Best-selling author Adriana Trigiani has written novels and cookbooks. In 2009, she released her first young adult novel, “Viola in Reel Life,” about a teenage filmmaker who moves from Brooklyn to Indiana to attend boarding school. In her follow-up, “Viola in the Spotlight,” Viola returns to Brooklyn to spend an adventure-filled summer with her friends. Read an excerpt:
There is no better place on earth than right here on my stoop on 72nd Street in Bay Ridge. Borough of Brooklyn. City of New York. County of Kings. The Empire State. Home. I lift my video camera, flip to Record, and peer through the lens, taking in every familiar detail of our cul-de-sac (that’s French for dead end).
Dad and Mom picked me up at the Prefect Academy in South Bend, Indiana, yesterday morning. After we loaded up the car, I said good-bye to my roommates. Suzanne took pictures of us with her phone. (Casual observation: Beautiful blondes like Suzanne are as comfortable behind the camera taking pictures as they are in front of it.)
Romy, who we are so proud of, because out of the four of us, she has the most athletic ability and made the field hockey team champions, gave me a good-bye gift: a set of "Twilight" books, and her favorite Lauren Conrad novel: "L.A. Candy." (Again, an unofficial poll, but jocks at Prefect read a lot. They have to have something to pass the time when they’re in the gym on the elliptical.)
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Marisol was so sad that she cried, and swore she’d miss me the most. We got to be very close friends. Marisol may be the most sensitive girl on the planet, and she is also a true-blue friend. We created our own friendship crest, a puffy heart with a pair of Lady Gaga sequin-studded sunglasses in the center. In a ribbon underneath: Veritas Forevertas: La chica amica e bono — or, Forever True: Girlfriends and Goodness.
The four of us had been there for one another the entire school year, so we fell into familiar patterns, like four sisters, even in our good-byes. Suzanne joked around and cheered Marisol up, while Romy reassured her that we would all stay in touch no matter what. We made plans to stay in constant communication, by texting, calling, and of course, by Skype and by email. We will remain close in cyberspace.
My roommates made my ninth-grade year at the Prefect Academy as good as it could possibly be, but I’m not going back next year. It’s time to be a New Yorker again, attend LaGuardia High School, and reunite with my old friends. I did well on my admissions testing (thank you, Prefect prep class), and Mom and Dad made sure that my application was turned in so that I’d be accepted. My short movie that placed in the Midwest competition sealed the deal; the film faculty thought it was pretty good. Of course I will miss the big events at Prefect, including the dorm parties, the hayrides, and the film competition, but it’s the little things I will treasure when I think of my roommates. I’ll never forget the blue streaks in Romy’s red hair, which grew out inch by inch until the blue was just a fringe on the bottom like a dust ruffle on a bed. I never had to use an alarm clock because every morning when Marisol weighed herself, the scale blurted out the number and woke me up. I’ll miss Suzanne’s ability to center part her hair without having to look in the mirror — it was a feat that amazed me until the last day of school.
There was also lot of natural beauty to savor in South Bend, Indiana, once I decided it wouldn’t kill me to like another place almost as much as New York City. The Midwest can be mysterious and grand. I’ll never forget the slow curves of the Saint Joe River, the twilight sky that turned from electric blue to purple as the sun set, and the snow, so heavy and persistent that it altered the landscape, making mountains of white drifts on the flat cornfields.
Mom, Dad, and I decided to drive through the night, instead of stopping in a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania to break up our trip. We wanted to be together again, just the three of us, in the cocoon of our car on the long highway home. Our family is like a small machine that can’t run properly when one of the parts is missing. It turns out that they wanted to get home to Brooklyn as much as I did. A year in Afghanistan made them appreciate everything about our lives in the Chesterton family, including our car and the smooth highways that connect everything. Dad took my mom’s hand in the front seat a lot when he was driving. We made it back by two a.m., and I wasn’t one bit tired.
This is my first official installment of "The Viola Reels," which I am calling "The Return Reels," as this is my triumphant return to the place I love most in the world, New York, in the season I love best, summer, on the harbor that I adore. My river flows with the waters of creative baptism.
By the way, I heard the term creative baptism last night for the first time on an all-night radio show my dad was listening to as we drove through Ohio. Mom was asleep, and Dad was listening to Prince (his favorite) and Taylor Swift (mine). We got tired of both, and Dad turned on the old-fashioned radio. That’s when he heard a preacher giving a sermon and became entranced with the minister’s cadence.
