The Tarot Reader

Sheldon was so fixated on Eva that he didn’t see the rainbow with the white beard urinating in a jar two feet to his left. He’d been watching Eva read tarot cards for forty straight minutes on the concrete steps near the entrance to the Union Square subway station, before the old, black homeless man, wearing a hat made of multicolored feathers and a skirt of polychromatic crepe paper, sat next to him on the bench, lifted his skirt and proceeded to fill the jar.
            As a little boy, his grandmother would fill him full of honey cake and stories of itinerant fortune tellers, who would occasionally visit her Czechoslovakian shtetl and predict the futures of those with a few spare korunas and an appetite for the occult. He’d always envisioned spooky, old peasant women in babushkas with long stray hairs growing out of chocolate chip size moles on their faces, hovering over crystal balls, chanting in tongues for the few heretics who sought guidance from someone other than the town rabbi, and who dared to put their faith in something other than almighty God.
The wrinkled hags he’d seen as a teenager on the boardwalk at Coney Island, lit cigarettes dangling from their mouths, reading palms with one eye closed to keep the smoke out, had always confirmed his vision of what the clairvoyants in his grandmother’s shtetl looked like. Or maybe witnessing the ghoulish palm readers share the boardwalk with the bearded lady and the four-legged woman had influenced his boyhood memories. Never had he imagined, though, that behind pulled curtains in basement store windows where neon “psychic” signs invited passersby, there could be someone like Eva telling fortunes. Predicting the fates of others always seemed to him a service performed by those who had no worthwhile destinies of their own. Those who had futures lived them; those who didn’t, foresaw the lots of strangers.
That a woman of such striking beauty and eloquence, an exquisite creature who looked like she belonged not only on the cover of a magazine, but at the top of its masthead, someone whose present, let alone future, seemed rife with unbounded possibilities, was reading tarot cards in front of a subway station, confused and excited Sheldon. For two weeks, he had spent his lunch break watching Eva read the cards of men and women of every shape, color, age and profession New York City had to offer, mesmerized by her grace, entranced by the luminous, comforting smile she offered her patrons, seduced by the mystery of why people waited in line, sometimes six or seven deep, to hear what Eva had to tell them. He’d sit on the same bench in the stifling August heat, nibbling at his lunch, pretending to be busy on his iPhone, while stealing glances of her and imagining what her breath tasted like and where they’d go on their honeymoon.
If she were indeed a seer, he thought, if she had even an ounce of psychic ability, she’d know he’d been in love with her from the very first time he saw her holding her cardboard sign with the words, “FREE TAROT CARD READINGS,” boldly written in black magic marker. Even if she was a fraud and was telling the poor, desperate souls flocking to her that they’d meet their soul mates or acquire great fortunes in exchange for the few dollars a piece they’d give her as tips, she had to have known how he felt. She’d looked in his direction a few times, since he’d started watching her, inviting him with her glance to come over and have his fortune told. He was happy not to be lost to her amidst the sea of people in the park eager to escape the air conditioned loneliness of their cubicles, stores, apartments and hotel rooms, but if she didn’t see herself in his future, he didn’t want to know. He preferred instead to watch from a safe distance where the dream of their union remained alive.
A man in his early thirties, who had just had his cards read – a European, Sheldon surmised by his slicked back hair, expensive looking shoes and absence of socks – placed some cash in Eva’s hand, and kissed it in a way that to Sheldon seemed more like an act of foreplay than gratitude. Was it not enough that these Italian princes and French counts had priced him out of an apartment in his own home town, forcing him to commute from Paramus each work day? Did they think they’d get away with stealing his city’s women as well? Sheldon relished watching Eva furiously rub sanitizer into her hands, trying to cleanse herself of the European’s unwanted caress after he’d walked away. He’d watch her casually apply sanitizer after each client, but her obvious disgust for the European meant there was still hope for him, even if the thought of actually approaching the object of his desire kept him frozen on a bench in the sweltering summer heat.
Moments after the European was gone, a middle-aged, rotund police officer, whose uniform was drenched in sweat, approached Eva.
“You can’t do dat here,” he muttered to her in a thick Brooklyn accent. Her argument that she wasn’t charging for her services was of no interest to the officer and her cardboard sign was confiscated. The middle-aged Hispanic woman, the elderly Chinese man, and the three teenaged black girls, who were eagerly waiting to have their fortunes told, quickly dispersed.
Sheldon could no longer sit on the sidelines, detached from Eva, hoping that she’d miraculously wind up in his arms, like he’d spent hours daydreaming about at his cubicle at work and on the long stop and go bus rides home to Bergen County. The love of his life was being threatened, not by some overprivileged piece of Eurotrash suffering from chronic satyriasis but by a man with a gun. It was his duty as a citizen to defend her.
Sheldon got up from safety of the bench, leaving the homeless man alone to studiously examine the contents of his jar, like a sommelier scrutinizing the color and clarity of a glass of sherry.
