had scattered about the table, and finishing the last of her soda.
“Almost,” I answered, my face felt like it was burning up. “Let me just go to the restroom.”
I had ruined everything. Things had been going well despite my crazy mood swings and I felt Sam and I had really gained some ground tonight. Yes, I had definitely made some progress, only to sabotage myself with my stupid mouth, and now Sam was back to hating me. I splashed my face with cool water, hoping to reduce the embarrassment that was no doubt the reason my body temperature was spiking. Maybe I could undo some of the damage on the way home, but on second thought maybe I shouldn’t even try, there was no telling what might come out of my mouth at this point.
Sam was waiting for me by the door, and as I approached she smiled and took my hand. She wants to hold my hand? My heart soared. Then she turned my palm upwards and poured a handful of m&m’s into it.
“Here you go, Ophelia, sweets to the sweet,” she said, smiling easily. Then she turned back to the old-fashioned cast iron candy machine behind her and deposited another quarter into it. I watched as she turned the crank and cupped her palm underneath the opening, lifting the metal flap so that more m&m’s showered into her hand.
So she didn’t want to hold my hand, I thought glumly. It was still very nice of her to make an effort to get us back to the easy, friendly manner that we had shared for most of the night, and I had to meet her half way. “Thanks, Hamlet,” I said, and tried to return her smile.
Out in the parking lot, I opened the trunk, remembering I had more CD’s in there, thinking that would be a good way to keep conversation to a minimum. I rummaged through the jewel cases spread over the spare tire and picked one. Sam would probably make fun of me for it, but I didn’t care. I turned to where she stood a few feet away, offhandedly tossing the remaining candy into her mouth. “Do you mind driving, still?” I asked. Sam wordlessly took the keys and unlocked the passenger side and opened the door for me.
It was funny; my mood had returned to the melancholic depressive state I had been in earlier in the evening, when we had first left the house. Was it because the night was ending, and this little fantasy of mine where Sam and I got along and were friends would be over? And I would have to face my miserable reality when we arrived back home?
As Sam pulled out of the parking lot I put the CD in and turned the volume up very loud. The opening notes of the first track began; the song was “Let Go,” by Frou Frou. I turned the volume even louder, letting the trip-hoppy, poppy beats wash over me. I had been addicted to this CD about a year ago, but it had been vanquished to the trunk when a new flavor of the month had replaced it. It totally suited my mood tonight.
Sam held out her hand, and I passed her the jewel case, bracing myself for her criticism, but it never came. She examined the cover art for a moment before handing it back. “Good driving song,” she grunted. Then as she steered up the onramp to the freeway, she pressed the button that opened the sunroof, letting in the cool night air. I looked up, and unbelievably, saw stars, which almost never happens in smog-laden LA. We didn’t speak, but drove in silence, letting the music and the wind and the night create a hypnotic atmosphere in the car, which became the whole world for twenty-five minutes.
But soon enough we had arrived back home, and Sam and I walked up to the front door together. After we mounted the porch steps Sam turned to me and said, “Thanks for the ticket, Brooke. The show was great.”
“Thanks for coming with me,” I replied. “I had a really good time on our…”
But I didn’t say it. I had finally realized that no matter how much I wanted it to be true, saying the word was not going to make it so. Sam knew what I meant to say, too, and she assumed a pained expression.
“Brooke, I really just think-“
And then I did a stupid thing. Instead of listening to Sam tell me how distasteful the thought of going on a date with me was, I did the only thing I could think of that would stop the words from coming out of her mouth. I kissed her. I took her face in my hands and quickly pressed my lips against hers, savoring the feel of her lips, so warm and soft and alive, for a few seconds before she violently pushed me away.
Sam put her hand over her mouth like she was protecting herself from any further violation and glared at me with accusation and, I was surprised to see, hurt, in her eyes. Then they began to fill with tears.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” I said, panicking, I never meant to make her cry.
“You’re damn right you shouldn’t have,” Sam spat, now shaking with anger. “There is such a thing as taking a joke too far, you know,” she said lowly. She seemed overwhelmed by emotion, shaking her head and fiercely wiping her eyes with her palms. “That’s it. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done,” she said, but she wasn’t talking to me.
