The blue vastness of the Pacific swept to the distant horizon and melted into the sky. Mansions perched at the edge of cliffs and beaches appeared and disappeared against all the blueness, this incomparable open space. I definitely wasn’t in Brooklyn anymore—or in Manhattan.
“Gorgeous, just gorgeous, all of it,” Marvin remarked, leaning forward from the backseat, his head popping into the space between Isabella and me. “Even after living out here for a year, I don’t get tired of feasting on all this blue.”
“And no winter, no snow,” exclaimed Isabella, my daughter. “At night, I go to sleep to the sound of the surf. How awesome is that?”
“Very awesome,” I agreed, and my eyes met Marvin Castelli’s in the rearview mirror. Told ya so, Sam.
I turned off on South Winter Canyon Road. I loved the name of that road; south winter conjured such vivid mental images of snow-covered streets wrapped up in that strange silence that came with falling snow. And the word canyon was all about this area of California, a sweeping desert of canyons and valleys that humanity had sort of tamed.
Just beyond Pepperdine University on our left, I hung a right through the gate of Isabella’s school. “I’ve got a swim meet after school, Mom, so I’ll catch a ride home with Lauren.”
Lauren was her closest friend in Malibu, the daughter of writers for one of the hottest TV shows this season. Even though both she and Isabella had their driver’s licenses, neither of them was allowed to drive to and from school. Lauren’s older brother, who attended Pepperdine, often drove them home.
“Have a good day, love, and I should be home around six. I left a veggie lasagna in the fridge that you can heat up.”
She bussed me quickly on the cheek and slid out of the car, and Marvin got out of the back to join me up front. “And good luck with that English test,” he called after her. “I know you’ll do great.”
Marvin used to teach English lit and composition in a high school in Rhode Island and had spent several hours this weekend helping her study for the test. He and his ex-partner had also written a play that I had produced off Broadway, in my other life. That was how I’d met him. That time now seemed so distant and remote that I often couldn’t remember who I had been there, what had motivated me, what goals I’d had.
Isabella flashed him a thumbs-up and I stared after her, watching until my beautiful daughter vanished into the crowd of kids moving toward the main building.
“Don’t worry about her, Sam,” he said. “She’s flourishing out here. We all are.”
Yes, we were. But always, in the back of my head, there was an annoying little voice that kept warning me about becoming too complacent, too comfortable. As I knew from the past, the proverbial curveballs usually hurtled toward you out of the blue, and slammed your life into crisis mode. I’d had more than my share of crises and disasters and could do without them, thank you very much. But still, a part of me remained alert and vigilant, prepared nonetheless for what might occur.
“So how’s our day shaping up, Marvin?”
“We’ve got back-to-back meetings from ten till noon, lunch with Liza after that, and then five more scripts came in over the weekend. And I haven’t finished going through the email yet.” He brought out his trusty iPad and went online.
Marvin was a short, handsome man with wavy blond hair and dark, compassionate eyes. There was an artistic, disheveled air about him, but he was so efficient and organized that he kept my new company on track. Despite the fact that we were new in town, we already had one TV movie in production with HBO, a thriller/love story set post-WWII, and we were actively seeking scripts for a possible TV series. Brooklyn Story was supposed to go into production at Gallery Studios sometime in the next several months, but we didn’t have a date yet.
Liza had been immensely helpful in connecting us with the right people. Her network out here was vast and varied and ranged from actors and directors to scriptwriters and line producers. She was also steering our search for financing for a movie of my second novel, The Suite Life. It would have been great if Gallery had just optioned both books, but as Liza said, Patience, love. It’ll happen.
For most of my life, I’d known people who were helpful and supportive like Liza was, but she was extraordinary. Endowed with endless energy, Liza could tackle anything, anywhere, and complete the job in half the time it would take anyone else.
Sometimes my life felt as if it was moving at the speed of light, and I just had to slow down and take some deep breaths. That was when Isabella and I would take long walks on the beach, talking and looking for shells. Or we would do girl things, like shop and get our hair cut and our nails done, stuff we rarely had done together in New York. Our relationship was much stronger and deeper here than it had been during the years when our lives were so screwed up. I hated to admit it, but with Alec gone and some money, that can happen. I guess money can do that. There was a lot of be said for financial freedom.
“Okay,” Marvin said. “There’s an email here from Liza. She says you’re not answering your text messages and are we still on for lunch?”
“You bet. Tell her that. And tell her I just did a software update on my phone, and my texting isn’t working right.”