“Is there a problem officer?” Sheldon asked, having trouble believing those words had left his lips. That was something you said after getting pulled over for speeding, not when you were trying to impress the most beautiful woman in the world. “Give the lady back her sign or I’ll have your fucking badge,” was what he wished he’d had the courage to say.
“Walk away, buddy. This doesn’t concern you,” the cop said.
“You have no right to take that,” Eva said, grabbing at the sign with her small, cracked hands that even the soupy humidity couldn’t protect from the abrasive sanitizer that had dried her skin to the point of nearly bleeding. But even that, Sheldon found irresistible. It reminded him of his mother’s raw hands after she’d spent hours hand washing the family’s clothes in the sink when there wasn’t enough money to fix the washing machine; a sign of willingness to do an honest day’s work.
“I’m her attorney, Officer O’Neill,” Sheldon said, reading his badge. “She’s not breaking any laws.”
“Her attorney? No kidding. Who’s this guy?” O’Neill asked Eva, pointing to a man in a blue suit, who had momentarily stopped to watch. “Your accountant?”
“As long as she’s not charging people, or disturbing the peace, she can sit here all day long reading cards.”
“But she can’t advertise,” O’Neill said.
“I see a park full of people handing out flyers for restaurants, cell phone stores and Jesus. Why is it okay for them to advertise?”
Eva smiled at Sheldon. It wasn’t the sympathetic smile she offered customers who needed reassurance that everything was going to be okay. It was an appreciative smile he’d imagined on her face when he’d fantasized about getting up from the bench to ask her to run away with him; a smile that Sheldon wanted to mean thank you for saving me, not just from this cop, but from my loneliness. In reality, though, it was Sheldon who was most thankful to O’Neill for giving him the courage to speak to Eva, the courage he’d been unable to muster on his own for two crippling weeks on that hot wooden bench.
O’Neill handed the sign back to Eva, rolled his eyes, and told Sheldon, “I hope she’s worth it, pal.” He then continued on his beat, off to chase away panhandlers and pot smoking teens.
“Thank you so much,” Eva said. “That was so nice of you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Sheldon said, wanting her to not only mention it, but to keep repeating it. The more thankful she was, the more agreeable she might be to the marriage proposal he was now one step closer to making.
“These cops have been giving me such a hard time. I’m Eva, by the way,” she said, offering her hand.
“Sheldon,” he said, placing his hot, sweaty hand into hers, tenderly squeezing, taking extra care not to shake it, hoping she also felt the surge of electric bliss that was pulsing through him. He wanted the memory of their first touch, as they reminisced about it together in their golden years, to warm their old, aching bones, not to remind them of two strangers who had just closed on a piece of real estate.
“Let me read your cards,” she said, motioning for him to sit next to her on the concrete steps.
“No, that’s okay.”
“It’s free,” she said, smiling, pointing to her sign.
Even her glowing smile, the second one she’d generously offered in the few minutes since he’d come to her rescue, couldn’t convince him to have his fortune told. For now, the dream of a future with Eva lived, and if the cards dared to disagree, they were better left unread.
“It’s not that. I have money.”
He immediately imagined the European kissing her hand, bragging about his chateau in France, and of the countless bankers, real estate moguls and trust fund babies he was sure had tried to win her favor with similar proclamations of wealth. “I have money,” the mating call of the truly shallow and diminutively endowed, was not what he wanted her to remember being one of the first things he had ever said to her.
“I’m just not into this stuff,” he continued.
Now he’d belittled her profession, her hobby, or whatever this reading of cards was. He wished at that moment that he’d stayed on the bench where he didn’t need to actually talk to her, where he could pretend to be the suave urbane man that could impress her effortlessly with his words without referring to a tradition that might have been in her family for generations as “this stuff.”
“Then I have to at least buy you a cup of coffee to show my gratitude,” Eva said. Now it was she who was rescuing him from himself.
Sheldon agreed, knowing he wouldn’t let her pay, even if she insisted, which he was sure she would.  
They sat at a corner table of a crowded Starbucks. Sheldon slowly sipped the iced coffee he didn’t really want, so his time with Eva would last longer, while Eva massaged a piping hot cup of green tea to warm herself from the bone chilling air conditioning. They exchanged basic information about where they lived and what they did. She was sharing an apartment with two roommates on the Upper East Side, while trying to earn extra cash to pay for a Masters in psychology at NYU. She had always had the gift of intuition, even as a child. He was a probate lawyer from New Jersey.
Sheldon was relieved that her fortune telling was merely a means to pay for tuition, since telling his mother that he was marrying a professional tarot card reader would have likely been followed by hysterical, teary eyed screams of, “I didn’t work like a dog to put you through law school so you could marry some street corner gypsy.” And the fact that she wasn’t a pro meant that she probably hadn’t psychically surmised that he was mentally planning their wedding, while he attentively listened to her answer his questions about her experiences reading cards in the park – or so he hoped.
