where the writers are
At Home With a Ghost - 37

 

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

 

I used to visit a fortuneteller named Mahjouba in the Marrakesh kasbah, not because I put much stock in her predictions, but because her method fascinated me. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

It was hard to find her house, which had no street number. I had to pass through one of those narrow alleyways that somegtimes turns into a low-ceilinged tunnel, forcing you into a crouch. The first time I quickly got lost. Luckily I knew the Arabic word for fortuneteller; all I had to say was ‘shuwafa’ and the street urchins pointed me to her door.

I would bring French pastries along with her fee, even though she was hugely overweight. Her grateful smile contained about three teeth. She spoke no French, so her daughter interpreted the readings for me.

First, Mahjouba placed lumps of lead in a ladle, then held it over the flame of a Bunsen burner. The lead melted and bubbled. Her daughter placed a big bowl of cold water on the floor and directed me to stand over it with my legs apart. Mahjouba poured the liquid metal into the bowl; when it hit the water with a burst of sizzle, the lead instantly solidified, creating unusual shapes. Plucking each shape from the bowl, she ran her fingers over their gnarls and bumps and finger-like projections, then proceeded to “read” them, babbling away in Arabic.

This was always the disappointing part. All the fortunetellers recited more or less the same thing, from the shuwafa manual I guess. The daughter translated, “Watch out for a dark man.” (Morocco was crawling with dark men to watch out for.) “Much money will come to you. In five years you will marry a good man who loves you, and have many sons.”

This was never going to be my fate. I was not going to marry. I’d settled that in my mind a long time ago. However, “much money” sounded good: my publishing advance was going to run out after the New Year.

Once I’d moved from rowdy Marrakesh to the quiet villa in Tangier, my writing picked up speed. I felt confident that I could finish the novel by January, submit the manuscript and collect the second half of the advance.

With my eye on that deadline, I didn’t welcome interruptions as I typed away. However, in late July my mother arrived from Paris for a few days’ visit.

I have mentioned that Mom flew about the world with tireless gusto, her disability be damned, planting her crutches on five out of seven continents. Perhaps because I was the first child she birthed after polio had wrecked her legs, she taught me from the earliest time that independence was everything. Life was a bid for freedom. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.

So that became my banner, too.

In time, I turned around and gave her the same speech. When most of her five children had left home, and women’s liberation was ascendant, I encouraged her to get involved with the United Nations, an institution she loved and believed in. She volunteered at UNESCO, gradually making herself indispensable until at last they gave her a contract and sent her off on her travels. She toured schools from Senegal to Guatemala to introduce her curriculum for teaching children global awareness.

My father did not react well. He hadn’t “signed up for that kind of marriage,” he said. The more she dove into her job, the more he brooded, withdrew, and turned stubbornly deaf whenever she tried to talk about her experiences. Their relationship was as fraught as I’d ever seen it; they were both miserable. She rolled on anyway, unstoppable. Mother had an almost pathological tenacity. People were always calling her a “force of nature,” and I thought that was accurate if you had in mind a Category 5 hurricane. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.

From the moment she arrived at my villa, it was apparent something was wrong. She was, to put it gently, out of her tree. I learned that on a recent trip to China she’d had a violent allergic reaction to some locally produced antibiotic: hallucinating, raving.

By her account, she also experienced a life-altering epiphany. She saw clearly that she had never been herself. She had played nice for too long, acted the complaisant slave to her husband, lied to everyone about her deepest feelings, had even used her polio to gain sympathy – in short, she announced she was a phony and a fraud.

What she observed in China was a purity of endeavor. It inspired her to find a way to be purely and uncompromisingly true to herself. My dad might not like the new her, but, she declared, she would sacrifice her marriage if need be.

As the first step, she’d decided to redesign their house in suburban Connecticut in the manner of a Chinese pavilion. Sitting on my terrace she muttered manically to herself as she sketched the architectural plans on stray bits of paper, trying to reconfigure our 50’s modern home into a traditional Chinese dwelling without having to raze the place. I could only imagine how the Republican neighbors would feel about tiled pagoda roofs, or how my father would feel about having to pay for it.

Also, she wasn’t interested in sleeping or eating. I worried that she was still tripping on the bad Chinese drugs. Maybe she’d been brainwashed; maybe what I had here was the Manchurian Mom.

The phone rang. This in itself was a shock, because the phone in the villa never rang. Only three people had my number: my parents and my agent.

I lifted the receiver and heard my agent’s voice, faint and crackling through the oceanic transmission. He was calling from New York with catastrophic news. My editor, who had signed me to a major publishing house, had left her post. Her replacement examined all the pending projects, glanced over my opening chapters, and summarily cancelled my contract. Null and void: I owed no book, and was owed no more money. I could keep the advance I’d already received and stop writing.

For me, the news was the coup de grace – although I believe that French expression means finishing off your downed opponent as an act of mercy, whereas this latest turn of events seemed merciless in the extreme. I’d fled the States because my failures were there – the ruptured romance, the stillborn recording career, the cancelled musical, the doors of Hollywood firmly closed on my filmmaking ventures… I was grateful to have one avenue still left, a promising future as a published novelist. And now the message was: stop writing.

After hanging up, I burst into tears. Suddenly I was tired to my core. The cycle of trying and losing, trying and losing, over and over, would never end. My helpless sobbing got my mother’s attention away from her own work of obliterating her house. I sat next to her and wept as she stroked my head.

At length I quieted down enough to tell her what had happened, concluding with, “I just don’t have it in me anymore. I’m going to pack it in.” I added drily, “I obviously can’t support myself, so let someone else do it. I guess I’ll have to get married.”

My mother was always the last to pick up on a joke. “Mom!” I said. “I’m kidding!” But she was already considering my statement seriously. In the pause, I realized that I really was serious. More than anything, I was tired of being alone while failing at everything.

She said, “I think you need support by any name.” She looked down at the crumpled sketches in her lap, and her own mood changed. Her elation was subsiding, epiphany fading; she was coming down from her trip. I could tell, the way she sagged, that she would never build a Chinese pavilion or leave her marriage.

She lifted her eyes to mine again. I knew that look well. It said: please. Stoop down, pick up the banner. Do it for both of us.

I knew I would get up the next morning and write. No matter if no one wanted it: I’d finish the book I started. And then I’d write some more.

(To be continued.)