By Julia Amante
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Antonio and Lucia Orteli face the same realities, especially when their only son Eric leaves their close-knit Argentine community in pursuit of his own dreams. When Eric unexpectedly shows up at the Argentine Club-the heart of the Argentine community in southern California-he starts a series of events that will bring these two families closer than ever. New relationships are formed and old ones are put to the test, as everyone must learn how to balance different cultures-and different dreams-without hurting those they love.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Liliana Monteil Doucette
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
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I usually have a laundry list of people whom I want to acknowledge and thank. My family is always up there. They know that I love them and am grateful for every minute of my life that they have to share with my characters.
So this time I want to focus my appreciation on two special people, because this book would not exist without them.
The first is my agent, Kevan, who came on in the middle of this project and went beyond her job requirements to see this book in print. Kevan, thank you! I hope this is only the beginning of the work we create together.
And second, my editor, Selina, whom I dreamed of working with from the first time I heard her speak on a panel years ago. Every author reaches a point in her career where she needs to grow and stretch. Selina has provided me with this challenge and opportunity, supporting me every step of the way. And the result of our joint effort is this book. Thank you for helping me make my work the best it could be. You're a fabulous editor.
To every Argentine immigrant, July 9 is a day that brings back memories of family celebrations centered around food, wine, and heart-pounding renditions of the national anthem playing on every radio and TV across the nation. July 9 is Independence Day. A day of freedom and liberty and new beginnings. But to those Argentines living in America, it's also a day to admit with a fair amount of guilt that they chose to give up their old life for the intangible, unexplainable dream of… something better.
Victoria Torres couldn't say she understood what it felt like to leave behind everything one had ever known for something new. Leave parents, siblings, friends, an entire way of life, to live among strangers who spoke differently than you did and believed in values that were foreign compared to those you grew up with. To do something of that magnitude took a sort of internal strength that she lacked. When she thought of immigrants and their decisions to leave their homes, she figured either life had to be so bleak in their own countries or their dreams had to be so immense that they were willing to risk everything just for the hope of a little magic—a chance to change destiny.
Victoria admired that kind of courage. So much so that she tried to be sensitive to what her parents went through every Argentine Independence Day, even if the melodrama appeared to go over the top. She'd learned after twenty-eight years of living with them to accept their ritual of lament followed by an evening of celebration.
The lament period had occurred this morning, with phone calls home and personal stories both her father, Victor, and her mother, Jaqueline, felt compelled to share with her yet again over breakfast.
"July is cold, not like here," her mother had shared. "We wore our best sweaters, and after the family barbecues we went dancing until the early hours of the morning."
"Don't forget the marches down Avenida de Mayo," her father added. "Remember the freezing year that it snowed? The first time since 1918! What was it, 1974?"
"'Seventy-three," Jaqueline said,
"'Seventy-four," Victor repeated with certainty this time.
Victoria drank her earthy café con leche and listened, not because she hadn't heard the stories a million times but because it made them so happy to reminisce. Argentine immigrants, in her view, were fanatical, proud people who would be forever tied to a country they would never return to again. Her father had once described that the way he felt about his country was the same as what a man feels for a woman he once loved and never got over. Tragic.
But the morning trip down memory lane didn't last long. Mostly because although July 9 might be an important date in Argentina, here in America it was just another workday, at least for her family, who owned a popular restaurant in downtown Burbank. And Sunday was the busiest day of all at La Parrilla.
The family traditions were put on hold until the evening, when they would attend the celebrations at the Argentine Club.
The Argentine Club itself was a piece of Argentina transplanted to American soil. A nondescript building in Burbank, California, that was the center of her community and a part of Victoria's life since the day she was born. It occupied so much of her life, and that of her parents, that she considered it a second home.
And since much of the preparations for the July 9 celebration fell on her shoulders, she urged her father out of the house so they could get to work at the family restaurant early. The sooner she could get her job done at the restaurant, the earlier she could head to the Argentine Club before the other members arrived.
Once at work, Victor set aside all thoughts of Argentine Independence Day and focused on the restaurant. They had a quick meeting to start the day, reviewing reservations or any special event going on. Victoria placed all the food orders, except liquor. She handled the planning of private party events. And she took care of the physical appearance of La Parrilla. Things her mother used to do, which had eventually been passed on to her with the idea of training her to one day assume complete control of the business.
