It was June. Claire was subletting from a traveling friend, hoping a strange city would inspire her to write and to reach a decision about a man. I was crashing on a friend’s sofa, avoiding a waning relationship back home and struggling with the early pages of my own book. Together, we slunk through a steamy New York City, lovelorn and confused and roasting in the heat.
We quickly settled into a routine, meeting at Washington Square station each morning and searching first for a café with adequate air conditioning and espresso, and then for small signs that might help make sense of our lives. We looked fabulous and sweaty, the weather basting us in our own juices until we were plump and salty. Our efforts to stay cool meant that each morning our outfits were a shrunken version of the day before: smaller and smaller shirts; shorter and shorter shorts; lighter and lighter fabrics, until we were barely clothed. But still, I was overdressed and wilted by the time I pulled the last garment over my head or stepped into the second shoe. Eventually things went too far, even for New York, and a helpful citizen pointed out that Claire’s “whole ass is out of those shorts, in case you didn’t know.” If that day were a storybook, it would have been called The Day the Pants Didn’t Work.
As we strolled the Lower East Side, Claire was first to notice the fortune-teller, a red and white card propped against the window advertising $5, Palm Read. We hesitated while a thin, young woman no older than us and quite likely younger signaled from the doorway, beckoning us to part with our reluctance and our money. The place doubled as her home, a filmy curtain cutting the modest room in two. Her small daughter pinched a handful of drapery aside and peeked at us while her mother laid out our futures.
I watched the fortune-teller gently trace Claire’s life line, brow crumpled, a quiet hmmmm escaping between the woman’s lips. Looking up, she said, “Five dollars is one palm, ten dollars is two.” We were silent, then I asked the difference between left versus right, one hand compared with the pair. The woman tsked and shook her head, “I tell you only half. Maybe five dollars, you learn not so much.” I thought of her deceptive red and white sign then of the small daughter, the small room, the luxury of jetting to New York after a fight with my boyfriend, and agreed to ten dollars, two hands.
When my turn came, the woman took my right hand, flipped it palm-up and insisted she saw music in my life. She looked at me expectantly, and grew stormy when I denied having that talent. “But here it is, so clear, I think maybe you just haven’t tried!” I assured her I’d given music a shot. Her revelations remained frustrated and abstract, her powers either scrambled by the heatwave or confounded by my hand’s refusal to surrender my secrets to her gaze.
I’d expected nothing from the encounter, but felt let down by the fortune-teller, no better prepared to meet the day than when I stepped through her door. I was discouraged and ornery and tired from so much walking. I was tired of my ass nearly hanging out of my shorts, and of feeling eluded by a clarity that didn’t want to be reached. Claire was more satisfied with her fortune and scrutinized each point as we ducked into a bar for some shade and cold tea.
The place was owned by a briefly famous musician, and was decorated in minimalist style: bamboo walls and hay-coloured chairs, white ceramic place settings and pale linen cloths. Everything was so subdued, we were drawn to bright flashes: first the tattooed staff and then the chocolate dessert perched atop a glass stand at the counter. The menu was fashionably vegan, including this voluptuous monstrosity, a cake crowned by scoops of marshmallow and chocolate glaze slowly slithering into the crevice where a slice had been removed. It nearly brought us to our knees with desire, but our bellies ached at the idea of such potent sweetness. In the end, this cake, like a bad boyfriend, would do us wrong so we left it on its platter and stepped back out into the sun.
The next night, we headed to the Slipper Room, a cabaret brimming with bright young people who’d gathered up their lives and plunged into New York. Head cocked, listening to a man inventory his publishing success, I realized the crowd had an edge I could never hone in myself, and I mingled and chatted but came off a little shy. Claire admired our cocktails, urban tans and pretty smiles, raised her glass and pronounced us lucky ladies. Twee yet sincere, her words made me realize there would be no resolution to my sweat-basted adventure. I was simply swept along, temporarily caught in a flock of people that was walking, talking, eating, dialing phones and juggling agendas at the same time. And now, I wanted to find some bigger shorts and return home.