On October 25, 2003, I was left at the altar. Not literally, of course. My fiancé, Brad, was kind enough to telephone me the evening before and inform me that the wedding we'd been planning for over a year was not going to happen.
"I'm sorry, Casey. I just can't do it," he whined.
I was shocked, of course, and speechless. Since I said nothing, Brad continued.
"I'm so, so sorry. I think you're a wonderful girl, and I only want the best for you in life. I hope you know that."
Still, I said nothing, and he kept going.
"I know you're probably mad at me now, but I hope with time we can become friends again."
"What?" I finally gasped. "What are you talking about, Brad?"
"Uh. Look, I know this is hard for you. I know you have a lot invested in this thing."
"This THING? Are you out of your fucking mind?" Here's where I turned into Bridezilla. "This THING is our wedding, you asshole! I have spent the last year planning and making arrangements. I've spent hours and hours of my time and every dime I had—oh my God! Do you realize how much money we're going to lose?"
"W-well, um, I was actually hoping I could get some of that back..."
"WHAT?" I screamed. "Are you kidding me?"
My voice echoed in my head, and from somewhere another voice, another calmer, more rational Casey was telling me to stop screaming and think.
"No. I ... I think I deserve some of it back. It's my money."
"No, Brad. Fuck you." He was only worried about the money? "It's too late.'
"Well, what about from the gifts? Won't you return the gifts?"
I hung up on him then, shaking with rage, but didn't cry until five minutes later, when I called my mom. I opened my mouth to tell her what happened, but the words wouldn't come. She and my sister came over right away. Mom made coffee, and we all made phone calls. I didn't allow sympathy from anyone, saying I had a million calls to make and that I'd be in touch later. Three hundred guests and a few hours later, we all sat on my couch exhausted.
The florist, caterer, reception hall, and minister had been contacted, but I wasn't able to reach anyone at the travel agency where we'd booked the honeymoon. It was after 10 p.m. by then, and I announced I'd have to call them in the morning.
"Wait a minute, Case," said my sister, Amber. "I think you should go anyway."
"To New Orleans? Oh, I couldn't do that."
"You should go, honey," Mom agreed. "You've already got the time off from work, and what will you do here anyway? People will be calling. That little twit will be hounding you for money. You should get away and try to enjoy yourself. It might turn out to be a good thing."
So I did.
Two days later, I found myself in a room at the Place D'Armes Hotel. We'd specifically chosen the hotel for its charming and casual atmosphere, not to mention its location in the French Quarter. I was at a loss as I stood on the balcony overlooking a lovely courtyard. The excitement was over, and I was finally alone. All alone. I leaned on the ivy-covered wrought-iron railing, unsure of what to do next. I had nearly a week in this amazing city to get my head together and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Tears stung my eyes, but I was tired of crying. I decided to take a walk and find someplace to eat.
Having never been to New Orleans before, I'd researched this trip for months, poring over maps and pictures on the Internet and guidebooks. I figured I'd be able to find my way around. Actually being there was different though, so, armed with a small map and guidebook in my purse, I set off.
Strolling down Decatur Street, I let the sights and sounds of the Big Easy envelope me. The very air there was so different from home. It was heavier, more sensuous, pregnant with foreign sounds and scents of humanity and food and the sea. I stopped outside the Café Maspero and peered through the open French doors at the diners inside. The guidebook said the café was known for its homemade soups and overstuffed sandwiches, both of which sounded wonderful to me, so I stepped inside.
The tantalizing scent of food nearly caused me to faint. I hadn't realized how hungry I was; could not remember when I had last eaten. In spite of a long line, I was surprised to be seated rather quickly. I am one of those people who is exceedingly uncomfortable dining alone in a restaurant and pretended to immerse myself in my guidebook while I waited for my food. When it arrived, my face must have shown my astonishment at the size of the portions, because the waitress laughed and patted me on the shoulder and then refilled my iced tea glass.