Victor studied the meat requirements for the weekend. "Mirá," he said, handing her a sheet of paper. "Call the supplier and tell him to deliver a shipment of short ribs, Italian sausage, flank steak, and sweet chard to the Argentine Club, as well as the usual shipment to the grill."
The grill served a staggering amount of well-seasoned beef every night. Every day Victoria put in a fresh order. She scribbled the extra amount he suggested on her notepad, "I've got it."
"Last year they delivered a double order to the restaurant. Nothing to the club."
"I remember." She lowered the pad and smiled at her father. "I've got everything under control." She placed a hand on her father's shoulder and dropped a kiss on his cheek. "Don't worry."
Victor nodded. Never one to show emotion, that was sufficient to tell her he'd lay off. "What time are you getting to the club?"
Victoria loaded her notepad in her bag already full with books, her PalmPilot, iPod, and an assortment of colored pens. "Early enough to help with the setup but late enough to avoid listening to the well-meaning nagging from every mom and grandma at the club about my weight and lack of love life." Painful as it was to admit, she was a good fifty pounds overweight, and it collected mainly in the midsection and hips of her five foot five frame. In order to minimize the obvious, she shopped in the plus-size section of Nordstrom, choosing elegant wide-leg jeans, solid dark colors, tops that all hung loosely past her hips. But the truth was, she wasn't fooling anyone. Least of all men. Hence, her lack of love life.
"Hmm," he said. "I don't know why you don't tell them all to mind their own business." As they were exiting the back office, a shipment of wine came in and the bartender interrupted to ask Victor to sign for it. "I'll be right there," he said without breaking his stride into the already bustling restaurant, where waiters worked rapidly, preparing for the lunch crowd.
The popularity of the restaurant had taken some time to grow into what it was today. Victoria's father had opened it when she was about ten years old. She still remembered the day Victor had come home with the idea and shared it with her mother. Excited, they drove to the building he wanted to purchase in downtown Burbank. They'd looked through the filmy windows of the closed-down diner as a light drizzle fell on their heads. But no one noticed the weather. She and her sister ran up and down the sidewalk, happy because their parents smiled and spoke a mile a minute in Spanish about the possibilities.
Today, the restaurant was so much a part of the community, she couldn't imagine driving down San Fernando Boulevard and not seeing it there. But the inside was dark and felt outdated to her. Victor had upgraded the sound system a few years back, and rather than playing a Spanish radio station from tiny corner speakers, Victoria had convinced him to invest in quality classical music, which now softly filled the room. But she knew it wasn't the music or the intimate lighting or even the location that made the restaurant a success. It was the food itself, and Victor.
"Those women have nothing better to do than to stick their noses into everyone's business," Victor continued. "Who are they to tell you what you should look like or when to get married?"
Her father was in many ways her ally. Not that he didn't have his own ideas of how she should lead her life. But at least he didn't nag. He flat out said, "I don't like that man, he's not Argentine, get rid of him," or, in her younger years, "Don't embarrass your family by dressing like that." Or Victoria's personal favorite, "I didn't sacrifice my goals in life to watch you [fill in the blank]." Anything he hadn't agreed with—risking her life at a rap concert, throwing money away on self-improvement gurus, becoming a Protestant—he had squelched before they'd had a chance to grow. And once her father said what needed to be said, that was the end of the discussion. No matter how old she got. Her mother once told her that her father was right even when he was wrong. Who could argue with that?
"They mean well," Victoria said. "Besides, they're probably right. I could stand to lose a few pounds, and I should make an effort to find the right man before I'm too old to enjoy him."
Victor frowned. "So join a gym, give men something to look at, then pick one of the guys at the club. Easy enough."
"Great, Dad," she said, trying not to be hurt that he hadn't said that she looked fine the way she was. "Love that plan. Now I'm going to the office to work or I'll never get done and to the club in time."
At the Argentine Club, Jaqueline checked her vintage Omega gold wristwatch, which Victor presented to her on their thirtieth anniversary. The weight of the thick band reminded her of the minutes ticking by. And the shimmering diamonds surrounding the face, which were supposed to represent each glorious year together, looked too ostentatious. Besides, the years hadn't been that glorious. She lowered her wrist and asked herself for the twentieth time, Where is Victoria? She hoped Victor hadn't kept her at the restaurant too long. He knew everyone counted on her to help out on special days like today. And July 9 was the most special of all. Even the air was charged with excitement as the setup crew arrived to prepare the tables in the large auditorium-size hall and her friends Lucia and Nelly hurried to the back kitchen to make the postres.
