A gypsy fortuneteller once told me I’d grow up to have two husbands and two and a half children. It was the summer I turned fourteen and my family had rented our usual house at the Jersey shore; well, the top floor anyway. It was an old weatherboard shack set back a few streets from the beach, sandwiched between new high-rise apartments that blocked the view and stole our sea breeze. Things were pretty crowded in that apartment, what with all the cousins and aunties and uncles who came to stay. Even Frank came down for the day to check out some of his old haunts, but left before lunch because things had changed, he said, bodies packed like sardines on the beach, riffraff with boomboxes and no work ethic. At night my sister Christina and I slept on the floor in the living room with the other girl cousins, our bodies overlapping like cuttlefish on the high tide mark. The adults had real bedrooms but never seemed to use them. They fell asleep sitting up, in the middle of the day or after dinner, mouths hanging open. In the evenings they smoked in huddled pairs, doing crosswords or cleaning clams. But even awake they seemed on the edge of sleep, as if the mere fact of being alive wore them out.
The day I met the gypsy I’d just finished working the lunch shift. It was my second summer bussing tables at Bob’s Grill, saving up for my trip to Paris with Mamie. So far I had $234 in the bank, plus the $6 I’d just earned. I reached deep into my pocket and gripped the bills, crumpled and damp with sweat. It was one of those searing-hot afternoons around three, the sea oily and still, the boardwalk an oven of blistering tar and cocoa butter. Groups of kids my age perched on benches sipping Coca Cola and licking powdered sugar off the top of funnel cakes. They could have been a different species, blonde and tanned with their perfect teeth. The girls wore denim cut-offs and bikini tops, lip gloss and flip flops. I huddled to the far side of the boardwalk, away from them, in the shade of shop awnings. I could feel my pale skin burning already and the fabric of the black polyester uniform rubbing against the flesh under my arms.
I nearly tripped over the sign: ‘Gypsy Queen Palm Readings $5’ which I took as an omen. I guess I was looking for answers. I wanted to know when Mamie would get better, if my mom and dad would split up for good. I wanted to know if I’d ever get out of New Jersey or if I’d still be waitressing in a diner when I was my parents’ age. But then again maybe I just wanted to get out of the sun.
I pushed through a screen of beads into a dark, musty room. It was more like a cave than the usual boardwalk shop with seashells and nicknacks. It didn’t even smell like the ocean in there. I could have been anywhere, in New York City even where I’d been the year before to see the musical ‘Annie’. My eyes took a while to adjust and when they did, I saw a large, big-breasted woman sitting at a low table with a piece of black lace thrown over it. She had dark curly hair like mine and wore a tight red polo shirt with the words Ralph Lauren printed on it, which surprised me.
The gypsy didn’t say hello and, for a moment, I wasn’t sure she’d seen me. Then she raised her eyebrows, as if trying to decide whether I was worth the trouble, and thrust out her hand. At first I thought she wanted me to shake it, but she gave a little nod in the direction of my pocket.
I gave her five dollars and sat down, placing both hands palm up on the lace. She chose my left hand, which I took as a sign that she’d used her magic to divine my lefthandedness. She didn’t speak. Something about the way she looked from my palm to my mouth made me think she understood that I didn’t talk much. I hardly talk to my own family, though it’s better than it used to be. There were two whole years when I refused to speak to anyone.
The first thing she said was that I have an island in my lifeline. I could see it there, a diamond-shaped mound, plump and rosy, locked in by a criss-cross of tributaries. When I asked her what it meant she muttered something vague about escape from misfortune. That didn’t sound so bad to me. But then she wrinkled her brow and told me an island was never a good thing and that mine had a falling branch growing out of it. It was a sign, she said, of a great loss or perhaps a mark of hereditary evil.
