The stage lights were dazzling, the drumbeats victorious, the cheering intoxicating. They exploded as though they had lay in wait throughout the years it had taken Nola to get here. She clutched the microphone, and her voice lifted above the ceremonial courtyard of the Supreme Harmony Palace, above the crowd of thousands with rapture in their eyes. Yesss. They were hers, and she was theirs. Here in the Forbidden City, she stood on the very spot where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties had exhorted, decreed, and ordained. But while the emperors' words had instilled fear, her songs released joy.
"We are tall, we are short, we're black, we're white,
We are blessed or are cursed by fate or birthright.
But the whole world over,
Peace is the color of a dove,
And our common denominator,
Is the feeling of love."
Yes! Nola tapped her feet and flipped her head from side to side, hair swinging. The crowd, on its feet, was blurry through the tangle of her rust-colored curls. She repeated the refrain in French, Spanish, and then Chinese, and the audience, a field of raised arms, swayed and sang along. Their voices carried beyond the southern wall of the Forbidden City into Tiananmen Square. Years after the massacre, she was the lucky one to honor the dead-and the living.
"And our common denominator,
Is the feeling of love. Love. Love."
The breeze caressed her hot skin. She held the last note until a new round of applause exploded. "Thank you," she called, her body resonating with the beat of the music, eager to go on. "Thank you all so very much!"
Wade, her husband, stepped out of the wings with a glass of water. "A Divine Songbird," he mouthed. It was the title People magazine had given her fifteen years before, when she had burst on the scene as a teenager. She gulped down the water and turned back toward the crowd.
Her gown felt light and fluid as it streamed over her body and its sequined glitter captured the rosy glow of the stage lights. She raised her arm high to unfurl the train of her dress, attached to her wrist. Like a butterfly's wing, it flashed from pink to orange to a fiery red.
The crowd roared, demanding another encore. The hooded-eyed Chinese premier, seated in his cordoned box, rose to his feet and clapped. His lips read, "Bravo! Bravo!" and Nola lifted her eyes to the inky sky where her song lingered, where her mother was surely watching, still disbelieving that Nola could ever make it.
The fragrance of honeysuckle and orange blossoms wafted through the night air. Nola's fingers brushed the cords in her neck, taut, ready for more. Behind her, the band broke into "A String of Magical Moments," and she was back with the thousands of upturned faces, singing to them and wishing this magical moment would never end. What else was there? Her offstage life, just several feet away, loomed colorless and stifling.
But Wade's hand signaled a T from behind the silk-embroidered curtain. Her time was up. If he didn't monitor the instant the crowd's fervor for her peaked, she would linger like a guest overstaying her welcome.
Single flowers wrapped in fine rice paper and bouquets tied with silk ribbons flew up and landed at her feet. Stealing time, she gathered a few flowers, selected an orchid and presented it to Jean-Claude, her musical director. He tossed his shaggy dark hair off his shoulders, and his eyes held hers in a shared moment of triumph. Reluctantly, she broke the contact, blew a kiss to her musicians and waved again to the crowd. "I love you so very much," she said into the microphone.
With rehearsed grace she glided off the stage, her head turned back to the light as though it were oxygen. HBO's overhead camera zoomed away on its cable across the plaza to take in the mass of people, while the crane camera, hanging on its jib, coasted just above Nola's head. It followed her until she rounded the curtain. In the sudden darkness, hands caught her as she groped her way backstage. The video crew Wade had hired in hopes of selling footage to the smaller networks made room for her to pass. Her eyes strained to adjust. Sweat collected in the hollows of her collarbones and trickled down between her breasts. She gathered up her hair with both hands and someone dabbed her face, neck, and back with a cold sponge. She shut her eyes, listening to the audience out there. In the rising collective murmurs of the dispersing crowd there was a resignation to the fact that there would be no more tonight. Her best show ever was over, and she had triumphed.
An arm wrapped around her sticky skin. Nola recognized it before she heard Wade's voice.
"Almost perfect," he said. "Lucky the audience missed that B flat--"
Her eyes still shut, her chest heaving, she cut him off. "Not even Yanni got this many encores here!"
