Water, Mirror, Crystal Ball.
When my mother was pregnant with me, a fortune teller told her I was destined to live a short, sad life.
My mother was hugely pregnant at the time, eight months along or something like that. She was at a church carnival, and somehow someone had managed to sneak a fortune teller booth past all the nuns. My mother isn’t religious or superstitious, nor does she particularly like carnivals, so for the life of me I can’t figure out why she was there in the first place. But anyway, she walked into the tent, paid her five dollars or however much it was, and sat down to hear my future.
You have to admire the balls on that fortune teller. Picture it, a massively pregnant lady waddles in, plops her money down, and asks you to tell her about her unborn kid. If it were me, I would have pocketed the money and made something up. Sure lady, the kid’s going to be a doctor and marry a millionaire and you’ll have ten grandkids. But my mom had to go and find the one fortune teller who was either totally serious about her craft, a complete sadist, or both.
The way my mom tells it, she walked into this hot little tent and there were just two chairs with a small table between them. Covering the table was some sort of cloth that looked like a giant doily, and on top of that was a big crystal ball, like something out of a movie. The fortune teller was already at the table, decked out in a million scarves and a turban to cover her terrible perm. (It was suburban New Jersey in the early ‘90s, terrible perms were basically a part of the landscape.)
So, my mom sat down and said, tell me about my kid’s future. And this fortune teller, she leaned over and peered deeply into her crystal ball. My mom said she must have stared into that thing for a good two or three minutes. She furrowed her brow and did a lot of sighing and murmuring. Really laid it on thick. She stared into the crystal ball for so long that my mom actually thought she forgot she was there. So, my mom cleared her throat and the fortune teller jerked back, like my mom had just woken her up from a really deep nap. She shook her head a few times, then looked at my mom with pity in her eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sadder future,” the fortune teller said.
She told my mom I was born to be unlucky in love. That I would never find wealth, or fame, or success. That I would suffer betrayals and loss and more sorrows than she could count.
“And finally,” the fortune teller said, “she’ll die young and alone.”
My mother listened to all this, nodding from time to time. After the fortune teller was done talking, my mom calmly gathered her things and stood up.
“I think you’re being very dramatic,” she told the fortune teller.
She left the tent and had me just a few weeks later.
I first heard the story of the fortune teller and my pathetic future when I was six years old. I was playing in our living room, building a Lego set I got for my birthday. My mom was at the table, drinking coffee with our neighbor, a fake blonde with a leopard print blouse named Eileen.
Eileen was filling my mom in on some neighborhood gossip. A girl down the block, a high school junior who used to babysit me sometimes, had just run off with her boyfriend.
“Pregnant,” Eileen whispered, like it was a dirty word she didn’t want me overhearing. “Can you even imagine? I don’t know what I would do if it were my daughter.”
My mom shook her head and laughed a little. “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” she said. She meant it as a joke, I think. She told Eileen about the fortune teller. They both laughed; neither believed it, not really. But at six years old, I believed anything I heard. And I didn’t find anything funny about hearing that I would die.
My mom found me crying on the sofa, my face buried in a pillow. I was sobbing so hard she could barely understand me when I tried to tell her what was wrong. Finally, she pieced it together.
“Oh sweetheart,” she said. “None of that is going to happen to you. She wasn’t really telling your future. She was just making up stories. It was all a game.”
That was easy for my mom to say. She wasn’t the one looking at a bleak future. I stopped crying eventually; six year olds can only hang on to existential dread for so long. But from that point onwards, I became obsessed with trying to see my future. If I could see what the fortune teller saw, I thought, I could find a way to prevent it. I was six and fed a steady diet of Disney movies and fairy tales. I was sure I could eke out a happy ending for myself.
I spent the next twenty years looking into every reflective surface I passed, trying to find my future.
