The fortuneteller was wrong. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time.
This was on a Friday evening last March, the final night of a three-day vacation in New Orleans with my best friend. On a street between Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, she and I sat on folding chairs, glued to the seats. Before us, a stranger had promised to expound on my future for $50.
At that price, she said, I could have the full experience: readings of my palms and her Tarot cards and divination crystals. Except, I wasn’t interested in the full experience. I only wanted the answer to one question, using the most inexpensive method available.
So I asked for the palm reading. Actually, I haggled my way to getting both the palm reading and a Tarot card reading for $30. As she took my hands in hers, my heart rate rose and my palms began to sweat.
Moments before, my friend had asked me if I believed in psychic predictions. I considered myself to be a hopeful skeptic, but a neophyte in the worlds of clairvoyance, soothsaying and any medium promising news of the future. Yet as I strolled the New Orleans streets and listened to the voodoo legends, I knew there was no better place for me to lose my fortunetelling innocence.
But would I be O.K. with the fortune she saw for me? I was convinced I would not be.
Wearing a pink hoodie and a crooked smile, the fortuneteller stared at the grid on my palms. Reading it like a map, she traced the lines with long, painted fingernails. As she did, I tried to keep an open mind and not be distracted by her chipped, hot-pink manicure or the too few teeth she revealed as she spoke. She began with the topic I wanted to hear about most: my love life.
“You’ve been hurt before,” she said.
Typical opening line. Of course I had been hurt before. Hasn’t everyone? My eyes darted warily to my travel companion, and I nodded.
The fortuneteller asked for the name of the person who had hurt me. Then she probed my memories of another failed relationship. After I had named two men I had attempted to forget, she asked me to confirm the presence of a new one in my life.
I nodded again, not sure if I should run away, hold my breath or sit frozen in my seat. She wanted me to say his name. I told her.
“He loves you,” she said, “but he has a funny way of showing it.”
There it was. Without even asking, I had an answer to the question that had been torturing me for weeks.
My boyfriend and I were nearing the anniversary of our first date. We had met through Hinge, a dating app that relies on social networks. He was only the second person from the app I had agreed to meet in real life.
Our first date was on a Monday evening, and it lasted almost three hours. Instead of choosing a bottle, we ordered too many glasses of red wine, talked about our mutual appreciation for “The West Wing” and agreed that marathon running is its own form of masochism. When we called it a night, we dispersed with a hug and his request that I text him when I made it home.
I did so, and texted him again less than 24 hours later, telling him I hoped he enjoyed the concert he had mentioned he was planning to see that evening. A day passed before my phone lit up with his name. He loved the show, he wrote, and he wanted a second date.
Twelve months later, we were still together, seeing each other as often as three or four times a week, and I was starting to feel something different about us. I had never been in love, but something told me this was what it felt like.
And yet, despite all of that, neither of us had uttered the word. If I felt this way, wouldn’t it make sense that he did too? I wondered if I should say it first, or wait for him to. I kept silent, while he, too, said nothing.
Tired of waiting, I hoped the fortuneteller would give me the sense of clarity I needed.
By saying plainly that my boyfriend loved me, she had. And maybe his “funny way of showing it” meant he was unable to say those words himself.
Whatever the case, I had gotten what I wanted and was ready to go, but the fortuneteller continued, shuffling a deck of Tarot cards and predicting I would live to be 96. Her words then became lost amid a cacophony of street noise, and as the cathedral bells rang in the new hour, I took it as our cue to leave.
Three weeks later, back home in Washington, I still had not said anything to my boyfriend about the experience. I teased him about my pricey glance into the future but had resisted mentioning the fortuneteller’s assessment. Meanwhile, her words haunted me, urging me to action, until one night at his apartment, I felt ready to give voice to my feelings.
Standing in front of the microwave, I studied its buttons, wondering whether to trust the popcorn function. My boyfriend uncorked a bottle of wine, and as I heard the cork pop, I turned to the man I had been dating for over a year. My body surged with emotion, lighting my face with happiness. We both smiled. The popping kernels reminded me of the St. Louis Cathedral bells, and I felt transported back to New Orleans. We proceeded to drink the wine but failed to finish the popcorn.
On his bed, we embraced as I stared into his eyes. “Can I tell you something?” I asked in a whisper.
“Of course,” he said, mimicking my hushed tone.
I paused and took a breath. “I love you.” There. I had said it.
At first, he didn’t say anything. An agonizing pause. Then, finally, he muttered, “Thank you.”
I waited to hear him repeat my words, but he didn’t, and everything in me that had felt joyful and optimistic drained away.
As we talked more, he could neither echo my sentiment nor give me a reason he couldn’t. I thought of the fortuneteller’s words: “He loves you, but he has a funny way of showing it.”
This wasn’t funny; it was gut-wrenching. Maybe he was afraid to confess his love because of what it might mean for us and the future. If so, I could relate. I had waited weeks before bringing it up, because it scared me too.
Amid my tears, I was quick to dismiss what he was saying — and not saying — because I didn’t want to believe him. I had no more belief in palm reading or fortunetelling, but all I could think about were the words from the woman with the missing teeth. If I could believe a stranger in New Orleans, why not the response of a man I had been with for 13 months now?
It’s hard to say which has more ingredients: a New Orleans Hand Grenade cocktail, or a case of heartbreak. That day didn’t end us, but it was the beginning of our end.
A few weeks later, with still no mention of the “L” word from him, we broke up. We couldn’t rectify his inability to reciprocate how I felt. Ever since my unanswered profession of love, he’d felt burdened and guilty, he said. In a few months, he would be leaving Washington to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. Although he didn’t say it, I came to realize that being in love with me did not, in a practical sense, align with his immediate career plans.
I spent the weeks after our breakup feeling sad and depressed, wondering what I could have done to make him love me. Often, I thought about the fortuneteller and whether I had been naïve to put my trust in her. But I kept coming back to a single truth: She might have been wrong about my boyfriend’s feelings, but she had given me the courage to do something I had been too scared to do.
In telling my boyfriend that I loved him, the worst thing that could have happened did: I lost him. Yet in doing so, I acknowledged my capacity and my limits in matters of love.
He will always be the first man I loved, and for this I am grateful. I couldn’t force him to love me, and I couldn’t stay if he didn’t feel the same.
Sometimes life has a funny way of revealing to us what is best. But as the fortuneteller’s words ultimately taught me, how we show love shouldn’t be one of those funny things.