Elena is a Puerto Rican girl who lives in a tall apartment building called El Building in Paterson, New Jersey in the 1960s. Next door to her apartment is a two-story house that she can see from her fire escape. She likes to read out there and secretly watches an elderly Jewish couple eat, read, argue, and live out their lives in the kitchen. She gets caught up in the fantasy of it all and imagines what it would be like to have a house with a kitchen where she could spend her time. She also loves the small backyard and wishes that she could sit out there and relax rather than having to read on a fire escape.
For Elena, the house and the kitchen represent an ideal of happiness, peace and joy. So when a new family from Georgia moves in, she is excited to make friends with the new boy, Eugene. The two new friends like reading books together and find a sense of safety with each other as they attend their predominantly black public school. She pictures herself one day reading at the kitchen table with Eugene, just like the Jewish couple, and experiencing her dream in real life. Things seem to be looking up for Elena due to her friendship with Eugene, so she is even more excited to be invited over to his house to study. Elena's mother tries to warn her by saying the following:
"You are forgetting who you are, Nina. I have seen you staring down at that boy's house. You are heading for humiliation and pain."
When she is turned away by Eugene's mother because of racial prejudice, she learns a valuable lesson. She believed the house was a place of peace and solace, and she didn't expect to experience prejudice from the people inside. Therefore, Elena learns that life does not always turn out the way she expects, and that there is a stark difference between fantasy and reality.