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I did too, as the preacher spoke of the healing power of water. I immediately thought of the harbor, and then extended my new belief system to be grateful for all the things I treasure about city life, including: Andrew Bozelli (BFFAA), Caitlin Pullapilly (we have to work around her strict parents, but she’s worth it!), Serendipity frozen hot chocolate, the E train, Tag Nachmanoff, 8th Street in Greenwich Village, the Angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Christmastime, the Broadway line of the M4 bus, Original Ray’s pizza by the slice. I could probably double this list, but that’s not the big news.
The headline for today, June 15, 2010: I am finally, completely, and decidedly home.
I take a slow pan of our building, drinking in the delicate details that I did not for a single moment forget when I was in boarding school. I shoot the expanse of the lacy wrought-iron fence that separates our stoop from the neighbors, the old blue urn, with cracks that look like spiderwebs in the glaze, and finally the brass mail slot with a Greek key design around the edges. I lift the camera to frame the shot with green, leafy branches that bend gently over our stoop. I widen out to take in the expanse of our street.
Brownstone buildings, just like ours, from the 1800s line either side of my block, shaded by old Norway maple trees that form a summery satin canopy over the old macadam. The sidewalk curbs are staggered with seams of bright yellow paint to define parking spots.
Parking spots cannot be reserved by just anyone. The tenants on our block know that the space in front of their homes officially belongs to them. We actually chase off people who try to park here who do not live on our street. We reserve the spaces as seriously as the guards who protect the money bags on the Brink’s truck. I angle in on the old fire hydrant, once painted in bold stripes of bright red, white, and green in honor of the Italian flag. Now, after years of sun and wear, the hydrant has faded to a dull pink, gray, and mint green.
I asked Mom if we could repaint it, and she said, “Let’s not. It’s symbolic of a bygone era.” She’s right. These are monuments, after all, Brooklyn monuments. We live in history. Dad says we are caretakers of this old building, and if we keep it in good condition, another family will enjoy it when we have moved on (hopefully never).
The Martinelli family sold our brownstone to my parents eight years ago. They were genuine Italians. We kept the grape arbor and olive trees they planted in the backyard. Our basement smells like a wine bottle, because they used to store crates of grapes there to make wine. In winter, when we build fires, the scent of the Martinellis’ homemade wine still wafts through the house, smoky and cold and woodsy, like the wooden barrels they stored it in.
Last night, when we arrived and dropped my suitcases and stuff in the front entry, I ran through the entire house, literally stopping in every single room except the basement apartment, which Mom and Dad rent out. They sublet the building to a professor and his family on sabbatical while we were gone. The basement apartment is empty, and hopefully that’s temporary. My parents are officially worried about money again. Dad and Mom were talking in the car when they thought I was sleeping. I heard Dad say that job number one was renting out the apartment for the summer. We need the income.
Somehow, our money worries don’t upset me. Not much anyway. I figure that as long as we’re together, our family can figure it out. It’s when we’re apart, when they’re working in faraway places like Afghanistan and I’m in school in Indiana, that’s when I get anxious.
Mom thought it was nuts that I had to physically stand in every single room of our house as soon as we got home last night. It was practically dawn, and we were beat, but I didn’t care. I had to know that the place was exactly as we left it. I went through the living room, the kitchen, then up the back stairs to my parents’ second-floor editing bay and offices, then up to the third floor, where my bedroom and my parents’ bedroom share a bath. There are still lots of things in need of repair: the door with the bashed-in screen that leads to the backyard, the kitchen table with the shaky leg cluttered with stacks of mail, and my bedroom window sash warped by years of rain, which has to be propped open with a ruler. I’ve asked my dad to fix these things a million times, but now I don’t care if he ever does. I would take this crumbly old house over any other place in the world. It’s a palace to me.
I changed my POV at the Prefect Academy. I’m over complaining about things that don’t matter. I’m over asking for stuff I don’t really need, or silly things that I want. I don’t need anything but home, family, friends, Brooklyn, and my camera. My parents will be shocked when they realize how much I’ve changed. “Viola!” Andrew waves and shouts from the end of the block as he turns the corner. I hold up the camera and film him as he comes toward me.