She returned to the table they had placed by the front door, where she had a list of who had called to say they would attend. Opening the book and taking a seat, she waited for guests to begin arriving.
The club phone rang and she quickly answered. It might be Victoria or a cancellation. But it was neither. The call was from Hugo Oviedo, a charming Mexican musician who had been trying to convince Jaqueline for months to let him perform at the club. He had two children, and Jaqueline had her suspicions that he was interested in Victoria. Thankfully, other than urging her mother to let him perform at the club, Victoria didn't return his interest. Victor wouldn't accept a man with children who didn't have a solid job and, on top of it all, wasn't Argentine.
"Be more flexible," Hugo coaxed. "Variety is good, Jaqueline."
"I'm sorry, Hugo," she said. The board wouldn't approve any event that didn't fit their strict objectives for the club, which centered around the mission of celebrating the Argentine culture.
"I'm not going to give up. You guys would love me if you gave me the chance."
"I've listened to you. I do love your music."
"Then put in a good word for me."
"I'm busy, Hugo," she told him, even though she wasn't at the moment. "And the answer is still no."
"Is your beautiful daughter around?"
"No. And I told you, you're too old for her." That was another thing. The man was forty-one.
"She's too young for me, and you're married. Life is unfair," he joked.
"Hugo, you're a silly man." But a nice one. Maybe she would listen to Victoria and recommend him. "I'll suggest to the board that they let you perform. But no promises, understand?"
"Gracias," he said. "You're wonderful."
"Stop with the flattery. I've already fallen for it."
He laughed. "I mean every word of it."
"Call me in a couple of weeks and I'll let you know what we decide."
"I will. And Jaqueline?"
"Happy Independence Day. See, I remembered."
She smiled. "Good-bye."
She made a note to bring him up at the next board meeting. Why not embrace a little variety?
In the back office of the restaurant, Victoria was ready to call it a day. She turned off the radio and sat behind the desk to finish up. They had a wedding party scheduled in two weeks, one retirement party, and a large group that just wanted tables grouped together next Saturday night rather than reserve the private room. Easy enough. She completed the paperwork and made a few phone calls.
As she filed away the forms, she noticed a thick file stuffed in the back. She tried to adjust it, but the file tore. She groaned and pulled it out. Half the paperwork tumbled out onto the floor. Victoria bent and started picking up the papers. She placed them on the desk and went in search of a new file, but found instead an empty box that was supposed to hold file folders.
Great. She threw out the box. That was another errand for her to run—the office supply store.
She sat back down and started to straighten the papers, which were now partially upside down and turned around. But seeing her home address on one of the forms caught her attention. She frowned and pulled it out of the pile. She wasn't exactly sure what type of form she was holding, but the more she studied it, the more it looked like a bank loan with the house and even the business listed as collateral.
Although she'd gone to college for a few years as a business major to please her father, she'd hated it and quickly dropped out. Still, even she could understand that this wasn't good. What was her father doing?
She shuffled the paperwork and continued to read. Much of the legal vocabulary confused her, though words like restaurant expansion and franchise were clear enough.
"Victoria, I just had a thought," Victor's voice carried down the hall and he entered the office. "When you get to the club, why don't you—"
"What's all this?" she interrupted.
Victor glanced at the desk, squinted, then his face seemed to lose its color and close down. No expression readable.
"It says you've applied for a loan." She shuffled more papers. "You've got a business plan for two… no, ten restaurants? Ten? What in the world is this?"
Victor drew a breath and stepped forward. He placed a hand on his face and slowly drew it down across his mouth and down his chin. Then he took a seat across from Victoria, the desk between them. "That," he said, "is my legacy. For you and your sister."
Victoria frowned, not comprehending at all. "Dad, this is going to cost millions of dollars."
"Mom agreed to this?" Victoria couldn't imagine that she had. Jaqueline was the one who wanted both her and her sister to get nice government jobs with guaranteed income, medical insurance, and retirement benefits.
He maintained eye contact, then started to shake his head. "I didn't need her agreement. The house and the restaurant are in my name."
Victoria narrowed her gaze. Bad answer.
"You know how your mother is," he said in defense. "She doesn't understand business. And all she can see is the negative side of things."