“Sam, I’m really sorry-“
She opened the front door, not listening anymore, and I knew she just wanted to get away from me as fast as humanly possible, but then she turned around. “Why, Brooke? Why would you do that? You must have a rock where your heart is supposed to be. Do you really hate me that much?”
Sam didn’t wait for an answer, just slammed the door in my face, leaving me in dark shadows on the front porch.
“I don’t hate you, Sam. I love you.”
I sat on the grass on the JV soccer field, which the JV soccer team was not currently using, and watched the squad go through the stretching exercises that I insisted on before every practice. I wasn’t practicing what I preached, though, I was just sitting, and absently pulling on random blades of grass, trying to think my way out of the predicament I now found myself in. However, logical thought was hindered by my semi-functioning brain, which had been dwelling on only one thing for the better part of a sleepless night and all through classes today, where I don’t think one educational thing had penetrated through the haze of confusion and worry and regret I had been feeling all day.
I loved Sam. It was only a minor correction to my liking her, which was the conclusion I had reached the other day. Was that a monumental understatement, or what? Unfortunately, I didn’t want her to be my friend; I wanted her to be much more than that. My emotions had been swinging from elation at the feelings I was having for Sam, a kind of love I hadn’t been aware existed until last night, to despair that I might never get the chance to express this overwhelming, cataclysmic love. The thing I had been searching for with Josh but had always seemed out of reach and unattainable, I had found in Sam. It was a shock. Totally unexpected.
The only thing I could think of to which I could equate it was the old movies with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn that my dad likes so much. The two of them would spend the entire movie bickering and scrapping, and shredding each other with barbs and insults and razor sharp wit, only to proclaim their love and fall into each other’s arms in the last five minutes. That was Sam and me all over, well, at least the bickering part. I’d like to think that the final reel of Sam’s and my movie hasn’t run yet, but that may be a tad optimistic on my part. From the way Sam is behaving, the credits are long over, the popcorn is being swept off the floor, and the gum is calcifying on the bottoms of the seats. You know, they did a bunch of those Tracy/Hepburn movies, and they all had basically the same plot. I always thought them so old-fashioned and unbelievable, but at least Tracy always got Hepburn in the end, which, let’s face it, the chances of that happening with Sam and me were slim to none, and slim has just left town.
Especially when she won’t talk to me. Not that I blame her. God only knows what she must think of me. At least I can pin my erratic, crazy behavior on this, which is a relief, considering I thought I was on a one-way trip to straitjacket-ville. This morning the kitchen was plunged into sub-arctic temperatures when I entered, and Sam immediately got up, leaving her half-eaten bowl of corn flakes, and flounced out of the room. Sam was a flouncer from way back, she could flounce with the best of them, and I could watch her flounce all day.
But I hadn’t seen her at all, except in Biology, and she had come in late and refused to look at me. I tried everything I could think of to get her to talk to me, to the point of nearly getting detention from Bio Glass, but nothing worked.
I had covertly studied her profile as she steadfastly ignored me while Glass droned on about asexual reproduction, and something had prompted me to remember a dream I had this morning, when I had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep after hours of tossing and turning. It was the kind of dream you had just before you wake up, so vivid it could be in Technicolor, the colors so rich and saturated it seems like hyper reality, and every detail seems like it will be etched forever on your brain, only it begins to fade minutes after waking. But this one stayed with me, I’d been thinking about it all day, and it started running through my head again now.
I remembered standing in a long line of people on the playground of my elementary school. The line moved fairly quickly, and I heard a familiar voice periodically call, “Next,” as boys and girls of all different ages shuffled forward. When I reached the head of the line, I saw Sam, wedged into a small child-sized desk, with a clipboard in her hands. There was a hand-lettered sign taped to the front of her desk that read: “Wanted: One Bride for Marriage.”
She was furiously scribbling something on the clipboard and had asked, “Name?” without looking up.
“Brooke McQueen,” I replied.
“Okay, thank you. We’ll let you know. Next!” Sam ripped a page from her clipboard and placed it face down on the desk.
“Wait,” I cried. “What is this all about? Who’s getting married?”
“I am,” Sam answered, and finally looked up at me. “Oh, hi, Brooke, I didn’t know you would want to be considered.”
