Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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Simone’s Summer of Certain Wonders

The sun had finally shrugged toward the horizon, and the courtyard was finally coming alive again. There was a circle of young men playing cards at a picnic table under the sole palm tree. Two middle-aged women were sipping iced tea on a bench, mopping their brows and necks with tea towels.  A toddler ran laughing and screeching from his father, who was barbecuing on the patio. Fragrant odors of chicken with a piquant sauce wafted across the grass where they tangled with scents from other grills. The traffic beyond the wrought iron gates of Mistral Manor Apartments had changed from the busy commuters’ stop-and-go pace to revved up engines given to sudden starts and languorous stops. It was mid-July and that meant the night would be warm and dusty and shimmering with life.

Simone propped her head on her hand as she sat at the round table. She traced the bright tile mosaic surface she had recently completed while she observed from her fourth floor perch. Just high enough to see between a variety of trees, she could also spot who went in and out from Cole’s Kaffee on the other side of the street. Tina and Harry Miles had left ten minutes ago, to be replaced at the table on the deck by Carter and Gloria, Simone’s neighbors across the hall. They were bringing back an iced mocha for her and a caramel bar, if any were left. They were good to her.

It was a decent start to an otherwise slow summer. Simone hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. The hopeful plan had been to be up and moving by the end of June, sign up for a harpsichord class, get back to easy exericse, get in touch with Higgins and Hughes, the law firm she had worked for until the end of April. Get back to her industrious lifestyle of long hours of labor made worthwhile by week-ends of recreation.  Well, no one and nothing was cooperating  with her wishes. May rained itself right into June and June sauntered into July with sunshine at last. And here she still sat.

Beneath her on a bench between the lavender, peonies and pots of red geraniums, Kari waved.

“Want me to come up later?” she called. “I’m meeting Trey for dinner and then we’re going salsa dancing. “Her hand flew to her mouth before she could stop it. “I know you miss dancing. Sorry.We are just… getting out of the hot apartment for a while. It’s been an age since we had a good meal, too.”

Simone grinned at her old roommate; Kari had moved in with Trey in October. “Well, of course you want to get out. It’s a perfect night for it. And I’m not so sure I miss the press of sweaty bodies in the clubs!  If my light is on when you get home, give me a call if you want. And have fun!” 

Trey emerged from the doorway of the apartment building and came up behind Kari, then took her hand. She pointed up at Simone and he waved as they left.

She shifted in her chair and opened the book she had been trying to read for a week. It was something light, Gloria had said when she loaned the novel. Something beachy, although there was no beach within an hour’s reach.  Something to keep her mind off things, give her a laugh. But she could still, surprisingly, laugh; she just kept thinking about things. About how it could have been different if she had made other choices.  Just walked away that last night of April instead of having continued the conversation, then gotten hooked by the debate,  then snared in the argument and finally trapped by the same old story: demands, pleadings, tears. Yes, that man could weep to beat all. And just as fast be transformed into something unrecognizable, cold as steel and full of rage. She shook her head to clear it.  The last thing she needed was for Bart’s face to loom at her all night. She flipped the page and read the next paragraph, then read it again and a third time. No use. She pushed it aside.

But four floors below there was a panoramic scene to sample, to absorb and wonder over. There was another small group forming a circle and she knew it would be a long night of music.  Two guitars, three hand drums, a rain stick, a flute or two, a violin, even. It was Friday night and whoever was around came down and started up a song. Simone heard a penny whistle weave in and out and around the melody, light and clear and captivating. She caught her breath.

“He’s back,” Simone said aloud and sank deep into her chair. Sean McAllister had been touring the British Isles and Europe with his band for the last five months. He surely knew the whole sorry story by now, unless he had just gotten in. Kari may even have called him in spite of Simone’s protests. He might be disgusted with the whole thing, with her, and was avoiding her. That’s what some of the old crowd did. But, then, she also wasn’t partying anymore. She fervently hoped he wouldn’t look up. Her face still looked less than what she’d been told to expect, scars across her cheekbone and chin, nose still a bit bumpy. But what she really didn’t want him to see was her humilation. Shame.

He, along with so many others, had warned her. He had said yes, Bart was charming and capable and also impossible, a man who couldn’t have it any way but his own–a man who could flip like a switch if you looked at him wrong. Sean had told her: “I know him, he was with a band I was in a few years ago, remember? As your friend, as someone who cares about you for who you really are–not only your outstanding good looks and fabulous intellect,  by the way–tell him to shove off!” At which point she had given him a swat across the head with her sweater and sent him back home with leftover spaghetti and salad from their late dinner. Before he left he ran down from the seventh floor and had again lectured her. “Better break it off or you will regret it. I want to come home and find you happy again.” Simone had saluted him and he’d enveloped her with a hug that she sank right into. But she had finally broken it off. Or tried to. And paid the price. 

The Irish jig morphed into something eastern in flavor, became a light melancholic tune. It moved through the tree branches and leaves so that they seemed to sing a song of gentle longing. Simone shut her eyes and let her mind wander to better times.

Until she laid her hands upon her thighs and felt the right leg cast all the way up to her hip, the left leg still bandaged from slow-healing wounds. It had been an accident: she had wanted to believe that for weeks after she left the hospital. But it hadn’t been, not really. No, not at all.

Bart had made her get into the car and had driven out to the Pointe like a madman, slapping her as he drove, yelling things she had never heard before and still tried to forget. And when they had reached the spot, the place where only last summer she had climbed the small bluff with friends, he had yanked her out and shaken her until her mind went blank. She tumbled and as her helpless body bounced off rocks and earth she saw a profound blackness filled with garish bursts of light, then nothing. Until a week later, when she awakened, immobilized, wounded, astonished at what her life had come to.  Everyone else was amazed she wasn’t paralyzed or dead but for her, it was a horror that she would end up here at all. She would not have believed it possible to fall for such a man. He would be end up incacerated for a long time, they told her; a car had driven up just as she had fallen over the ledge of rock so there was a witness. And may he suffer dearly, they added in more brutal words than that. She couldn’t know about his suffering. She hoped he was facing himself and feeling something, at least regret, but expected otherwise. There was no one left to hear apologies. He would certainly see it all as a serious inconvenience.

For Simone, there were court dates ahead and she dreaded them. Seeing him. Remembering what she tried to forget every day. But she had to stand up for herself. And then maybe she could move on.

Simone snapped her eyes open and bit her lip. She focused on the peaceful courtyard. The musicians played a lively song, improvising easily. The women who had rested before were now gone, and a group of children jumped rope, chanting rhymes. The sun was softer now, the heat diminished, the sky a more tender blue. Everywhere she looked there were people just living their lives on a July evening. They were spread out beneath her like a colorful safety net. She breathed deeply and her nostrils filled with the balmy air. She was grateful to be home at all the last two weeks, resting on this balcony that was washed in transluscent golden light, the courtyard a welcoming place.

A broad hand suddenly crossed her peripheral vision; in it was her tall iced mocha in a clear plastic glass. Simone turned her head to see who it was and then looked away. Sean knelt and took her hands into his, turned them over, and placed his lips in the center of each opening palm. Then he sat beside her and they watched the scene change once more.