“What do I do next?” I asked the impossibly old woman sitting in the chair opposite me.
She wore a crocheted shawl and had her pure white, whispy hair pulled up into a bun. Her skin looked like an elephant’s—an elephant who had been in the bath too long.
She was so devoid of muscle or fat that you could see the contours of her skull and skeleton through her fine, wrinkled epidermis, like the Crypt Keeper on that old TV show.
Her eyes were yellow—both the iris and the sclera—and her teeth, what remained of them, were of a similar tint, the space between them as black as the tea leaves she had used to prepare the beverage that she had carefully poured and set in front of me.
“Drink it,” she replied, as if I was a complete and utter idiot.
I lifted the ancient bone china cup to my lips and drank. The water was long past scalding, and the tea—without sugar or milk—was bitter and unsatisfying.
“All of it,” the old woman ordered.
I continued pouring the tepid tea into my mouth and swallowed it as quickly as I could. When I was done, I involuntarily shook my head head like a baby who bit into a sour grape. I set the cup back into its matching saucer.
Madame Pommesfrites picked up the cup and stared into it.
“What does it say,” I asked impatiently.
“Shh!” she replied, not lifting her gaze from the tiny puddle of leftover tea and soggy leaf fragments left in the bottom of my cup.
I was not the type of person to seek advice from a psychic, whether they got the details of my love life and future from a deck of Tarot cards, a crystal ball, or the dregs of an acrid liquid made from dried leaves.
It wasn’t my cup of tea.
So what was I doing here? Ah, love makes you do crazy things—as someone (I can’t remember exactly who at the moment) once said. Most of the experiences Julia talked me into were beauty treatments of one sort or another. Sometimes it was the typical mudbath or avacado peel, but on other occasions we indulged in less traditional ablutions and rituals. Things like soaking in a vat of rancid olive oil mixed with pungent smelling herbs, or having butter massaged into intimate places. But I didn’t mind her unusual spa regimens, and even could stomach the occasional chick-flick or vegan restaurant. At least we did those things together.
About a week ago, while we were soaking our feet at a spa where little fish nibbled the dead skin off your heels, Julia suddenly and forcefully insisted that I get my tea leaves read.
“You have to go, and you have to do everything she tells you,” she told me, a serious look on her face that crinkled her brow.
“Sure, we’ll go together,” I suggested. “It’ll be fun.”
“No!” she almost shouted. She grabbed my arm, her nails digging deep into my flesh. “You have to do it alone. And as soon as possible, or we have to break up.”
It seemed like a ridiculous ultimatum to base a relationship on, but, as I mentioned earlier, I was in love. So, I assured Julia that I would arrange to see her tea leaf reader as soon as humanly possible.
She breathed a sigh of relief, let go of my arm and reclined. A small woman darted to her side from seemingly nowhere and place two cucumber slices over her eyes.
I did the same, pulling the lever that lowered the back of my chair, but the diminutive cucumber distributor looked at me with disdain and scurried off without adorning me with vegetables.
The appointment was made by telephone. Madame Pommesfrites did not have a website or email address, nor did it seem voicemail, or even an answering machine. Booking a session meant calling repeatedly at intervals during the day until she decided to answer. She gave me a time and day—there were no choices in the matter, no options to pick from—but not surprisingly (she was a psychic, after all) it was an hour that I was free.
Madame Pommesfrites lived in the same neighborhood as Julia. How close Julia lived to the narrow brownstone I didn’t know, as I had never been invited to her apartment. She was perfectly happy coming over to my place, and to be honest, I liked that just fine. I never had to scramble to wake up early to get back to my place to shower and change.
Nor did I have to suffer the indignities of a using woman’s bathroom. I always found the array of beauty product and devices that were used to crimp, straighten and augment various features intimidating and even frightening. I’d once witnessed a girlfriend deconstruct herself at the end the day. The makeup was removed, creams applied and curlers entwined. It was a transformation akin to a human being turning into a werewolf—albeit one that smelled really good.