" His performances were flawless."
She wiped her face with a small towel, surreptitiously dabbing her eyes before opening them fully. She let out a spent smile. In her high heels, she looked directly at Wade's newly laminated teeth. Wade Dalton, her husband, her manager. Never quite her lover.
"Tonight you've conquered China," she heard a man say.
Her glance took in the tall Eurasian in a black suit, who stood a step away, his body so still he seemed unaffected by the activity around them.
Wade slapped the man's shoulder. "Meet Daniel Chen, the U.S. Cultural Attaché to China."
A reserved smile played on the planes of the man's cheeks and in the eyes that hinted at his Chinese genes. His gaze was direct-not curious, but possessing knowledge. With a nod, Daniel Chen handed Nola a small brocade box tied with gold string. His fingers were long and tapered, like those of a pianist.
"Nola's the best goodwill ambassador China ever had here," Wade said, a bit too quickly. When the man did not reply, Wade added, "It was a fortunate turn of events that the Chinese rejected Madonna. Too racy for them, right?"
Untying the string, Nola shot him a look that said to ease up. This dignified man must have heard the criticism Wade had leveled at her. And Daniel Chen must have known that half a dozen almost-at-the-top singers like her had vied for the spot Wade had somehow won for her.
Daniel Chen did not even glance in Wade's direction, but regarded Nola like a man trying to read her, not a fan in the presence of a star. She wondered why, given his job title, he had made himself scarce in the few days she'd been in China.
Her stylist draped a shawl over her shoulders. She winked at him in a gesture of thanks.
"Fifteen minutes to change before your grand backstage exit." Wade's teeth shone like those of an animal in the presence of a rival. He patted Nola's bottom, and, responding to a gesture from the producer, he walked away, taking the assistants with him.
Nola released the lid of the box. On a bed of ruffled satin lay a small, disk-shaped bottle. She held it up to the light to study the miniature image of a firebird, its tail feathers curling downward through the cage bars.
"It's not painted on the bottle's exterior, but underneath the glass!" she exclaimed and examined the dainty, exact brushstrokes. "How exquisite."
Daniel Chen finally spoke again. "It's the ancient Chinese art of 'reverse painting.' The last details are drawn first, inside the bottle." His voice was unassuming, yet wrapped around something solid. "The artist figures out where to place the wisps of feathers before there's a wing."
What was the subtle Chinese meaning of this gift? The snuff bottle's opening was tiny, the details smaller than she thought possible. Her nail traced the fine lines of magenta and mint and aqua in the curling tail. "This is the finest piece of art I've ever seen," she whispered.
"Like your art," Daniel said. "Few historical figures have imprinted words on people's hearts the way you did tonight. Your songs unite people with universal emotions."
Some admirers' words thrilled her more than others'. A surge of her earlier euphoria swelled up in her. "Thanks." She smiled at him and was surprised at the glimmer of green in his eyes.
Her stomach rumbled. The only food in her dressing room would be a banana for her potassium fix, but it would have to do. She started walking toward the area below the stage, fearing reaching her dressing room, her reentry to her empty off-stage world. Her bodyguard hung back at a respectable distance. Daniel matched his steps to hers.
"You have more power than you may know," he said.
Startled, she looked at him. Did he understand how fleeting her foothold on this stage in the Forbidden City might be? She laughed softly. "The only 'power' I'm interested in is making people happy for the moment, for the hour, maybe for the day."
His gaze penetrated her, cutting through glamour and fame. "Ms. Sands, there's a place you should see."
"You must be the one who prepared my itinerary. Isn't it full?"
"It's an orphanage that's not on your official schedule."
In the sudden chill, she tightened the shawl about her. We are blessed or are cursed by fate or birthright, were her song's words. Daniel could not know how narrowly she had escaped being one of those institutionalized children herself. Nor could he know that her foundation supported such homes. Wade had hidden some facts of her life.
"I'm sure your cause is worthy," she said, her tone tender. "But I can't risk offending my hosts." Or Wade. Or the orchestrated plan that, at long last, had taken her to the top.
