Read an Excerpt
A Novelization of the Award-Winning Movie
By LISA SAMSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Bella Productions LLC
All rights reserved.
The week before.
José journeyed to the cemetery like he did most mornings. He stood by the grave, the words of his grandmother filling his mind as the breeze of early morning filled his nose and lungs.
"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
And there wasn't a day that went by that José didn't live with those words floating in his mind like a white gull circling by the sea, gently reminding him of the four years spent on Riker's Island.
Newborn leaves shivered on the cherry trees that lined the lanes of the cemetery.
Oh yes. He'd had plans. As a boy on a horse ranch in Mexico, he knew exactly what he wanted to be, but nothing turned out as he'd planned. It never did. Life took you right to the edge of where you wanted to go, then turned left. There were only a few people in the world he knew who did exactly what they wanted with their lives. Unfortunately, they were his mother, his father, and his older brother, Manny.
But everyone else? No. Most of them seemed to be scratching along like him, working a job there in the city, acting a part, and wondering what the world would hold if they weren't tied down by their mistakes.
"You're such a good-looking boy," that same grandmother had always told him as he was growing up. But nobody in the courtroom that day cared whether or not he was handsome. He was guilty, and they threw him into prison. Each day José realized he'd gotten off easy compared to the person he killed. Four years was nothing.
In front of the granite headstone, the grass was now overgrown, the tender spring shoots mingling with last year's dried blades, and he knelt and crossed himself, hoping somehow the pictures in his mind constituted a prayer. The scene that day ran across his mind again, and he prayed for God to suspend time and run it backward. But God didn't work that way that he ever could tell.
Time to go to work. He traced the name with his fingertips, then laid some flowers in front of the small tombstone.
He stood up, brushing the grass from his jeans. The pink of the roses bled into the green of the grave-grass as the spring wind and the grief he nurtured watered his eyes.
José skirted the graves and hurried down the lanes of the city cemetery, through the iron gates, toward the subway station. He could make this walk blindfolded after the past two years of pilgrimage.
The sun was rising, not looking down on him, but peering through alleys and over fences. José broke into a fast walk. He didn't realize he'd stayed by the grave so long. Manny would be furious if the kitchen wasn't running smoothly. And Manny got what he wanted: success, good horses, and, well, maybe not his share of women, but he didn't have time for them anyway. The two brothers were nothing alike. It made sense. But it didn't make working for him any easier.
He already had the staff dinner in mind when he unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and heated up the ovens. He could feed people. Keep them alive for another day. This he could do.
And so he cooked, chopped and stirred, tasted and plated, each day, all day—the heat of the kitchen drawing out his sweat. It rolled into his eyes making them smart, and José let Manny yell and make fusses because he knew he deserved a lifetime of penance. And this penance wasn't given to him by his priest; it was given to him by God. Or rather that was what José had come to believe.CHAPTER 2
She'd been nauseated for two weeks now. Every morning, there she'd be: head over the toilet, the smell of porcelain mixing with toilet water, not heavy and overpowering like one of the restrooms near the beach in Atlantic City, but that smell a person can't scrub away no matter how forcefully you swish the brush each week.
And those faint smells seemed to grow under the weight of a stomach so upset, even the thought of lasagna or fried fish, let alone bathroom odors, buckled it in two.
Nina grabbed a sleeve of saltines, devoured three, and headed out the door, down the steps, and into the mid-morning street. At least it was springtime, and a warm one at that. She shoved her sweater into her large, backpack-style purse. Nina loved spring.
She was born in the spring. However, her birthday a week ago, the big two-five, could have well been the most depressing day of her life. Cassie, her best friend from high school, just had her first child, and of course she called, a fake trill in her voice when she talked about Nina living an exciting life, single in the city, trying to make a go of it in the arts, and how many people have that kind of dedication to keep going against all odds, that kind of stick-to-it-ive-ness? Amazing.
The boy who had grown up in the house next door had the same birthday and was in his second year of law school. Ryan e-mailed her like he always did, and she thought maybe she'd invite him out for a drink after she was done waiting tables at El Callejon. The Alley.
If all alleys were as nice as El Callejon, New York would be a better place, that was for sure. She'd been mugged once, been twice relieved of her purse, and here she remained in the city that slept with one eye open.
Waiting tables. Renting videos. Eating cheap take-out. Great life, Nina. Great life.
She set her jaw, clipping down the sidewalk in the heavily embroidered waitress uniform, flowers in a prism of colors wending across the black cotton fabric of her full skirt and shirt. At least she worked at an upscale restaurant where they fed their employees dinner before they hit the carpet, trying their best to keep Manny happy or simply to keep away from Manny altogether.
