Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Palm of My Hand         

by Nina Rubinstein Alonso
In the hotel corridor Miguel notices a sign by an open door, gold letters with a curlicue border, “Palm Readings, Pandit Sharma.” We see a man at a mahogany desk, dark eyes behind thick lenses labeling us strangers. He glances at his Rolex then gestures toward high-backed chairs. 

“We’re leaving Delhi soon, but if there’s an opening?  My mother knew a London palmist.” 

Mr. Sharma writes his fee on a business card, and Miguel nods accepting a slot Thursday afternoon.

I’ve heard the story, never sure what to make of it. “What are you doing?”

“Leah, my mother’s palmist predicted she would meet a non-Brit, travel ‘across the great water,’ have four sons. She married her Spanish professor, moved to Argentina, gave birth to four boys, fled Peron, reached London, then the States. Meditation isn’t the only path.”

“But this palm reading path is paved with rupees.” We’ve been together for years, and Miguel’s usually skeptical. 

The Delhi Emporium displays beautiful handmade things. We buy an inlaid box, two small rugs and a carved elephant, then rickshaw through a maze of scooters, cars, bullock carts and over-loaded bicycles to the zoo. There’s a white tiger, Asian elephants, Indian rhinos, emus, and we wander until smog-heavy heat flattens us. Monkeys are everywhere, inside and outside the zoo, in trees, on the hotel roof.

Back in our room Miguel’s sipping chilled tonic water, smoking a joint procured somewhere in the hotel. At the ashram in Shahjahanpur there was no ice, no tonic water, no ganja. I came to India to meditate with Babuji, but now we’re tourists visiting the Red Fort, museums, temples, The Taj Mahal, dodging street vendors and pickpockets.

While he smokes I go downstairs to hotel shops— jewelry, shawls, saris— impulsively buy another salwar kameez, pink with apricot embroidery, not wanting to leave India, nervous about meeting the palmist.

Mr. Sharma’s magnifying glass hovers above my left palm, counts creases on the outside of my fist. “At least one child.” 

“Fertility problems but we hope to adopt.” His words sting, years of doctor visits, test after disappointing test.

“I teach ballet,” I say, which he ignores.

“Your career line shows several types of work, sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.” He almost says something else, but changes his mind and shifts his magnifying glass to Miguel’s right hand and says, “Chemicals, chemicals.”

I think of the ganja, the cigarettes, the wine, the drugs he’s experimented with, while Miguel soaks it up, quasi-hypnotized. 

“Only one wife,” Mr. Sharma adds, noting Miguel makes friends easily but struggles to find direction in life, elastic topics that fit many hands.

I say, “I came to India for meditation, but you never mentioned that.”

“Yes, spirituality is strong in your hand, but I didn’t want to emphasize it because you’re young and too much meditation can pull you from the physical world, even make you hate sex.” Mr. Sharma’s expression is serious, but I’m wondering what he’s choosing or omitting. Is he merely a nimble fraud uttering impressive phrases? Our sex life happens to be good, dammit.

And what did he mean ‘only one wife?’ He didn’t say I’d have only one husband. Is he implying I’ll outlive Miguel, marry again? My thoughts are so tangled I miss his last words.

“Gives me plenty to think about. Thanks,” as Miguel counts rupees into Mr. Sharma’s hand.

Whatever it was, it’s over.

We’re at the hotel’s roof-top restaurant, Ming Palace, pink tablecloths, coiled pink glass bangles garlanding the ceiling. Miguel’s smiling as if he’s seen a good movie. 

“Couldn’t believe it when he said ‘chemicals, chemicals!’”

“Maybe he smelled the pot you’ve been smoking?”  I’d like to cancel the idea anything visionary happened. Miguel’s sipping Rosy Pelican beer, nothing like a man who’s heard a death sentence.

As the waiter sets down platters, I remember meeting a man who saw the Palm Leaf Oracle.

“Predicted I’d divorce, live apart from my son, move to another country, return to the States and start a new business. I forgot everything, even when my marriage came apart, my son stayed with my wife, and I moved to Munich for work. Only found the notes before returning to the States, maddening because I couldn’t see where anything was going. Might as well give an encyclopedia to a baby.”

“You’re blaming the oracle?”

“Not about blaming, just blundering because predictions are disconnected, incomprehensible.”

“Something wrong?”  Miguel notices my blank stare.

“Last year at a seminar a man talked about the Palm Leaf Oracle in Chennai, forgot what he was told, later realized everything happened as predicted.”  I’m picking up a green pea pod with my chopsticks.

“Doesn’t mean our reading won’t help us.” Miguel’s sipping his beer. 

“How can it help to be told you’ll have only one wife?”

“Well, if I lose you, I won’t remarry.” He leans close and kisses my cheek.

“Lose me? I thought he meant I’d lose you.” The flip of meaning stops me cold.

“Well, guess you could see it that way. Think you’d marry again? Maybe we’ll appreciate each other more, knowing the possibilities. Doesn’t mean either of us will croak next week.”