Missing out on whatever rituals Julia performed to look as good as she did was a blessing from my point of view. Such things should always be a mystery to men.
Madame Pommesfrites’ home reminded me of the Addams Family. There were antiques everywhere, some of them seemed like they were really valuable. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, so obviously there wasn’t a seven-foot tall butler taking care of the place. The house was extremely orderly and had a precision to it that actually made it all the more disturbing.
She had greeted me at the door with an air of suspicion, as if I was there to sell her something. I told her my name and that I had an appointment.
“I know who you are and what you want,” she said in a creaky voice. She sighed as if I was keeping her from doing something fun and interesting, like changing the doilies on her armchairs. “This way,” she said and led me into a parlor, where she directed me to sit in a paisley upholstered chair, its legs ending in intricately carved claws.
I sat down and watched her prepare the tea. She didn’t use a tea bag, or one of the mesh spheres where you could make your own blend of tea and herbs to suit your taste. She just scooped a mound of dried leaves into a tea pot already filled with water. After a while she poured the cup, and I could see the dark bits of dried fauna mixed in with the brownish-green liquid.
Now she was staring at the pattern the leaves left in the bottom of my cup. I found myself eager to hear what she would discover about me and my future at its bottom.
“You’re in love,” she said.
I wasn’t impressed so far. Why else would a single guy come to an old crone to have his tea leaves read?
“She is very beautiful,” she continued.
Again, obvious considering that I wouldn’t be here if Julia wasn’t totally out of my league.
“You are going to be married,” she pronounced.
Okay, that was interesting news. I had fantasized about a life with Julia, but the idea of marrying her seemed beyond my wildest dreams.
“Will we have children?” I asked?
Madame Pommesfrites looked up from her inspection of my deepest secrets and darkest future. It was the glare of a thousand librarians trained to silence noisy patrons with their steely gaze. I was suitable cowed by her yellow eyes, and the way she pursed her thin lips. She returned that stilling stare to the tea leaves and continued divining my now and hereafter at the bottom of the delicate china cup.
“You must buy a house. A large house with at least four bedrooms, an attached garage, a modern kitchen, walk-in closet and bathroom with a heated floor.”
“I must?” I asked, instantly regretting saying anything as the amber gaze shot out at me from under wrinkled eyelids.
“The engagement ring must be twenty-four caret gold with at least a four caret Marquise cut diamond—not cubic zirconium—with rubies and emeralds embedded in the band.”
Without thinking, I reached over to tilt the cup toward me. “That seems awfully specific,” I said. Before my fingers touched the china, Madame Pommesfrites smacked them with her bony hand. It stung as if I had been hit with a wooden ruler. I pulled my hand back and rubbed the spot where she had struck me.
“Pay attention,” she admonished. “You’re happiness depends on what I’m telling you. If you do not do these things, you will not be married and you will spend the rest of your life alone and impotent.”
“Why would I be impotent if I don’t marry Julia?” I asked, puzzled.
“Do you think this is a game?” she inquired. “I am telling you exactly what you need to do to find bliss, and you question me? Pff! I should keep the rest to myself and let you wallow in sexless loneliness for the rest of your eunuchistic life.”
I sat very still and very quiet, hoping to earn the remaining revelations that were apparently essential to my happiness and my manhood.
Madame Pommesfrites made me wait in silence for nearly a minute before she dropped her eyes again and resumed sussing the keys to my contentment. “Oh, my mistake, the ring must be five carets,” she said, casting a quick glance to remind me what was at stake.
My hands reflexively covered my groin.
“You will enroll in an MBA program, then get a job in management, eventually rising to CEO of a very successful company. Your wife will have a new car every year, a Tesla—the nice one.” She pushed the saucer and its porcelain passenger back to the middle of the table.
I sneaked a peak at the leaves littering the bottom of the cup, but didn’t see any five caret diamond rings, or Tesla Roadsters, or walk-in closets there.