‘Of course I want to be considered,” I replied, “but is it allowed?”
Sam seemed to know what I was talking about, even though I didn’t. “Yes, it’s allowed. I’m marrying a girl, so I don’t know what all these boys are doing here; they’re just wasting their time. They’re automatically disqualified.” She tapped the sign with her pen. “It clearly states that I am looking for a bride.”
“What do I have to do for you to pick me?” I asked desperately.
“Well you do fit the preliminary criteria,” Sam looked at me appraisingly while she mulled it over, and even while dreaming my heart was in my throat.
“Do you have any gum?” she finally asked.
I didn’t know. I reached into my pockets, which were so full, I suddenly realized, that they were weighing me down. I pulled out two handfuls of m&m’s, and deposited them on the desk, where they clattered and skidded over the slick surface.
Sam looked at the candy distastefully and began to shake her head.
“Wait, wait,” I cried, now repeatedly reaching into my pockets and pulling all the m&m’s out as fast as I could, trying to see if there was anything else I could offer her. There were so many m&m’s that the small heap started cascading off the desk and onto the blacktop in a shower of multi-colored candy.
Everything depended on one piece of gum. I had finally removed the m&m’s from my pockets and thrust my hands back in, splaying my fingers, feeling for anything that might be left. And then I felt it. I pulled a small, soft, wax paper wrapped rectangle from my left pocket in triumph, and held it up to Sam in offering. Then my face fell. “Oh no,” I wailed despairingly, “It’s grape!”
Sam reached up and snatched the bubblegum away from me. “So what? I love grape.” She popped the gum into her mouth and began to vigorously chew.
“So does this mean I get to marry you?” I asked, tremulously.
“Yes it does,” Sam said, getting up from the little desk. “But first you have to catch me.” And she took off running toward the jungle gym, kicking up a cartoon-like cloud of dust behind her.
I was just about to start after her when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to find my mother standing there, wearing the last clothes I had seen her in, a cream colored trouser suit with a brilliant white tailored shirt underneath. She was beautiful and glamorous and I missed her so much.
“What do you think you’re doing, Brooke?” she asked.
I was a little girl again, standing before her in my nightgown, feeling vaguely ashamed about something, and wishing she would stay home tonight instead of going out with Daddy.
“I’m going after her, Mom,” I replied simply.
“But Brooke, she’s a girl. What will people think?”
I shrugged my shoulders sullenly. Where did she get off asking what people would think? “I don’t know, Mom. I don’t care. I have to go.” And I turned my back on her and started running.
At first the nightgown hampered my childish steps, but as I ran I felt myself start to grow, my legs lengthened, their strides powerful and long, and my arms got stronger, pumping at my sides, giving me an extra burst of speed. I looked down and saw I was wearing the clothes I had on before I saw my mother, and I was back to the teenaged me. Now I had to find Sam. I scanned the playground, and saw her over by the swings, she was standing there looking at me, but as I approached she started running again.
I chased her all over the playground, coming close to catching up several times, but she was always just out of my reach. At one point I was so close I could feel her hair against my fingertips, which was trailing behind her in wild strands, and I made a desperate lunge, leaping for her like I was about to tackle one of the LA Raiders. But as I was flying through the air, arms outstretched to capture her to me, I realized that she was already beyond my grasp, and she would be long gone when my body met the ground, and that moment of impact was when my eyes opened and I woke up.
Now, I didn’t need to be Freud to figure out what this all meant, especially since I had been led around by my id for the past several days. I knew my mind pretty clearly at this point, what I didn’t know was why Sam had been so upset last night. Something about her reaction was a little strange, and I needed an explanation for it. Although it was patently obvious that she didn’t want to talk to me, I had to give it one more try. I got up and brushed myself off, little blades of grass that I had killed fluttering to the ground.
“Nic, take over, I’ll be back in a bit,” I called, knowing it was probably useless and I would be back here on the field after Sam had shot me down, but hoping that somehow I could convince her to listen while I pled my case.
I found her in the newspaper office, where she was working with a boy who looked vaguely familiar to me. The two of them stood before a table where the proofs of the latest issue of the paper were laid before them, and it looked like they were making some last minute layout decisions.
