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Chapter 17: Chapter 17

The fluorescent-green digits of my nightstand clock diagnosed me with a bad case of acute jet lag. It's a bitch. The first concrete thoughts to blaze through my sleepy mind were of Gabe and what he might be doing at that exact moment. They fired my body like a torch set to parched underbrush on a torrid August day. Longing swept over me. An abrupt sense of unconquerable distance brought tears to my eyes. I rolled over and caught a glimpse of the world outside the window. In the breaking dawn, birds barely stirred. I had hoped for at least several hours of uninterrupted rest, but the fires burned too hot to stay in bed.

Spurred on, I thumped to the bathroom. A long shower washed away the remains of sleep and any traveling cosmic matter that might still be clinging to me.

Wrapped in my favorite oversized bathrobe I padded around my condo opening windows, smelling the fresh ocean breezes. The morning was about to explode crystal clear. Not a single cloud stained the little slice of purple-blue sky peeking through the Spanish moss draping the ancient oak in my back yard. I unpacked my clothes and hung the Dhamala painting in a corner of my living room. I stepped back to better take a look at it when a sleepy Peridot rubbed slowly against the hem of my robe. He yawned impossibly wide. I could see all the way down his tiny esophagus; it was empty. We set off for the kitchen. It was time for coffee anyway.

While Peridot attacked a breakfast of crunchy bits, I settled in with a double espresso with double sugar and wondered what time it was in Australia. I wanted to go for a run along the beach, then pop into the Napoleon Bakery for fresh pains au chocolat, and knock on Benedetta's door to get her out of bed.

I thought about it and decided to go ahead; my answering machine could trap any calls I might miss. I rinsed my cup, slipped into my running shorts, and grabbed some cash, Benedetta's presents, and my car keys. I ran out the door trying to get a head start on the rising humidity.

I live only about ten minutes from endless dunes of white sand, but since the last hurricane, the beach road I used to run on has been closed off, and who knows when it will be reopened. Instead, I drove over the Gulf Breeze Bridge where I parked at the entrance of the Sound National Park. I soon found myself running on a trail shaded by dwarf pines edged with saw palmettos, yuccas, and fiddlehead ferns. The pungent scent was almost alien, so different was it from the fragrant Australian acacias. I had Nine Inch Nails on my Walkman and a load of frustration to fuel my pace. Lost in thought, I left behind the sandy dunes and ended up in a somewhat familiar neighborhood behind Evalena's temporary dwellings. The jolly yellow paint I had irrationally resented on my first visit looked cheerful and warm. In a bathrobe that defied any sort of fashion sense, Evalena was happily watering some obscure bush. Three words: chenille, purple, daisies, and I am not describing the bush.

I paused, jogging in place. "Evalena?" I called from behind the short net fence.

She turned, raising her head. Her oversized watering can magically spilled a wet rainbow against the sunlight.

"Oh! Hello there! I was just thinking of you. When did you get back?"

I stopped jogging. "Last night."

She dropped the watering can, walked over to hug me-sweat and all-then asked if I'd care for a glass of tea. Evalena's sunshine tea is worth dying for any time of day. Formosa Oolong, dried Georgia peaches, candied orange zest, and something secret even my gourmet-trained taste buds fail to identify, all left to steep and brew in warm sunshine.

I told her I was going to be able to stay only a few minutes. Once we were settled in her sunlit kitchen, she asked me if I had a nice trip.

"Yes, I did have a nice trip. As a matter of fact, I met somebody interesting. I also had a true gypsy do a tarot reading for me, and I believe the magic has awakened." I shook my head. "I'm extremely confused by it all." I paused to take a sip of what the gods used to call Amrita, hoping its magic powers would actually stretch beyond quenching my thirst and give me answers.

"Have you ever thought about selling your secret recipe for this stuff?" I asked, pointing at the pitcher lazily soaking in the sun. Sweat beads trailed down the handblown, green glass.

"Yes, but then it wouldn't be a secret any longer." She gave me an enigmatic smile, sipping from her own glass. "What did the cards tell you?"

"Not much. By the time things started to get interesting Neige jumped on the spread and scattered my fate."