I was just tearing in into the second half of my enormous sandwich and licking my fingers, when I noticed a man watching me. He sat back in his chair, legs crossed, and held a pale gray fedora with one hand over his knee. His dark eyes squinted at me through the haze of smoke from his thin cigar, and when he saw me returning his stare, he inclined his head slightly and winked. The light shown on his slicked-back dark hair, and his eyes seemed to twinkle and dance with amusement. A pencil-thin mustache sat atop full sensuous lips that curled up at one side into a sardonic grin. He was wearing a gray pinstripe suit, which seemed rather formal for the casual eatery, but appeared, nonetheless, timeless in this place.
Having been entirely engrossed in my food, I felt sure my table manners had flown out into the sultry night. My cheeks flamed, and I lowered my head, returned the sandwich to my plate, and wiped my hands and mouth carefully on my napkin. I tried looking everywhere except at the man for a few moments, but I needn't have bothered, because when I looked back in his direction, he was gone. A young couple were seating themselves at his table, and no trace of the man remained. Scanning the crowd for him, I realized I felt a bit disappointed. Though horrified that he'd caught me gobbling my food with abandon, I felt he hadn't been put off by my lack of grace. On the contrary, he had seemed interested¬¬? ¬Odd. Had I imagined it? I'd always fancied myself ordinary and plain, with my mousy brown hair and nondescript features. In an odd way, Brad had endorsed my opinion of myself or, at least, never refuted it. So, this unexpected attention from such a handsome man induced a giddiness in me that I hadn't felt in a long, long time.
Laughing at my own silliness, I finished my food and drained my glass. Feeling a whole lot better than before my meal, I paid my check and returned to the voluptuous New Orleans evening. I felt revived and almost buoyant as I sauntered along Toulouse Street and turned on to Chartres. To my delight, horse-drawn carriages clopped along the street, and I imagined people walking along that same street a hundred years ago. In fact, time seemed to pause and mix and weave itself together in such a way that I seemed to be walking in the past, as well as the present. More silliness, I thought.
The low roar of people and music beckoned to me from Bourbon Street, but I wasn't in the mood for crowds. As I reached Jackson Square, the lonely, soulful singing of a saxophone wrapped itself around me like smoky silk, pulling me toward it. Mesmerized, I walked into the park and found the source of the music. A man with dreadlocks stood weaving and gyrating as he played, his silver saxophone glinting in the streetlights. The case from his instrument stood open before him, and a small crowd had gathered round. The mellow notes seemed to tell a story of life—love and sex, people, friends, happiness, grief, more love, and more sex. A young woman danced and swayed to the music, her diaphanous skirt floating and swirling about her long legs. She seemed the embodiment of the melody itself. I envied her the freedom of movement and lack of inhibition and almost wished I could join her.
The song ended on a long, tremulous note, and the little crowd applauded and tossed money into the musician's case. I fished a few bills from my purse, adding them to the take, and was rewarded with a warm smile.
"Thank you," I murmured, smiling myself.
"My pleasure, chère. And thank you."
Happiness and light accompanied me like unseen friends on the walk back to the hotel. This was new, this feeling of contentment in my own company. I didn't feel alone at all. A nearly tangible presence wrapped me in its arms and held me up. It made me feel protected and almost, well, loved. It made me feel like I'd be alright. It made me feel peace for the first time in a long while.
I sat in the wicker chair on my little balcony and listened to the night sounds of the city. Brad intruded on my thoughts. He never had explained why he called off the wedding. The wedding. The huge loss crushed my heart with its weight. I'd been dreaming of my wedding ever since I was a little girl. My mother had been in the dressing room as I tried on wedding gowns all those months ago. She'd cried as she fastened scores of tiny pearl buttons down the back of the dress. I'd been planning on something more plain, but my mother's tears had convinced me this was the one. I'd never get to wear it now. It still hung, still covered in plastic, from a plant hook in the corner of my living room.
The creamy satin shoes, the dainty veil, the wedding bands, the special wedding night lingerie—all wasted. Hot tears coursed down my face at the loss. I was thirty-four years old and truly felt like an old maid. I thought about the "belonging" wearing my engagement ring had always afforded me. I thought about the babies I might have had and the beautiful home I might have kept, and their loss hurt most of all.