The door was open, but neither of them had noticed me, they were so engrossed in their work. I knocked on the doorjamb, and two faces looked up and saw me, one smiled in pleasure, the other frowned in irritation.
“Hi, Brooke,” the boy welcomed.
“Hi, Brad,” instantly his name had come to me. “Sam, you got a minute?”
“Go away, Brooke, I have tons of work to do and I’m really busy,” Sam said curtly, and pulled a blue editing pencil from behind her ear and made a mark on the sheet in front of her.
“But Sam, you just said we were ready to put this baby to bed,” Brad said, and I was so grateful to him I would’ve bought him a car if he wanted.
Sam glared at Brad for blowing her cover.
“Brad, could you please give us a minute?” I asked sweetly.
“Take all the time you need,” Brad said, blushing, “I was just leaving.” He quickly gathered his stuff, wanting to be away from the wrath of Sam, and exited the room.
Sam turned her back to me and started collecting the large proofs that were scattered on the tables. I moved to help and was trying to neatly stack the oversized pages, when Sam whipped around and snippily asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m helping,” I said, defensively.
“Well don’t,” she snapped. “What are you doing here, anyway? I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t even want to look at you.”
Oof, that hurt. Maybe a direct approach would be better. “Look, Sam, I know you’re pissed at me, and I’m sorry. If you would let me, I do a good line in apologies, but you’re not even giving me a chance. I never thought you would be one of those homophobic types who get all squeamish at the thought of kissing a girl.”
“That’s not it, and you know it,” Sam fairly growled at me.
“No, I don’t know,” I insisted. “What I do know is that we are still in the middle of a project for Enterteenment Today and we have to finish it. If you’re free now, we could do your interview, and then you can get back to your busy schedule of hating, loathing, and despising me, with extra sessions of wishing I would die thrown in for good measure.”
“You really are un-fucking-believable,” Sam shook her head in disbelief. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
“Great,” I said, at least she was talking to me. “You want to do it here, in your natural habitat?”
“Whatever,” Sam muttered.
I went to gather up the equipment, taking two trips, while Sam remained in the newspaper office, tidying up the proofs and doing whatever it was she needed to do. I set up the camera myself, and placed the mike in position, and then asked Sam to check everything for me. When she was satisfied, she took her position, sitting on the tabletop with a bulletin board that had the latest issues of the Zapruder tacked to it in the background. Her back was very straight and she looked very ill at ease, but I didn’t know if it was because the journalist was uncomfortable being the subject, or because she was preparing to talk about some deeply personal stuff. Or maybe it was just my presence that was adversely affecting her.
I began to ask Sam some background questions, but she was closing me off at every turn, answering in monosyllables or a curt yes or no. This portion of the segment was going to be a complete failure unless I could get behind her defenses and make her open up, which seemed an impossible task given the circumstances. I didn’t want to do it, but I was going to play the Joe McPherson card.
“Sam, can you please talk a little about you father? Share one of your favorite memories of him, perhaps?” I asked, blowing a major tenet of interviewing technique, because I didn’t know how Sam was going to answer this question, and that was a very big no-no.
“I shared a story with you last night, Brooke, and you took the trust I showed you and threw it back in my face,” Sam accused, harshly. She glared at me for a moment before looking away, becoming lost in reverie. “God, I miss him so much. He would know exactly what to do about you, instead I’m recycling old advice he gave me when I was nine-years old and trying to apply it to something completely different.” Sam’s emotions overcame her; she began to cry, lowering her head so I couldn’t see her face.
Suddenly everything clicked. “Sam, have you been trying to kill me with kindness?” I asked hesitantly, “Am I Charlie what’s-his-name?” I was sick at the thought of Sam viewing me as a problem she had to solve, that I was the new big dumb bully in her life that she was trying to get to stop picking on her. I understood now. She thought that all my references to our date and the kiss was just me being nasty and cruel towards her. How could she think that about me? Pretty easily, I guessed. No wonder she detested me. The tiny flame of hope that Sam might somehow return my feelings had finally been snuffed, and I knew what I had to do.
I went over and sat next to her. I was probably the last person from whom she wanted comfort, but I couldn’t just stand by when she was so upset and unhappy. I took her hands and held them, and she didn’t resist, so I put my arm around her and rubbed her back soothingly. I felt her draw in a huge shuddering breath, as she tried to regain her composure.