I started with mirrors. My parents had a massive standing mirror in their room, and I would sit in front of it for hours, looking at my reflection and hoping to see a sign. While my friends were playing Snow White in their mirrors, or later calling for Bloody Mary, I would be desperately searching for a hint that my future wouldn’t be tragic. I even had a little prayer I would whisper any time I saw my reflection: “Please, let her be wrong.”
When the mirror didn’t work, I moved on to other things. I started with water. I would plug up the sink and turn the faucet to full blast, watching as the basin filled and looking for good news in the ripples. At least once a year I filled the bathtub so high that it would spill out onto the floor. I wouldn’t even notice, and my mother would rush in, screaming, and find me bent over, crying and pleading into the water.
I tried fire and tarot and I Ching and runes and whatever else I could find books on in the occult section of Barnes & Noble. Nothing worked, but I never stopped trying. My apartment is cluttered with half-burned candles and loose tarot cards and mirrors on every bare surface. When I walk to work, I look into store and car windows in case they show me what I can’t find anywhere else.
I do draw the line at one thing, though. I never went to a fortune teller, or a tarot reader, or anything like that. I don’t trust someone else to look into my future. Can you blame me? That’s what got me into this mess in the first place.
I’m twenty-six now. I’m still alive, and with a woman I love. And I wonder every day when my future is going to catch up to me.
I told Lucy about the fortune teller on our very first date. It was a stupid thing to do, but I was nervous and just blurted it out. She thought it was funny, a quirky story to pull out at parties.
“This is my girlfriend,” she would say. “A fortune teller put a curse on her when her mom was still pregnant.”
It wasn’t a curse, but I never corrected her. After about a year, it stopped being funny to her. She started getting annoyed when she’d find me lingering by a mirror, and didn’t talk to me for a week after I ruined the carpets in our first apartment together by, once again, flooding the bathroom.
“You have to stop this,” Lucy said. “You’re a grown woman, how can you possibly believe in all this?”
One night we were on the couch, watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone. In one of them, a couple discovers a tabletop fortune teller at a diner that actually predicts the future. The husband becomes obsessed with the fortune teller, afraid to make any decisions without consulting it first. Every time he asked the fortune teller a question on screen, Lucy made a sound of disgust.
“You’re just like him,” she said.
That night she slept with her back to me.
There’s a story I read as a kid that I think about a lot.
In it, a woman is told that her lover will die because of a beautiful goblet he’s been given. She’s desperate to save him, so she steals the cup and hides it above their doorway. When he realizes that the goblet is missing, he rages at her, and storms around their room until, eventually, he bumps into the doorframe and dislodges the cup. It falls on his head and kills him.
So it goes, I guess.
I wonder if twenty-six counts as young. It would have been nice if the fortune teller had been a little more specific. Am I out of the woods? I wonder if I’ll think this at thirty, thirty-five, forty. If I get there, I mean.
Lucy threatened to leave me the other day. She said she couldn’t take this much longer.
“I can’t plan a future with someone who insists she doesn’t have one,” she said.
It’s a fair point.
Lucy says I’m self-sabotaging.
“You’ve built yourself a prison,” she said. “You’re trapped by your own fears. You’ll end up alone not because of some fortune teller’s prediction, but because you refuse to let yourself be happy.”
That’s probably true, but in the back of my mind I think, “That doesn’t make the fortune teller any less right.”
Maybe for Lucy’s sake I’ll try to change. I’ll stop expecting the worst and I’ll make plans with her like I’ll still be around in ten, twenty years. I’ll take down my mirrors and throw away my cards and maybe I’ll become a Catholic or a Buddhist or something like that. I’ll be a normal woman who looks to the future and doesn’t see a vast, empty space.
But last night I told Lucy I was going to take a bath. I made a big show of it. I lit candles and put my book in the bathroom and even promised to use the bath bomb she bought me for my birthday. I think I convinced her I was telling the truth. Then I plugged the drain and filled the tub and sat in front of it until the water turned ice cold, whispering the same thing, over and over again.
“Please, please, please, let her be wrong.”
19 May, 2021