“If you are ready to do all those things, you will find happiness. Are you willing to commit to this course for your future?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
Madame Pommesfrites smiled, then she said to me, kindly, “Then go, make your lady happy and you will be happy as well.”
I stood, grateful that the experience was over, but also oddly invigorated at the idea that I could be married to Julia. I was eager to go see her and even more anxious to get out of Madame Pommesfrites’ eerily unsettling house.
I bumped the small table that held the ancient tea set. The pot was perched on the edge and fell to the frayed rug covering the floor and shattered. My eyes went wide as I saw the broken china and the spilled tea soaking into the tattered rug. I quickly bent down to pick up the pieces, as if my quick action could somehow reverse the disaster. In my haste, I cut a deep gash into the palm of my hand.
I cried out in pain, then stood, holding my hand in front of me as blood pooled in my palm. “I’m sorry, I’ll pay for it,” I promised.
The old woman didn’t seem to hear me or care about the mess on her floor. Her jaundiced gaze was focused on my hand, or rather the red liquid quickly gathering there, threatening to run through my fingers and mix with the tea on the floor. She grabbed the cup that held the remnants of my tea, then gently tilted my hand so that the blood dripped into it. Her skin felt cold and papery, like that of an onion.
“Shouldn’t I put pressure on it or something?” I asked, concerned that there was much more blood than I had ever seen before. I started to feel light-headed.
She didn’t answer me. Instead, she squeezed my hand, causing the flow of blood to increase until it was about an inch deep in the cup. She let go, not seeming to mind that I was dripping blood on her floor.
Then she did something that nearly made me pass out.
She drank my blood from the cup.
I fell back into the chair, watching as she tilted her head back so that she could extract every drop of my precious bodily fluids from the vessel cupped in her bony hands.
When she could drink no more, she dropped the cup and it shattered next to the tea pot. Her lips were red, coated in my blood, and somehow… fuller.
As I watched, she underwent a transformation. Her posture straightened, her hair darkened and thickened, her skin tightened and her breasts became firm and full. Her grayish pallor was replaced by a rosy glow. Her eyes brightened and took on a familiar blue hue.
“Julia?” I asked in shock.
The young, vibrant, attractive woman I was madly in love with looked at me and smiled. “Sorry,” she said, “you weren’t supposed to see this part.”
“Are you… are you a vampire?” I asked?
“Oh, heavens no, nothing like that,” she replied. “Just think of it as another of my beauty treatments.”
“That’s a hell of a treatment,” I said. “Not quite the same level as a Dead Sea Salt exfoliant.”
“Are you disappointed?” she asked, wearing that sad little pout she used to get pretty much anything she wanted from me.
“I’ll start with surprised as hell.”
She grabbed a small towel from the table and pressed it into my hand. “It’s not really that big of a deal. I just need to drink human blood a couple times a month.”
I wanted to ask where she got it, but decided that was a question best left unanswered.
“I meant what I said,” she whispered, moving her face closer to mine. “I will marry you. If you get me a nice ring, and a house… and you get a better job.”
“You will?” I asked. I couldn’t tell if it was the blood loss, or the hypnotic effect of those sky-blue eyes, but I felt myself feeling serene and intensely happy.
“Of course. I love you,” she promised. “And the best part is that I will always be young and beautiful for you.”
“Okay,” I replied without much thought.
She lifted the towel, now soaked through and inspected the wound in my hand. “Ooh, that is deep. We should probably get you to the hospital.”
“Hospital,” I repeated, feeling sleepy.
“You wait here, I’ll go get changed, then we’ll get you stitched up and then go ring shopping. I know just the place!”
Julia dashed out of the room.
I heard her footsteps running up some stairs.
Then it sunk in. I was going to marry some ancient, blood-sucking succubus who would be eternally young and beautiful.
And I was fine with that. In fact, I was surprised to realize I was happy, almost giddy at the idea of spending the rest of my life with Julia.
How ‘bout that.
The tea leaves were right.