Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

13 Superstitions

Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade

Always return a kiss under the mistletoe.

Kiss the boy who is with you now but always looking for someone better. Kiss him even when you know he has been kissing someone else, late nights in her father’s race car stacked on bricks in the yard. Kiss him later, for nostalgia’s sake, after he has left the girl whose father was a race car driver and moved on to the girl who will become a teenage mother. Kiss a different boy because you are kind, and it seems unlikely anyone else will. Kiss one man because he remembers you as a child, and you are forgetting yourself. Kiss another man—the one you will almost marry—because he was born near Christmas, and because he was an orphan, and because you can picture him, chubby and dark-eyed even then, his unruly curls blowing in the parentless wind. Is love a kind of pity, too? Kiss a girl when you are a girl, then try to forget about it. Kiss other girls when you are a girl, but only in your dreams. Kiss a woman when you are full grown—the one you will marry someday—and marvel at how small her mouth is, soft as a plum. Then, do away with mistletoe altogether and make love on the living room rug.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

My mother saved her wedding dress—the same one I was obsessed with as a girl. I would stand at the closet unzipping the garment bag to touch it. As a teenager, I tried it on a few times when she was working at the hospital, her white frills exchanged for her no-nonsense, white uniform. I was a budding feminist and would never have admitted to anyone my desire. I publicly announced I thought marriage was stupid to anyone who would listen. In the 1950s, my mother and father both said they’d never marry, which is why their friend introduced them to each other. My father, a rose in hand, took the bus, and my mother felt her "never" change to "maybe." When I finally gave in, deciding to marry at thirty-one, I admitted that I wanted to wear my mother’s dress. When we unzipped the bag, we found the fabric yellowed and brittle. The beading fell to the floor like dust. I should have seen this as an omen. Instead, I scrambled for a new dress and borrowed my mother’s pearls. There was a blue bow on my bra and my dead grandmother’s handkerchief in my purse. I had all these things and still my marriage ended thirteen years later.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

I come from Washington, where apples are lucky already. Everyone knows someone with an apple tree. My uncle owns orchards in Chehalis and Yakima. Red Delicious is the most famous, but Braeburn tastes the best. My grandmother lives to be ninety-six and insists the secret of longevity is apples, though she prefers them as cobbler or cake, squeezed into cider, sauced with cinnamon. "A little sugar never hurt anyone," she smiles. My mother teaches elementary school. Her students bring her shiny red apples like you see in picture books. The apple is long life, is good health, is knowledge. Later, though, Mother puts the apple into Snow White’s hand, and then it’s poison! (Rae Armantrout)

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

A child prone to guilt, I was careful on my way to school and back. Head down, I avoided fissures in the sidewalk, bits of concrete sprouting grass. Hopscotch was especially complicated—I tried my best to chalk pink squares close to any crevices so my sneaker would land in the unbroken middle. I grew up with uneven sidewalks and potholes. I grew up with a chipped linoleum kitchen floor, squares not that much bigger than the length of my foot. I grew up thinking that even imagining something nasty was a form of sin. Each winter, at St. Joseph’s church, the crumbled steps slicked over with ice. When I fell, my mother scooped me up.

Cross your fingers.

As a child, I favored imagination over truth, which is another way of saying I liked to lie. If I wanted a wish to come true, I pronounced it as though it already had. "My father is a private detective," I told everyone who asked, even though he was just a run-of-the-mill salesman who sat at a desk calling his customers. He used to be a traveling salesman, which was really true, but I pretended he went on missions like a spy. "The FBI used to hire him for contract work," I told the two girls in third grade who were too pretty to be my friends and spent all their time together anyway. On Parent Night, someone’s mother called my bluff. She asked my father about his work in the field—if it was dangerous. "Not unless you put your head inside the plastic bags!" he laughed, because what he mostly sold was packaging for supermarkets and retail chains. Another girl, less pretty and more knowledgeable, taught me a trick. "You can say anything," she grinned, "as long as you cross your fingers." I kept them that way in my pocket, permanently pressed. When a pretty boy asked me, "Do you want to go roller-skating sometime?" I smiled and nodded my head.

Never walk under a ladder.

Short on cash one Christmas, Sally turned her ladder into a tree. She decorated it with mini bottles of whiskey and vodka she had pocketed as a flight attendant. She hung her boyfriend’s cigars as ornaments. I declared the tree was art, though Sally knew even less about art than I did. She said she was shallow, but I knew that wasn’t the reason she abused laxatives. She was weighed in at American Airlines, a company that demanded their female employees have a "trim silhouette, free of bulges, rolls, or paunches." Sally wanted to climb the corporate ladder, sit behind a desk, so she never again had to flirt with fat men in first class.