“It was good advice, Sam. But I guess I haven’t made it very easy for you. I’m sure there were many times you wanted to kill me with a blunt object instead of with kindness. But you don’t have to worry. I’m going to stay away from you. I won’t be bothering you, or bullying you,” My voice caught at using that word, “anymore. I’ve finally got the message.”
Sam raised her head and searched my eyes. I wanted to wipe away the tracks of her tears, but I didn’t dare. “You don’t understand,” she said miserably.
“Yes I do. I just want you to know that I never meant to hurt you, and no matter what you might think, last night really was one of the best nights of my life, because I was with you. You do something to me, Sam, everything you do affects me.” I struggled to make her understand. “It’s like, every time you take your blue pencil and write something on those big sheets of paper, there’s another piece of paper underneath, and that’s me. And you leave an impression on me, whether you dig in and write with passion and anger, or faintly, with kindness and humor and grace. All I know is that with every movement your hand makes, with everything that you are, you leave your marks all over me, even if I’m the only one who can see them.
“I apologize for kissing you, because it wasn’t what you wanted, but I’m not sorry that it happened, because now at least I know what it’s like. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.” I smiled a sad little smile. “And I mean that from the bottom of my rock.”
Sam had the grace to blush.
“So I’m going to go now,” I started to pull away from her, being in such close proximity to her lips was too tempting, and I couldn’t look at her without wanting to touch her.
“No, wait,” Sam said, putting her hands on my shoulders and staring me in the face. It looked like she was going to convey some words of great import, and I was frozen in place, waiting for her to speak. But when her mouth moved, it wasn’t to communicate with words, instead she pressed her lips against mine, kissing me with a softness and a tenderness that made a mockery of my good intentions. I wanted to open my mouth and devour her whole, I wanted to tear open her skin and live inside of her, but all too soon it was over, and she was pulling away from me. She was kind.
“Still killing me with kindness, huh, Sam?” I asked, when I felt able to speak, and allowed myself the pleasure of lightly brushing my fingers over her cheek, as she studied me with an expression I couldn’t identify in her eyes. I got up on unsteady legs and walked from the room, trying to hold it together until out of her presence. Once out in the hallway, I looked around, dazed, I hadn’t a clue where to go now.
The Kennedy High campus was adjacent to a small park that had a manmade lake as its focal point. A wide footpath surrounded the lake, and sometimes gym teachers would make us run around it when they were feeling lazy and hadn’t planned anything for that day. It was a very attractive setting with benches and picnic tables dotting the landscape, and I didn’t know why it didn’t get more use by the general public. It was here, on a bench by the lake, still within sight of the school, that I found myself after my confession to Sam, wondering how I was going to keep my promise to stay away from her when we lived in the same house.
I didn’t want to go back to cheering, although I knew that by leaving Nic in charge for too long I was subjecting the rest of the squad to her little Mussolini complex, which had undoubtedly kicked in moments after my departure. And I didn’t want to go home either, all I really wanted to do was just sit and think, and here was as good a place as any.
I turned around to see Sam approaching. The sun was low in the sky behind her and created a halo effect, so I didn’t see her neutral expression until she had sat down on the bench a few feet away from me.
“You’re a hard woman to find,” she commented, “I’ve been all over looking for you. No more cheerleading today?”
“Not feeling very cheerful,” I replied.
“I see,” Sam nodded, looking out at the lake. “By the way, I applaud the fascistic regimen that Satan seemed to be employing while in charge. Nothing like a little discipline to get those girls in shape. Did you give her permission to use that riding crop?”
I smiled, knowing the girls would have my head tomorrow, but they’d also be happy to have me back in command, so I wasn’t worried.
Sam placed a videotape on the bench between us. “It’s all on tape. All those wonderful things you said to me, I even watched it a few times after I put all the gear away, just to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it, or something.”
I stared at the tape, and tried to process what she was saying. I had completely forgotten that we had been taping the interview, and I had just walked out of there leaving Sam to clean everything up. “I’m sorry, I should have helped you with the equipment.”
Sam just waved her hand in dismissal. “You were right, Brooke. I was trying to do everything I could think of to be kind to you, but not because I think you’re mean or a bully or anything.” Sam turned to face me, but I couldn’t look at her.