DeMarco Productions was located on Melrose Avenue, close to Paramount Studios. It was small, just four rooms on the second floor of a house that had stood on Melrose for decades. The central room was a small lobby, the walls painted a pale lemon yellow and decorated with some vintage movie posters that Paul had lent us from his collection. The other three rooms circled the lobby, like planets around the sun.
Clara Mendoza, our receptionist, was already at her desk, madly typing away at her computer; she paused to hand me a stack of phone messages. “They’re all urgent,” she said in her snappy, slightly accented voice. “They’re always urgent.”
I laughed. “Life is urgent.”
She glanced away from the computer screen. An attractive brunette in her early thirties, a Peruvian who had come to L.A. looking for fame and fortune, after several years of heartbreak, she’d decided to find a real job, something in the industry, and I hired her within five minutes of meeting her. She was bilingual, a definite asset, and could fix anything from computers and broken faucets to scripts.
“Now you sound like some South American writer like . . . Marquez. Wasn’t he the one who said that life is urgent? Or was it love is urgent? Well, whatever.”
“I can’t text after updating my phone’s operating system,” I said. “Any advice?”
“I’ll take a look.” She extended her hand, and I passed her the phone. “Paul has called a couple of times. He wants to meet you for lunch, I told him you were meeting Liza, and he’d like to join you.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Que va, chica. I told him you’d call him as soon as you got in. Oh, I just forwarded you and Marvin another script we received. It looks promising. I’ll read it tonight.”
And she was also incredibly diligent. “Great. Thanks. Can you get Paul on the phone?”
Since Paul had called the office rather than my cell, it meant he had business to discuss. I would do the same.
I hurried on into my office. Sunlight shone through the sliding-glass doors leading out to a small balcony to my right, where several gorgeous potted plants grew with a kind of wild abandon.
Sometimes at the end of a busy day, Marvin, Clara, and I sat out at the balcony table, sipping my favorite rosé wine, commiserating over possible strategies, and marveling at our good fortune. I hoped to expand the staff eventually, but I didn’t intend to make the same mistakes I had made during my marriage to Alec, when money went out faster than it came in. I pondered the thought of how far I had come in my life, and finally it felt great. I was even able to exhale for a moment.
Right now it was just the three of us and a part-timer, a male intern from UCLA who had a sharp eye for what worked in stories. He worked closely with Marvin, and I suspected that some sort of romantic thing might be unfolding between the two of them. I hoped so. Marvin needed love as badly as I did.
My first ritual every morning when I came into my office was to light three candles on the little altar in the corner that held miniature statues: the first to the Blessed Mother, a second to the Archangel Michael, and a third to Buddha. In the six weeks Paul and I had been dating, he’d never commented on the altar or the items it held, but I suspected he didn’t approve for “business reasons.” He was too nice to say it, though. Even if he had, this was my office, my production company, and if I wanted to have an altar in here, then I would. These were my beliefs. They had taken me this far, and I was willing to go all the way with them. I hoped that the days when a man called the shots regarding what I did, who I saw, where I went, or how I spent my money were history.
As I lit the candles, I could almost hear my grandmother whispering, Kinehora, Samelah, kinehora, the words that always protected me. Blessed good journey, protecting what’s to come. I asked that the week ahead would unfold peacefully. I’ve had enough drama in my life to last several lifetimes, and the only thing that ever came from it was more drama and heartache. I then blew the candles out and inhaled the scent of lemon that lingered in the air.
My desk faced the balcony so that I always had a view of those potted plants and the palm trees beyond them. Those palms were a constant reminder that I wasn’t in New York anymore, as if I could forget that. As much as I loved being organized, stuff still cluttered my desk: books, scripts, notes, and pads of paper on which I jotted everything, from addresses to lines from songs that I wanted to use in the script for The Suite Life. So when my desk phone rang, I had to dig through the clutter even to find it. “Sam, I’ve got Paul on the line,” Clara said, and clicked through.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey yourself, beautiful.”
He had a low, husky voice, infinitely seductive, and it elicited an immediate image in my head of a younger Bruce Willis, head as bald as an egg, Mediterranean blue eyes, a salt-and-pepper goatee. Six months ago, he had asked me out for the first time. I turned him down. I didn’t think it was a good idea to date the guy who had optioned my book and script. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept finding excuses to call me. This went on for months, until he came by the office one afternoon with my favorite, a truffle pizza.
“Since you won’t go out with me, I figure that if I bring lunch to you, it’s not an official date. We’re just two hungry people sharing the best pizza in Hollywood.”
