Gumbo and the Future
by Marc Charbonnet
I was flying from New Orleans to New York City and had brought on board a huge block of shrimp and okra gumbo, frozen stiff for safe keeping and tightly packed away. I didn't know it at the time, but that frozen block of food would eventually allow me and my friends to be able to see into the future, but more on that later.
For now, I had packaged the gumbo brick carefully, because I wanted to share it with friends in the city. It had been made by my Aunt Mary-Jane's housekeeper, Coretha, who made giant vats of this gumbo all the time. She prepared this batch just to send home with me. I describe Coretha as a "housekeeper" now, because "maid" is so demeaning. The final time I used the word "maid," which would be many years later, I became embroiled in a bit of a scandal, and a lot of trouble–but amazingly still got the clients who witnessed the faux pas.
I had a client on Fifth Avenue, a family whose apartment I had decorated a year earlier. It was my first big job, and it was a beautiful, magnificent place overlooking the park, and occupied an entire floor. The family lived out of town, but kept the apartment. I would call them up occasionally and ask if I could show it to other potential clients so they could see something I'd done hands-on, not just my portfolio, but my work in living color. I could walk them through room after room and talk about my techniques. I could point out, say, a wall where there was an architectural flaw (a door frame having been installed off-center) that I had cleverly concealed by hanging a framed oil painting on one side of the door, and larger mirror with the same kind of frame on the other side, to give the illusion of balance. Or maybe show another room where I had added a false door on the other side of a fireplace, to mirror the scale of the actual door that lay on the left.
There was one particular day when I needed to show the apartment. When I called they were very kind, as usual, and said it was fine.
"Yes. Of course you may show the apartment." she told me. But before she hung up the phone she suddenly added, "Oh Marc, you may run into my new maid. Her name is Milly."
"Okay, thanks," I said, as I placed the receiver down, mentally preparing myself to impress my new clients.
I arrived at the apartment beforehand to make sure everything was in tip-top shape. No maid in sight.
My clients showed up. They were both wealthy money managers. I slowly lead them through the place, explaining how this worked here, and how that worked there, and the preferences for this client's taste for the master bedroom, and the way their children's rooms were done, etc.
Now, most of these white glove pre-war buildings on Fifth and Park Avenues were built so that when the elevator opened, one would enter into a little elevator vestibule, or vestiere (I learned that word from José Maligno; I think it's so chic), then one would enter through a front door into the apartment. However, this particular home was done differently, and was very impressive. The elevator arrived and, by a security code, the door of the elevators opened into the interior of the apartment itself. You did not have the benefit of privacy unless you wanted it. These clients always kept their security door open. It was a very friendly policy.
As I was in the gallery showing them the marble floor and the wallpaper, I suddenly heard the elevator door open. We all looked, and out popped a statuesque, well-heeled black woman who looked confused. I clasped my hands together, tilted my head, bowed forward and said, "Hi honey, are you the new maid?" She wasn't.
She looked at me and said nothing. She then looked around at the surroundings, and then back at the elevator operator, saying to him, "I'm on the wrong floor." After which she jumped back into the elevator. I thought I caught her shooting me a dirty look as the door swished shut and it zoomed away to a higher floor. I was still standing there in that bowed position, having not moved an inch, and not knowing quite to say as my prospective clients looked on silently. I'm sure, between the 8th and 9th floors, this woman was quietly cursing me for incorrectly guessing she was "the maid." I'm sure she didn't appreciate the inquiry. Who would?
For years afterwards, scenarios ran through my mind as to how I should have handled the situation. Should I have excused myself from the tour to take the elevator to follow the woman and find her in the building, and apologize profusely? No, it would have just made us both feel worse, if that was possible.
I remember when I relayed this story to my own assistant, who is African American, she laughed and said, "Boy, you is too funny."
But my assistant's jovial attitude on the subject changed a few weeks later. She had been waiting with me and the rest of the staff in another new client's apartment. When its front elevator door opened, the client's wife, who had not yet met my assistant, emerged and said, "Hello. Are you the new maid?" My assistant could do nothing but stare. I wisely bit my tongue before saying, "See? We all do it!"
Needless to say, the word "maid" is no longer used in my description of housekeepers.
