I was walking down West 15th in Manhattan when I saw the street fair, and a sign caught my eye: Psychic Readings, $5. The sign was old and maroon and marked by excessive cursive, like a laminated menu that hasn’t been updated since the 80s. The woman in the fold-out chair waved me toward her. She was in her late 40s perhaps, thin and tan with long black hair and piercing blue eyes. She hled a cigarette between two fingers.
“Do you take credit cards?” I asked.
She stubbed out the cigarette, like she was already prepping. “Cash only.”
I was in New York for work. The night before, I’d gone out with a friend who promised we’d get our Tarot cards read, but we never did. Astrology had become fashionable among my friends, even the intellectual ones: Star charts, palm readings, energy healers. (Story for another time: How many women call themselves atheists, but believe in astrology. What’s going on there?) At parties, we gathered around the cards like teenagers at sleepovers. It was part entertainment, part nostalgia, part return of possibility — change was coming, like a celebrity headed to town — and maybe every once in a while, you learned something about yourself. But last night, my friend and I hadn’t gotten Tarot readings after all. We had dinner and walked to the High Line and talked about marriage and feminism and political systems, a fascinating conversation that had nonetheless left me with a hankering for the frivolous and the supernatural, like when someone announces you’re getting ice cream, but the ice cream never comes.
I took a seat, and the woman immediately pulled out a white placard with three price points. The cheapest one said, “Palm readings, past present and future, $45.” This was a considerable up-sell from the sign’s bargain-basement promise of “psychic readings, $5,” but now I was here, and I didn’t feel like arguing, a bit of human civility she must have seen coming. Psychic, indeed.
“I don’t have that much cash,” I said, standing up again. “Let me get it and come back.” The walk to the ATM would give me time to reflect on whether I really wanted to drop $45 on a palm reading. It was my birthday, and I didn’t mind a splurge, but forty-five bucks? [whistle sound]
“You can get it afterward,” she said, waving her long thin hand, and I found myself unable to argue with her logic, the extension of consumer trust. Why not? I thought. What was the harm? I dumped my purse down on a nearby chair and overturned both of my palms. My hands were small and pinkish and the lines across them suddenly seemed deep and dramatic, a series of plot twists.
“Tell me your name, and your birthday,” she said.
I told her my first name, and I listed a date which happened to be the exact calendar date.
“Happy birthday,” she said, smiling, and I noticed her overbite. “So do you want to hear everything? Even when it’s bad?”
I thought about how the palm contains the life line, how it always creeped me out that the length of your life might be foretold in the folds of your flesh, like the last line of a book you were carrying all along.
“I do,” I said. I am like this: Give it to me straight.
She began speaking quickly. It’s hard for me to remember now all the things she said: I was a compassionate person (true), I was having trouble sleeping (true), I was successful (thanks), I had been contemplating a big move but the move would only rearrange the furniture, it would not alleviate any real problems. I nodded as she spoke.
“What’s the big move?” she asked.
I stared down a side street that stretched toward the Hudson River. “I think about moving to another city,” I said. “I think about other things.” I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to divulge. Some psychics have a soft touch, like a massage therapist or a talk therapist, but this woman had an abrupt efficiency. I never felt any intimacy with her, even as she held my hands in hers, maybe the closest I would get to a human being all day.
Her phone started buzzing, and she pulled out an ear piece from the top of her bra and cradled it in her left ear. “Sorry, I have to get this,” she said, and walked to the far corner of the tent. The conversation sounded tense. “You were out of contact for four hours,” she said. My eyes wandered to the other psychic, a blonde in her late 20s, speaking to women as they passed. Women, always women. I thought about how, a couple days ago, a male friend asked why so many women he knew were obsessed with true-crime podcasts and reality shows about serial killers, sexual violence, the gruesome ways a person could die. I told him I thought rom-coms and true-crime were like two sides of the same coin. It was so easy to get sucked in by the fantasy: What might happen to you.
The psychic sat down again, stuffing the ear piece back in to the top of her bra, and she said, “I’m sorry, that was my kid,” and I told her it was fine, even though it had made me uncomfortable.
She looped her manicured fingers around my wrists again and pulled them closer to her eyes. The afternoon had become blustery, and wind blew her black hair across her face so that she had to keep breaking one hand away to tuck the hair behind her ear.
She continued reading my past present and future: I once had a soul mate, but he was gone now (damn). I had a partner out there whom I had passed by twice and he was not coming back again (double damn). There were two people blocking my path to happiness — one male, one female. Who were these people, she wondered?
I said I didn’t know. I honestly had no idea.
“Who’s _________?” she said, offering a common male name, and I laughed, because just a few days ago, I had been writing a story about a kid in a day care where I once worked named __________, a little boy I was completely besotted with and whom I often thought about over the years. The mention of the name startled me, but I figured you could play a game of name-darts with any middle-aged American woman. Who’s Dan? Who’s David? Who’s John?
“He’s a little boy I knew once,” I said, and she let it drop there.
She told me I was spiritually blocked. Badly, badly spiritually blocked. She told me I put on a face for the outside world, but inside, I had pain I wasn’t showing to anyone. She said I was suffering, and I was surprised to find myself nodding along, agreeing with her assessments: Yes, suffering, yes, pain, yes, blocked, so blocked. She asked if I’d ever gotten a psychic reading before. I told her I had, about two years ago. She asked why I hadn’t let this person help me, and I was a bit lost for words: Umm, because that person was a psychic?
“I don’t know,” I said, staring at an empty table in the corner of the tent.
“This person wanted to help you, and you denied their help. Why would you do that?”
It was a strange position, to find myself defending an infraction I didn’t really accept I had committed. “I guess maybe I was busy,” I said. It’s a human reflex to answer a question, even a ridiculous one. Something you learn when you become a journalist. People detest awkward silence.
She reminded me of the two people blocking my path to happiness. She told me she could find the names of these people by 9am tomorrow morning, but I would need to buy seven crystals and meditate on them tonight. Seven crystals! She was so bold, so fearless in her fleecing. I could never do this job. I would be cringing the entire time. Well, maybe, if you don’t mind buying the crystals. Meanwhile, she was insistent: You MUST buy these crystals. She locked eyes with me and did not flinch.
“I think I’m going to pass,” I said. She still had her fingers looped around my wrists, which made me feel like someone had lasso’d me into position.
“But why?” she asked, sounding a bit hurt.
I looked up at her again. We were so close we could have kissed. “I think $45 is as much as I want to spend today,” I said. Ugh, this had gotten tense.
“Why do you worry about money, when money has never been a problem for you?” she asked.
Ha. Now I knew she was a fraud. Money had long been a problem for me, and always would be — in no small part, because I did things like drop $45 on a street-fair palm reading. I started a few sentences I didn’t know how to end. I just think … Maybe it’s that … Finally I said, “I’m going to pass on the crystals, but thank you.”
Women want to be nice. We are socially conditioned to be nice, and life brings us face to face with an endless parade of people who will take advantage of this inability to say no. It’s a subtle coercion, a low-level predation: The cosmetic industry, the diet industry, the medical industry, lusty men in low-lit rooms. I know what you need. I can give you what you want. It has taken me a long time to get the hang of the word — small and potent, stark and beautiful. Just two letters: No.
I know there’s a time in my life when I would have bought the crystals, just to avoid the discomfort of having to say no to a woman I would never see again, just on the off-chance there was something to this woo-woo business, an insurance against unknowable fate and unpleasant interactions. I was glad to discover that, at 44, I was not that person any more. I thanked her, got her money at the ATM, and placed the folded bills in her palm.
I walked away empty-handed, a birthday present to myself.