I once met with a psychic who was so renowned that one of her clients sometimes came from Switzerland for a reading, then got right back on the plane. She was profiled in Life magazine. She told law-enforcement investigators where to search for bodies, and her Vermont neighbors where to find lost pets. I was at first skeptical of her fortune-telling abilities, even though she spoke in exacting detail about my past and my life at the time, which was mired in the pursuit of an undergraduate degree. But she told one of my industrious classmates that he would forgo a long-anticipated medical career for something involving philosophy or religion, and the next year this guy traded his button-downs for a flowery tunic and began training wasps to eat sugary water out of bottle caps in his dormitory room. The last time I saw him he said he had just returned from Montreal, where he claimed to be studying the Hindu cycle of perpetual rebirth and the nuances of the Upanishads. He also said something about being a body dweller, which didn’t sound like something you study in a premed curriculum.
After that, I tried to reconstruct the psychic’s predictionsdetails about my life’s work, my health, my financial standing. Most of my memories were vague, but I did remember her specifically saying that I’d spend my life with a woman whose name included two l’s, a y or an i, and an n. I assumed she was referring only to first names, so from then on I was always on the lookout for someone called Nelly or Laurilyn or Maybelline. But this alphabetic blend proved elusive, so I spent a lot of weekends trying to flip playing cards into a hat.
The psychic also said that this woman would be a dancer, and after years of coming up empty I finally started hanging around outside modern- and jazz-dance classes at New York’s 92nd Street Y in hopes of making meaningful eye contact. I did this for a couple of months, figuring that if this psychic really knew the future, the stars would eventually align themselves in the right order. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that my vision had deteriorated dramatically from its lifelong 20/20, that I’d pretty much lost the ability to see detail along with outlines. So it turns out that even though I might have been locked in ocular embrace with the chorus girl this clairvoyant had plucked from the cosmos, my eyes had gotten so bad that I didn’t even know it. A perfectly lettered Danielle could have been giving me lovelorn gazes all these months, and I’d just stared back expressionless.
Frustrated by perpetual bum luck, I considered reinterpreting the psychic’s premonitionperhaps also using the letters of middle names, even surnames, to give me the required complement of l’s, a y or an i, and an n. This would undoubtedly add lots of Ellens and Lindas to the available pool, not to mention a few Delilahs and Gwendolyns.
So I tested my extended freedom of choice on a Leslie, whose middle name, I was thrilled to learn, was Ann. The first time we went out she invited me in afterward for tea. She poured me a cup and then asked if I’d like anything in it. I said honey would be fine, so she took out a jar that apparently hadn’t been opened in years, because she had to smack the lid with a knife handle and then hold it under hot water for several minutes. Finally, she pulled a big teaspoonful of honey out of the bottle and held it over the cup. We were both transfixed by the sight of this translucent gob on its slow-motion descent, when she looked across the table and said, “You know, honey is actually bee vomit.” I immediately pledged my everlasting, undying love, and she moved in with me a few weeks later. I was confident about my decision to tamper with the supernatural, but the relationship regrettably didn’t survive. She blamed our breakup on my lack of emotional commitment, although in hindsight I sort of leaned toward the extra n in her middle name.
My prospects for matrimonial success looked increasingly dire. After all, it’s hard enough to find an eternal partner under even normal circumstances, but throw in leg warmers and alphabetical anomalies, and it could take celestial intervention to light an exit sign in the soup-for-one aisle. But what were my options? Ask Baryshnikov to fix me up? Tango lessons? Hang out at Roseland in hopes of getting my dance card punched by a knockout wearing a “Hi, My Name Is Valvoline” tag?
If this psychic really had a periscope to the future, then I was regrettably beholden only to the vagaries of serendipitya found briefcase, a wrong number, a chance laundromat conversation about why people always whisper in art museums. It wasn’t as if I could just get a new haircut like other men, or sculpt my abs into an oily washboard for those weekend beach excursions. With chance as your adversary, the best you can do is to stay alert for possibilities.
But nothing worked. I even answered the unlikeliest personal ad, which ran once in a Manhattan weekly. The ad was placed by a woman who identified herself as Eilene. It said only: “I’m going to kill myself in four weeks from Saturday unless someone can give me a good reason why I shouldn’t.” For all I knew she had that elusive second l in her middle or last name, and she was unwittingly sending up a last-ditch flare intended only for me. So I thought about her query for days, determined to offer her a veritable catalog of life’s pleasures. But all I could come up with was Cap Night at Yankee Stadium and the hot dogs at this place at 86th and Lex called Papaya King, so I wrote her an equally straightforward reply: “If you do find a good reason, would you mind sharing it?”