Women on board bring bad luck.

No siren, I boarded with my breasts and mons pubis, past the golfers, the hunters, and the adventurers. They had a way of looking at me but at the same time through me, as though I did and did not exist. Women have always boarded this way, say our foremothers, who ignored the topless women on the bow, the mud flaps on truck tires. Get thee to a nunnery, to the kitchen, to the bedroom—all ways of saying Get thee to steerage! I passed a man whose T-shirt read Cool Story Babe Go Make Me A Sandwich. He smiled, clueless as a nonswimmer without a lifejacket wandering into a rip current.

Never open an umbrella inside.

Even if you are pretending to be Don Lockwood in Singing in the Rain just after kissing a pretty girl goodnight. Even if you are pretending to be Mary Poppins blown in by a strong wind to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Even if you are pretending to be Marta from The Sound of Music who tells the governess she will be seven on Tuesday and wants a pink parasol. You have quoted this line so often your parents believe you actually want a pink parasol, ruffles and all. Now you have it. You open it in the parlor and twirl around. It only takes a moment for what is breakable to break.

At the end of a rainbow is a pot of gold.

First you have to pick which end, north or south. Then you must run, pedal, or drive as fast as you can, the rainbow fading before you make it even halfway. There’s nothing to do but wait for more rain and hope for concurrent sun. You buy a few lottery tickets and try your luck at the casino. You pick up an extra shift when you can. You go to college, play the stock market, or attempt to write a bestseller. But these are just ways to occupy yourself until the day you haul that heavy kettle to the bank, until you outsmart everyone. This is also known as capitalism, the American dream.

Black cats.

When a black cat crossed my childhood path, I scooped him up in a basket. A black cat outside the house brings bad luck, but a black cat inside the house is cause for serendipity. That Halloween, a ready-made costume—small witch with her shy familiar. When I grew up, I fell in love over crème brûlée at a restaurant called Le Chat Noir. Later, my love and I crossed two black cats’ paths and brought them home from the rescue. It was nearly Halloween, and the attendant said, "We don’t usually allow adoptions like this so close to the holiday." Two pairs of eyebrows arched. "Kids have their pranks," she sighed—"and Satanists have their rituals. You can’t be too careful these days." For us, the rescue made an exception, though for all they knew, we were two tall witches carrying our familiars home in a crate. For many years, we lived in many houses with two black cats. One grew a long white hair from his paw, which, if plucked, promises a lifetime of happiness. We didn’t pluck it. We were happy enough. When the laws changed, my love and I married at Le Chat Noir. We wore black dresses. The white streak in my hair glistened impossibly in the moonlight.

Evil energy is repelled by salt.

When I was going through my divorce, afraid my husband would return to do me harm, a psychic told me to put a teaspoon of salt in front of my door and on the windowsills. I did as she said, throwing salt over my shoulder, trying not to cry over all that had been spilled. Did it work? He never came back to harm me despite his cruel emails and his lawyer’s ridiculous demands. How I love sprinkling salt onto my scrambled eggs, a steak, or steamed broccoli. My husband had always preferred soy sauce, the way it ran to a plate’s edge, the way it stained the cloth napkins he left behind.

Broken mirror.

I’d like to break all the looking glasses, smash them to shards, grind the smithereens to fine sand, and take it to the seaside with me. I’d like to make my own hourglass from the silver seeds, repurpose an omen with a more poetic way to keep time. The vanity mirror can save her vanity. The compact can stay small, doting on appearances. I’m tired of women primping before office building windows, of the men who conjure mudflap girls on their arms. What better luck than to send back the looking glass like a spoiled entrée, or better still—to fling it like a Frisbee so the roadside glitters with white light?

The number thirteen.

When you are born on the thirteenth, it’s hard to be afraid of the number. I love thirteen anything—blackbirds, donuts (a baker’s dozen), teenagers on the verge. Even though most elevators don’t stop on the thirteenth floor, it doesn’t mean the floor is not there. You can rename or you can embrace, which is what I’ve chosen to do. Judas, Schmudas—my favorite dinner parties have thirteen guests. In Italy, right next door to the Vatican, thirteen is a lucky number, like our seven. Consider our alphabet—thirteen times two. Each deck of playing cards has thirteen clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts. When we play, let’s make the Queen the wild card.