So, my aunt's housekeeper had made her vat of gumbo, and as I said, my big batch was frozen stiff, and packed snuggly. I planned to have a lovely afternoon luncheon with two girlfriends and a fortune-teller named Brendan.
We had all met this guy at a restaurant called Lacajou on East 16th Street. He was indeed a psychic. This was back in the late 80's, when the East 16th Street area was mysterious, even exotic. Today, that neighborhood is just an overcrowded, over-expensive place where people live in lofts and dull shops have popped up. Back then it was exciting, and you'd see a celebrity now and then. At this chic little place, Lacajou, you could eat a French bistro meal (before French bistros were on every corner), and Brendan would walk from table to table with a deck of cards–not tarot cards, but playing cards–and tell your fortune. After he did it for you a few times, you realized he was really right on the mark.
My friends and I decided to have a luncheon and invite him as our guest. I would serve gumbo, and as an entertainment, Brendan would give us readings.
The lunch group included my dear friend Ellen, who besides being a great friend, I always felt a bit indebted to. She was basically responsible for my job at José Maligno because she was a good friend of Brian, whom I wound up replacing there. I always felt very grateful toward her for that.
My grandmother always said, "If you cast your bread upon the water, it comes back cake." And Ellen had sure cast her bread upon the water for me, by getting me a job at José Maligno.
It would be many years after that luncheon, when I finally was on my own, that I finally stumbled upon a clever way I thought I could pay back Ellen. I had begun to get published in Architectural Digest, which often ran these shopping articles where they would feature a designer. They did quite a few pieces that covered the different places I was going, what I was doing and whom I was finding, different vendors and such–all for different issues. The section of the magazine was called "Designers' Discovery." Ellen was now on her own and doing design work (this would be before she moved back to Louisiana to open a very successful paint business). At this time, she owned an interior design and custom furniture business, and also, with her (now) ex-husband ran a delightful bed and breakfast in St. Francisville. I decided that it would be really nice if, in one of the articles, I could feature her and her husband's businesses, which I did in fact use.
So I made arrangements. The article started to be written, and I flew down to New Orleans with my best friend, Harry. The plan was that, a few days after we arrived, we would drive up to St. Francisville for the elaborate photo shoot at Ellen's bed and breakfast, which the magazine had scheduled.
When the day came for us to travel to St. Francisville, which is approximately an hour and forty-five minutes north of New Orleans, the weather ended up being absolutely horrendous. We had a schedule to keep however, so we pressed on.
Harry drove, thank God, because I was just too nervous. I was freaking out as we crossed the Bonnie-Carrie Spillway, which is a stretch of the interstate that goes over swamps. The rain was so intense and powerful, and beating so ferociously against the windshield, it got to the point where you couldn't even see in front of you. Harry, weirdly, was nonplussed by this. The beating was so loud, that we had to shout to hear one another… and I did a lot of that. I was insane, screaming at the top of my lungs. "Be careful!" "Watch the lanes!" "Look at the traffic!" It was true that many accidents occurred on this stretch of highway, so I acted like one hundred back seat drivers at once. "Be careful! Be careful!" I kept screaming. It was a ferocious typhoon. At one point I swear I looked out the passenger window and saw Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West, laughing at me while riding her broom.
Did I mention I was popping one Lorazapan after another, which is generic Adivan? I really needed it. But soon I decided what I really needed was a big cup of coffee, to settle my nerves.
By the time we reached the end of that stretch of highway, I'd had several heart attacks. We reached the town of La Place, and I demanded that Harry immediately pull over at a rest stop so I could collect myself.
When we got out of the car, it was amazing–the rain had stopped! Harry's anger, however, had come to full flourish. He told me that if I didn't stop behaving the way that I had, he would get out of the car, find a taxi cab and go back to the city, leaving me where I was. This was a serious threat, considering the fact that, as you can see, I was too nervous to drive on highways at the time, and too loaded to walk on them.
As we walked into the rest stop's restaurant, I snagged a few stares. This was back in the day when I was close to 400 pounds. I had decided to dress all in black (which would've come in handy if we'd had a fatal crash). To complement my outfit, I was wearing a strand of black pearls that ran around my neck six times. These were real black pearls.
