“Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place.”
- The Breakfast Club
When Brooke was 12 and Celia almost 11, their mother died. She was biking home from a town hall meeting when a car took a sudden left turn into her path, killing her instantly.
Immediately following, their father took his own left turn into an understandable but selfish grief, and became prone to desperate bouts of weeping over the most mundane of inconveniences – out of toilet paper, closet light burnt out.
So Brooke began managing the house. She bought the toilet paper and changed the light bulbs (which were only incandescent in those days). She navigated these domestic tasks while squelching a feeling that they were all sprawled precariously on the thin ice of their father’s grief, their mother’s corpse floating, visible, underneath. She was terrified of the ice cracking, of the living rest of them tumbling in after her.
And then when Brooke was 15 and Celia almost 14, their father met another woman. In a matter of months, he’d moved with her to the far Western suburbs, leaving Brooke and Celia alone in their apartment in Rogers Park, a neighborhood in the far northeastern corner of the city. And there he stayed, ensconced in a spacious suburban house, providing a monthly stipend to Brooke and Celia for rent and clothes and groceries, leaving them alone to manage their uncertain teenage lives.
It sounds sad, and it was definitely irresponsible, but Brooke and Celia were glad to be free of their father’s grief. They were happy he’d found some other woman to love and take care of him. And so they smiled their way through the suburban wedding and the suburban christenings of their suburban half-sibilings. But they were always eager to leave; always relieved to pass back into Chicago, across the invisible line of demarcation between them and their father’s guilt.
So, you see, they were each other's whole family. And if they were different (Brooke spent those teenaged years indulged in lofty and loftier ideals; Celia kept her feet stylishly shod and on the ground) they still loved each other madly. And always would.
“Well,” she said finally. “I guess I could use the money. And I can’t see waitressing being too taxing timewise. I’ll be able to spend my days on my important work and my nights making a little money.”
“Go in around 11:00 tomorrow,” said Gio. “I’ll tell them to expect you.”
“Fine,” said Brooke, heading into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
“Bye,” said Gio, heading back to his own apartment. As he walked across the hall, he imagined 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, right? I mean, you probably know better than Gio. The poor guy is such a sap when it comes to romance (and by that I mean he’s 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.
When Gio left, Celia turned off the television and followed Brooke into the kitchen.
“Look,” she said, tentatively. “Do you want to split up Mom’s jewelry now or what?”
Their mother had left behind a small but rather nice collection of jewelry that their father’s new wife had urged him to present to the girls at Brooke’s graduation dinner.
“Oh, Celia,” said Brooke. “Can’t you just keep it? You’re more into that kind of stuff that I am.”
Celia sighed softly. “Don’t you want something that was Mom’s?”
"I guess," she said, chastened.
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 she were warding something distasteful away. “Oh, no!” she said. “Who knows who was exploited to get that stone! We should send it straight back to Africa now.”
Brooke was completely sincere in this wish. Although, in those days and with no internet to guide her, who knows how she would have found the address for the African P.O. Box where guilty white people return things?
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 was so pretty. When she came home she’d come into the bedroom to kiss us good night. She smelled like cigarettes and red wine and perfume. When she stood up after kissing me, I remember the closet light would catch her and I thought how much I loved that smell and how pretty Mommy was and wanting to grow up and be just like her.”
They were silent for a bit before Brooke said quietly, “Yeah, I remember that. 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 that ruby. Put your hair up like Mom did and all the little girls will want to be just like you. I’ll take these silver earrings. Do you remember when Dad vacuumed them up and Mom dumped the bag in the back yard? I wanted to help and ended up covered in dust. Mom hosed me of outside. I can wear them whenever I want to play in the hose.”
Celia smiled fondly. “Take more,” she urged. “There’s so much more here. What about this ring? Or these other earrings?”
“No,” said Brooke firmly. “Just these. You can keep the rest.”
And then Brooke left her sister sitting on the couch to sort her jewelry and her feelings, while she went into her bedroom to work on a letter to the editor about the deforestation of the Ecuadorian rainforest, dead mothers and job interviews absent from her thoughts.