Spotlight Excerpt from ‘A Cilantro Wedding Bouquet’
This novel excerpt was written by María Alejandra Barrios in Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ 12-Month Novel Generator
Vi returns to Barranquilla after her abuela ’ s death for the funeral and to deal with the almost-in-ruins family restaurant. Soon, ghosts from her past come rushing back: her strained mother, the restaurant cook and childhood friend, her first love. Vi has a life in New York, a boyfriend who she lives with, a job as a waitress and aspirations of being a successful illustrator. In the States, she dreams of independence, but all her years outside of her home and Colombia haven’t amounted to much.
Selling the restaurant proves not to be so easy. There are demands, expectations, and fears that tether Vi to Barranquilla. A bridge that connects her two lives across the ocean has over the years turned to dust. Armed with the dreams about her ancestors and the discovery of her abuela’s journal, Vi realizes she’s the woman in her family who can finally break free from the fear of love that has haunted her family through generations. Vi has to decide: A life that she has built on her own away from her family and their inherited fears? Or a life where she continues toward all the dreams that the women in her family built for her?
A Cilantro Wedding Bouquet explores the tribulations of intergenerational trauma, lost love, and the unbreakable bond that ancestors have with their own. Family, even after generations have passed, has a way of coming back into the light.
I looked at myself in the mirror. My hair looked a little better but my skin was dehydrated and tired. I saw the deep ojeras I had, the ones I had inherited from Abuela. She always used to say that I was lucky I didn’t inherit her lazy eye; that only would have made things worse. I also hadn’t inherited her dark black hair, straight as an arrow and shiny even in old age. Abuela had never told me I was beautiful and looking at myself in this mirror I didn’t see it either. I saw the grief cracking my skin around my eyes, new little lines I didn’t have before, and new patches of dryness.
I wore a lilac dress with a pattern of flowers that belonged to mamá and that I had admired when I was little. The dress had a bare back and although it would have fit me, Abuela wouldn’t let me wear it because she said it wasn’t appropriate for a girl my age. “Carajo,” she would say, “it’s not even appropriate for your mom but she’s grown. You would think she would know better.”
I wore the dress with my curly hair all pinned up. I knew the curls wouldn’t stay up long, but I didn’t care. I took one of my Abuela’s purses, the one that was made of mimbre and looked like a little canasta. It was her favorite purse. The only old thing that could be considered vintage that she cherished. It had been a gift from Bisabuela when she got married.
I opened it to see what was inside before wearing it, but there was nothing. Before I arrived Mamá had gotten rid of most of Abuela’s things, but had kept some of her dresses, some of her perfumes and jewelry. I saw myself in the mirror, all dressed up in things that belonged to the women in my life. For a moment, I saw them wearing the dress and the purse, in church, at the restaurants, and on the streets of the neighborhood, and I saw myself in them. I saw myself in a past that at times seemed like it had never existed.
Rafa was waiting for me at the restaurant. I was surprised that he had changed to jeans, a buttoned up blue shirt. On his wrist, he had an expensive-looking watch, different from one he had the first time I saw him. When he saw me, he waved but didn’t smile. I tried to return the smile but all I could manage was to look around the restaurant. It was more elegant than I had imagined and people were wearing stylish clothes, the women wearing their hair professionally straightened. I sat quickly, trying not to think too much of my outfit.
“Hey,” Rafa said softly. I noticed that under the table, his leg was shaking. “You look beautiful.”
My phone started vibrating. I was already nervous from seeing him here. The restaurant. And the pain in my chest.
Without excusing myself, I took my phone out. It was Liam calling. I declined the call.
“Please take it. I know who it is. I understand.”
“I can’t. Not now. Is it okay if I text him?”
“Claro.” Rafa said formally and made eye contact with a waiter. “I’ll get us two menus.”
I’ll call you back. I love you. I put my phone in my bag, quickly tormented by the thought that I had ruined the evening.
“Everything okay?” Rafa asked.
“Yes. Tell me about your job, please? About your friends? Paula? Everyone okay?” Rafa asked and smiled confidently, like he was telling a joke. The waiter came and gave us a menu. He asked us if we wanted to see the wine list.
Rafa nodded and asked me: “Red or white?”
“Either is good with me. I’m not too picky with wine.”