I wore them sometimes, and always thought of myself looking like Mary, Queen of Scots, before her pearls were taken from her and sold to Elizabeth by her evil half brother. In several portraits, you can see her wearing them. They had been a gift of Catherine De Medici, Mary's mother-in-law. Mary had married Catherine De Medici's son, who would become the king of France for a very short time. Mary became a widow, moved to Scotland and her fate is known from there. But having ropes of black pearls around my neck made me feel rather regal, although I looked ridiculous.
So amongst the rest stop onlookers, I gulped down my coffee... and we hit the road again. Everything had calmed down, and we headed north on the interstate toward our destination. I was thankful for the change in weather because I knew some of the photography the magazine would be shooting was to be outdoors.
We exited in Baton Rouge for a stop-off to visit my sister and her three children. At the time, they still lived in Baton Rouge, but my sister and her husband are now missionaries in Romania, and her children are off in the far reaches of China, India and Mexico. They are out there, being selfless and giving, doing God’s work. I consider what I do to be selfless and giving as well, even though I take care of people’s pleasure. Do any of the Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not have a fabulous home one is happy with?" No. Where on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins does it say "A Stunning Interior?" Nowhere.
When we reached their house, I lumbered out of the car, swinging my pearls. I had to catch myself from falling as I got out, and it was then that I explained to my sister's family how bad the weather had been on the way in. It might have been my own imagination, but I think I might have been slurring my words a bit. Initially my sister was delighted, and then eventually she looked distressed. I just kept swinging my pearls because for some reason I felt like it made me look more together. Her youngest daughter asked me if I had gotten them from Mardi Gras.
They all giggled and laughed, saying that I must have caught them being thrown from the balconies in New Orleans. They actually seemed more impressed with that fallacy than the truth of the matter, which was fine with me. I had purchased them from a pearl merchant.
The kids were barefoot and playing with their new rabbit. Later, Harry talked about my barefoot hillbilly nieces and nephew. Oh please. I told him that when we were children in New Orleans, we ran around on the summer streets barefoot all the time, and never had dirty feet. It was the time of year to air things out. But the streets of New Orleans were never like New York.
We said goodbye to my sister and her family, and got back in the car. When we finally reached St. Francisville we ended up being two hours late for the photo-shoot. The photographer was there, Ellen was there, all of her friends were there to meet this designer who was going to have Ellen's work featured in Architectural Digest. And I made my entrance.
I got out of the car–really spilled out of the car, even worse than at my sister's. Perhaps I had been wrong in thinking the Lorazapan had worn off. Everyone smiled and said it wasn't a problem that I was so late, but their actions spoke otherwise. Before I could even open my mouth to say hello, the make-up people ran up to me and put powder on my face. They rushed me over to an area, where they sat me behind a large stone table, and put two gigantic plants on either side of me to disguise my girth. Everyone then ran behind the camera and said "Smile!" I hadn't even exhaled yet.
In between snaps, Ellen's husband, the son of a past governor of the proud state of Louisiana, asked if I would like anything to drink.
"What do you have?" I inquired.
"Anything you want!" he said.
He smiled really warmly when he said "anything," which was probably a mistake, because I thought about it for a moment and then looked at him and said, "Hmm, I’d like seltzer and bitters." He just kind of stared for a second, and then smiled again as he left to retrieve the ingredients. He took a while.
It reminded me of an earlier time, when I was in a restaurant, trying to impress my father with my grown-up sense of taste. When I was asked what I would like, I looked at the maitre'd and quipped, "I'd like a banana banshee, please." and got nothing but silent gawks. Who came up with that name anyway?
At least I hadn't asked him for a rum daiquiri sweetened with pure strained honey, à la Auntie Mame.
While my seltzer and bitters were being imported, there seemed to be a break in the photography. Suddenly they brought out a wonderful luncheon of oysters Rockefeller! This is a meal where oysters are baked in their shell, and then a puree of spinach is served on top, and the whole thing is re-baked. Just what I needed after an afternoon of caffeine, pills and road terror.
After I quickly ate them all, I looked up and saw people with fake smiles tossing empty paper plates into trash cans. I soon realized, through Harry, that I had eaten everyone's lunch. The big tray of oysters was meant for everyone, not just me! Oh Lord! I was very embarrassed, and explained that I really didn't know. They were very polite about it, but jeeze, what next?