“We had begun our relationship in this combative state,” she started to explain, “each of us sniping at the other and unwilling to give up the slightest bit of ground, and that was the way it appeared things were going to continue. It was like we were on one of those racecar rides at Disneyland, where we were set on a certain track for the whole course, never able to veer off and take a different path. But something happened that made me realize that I didn’t want to continue on this course. I started to care about you, and it began to hurt whenever we would have one of our stupid pointless arguments that just seemed to circle back on itself.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But wait. What was she saying? What did this mean? I didn’t want to interrupt her and give her the chance to change her mind.
“I attempted to think of a way to break out of my clearly defined role as antagonist but I wasn’t coming up with anything on my own,” Sam continued. “My mother had found a way to break out of her own assumptions about her life, and although I was inspired by her, and particularly by how she expressed it yesterday when we interviewed her, there wasn’t anything practical I could use for this specific situation. So I tried to think what my father would do, he was always a great one for advice. And I remembered how he helped me with Charlie and thought maybe it would work again, even though the circumstances were way different.”
Sam stopped speaking for a moment while two women with baby carriages briskly walked by, loudly comparing breast milk to formula, breast milk being the overwhelming favorite in that discussion. Good to know, I guess.
“So I tried to resist rising to the bait when you would say something specifically geared to push my buttons, which you are the master of, let me tell you,” Sam smiled. “It was nearly impossible to fight that impulse and I failed probably more times than I succeeded. Then I tried compliments, which only made you suspicious, and led to more button pushing. But sometimes kindness came very easily, like when we were interviewing your dad and I could see the hurt he was unwittingly inflicting on you, I would’ve done anything I could to make you feel better. You see, I had come to care very deeply for you, so much so that I thought you would find out and just put it in your arsenal of weapons to use against me, and that thought was unbearable to me.”
I turned to face her. “I would never do that, Sam.”
“But I didn’t know that, did I?” she pointed out. “In fact, I thought you had found out, and were taunting me when you started talking about our being on a date, which was something I had scarcely let myself hope for in my most private moments. That hurt like hell, and it was as if you were just rubbing my face in it.”
“I’m sorry,” I exclaimed, my stomach clenching at the thought of causing her pain.
“Don’t apologize,” Sam shook her head emphatically. “You didn’t do anything wrong. The main thing was that even though I was trying all these things to make you see me differently, to win you over, I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that it would work. Up until recently you had been involved with Josh, and you had never shown the slightest inclination towards,” Sam hesitated, groping for what she wanted to say, “an alternative lifestyle? Even after analyzing every moment of our interactions, I couldn’t see any signs that you could ever like me the way I found myself liking you. And it had been coming on so slowly; I hardly know when I started to change my mind about you. My feelings,” she said earnestly, “are so different from what they once were.”
Sam stopped talking again, giving me time to let her declaration sink in. My heart was nearly pounding out of my chest, it was pretty much all I could do to just stay seated on the bench and not fly off into the atmosphere. Then I realized that Sam had stopped talking because she was waiting for an older man to jog by and give us our privacy back. Now I’m all for staying healthy, but this man was quite a sight, and our attention was caught by his unique running style. It seriously took him about ten minutes to huff and puff his way past us, with tiny little mincing steps that advanced him about four inches per hour.
“There goes the slowest jogger in the world,” Sam observed, after he had at last passed us by.
“Are you sure that was jogging? I thought it was more of a jaunty stroll,” I asked, grinning.
“I think the workout clothes were the tip off, plus did you see the way his man boobs were heaving?”
I laughed. “How could I not? Somebody ought to tell him to strap those bitches down.”
Sam turned to watch as he resolutely continued on his way. “Look at him go. I bet his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”
We both started giggling uncontrollably. It felt so good to laugh with her, and our manic reaction was no doubt stemming from relief and a release of tension as well as our comical jogging man. After we calmed down a little bit I said, “We are definitely going to hell.”
“Yes we are,” Sam agreed. “At least we can keep each other company.”
We sat in silence for a little while. Sam inched her hand towards mine on the bench, and I met her halfway, entwining our fingers together.
“So…” I said.