“Me neither.” He smiled. “But I want to get us something good.”
“Why did you smirk earlier? Did I say something funny?” I felt myself growing irritated, perhaps by anxiousness.
“Not at all. It’s just a little funny that now you want to know all these things. I feel that the brief times we have spoken we have only talked about you.”
Funny how this was a new part of Rafa, or a part of him I didn’t know about. He was honest and ready to call me out. I tried to think of something to say but he was right. Ever since I had arrived all I wanted to talk about was myself.
The waiter came and Rafa ordered a red wine and the green roasted peppers appetizer with sea salt on top.
“It’s delicious,” he said, “I get it all the time when I come here. It comes with thick chunks of bread drizzled with olive oil and herbs.”
Who did he come here with?
“So you’re not going to tell me about anything in your life? Is that how it is going to be?”
“You tell me. Tell me about Liam. How is he? What does he do?”
The waiter brought the bottle of wine, giving me the first sip to try. The wine was aromatic and fragrant with notes of dark cherries and wood. I let myself smell it for a moment or two to take refuge in the glass and think about what I was going to say next.
“Why do you want to know? For what? I don’t want to talk about him. No ahora.”
“What should we talk about?”
I took the wine to my lips again and I savored the aroma of plums.
“Let’s talk about how you’re doing. You talk about yourself a lot but I guess I can always hear a little more.” Rafa smiled. I looked around at the tables, I wondered if the girl that had once been so in love with Rafa, whose legs trembled before she saw him, would have believed this. Ten years later in one of the most expensive restaurants of the city, the two of them having dinner together but apart from each other. I smiled to hide what I was thinking.
“Everything’s shit,” I said. Taking a large gulp of wine. “Mamá hates me. I don’t have the heart to sell the restaurant and I think I’m seeing my grandma at the house.”
“What do you mean?” I realized Rafa hadn’t touched his wine.
“Why are you not drinking?”
“What are you talking about? What do you mean about seeing your grandma? You mean like a ghost?” He asked quickly, almost letting himself run out of breath. He took a little sip of wine. Rafa was not a big drinker. Another detail I learned about him that day.
“I saw her in what I thought was a dream. And there’s this notebook.”
“Vi, what?” Rafa took a sip of wine. “What are you saying? Have you talked about this with anyone else?” Rafa asked in a grave voice. I wondered if he used this voice with his patients too.
“Mi Mamá believes in this stuff too. She tells me about relatives that appear to her in dreams all the time. She tells me that they need her to do something for them. Sometimes she says that they visit her because they’re lonely. Do you think Doña Emilia is lonely?”
“No.” I said with a certainty that surprised me. “I think she wants to talk to me. To tell me stuff. There’s stuff I want to tell her too.” Did I really believe this? I looked at Rafa from across the table.
The waiter brought the peppers to the table on a black stone plate. The green of the peppers contrasted with the darkness of the restaurant.
“Do you even believe me? Are you just entertaining me because you feel sorry for me?”
“I believe you. I believe Mami when she tells me about this stuff too. Doña Emilia was a really strong-minded woman. If she wanted to talk to you even after she was dead, I believe that she would be able to. That woman could do anything she wanted.”
I smiled that Rafa could articulate such nice words about a woman who had sent me away so we couldn’t be together. It seemed so long ago now. All of it. So much so that I felt that I could reach my hand and put it on top of his. That I could touch him. It was all ridiculous. Time was ridiculous. I was angry at myself for being so paralyzed over something that had stopped us so much already.
So, I laughed. I laughed first softly and then loudly, so much so that I think a couple of tables nearby turned to look at me. Rafa joined with a chuckle.
“You’re even crazier now than you were before.”
“It’s just all so . . . ” I exhaled. “I can’t believe it.”
Rafa’s eyes watered up. He laughed again and wiped one of his eyes with his index finger.
“I’m an idiot,” I said, with my eyes watered up too. Both our eyes were teary and we said nothing. We were used to leaving things unsaid.
He touched my shoulder. My skin burned.
“Hey, we’re here, cierto? That has to count, right? What do you want to eat? My treat. Maybe when you talk to your abuela you can see if she finally likes me.”
“She probably already knows,” I said, putting one of the peppers in my mouth and opening the menu again. “That woman knows everything.”