They did a few more shots of me at the stone table. Then at one point the photographer said "Let's try some without the pearls!" and I took them off and handed them to Harry (not surprisingly, they disappeared until the end of the day).
Then, they decided to feature some different areas of the bed and breakfast and told me it would take a while to set everything up. I asked them if it would be alright if I laid down for a quick nap, as the traveling had me quite worn out. They happily showed me to one of the guest rooms, where I laid down and thought I'd probably doze for a while.
But between the nerve pills, the huge lunch and the bitters, I guess I didn't realize how spent I was. I slept and slept, and snored and snored. I don't recall, but I heard later that while I was sleeping, I had snored so violently that it sounded like a natural disaster.
When I woke up I didn't know where I was. When I walked downstairs, I wondered where Harry was. I saw someone walk by and, with a puffy face from sleep, I asked them "Wherze muy azzis-tunt?" I guess I had slept harder than I'd realized.
After being rejoined with the photography group, I nearly started wheezing as they pummeled more powder onto my face to keep the shine down. But I cleared my throat and, this time with a clear voice, asked where my assistant was. Ellen said that she noticed that all the car doors in my vehicle were open, and that Harry was sprawled in the back seat.
We weren't really making a great impression here.
This was the outback, and here we were acting like lazy oafs; stumbling in late, on drugs and in pearls, stealing everyone's food, demanding exotic drinks and then retiring to the nice guest room to basically pass out and then nearly tear off the roof with the loud racket. Then, my so-called assistant, which Harry was posing as, was found sleeping in the back seat of the car with the doors open, his limbs hanging out every which way. Meanwhile, everyone else is standing around waiting in the silent, cool breeze, which was blowing through the wonderful lunchtime air. I decided it was time to pull myself together and act more like a professional.
They brought me into a room which had a chair with Spanish-influenced design, and told me they'd like to photograph me sitting in it. I was now going to be the perfect model. "Like this?" I said with an air of helpful determination as I sat down. Harry, shuffling into the room half-awake, looked over and promptly started laughing. Here I was trying to act professional and my pretend assistant was cackling like a maniac. But I kept my cool.
Something was amiss though. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. It looked like the entire room around me was growing. Was I hallucinating?
"Don't worry, don't worry!" Ellen started shouting loudly as she ran towards me, "I can have it repaired!"
Repair what? I then realized my weight was bending the iron seat, as the chair lowered in slow motion like a freight elevator. Everyone stared in horror while Ellen, always the gallant heroine, ran to help me with a smile.
Harry was now howling. I got up quickly before the whole chair closed in on me like a Venus fly trap. Thanks goodness the bottom of the chair didn't stick to my ass as I stood up. Although that shot might have made a nice centerfold.
I wasn't surprised to learn that the photographer was getting aggravated. She said it was because the whole thing was taking much longer than it was supposed to.
They decided the final picture would be Ellen and me, because the magazine always liked to have the vendor in one of the shots. We decided to do something outside again, as the weather had become lovely. Ellen added that this might be a good time to showcase one of her custom hammocks. Good idea!
They set up some lights, and Ellen and I gathered around one of her creations. When I sat down, the trees on either side of me bowed and the hammock slumped to just nine or ten inches from the ground. Harry was delighted. Everyone else seemed shocked. Ellen got in with me and yelped as she was pulled right to the center like a black hole, the center weight being me. This was called a wedding hammock–which is what it originally was in Mexico. It was made for two people, not five.
When the shoot was over, it was time for me to get out. I couldn't. I panicked for a second when I realized we might need a derrick to pull me. Harry (practically in tears at this point), a friend of Ellen's named Paul, the photographer and her assistant all had to back-up and pull. And pull and pull and pull. It was like tug of war. They finally got me up, and afterwards all would up in the hammock themselves, exhausted.
So went my day, featuring Ellen and her lovely custom furniture and the mentions of her bed and breakfast in Architectural Digest. It's so funny when you look at just those couple of shots in the magazine now, featuring Ellen and writing about her work, the different things, bent willow furniture, custom wrought iron, beautiful stone pieces, urns and the like– they seem just so natural. Oh if readers only knew the fiasco that had ensued!
If anything, it made for great laughs on the hour and a half drive Harry and I took to get back to New Orleans. Back to jambalaya and Popeye's chicken, before our return to New York–and reality.
In the issue of Architectural Digest featuring Ellen's place, they used only one picture of me. In it I'm practically hiding behind a table crowded with full trees and tropical plants, wearing a black shirt and black beret. I was just a dot of flesh.
I recall around that time being invited to speak at Angele Parlange's oh-so chic shop. The advertisement that ran in the local paper displayed a photo of me wearing a beret, in younger, slimmer days.
"I don’t even look like this!” I said to Angele when I saw the photo.
"Hon," she responded, "just wear a beret!” Which I did, and the talk was a huge success.
It would be years before Harry and I would visit St. Francisville again, when we would both come back, along with Harry’s partner, for my birthday. We stayed at what is the said to be the most haunted house in America: The Myrtles Plantation. It has a very tragic history, and is said to be occupied by over ten restless ghosts. We went because we wanted to experience a paranormal evening. I nixed anything that might have happened though, by splashing Lourdes’s holy water all over our rooms. Harry and Jason, his partner, were furious. Even though they are both Jewish, they just knew it was the holy water that kept the sprits at bay!
But all of this would happen many, many years after my delicious gumbo luncheon at my apartment in New York, with all of my friends. Could Brendan have predicted such things as he told us our futures?
Ellen had shown up on that day with an editor named Susan, from a shelter magazine. Ellen was looking for love, even going to a Haitian witch doctor in the Bronx to try to find her Mr. Right. And Susan was in love with a certain man, whom she longed for. She even came to the shop where I was working at the time, and purchased a rather expensive monkey candelabra. Oh gosh, the things people would buy back then. It was a monkey in a tuxedo holding out his two arms, which held, in each hand, a candle holder in where you would place a candlestick. What an ugly thing. You see them once in a while at auctions now. They don't bring now what they did then.
Me? My love life? At that particular time, it was rather interesting. I didn't move to come to New York as much as I moved to flee New Orleans. I left my home city to get away from the memories of a soured, unrequited love affair that happened there. New York just seemed like the logical place to escape to. It wasn't a goal as much as a solution.
As we arranged ourselves in my tiny studio apartment (9 feet by 18 feet, and over-decorated), I served up the prized gumbo, which had been thawed and simmering on my stove in preparation for my guests. There were big smiles as I ladled out thick, steaming servings over rice, full of shrimp, oysters and everything else. It was delicious, and everybody raved. I decided to package what was left over for the people I worked for, and with.
It was so good though that people started to get a little greedy. My employer let me know that he and his partner, Furlough, had only two shrimp in their containers, and another coworker only had one, which he had donated to his partner. I realized that after you've packed gumbo, you have to ladle out the out the contents with a strainer into each container and then pour the liquid on top. But I had served my guests and myself–obviously it was the first pour that was full of everything–and the seconds were served to my employer, and the thirds to his assistant.
After the treats, it was time for the tricks, even though I don't consider what Brendan did a trick. We cleared the table, I served some coffee, and Brendan got out his cards. He sat down, and began.
Ellen was first. With Brendan's eyes remaining on the card arrangement he had just laid out in front of us, he began to study them and speak to Ellen, letting her know that she was a very spiritual person, with a great aura. He told her that her life would work out as she wanted it, although what she wanted now may not be as she wished later. You could see Ellen's face alternately light up and go numb. Brendan let her know that it would all work out for the best. Years and years later, it actually seems that it has for Ellen.
Susan sat there, obviously anxious to hear news from the nether-world about the one man she was after. We all watched her face break into a false smile when she was told that what she hoped for with the man she loved would not happen. You could see she had braced herself for the possibility of this news. But her act of courage began to crack, and she put her head in her face and began to cry–her heart was broken. Brendan kept his eyes on the cards, studying them as he then let her know that she would find great happiness in other endeavors. He told her she would not be an editor at a magazine for long, and that she would find true love. Her face began to light up. Many years later I ran into her at a party. She was married and had a child and was very happy with her life.
Then it was my turn. Brendan opened the cards, studied them, and then and looked at me and said something rather interesting.
"This is very rare." he said, "I've only seen it once before."