No, she was conservative and careful. And she would flip when she learned about this.
"But"—he sat straighter and looked into Victoria's eyes—"I turned sixty this year, gorda. I don't know how it happened. One day I was a young man, full of dreams and plans, and the next I woke up an old man."
"Dad, you're not—"
"Listen," he said. "I didn't come to America to get married, raise kids, and barely get by."
"Papi, you've done more than get by."
"Yes, but that's not the point. I could have stayed in Argentina and done that. I came here to be someone. To make something of myself. And I decided that it was now or never."
Victoria stared at her father, seeing someone she wasn't sure she knew. Wasn't he the one who said, "Listen to your mother and don't dream too big. Take things slowly. Don't ever rush into anything"? She had vague memories of him talking about making it big someday, but that had been ages ago. When she was a teen. He hadn't spoken like that in years. It was always caution, caution, caution that she heard from both her mother and her father.
"This restaurant has done well. Has done spectacular," he continued. "I'm going to open ten more within the next five years. Then when they've all proven themselves, I'm going to sell franchises. By the time your kids are your age, La Parrilla will be as well known as Ruth's Chris or Morton's The Steakhouse. They'll know their grandfather came to this country a poor man and became great."
Victoria shivered slightly in her seat at the chills running down her spine. His excitement was something strong and palpable and contagious. These feelings of future glory, of wanting greatness, were things she'd desired herself when she was younger and dreaming of her future, but she had always been afraid to voice them. She'd felt it was selfish to want more than what her parents had already provided. So she'd learned to be content. Still living at home, because it had been easy to stay put while in college, and because her parents had wanted it that way. Working here at La Parrilla part-time and at a boutique part-time. Owning a simple Saturn that got her around town. Life was easy.
Her father's plans made her heart beat faster. If he was going for it, if he wasn't satisfied with a satisfactory life, maybe it wasn't so bad to dream after all. But she was also well aware that he was risking everything on this dream. Success was never easily achieved, and he was the one who told her that. "I don't know what to say."
He shrugged. "I wasn't going to share any of this yet. The plans are still premature. The loans have been approved, and I'm now contacting angel investors to get a good starting capital. In a couple of months, I plan to break ground on the first two restaurants. One in Santa Monica and one in Newport Beach. Then I start looking for property outside of California."
Even though all the paperwork was still in her hands, Victoria stared at him in disbelief. "This is… exciting," she said stupidly.
Grinning like a little boy, he stood. "I'm glad you finally know. I've been dying from keeping this to myself. I can't wait to see your mother's face when I take her to the openings of the new restaurants."
"You're going to wait until then to tell her?"
"Yes. So keep this to yourself. Understand?"
She understood. But she didn't agree.
"In fact, while I'm getting these other two restaurants off the ground, I'll expect you to put more time into this one. You're ready to take on more responsibility, Victoria." With a pat on the back, he winked and walked out of the office.
Victoria sat in the chair, dumbfounded. Was he going to expect her to run this restaurant? She didn't want to be responsible for the restaurant. Truth was, she wasn't interested in this type of business at all. And now he wanted to open ten more. Victoria dropped her head into her hands. In her mind, hearing another door slam shut. Burdened, as always, with her father's plans for her life.
Just when Jaqueline was about to panic, Victoria flew into the club, arms full of things, her wavy, brown hair all over the place, her clothes wrinkled.
Jaqueline stood from behind the welcome table. "Por fin, llegaste."
"Yes, I made it, Mami. I'm not late. Don't tell me you're panicking."
"No," she said, faking innocence, "but you know no one does anything until you get here to tell them what to do." Victoria had an eye for color and patterns and item placement unlike anyone else's.
"If only I had that much power." She glanced around. "Okay, we need to get the light blue and white tablecloths on the round tables. And the flowers should have arrived. Have they?"
"I don't know."
"How about the band?"
"Okay." She dropped her bag on the table, on top of the notebook in which Jaqueline was checking people off as they arrived. "Let's go find out."
Victoria spun around and charged full speed ahead, almost running right into Lucia and Nelly, who had approached behind her. "Oh, Mrs. Ortelli, Mrs. Apolonia, hello."
"Nena, llegaste," Lucia said in a tone that meant to scold.
"But you didn't get dressed," Nelly said.