“Andrew?” I holler back. I don’t believe my eyes. Andrew Bozelli, my BFFAA, grew, like I don’t know, a foot since I’ve been gone. I’ve always been really good at judging proportion. I have an almost innate sense of size, placement, and angle when it comes to camera work. But, I’m stunned at the change in Andrew. So totally stunned, I actually stop looking through the lens to take in the new version of my old friend. Lean and tall has replaced slight and small in Bozelli world.
Andrew looks way older now — practically seventeen, if you had to guess. And, on top of looking older, he turned handsome. His round cheeks went chiseled, his chin lost all its roundness and now appears determined, and since I’ve been gone, it’s obvious he went from shaving once a month to more often.
Besides his height, he has a new look going. His hair has grown out to a very cool length, a straight fringe of coppery reddish brown, long enough to rest over his collar. One familiar trait remains: the freckles all over his nose, which are still there, in the shape of a Band-Aid that’s been ripped off.
“Don’t film me.” Andrew smiles. His braces are off.
He left that little detail out of the bazillion texts we do each day. His straight white teeth look new, and just like a television anchor’s. His canine teeth, which used to recede, are now in line with the rest of his bite. Dazzling. I switch the camera off and give him a big hug. “Your braces ...”
“I know. Gone-zo.” He smiles again.
“Olivia Olson gave you a makeover.” The mention of Olivia Olson makes him blush; I don’t know if that’s from love or embarrassment. But one thing is for sure — Andrew snagged the most beautiful girl in the ninth grade as his first girlfriend, so he’s set for the rest of high school. They were an official couple for an entire academic year. A huge deal. But I don’t want to rehash his entire relationship and eventual breakup with Olivia Olson, so I blurt, “You’re all snazzy now.”
“Oh yeah, right. The haircut was her idea. And so was the growing out. Olivia said I have a thick neck so I needed longer hair.”
“What?” Olivia was way off. I don’t even notice a guy’s neck. I never once heard Suzanne, Romy, or Marisol ever mention a guy’s neck.
“My neck is my neck. I figure only girls care about necks. Guys don’t at all.”
“Right.” I’m not going to tell him that I’m a girl and I don’t care about necks either. Why pile on? “Who cares anyway?” Andrew laughs. “You’re home.”
“I know. I can’t even tell you how much I missed Brooklyn.”
“You changed too.”
“Oh yeah?” I hope it’s totally obvious to everyone I meet, including Mrs. Ramos at the bodega, that I had a boyfriend and survived one year away from home.
“I like your hair,” Andrew says.
“I had to grow out my bangs. It was almost impossible. They were feisty.”
Andrew throws his head back and laughs.
“What’s so funny?”
“The way you use words. I don’t know. It doesn’t come across in emails or texts. I missed it.”
“Oh, so now you’re Sir Sophisticated.”
“Hardly. I’m just saying that I missed your colorful use of the English language.”
“Man, someone’s been training for the PSATs.”
“I know. Mom signed me up for the course. I have this McDullard guy come over once a week.”
“Give me his number. I need Mr. McDullard.”
“His name is Chang. I call him McDullard.”
“So maybe we can take PSAT prep together?”
“Sure.” Andrew shrugs.
“I have about a million things I want to do this summer.”
“Well, then, we have to cram them in. My parents signed me up for camp.”
“Sleepaway?” I know I must sound disappointed.
“Yeah. I don’t want to go, but they’re making me. I leave in three weeks. It’s in Maine. I’ll die up there. Eaten to death by mosquitoes. Hospitalized for salmonella from raw hot dogs. Or I’ll drown in the lake. It’s a freakin’ obstacle course of disaster.”
Andrew is a total city person and is annoyed instead of awed by the wonders of the great outdoors. Clearly, his parents are trying to make him into something he’s not: a camper.
Parents who raise their kids in the city believe we should have fresh air in the summer, be surrounded by trees, and paddle canoes. Does it occur to them that we like our city life? I like my trees in pots, not forests. And I like my canoes (for rent) in Central Park. And most of all, I like my hot dogs from a steam bath in a vendor cart, where I know they’ve been cooked for twelve hours minimum.
“You just ruined my entire summer with that news.”
