Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Brooke: Chapter One

On a hot August Tuesday, 1991, Brooke stood on a bustling corner in the heart of downtown Chicago as the 78th averted eye and 39th irritated sigh brushed past her, her clipboard and her thinly veiled air of superiority. She rolled her eyes and consoled herself thusly: “There is still nothing more satisfying than having met one’s moral responsibility.”

I know. She sounds like an asshole. Youth and untried ideals can make assholes out of the nicest people. But we hope, and are often rewarded in our hope, that the rich complexity of everyday life will exorcise tendencies toward smugness and self-righteousness right out of a girl. It usually does. But, for the time being, Brooke is as committed to her assholery as she is to the environment. And Brooke is very committed to the environment.

Bear in mind, this was some time ago! Al Gore was too busy campaigning for Vice President to be telling us inconvenient truths. None of us turned the water off when we brushed our teeth. Thanks to the lachrymose Indian, most of us had stopped throwing pop cans out car windows for close to 20 years now. But we weren’t recycling them.

Brooke was. And she was loudly, obnoxiously, and frequently demanding that everyone around her do the same.

Surprisingly, given her passion for the environmental cause, she’d come lately to it. Through her first three and a half years at Loyola, Brooke had devoted herself wholeheartedly to a series of causes: anti-apartheid, PETA, ACT UP. She wrote letters to Lech Walesa and Gloria Steinem. She floated from worthy cause to worthier cause, with boundless energy and single-minded determination. But nothing stuck until the second semester of her senior year when, for elective credit, she signed up for an environmental ethics class. Fifteen minutes into the first lecture of the first class, she found her world both endangered and rocked. Thus was the great passion of her life (so far) born.

She worked tirelessly at all the action items suggested by her professor, putting so much effort into Chicago’s big 20th anniversary Earth Day Event that she almost flunked a history class. But she pulled it out at the last minute and graduated on time, ready to take our poor poisoned planet by storm, convinced that all the environmental movement lacked was talent, doggedness, and an extreme level of commitment.

Brooke and her extreme level of commitment spent their first post-University summer unemployed, waving placards at sparsely populated rallies, petitioning for Greenpeace, and writing passionate letters to the editor. By August, she’d grown used to feeling like a Cassandra, and secretly (not so secretly) felt pleased to be so much more prescient and virtuous than her fellow man.

This particular August afternoon, her moral obligation vis a vis petition signing having been met, Brooke returned to the Uptown apartment she shared with her sister, Celia. She found Celia sitting on the floor painting her toenails, while their neighbor, George lounged behind her on the couch. They were watching cartoons. Animaniacs. Brooke rolled her eyes. Waited. And then sighed loudly.

“Brooke,” said Celia, “Why don’t you just watch it with us instead of sighing like that. God. You can be such an asshole sometimes!”

“I might be an asshole,” said Brooke, “But at least I am an ADULT.”

Celia flipped her a bird with the hand she held the polish wand in.

George, meanwhile, jumped up off the couch like it was on fire. He ran his hands through his hair and grinned winningly at Brooke. Well, I say it was winning, and you’d probably think the same, but Brooke found it grating. It bugged her that Celia’s boyfriend was always hanging around. It bugged her even more that Celia wouldn’t admit George was her boyfriend. It especially bugged her that Celia insisted that George had a crush on Brooke, as though Brooke would be interested in a frat boy like that.

George was good looking in that blonde Midwestern, rosy cheeked, leaning towards beefy kind of way. He was also bright and convivial and far from the arrogant, entitled, frat boy Brooke had pegged him as. He worked hard for low wages as a doorman at a local tavern while studying business at DePaul. He was cheerful and sweet. But Brooke never could see the cute tree past the threatened rainforest.

George was smitten with Brooke. He had been ever since she and Celia moved into the apartment next door. Here was this skinny girl in a message tee shirt with all this pretty, long dark hair. She held forth with such ardor about saving the whales and the evil that Bush was doing in Central America. She was smart and passionate…and that hair! He’d pictured that hair countless times splayed carelessly post-coital across his chest.