Nina checked her watch and stepped up her pace. She'd wanted to go to the pharmacy, return home, and shower, but she was going to be later than she thought. Nobody told her how tired women in her condition became. For the past week she'd felt as if she'd put in five back-to-back double shifts.
I need this job.
Okay, she could have worked at any restaurant, but she liked it at El Callejon. The staff was her family. Amelia would fold her into her big arms when she was downhearted, bring her homemade sweets on special holidays, show her pictures of her kids. Carlos told the funniest stories of his life in Cuba, then Miami. The man made communism a comedy, but every once in a while he'd let the veil drop and she saw the sadness of leaving a family behind. He and his wife invited her over for Christmas dinners, his kids crawling all over her as she played with them, helping them put together their new toys. Marco said little, but his eyes twinkled when he handed her a plate. Pepito, always listening to sports on his little transistor radio and yelling good-naturedly at the announcers. Margarita, fellow waitress, prettier than she realized and as sweet as Amelia's cookies. Sometimes they'd hang out at each others' apartments, playing Scrabble or Boggle so Nina could help her with her English.
And then there was Pieter. Well, she could leave him behind in a heartbeat. Especially now.
She entered the drugstore a block away from her apartment, shouldered past the people at the register, down aisle three beyond the hair gel, the teeth whitening gel, and the shower gel, and finally stood before the pregnancy tests, all five hundred varieties in their tidy, cheerful little boxes.
Had sex with Pieter been worth this?
No way. She'd had too much to drink at a party he hosted at his house; she stayed late, drank some more, and then, well, it happened. "Get drunk enough and lonely enough and anybody will do," a friend once told her. She didn't believe him, but now she realized he was right. Nina hadn't been out with anybody for over a year. And when Pieter wanted to hook up again, she'd said yes.
She still couldn't figure out why, and she chided herself over and over again.
Was Pieter at all serious about her? No, and he never pretended to be. He didn't want a child with her, and even if he did, Pieter would be a lousy father. The question was, did she want a child with him?
Of course not. Not even a little bit. He'd be too hard on the kid when he showed up. He was always at the restaurant sucking up to the boss man. She'd have to teach the kid to throw a baseball, and she had no athletic skills whatsoever. She'd have to help him with math, and she never could solve an equation.
A lousy father, she thought and reached out toward one of the boxes. A lousy mother too.
Fabulous combo there, Nina.
She picked up one box and set it down. Looked too complicated. The next, violet with big pink bubbles and how fun! Yippee!
Oh yeah, that's right. She tapped the box against her fingers. Some people actually hoped for a positive result. They'd be standing right where she was with eager faces soaking in all the colors because they'd been trying, you see; they'd been taking their temperatures to see if they were ovulating. They weren't praying every time they went to the bathroom that they'd wipe and come up with bloody toilet paper.
Well, she was tired of that sort of stress. Best to get it over with.
She approached the counter, waiting while an older man in a yellow canvas jacket and plaid pants paid for a cup of stale coffee and a bag of little chocolate donuts, and she smiled at him. Nina always smiled at people who looked sad and a little at odds with walking around, breathing, eating, and sleeping. She knew they had a lot in common.
He exited with a tip of his cap, recognizing her as part of the club. Good. At least there was that.
Wishing to goodness she had on a wedding ring, she handed the bubbly pink test kit to Carla, the clerk. She would make it seem like a happy time, and she wouldn't be pegged as a person who would sleep with just anyone. She wasn't that type of person, but Carla couldn't know that. Nina would bet a lot of money that if Carla had kids, she had them well within the bonds of matrimony. Sure, it seemed that society was more favorable to single mothers these days. Until you found out you were pregnant, and then—whoa!—you felt the stigma down to the soles of your feet. True, nobody kicked you out of the village for immorality anymore; these days you just felt stupid for not looking after your birth control a little more closely.
Where was that guidance counselor who told her to wait "until you're ready" to have sex with a man? Why did Ms. Farley never complete the equation of male + female = quite possibly another male or female, depending on which chromosome came from the male that day? Another male or female who would be totally dependent on you? Who, all eight pounds of them, could take over every bit of your life? Ready? What waitress, who didn't have big plans and wasn't married, who didn't even have a guy around worth marrying, was ready? Yes, Ms. Farley, how about at least paying for the pregnancy test kit? How about that?
"That'll be $12.63," Carla said. Carla had been working here for years. She gave Nina a half smile. Nina didn't blame her for not revealing the other half. Who wanted to be stuck in a drugstore on a day like today?
Nina riffled through her bag. Wallet, wallet, wallet. Where was it?