Then I realized something. I didn't miss Brad at all. Not a bit. He'd been cranky and petulant for the past few weeks, refusing to help me with anything. I wasn't sure at that point if I even liked him. But I had loved him, right? We'd had fun together, certainly, in the beginning. After a while, we became habit, I supposed. I remembered reading a magazine article that said a woman's chances of marrying after reaching the age of thirty decreased considerably. Had I been afraid I'd never find anyone else? I wiped my tears away with my hands and considered the possibility. I wanted babies, and time was running out. It seemed important to have them before I turned forty. Was Brad simply a means to an end for me? The thought was startling and not altogether flattering.
As I turned to go back into my room and get ready for bed, a tiny orange glow from the courtyard below caught my eye. Someone smoking, I thought. It was dark, and I couldn't make out a person there. I shivered and closed the door, locked it, and pulled the shades.
That night I had the most incredibly erotic dream. I don't think I remember all of it, and what I do remember are just impressions—what I felt, what I heard. It started with kissing, my lips tingling and parting, a warm, wet tongue probing my mouth, tasting and smelling of the sea, the clean sea air. The mouth, an extension of my own mouth, a part of me, recognized, cherished, ravaged me, took my soul and made it soar. It licked and kissed and sucked my neck, while large, warm hands stroked my body to a fevered pitch. I tried to open my eyes to see this dream lover, but they were stuck closed tight. Hands cupped my breasts, pinching the titillated nipples, rolling them between fingers and thumb, squeezing and kneading, as all the while, that hot mouth consumed my neck and lips.
Those lips traveled down my neck to my chest, the tongue swirling the skin along the way, leaving a wet trail, then closing around a nipple. I tried to touch the face, hold the head against me, but my arms wouldn't move, were, in fact, leaden. The hands had stroked their way down to my hips, and I heard myself moan when fingers grazed along my wet slit, sliding up and down, spreading my juices over my lips, again and again. The hands pushed my thighs wide apart, and long fingers slid into me, stroking into my channel, the whole hand seeming to slip inside me, heating a path to my womb. I was gasping by then, and a sudden violent orgasm overtook me. As my body shuddered and jerked, the hands and lips never ceased their movement.
As I climaxed, the mouth suddenly covered my pussy, drinking my essence, while the fingers continued to move inside me, pressing upward, finding my sweet spot. While the mouth closed around my clit and sucked it inside, the tongue rubbed it, the fingers fucked me, and I came again and again, panting and moaning, and possibly even screaming at some point.
I awakened briefly, my naked body drenched with sweat, my limbs still leaden and exhausted, the damp sheet twisted around my legs. I fell asleep again almost immediately, and the mouth found my lips once more with a deep, lingering kiss and then was gone.
When I woke next, pale gray light filtered into the room. I was lying sprawled on my stomach, my skin cold to the touch. Reaching to pull the covers over me, I winced as dozens of little aches assaulted my body. I felt as if I'd spent the entire night having wild sex. It was just a dream, Casey, I thought. Just a dream. I reached a hand down between my legs to touch my sex. It was still very wet and slightly sore. I swallowed, and my dry throat felt sore, as well.
I lay there for a long time, trying to go back to sleep, but sleep wouldn't come. A warm shower eased the aches from my body and refreshed me. I dressed and walked to the Café du Monde for some of their famous beignets and a cup of café au lait. The powdered-sugar-covered pastry was delightfully fragrant of cinnamon and seemed to melt on my tongue, and the creamy coffee was a perfect complement. I opened my guidebook on the bar and tentatively planned my day.
That's when I saw him again. The man from the restaurant the night before. Only this time he was wearing a cream-colored double-breasted suit. He was sitting at the bar drinking a cup of coffee, which he raised toward me, as if toasting, and he smiled and inclined his head, just as he had before. I smiled back and watched his smile grow wider and two dimples crease his cheeks. Lord, he was handsome. The way he looked at me brought to mind a line from Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett, referring to Rhett, says, "He looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy!" Goodness, being in this city certainly was bringing out the fanciful thoughts. Scarlett O'Hara, indeed.
