This all happens two months before I leave New York.
I’m sitting on a wooden chair in a backyard bar patio across from a brown-haired girl named Kate. It’s why I’ve spent two hours drinking vodka sodas, eating French fries and navigating the conversational bends: jobs (we don’t like them!), apartments (we pay so much!), hometowns (thank God we’re not there!).
I’ve come straight from work. I’ve got gym clothes in my messenger bag and an iChat headache. I’m trying to be charming, trying not to dampen my jokes with self-pity. But it all feels like pantomime, like my worthwhile characteristics are drinking somewhere else — at home, perhaps, while booking tickets out of town. And then her cell phone rings.
“Can I take this?” she asks. “Do you mind?”
Today, I don’t mind. I welcome the chance to stare silently at the bartender, who is also a brunette and seems genuinely happy.
“She’s in San Francisco,” Kate whispers to me, a hand over the mouthpiece. I can’t hear her conversation, but it looks like it’s with a close friend. I pull my phone out of my pocket and read an imaginary text.
Kate is wearing red lipstick, a bright, fiery shade, which compliments her olive skin and gives me some hope. Also: she has bangs. They make me think of my failure to kiss anyone in fifth grade — a failure I hope to remedy that night. And every night.
“My friend Gina,” she says, sliding her cell closed. “She’s found a guru.”
“A guru?” I ask. “Is this what our peers are doing on the West Coast instead of drinking at bars?” Kate doesn’t laugh, and this being a first date I read deep into her reaction. I want her. I decide she will pull me out of my stupor.
“I’ve got a soft spot for the New Age,” I say.
“Oh yeah?” Kate asks.
“Sure,” I say. “There’s a hopeful beauty to it. I may look the cynic, but I know my moon sign.”
“Well, I’ve been doing tarot since I was a teenager,” she says, finally smiling.
And suddenly, the cards are on the table, so to speak. We are two seekers.
“I’ve always wanted to have my cards read,” I say, hoping she’ll invite me back to her place for a demo.
“There’s a place near my apartment that I’ve always wanted to check out.”
Downtown Manhattan is littered with these places: diminutive storefronts decorated with dusty New Age clichés: crystal globes, flowing tapestries, colored candles, gaudy tsotchkes. Places that advertise $5 palm readings, $20 energy cleanses, $50 futures told. Places that never seem to have any business.
But tonight, we’re the business. Once inside, we sit at a small table covered with a deck of tarot cards, a few candles and a laminated menu. The overhead fluorescents are incredibly bright.
“Dude, check out the prices,” she says, holding up the laminated card. It claims readings are $100. But before we can back out, a voice more Jersey than Romania rises through the air: “For you, twenty each. And I don’t do tarot — I read energy. Intuition. I got the gift.”
We turn to look and there she is: a skinny blond woman no older than twenty-five wearing what is generally considered pajamas: Juicy sweatpants, a ribbed tank top and, underneath, no bra — no intuition needed for that one.
“And we gotta do it in the back ’cause I got the kid here,” she says, pointing over her shoulder.
Of course. I think. The kid.
It’s at this point that I begin to question whether having your fortune read in front of a girl you hardly know is first-date fantasy or first-date horror story. This is supposed to be a large-scale flirtation, a big, impressive date-y gesture to break the ice and win me some unearned lust. “Sounds good,” Kate says, giving my hand a squeeze.
I’m directed to sit on a lumpy brown couch, and my date is placed across from the fortuneteller in a preschool-sized plastic seat, facing the glow of the TV, which is blaring The Bachelor at full volume.
“You watch the kid while I do her,” she says to me. I nod, fearful of dissent. “You can ignore him. Just don’t let him eat off the ground.”
The fortuneteller begins to shuffle a deck of tarots while looking up at the TV every few seconds. “These cards will give me clues,” she says in monotone. “I’ll sense your future based on how your energy reacts to them. Now cut the deck.”
Kate removes a few cards from the top and places them next to the big pile.
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes,” the fortuneteller says. “I see great things. Does the West Coast have any special meaning for you?”
“Um, sure,” Kate says.
“I’m getting a lot of energy from the West Coast. I think good things will come to you from the West,” she says. “Maybe work, definitely wealth.”
Kate smiles in my direction. I grin and nod. We share an electric moment of silent laughter.
“Do you like your job?” the fortuneteller asks, oblivious to our harmony.
“Not really,” Kate says.
“Expect a raise in the next three months. You’ll probably work there for a few years. And expect a fruitful relationship,” the teller adds, “with a direct superior.”
This time Kate and I laugh out loud; she gives me a mock-haughty look, and I fuse shock and leeriness in a coded wink. I’m a bit surprised by the teller’s boldness and wonder if she doesn’t notice we’re on a date, but I’m bolstered by my ability to turn Kate’s impending affair with her boss into our own flirtation.
“Does the letter ‘S’ have any significance to you?” the teller continues. “I’m sensing an ‘S’ name. An ex-boyfriend? Maybe you just ended a relationship?”
