The Fortuneteller by Eileen O’Connor

close up of brick steps and mortar

The woman jaywalking toward my side of the street is slight, with stooped shoulders and a bent back. Her wiry neck branches into collarbones so sharp that they resemble a wire hanger from which hangs a yellowed, billowy blouse tucked into a long skirt. Probably once a very bright shade of red, the skirt’s hue resembles the brick steps – faded by years of sun and rain, salt sprinkled on ice, and snow scraped with a shovel – on which I sit. I often wait for my shift to begin on the steps of this brownstone, although I have no business in the posh boutique on the ground floor nor in the condominiums on the second and third. No one ever asks me to leave.

The woman approaches the steps, and I regret having made eye contact.

“You want a reading?” Her voice is hoarse, with the faintest trace of an accent.

“No, that’s alright.” I tighten my grip on the backpack in my lap.

“You need help.”

Set deep within the crinkled butterscotch-brown of her face, her eyes are a striking shade of hazel. The woman stares at me from the sidewalk. I look away and watch the arduous progress of an ambulance as it pushes through a street crowded with luxury cars and tourists. When the ambulance turns a corner and its screams subside, I glance at the spot where the fortuneteller had been. She is still there. I pull my cellphone from my back pocket. Four in the afternoon. It’s a half hour before I have to clock in, but I’ll go early. I walk down the stairs of the brownstone, avoiding the fortuneteller’s gaze, and begin to walk in the direction of the restaurant. I haven’t gone a block when I feel the yank of a skeletal hand on my shoulder.   

“You are unhappy. All the women in your family are unhappy. You, your mother, your mother’s mother – there is a curse on you all.”

I quicken my steps, but the fortuneteller remains at my heels.

“You are not close to your mother. Because she was too close to you. She pulled your body away from your soul.”

I stop and turn to look at her. My body from my soul. No therapist had ever described it that way. Nor had I been able to describe the sensation of living in that floating place inside my mind, with my body moving, breathing, sleeping, existing below me. The fortuneteller fishhooks a bony finger and motions me closer. Standing on tiptoe, she leans close to my ear. The coffee on her breath is a stale hazelnut.

“I see you had an abortion. This is because of the curse. But I can end it for you.”

I’m ashamed to be seen crying next to this strange gypsy woman, afraid that suddenly all the moneyed Bostonians and tourists, all the flirting couples and eager buskers on the sidewalk will decide to unite forces and expose me. Who’s to say that some of them weren’t the very protesters who had stood outside of Planned Parenthood with their shouts and their signs?

***

 

“Life Begins at Conception.” “Murder.” “God Is Pro-Life.”

Their chants and prayers had stopped me in a cold sweat when I approached the clinic. I had steeled my neck so my head wouldn’t lower, kept my eyes fixed straight ahead and held my breath, as if not inhaling the air that filled the gaps in the urban landscape between us would somehow make me invisible to them. I had walked that gauntlet, trying hard not to look at the posters of unborn babies and mothers holding wide-eyed infants.

A security guard had let me into a waiting room where some people were reading magazines, and others murmuring to the person beside them. The cream-colored walls decorated with sexual health posters had seemed a fortress of quiet and order compared to the chaos on the street. I had begun to breathe, until the receptionist waved a pink-nailed hand at me. I had approached her desk slowly, feeling trapped between the angry protesters outside and what I was here to do. “I have an appointment.”

***

“Give me your right hand.” I fear the future she will see in the lines on my skin, but I fear displeasing her more. If this fortuneteller has the power to know my secret, she might be right about the curse. She might truly have the ability to break it. And if she can break a curse, why couldn’t she cast another on me if I angered her with doubt or hesitation?

She traces her fingers over my palm. Her fingernails are flecked with chips of red polish, and their beds are black. When I notice her knuckles are swollen and twisted, the telltale sign of arthritis, my fear eases for a moment.

She turns my palm down and looks at the back of my hand. My skin is flakey and dry, reddened from the constant wiping down of tables and rinsing of dishes. The fingernails are torn down to the quick. She taps her index finger on the bite-marks on my knuckles. The marks are from cramming my fist down my throat. My gag reflex had tired after years of bulimia, but a punch toward my tonsils still brought my jaws snapping down like a mousetrap. The dam of my jaws eventually would yield to torrents of half-digested food pushing toward release. Who knows how many birth control pills were floating in those decomposing rivers I flushed down the toilet.

“The curse.” She drops my hand and reaches into the pocket of her skirt to pull out a half-smoked cigarette. “The curse is also why you don’t sleep.” She traces the filter around the edges of her mouth. Thin red streaks like paper cuts splay from the corners of her chapped lips, where saliva bubbles and threatens to drip down her chin.  

She’s right about that, too. I didn’t sleep. How could I sleep if I had been wide awake when I let a baby begin to grow inside my body? I had known what was happening. I had recognized, too late, what I had got myself into, and at some point had resigned myself to it. I hadn’t been drugged, and I hadn’t been drunk. I could never let myself slip like that again, and my body knew it. So my eyes refused to close, except on the rarest occasions when the weakness of my mind overpowered them. What happened when I fell asleep? Nightmares bloomed from spiky flowers on a pillow that smelled of sulfur.

“Do you have a light?” The fortuneteller sounds impatient.

I dig into the front pocket of my backpack and pull out a lighter. My hands shake too much to light the cigarette for her, so I hand her the Bic.

When she takes a drag, the saliva congregated at the corners of her mouth vanishes, the way a clam sucks itself into its shell when poked by a human finger.

“You got any cigarettes?”

“Only a few.” I hand her a flattened packet of Camels.

“What do you do for work?”

“I waitress.”

She clicks her tongue and shakes her head. “You’d be pretty enough to be in a magazine if you got some sleep, ate some food.”

“Stopped smoking?” I force a laugh to strip her words of their weight.

“I know what you would like to do more than anything.” She exhales a cloud of smoke above my head and keeps her eyes fastened to it.

“I do too.” I’d write. But I’m afraid.  

***

Five months earlier, he had invited me in to see his antique typewriter.

“Since you’re a writer, it will be special for you.”

I had said no, that I was tired, but he had insisted.

“I think you’ll really like it.”

His eagerness to show me the writing machine had seemed so sincere, almost childlike. Despite my lack of interest, I had decided I shouldn’t disappoint him. It wasn’t until I had entered the apartment that I realized the typewriter was in his bedroom. He led me there, through the dark kitchen and down the hall. He explained that he shared the place with his brother, who wasn’t home. Even today, nearly fourteen years later, I can instantly conjure an image of that typewriter. When I close my eyes, and when I open them, it is there: a black square with rounded edges and silvery sharp keys. He kept it in the far, left-hand corner of his bedroom, as far from the door as possible.

How had I gotten myself into that situation? I have asked myself this question countless times. I had driven him home in the old baby-blue Chevy with the roof that leaked rain that had belonged to my grandfather, and my father after him, after we had met up at a Latin club to celebrate his passing an English test. He had needed a good score in order to graduate from high school. An immigrant of about nineteen or twenty, he worked nights as a busboy in a trendy Mexican restaurant with my on-again, off-again boyfriend, who had introduced us after offering my tutoring services free-of-charge. The boyfriend was supposed to join us, but had backed out at the last minute. I didn’t want to disappoint my pupil and kept the date. The night passed quickly, and I passed off his few, mild attempts at flirtation to that mix of chivalry and machismo to which I, with my penchant for dating Latin men, was accustomed.

It wasn’t until he closed the bedroom door that my stomach dropped and a warning signal shot like lightning to my brain. He ran his hand over the typewriter, pressing the keys with his short fingers. His hands were childishly small, but they were strong enough to press down on my hips while his knee moved up between my legs. He told me I reminded him of a Russian woman he had once seen dance on top of a bar in a movie. Except she had been blonde. She had looked so beautiful up there on the bar, on the screen, dancing, that he couldn’t help himself now. He kept saying that: He had to… he couldn’t help it.

No. This isn’t right. Stop. There were many protests that must have reached his ears. I pushed him away. I invoked his friendship with my boyfriend. He tried again, and I pushed him away, and he came back again. Again and again for what seemed like hours, and the entire time I felt fear and disgust but was also very sorry for him. That pity is what did me in. What sadness must he be feeling, I wondered, to want to do this? What must he be trying to fix, or to cast away from him? What is it he wants that he thinks I have? At some point my legs gave out. They went loose, long and flat down the length of the narrow bed. Everything about him was small but strong. He hardly came up to my chin, and that disgusted me. His size added to my shame. Would it have been better, would it make me less of a slut and absolve me of blame, if he had been a tall muscular man? If he hadn’t been a high school senior while I was twenty-four years old? I was older, I was his tutor. If the student did something I didn’t want him to, I only had myself to blame.  

No matter what, this thing is going to happen. When my will gave out, my eyes floated from my body like two helium balloons. They pulled my mind, attached with invisible strings, to the ceiling above the bed. As I watched what was happening to my body, I was able to wonder and reason. The reasoning, the frantic figuring out of what was going on, seemed the most crucial thing at that moment. My thoughts came so fast, as fast as what was happening to me down below.