But wait. Hadn't Scarlett and Rhett gone to New Orleans for their honeymoon? I giggled at the thought and then realized the man was gone again. I caught a glimpse of his back as he headed for the door. Then he disappeared. With a sigh, I gathered my belongings and headed out as well.
I spent my day meandering through the French Market, buying small souvenirs and t-shirts for my nieces and nephews. The heat and humidity seemed oppressive as I walked along the Moon Walk beside the Mississippi River. It seemed there were happy couples everywhere, sitting on benches, sauntering along hand in hand, standing close together gazing out at the sparkling water. They were everywhere, mocking me. I was supposed to be on my honeymoon. Again, I realized it wasn't Brad I was missing, but the companionship, a sense of belonging.
This trip was beginning to seem like a bad idea. I wasn't enjoying wandering around by myself, and I certainly didn't relish the idea of barhopping on Bourbon Street alone. New Orleans had been Brad's idea anyway. He'd wanted to be there over Halloween, saying it would be almost like Mardi Gras. This was his trip. I wondered if I should just go home. Home. It suddenly sounded wonderful. Back to the cooler air and familiar faces. People who cared.
I returned to the hotel early, having completely given up on enjoying my trip, with homesickness close on my heels. After a long shower and a good cry, I watched TV for a while, and then lay in bed listening to the faint night sounds of the French Quarter.
My dream lover returned to my bed that night, this time holding me in his arms, and I could actually feel the warmth of his body, hear the beating of his heart. I felt the faint, whiskery burn on my chin and lips and cheeks as he kissed me. Warm, plump lips kissed my cheek and then pressed lightly against my ear, his hot breath bathing me in goose bumps.
"Don't go," he whispered. "Please don't go."
Wrapping my arms and legs around his body, I surrendered completely to him, opening myself, pulling him in, reveling in him, returning his kisses, matching his ardor. It seemed to go on forever. He was not a creature of mists and dreams, but a being of substance and life. The mattress shifted when he moved, and his weight crushed me into it. His breath warmed me as he held me against his chest afterward.
When I awoke a seemingly short time later, it was light, and he was gone. I sat up and looked around, feeling bereft. The t-shirt and panties I had worn to bed were laying on the floor. Again, the delicious ache of lust, of being used and fucked and loved, assaulted my body. I rose and padded into the bathroom to examine myself in the large mirror. My lips were puffy and red, my skin flushed, and there appeared to be a faint love bite over my left breast. My fingers chafed over it, as if to erase it, but the vague purplish shadow remained.
"You're losing it kid," I said to my reflection.
I returned to the Café du Monde that morning, my craving for beignets overruling my desire to experience different restaurants. I even lingered over a second cup of café au lait, mulling over the night before. My dream lover's plea had convinced me to stay in New Orleans, at least for a day or two longer. I knew it was crazy, but somehow I had the feeling he wouldn't come to me at home. Somehow, I knew he was of this place. I wished he would let me see him. Maybe tonight.
Having decided it would be good for me to spend more time with people, not to mention wanting to escape the oppressive heat, I spent the morning touring the Aquarium of the Americas. It was, indeed, cool inside, and there is something therapeutic and cooling about watching fish and other sea creatures, as well. The children there delighted me with their wonder and enchantment with the strange ocean beings.
As I exited the building, there he was again. The man, sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper. Goosebumps sprang out on my arms. This was getting creepy. Strange, how welcome attention can become menacing in the blink of an eye. How did he always seem to be where I was? It was getting to be too much of a coincidence. I needed to confront him. Just as I moved toward him, a crowd of schoolchildren, obviously on a field trip, crossed in front of me, the adults with their group herding and calling to them to stay together and keep their hands to themselves. I couldn't get through, and by the time I reached the bench, the man had vanished. Again.
Troubling thoughts filled my mind. I couldn't imagine why anyone would be following me or what this guy could want. Nevertheless, I pressed on, filling my day with activity by exploring a couple of museums, followed by dinner at my hotel restaurant. I was tired after being on my feet all day, and after a shower, retired early and fell asleep almost instantly.