Victoria looked down at her olive-colored stretch twill pants and simple black blouse that tied at her waist—and in Jaqueline's opinion outlined her breasts too much and her unflattering waist even more—and shrugged. "Didn't I?"
"Today's a special day, Victoria," Nelly said. "You should wear something nicer."
"You're right, Mrs. Apolonia, but if I did, I'd be a mess by the time the night was over." She patted Nelly on the arm. "I appreciate that you ladies are always looking out for me, though."
Quickly, she stepped away and immediately got to work.
Jaqueline raised an eyebrow at her friends. "Don't look at me. I've done everything I could with her. She dresses like every other American girl her age." To herself she added that just because she was a big girl didn't mean she couldn't dress fashionably. After all, she was still young.
"I never had these problems with my Susana," Nelly said. "And now she's married, with three kids. She has a nice house. And all because I was strict with her."
Jaqueline caught Lucia's gaze over Nelly's shoulder, and Lucia rolled her eyes. More than anyone, Lucia understood that children didn't always behave how parents wanted, no matter what they might do. Her Eric left home when he turned twenty-one, turned his back on his family, on his culture, on everything he should have valued. As her only child, he broke his mother's heart. And she didn't speak of his betrayal. Ever. If she ever mentioned her son it was to say how well he was doing, how wealthy and successful he had become.
Lucia looked down, then tapped Nelly's shoulder. "Vamos, we can't all be perfect parents. Let's go help Victoria."
Jaqueline and Victor may not have been perfect parents, but they were lucky with how their two beautiful daughters had turned out. Jaqueline had no complaints. Victoria was the older and the more difficult one to mold, but she was kind and loyal. A dreamer like Victor. A free spirit. And Jaqueline loved her despite all her unfocused and undisciplined traits. And Carmen, her baby, had gone away to college three years ago. Victor wanted her to study closer to home. But Victoria and Carmen together sent applications to the farthest colleges in the country, and Carmen ended up in a premed program in Pennsylvania. When Jaqueline blamed Victoria for encouraging her sister to go so far away, Victoria simply looked at her sadly and said, "Let her do what I can't."
And Jaqueline had let it go. Victoria was right. Let Carmen be the one who becomes a woman with an education, a woman who lives her own life. She never had, and poor Victoria, as the first, had been her father's child from day one. She would inherit La Parrilla. She would live the life Victor wanted whether she wanted to or not. Sometimes Jaqueline wished she'd had a son for Victor to share his dreams with, rather than dominating Victoria.
"Mami," she called. "The band's here. Can you show them where to set up?"
"Si, como no." Jaqueline went to help, tucking her thoughts away—something she was well practiced at after over thirty years as a mother and wife.
Victoria didn't say much when she left work, Victor thought. She'd stayed in the office for some time after learning about his plans. He imagined she was going over every detail of the paperwork from the banks and lawyers. She was probably worried about her future and his and Jaqueline's. But she shouldn't be. He'd studied this idea. Had a financial plan created by a professional. This would work.
He glanced around La Parrilla and, as always, it was packed. Regulars like the TV personality who brought his group of friends in at least once a week. Or the CEO of a major radio broadcasting company who dined here with his family the first Friday of every month. He knew all these guys on a first-name basis, and they loved him and his restaurant.
- "Julia Amante understands the ties that bind all families regardless of culture and nationality--the struggle for identity, the importance of dreams, and above all, love. I truly enjoyed Evenings at the Argentine Club."—New York Times bestselling author Jill Marie Landis
- "Evenings at the Argentine Club is a big, beautiful novel of love, family, and the close-knit community they inhabit. By turns touching, funny, tragic, and triumphant, it's the story of an endearing group of people in search of their own American dream. This book is a delightful feast for the reader."—New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs
- "In Evenings at the Argentine Club, Julia Amante has created an enchanting community to fall into, true-to-life characters to fall in love with, and a rich story that will fall directly onto readers' keeper shelves. Amante's tale is tantalizing tango for the imagination."—Lynda Sandoval, award winning author of Unsettling and Who's Your Daddy?
- "A fresh and unique perspective into a culture that is at once foreign and familiar. I savored every word."—Julie Leto, New York Times bestselling author
- "An engaging story of family, community and the love the binds it all together. "—RT Book Reviews
- "The story of Victoria and Eric is a story of family, culture, class, success, and love in the vein of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Sep 25, 2009
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing