"Want to go out and celebrate your birthday?" asked my friend Emmy Wildean, looking at me askance. I could tell she still could not get used to me as a blond, or rather as a "carrot blond," for the dye I had put on my hair had started to go orange the moment the sun hit it. It turned out I had "color-absorbent" hair and any light hair dye I put on it would turn a shade of orange. So much for my panic attack on my approach to the dreaded "30".
It was 1976 and I had by then heard enough about not trusting anyone over 30. I was certainly not to be trusted with a box of hair dye.
"Still freaking out about your 30th birthday?" Emmy now asked tentatively.
"No, I—I guess, that is--hey, I really don't think I want to go out with this hair. Did you see how everyone was looking at me at the office? I bought a box of brown hair dye during lunch and tonight I'm going to dye my hair back to brown."
"So that's where you went at lunch time. Jen and Sally were looking for you and they asked me. I hadn't an idea where you had gone—"
"I'm going to dye it back to brown tonight," I repeated absently, glancing out the window and seeing as if for the first time a large sign that said, "Psychic." I had seen that sign from the bus a thousand times before and yet I had never really looked at it as I was looking at it at this moment.
The bus was taking a long time at the stop because the bus driver was helping an old lady with crutches get up the steps of the bus.
"I'm getting out," I said.
"What? This isn't your bus stop," Emmy responded in an alarmed voice. I didn't blame her for looking at me as if I needed help. I had certainly been acting like a lunatic these last few days about my approaching "the Big 30". I had spent half a paycheck on wrinkle creams in advance of what I thought was going to be a major crisis.
"Where are you going?" asked Emmy, half standing up.
"Just go on home, Emmy," I answered, putting a firm hand on her shoulder so she wouldn't follow me down the aisle, "I just remembered I have something to do in that street—ah—an errand."
"Oh, well, okay." Emmy sat back in her seat but I could tell she was still tense.
"Don't worry—you're acting as though you're my mom or something," I laughed.
"That isn't a very nice street", she said, with a worried frown.
"You're just six months older than me, Emmy, not six years," I said. "I can take care of myself." Yet when the bus pulled off I did feel a shiver of apprehension. The smell of exhaust filled my nostrils as I waved at Emmy and then wondered what I was doing. Should I just sit in that forlorn bench and wait for another bus to come by or should I follow that sign and go in to see that psychic, which was the reason I had gotten off the bus? I now wondered, as I walked toward the seedy looking establishment, if I had gone completely bonkers. What was I doing in this strange part of town, by myself, with approaching night?
"If you're looking for Madame Xalia she just walked back in," an old man said. I jumped at his voice for he seemed to have appeared from nowhere. He pointed to the front window, where now appeared a dim yellow light behind burgundy velvet drapes with gold fringes and tassels.
I turned the knob of the door and glanced back at the old man, who was looking keenly at me and smiling toothlessly. "Thanks," I said before I walked into the room. At least someone had seen me go into that place in case I didn't come out in a reasonable length of time.
It was a small dark room with a table and two chairs in the middle. The chairs were carved and ancient. There was a small Coors neon sign on a wall that gave the room an eerie bluish light, like mist. There was another room beyond, separated from the one I was in by a dark red velvet curtain that was vivid from the light in the other room. The curtain parted and a woman with a red scarf and long black skirt walked toward me.
"Sit on the chair opposite me," she ordered as she sat down herself.
"I—I—Madame Xalia?" "
"Yes, I'm Madame Xalia, miss. You want your fortune told?"
"Yes," I said meekly and sat where she pointed.
"Five dollars for each hand."
"You don't have a glass ball?" I asked.
"No—hands only. One hand or two?"
"I only have five dollars."
"Which of the two?"
I extended my right hand.
For a long time she only stared at my hand, turning it this way and that. I thought maybe she was seeing something horrible and she didn't have the heart to tell me. I started to feel beads of perspiration coming from under my carrot hair and settling just above my eyebrows.
"You're one of those," she finally said.
"I've never gotten one so you must excuse me while I read the book."
"Yes, sure, go ahead," I said. I had no idea what she meant but I needed a break. I felt like I had held my breath all the time she had my hand in hers. She let go of my hand now and went to a small bookcase on the side wall. She took a large, leather-bound book and leafed through it by the light of a candle while I waited in suspense. I finally took out a tissue that had been rolling around in my purse and wiped my forehead.
Still she read, turning the page when she reached the bottom, an intense look in her eyes. Her heavily made up eyes looked eerie under the candlelight. I was afraid to interrupt her so I kept still and said nothing. Had I made a mistake in coming? Time was ticking by. Surely it would be dark before I went out again into the street. I was afraid now of sitting in a bus bench in the corner, with just a streetlight above. I could ask the woman to call me a cab when she finished. Yes, that would be the best course. I had money at home. I would just ask the cabdriver to wait.
Breathing a sigh of relief I glanced again at Madame and saw that she closed the book slowly and just as slowly shook her head. She placed the book on the table and placed my hand over it.
"You want to be young, forever?"
"You heard me."
"I—well, who doesn't?" I asked. "I mean, not young forever but look young, feel young for a long time—for a very long time,"I added. Might as well make it good.
"Well, yes, why not," I said recklessly.
"We must go then to the arc," she said.
"The arc?" I asked, my voice almost a whisper.
"Come along—get your coat," she ordered.
By now I was wondering if I had a will of my own left, for I seemed to be unable to do anything except at Madame Xalia's direction. What was I getting into and should I bolt now before it was too late? But surely I was panicking at nothing. The diminutive Madame Xalia was no match for me if I decided to just leave her strange presence. I was more than a head taller than her.
She was taking me someplace else, to the "arc." Shouldn't I be suspicious?
"What's keeping you?"
"Coming," I said.