A sweet, acrid odor ticked my nose and awakened me some time later. Cigar smoke. I'd been sleeping so soundly, it took me a minute to orient myself and realize the smell was out of place. Sitting up, I pushed my hair out of my face, turned on the bedside lamp, and looked around. The door to my little balcony was open. I was sure I'd closed it. The smoke was wafting in through the doorway, curlicues circling and lifting on the light breeze. Annoyed, I marched over to the door to close it and realized with a start that someone was sitting there in the wicker chair right outside my room. I shrieked and clapped both hands over my mouth, as the person stood and turned to look at me.
It was him! The man. This time in shirtsleeves, his collar open. He turned and pitched the cigar over the railing and stepped into the room. His lips curled into that same cynical grin as his eyes raked over my naked legs, t-shirt, and untethered breasts.
"¬Bonsoir, chère," he murmured.
"My God. Who are you?" I asked, voice shaking.
His smile grew wider, the dimples I remembered deepening, as he extended his hand to me.
I ignored the hand, keeping my arms folded across my breasts, my hands tucked into my armpits.
"How did you get in here?"
Remy threw his head back and laughed, a deep rich laugh, and waved his hand back toward the door.
"You brought me here."
"N-no, I didn't," I stammered.
"You did, chère," he explained. "You called to me across time and space to come to you."
As Remy took a step toward me, I took a step backward and snapped, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Holding up both hands, as if to surrender, to show me he meant no harm, Remy stepped back and then simply stood there with his head cocked to one side, staring into my eyes. He let his hands fall back to his sides.
My shaking had become unbearable, my entire body quaking with the effort to control it and to breathe. I watched his expression change from amusement to concern as tears filled my eyes and spilled over onto my cheeks. I didn't know why I was crying.
Remy's eyes seemed to take on a liquid quality of their own, and he reached out a hand to me once more, his mouth moving as if to offer me comfort.
"No!" I spouted, holding my own hands up to ward him off before he could speak. "You have to get out. Please, just go."
His eyebrows lifted, and the cocky smile curved his lips once more.
"Comme tu veux, " he said, and turning on his heel, strode quickly back across the room and out the balcony door.
"Wait," I called. "You have to go out the other door."
I ran to the balcony. He was gone. Thinking he might have fallen or jumped over the railing, I leaned way over and peered through the darkness. Nothing. No movement and no sound. Perplexed, I looked around the balcony for a place he could hide. Nothing.
Feeling slightly sick, I darted over to the phone and dialed the front desk. I explained there'd been a man in my room, and he'd apparently gone over the balcony railing. A hotel security guard came up and examined my room and balcony, while another checked the courtyard below and the outside of the building with a flashlight. He tested the locks on the doors and pronounced them secure.
"Is it possible you might've dreamed this, ma'am?" he asked.
"N-no. Of course not. I talked to him. I smelled cigar smoke."
"There's no sign of forced entry, no sign outside of anyone having fallen." He shrugged. "I don't know what else we can do."
"Oh, so, you think I imagined it."
He shrugged and smiled.
"It's possible, but sometimes strange things happen here that can't be explained. Either way, I think you're safe. Call us if anything else happens."
It took me a long time to fall back into a fitful sleep. My dream lover did not come.
The gray light of dawn was seeping into the room when I awoke, headachy and thirsty. Sitting up, I rubbed my hands around and over my face. That man, Remy, had been in my room. Then he'd disappeared over the balcony railing. What the hell was going on? He must be nuts. Delusional. He said I'd called to him. What did that mean? He hadn't seemed to want to harm me, and when I'd asked him to leave, he'd gone. Still. It was creepy. I wondered if I should go to the police.
Throwing back the covers, I shivered in the air conditioning. I turned it down and stepped out onto the balcony. My neck tingled as I looked over the edge. The walkway was clean, the grass still manicured, the bushes still perfect, and the trees still hung with moss, just as they'd all been before. A fat calico cat meandered across the walkway toward the aquamarine glow of the pool. There was no fire escape ladder and no way a person could reach another balcony from mine. No trees were close enough either.
Maybe I was the delusional one. Maybe I was going nuts. Maybe all the stress had finally caught up with me.
"Oh, no," I gasped and plopped down in the wicker chair.
As if things weren't eerie enough, I remembered just then that I'd arranged to participate in a Halloween Voodoo tour of the French Quarter the day before. Yesterday it had sounded like fun, especially being part of a group. Today, however, I wished I could cancel. I'd already paid though. Great.
"God, Casey," I whispered, thinking I'd better find someone else to talk to before talking to myself became habit.
Beignets and café au lait. I grinned. That's what I needed. It was a good thing I'd be leaving in a couple days. If I stayed there, I'd end up big as a house. A big, fat lunatic who wandered around talking to herself, I thought, giggling.
After breakfast, I went down to the Moon Walk, where the tour bus was boarding. The group of tourists chattered excitedly amongst themselves in the late morning sunshine. My longish, flowing sundress and sandals and wide-brimmed straw hat seemed out of place with their t-shirts and shorts and sun visors. Donning my sunglasses, I sighed and stared out the window as the French Quarter whizzed by.
St. Louis Cemetery #1 was our first stop. As we disembarked the bus, our tour guide stressed the importance of everyone staying with the group. To illustrate his point, he read aloud the warning posted at the entrance.
VISITORS ARE WELCOME BUT VISIT THESE
PREMISES AT THEIR OWN RISK. NO
SECURITY NOR GUARDS ARE PROVIDED AND
THE NEW ORLEANS ARCHDIOCESAN CEMETERIES
DISCLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE PERSONAL
SAFETY OF VISTORS AND THEIR PROPERTY.
Shivering despite the heat, I wondered if we were being warned against the living or the dead. The spooky feeling had remained with me and seemed to shadow the hazy sunshine.
As we entered the cemetery, the tour guide explained that New Orleans cemeteries were often referred to as "Cities of the Dead," as below-ground burial was not possible there due to the water table. The dead are interred in crypts that do, indeed, resemble miniature houses, their architecture mimicking the style of New Orleans at large. The crypts are arranged in lanes, and some are even surrounded by ironwork fences.
The group meandered along, twittering and occasionally elbowing each other, as the guide spoke in his spooky Vincent Price voice of the ghosts that supposedly walked the alleys of St. Louis #1. They all seemed enchanted with him, but, frankly, he was beginning to annoy me.
We came to a stop in front of a rather nondescript, small white building that the guide touted as the tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans' most famous Voodoo queen. Her crypt was marked all over with X's and crosses, which, the guide explained, people carved into the stone walls for luck. The doorway was littered with "gifts" for the queen; candles, bottles of water, beads, dried beans, herbs, flowers, and bricks wrapped in tin foil. All supposedly brought believers good fortune.
"There is a legend, we're told," the guide deadpanned with arched brows, "that if you make a wish in front of Queen Marie's tomb, turn around three times, and then knock on her door three times, your wish will come true." The last few words were drawn out for emphasis.
The ladies in front of me twittered and giggled, their plastic skeleton and pumpkin and black cat earrings dancing, then blessed themselves and performed the ritual. Then they all burst out laughing and moved on with the rest of the group.
I sighed and dragged along behind, wishing I'd skipped this tour entirely. Just as I passed by the corner of Marie Laveau's tomb, I noticed an old woman crouched there, placing a flower on the little stoop. She hadn't been there before and startled me, the creepy feeling shivering down my back again, in spite of the warm, humid air. She looked up at me with a sweet smile, her eyes pale blue and milky in her ancient face.
"Have I frightened you?" she asked, pulling herself up with her cane and straightening her back.
I smiled back.
"Oh, no. Not really. I'm just a little spooked because of Halloween and being in a cemetery, and our tour guide..." I trailed off, not sure, really, what else to say.
A bead of sweat ran down my back and into the cleft of my buttocks.
"You seek the assistance of Queen Marie?" the old woman asked in her soft, melodic voice—not the voice of an old woman at all.