I drop my chopsticks, rush to the bathroom, puke in the pink marble sink, run water to clear the mess, but can’t clean fear. I’m ghostly in the mirror, fried in psychic hot oil, but where does it lead? Whose death sentence? Mine? Miguel’s? Why obsess about the future, the ultimate lock box with no password? At the table, I pick up my chopsticks, try to focus on ‘now.’

Miguel’s in the shower when the phone rings, a close friend on her way to the ashram.

“Uma, I need to talk. I could rickshaw to your hotel?”

“No time, Leah. Leaving soon to catch a train. What’s the matter?”

“Miguel wasn’t into meditation, then wanted a reading with the palmist at the hotel.”

“I have friends who consult astrologers and psychics, seek messages from spirits. But what about interpretations and predictions? Who to trust or believe? Not someone who charges thousands of rupees,” Uma sighs.

“I met a man who saw the Palm Leaf Oracle, forgot what he was told, but insists everything happened as predicted, and what about Miguel’s mother’s reading? He says it all happened.”

“Well, I’ve heard this sort of thing a lot, Leah. Better avoid astrologers and fortune tellers, in business to make money, want you running back for the next prediction. It’s a product, purchase and sale. Writing Guruji may help.”

“I shouldn’t have gone.”

“But you did. Got to catch a train, but I’ll call when I’m back. Don’t fret over it too much.”

Miguel comes out of the bathroom wrapped in a fluffy white towel, dark hair dripping, and I kiss his freshly shaved, handsome cheek.

“You’ll get your new outfit all soggy,” he says. 

“It comes off.”

In bed we pull into deep honey, though for a moment I wonder, ‘Why now?’ But I love him, I just love him.

For the trip home I wear a black t-shirt and jeans as my Indian clothes feel too bright for the long flight to London and the gray hours of lay-over before boarding again. I pack my bangles so they won’t trigger airport sensors or get lost in the security shuffle.                                        

Buckled in, I can’t relax, can’t read. Miguel sips beer, puts on ear-phones and falls asleep watching a western shoot-em-up, images flashing across the screen, bodies falling off galloping horses. I try to meditate but get distracted by the steward rattling trays and glasses, lights snapping on and off, a baby wailing, drunk men guffawing.

Change is all we’ve got, birds taking off, waves breaking on the shore. I lean on Miguel’s shoulder, close my eyes, sleep.

Months later our packages from Delhi Emporium arrive safely, but Miguel’s been complaining of back pain. The first doctor says it’s pulled muscles and advises therapeutic exercise, then a chiropractor tries adjustments. The next doctor runs tests and discovers ‘atypical’ lung cancer, leading to rounds of chemo and radiation. Though we’ve completed a home study for adoption, we’re forced to cancel. I’m hoping for a cure because he’s so young, but nothing works, three years repeating cycles of pain, fear, disappointment.

On a sunny day, July 18th, my darling Miguel stops breathing in the blankness of a Boston hospital. I’m with his brothers and elderly mother who says I’ve taken ‘magnificent,’ care of her youngest son. But he’s dead.

As the doctor pulls the sheet over his face and pats my shoulder, I notice the bedside photo of Babuji is gone. Someone stole spiritual comfort from a dying man, sickeningly common hospital theft. My nephew Marc drives me to my apartment, keeping up a stream of talk, but I’m silent, wounded, hollowed out by grief and loss.  

The Delhi palmist?  Forgotten. Months pass before I open the closet where Miguel’s jackets are hanging, find postcards from the Taj Mahal we never got around to sending, my journal and Babuji’s letters on thin blue airmail paper. I sit on the floor crying as I read what he wrote about palmists and astrologers:

“Mind is only confused by so-called oracles, mere charlatans preying upon the vulnerable. No one knows the number of their days,” signed with love and prayers.

My mother-in-law’s palmist story was baffling, but supposedly true. And, though forewarned, I forgot the palmist’s predictions even as the dark sword lifted and fell.

Much happened as predicted. He’d have only one wife, me, and, yes, chemicals and more chemicals, but were these merely chance arrows hitting the target? The palmist touched some topics precisely, others ripple like multiplying mirrors.

‘Mind is only confused by these so-called oracles,’ unless we give up trying to understand, stop trying to ‘solve.’

The carved elephant we bought in Delhi is on my desk, and maybe sometime I’ll reread my journal. Can’t yet.

Uma was with me when I sprinkled Miguel’s ashes by a granite boulder under a huge oak.

Whatever people want to believe, there’s no such thing as ‘closure.’ Miguel is permanently part of me, though his death left me blank empty, surviving mechanically.

In a few months I’m going back to India, but no palmists, no oracles, no predictions.

* * * * *

Nina Rubinstein Alonso’s poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Ibbetson Street, U. Mass. Review, New Boston Review, Constant Remembrance, MomEgg, Sumac, Cambridge Artists Cooperative, American Poetry Review, Bagel Bards Anthology, Black Poppy Review, etc.  Her stories were in Southern Women’s Review, Tears and Laughter, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Broadkill Review, Peacock Literary Review, etc. David Godine Press published her book This Body, and her chapbook Riot Wake is upcoming from Cervena Barva Press. She says, “Palm of My Hand emerged from mystifying experiences in India.”

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