V.J. Hamilton has been published in The Antigonish Review, The MacGuffin, and Nashwaak Review, among others.
She won the Hart House Review Literary Prize and the EVENT Speculative Fiction contest.
Looking for Mr. Right-ish
By V.J. Hamilton
When I heard my therapist was going through her third divorce, I decided maybe I should turn to someone else for relationship advice. Like, maybe a successful couple. Among my friends and acquaintances, April and Danny are the “it” couple. They’ve been together for eons, okay, five years at least. They have juicy careers, they have outside interests, but most significantly, they have each other.
I didn’t know either of them all that well, but we hit it off at the annual company barbecue when I strategically volunteered to flip burgers with them. Well, mainly with April. I didn’t want her to think I was chatting up her guy. While unpacking the thawed meat patties I casually asked her how she’d met Danny. At first she was reluctant to tell me. “Come on,” I said. “Was it Match.com or Plenty of Fish?” Flip, flip, sizzle… “Oh, hey, I got it. OKCupid. Was it OKCupid?” I decided I would even go to ChristianMingle.com if that’s how she had met Danny the Keeper.
She laughed off my questions and busied herself chatting to other co-workers as they arrived. Roger the Creep was directing traffic around the grill, saying pervy things like, “Alright everybody, line up right here with your buns open and ready!”
Since April was reluctant to divulge, I suspected something sleazy, like she’d stolen her mom’s toy boy or Danny had sent for a mail-order bride from Edmonton, Canada. But once we’d served everyone a burger and were sitting down with our own plates, I asked again and April replied, “We met through a psychic—Madame Defarge.”
Madame Defarge. I had visions of heads rolling from the guillotine. I set my half-eaten burger down, watching the juices trickle out. Although I eat meat, I’m squeamish-tarian.
“Yeah, she’s this little old lady with a neon window sign who lives down the block from me,” April said. “She’s very genteel and proud but practically destitute.” April gave a sweet smile, the kind I’d seen when she put coins in the Send a Kid to Camp jar. “I’m not into that woo-woo stuff, but, you know…” and she trailed off.
“Hey girls, can I get some greasy brown sauerkraut on my schnitzel?” Roger bleated, holding his plate out to me. We returned to the grill. The line-up got busy again with second helpings. But the idea had been planted.
* * *
A visit to a psychic seemed the last resort of the loveless, and yet there I was, in some cramped dimly lit hallway, rapping on the door of Madame Defarge. I reminded myself: April and Danny. A stooped, frail-looking woman with wisp grey hair introduced herself as Madame Defarge and admitted me to a tiny basement apartment. A heavy smell of incense hung in the air. Was the incense an attempt to be exotic or to hide the smell of mould?
“Come een, come een, take off your galoshes,” she said in a thick Russian accent. I removed my boots and held them in full view of her so she could see they were very nice boots—not galoshes.
She said, “Put your galoshes here.” From her expression I could see she was proud of knowing a word like “galoshes.”
I said, “Actually… these are Chelsea boots. Or you could call them… Ankle boots. Not galoshes.” I set them down carefully. In the complete silence that followed, it occurred to me I might have overdone the impromptu ESL lesson. Perhaps I ought to have gently corrected her at the end of our 30-minute appointment?
But no, perhaps she was testing me. Was I so lazy and easygoing I would permit insults about my style? Or did I have some backbone?
I entered a neat but over-furnished parlour. Old dark wood, heavy striped drapes, thick celestial-themed tapestry. The place where dreams go to die. With a gesture, she invited me to sit at a small table. “Would you like tea and biscuit?” Her eyes, small and dark like currants, peered into mine.
I hesitated. Forget galoshes; this was likely something she asked every visitor and therefore was likely to be a test. Saying “No thanks” seemed cold—the hallmark of a total spinster; saying an unqualified “Yes please” maybe signalled promiscuity. Perhaps I should pretend to be compromising and good-natured and chirrup, “Oh, I’ll have whatever you’re having”?
But no: why should I hide the real me from those I asked for advice? I said, “If you have herbal tea and gluten-free biscuits, sure,” in a cheerful tone. I did not clarify whether she meant the British biscuit, like a cookie, or the American biscuit, like an unsweetened cracker. I’m comfortable with cultural ambiguity
She brought out an Art Deco-style tin with twenty kinds of teabags. “Please. Choose.”
I lingered over the teabags: did Red Zinger mean I sought sensuality? Did ginseng mean I was obsessed with longevity? Similarly, she asked me to choose from five types of biscuit. After the kettle boiled, I saw that for herself she had chosen the cheapest generic teabag and an arrowroot biscuit. Time was ticking, so I grabbed the nearest herbal tea and rice cracker. They tasted like dishwater and sawdust. Was this revealing my pattern of relationships: spending too much time being choosy and then, time running out, hastily settling for the most convenient? Was this at the heart of my lovelessness?
Madame Defarge—if that was her name; it didn’t sound very Russian to me—took my right hand and inspected it. She removed her spectacles, polished them, and looked at my hand again. Then she folded my hand closed, rather like a laptop that has a screen display problem. She said, “Open slowly your hand and stay relaxed.” I was unnerved by this charade but told myself it was likely a trick to make me say revealing things about myself. Then she got out the tarot cards.