 “So how exactly do the cards predict the future? Do you receive psychic messages from them?” he asked.
“The cards don’t predict. They reveal tendencies – future effects resulting from past and present causes,” she said. “And most people subconsciously already know what the cards reveal. The addict knows he needs to quit using or something horrible will happen. The cheating wife knows having a child with her husband won’t save her marriage. The cards are really just mirrors that present these tendencies to them. They can choose to ignore what’s shown to them, or to polish the mirror.”
“And yet they stand in line and pay to be told what they already know.”
“I used to have a sign that said ‘Tarot Readings. Five Dollars,’ but I was lucky if I got three, four customers a day. Then I started offering free readings just to hone my skills, and they began to flock to me. Most people are so grateful for what I tell them that they insist on paying. Some have given me as much as fifty dollars for a five minute reading.”
Ten dollars a minute was more than even the senior partners at his firm earned. Sheldon began to envision a life with Eva where she was the bread winner and he stayed home with the kids. Probate law was never something that particularly interested him anyway, and even his Jewish mother couldn’t scoff at a street corner gypsy bringing in six-hundred an hour cash.
“Of course, most people give less than five dollars,” she continued, and with that Sheldon’s fantasy of being a stay at home dad was over. But it didn’t matter. He’d be glad to support her while she pursued her dreams, proud to save her from licentious Europeans, honored to deliver her from power hungry cops, gratified to emancipate her from inconsiderate roommates, who probably play their music too loud and eat her last non-fat yogurt out the fridge.
He thought about asking her to read his cards now just to see how this impromptu date was going. Even if Eva didn’t see herself in his future, he could make the necessary changes, somehow tweak his approach and alter the possible tendency of never seeing Eva again after she finished her tea and walked out of the Starbucks forever. If it meant securing the effect of a future with this beautiful, insightful woman sent to him as a gift by the karmic gods for positive causes he must have created in the past, he wanted the opportunity to polish his mirror.
“Can you read my cards?” he asked.
“I thought you weren’t into this stuff.”
“You’ve convinced me.”
“Of what?”
“That it’s, you know, not …”
“Not bullshit?” she said with a smirk.
“Not something to be afraid of.”
“Are you sure?”
“That I want you to read my cards?”
“That you have nothing to be afraid of.”
He wondered if she was playfully teasing or if this street corner gypsy got her kicks freaking people out. He opted for playful teasing.
“What’s the worst you can tell me?” he asked with a nervous laugh. “That I’m gonna get hit by a bus? I’ll make sure to be extra careful crossing the street.”
“When we first met, you weren’t willing to have your cards read because you feared what they might say. Now, you’re eager to see what they reveal because you think they’ll guide you to acquiring some desired object, or person, but nothing has changed between then and now.”
Sheldon was now sure Eva was protecting him from the truth that his feelings for her were not mutual. He was convinced that she’d known all along that he was in love with her and had lured him with her prescient charms and with the help of a sweaty, obnoxious cop into the frigid Starbucks to let him down easy. She never had any intention of reading his cards. It was an odd, even cryptic, yet gentle way to be rejected, he thought, and it had the effect of making her even more desirable.
Sheldon pulled the lid off his coffee. There was no longer any need to sip it slowly. He stared into the cup, unable to look Eva in the eyes, during the uncomfortable silence that followed.
“This is some sales pitch. No wonder you need to offer free readings,” Sheldon finally joked, barely looking up from the coffee that was black and bitter, exactly how he envisioned his future lunch breaks without Eva. It would be awkward, even creepy, to sit in the park, watching her after this. He’d have to eat a sandwich at his desk, or worse, go to lunch with his coworkers and listen to them complain about the new Facebook layout or the latest person to be voted off some reality show.
“All I offer the people whose cards I read is an opportunity for them to take responsibility for their lives. To take action.”
Sheldon wondered for a moment if she was inviting him to finally make his move, to be courageous enough to declare his feelings for her in front of a room full of caffeinated strangers. Was that the action she wanted him to take? But as she thanked Sheldon again for coming to her aid, and for the tea, and told him she had a class she would be late for if she didn’t leave right away, her consoling smile answered his question.
“Goodbye, Sheldon,” she said, and then she was gone.
Sheldon waited a few minutes before he got up to leave, so that it wouldn’t seem like he was following her. As he pushed Eva’s chair under the table, he was struck by the image of a man hanging by one foot from a tree. “The Hanged Man” card lay on the chair, its title written in bold, capital letters underneath the golden halo that surrounded the man’s head. Sheldon spent the rest of his afternoon at work Googling the meaning of “The Hanged Man” card until he settled on the one he was sure Eva meant for him to find:

In the wake of an unattainable dream, you will find something else within your reach. 

On the bus ride back to New Jersey, he allowed himself to think one last time of his only meeting with Eva. He liked that she said his name when she said goodbye. It meant she’d remember him as Sheldon, and not just the guy who used to watch her in the park.