Celia threw a pillow at George. “Tell Brooke what you told me.”

“Oh, yeah! The March is hiring,” said George. “I can get you a job waitressing there. You can do that a few days a week to make rent and spend the rest of the time on your environment stuff.”

“Fantastic,” said Brooke dryly, “I can wipe down the bar with my college degree. Dad will be so proud.”

“Yeah, it’ll just kill him to have to stop paying your rent,” said Celia, taking Brooke’s dryly and raising her a solid acre of Sahara.

Celia was a little more than a year younger than Brooke. She was embarking on her senior year at Loyola while working retail at Marshall Fields. She lived a very different life than Brooke, with her head firmly in this world and her feet both stylishly shod and on the ground. Secretly, though, she admired Brooke for eschewing worldly things like work and rent and what other people thought. At the same time, she resented Brooke for recusing herself from the real world and being a burden on their sad, widowed father.

“Hmmm, you may be right,” said Brooke, who'd recently donated a good chunk of her rent money to an Indian hurricane relief fund. “I guess a job like that won’t be too taxing timewise, and I will be able to spend my days on important things. George, tell them I’ll come by in the morning to fill out an application or whatever it is I’m supposed to do.”

“Will do,” said George, imagining crazily romantic scenarios: in the soft dawn light, he’d walk her home and then, at the door, she’d let her hair down and smile up at him…

You know where this is going. You know better than George. George is a sweet guy, but kind of a sap when it comes to romance (and by that I mean prone to confusing being horny with being in love). He’s also not right for Brooke at all. Celia, on the other hand… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

George took off to go to work and Celia turned to Brooke: “Look,” she said tentatively, “Do you want to finally split up Mom’s jewelry or what?”

Their mother, dead several years now, had passed down a moderately nice collection of jewelry which she’d intended for her daughters to split upon college graduation. Their father took this to mean upon Brooke’s college graduation, and had given his daughters the box in June immediately after the ceremony.

“Oh, Celia,” said Brooke wearily, “Can’t you just keep it? You’re more into that kind of thing than I am.”

Celia said softly. “Don’t you want something that was Mom’s?”

Chagrined, Brooke nodded.

Celia rushed into the other room and returned with the box. She opened it up and pulled out a simple silver chain with a ruby pendant. “Here,” she said to Brooke, “This will look so pretty on you with your coloring.”

Brooke held up both hands as if to push something distasteful away, “Oh no! Who knows who was exploited to get that stone. We should send all that stuff straight back to Africa.”

Celia frowned and stared into the ruby. “Mom wore this whenever she got dressed up. Do you remember? She’d put on her little black dress and the ruby would pop out all red against the black. She looked so pretty. When she came home she’d come into the bedroom and kiss us good night. Do you remember? She’d come in on tiptoes, smelling of cigarettes and perfume and she’d lean over and kiss us. When she stood up after kissing me, I remember the closet light catching in the ruby and thinking how much I loved that smell and how pretty Mommy was and wanting to grow up and be her. Remember?”

They were silent for a few minutes and then Brooke said quietly, “I do. You keep that necklace, Celia. You look more like Mom than I do anyway. Next time you get dressed up, you can put on a little black dress, and wear your blonde hair up like Mom did. Put that ruby on and smoke a cigarette and all the little girls who see you will be desperate to grow up too. I’ll take these silver earrings. Do you remember these? Dad vacuumed them up one day and Mom dumped the bag out in the back yard. I wanted to help and ended up covered in dust. Mom hosed me off outside. I can wear them whenever I want to play in the hose.”

Celia smiled fondly. “Take more,” she urged. “There’s more here. What about this ring? Or these other earrings?”

“No” said Brooke firmly. “Just these. You take the rest.”

And then Brooke left her sister sitting on the couch to sort her jewelry and emotions, and went to work on a letter to the editor about the deforestation of the Ecuadorian rainforest.