Had my whole life, everything I had ever been through, been preparing me, leading me, making me into the form an unknown body was entering at this very moment? This must be meant to be, I thought. This must be what God wants. And yet, I also apologized to God for giving in, for not fighting longer and harder, for never screaming loudly, for not biting and scratching. I asked forgiveness for committing a sin. For cheating on my boyfriend, and for being a slut. And for something else – some other transgression, the worst of all – that I couldn’t describe with words. I could only feel it, like being covered with boulders, nearly crushed but not quite. I could take it, and that was my sin. Because I was impure already, because I had slept with strangers without thinking much about it, this pressure, this pain – it wouldn’t kill me. I already knew that some part of me had survived. And I wished it wasn’t so. There would be no eradication of memory through the mercy of death.

When it was over, he went to the kitchen to get something to eat. I was left tied to the bed by the weight of my limbs. I noticed, and it seemed the strangest thing to notice, that my skin was still dry. He hadn’t sweat. He came back to the bed and ate cold spaghetti with shreds of bologna mixed in from a tupperware container. The smell to me was sulfur. He offered me some, and I refused. He didn’t push me to eat it.

***

“It was a boy,” the fortuneteller says, releasing my hand.

“I know.”

When the ultrasound technician asked if I wanted to know whether there were two heartbeats, I shook my head. I knew I wasn’t carrying twins. There was one, and I had dreamt of him. He had appeared from a whiteness in my mind and he had opened his eyes. When his dark eyes met mine, the nothing he had emerged from became grey water. I looked down at him from where I dreamt and saw my own face, saw my father’s infant face, recreated in darker tones.

“This is your uterus.” The technician wanted me to look. She was probably trying to ensure that the permanence of my choice sunk in, maybe giving me a chance to think twice. Keeping my eyes closed had made the cold invasion of the transvaginal ultrasound a bit more bearable, but I clenched my fists and opened my eyes. Amidst the wavy static on the screen was a sac like a black egg with a little grey spot inside.

I got down from the examination table, signed a form and swallowed the Mifepristone pill. The lining of my uterus immediately began to break down. I had to take the Misoprostol pill within two days so that the womb would empty. I was to make sure I could lie down for an entire day after taking the pill to wait for life to pass.

I checked out of the clinic seated in one of a row of booths that seemed a cross between confessionals and urinals: there were people next to me but we couldn’t see each others faces. When I felt the woman to my right lean back in her chair, I leaned back in my own and our eyes met. Tears were running from her dark eyes without a sound, and I was finally able to cry. She looked around my age and her face was beautiful, deep ebony with high cheekbones. I don’t know what she saw when she looked at me. I couldn’t recognize myself anymore in the mirror. In the seven weeks since it had happened, I had dyed my hair once a week, each time a lighter shade, until I was as blond as that girl in the movie. The one he had said had been the most beautiful woman he had ever seen… or had that been me? Maybe I was even blonder than her by now, a physical validation of his justification.

The bed I lay in while I waited to miscarry belonged to the sort-of boyfriend. He put the DVD How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days on. I knew how to lose so much more in ten days, and I told him the movie was a strange choice. He said he had rented it to distract me. I told myself to be grateful for his support, especially when I had told him that what had happened was my fault, that I had cheated on him. We knew the baby wasn’t his. Things had been rocky between us for a long time.

As Kate Hudson attracts Matthew McConaughey and then does her best to scare him away, I lay as still as possible, afraid of “messing up” any part of the process my body was undergoing. My boyfriend sat beside me for a while. He held my hand. Then he went out to buy some pot from a friend. The cramps and nausea set in as I watched the scene where Kate takes Mathew’s breath away in a sleek, yellow satin evening gown. That body looked so clean and lithe, svelte and pure, I couldn’t imagine it getting into trouble as mine had.

I don’t know if I was grateful that my boyfriend hadn’t yet returned when the bleeding started, when I sat on the toilet with diarrhea and threw up into the sink at the same time. I don’t know if I was glad to be alone when I felt the gelatinous ball of flesh pass between my legs. Although I truly wasn’t alone, and I remember looking at the other life in that bathroom – tiny, compact, solid and dark – an individual who had been more closely connected to me than any had ever been – an ended possibility floating in the toilet water. I didn’t know what to do next. What sort of burial was this? I flushed the toilet, went back to bed and slept until late in the afternoon of the next day. When I emerged from the bedroom, I found my boyfriend asleep on the couch.

***

“I need 300 dollars,” the fortuneteller says. “To pay for the ceremony to break the curse.” She explains that she will perform the ritual at home and I don’t need to be there, but she needs supplies in order to do it properly.

