Queen of Cups

A family is only as sick as its secrets

“The cards never lie,” I say, while placing the Queen of Pentacles in the center of the spread. “You have to make your own way and not rely on anyone else.” My sister nods in agreement as if she believes me, and at the moment she does, but later she will find a man who will promise her the moon, and she will forget what the cards have told her.

The next card is the World from the Major Arcana. A woman floats effortlessly inside a giant laurel wreath surrounded by four images, a man, eagle, bull, and lion. These represent the four elements of life-earth, fire, water and air. I tell my sister, “Life is a Road, and it is Wide Open.”

She sighs and flutters her long eyelashes.

“Lots of wands.” I switch to study a group of three cards. “This signals a time of imaginative activity. You must listen to what’s inside and not heed outside influences.” My sister is pretty, sage green eyes set deep in an angular face that softens to guard her femininity. Her jaw and cheek bones are sharp and hold shadows and light. Her hair is kept blonde. As young girls, our mother set us out in the backyard with lemon juice and baking soda poured over our hair, so the alchemy of the sun and formula would ensure our place in the world.

These days, my hair is dyed black. Blondes don’t do well in this business. I am a tarot reader and since exoticism does not come naturally, I affect it with darkness, my lips colored with lipstick called Blood and Blade, my eyes outlined in heavy, black pencil liner. I wear false eyelashes from a costume shop because they are longer and thicker than the ones sold at cosmetic counters.

The disguise works. Sometimes reading the cards, when my voice gets dusky, and my eyes narrow under the shadow of the fake lashes, I believe my sister does not remember who I am. I have been reading her cards forever. She is why I got started in this business. I used to do readings for college friends, for kicks, but my sister got wind of it and became obsessed after her first reading. She found ways to make me tell her fortune even when I’d try to blow her off; she’d buy me fashionable clothes and exotic knickknacks for my apartment.

But I learned early on not to trust her instincts. She is prone to bad relationships. So I fabricate a different course for her, one where she is independent and happy. I did not charge her for this knowledge at first, nor did I charge my mother, or anyone in my family.

Particularly, I absolutely would not charge my grandmother, who came to me acting like she could care less about this nonsense and ended up nervously asking me was I going to read her cards or what. That was when I found out about the black woman, Wanda. Wicked Wanda.

I had laid down the cards and in the middle was the Queen of Cups and what crossed it was the Seven of Swords. I said, “In this card, Nona, the man is stepping carefully away from a camp. He is looking back to make sure no one sees him. The card indicates hasty action and ill-conceived plans. But it crowns the Queen of Cups, which represents emotions. You’ll notice the Queen staring into this exquisitely bejeweled goblet. And see how her throne floats on a sea of emotion. I do believe there is some kind of dark love going on here, Nona.”

My grandmother leaned over to look at the cards and said, “Must be Wanda.”

“Wanda, your nurse?” I asked. My grandmother had fallen off the back steps and fractured her hip and scared all of us so, we hired a home nurse to stay with her while she was recuperating.

“Wicked Wanda,” my grandmother said, I think half-smiling. “She was there at the house, taking care of me and one thing led to another, and well….” My grandmother extended her hand in the air, twisting and turning it, and closing her eyes in a smile as if to suggest there are things in life that are a great mystery.

I did not know what to think. Nona had been married twice, both to miserable men, one of course was grandfather. She told me she had never been happy in her whole life. So I thought the affair or whatever happened with Wanda was weird but wonderful, and I bought my grandmother a stack of books on coming out. I found some good ones tailored to mature, first-time lesbians. I mailed them to her, but when I called to see if she had received them, she sounded embarrassed and said that she had thrown the books away, but then she thanked me for thinking about her.

I felt sad, as if I had lost an opportunity to say something that would make up for her unhappiness. At times, the whole enterprise of fabricating a person’s future is daunting. My sister and mother are always eager to hear their future being told, but in the long run, neither do much with the information. I have seen glimpses where a synapse sparked in my sister’s brain, but each was a short-lived episode. The one time I thought I had her was when that business man had come into the bar-my sister is a bartender-and an hour after he had been sitting there chatting her up, he asked if she would go to Paris with him on a business trip-all expenses paid.

Next thing you know she is on the phone to me singing gayly, “I’m going to Paris, going to Paris.” And I call my mother and say, “What is going on?” And Mom says, “Great news. Some man Sabra met is taking her to Paris, free!” “Some man?” I ask, “Free?” wondering why they don’t see what is missing from this picture.

That same afternoon, I purposely sought out Sabra to give her a reading, and I must say it was one of my all time best. “See this card here, the Eight of Swords, see how the woman is blindfolded and bound up, and there are swords sticking out of the ground like a prison fence around her. You are imprisoned by your good looks, they lead you to situations that are unrealistic. Here lies the Seven of Cups, all cups are filled with temptations you can’t discern. It is a warning to be prudent and not pick until you have more information. Like this guy who wants to take you to Paris, who is he? What are his intentions? Why go to Paris with him, a stranger? Paris is a special place, why not wait and go alone or with someone you truly love?”

Sabra called the business man later that night at his French Quarter hotel and backed out of the trip. My mother cried, yet I felt deeply satisfied. But in little over a week, my sister and mother were not speaking to me. The event is now referred to as the time Tara put the gris gris on Sabra’s all-expense-paid trip to Paris. I have told them till I am sick of telling them that I am fortune teller, not a voodoo queen. I don’t put gris gris or voodoo on anybody, but it has fallen on deaf ears.

They pay a little more respect to me now that I am famous. While my fame has opened doors (nothing I could not have lived without, believe me), secretly, I think both my mother and sister harbor abiding envy toward my popularity. Sabra has always been grasping at the limelight in her own inimitable fashion. She modeled for upwardly mobile photographers, with and without clothes, was morphed into a nude sculpture by an aspiring taciturn artist, dated rich and powerful lawyers, slept with one famous athlete, and although each tryst served as a temporary rescue from her perceived oblivion, each turned out to be only a lateral move for her in the longrun.

My mother’s stake in the claim to fame department is she’s going to write a book about her life. Or at least that is what she has been telling us since the day we were born. Her fiction, she says without a even a trace of self-consciousness, will be titled “How a Gal Like Me Got to a Place Like This.” I assure her it has the makings of a best-seller.

Excerpted from Queen of Cups by Rachel Dangermond
Copyright ©1998 by Rachel Dangermond