I fiddle with the lens on my camera as I try to bring my feelings into focus. For a split second I feel bad that I’m being selfish, but I’ve been gone nine and a half months, and I thought Andrew and I would spend every moment of the summer doing the stuff we love to do. There’s no hassle with Andrew, and yet he’s not some pushover, either. And even though we emailed and Skyped when I was in boarding school, it wasn’t the same as hanging out. I missed my BFFAA in person, where I can see what he’s thinking when he’s not saying anything, or we can laugh because of the expressions on our faces, and not in our texts — with a file of smiling faces in various emotional states to punctuate our cyberspace conversations.
“But we’ll be in school together in the fall.” He grins.
“Did you go online and do your schedule?”
“Yep. Thank you for the tips.”
“We should find out in early August if we got all our classes together. Caitlin decided to sign up for website advertising and design.”
“I can’t believe her mom lets her take anything but music theory and advanced violin technique.”
“She probably figures Caitlin need to know how to create her own online ads when she winds up at Carnegie Hall.” Andrew stretches out his long legs, so long they practically reach from the second step on the stoop down to the sidewalk. He turns and looks at me. “So, what are your plans?”
“I have to regroup. Now that you’re going away, I might have to actually come up with something to fill the days.”
“Hey, guys!” Caitlin Pullapilly breaks into a run when she sees Andrew and me on the stoop. Her long black hair sails behind her like a silky veil. She really is the most beautiful girl in Brooklyn or anywhere else. She’s a mermaid on dry land.
Caitlin takes the brownstone steps two at a time to hug me. “Boy, did we miss you.”
“I missed you, too.”
“I love your hair,” she says, as she turns my shoulders to check out how long it has grown in the back.
“Viola grew out her feisty bangs.” Andrew looks at me and smiles, as though he couldn’t wait to repeat that phrase, it delights him so.
“The bangs took, like, nine months. But I’m not the only one.” I point to Andrew’s hair to get him back. I turn to Caitlin. “So tell me absolutely everything, and don’t leave out anything.”
“There’s so much going on, I don’t even know where to start. I got a summer job.” Caitlin smoothes her capris, embroidered with different diamond shapes in shades of blue.
“A job?” I say it like it’s the worst news since they canceled "The O.C."
“I know. My mom is making me,” Caitlin says.
Besides being the mother with the most rules, and by the way, she makes up new ones on the fly, now it turns out that Mrs. Pullapilly is also a real slave driver. She doesn’t let Caitlin do anything — she has to sign up in her own home to use the computer, whose screen faces Mrs. Pullapilly’s desk, so zero privacy. And Caitlin can’t IM or text until college. The cell phone she gave Caitlin is one of those cheesy for-emergency-only cell phones, which can dial 911 or Mrs. P’s personal cell phone only. It’s insane.
“Mom wants me to do something all summer so my brain doesn’t turn to mush,” Caitlin says defensively.
“So what’s the job?” I ask.
“I’m going to do all the filing at our dentist’s office. He’s a good friend of our family. Dr. Balu.”
“His partner, Dr. Desloges, did my braces,” Andrew says.
I couldn’t wait to break out of boarding school to come home and hang with my friends. Now that I’m here, it turns out the Bozellis and the Pullapillys decided that it was best to keep Andrew and Caitlin so busy, they’d hardly have time for me. I forget that parents in general still make decisions for their teenage kids. My parents made me go to boarding school, and even though I didn’t have a choice in the matter, once I got there, I was on my own. I had an entire school year of making every decision for myself, so it’s pretty weird to come home and find that my friends hardly make any for themselves.
I had big summer plans for the three of us. Meals included. I wanted to order in sesame noodles and eat them on the roof. We’d take the water taxi to the South Street Seaport, sail a couple of 360s around Manhattan on the Circle Line, and take bike rides in Prospect Park. Dad said he’d drive us to Far Rockaway beach during the week to avoid crowds, and to Coney Island on Saturdays. I was even going to ask my mom to drive us to Jersey to Great Adventure. But now all my plans just blew up like a bald tire on a hot road. Here’s the summer: Andrew decides to temporarily relocate to Maine while Caitlin disappears as an indentured servant at a dental office. And I’m alone.
“I’ve still got a few weeks before camp starts,” Andrew reasons.
“I don’t start working until a week from Monday,” Caitlin explains.
“We’ll just have to cram a lot in,” I tell them. My mind begins to race with possibilities. I’ll have to put my plans on turbo, and fill the days before Andrew and Caitlin disappear into camp and work.
“Whatever you want to do.” Caitlin shrugs.