So we sat out on the balcony like a couple of old friends, exchanging stories about Hollywood’s weirdness. He had more of those stories than I did—he’d been here for decades. One of my favorites was about the valet at one of the plush hotels who was eventually busted for stealing parts from Jaguars and BMWs, which he sold for a tidy profit on the black market. Then there was a woman who cleaned houses for the rich and famous and went on to write a tell-all book about the dysfunctional lifestyles of the people for whom she worked. Ordinary people, really, whose lives were corrupted by Hollywood and fame.
This sort of corruption, though, was even more prevalent among the children of Hollywood’s movers and shakers, Paul had said, and told me about his son’s addiction to a video game. Luke was now in rehab. Luke’s friend Jake, whose father was the CEO of a major studio, had a sexual addiction that resulted in his being treated for a host of STDs that had nearly killed him. Stories like these made me appreciate just how normal Isabella was.
We enjoyed a couple more impromptu pizzas after that, and I really started looking forward to seeing Paul, laughing with him, just getting to know him as a person rather than as a producer. So six weeks ago, when he asked me out for the second time on a real date, I accepted. The man exuded such charm and was so much fun to be with that we started sleeping together within a few weeks.
In these past six weeks, there hadn’t been a single incident with him that set off any alarms in my head. I wasn’t in love with him—yet—but I suspected he was falling in love with me.
“So Clara says you’d like to join Liza and me for lunch?”
“If it’s okay.”
I liked that he asked. Most of the men I’ve known would have just barged in on the lunch as if they had every right to do so. “I don’t see why not. Any particular reason?”
He was being cagey. “Good news, I hope?”
“Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t bring bad news to lunch with you two.”
“Give me a hint.”
“Nope. You’ve got to wait till lunch.”
“Oh, c’mon. That’s not fair.”
He hesitated, then said, “Principal photography on Brooklyn Story starts next month, on the Gallery Studios lot. I just got the heads-up a little while ago.”
No one except my grandmother could possibly understand how I felt in that instant. For as long as I can remember, she was my supporter, my cheerleader, the one who encouraged me to write my way out of Brooklyn and into a better story. Gratitude nearly overwhelmed me for everything she’d given me throughout my childhood. Her support had brought me to this moment. As that Smith Corona she gave me when I was seventeen to write it.
“That’s fantastic. But what happened? A month ago they didn’t even have a full cast.”
“What happened is that Jenean Conte has agreed to play you.”
Conte had been nominated for an Oscar last year for a Spielberg film. She was only in her mid-twenties, a beautiful young woman loaded with talent. “She’s perfect for the part, Paul.”
“And we’re going to celebrate tonight. I’m taking you out for a romantic dinner, for—”
“I can’t do it tonight, not during the week, when Isabella is home. This weekend would be better. She’ll be spending the night with friends.”
He hesitated. Paul didn’t really have any concept of what it was like to be a single mother to a teenager. His son was twenty-four, but even if Luke were a toddler, his ex-wife would be tending to him. Maybe that was why Luke was in rehab for his addiction to Mystery Manor. Weird, but there you had it. Nothing out here—even addictions—was like anywhere else. “Okay, let’s shoot for the weekend.”
Maybe he felt Isabella was old enough to stay by herself—and at sixteen, she definitely was. But for me, this was about the past, about how I hadn’t always been there for her when she needed me. “Great.” It was tricky enough stealing time on weekends to spend the night with Paul. I didn’t want to sneak around on weeknights. “I’ll see you at lunch. Larchmont, twelve-thirty.”
“I’ll be there, beautiful.”
I remembered how in the weeks and months after 9/11, Alec’s relentless drive to reach the top had meant he was rarely home. And when he had been home, he’d issued orders about everything from having dinner ready to getting Isabella to and from school on time. It wore me down and left me resentful.
When I had tried to talk to him about what I felt concerning our marriage, he had blown me off at every chance he had. The few times we’d gone out socially, he hardly acknowledged me except to remark to one of his cronies about how hot I was. I constantly asked myself whether the price of staying in my marriage was greater than the cost of breaking free, or the price of being so rich that it almost made me want to be poor again.
And now, ironically, thanks to Alec’s insurance policy, we were okay. No man was ever going to put me in that kind of situation again. And I would teach my daughter that very motto.
• • •
The Larchmont was one of those restaurants on Melrose that looked like someone’s private home. Liza usually reserved a table in the garden, and that was where the hostess took Marvin and me.
Liza was already seated, and, as usual, she was texting or emailing someone. She had every A-list actor, director, musician, and writer on speed dial. I used to be pretty far down on the list, but that changed the day Paul optioned Brooklyn Story. Now Liza was like a big sister to me.