“But my hand,” I said, frowning, leaning toward her. “Won’t you tell me what it says?”
I stared at my palm, genuinely disappointed. “What can you tell about me through my hand?”
“Ees normal. What, you got trouble with it, too?” She pursed her mouth and began to lay out the cards, which she mulled over. At last she announced: “Your eternal partner has medium height.”
I waited. She laid down more cards and said that he had “misplaced hair.” I had to ask what she meant. “Example is,” she said, “no hair on head but hair on ears.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding slowly. Danny did not have misplaced hair—but then, April would have had a completely different tarot card reading. “How will I meet him?”
Madame turned up a picture of a galleon and a book and said, “Embarked on quest for knowledge.”
“Good, then I’ll take that night school course.” In my usual way, I’d been dithering whether to sign up for Advanced Accounting.
“That could be one interpretation,” she said. “‘Quest for knowledge’ also can be man on street, asking for direction.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “What man ever asks for direction?” and we shared a good laugh. Maybe she had forgiven me for the galoshes tutorial.
“Could you tell me more about my eternal partner?” I asked. When it comes to signs, I’m the type that needs a billboard. “Any crumb of information… like, does he have a dog?” There was a good-looking man, with a receding hairline, who walked his dog every day in my park.
Madame turned over some more cards. “For animals…he is in time of change. Maybe he had a dock but the dock died…”
“Does he live here in the city?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
She flipped some more cards. “You will not meet him in place you visit day-to-day.” She gave a small sigh as if I had tired her out with my neediness. I countered with my own sigh as if I was disappointed to be shelling out for such skimpy information. She won the contest of sighs, because she had the more joyless existence, being a Russian émigré.
The buzzer sounded and we both jumped. I was curious to see her next client, but it was furniture delivery.
* * *
Madame Defarge had given a set of criteria: (1) I would meet a medium-height man in a place different from my regular place (2) the man would be on a quest for knowledge (3) the man’s hair should be “misplaced” (4) and the man would be “in a time of change” for animals.
First, I signed up for night school on a campus far from home, but the class was full of tall men with regular hair. I dropped out after the second week.
A downtown ashram is another place I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, but when a friend said she was attending a workshop on holistic resonance gong training, I expressed an interest. The workshop explored both theory and practice of the holistic sounds of Gong (symphonic or planetary). I was pretty gonged out by the time I noticed a medium-height man with an unusual hairdo, sort of a curly tonsure. He was putting up posters for the Feral Cat Rescue Society in the lobby. When the workshop ended, I enquired about cat rescue, and well, one thing led to another. Soon we were exchanging chin-rubs as a prelude to heavy petting. I had to ask about the tonsure before I got any more serious. Up close, his hair was coarse and sort of familiar but sort of not. “Three months ago, I had hair plugs implanted from other parts of my body,” he said. I tried to recall what his chest and back hair looked like. “From my groin area,” he clarified. Sam at the Ashram was sweet, but I could not erase the thought “dickhead” every time I saw his faintly angelic tonsure. As a parting gift I said, “Sam, the next time a woman asks about your hair plugs, say they came from your back.”
The third place I wouldn’t ordinarily visit was at the top of my own house. I discovered a squirrel condominium under the eaves. “They’re nesting there, in the soffit,” said the impossibly young, capable man who showed up from Trapper John’s Animal Removal Services. Tyler said words like “soffit” and “cruelty-free one-way mesh cage” with authority. This was his summer job, and his quest for knowledge was a geography undergrad degree at the local university. Hair-wise, he had a buzz-cut and a hairy back. We went out once but then he ghosted me.
Three possibilities; three flops. I was feeling a little desperate.
* * *
Things were tamer at the next annual barbecue. Roger was still self-appointed traffic cop of the line-ups, but he’d undergone sensitivity training. Plus, half the employees were on a low-carb diet so the open-your-buns-wide double entendre wouldn’t have worked anyway.
Danny and April were still going strong. This year we volunteers sat together at a designated table. I was mildly impressed that Roger had turned himself around, enough that we could converse.
“Are you enjoying the barbecue, Vivienne?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, steeling myself for some joke about sauce on his whopper. It didn’t happen. I found myself automatically applying the Defarge criteria to Roger. Good God, what was happening to me.
After we had our veggie burgers, I took April aside. “That Madame Defarge?” I said. “I feel like she gave me an impossible set of criteria for my eternal partner.”
I told her about the “misplaced hair” and that the man’s “feelings about animals were changing.” April’s face grew thoughtful. I didn’t go into my humiliating defeats. Nor did I tell her that it was her and Danny’s success that kept me trying to puzzle out the psychic’s directives. But still, I wondered how she had navigated the old Russian’s tea-and-biscuit test, the palm reading, and the tarot cards. “When she gave you advice on what kind of man to look for, how did you cope with it? How did you find Danny?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Danny was her building superintendent.”
“I dropped by to ask directions, she called him to change a light bulb, and he invited me along.” She waved at Danny and he came over to us, looping his arm through hers. He gazed at her pretty face first, her belly second. It was then that I saw the baby bump. April turned to me and said, “I didn’t actually pay attention to what she was saying. Like I said, I’m not into that woo-woo stuff.”