Evalena speaks French. She gave me a dumbfounded look. "It snowed on the cards?"

"No, that's the name of a fluffy white cat," I said, pleased with my little joke.

She shook her head and snorted daintily.

"The cards confirmed some of what I'd seen with you in the regression and announced the arrival of a new romance." I paused to sip my tea and frowned, remembering something disturbing. "I had the Magician as opposing brewing forces-"

"And a new love interest?"

"Yes, a Two of Cups?"

"Do you remember any of the cards that the cat disrupted?"

I was silent for few minutes, focusing backwards on that afternoon, but to no avail. I shook my head. "No, I don't."

"It could be that the Magician and the Two of Cups are inescapably linked," she said in a voice that made me think.

Gabe? A magician? Did she mean Gabe or did she have someone else in mind?

I suddenly remembered his scars and the way he recognized certain electric moments between us. But then, why would he be an opposing force? I looked up at Evalena who seemed again to have read my mind.

"He's intriguing," she stated.

I nodded.

"That's why you're attracted to him?"

I loved how she didn't even concern herself with taking the regular route of name, looks, business, and bank account info, all of which average women worry about. Evalena's intuition went straight to the core: Gabe's enigmatic energy.

"Part of it, I have to admit. He doesn't volunteer a lot of info, has this uncanny ability to switch the subject on a whim, but what he shared, like even a simple story of a wounded eagle, gave me a direct insight into what sort of man he is." I smiled. "The fact that I am extremely attracted to him physically doesn't hurt either."

"So this brewing force might not necessarily mean opposing. Perhaps it's just protection," Evalena ventured. She paused and looked at me pensively. "How much do you know about the Tarot?"

"Nothing."

"The suits are events and people in your life. The Major Arcana is higher awareness, ether. I would be keen on interpreting this Two of Cups as a terrestrial romance, while perhaps the Magician is a higher power. It could be that the Magician's influence obstructs the Two of Cups, for the latter is on a journey to fulfill his destiny, and you might change his heart. He might not be whom you're meant to be with. Remember the journey you now need to honor." She arched an eyebrow and then dismissed her own words with a quick hand gesture. "Anyhow, it's all speculation on my part. I shouldn't even plant such ideas in your mind. I wasn't there to feel the cards."

"It might or might not be," I said, with a pinch of my old skepticism. "But I've also experienced your intuition as a powerful weapon of divination. So there might be hidden truth in your interpretation of those scattered cards."

"What about the magic awakening?"

"Well, Evalena, when I promised Grandmother I had no clue how to harness the power. Once I arrived in Australia I was still questioning whether I wanted it or not. I can't honestly say when or how I consciously chose to dismiss my fears and inadequacies, or if the magic did it, but I played with it. Of course I tried with Gabe first but felt only a flutter of wings."

Evalena's eyebrows shot up. "You just gave me chills."

I continued, "Then, on another totally different occasion, I felt the heartbeat of a forest. And at last I was able to tap into the core of Gabe's bond with his mechanic Gomi."

"Not through Gabe," she stated.

"No. He's way too guarded. I sense that much."

"You need to honor his privacy, Porzia."

"Yes, I know," I smirked. "I just ask direct questions instead."

She shook her head. "What is your favorite fairy tale, Porzia?"

I shot her a wary look. "What does that have anything to do with all this?"

"Just answer."

"Can I think about it?"

She nodded. "And your grandmother's?"

I smiled. I knew that one. Joséphine and my mother shared a favorite: The Little Mermaid.

"Ah! Of course. Liquid women."

I laughed. "Yes, but you haven't told me why you're asking."

"Archetypes and women's transformation. You might consider it a fair warning."

Now that sounded extremely intriguing. I'd always had a feeling that Joséphine regretted trading her mermaid tail for legs. Metaphorically speaking, she had given up her elements-even her magic-to be with Grand-pére. And just like in the fable, he turned out to be a prince with flaws.

My mother on the other hand ...

Speaking of grandfathers, Evalena's majestic clock rang the hour and I realized how late it was.