"Well, no. I just came on this bus tour," I stammered, pointing vaguely in the direction of my group, which was getting further away.
The woman shuffled forward and laid a hand on my arm. Her fingers felt cold, her skin papery, against my own overheated and clammy skin.
"I really need to stay with my group," I said, pulling away.
She seemed harmless, but the words on the sign at the cemetery entrance rang in my head, and the tour group seemed very far away. My mouth had become cotton dry, and I felt somewhat dizzy. I also felt silly, being spooked by an old lady.
"Go to the queen's house. The daughter will give you what you seek."
She was obviously nuts. I smiled at her and nodded.
"Thank you. I will," I said, turning to follow my group, which had disappeared around a bend in the lane.
When I looked back, the old woman had disappeared. I turned all the way around searching for her, but she was gone. Just like that. She couldn't have moved that quickly. Silence enveloped me, as the warm air pressed down, and I began to walk at a rapid pace in the direction my group had gone and then started to run. I reached them, breathless and queasy from the heat but glad to be among people again. I felt is if I was being watched and kept turning around for the remaining few minutes of the tour, but nobody was there. Out of the corner of my eye I'd see shadows, and when I'd look in that direction, nothing would be there. Once, I thought I saw one of the bright, white statues move, but when I looked, it was frozen in time.
As we reached the exit, I milled along with the group toward the bus. Upon reaching the door, however, I couldn't get back on the bus. Couldn't face the twittering women and the goofy tour guide, so I simply kept walking, past the bus and on down the street.
The eerie feeling persisted but wasn't quite so bad now that I was out of the cemetery. I walked along, trying to stay in the shade, and sipped water from a bottle I'd tucked in my bag. My hat was bothering me, despite its wide brim protecting me from the worst of the sun, so I pulled it off. I couldn't imagine what had possessed me to wear the hat anyway. Or the dress, for that matter, with its gauzy skirt and somewhat low-cut neck line. I mean, who the hell did I think I was, anyway? Blanche DuBois? I sat down on a low brick wall to collect myself, fanning my neck and face with the hat. I didn't know exactly where I was, so I pulled my trusty guidebook from my bag and consulted the little map.
If I continued to walk on St. Louis Avenue, I'd eventually run into more familiar territory, so that's what I did. Sure enough, after a couple of very long, very warm blocks, I came to Bourbon Street. Without really knowing why I did so, I turned down Bourbon Street and kept walking. The feeling that someone was following me or watching me was back, and I kept looking over my shoulder. Nobody seemed to be paying me any attention, but I still had the urge to run. I walked a couple more blocks, and then I saw it. Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. Goosebumps sprang out on my arms.
The smallish clapboard building with peeling paint sat on a corner with its shutter-type doors wide open. I stood outside for a long moment, my breathing shallow and quick, and wished I had something more to drink, as I'd finished my water a while ago. I thought about going someplace—anyplace—that I could sit down and have a drink, but couldn't seem to tear myself away. In slow motion, I stepped up into the shop, which smelled strange and slightly musty; unfamiliar, yet strangely familiar at the same time. The walls inside were hung from floor to ceiling with all manner of stuff—strange figures made from a variety of materials, beads, masks, shelves of books, voodoo dolls, candles—too much to take in, really. There was an altar set up at one end that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
"How can I help you?" a smooth male voice asked from behind me, causing me to jump and whirl around.
"I-I'm not sure," I stuttered.
The man's skin was so dark, it appeared almost bluish in the dim shop. He smiled, showing straight, white teeth and reached for my hand, which I pulled away and tucked behind my back before he could touch me. I must have looked wild with fear, because the man touched my shoulder instead.
"It's alright," he murmured.
"A lady in the cemetery said I should see the daughter of Queen Marie. That she could help me." I babbled. "But that's silly, right? I mean, her daughter couldn't still be alive, could she? I don't really know what I'm doing here. I don't even know if this is the right place."
Really, I was feeling very foolish and close to tears.
A woman, whom I hadn't noticed before, stepped out from behind a beaded curtain and said, "Maybe I can help."