Everyone leaned forward with curiosity, to look at the cards. There was no knight's templar or skull or chariot or even a hanging man. What we all saw was a nine of spades, an ace of hearts, a ten of clubs and a jack of hearts. We all looked at each other and hoped that Brendan would explain what the cards said in laymen's terms, and he did. He sat back and paused, and then he looked up at the ceiling. He held one hand near his face and opened his fingers in front of it. As he did this he told us he was born with a cowl, a kind of "mask" over his face. He told us that his grandmother had been born with the same thing, and possessed the same gift of telling the future.
He then looked right at me and told me that my future would be decided by my own doing. But at that moment, the most important thing he revealed was that I would find true love only once in my life and that it would be with a woman who had hair of gold. My facial expression changed drastically as I looked at him. I found this very strange.
"How could that happen?" I asked.
"That’s completely up to you." he responded, seriously.
"How can it be up to me?" I wondered aloud as I looked at Ellen and Susan, "You're supposed to tell me my future."
"Yes," he said, "and my cards are telling me that you decide your own fate."
I looked again over at Ellen and Susan, their doll faces both fronted by a down-turned half smile. I think they were a little jealous. Thinking back, it's funny how both Ellen and Susan were envious that he really expanded on my future.
It reminded me of another time that Ellen was angry with me. She had given a big party at her loft on Park Avenue South. She actually couldn't afford the grand place, and had declared thirteen dependents just so she could pay the rent. At that time in her life, she held huge cocktail parties all the time; she was one of New York's "it" girls. At one party where all of our girlfriends were, there was Ellen, as usual, with a camera and a fresh roll of film (this was before digital cameras, of course). Days later when the film came back, all of the pictures were of me with each different girl. There I was drinking champagne out of a shoe, there I was biting a breast, there I was nibbling a neck, there I was dancing the Charleston, there I was twirling the Waltz, lifting a hem, kissing the lips, biting the ear. There was one picture of Ellen with one boob exposed, looking shocked as she saw something out of the window. She was rather pissed.
I was perplexed at what Brendan said. Yet, many years later, I realized that it was true. This was the point in my life when I had met Sally, and it was the only time that I was truly in love. Of course, it didn't work out, but it was because of me. She was the person that I learned the true meaning of the phrase "It's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all."
But Brendan wasn't finished. The girls continued looking on as he then told me that my future would be decided by a man of small stature. Who? It was like one of those murder mysteries where a gypsy warns the main character: "Beware the dwarf!"
My mind raced through my past. Small stature? I couldn't think of who it might be. Although, since years have passed, I've pondered if perhaps it was the person I left New Orleans for. It would make sense, in a way. The story of the man I left New Orleans for had its own strange ending.
I had run from New Orleans more than moved to New York. I remember leaving the city was a big deal for me. Back in my religious days, I wouldn't fly or board a jet without a little cross. I would also go to confession beforehand, just in case the plane crashed. These confessions were often discrete experiences. I was strictly Catholic, but I would go to confession all the way downtown at the Jesuit church. There, an old priest would hear my sins and give me enormous penances of rosary after rosary. I felt this was okay, because at least I wasn't confessing to a person who might know me in an uptown church. It wasn't that I had skeletons to hide, as much the act of confession suddenly made normal events in my life seem like skeletons–and I felt better sharing them with anointed strangers rather than anointed neighbors.
At the particular time I was leaving the city though, there were no confessions offered at that church. So I found somebody out in Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans, and quite a drive on a hot afternoon).
I got to this church late in the day, and found the confessional was closed. I ran to the rectory to inquire, and the priest told me he had just finished confessions for the afternoon. I asked please, and told him it was important.
"I'm sorry." he said, "I cannot." But I just can't take no for an answer. Not before flying. And not before flying to get away from New Orleans to escape the emotional upheaval from a love affair gone bad. I needed some kind of closure or resolution to all of this.
I told him I was flying and that I didn't like to fly without having my sins forgiven (you know, Catholics believe a priest has to do that, grant absolution of your sins, isn't that silly?). He agreed to hear me.
I got up, thinking we'd go into the church. He remained seated and told me to sit back down and he began to hear my confession in person, across the desk! Right there in the brightly lit rectory! I didn't know what to say. This was just too embarrassing, and I was worried about how it would work. In a confessional’s dark wood-paneled alcove, with just a screen between you and a stranger sitting in near darkness, except for a little flickering light, it's just the voices that are recognized as human communication. You don't really see one anther except for shadowy screened images. Here I was at a desk in broad daylight facing this man, and he was facing me. I could see the pores on his face.