“Well, there is an ex. But — “
“Yes,” the teller says, cutting Kate off. I’m seized by brief moment of excitement — I just ended a relationship! The teller is bringing us together!
“Are you still sleeping with him?” the teller asks, her voice flat.
Kate catches my eye, more irritated than embarrassed. Either way, I’m horrified. “No,” Kate says. “No way.”
“You still love him or what?” the teller asks, sounding annoyed.
“It’s not like that.”
Perhaps this is her fortune-telling shtick, I think. A crystal ball scrapped for emotional sadism. The realization that Kate has her own baggage, her own hard-to-escape exes, makes me think of my own pathetic inability to properly flee the past.
“I’m just feeling something,” the teller says, throwing the last tarot card on the table with a shrug. “You’re not finished with him.”
“I’m finished with him,” Kate says coldly.
When she gets back to the couch, she looks tired, but she’s still smiling. I’m not. I’m thinking about exes — the last time I slept with one and whether it qualifies as “still.”
“Have fun,” Kate says to me.
“I see great things for you,” the fortuneteller says to me. “Do you have a relationship to the West Coast?”
“Yes,” I say, “I grew up there.”
“I feel good energy coming to you from the West.” This strikes me as improbable. I grew up on the set of Laguna Beach and have no
intention of ever going back.
“You don’t like your job?” the teller asks.
“Well, no. Not entirely,” I say.
“You won’t stay there long,” the teller says. “Do you like your apartment?”
Now she’s looking right at me. “Do you like . . . the city?”
I pause. The truth? I’m not sure anymore. Of course there are things I like, and people I care about, and restaurants I still want to try, but I can’t exactly lie to a psychic sadist.
“I feel an energy of dislocation,” the fortuneteller says.
“Oh,” I say, feeling dislocated. I want to look at Kate and chuckle about how far from the truth this is. I want to make a witty comment about how sexy we are for coming here on a date. But when I look over she’s got the kid on her lap and is staring at me with a new intensity.
“I see a change of address in your near future,” the fortuneteller says. “Abroad.”
“Where?” I ask quietly. I have been thinking about leaving — about quitting my job, running off to South America, to Amsterdam, to Utah. But I had told myself these urges were immature and transient, and I ignored them. I didn’t expect them to be unearthed on a first date.
The fortuneteller throws the few remaining cards down on the table and sighs. She turns to Kate. “Can you take the kid outside for a minute?”
“Sure,” Kate says. I try to gauge her reaction as she’s walking out, but she’s concentrating on the child. What strange fortune will she assume is being hidden from her? That I’ve gotten someone pregnant? That I’m running from the law? That I’m asthmatic, bookish and too shy to make the first move?
When we’re alone, the fortuneteller mutes The Bachelor and leans back on the couch, legs uncrossed. “Look,” she says to me. “Are you married?”
“No,” I say.
“Do you have someone on the side?”
“Not that I know of,” I say, desperate to make this a joke.
“You have a lot of guilt, some serious unresolved emotional issues. I think you need help and I want to help you.” For a second I wonder if she’s going to offer to sleep with me, then I’m horrified by the thought, and then by the thought of the thought. I suddenly want nothing more than to be far away — in Ohio, maybe. Or Quebec.
“I’d like to do some energy work for you. Candles,” she says. “I burn them to cleanse your energy. They’re $100 each, but for you, I’ll do two for $150.”
“I’m not spending any more money,” I say, standing.
As she shuffles us out, trading me for her kid, she hands me her card. “Enjoy your time abroad. If you ever head back this way, stop by.”
On the curb, I look at my date and we laugh with nervous relief.
“What the hell was that?” we say to each other, and then we kiss. Easy as that.
“I’m really not fucking my ex,” she says.
“I’m really not moving,” I say. But when I hear the words, something about them rings false. We stand in front of my subway stop, hesitating in a netherworld of post-date indecision. Under the streetlights I begin to feel weary. I want to kiss her again. I want to drag her home and take off her clothes. But discomfort lingers.
“I’ll call you,” I say, and start climbing down into the subway. With each descending step, the absurdity of the fortuneteller’s prediction dims and a truth becomes concrete: I’m leaving New York and moving abroad.
It’s true about relationships — those with the people we love as well as with the places we live — that things get bad long before we admit it to ourselves. And that a longer time still must pass before we act on those admissions. Next month, I’ll be on a plane to Buenos Aires with a non-refundable one-way ticket. I’ve finally admitted to myself that things have gotten bad, that I’ve been skirting the line between inertia and possibility for so long that I’m no longer on the brink of resilience here in New York.
Shortly after our date, I email Kate and confess that I won’t be calling her back. I admit that I won’t be regenerating my life by borrowing someone else’s. I admit that I will indeed soon have a new address, and that I knew that when we had our first date. About the only thing I don’t admit is that it took a $20 fortuneteller to get me there. n°
©2007 Joey Rubin and Nerve.com