She was very young, with beautiful smooth skin the exact color of café au lait and hazel eyes. She wore flared jeans and flip flops with a pale yellow tank top that didn't quite cover her pierced belly button. She could have been a girl from anywhere and certainly didn't fit my image of someone who practiced voodoo.
"My name is Jessie," she said, taking my hand and leading me through the beaded curtain and into a small room containing a small table and two chairs.
On the table was a deck of cards. Jessie pointed me toward one chair and took the one opposite for herself.
"I'm Casey," I said.
"I am a descendant of Marie Laveau. Perhaps the lady you spoke of sent you to me."
Too spooked to speak, I simply stared at her.
Jessie went on to say she would be doing a simple tarot reading, which would help me interpret current and past events and give insight to my future, along with her fee, which she expected to be paid up front. With trembling hands, I retrieved the money from my wallet and gave it to her. Then my reading began.
After shuffling the deck of cards, which was larger than a deck of playing cards and much more colorful, she laid seven cards face down in an arc before her. Beneath the curve she placed one more card, also face down. This last card was the one she turned face up first, after setting the rest of the deck aside. On its face was a beautiful picture of a woman with flowing, dark hair, lounging on some grass under a dark, starry sky. She leaned against a large lion, her cheek against its head, and her fingers entwined in its great mane.
"This card represents you," Jessie said, touching it with her fingertips. "Strength. You have great strength and determination, though it often seems hidden. You sometimes appear weak but have the ability to tame the beast with your confidence and faith and inner power."
She looked into my eyes, and I nodded my understanding. She then flipped over another card. This one featured a person in a long, hooded cape, staring down at three golden goblets laying on their sides, the contents of which had spilled and was soaking into the ground. Just behind the person were two more goblets, upright and filled to their brims with what appeared to be wine. The sky in the picture was gray and cloudy and dark.
"This card, the Five of Cups, represents the past. You believe you've lost love and that it is lost forever, but it's still there." She tapped the two full goblets with her finger. "Right behind you, right at your shoulder," she said pointing toward a point just to the left of my head.
My head jerked back to look over my shoulder, eliciting a grin from Jessie. She moved along quickly, though, not giving me a chance to really think about what she had said. Turning over the next card, she revealed a fantastic scene of a masked woman, bedecked in feathers and a corset and pink stockings, which tied above the knee with black bows. On her elegant feet were black shoes, also with bows and little heels. She was riding through the night sky on a sliver of moon, over some water that reflected the lights of a city on the shore. A large crawdad was crawling up out of the water.
Jessie's face took on a more serious mien, once again.
"The moon represents the present. You have come here to New Orleans to lose yourself in the magic, in this fantasyland—a place where you can be whoever you want to be, and nothing is quite what it seems. A place where there are no rules."
She tapped the next card without turning it over.
"This next one is your hidden influence."
I blanched as she flipped it over. The Devil. He sat on a throne of sorts, knees bent, furry legs ending in cloven hooves. His body was that of a man, but his head was a hideous red mask with long horns curving up and out from either side of his upper forehead and down around the sides of his face. Two people, a man and a woman, hands joined, stood naked in front of him, chained to his throne. Flames leapt and licked around them in the background.
"The Devil card symbolizes earthy things—sex, drugs, addictions, ambition. It doesn't really mean the Devil, himself, but it could be a person. Someone who wants to free you from your inhibitions. This person enjoys the good life, is very ambitious, and is used to having people do exactly what he wants them to do."
Apparently not wanting to allow me to dwell on this, Jessie flipped over the next card. The Tower. The picture actually looked more like a once elegant old house that had been neglected, with cracks and vines growing up its walls.
"There is a house of lies. It was brought down by falsehoods, but its influence remains, and it stands between you and your dreams."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," Jessie replied. "It will probably come to you as you think this over later. Shall we move on?"
I nodded, and she turned the next card.
"This is the Eight of Cups. Someone has drawn you here. They influenced you to come. They're telling you to forget all you ever thought you wanted and cared for and surrender to your dreams."