But I began anyway with, "Bless me father for I have sinned." It had been, I had to think–when did I fly last? It had been then since my last confession. I sat there in the bright light, my eyes darting around the room at all the little details, and said that I had been disrespectful to my mother, that we always fought, and that I was guilty of white collar crimes, and crimes of the heart.
"Can you explain that?" he asked.
"Yes." I said, "My mother and I have disagreements. It has always been a tenuous relationship and I am having an argument with her."
"Wait, wait." he interrupted, "I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the white collar crimes."
"Oh." I said, "Well, you know, I have to jiggle the books at work. I'm not dishonest, it's just stupidity. I've never been very good with money. I'm really not a thief, I'm just terrible at math." It's true. I've left horrible tips at restaurants, unintentionally, because I just can't calculate like that.
"And what about crimes of the heart?" he asked.
I hadn't prepared to talk about that in depth. I was really stumped. How was I going to tell this man my crimes of the heart? I could tell the Jesuit priest at the downtown Jesuit church on Barrone Street, protected by the darkness and anonymity of the confessional booth. Here, I felt like I was on a stage.
I bowed my head and I said, "I've committed adultery."
"That's very serious." he said.
"I know it is, father," I continued, "and I promise to do it no more."
"This carries serious, serious, consequences." he looked at me and said, "How do you know, for instance, that there is no pregnancy?"
I had thought we were done. But there would be much, much more.
"There's no way there could be a pregnancy." I said.
Oh, here it was, the next big sin. He was going to ask if I was using condoms–a big no-no in the church, married or not.
"There's no risk of pregnancy." I concluded.
"How do you know that?" he pressed, "How could you be sure?"
"Believe me. I'm sure." I stated, in a tone of voice I hoped would make the discussion end.
He pressed the issue and pressed the issue. Finally, seeing the oncoming train, I just cast myself onto its tracks and blurted; "I know there is no risk of pregnancy because I was screwing around with the husband, not the wife!"
Outside in the chapel I thought I heard someone loudly drop a chalice. But it wasn't funny. He pounded his hand on the desk swiftly, sternly telling me to say ten rosaries. He then got up and told me that I hadn't confessed the greatest sin, and practically pushed me out of his office. That was the last time I went to confession. I never wanted to have another experience like that again. So I moved to New York. That person I moved away from, when I left New Orleans? He is small of stature.
José Maligno, my first employer, is also small of stature. I met so many people through him, important international architecture and interior designer, clients and contacts. I wouldn't have gotten to where I am if it hadn't been for that job.
Then there was Marshall, a young man I had non-sexual yet incredibility intimate affair with for two years, while employed with José. He, too, is of small of stature. If it hadn't been for Marshall, I wouldn't have been able to make the faux pas while being in the apartment on 5th Avenue, asking that well heeled black woman (I hadn't noticed her dress or purse until she popped back into the elevator), "Are you the new maid, honey?" Marshall was the younger brother of the man that owned the apartment that I was showing to my perspective clients.
If I hadn't known Marshall’s brother I wouldn't have met Mr. Starr (the client whose project landed me in on the cover of Architectural Digest). Marshall’s brother’s wife is best friends with a very good friend of Mr. Starr’s wife. And Mr. Starr is really tiny.
So here were four men. One from New Orleans, José Maligno, Marshall and Mr. Starr, all small of stature. Which one was my champion? I wonder if the small man, the one Brendan told me about, is someone I haven't met yet?
We finished lunch in my little apartment. I was living in New York City and I just had my fortune told. These were exciting times. According to Brendan, I would amount to something. In New Orleans, I didn't know what would happen to me, and here I was, first month in Manhattan, and told that I would amount to something, and it would be because of a man of small stature. I've been fortunate, though, and I can pick one of the four–the one I ran from, the one that employed me, the one I met through that job and the one who put me in magazines. And who knows who else there might be?
It's interesting to be told your future, especially when you run into that future.
Lunch was wonderful, The shrimp okra gumbo was delicious. Ellen, Susan and I had lots of laughs. Brendan told wicked stories, and our future. The sun was shining. The day was cool and crisp. We all walked to the East River and laughed some more.