“Yes, so,” Sam responded.
“Where do we go from here?”
Sam shrugged. “Wherever we want, I guess.”
I wanted to pour my heart out to her and tell her I loved her, but I was also enjoying this vague sense of the unknown, rather than having whatever this was defined. We could relax and take our time figuring things out. Sam and I had left ourselves open to one of life’s unpredictable curveballs, and it was going to be fun seeing where it would take us.
“You know,” Sam said casually, “Like I said before, I watched this tape a few times and I was able to make a pretty comprehensive assessment of the kiss, which was a fine early effort, but showed signs of rookie inexperience. I bet there are a few ways we can improve on our technique if we practice a little. The enthusiasm was there, but I think we were a little sloppy on the dismount.” She smirked at me, and got up and grabbed both of my hands, pulling me off the bench.
We started walking back to the school, our path flanked by a row of forsythia bushes, in full bloom of vibrant yellow. The color just seemed to reflect back on the both of us, casting Sam’s features in a golden glow. “That’s something I’ve always admired about you, Sam,” I laughed. “Your perseverance to excel in all things. You’re such a perfectionist.”
“Well, practice does make perfect, as they say. It might take a while to get it right,” she warned. “Are you prepared to do this for as long as it takes?”
“Are you questioning my dedication? I guarantee I’ll be able to outlast you.”
“That sounds like a challenge, Ms. McQueen. Maybe we should stop off for some sustenance before we begin these lengthy practice sessions.”
“You mean like in a restaurant? The two of us? Eating together?” I asked. “Can I call it a date?”
“I would be offended if you called it anything else.” Sam had the goofiest smile on her face. She was beautiful.
“I don’t think I can make it all the way to the end of a date without kissing you,” I said mock doubtfully. “Can I get an advance right now?”
Sam pretended to give the matter serious consideration “I suppose,” she replied heavily, then pulled away from my side and skipped a few feet ahead of me, turning around to smile and say, “But first you have to catch me.”
I’m sure I looked very attractive standing there like a statue with my mouth hanging wide open. I didn’t know if Sam had some kind of prescient knowledge of my dreams or if this was just a really weird coincidence. Either way, I decided, she was not going to escape this time.
She was still a few paces ahead, laughingly doing an imitation of the slow jogging man, and she looked back, waiting for me.
In a few strides I had caught up to her, fiercely grabbing her from behind and wrapping my arms around her. “Caught you,” I whispered in her ear.
She turned around in my embrace and hugged me back, her arms tight around my shoulders. “I guess I’m not very good at playing hard to get.”
And there, in the parking lot of Kennedy High, in front of anybody who cared to see in the fading light of an early spring day, she kissed me.
Oh, yes. The next day, Sam and I re-taped her interview, and she was much more forthcoming. We spent every spare minute over the next several days editing the segment, and Sam taught me how to use the Avid software, among other things. I had no idea that the editing room was so cozy and private, and I was seriously on my way to becoming an A/V nerd. Somehow amid all the distractions we created for ourselves, we managed to get the segment finished, and we fedex’ed it to Jamie Gunn’s office a few days before the month was over.
The segment aired to great success. A writer from Vanity Fair saw it and wrote an article about it. Another writer read the Vanity Fair piece and wrote a screenplay based on it. A studio executive read the screenplay and greenlit a movie about it. A well-respected director and two up and coming Hollywood starlets read the screenplay and agreed to work on the film. The movie opened to wide release and took the top spot in box office receipts its first week, and continued to play to repeat audiences for months. At the Academy Awards, the film took more trophies than Titanic and Lord of the Rings combined. Actually, to say it had been a success was putting it mildly.
Nah. None of that really happened. A few days after we sent it we got a phone call from Jamie’s assistant saying that they had received the tape and were dropping the suit, as we had fulfilled our contractual obligation. And we watched the show religiously, hoping to see our segment air, but it hadn’t by the time the show was cancelled, about six months later. So god only knows what became of all our hard work and effort, it’s probably sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere, forgotten.
But there is a drawer in my room where I keep mementoes and prized possessions, and every year around the same time we take one of these items out and watch as a reminder. It’s a plain black videotape, with a little white label that reads “Sam’s Interview – Take One.”
Thanks for reading.
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