“I don’t have that much on me.”

“There’s an ATM nearby.”

During the five-minute walk to the Bank of America on Boylston Street, I keep my head down, anxiously anticipating a passerby shouting at me, “Hey, stupid girl! Why are you leading that crazy gypsy lady right to your ATM? You know this shit isn’t real!” Part of me wants someone to save me with those words, to confirm what the small amount of reason I have held on to is whispering in my gut. But the greater part of my mind, speaking so much louder, is terrified that someone will see me and the fortuneteller and expose our mission as a fraud. I have to withdraw the money, even though I know there is something suspicious about it, in order to break the curse. But no one calls out to me, and, at the machine, I feel the fortuneteller behind me on tiptoe, trying to peer over my shoulder. I only have about 500 dollars in my account, but I am sure to make at least $100 in tips that night.

Once we are back out on the street, she leads me toward the sporting goods store on Newbury. “I need men’s sneakers, Nike Air, size ten, for the ceremony,” she says.

“I don’t have enough money.”

“Then buy them for me next time. I’ll be calling you, to tell you how things go. And I have to see you again. Give me your phone number.”

I pull the notepad I use to take food orders from my backpack, jot the numbers down on the first sheet of paper, tear it off and place it in her gnarled right hand. Then I run down the street to work, already late. Doubt and shame accompany me. I can’t believe I would give my money to a complete stranger…to work magic.

The fortuneteller calls me a few days later. She says the ceremony to break the curse is going well, but it is more difficult than she thought. The curse is dark and strong. She needs more supplies to break it. She needs more money.

Maybe the distance the phone provides gives me the courage to refuse. “I can’t give you anymore.”

“It’s your choice.” The silence stretches long and loud between me and the nameless place where the fortuneteller will leave my curse half-broken. She hangs up the phone. The terror sets in. I leave the dingy Allston apartment I share with four roommates and walk a few blocks down Commonwealth Avenue to Star Market. Back in my room, I eat fifty dollars’ worth of groceries. Then I go to the bathroom to throw up.

Staring into the toilet water, I can’t predict my future, but I can see the things that have already happened. I want them gone. I want them out of me. Peanut butter that chokes and sticks, corn chips that slice the throat, the sickening sweetness of strawberry ice cream. They come up in the opposite order in which they went down. I can track them, understand them, be grateful for the predictability of the painful end, coughing up blood to know the job was done well. The past was purged, the future is clean and empty, purified by blood. At least for a few hours. The pain and the fear will stay numbed for only that long. But when they arise again, I know how to make them go away. Again and again, in a ceremony of my own, I bury the dead deep inside me, then violently expel them the way a hurricane overturns earth.

The fortuneteller contacts me a few more times, but I always let the call go to voicemail. I erase the messages without listening to them, even though I am terrified that the fortuneteller is working black magic on me to punish me for refusing her. I pray to Jesus and the Blessed Mother to help me believe in goodness, but my fear of the darkness always eclipses my faith in the light. Desperate with panic, I tell the friend from the restaurant who I trust the most, the one who calls me “hermanita,” or little sister, about the fortuneteller.

“The curse is broken. You’ve paid the price,” she tells me. “Now you move forward.”

***

When I go to my follow-up appointment at Planned Parenthood, an ultrasound technician once again waved her cold magic wand inside of me. My fate was broadcast on the screen. “Incomplete abortion.” The words made me dizzy. Little lights floated before my eyes, as a voice drifted in and out: “some pregnancy tissue passes out of the uterus… some tissue remains…”

The life inside me had resisted. The grey spot on the screen had been torn in two, and half of it was clinging to me. I had to take Misoprostol to induce a miscarriage again. They said it rarely happened. But I knew it was possible to only half kill a life, and counted myself among the half-dead walking the world. Numbed by pain: how so many who had survived nine months inside a woman’s body were enduring the worlds into which we had been pushed.

 

eileen-oconnorBoston native Eileen O’Connor’s writing has appeared in Women’s Review of Books, Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Literal: Latin American Voices, and The Recorder: Journal of Irish American History, among others. She translated the novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin, which won the 2015 Pura Belpré Award and was a finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. Eileen currently translates author interviews for “The City and the Writer,” a Words Without Borders blog by writer Nathalie Handal. A graduate of Harvard College and New York University, she teaches Spanish and writing at Wellesley College.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/thebusybrain
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  • sue

    Wow, very powerful and moving piece, Eileen. It will stay with me. Thank you!

    • Eileen O’Connor

      Thank you so much, Sue, for reading and sharing your thoughts.