I walked with her down the street for about a block and a half in silence. The blue light of dusk was turning inky. There was no one about. We reached the storefront of a place that had windows that were boarded up. No light came from within, yet Madame Xalia pulled out a key from her threadbare fringed purse, put it in the keyhole and turning it she then pushed the heavy door wide open.
"Go on in," she said to me, her voice firm but low.
I hesitated. Strangely enough there was a flood of light now coming from within which made me unable to see anything inside. And before I realized what she was doing Madame Xalia pushed me inside and closed the door.
"I don't mind that you eat up the years, darling, and they leave no mark on you," said my husband, Mitch, kissing the top of my head and then reaching for his coat.
We had been talking about the fact that my birthday was the following day. "Did you know that they call you my trophy wife at the office?"
"They do not," I said with a nervous laugh, "you're making that up."
"I'm not. Stacy and Kate do mind that their mother sometimes looks younger than they do, though," Mitch added.
"They never say anything to me," I said. "Are you sure?"
"Dead sure. And speaking of dead, I've been thinking a lot about that now that I'm going to turn 60."
"Oh, yes, Baby Boomer," I said.
"There's only a day's difference in our birthdays, Boomer Lady," said Mitch, so you shouldn't laugh at old men just because you look thirty. I have already made the reservation at Tom's Lighthouse."
"Good," I said, "we haven't gone out to dinner in some time. It will seem very festive."
I wondered if I had ever gone beyond one day short of thirty. No one believed my age. I was routinely carded when buying liquor and my mother sometimes told me I must have been switched at birth because everyone in her family and in Dad's looked like Methuselah by the time they hit fifty.
I was flippant, but Mitch's words had stuck in my mind for the rest of the day. It was usually that way. I wondered if he resented, deep down inside, that I didn't seem to age. He had high cholesterol, struggled with his weight after a diabetes scare, had prostate troubles and his right hand was beginning to be distorted by arthritis. When it rained, or was cloudy he was in pain medication throughout the day, for his rheumatism tortured him and kept him from his favorite sport, golf. I, on the other hand breezed through life without even a sidelong glance at a drugstore. I took about two aspirin a year for the rare cold and had so much energy I sometimes felt like it would burst out my ears. Physically I felt exactly as I had felt in 1976.
A shiver went through me, clear down to my toes. I often thought about that fateful day when I had gotten off the bus. But when I did I tried to suppress it. It was as if a shiver went through me when I started to remember and my mind blocked it.
My friend Emmy had married, had moved away and had settled in Pittsburg. We had kept in touch through the years, with an occasional card. I sometimes included a photo of the children. But never one of myself, except at a distance.
I had never told anyone about my meeting with Madame Xalia. It wasn't that I didn't want to share. The real reason was that I didn't want anyone to think I was crazy, because the following day after meeting Madame Xalia, I had gone again to the same place where I had gotten off the bus, to the exact same place, and Madame Xalia's place was not there! And without even knowing how the thought got into my head, I knew that this afternoon, while Mitch went to his doctor's appointment, I would take a bus and try again to find Madame Xalia.
That afternoon, breathing in the bus's exhaust fumes that brought back as nothing ever did that fateful afternoon 30 years ago, I settled into the blue plastic-covered seat. It was an overcast afternoon, with the sky low and brooding. The bus was only half full, and my mind wandered a bit. I tried not to think of the reason I was going in search of Madame Xalia and what I would do if I could not find her place.
Finally, the bus meandered to the exact same corner and came to a full stop by a bench at the bus stop. Two women began to board while I alit out the back door. I started to walk down the same street I had walked on 30 years ago.
When I neared the area I saw from a distance Madame Xalia's "Psychic" sign, which I was sure I had not seen from the bus, as had been the case the very first time, for it was the sign itself that had prompted me to get off the bus and follow it like one possessed on that long ago afternoon.
As I neared Madame Xalia's storefront a shiver went through me as I again saw the same old man I had seen 30 years ago. He was exactly the same, too. He hadn't aged. He had been very old then but I still remembered every single detail of that day and I was certain he was exactly the same. He approached me as if he had been waiting for me.
"I knew you would come, sooner or later. Madame Xalia's waiting for you."
I said nothing but followed him into Madame Xalia's tiny foyer and sat where he indicated. I looked around at the place that had often figured restlessly in my dreams. The indoor blue light from the neon Coors sign that only accentuated the gloom; the deep red velvet curtain that separated one room from another, the vivid light behind the curtain...
The curtain parted and Madame Xalia walked toward me. She had not aged a day from when I had last seen her.
"You want it to be stopped?" She asked.
"I don't want to be younger than my two daughters when they begin to really age, and my husband—I love him too much to see him go decades before I do."
"Alright," said Madame Xalia. She went to the shelf and brought back the same book she had consulted 30 years before and placed it on the table.
"We'll try it, but I don't know if it'll work. Remember, you wanted forever."
A shiver went through me, clear down to my toes. There was a chance that it would not work. Would I then be like Dracula?
Madame Xalia placed my hand on the book. My hand trembled. She had her eyes closed and her ears looked pink against the candlelight behind her. Finally, she said, "Come, we are going to the arc."
I got up and like a sleepwalker that must be guided, she led me by the hand down the street…
I don't remember leaving Madame Xalia's or boarding the bus. I have amnesia as far as those moments go. And I know I will never remember them. I only know that I was never truly happy before I went there the second time. Something was always missing. It was as if I had been waiting for the second act. And now I am happy.
"Mom, is that a gray hair?" asked my daughter Stacy, leaning forward and pulling at one of my hairs. "Here it is! That's amazing. I thought I was going to get gray hairs before you ever did."
"Don't be silly," I said, smiling.
(To Be Continued)
(Copyright 2007: Gloria Gay)