“I want to have dinner tonight on the roof. Cold sesame noodles and Stewart’s root beer and mini mint chip cheesecakes from Junior’s.”
“Sorry to interrupt you guys,” Mom says, holding the front door open with her foot. “Well, look at this. The old stoop is back to normal.” My mom beams. “And I’m loving it.”
Even after that long car ride, my mom looks beautiful, or maybe I just missed her so much that she seems lovelier than ever. She has her hair piled on her head with bobby pins. Her rhinestone-studded reading glasses dangle around her neck like crown jewels. Her brown hair is almost red now, fried from the Afghan sun. She is still no fashionista. Her boyfriend jeans are hiked up with a canvas belt that’s lost its grommets from wear. That’s my mom. No frills and she gets the last bit of use out of whatever she has, whether it’s a tube of toothpaste, a jar of peanut butter, or a canvas belt. “The long-awaited reunion.”
“Yep,” Andrew says, flipping his bangs to the side and off his face.
“I like that haircut, Andrew,” Mom says.
“Thanks, Mrs. Chesterton.”
“I thought we’d cook out tonight in the backyard,” Mom says.
“Oh man, we were going to order in,” I complain. “You can order in anytime. This is a special night. Dad is firing up the old grill. You know what that means .…”
“Red hamburgers and black hot dogs?” I joke.
“Your father is very proud of his grilling. And I try not to complain when he does the cooking. We don’t want to discourage your father doing chores — ever. Got it?” Mom says. She looks at Andrew and Caitlin. “And of course, you two are welcome to stay.”
“Thanks,” Caitlin and Andrew say politely. How can they resist a lame cookout?
“Grand is coming over, and she’s bringing George,” Mom says.
“Oh, hallelujah. I love that guy. Wait till you meet him, Caitlin. He looks like Cary Grant.”
Caitlin actually knows who Cary Grant is, not because she’s a film buff but because black-and-white movies are some of the only ones that her mother lets her watch. Mrs. P liked "The Philadelphia Story" and "The Awful Truth." Turns out they actually enjoy Golden Age of Hollywood slapstick in India. Mrs. Pullapilly doesn’t know about the racy black-and-white movies made pre–Hayes Code in 1930s Hollywood, but if she did, I’m sure she’d ban them from Caitlin’s eyeballs.
“Is George really as handsome as Cary Grant?” Caitlin asks.
“Swear.” I turn to Andrew. “You remember George — he was in my movie project at Prefect.”
“Good actor,” Andrew says.
I look up at my mom, who watches the three of us with a look of total joy on her face. I may have missed her, but she sure missed me — and my friends. “Do you think Grand is going to marry him?”
“I hope not. I’m too old to be in another wedding party. But you never know. Love is funny that way. It just sneaks up on you.”
“And then it ruins your life,” Andrew says.
Mom throws her head back and laughs. “Don’t be bitter, Andrew.”
“Too late. I have the haircut to prove it,” Andrew says. This is one of the things I like best about Andrew. He has already healed from his breakup with Olivia Olson, even though he is the one who initiated the proceedings. He’ll never be one of those people who lets emotions pile up and then has to sort through them (like me). Andrew doesn’t hold grudges, nor does he look back and wish things were different. It’s good to have a sensible BFFAA.
“I could use a couple of potato peelers in the kitchen,” Mom says as she goes.
“Let’s give your mom a hand,” Caitlin says, always eager to please authority figures.
I follow Andrew and Caitlin into the house. I can’t believe it, my first day back — and the summer I have imagined and so carefully planned, detail by detail, is not happening! All my dreams of endless summer afternoons on the roof, hanging out and talking and making movies with my friends, have just gone up in a puff of black smoke, as dark and opaque as the ones off my dad’s grill. Oh well. Time to regroup. I learned that working with actors on my movie. When you don’t get exactly what you want as the director, roll with it, because if you don’t, the joy goes right out of the process. Stay loose and cool will be my mantra this summer. I can do that. Happily. As long as I’m in Brooklyn, do I really have any problems?
I may retire my Princess Snark tiara for good. The truth is, I’ve outgrown it. Marisol taught me that the glass half full can really quench your thirst if you let it. And when I analyze the situation and look around at my life, I got what I wanted most: I’m home.
Excerpted from “Viola in the Spotlight” by Adriana Trigiani. Copyright © 2011 by Adriana Trigiani. Excerpted by permission of Harper Teen, a division of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.