“My favorite people,” she exclaimed as she spotted us, and got up to hug us both hello. “You’ve just got to try the scallops. They are to die for.”
She talked fast, like the Jewish New Yorker she was, but she was pure Hollywood now. Her long black hair cascaded over the shoulders of her sleeveless Armani dress, as orange as a Popsicle; her Armani sandals matched her Armani handbag; and the diamond studs in her ears were as lovely and perfect as the rock on her finger. Her husband, an entertainment attorney, worshipped the ground she walked on, but Liza had forged her own way in Hollywood.
“Hey,” Marvin said quietly, and tilted his head to the right.
I glanced in that direction. Al Pacino was having lunch with an attractive blonde. Half the fun of eating here was watching celebrities. I had no idea who the woman was. “Who’s he with, Liza?”
“A TV writer. I heard that one of the cable channels is trying to interest him in a series, something epic, like Game of Thrones.” Liza glanced at her watch. “Where’s Paul, anyway?”
Right on cue, Paul Jannis made his way through the gathering crowd, pausing at one table after another to greet people hello, shake hands. He seemed to know just about everyone and was now working the restaurant. I had seen him do this countless times, working a room at a party, at a dinner, at any social event, and doing it with one intention in mind: to network. Out here, networking was how you landed jobs, made headway. Friends hired friends. He even paused at Pacino’s table.
He wore California casual—khaki pants, a blue cotton shirt that matched the color of his eyes, leather sandals. He smiled broadly as he approached the table, and the moment his eyes caught mine, I could tell he was undressing me.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, joining us at the table. “Traffic’s a bitch.”
“Traffic’s always a bitch—it’s L.A.,” Liza said. “But we forgive you, especially if you have good news.”
“I hope Sam didn’t let the cat outta the bag,” he said.
Liza laughed and pointed a carefully manicured finger at him. “And which cat would that be?”
“The one called Brooklyn Story,” Marvin remarked.
I had told Marvin the news, of course, and strangely enough, Paul seemed to resent it, like I’d robbed him of his moment in the sun or something.
“Do tell,” Liza said, leaning forward, her wildly intense eyes glinting with curiosity.
So he did, spilling all the details with great relish and enthusiasm, as though Brooklyn Story were his story, as though he had lived through the dark days of my Brooklyn childhood and teen years with Tony Kroon, one of the Brooklyn mafia boys. Paul couldn’t know what it was like to be treated like chattel and given impossible demands delivered over a clenched fist. That world was as far from him as Pluto was from the sun. Yet he sounded as if he had lived in Brooklyn, in my neighborhood, and had hung out with the mafia boys.
And right then I suddenly began to doubt the man I’d thought Paul was. Maybe what I hoped might unfold eventually between us was illusion, the stuff of which Hollywood was made. My doubt, coming on the heels of Paul’s news about the production schedule, struck me as a grotesque irony, some sort of cosmic joke. And it brought back that age-old question: Who’s orchestrating this stuff ?
“Sam. Hey, Sam.” Liza waved her hand in front of my face. “You with us?”
“So what do you think about Jenean Conte playing Samantha Bonti?”
“I’m totally into it. She’s perfect.”
“And she’d like to meet you as soon as possible,” Paul said. “Just to talk and get a sense of you as a person.”
“Who’s going to play Tony?” asked Marvin.
“A relative newcomer,” Paul said. “He’s done a dozen films but isn’t really well known. We figured it was best to cast a new face for this part, just like they did for the part of Peeta in The Hunger Games.”
“Smart, very smart,” Liza said. “Who’s directing?”
Davidson had directed two blockbusters in the last five years, and in a town where you were only as good as your last movie, that boded well for Brooklyn Story. I’d heard he could be difficult to work with, but since I’d never met him, I would have to wait and see.
Liza nodded. “Davidson has a good track record.”
“He has a great grasp of story,” Paul said.
The waitress came over and we ordered. Liza was zipping through the calendar on her iPhone, and when the waitress left, she said, “Sam, now that we’ve got a production date, I’d like to schedule you for some publicity—Entertainment Weekly, People, that kind of thing. Not only will it create some early buzz about the movie, but it’ll get DeMarco Productions out there. We could do it when you and Jenean meet to chat.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“Me, too,” Paul agreed.
“Wonderful,” Liza said. “I’ll get that set up this afternoon.”
“Well, you’d better keep in mind that Sam isn’t available on weekday evenings,” Paul remarked.