"Sorry. I don't mean to impose on you."
Her finger found a sharp corner of the small gift box. The edge pressed the soft tissue. She pushed harder. Her voice caught in her throat. "We each give what we can," she said.
The sucking sound of a hydraulic lift, the banging of hammers and the shouts of stagehands calling orders grew louder. A couple of assistants peeked at her and disappeared, but their presence hung in the air like an order to prepare for her next obligation.
"She resumed walking. "What does an American cultural attaché do? China doesn't get enough visiting American artists to keep one busy."
"I'm on a human rights watch for the United States."
"Oh." She tossed her hair back. "My goodwill concert tour is merely a distraction, I guess."
Across the crescent crease of his smile she noticed the fine slash of a scar. "Judging by tonight's performance, a welcome break," he said.
They approached a narrow hallway of straw mats and canvas sheets nailed over two-by-fours. Bare lightbulbs threw shadows down more arteries that crisscrossed under the stage and were teeming with people. Four of her American musicians huddled together, and the sweet smell of marijuana reached Nola. She chose to ignore it; they had worked hard for her tonight. Wade would have raised hell, especially here, where the authorities had warned they'd cancel the entire tour if anyone were caught with illegal drugs.
She glanced at three security men as they beamed their flashlights behind partitions. "Deranged fans can pull off demented stunts," she said to Daniel by way of explanation, "and Wade's not one to leave anything to chance."
Neither would the Chinese," he said. "Dissidents are under house arrest in each of the six cities of your tour."
A string tugged in her heart. How self-centered of her to focus on the absence of the ecstasy of performing. "I'm so sorry," she said.
"You are bringing a taste of democracy. That's a small price the dissidents are willing to pay."
She stopped in front of her door, her hand on the bamboo latch, hesitating to undo it. From the next room over rolled the laughter of her stylist and his staffers. Two roadies, wearing the tour's black Double Happiness shirts that sported the Chinese four-loop calligraphy in gold, squeezed a dolly down the narrow passage. She waved at them to pass while Daniel flattened himself against the wall.
She cracked the door open, wishing to linger to hear whatever else Daniel had to say, even if she wasn't up to his challenge. "Thanks for the gift," she said. "I'll cherish it."
"Thank you for your gift of music," he replied. Again that hint of a smile played in the corner of his lips.
Nola shut the door behind her, dropped into an armchair upholstered in brocade, and kicked off her shoes. The room, although temporary, was filled with mahogany furniture, brocade draperies, silk rugs, lamps, objets d'art. Wade had spared no expense in creating for her a scene of unbridled excess. A beautiful interview setting. A dungeon of loneliness.
She wiggled her toes on the rug with its lone pink lily floating on blue water, and dropped her face into her hands. She heard Wade outside keeping journalists and assistants at bay until she "freshened up." She would rather he let them all in-the reporters, musicians, staffers, and stylists. Anything to put the stagnant air in motion. Even have him come in and, for once, pretend that he loved her for who she was-not the performer, but the person, the woman. In her head, a bass chord gathered force. Surrounded by people, she had no one. How different would she have felt had her parents and sister been here, or anywhere. She started to cry.
The words of Janis Joplin, who had been a friend of her parents, echoed through her mind. "Tonight I made love to thousands of people, but I went home alone."
Wade strode in ten minutes later, muttering into his cell phone. His solid figure looked tapered in his Italian-cut tux. He covered the mouthpiece, examined Nola's gown, and one of his pale blue eyes winked. "Ready for the big exit scene?" He gave her bottom a pat, and she felt her nostrils flare in anger. She would speak to him about this gesture, even if it meant opening the gate to yet another argument.
A flock of stylists and assistants were tending to her hair and face, massaging her feet, and fluffing her ice-blue dress. Jean-Claude, a small-framed man with a big nose and ears and motorized by nervous energy, drained a glass of champagne, then blew Nola a kiss and dipped into a floor-sweeping bow that reset her mood.