"Evalena, I'm afraid I need to run, but I'd like to talk about this archetypes business some more." I gave her a quick hug and promised to come back soon for supper with one of the Shiraz bottles I'd brought home.

As I jogged back to my car, I thought about her words. I didn't particularly want to focus on a journey that would eventually empower me to be with a potential soul mate who wasn't Gabe. My feelings for Gabe grounded me. The idea of making my choices based on the hands dealt me by a deck of strange icons didn't appeal to me, especially since I didn't even get a complete reading. My misgivings made my mind up while I drove to the bakery downtown.

I dodged the pastry chef's sappy flirting with practiced skill. Etienne is otherwise known as Pepé Le Pew, not because he has an odeur, but because he acts like the little overly affectionate cartoon character. The white streak crowning his otherwise jet-black coiffure might have something to do with the nickname too. Benedetta always gets a kick out of visiting him.

I'm gonna start kicking, I thought as I stood in front of Benedetta's front door with a wrapped tray of chocolate pastries warming my left hand. I knocked for the third time in ten minutes. Another human would have given up. I knew better. We've been through this before, I thought, while a huge plant of rosemary, usually engaged in defending the front door from evil spirits, prickled my legs. I remembered that much about rosemary and its powers from my first interview with Evalena. Later, on a trip to visit Joséphine, I noticed how she had gigantic bushes by the left side of her garden entrance.

I heard a noise. Moments later a disheveled, crooked-glasses Benedetta opened the door.

"About bloody time!"

"Oh, it's you." She yawned in my face, opening the door wider to let me in.

I took one look at her and ... Good Gawd! What was wrong with everybody's clothes this morning? "Is that what you sleep in these days?"

She swirled around to better show me the effect of the nightie barely covering her behind. "Do you like it?" she asked, coming to a precarious stop, whirling for her balance like an ice skater after a triple jump.

"Oh, that's why you're wearing it. For me to like?" I laughed. "Looks like something you'd wear to audition for a brothel."

"You're just jealous because they don't make them big enough to fit somebody your size." She pointed at my chest.

I raised an eyebrow and silently looked her up and down. The flabbergasting piece of flimsy material and too-little lace defied gravity and broke several laws of decency all in one short fall. It shouted in a ruby shade of red with black trimming and strategically placed cherries. I kid you not. Cherries. Not just printed ones. We are talking of plump red appliqués the size of marbles. Two at a time, hanging here and there.

"Those don't hurt to sleep on?"

She took one in her fingers and squeezed. "No, they've been pitted."

That's Benedetta for you.

"I don't think what I've got in the car will match your negligee," I said, thinking about the lambskin slippers I'd bought her.

Her eyes lit up. "It doesn't matter-whatever it is, I'll love it. Now, go get it." She shoved me out the door but snatched the pastries. "I'll start coffee!" she yelled.

As I ran back to my car, I mused that at least she hadn't offered to go get it herself. There must be laws against such public display of cherries.

We ended up on her patio sharing pains au chocolat with cappuccino for her and ice cold milk for me. She loved the slippers and slid them on, stretching her legs-not too far, given their length-admiring them and commenting on how soft and comfy they were. Her Doberman, a sleek, sexy beast she aptly named Eros, came by to sniff at her feet but soon lost interest when she engaged him in a game of catch with the boomerang I had just given her. She had no clue how to throw it to make it come back, so it was just as well she had Eros to retrieve it.

"So, are you glad to be back?" she asked, licking chocolate off her fingers; never mind the streaks on her cheeks and the handlebar moustache. But then, I had my own smears to worry about.

"It's nice to be home with you, with Peridot. To sleep in my bed and drive my car." I looked at her. "But I haven't been back long enough for it all to register."

"What's going to happen now?" Her look told me she worried I would move to Australia.

"I'm going to take it one day at a time and see what develops." I paused and took a long breath. "I like him a lot, Benedetta. But I know it's not going to be easy." I leaned back in the chair.

She shrugged, moving cherries I had not yet noticed. "It's going to be what you make of it. As difficult or as easy as you'll let it." She smiled and petted Eros, who had just brought the boomerang back. "Are you falling in love?"