Just as I was starting to regret coming into the shop, the gypsy tightened her grip on my hand and said that the lines can change. That as we age new lines branch out and that it’s up to me to decide. This pretty much ruined her credibility, as far as I was concerned; that and the fact that she’d left a book out in plain sight called Palmistry for Beginners. She carried on nonetheless, possessed by a weird kind of urgency when she got to the part about the two husbands and the half child. I kept listening because I couldn’t just get up and leave. Though inside I was thinking she had to be making it all up. There was no way I was ever getting married. Not after how things had turned out for my Mamie. And I definitely would never have a baby out of wedlock. Women who did that went straight to hell. And half a child, well that just wasn’t possible.
That afternoon I spent a long time thinking about what the gypsy said. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Christina. My parents would have punished me for sure, just for going in there. And then summer ended and we left Ocean City and I forgot all about it. I turned fifteen, then sixteen, then twenty. I moved to New York, then to Geneva, then to Paris where I married a Frenchman and left the past behind.
Until today, that is.
This morning Philippe and I had breakfast together, as we always do, went to the courthouse and signed some papers. After, we came back to our apartment across from the Parc de Bécon and made love. We both cried and he tried again to get me to explain why I was leaving. Of course he knows about the funeral, but that’s not what he was asking. He needed to know why I wanted a divorce when things were so much better between us. We’ve been through it so many times. The problem is I don’t have an answer. All I know is that it has nothing to do with him, that he did nothing wrong — apart from the Valerie episode, which I suppose I drove him to — and that I still love him.
Now here I sit, an empty suitcase beside me on the bed. I should be packing. My plane leaves in four hours. Instead I listen to Philippe rattle about in the kitchen. He insisted I have a proper meal before getting on the plane. He’s making one of his standard recipes: roast beef studded with garlic cloves, fried potatoes and boiled green beans, steaming up all of the windows in the apartment. I’m not even hungry and yet I feel a wave of gratitude toward him and his endless efforts to provide for my happiness.
I hear the cutlery drawer bang open, followed by the soft pop of a cork.
‘Françoise?’ he calls out through the wall.
‘Oui,’ I yell back. I hear the soft shuffle of his leather slippers moving toward the bedroom.
‘Ca va?’ He stands at the door to the bedroom, slightly hunched over to avoid grazing his head on the doorframe. He’s holding a bottle of his uncle’s Aligoté and two wine glasses. ‘Glass of wine?’ he asks in French. We rarely speak English though he knows enough to get by, basic tourist phrases and a smattering of business lingo. I’ve always liked that about our couple, the way we invented a world in French and my awkward American self disappeared beneath layers of impersonation and carefully constructed vowel sounds.
‘Merci.’ I take the glass and hold the frosty bowl of it in my palms the way my mother always told me not to.
Philippe sits down next to me on the bed. ‘You can always come back, you know,’ he says. He’s taken off his glasses and his face looks naked, his eyes smaller and lost somehow without their frames.
I reach up and stroke the side of his cheek and think about what a good man he is, how constant and kind. And I wonder, not for the first time, how he puts up with me, how he can love someone who has none of his steadiness.
I wonder if Philippe really means what he said about wanting me to come back. Or whether he needs me gone so that he can get on with his life. I wonder if Valerie will sense my absence and shoulder her way in, bit by bit, until she’s indispensable to him. I should hate her for it, I suppose, but I met her once and she’s actually a nice person, tall and thin like Philippe and a little meek. They’d make a good couple and have tall, thin children with names like Florian and Elodie. I wonder what it says about my feelings for Philippe, the fact that I can so easily picture him happy with someone else.
‘I’m going down to get bread. Need anything?’ Philippe stands and I nod no. He sets his wine glass, untouched, on the bedside table and walks out of the bedroom. I hear his keys scrape against the wooden benchtop and the door slam.
I begin to walk from room to room, deciding what to take and what to leave. I pick up books and put them back on the shelf. I flip through photo albums too large to fit in a suitcase. I think of my herbs slowly dying in the window boxes outside and don’t bother to water them. All these pieces of a life I have chosen to leave behind.
I try to imagine the future but all I see is emptiness. Perhaps once I’m back in Pennsylvania things will become clearer. Perhaps then I will know where I belong, which place to call home. For now all I know for sure is that the gypsy isn’t right yet. And that my life is far from over.