When I was seven, we had a neighbor named Brick who I found fascinating. A twenty-eight year old tall, smart, insanely well-chiseled slice of milk chocolate! I liked him because he was the second smartest person I knew (my grandfather being the first). My mother liked him because he distracted me whenever she had friends over.
That was okay by me! I didn’t understand what it really meant when he explained his sexuality (“I like boys like you like boys” doesn’t make sense to little girls still seeing the opposite sex as made of toads and snails). What I did understand was he was alone. Just him and his magpie cat, Gatsby.
Oh, and his books! If I say he had a thousand books neatly shelved in his waterfront two-story condo I might be underestimating.
I saw his books from the door when I knocked on it one day. My own maggie had wandered off. Despite my mother’s complaints, saying the cat would come home for dinner, I set out to find her.
When Brick opened the door, I stared right through him, my gaze scanning the bookshelves.
I asked about my cat and made small talk. Never once looking up at him. Then he asked, “Do you like to read?”
Possibly faster than an AK-47, I shot out names of authors from Anais Nin to Shakespeare to Virginia Wolf.
He was in shock and I remember calling him on it, “Just because I’m seven doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I can pretend and talk to stupid people though.”
He laughed. Our friendship was sealed.
For almost three years, I wanted nothing more to do with the kids in the neighborhood or even the ones at school. I would come home then rush through my homework so I could read at Brick’s. On a regular basis, my mother knowingly asked, “Do you want to see if Brick is home to invite him and Gatsby to dinner?”
The age difference never crossed my mind. And to my mother’s credit, when he mentioned it over dinner one night, she said, “You are like a free baby-sitter. But you can talk to my daughter in a way nobody else can. If she isn’t boring you, there’s no problem”.
Because of his cat’s namesake, Brick gave me my first (and only copy) of The Great Gatsby.
I lost our TV. Not in a hand of poker, but to my father. Because I needed to “learn” to do my chores. Mind you, we had a housekeeper which my mother said was hers, not mine.
The instant I checked off my To-Do list on the refrigerator door, I ran up to my room, showered, folded down my covers, and hopped into bed with Gatsby.
As soon as dinner was over, I would excuse myself, say “goodnight” and dash up the stairs. My mother even told a friend who came to dinner, “Ever since she started this new book, she’s been cleaning better than Maria”.
Ah, the glorious nights with Gatsby and Nick! Poor Jordan too. You know she was aching to jump off the page nd come out of the closet! Then there’s Tom. Tom was just a jerk from the get-go. I often wondered how many “real Toms” Fitzgerald had come across in his lifetime.
Of course, one can’t forget Daisy. I thought Daisy was just as interesting as a boiling pot of water-
Until I came upon the end.
Thankfully, it was in the afternoon. Because I might very well have lept up from my bed in the middle of the night, snuck out of the house and pounded on Brick’s door, screaming in tears, “Daisy should have died instead!”.
I sat on the little cement half-donuts outlining Brick’s front yard. The book, on the ground in front of me, too ashamed of itself to be held.
I didn’t look up when I heard Brick’s keys. Even in his fine tailored suit, he knelt down beside me.
Giving the book a poke as if to make sure it was dead, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Mumbling under my breath, I said, “I hated it”. Before he responded, I added, “And I know ‘hate’ is a really bad word and feeling and I’m not supposed to say it about anything. But I’m pretty sure I hate that book”.
He gave me a warm smile. “Let’s get inside, I’ll call your mother to ask if it’s okay for you to help me bake some chocolate chip cookies. Then we can talk about the book. Okay?”
Pfft! Bribing a child like me with cookies?
“Okay”, I said, already a little better.
Just like my father figured out that the best way to mend a broken heart was with a Banana Royale from Baskin-Robbins, Brick taught me that the kitchen is the best place for a philosophical discussion.
As we packed the brown sugar (always remember to give it that squeeze), we went over the aftermath of Gatsby.
“It’s interesting that you see it that way”, said Brick, “do you know that adults usually come away from it as telling them to be careful in the American dream of wanting too much.”
“Really?”, I asked.
“Well, yes. Incredibly well educated critics have said it’s about the differences in class”.
“Okay, sure, I can see the rich and poor stuff, but that’s not what it is really“.
Brick just listened, shushing his Gatsby away from his legs as he mixed in the butter.
I continued, “It might even have some parts of what you said about the American dream, but that’s not the soul of the book”.
This statement got him to look up. He showed off that million-dollar smile, “Okay, so what is the soul of the book?”.
“It’s a love story!”, I gasped. “It’s a very very sad love story!”.
He broke into laughter. Clearly, I didn’t see the humor. He fixed it, “I’m laughing because I understand you better today. With all your book choices and the little things you say. You’re a smart kid for sure, but I just figured out, you’re a romantic!”.
I played around with the word in my head before saying, “Okay, so what? I’m a romantic”.
Brick was wise indeed. Now when I think back to memories of him, it makes me sad we bought a house and moved away. It was an odd pairing, but we truly were friends.
He spent the rest of that afternoon explaining to me why I had seen everything through Gatsby’s eyes. Why I cheered for him and applauded all he did to win Daisy’s love. Even five years later, his love was just as alive as the first day he kissed her. He just wanted her to love him as unconditionally as he did her. Everything was for Daisy! The lies, the shady business deals, the money, the time.
Brick walked me home and stayed for dinner. Still talking about life in West Egg. My mom didn’t understand a thing. We had the chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
Before leaving, he said, “Maybe, you didn’t like it because you didn’t read through Nick. Maybe, you didn’t like it because you’re a Gatsby”.
I looked up at him, saying, “And I die in the end”.
He laughed then gave me a big hug ‘goodbye’.
That night, my mother came into my room to turn of the light on my bedside table.
“Brick told me to give this to you”, she said, handing me The Great Gatsby.
My room, almost completely dark, with just a beam of moonlight peering through my curtains right onto the book. I traced over the cover with my fingers.
Not fully understanding what it meant, I whispered, “I’m a romantic”.
Then, a few minutes later…
“So what if I’m a romantic?”