I anxiously awaited her call. I imagined this miserable stranger in some decrepit fifth-floor walk-up, her toes brushing yellowed linoleum and her nostrils skimming across the floor of her oven like tiny vacuum-cleaner hoses. As the days passed I became desperate to hear from her. This, after all, was as serendipitous as it could ever get, a meeting so unlikely that we couldn’t possibly live our lives apart.
But then I started to worry that she would call. What if we went out and I was excited about the prospects of getting to know her, convinced that she was in fact the one I’d been searching for, only to learn over dessert that our little encounter had done nothing to change her mind? What if she went home after meeting me and ended it all? Even worse, what if she stuck me with the check and ran off to the ladies room to blow her brains out?
My anxiety proved unnecessary, because she never called, and soon after that I moved to Washington. I always wondered what had happened to her, and a few years later I met a morose New York transplant at the Phillips Collection named Eilenethat same unorthodox spelling. She was my height, but she had those legs that stretched all the way to her neck, and she wore a short, clingy dress made of some material I probably should have known the name of. Her name wasn’t exactly right, of course, but she lived within sight of L Street, which I interpreted as a sign. We seemed to hit it off, and in the course of conversation I subtly dropped a few references to the Upper East Side and ingesting rat poison. But her expression never changed, so the mystery remained.
Eilene invited me to call her, but every time I did she told me she had tentative plans. This went on for three or four months, until it finally dawned on me that probably the only time I ever saw her was when she didn’t have a better offer. I soon forgot about her, and about a month later she called me to say that I was an inconsiderate jerk, that it’s not right to lead someone on the way I had and then just disappear from her life. She made me feel pretty terrible, and I thought that her phone call was a clear indication she liked me a lot more than I had realized, that maybe the psychic’s premonition was finally coming into focus. So after she finished berating me I asked her what she was doing the following evening, and she said she had tentative plans, but she’d let me know by late afternoon if she was free.
My futility finally pushed me to consider lifting the clairvoyant restrictions and using the entire alphabetdate a Barbara or Marsha, maybe even a Dora. But then I met a Cuban woman whose first and last names gave me everything but a second l, and since this was immediate, honest-to-goodness love on both our parts, I figured we could borrow the missing consonant from her sister and maybe still be within the rules. She didn’t own a tutu, but she let on how she used to drink a little rum and dance up a storm with her Havana schoolmates. Besides, she was an enthusiast of tarot, numerology, and all sorts of other ethereal pursuits, and I figured that, if necessary, she could find a cosmological loophole.
My search had ended. Fate had interceded. The wait had been worthwhile. And after years together, our feelings remained intact. So I scoured the city for an appropriate piece of engagement jewelry, which I planned to give her on New Year’s Eve. Her family and friends would be at her parents’ house for dinner, and I figured that following the midnight celebration, everyone could be treated to our great news.
But before I could get the deed done, all assembled gathered to listen to the astrological forecasts of a guest named Victor. Year after year, Victor detailedwith incredible precision and uncanny accuracythe fate of the world for the coming year. Unfortunately, he did so in Spanish, so while 20 Cubans hung on his every word, I palmed the jewelry in my pocket and waited.
When Victor finished, the room was abuzz. I asked what he had said, and my soon-to-be fiancée translated his predictions: tales about wars and personal finances and, naturally, Castro’s fate.
“And what else?” I asked.
“He also said that no one should get married this year, or even engaged,” I was told. “If you do, it’s doomed to failure.”
“And you believe him?”
“Victor is always right about things like this,” she said emphatically. “No way would I ever get married this year.”
It took me a few days to tell her. She kept the jewelry but, given Victor’s estimable track record, refused my overtures. She said we could wait a year, when it would be safe again, when we would be assured of matrimonial success. But by midyear we were history, done in without even having formally tempted fate.
The only thing left for me to do was to consult the psychic again. After all, maybe I had misheard her. Maybe she had said my life partner’s name would include an m, rather than an n. Maybe all these years I should have actually been looking for a Millicent or Maryellenassuming, of course, that compound names fall within the telepathic framework. Or maybe instead of a ballerina named Illiana, I was supposed to be searching out a lap dancer called Vanilla Shake.
So I called a friend in Vermont to ask if she could track down the psychic’s phone number. I would make an appointment, get an update, ask for additional guidance. It would all become clear. Everything would finally be resolved.
But there was a problem: The psychic had spent a long time in a coma, and had recently died. There would be no update, I realized, no insight for unanswered questions. Instead, I’d be left to forever ponder the same perplexing riddle: Love is l. Or is it? CP