Huh? Had he really said that? Was it what he’d wanted to say on the phone earlier? Liza glanced up from her phone. “What’re you talking about?”
“Just that I like to be home in the evenings with Isabella,” I said.
“Of course you do. And it won’t be a problem. These interviews are scheduled during regular work hours.”
Her eyes darted to Paul and lingered on him. I could tell she had a good idea what his remark was really about. Sometimes, Liza wasn’t just a “tad psychic,” as she’d once put it, but could peer down into your soul.
Later, as we left the restaurant, Paul drew me aside and spoke quietly, as though he didn’t want Liza and Marvin to hear him. “I shouldn’t have said that, Sam.”
It was his way of apologizing. But Paul, like the other men who had been in my life, had never been able to say the actual words I’m sorry. “Yeah, you shouldn’t have. But whatever.” I turned away from him to catch up to Marvin and Liza, but he grabbed my upper arm.
“Hey, hold on.”
I looked down at his fingers, digging into my skin, his nails perfectly cut and professionally manicured, then looked up at him and wrenched my arm free. “Don’t ever do that,” I snapped.
He held up his hands and sort of laughed. “Shit, Sam. What’s your problem? You PMSing or what?”
“Fuck off, Paul,” I spat, and spun around and hurried away from him. It seemed inconceivable that on the very day when I heard Brooklyn Story was actually going to become a movie, I had this weird spat with the same man who’d made that possible. I was grateful to him, but gratitude wasn’t love. Then again, I hadn’t reached the point where I loved Paul.
I remembered how overjoyed I was when I realized Alec, this big Wall Street guy, was interested in me. My self-esteem had been so low that I suddenly began to see myself in a different light, like maybe there was hope for me. Gratitude toward Alec for his interest in me quickly followed.
Patterns, so much of my life had been about inner patterns that seemed to attract these kinds of experiences with men. I needed to work on that. I needed to figure myself out in that regard.
Even though I knew I had to trust that there was an underlying order to all this, some grand plan that I couldn’t see, it was difficult to do right now.
• • •
As I pulled into the driveway, Marvin pressed the remote, and the gate slowly slid open. The driveway angled steeply uphill, and to either side of it, the grounds were lushly landscaped with hedges and red and blue flowers, and the grass was so green I could almost smell the color. Palm trees rustled in an evening breeze.
I drove into my two-acre slice of paradise and stopped the Prius in front of the bungalow. Three bedrooms, two baths, a huge family room—four thousand square feet of living space and windows everywhere that overlooked the property or the Pacific. The property backed up to a canyon the color of rust, and sometimes at night, I heard coyotes howling.
The guesthouse where Marvin stayed was actually an apartment above the detached garage, and it stood off to the right, partially hidden by trees. As we got out, headlights suddenly shone through the gate at the bottom of the hill. “Is that Isabella?” Marvin asked.
“No, she’s in the house. The driver’s probably lost.”
“I’ll check it out.” Marvin, my protector.
“That’s okay. I’ll go have a look.”
“Okay, see you in the morn, Sam. It’s my turn to drive.”
I continued on to the bungalow, parked, gathered up my stuff. As I trotted up the steps to the front door, I noticed that the headlights were still visible at the bottom of the driveway. I felt apprehensive without quite knowing why. I doubted it was Paul. He would have texted or called me first. In fact, most of the people I knew out here would text or call before dropping by.
I unlocked the front door, set my stuff in the hallway, called for Isabella.
“In the family room, Mom. Lauren’s here.”
“Okay, love. I’ve got to check on something. Be right back.”
I slipped the high heels off my aching feet and padded barefoot down the driveway to the gate. The car was a yellow cab, not something I’d seen frequently out here. A tall, thin man got out the back door.
“Samantha?” he asked, his words heavily accented. “Samantha Bonti?”
“I haven’t been a Bonti for years.”
He wove his way toward the gate, like he was drunk or suffering from some neurological disorder, a bulging backpack slung over his shoulder. The cabbie hopped out, ran over to the man, and shouted. “Hey, dude, you owe me twenty-five bucks. I’m not leaving until I get paid. And if you don’t pay, I’m calling the cops.”
The man shoved some bills at the cabbie, then came into the glare of the headlights so I saw him clearly—stubbled chin, disheveled clothes, a broken human being with eyes the color of grease.
“You gonna open the gate?” he asked.
“I don’t know you,” I said, backing away, suddenly terrified.
“I have no place to go. Only here.”
“Excuse me, driver,” I called. “There’s been a mistake. I don’t know this man.”
“Samantha. It is me. Vito. Your father.”