Oh no! On the coffee table. She'd shoved it in the back pocket of her jeans last night when she ran down here, to this store, to get a bottle of aspirin. And then she'd taken it out when she got back home and had laid it right by the novel she was reading.
She looked up. "I can't believe this ... I think I left my wallet at home."
Nina dug into her skirt pocket, pulling out a few tips she had shoved in there the night before—a couple of ones, some change. Carla looked anxiously over Nina's shoulder where a line continued to form.
Behind her, another old man cleared his throat. She looked back at him. What was this, the old man convention? No little chocolate donuts this time, though.
"Can I come back and pay you later? I live close by."
"I know you do. It's okay. You're good for it. My shift is over at four."
You're good for it. Always a nice thing to hear when you feel your life is proving otherwise.
Nina slid the kit into her bag and hurried back around the corner against the flow of pedestrian traffic and saw herself, a woman wearing huge embroidered flowers, parting the waters in a sea of dark, serious suits. She ran up the steps to her apartment.
She should have been at work two minutes ago.
But nothing else mattered, nothing but knowing the truth. Well, knowing it for sure. If that was even possible.CHAPTER 3
The paper butterfly lay on the pebbly concrete of the back walk, its wings rising toward the clearest sky the summer had yet to hold. Celia picked it up, its moon-green wings vibrating in the summer wind. Lucinda, her daughter, reached for it, taking it gently between her finger and thumb.
"What is it?" Celia asked the three-year-old, bringing her camcorder to her eye and pressing the red Record button.
"Butterfly!" She held it up to her mother's camera.
Celia zoomed in, recording her young daughter's wide face, the soft, straight lines of her eyebrows beneath the center part of her brown hair pulled back in pigtails. The pointed chin dipped down beneath the sweet smile. And those cheeks. Celia could eat them up sometimes. "What color is it, Loochi?"
"Pink." Her dark eyes glowed beneath her wide, pale forehead. Celia had really never seen a cuter little girl. She was probably biased, but nevertheless, she thought she was right about that.
Now, she may have been adorable, but as far as learning her colors ...
Celia watched her daughter through the viewfinder as she held up the butterfly. Loochi's little face smiled beside the paper insect; her dark, glossy hair shimmered next to the fuzzy, opaque lightness of the butterfly's wings. She'd picked it out at the dollar store down the street.
"Green!" Lucinda cried.
"Good! Okay, now, what do butterflies do?"
"Yay, that's great!" Sometimes Celia looked in awe at Lucinda, remembering how her sister and her friends told her she wouldn't realize how much a heart could love until she had children, that every biting pain, every moment of uncertainty was worth it.
"To the clouds?"
"To the clouds!"
Those women were right.
It was a special day, Celia decided right then. They'd play for a little bit, take a walk, and order in a pizza. They never ordered pizza. Celia worked down at the shoe store. Even carryout was a luxury. It didn't matter, though. Lucinda loved frozen pizza almost as much. And Celia would let the butterfly watch Beauty and the Beast with them because she knew that's what Lucinda was going to ask. That crazy butterfly had lounged next to Lucinda on the arm of the couch for the past week.
Lucinda whirled and danced with the butterfly. Jumping up and down. A little jumping bean, skin glowing in the hot, summer sun. Celia kept the camera going. She just had a feeling she'd never want to forget this day.CHAPTER 4
She hated this bathroom, the blue stucco walls, the old mirrored medicine cabinet, the sugar bucket she used as a trash can. When the toilet's a centerpiece, something's just wrong, and God bless the person who attached the scallop-shell lid on the thing. Nina needed reminders of the beach as often as possible.
Nina longed for her father just then, to see his wiry blond hair reflecting the sun, his green eyes hidden behind his cool Ray Bans, those ratty, khaki shorts he always wore in the summer. Gregory Daniels hadn't been the greatest father in the world. He blew his stack every once in a while when Nina came home too late or he smelled alcohol on her breath; he grounded her one night and took it back the next; he drank a little too much himself at times; he occasionally missed one of her dance recitals. But he knew how to laugh; he knew how to scoop her hands in his and do the shag, something he learned in his native South Carolina. They'd triple step and rock step on the wooden floor of the kitchen in time to "Under the Boardwalk."
Sometimes he took her to the beach, and there Nina's father would tell her about his views of life, what makes a person happy, why love usually comes as a big surprise.
"Why?" she asked him one day as they sat eating ice cream, great swirls of it on crunchy cones. She realized she probably remembered them twice as big as they actually had been. But that was her right. "Why is that?"
Excerpted from Bella by LISA SAMSON. Copyright © 2008 Bella Productions LLC. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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