"One concert down, five more to go, and you'll be the star on top of every Christmas tree. Ten million more records sold! Didn't I promise?" Jean-Claude asked in his French accent, an affectation, no doubt. He had too good an ear not to have perfected his pronunciation after nine years in New York. "And now I must breast-feed my musicians. A bientôt. See you soon at the hotel party, my Ginger Goddess."
She laughed at the name he had coined for her reddish hair. " A bientôt, " she mimicked him. "I love you, but you're crazy."
He jumped and kicked his heels. "Cute-crazy. Good-crazy, yes?"
"The best there is." Wade made a play of punching Jean-Claude's shoulder and let out a rolling laugh. Nola remembered how once, after Wade had discovered her singing the national anthem at her high school football game, she had adored his carefree laughter.
"Nola!" called out thousands of fans. "Nola!"
She stepped out the Gate of Heavenly Purity and onto a marble bridge. Wade kept half a step behind, but his touch on her left elbow instructed her to pause for the cameras. Nola's right hand skimmed along the marble dragon head carved into the banister, rich and sensuous to her touch. For a wild instant she thought of jumping onto the sleek banister and sliding down, her arms and legs stretched out in abandon. "Whoopee!" she'd call out-
Around her, marble terraces glistened in the moonlike glow that poured from concealed light panels, also a part of the set. Smiling at the popping flashbulbs and the miniature green tally lights of the live TV cameras, she adjusted the chiffon shawl of her dress so its blue-beaded edges would sparkle. She savored the excited faces and clapping hands. This was where she belonged, what she had worked for, for so long.
The bridge curved onto a red-carpeted path through the crowd. Policemen formed human chains to keep people back. Nola flinched at the sight of her own security men shoving admirers and reporters away. There had never been this many. Like gushing water, people rushed back to close in behind her as soon as her staff moved on. This, too, was orchestrated. The limousine could have whisked her away through the back gate instead of parking seventy feet away, but Wade would not have missed the chance for this photo op.
The small young woman moved so fast that Nola had no chance to comprehend what was going on. The woman in cropped black hair burst from the crowd, ferreted under the arms of the policemen, and thrust a bundle against Nola's chest. Someone yelled, "A bomb!" but instinctively, even before Nola's mind could register what her arms did, she grabbed it.
She was still absorbing the impact when the wriggling confirmed what some part of her already knew: It was a baby.
By then, the woman had sprinted away and disappeared into the crowd. The two security men chasing her halted in their tracks to scrutinize the sea of people. Network producers frantically gestured "Keep rolling!" Nola heard Wade's "Jesus Christ Almighty!" mingled with the shouts of the paparazzi as their flashbulbs exploded in her face.
A tiny foot in a red sock kicked and freed itself from the package in her arms until an ankle rested on Nola's forearm. Was this some publicity stunt she hadn't been told about? Dazed, she lifted the blanket off the tiny head. A smile bloomed on the round face with its dark, almond-shaped eyes, and an arm rose up to touch Nola's nose.
She smiled down. "Hello to you, too." The little body was light, but solid. How old was this baby? Was this some bizarre prop?
Reporters thrust their microphones toward her. "Who was that woman?" "Did you stage this?" "How much did you pay for the baby?"
In an instant, all sights and sounds around her receded; what remained was this incredible surprise. The moment was incomprehensible, yet there was an order to the chaos, as though this event were written in a script she hadn't yet read. She gazed down at the little face, at the eyes so wide and trusting, and the word that ran through her head-illogical, implausible, capricious-was "mine."
Nola scanned the crowd as the security staff shoved them away. In the chaos, no one seemed eager to reclaim the infant. Policemen yelled. Some ran after the woman. Photographers pushed closer to Nola, their cameras closing in on her. Excited clucking rose from the crowd. Shouts from network reporters drowned out one another.
It all seemed so far away. The bubble of calm that enveloped her and the baby shimmered with bliss, pushing away her ache over Wade, her parents, and her sister.
She bent her head and brushed her lips against the baby's crown. "Mine," she whispered, telling herself that she must be nuts to be so happy.