"I think so." I felt all warm inside as I said it.

Both she and the dog tilted their heads and nodded in sappy agreement. I guess with a name like Eros, he believed himself an expert in such matters, therefore entitled to express his approval or lack thereof. Maybe he was just trying to snatch the boomerang from Benedetta's hands.

It was getting too hot for philosophical matters. Jet lag had begun to descend on me like a dull guillotine, hitting my neck right between head and shoulders.

"Bene, I'm going to go ahead and get back home." I stood and began to clear the table.

"You look like you could use a nap," she said. She followed me inside, carrying the rest of the dishes. "Just leave everything in the sink. I'll take care of it in a minute."

I did as she told me and quickly hugged her.

"I'm happy for you, Porzia," she said.

"Grazie."

"I'm happy for myself. If you found somebody then there is hope for the rest of us," she chuckled.

"Let's just hope your cherries won't rot while you wait." I squeezed one of her cheeks and barely managed to avoid her kick.

*

I meant it when I told Benedetta about being happy to be back. There is a certain serene quality in coming home to find things as they were left, a strength and comfort in the idea that no matter what, there is a safe haven waiting with familiar, welcoming warmth.

All those loving feelings disappeared once I got home and noticed that there were no messages. I picked up my phone and listened to the dial tone, idiotically hoping it would explain why he hadn't called.

I hung up.

I grabbed the phone.

I shook it a couple of times.

I dropped it back on the cradle and pushed all the buttons on it, each and every one of them-repeatedly. I managed to erase my own answering message, messed up the time, and almost called 911 on the re-dial.

Then it rang.

I jumped out of my skin. Merda! Maybe I did call 911. They have a way of getting back at you. I saw it once on one of those TV cop shows. In the rush to answer, I knocked the phone to the floor. I knelt to grab the receiver with one hand, the phone with the other, and managed to crawl back into my skin. "Hello?" I said rather breathlessly.

"Porzia-" His voice rose from way down ... way past that spot where the sun suddenly falls off the horizon.

"Hello, Gabe." I stretched my legs, sitting on the floor with my back against my bed.

"How you going, luv?"

"I'm fine," I exhaled dreamily. Now that I'm talking to you, my heart told him silently.

"Did you get some rest?"

"Not as much as I would have liked. I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight." There was no way I would be able to take a nap after this. Thump. Thump. There went my heart. "How are you?"

"I'm OK," he said. "Went to get Tess back from Clark. It was sort of empty here, especially after having you over for the last couple of days. Hard to sleep, too. It's almost three thirty in the morning here, but I wanted to hear your voice."

My thumping heart swelled and I closed my eyes, smiling to myself.

"Is she happy to be back?" I asked.

"Yes, like she never left. But I wanted to tell you that I had a great time while you were here and can't wait to spend some more with you."

"Even if I ask a lot of questions?"

"You've got more, eh?"

Smart man. "Of course I do. Of the introspective kind."

I believe I heard him groan. "Shoot. But I've got time for only one."

"What scares you the most?

"Your questions, Porzia."

I burst out laughing. "I hope you're not serious."

"Roight. I've got one for you. What have you got goin' for the week?" he asked.

Amidst the laughter I had to think for a moment. "I'm driving to Georgia this Friday to write about beans for a different publication." I wondered if Benedetta would care to join me.

"Beans?" he asked.

I chuckled. "Yes. Beans."

"Sounds like fun, luv."

He had said he would only have time for one question. "Do you need to go?"

"Yes."

Dear God! This was going to be an intense ordeal. "Thanks for calling me. Sleep well."

"No worries. I miss you, luv. Cheers."

"I miss you too. Bye." I heard the soft click of his phone as I hung up my own receiver.

My bedroom's billowing blue curtains reminded me of his ever-shifting eyes. A week ago they were just meaningless curtains. And if the relationship failed, I'd resent them, find them impossible to stare at any longer. I would have to get rid of them.

Dropping my head I raised my legs and rested my cheek on my knee. As the curtain filled with the marine breeze, I silently asked for strength and guidance. I really, really liked the blue.


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