It was June. Anna 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 drenched 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 scornfully sucked her teeth and pointed out that Anna’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 East Village, Anna 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 signaled from the doorway, beckoning us to part with our reluctance and our money. The place doubled as her home, a flimsy curtain cutting the modest room in two. Her small daughter pinched a handful of curtain aside and peeked at us while her mother laid out our futures.

I watched the fortune-teller gently trace Anna’s life line, brow crumpled, a quiet “hmmmm” issuing from 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 two. 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 such 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 heat-wave 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. Anna was more satisfied with her fortune and scrutinized each point as we ducked into a café 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 would do us wrong, like a bad boyfriend, 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 City. Head cocked, listening to a man inventory his publishing success, I realized the crowd had an edge I could never hone, and I mingled and chatted but came off a little shy. Anna 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.

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AMANDA MILLER is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She moonlights as a baker and is currently writing a book about the intersections between cake and love. You can find her work in the anthology, The Edible City (Coach House Books, 2009). She also appears online at http://cakesandneckties.wordpress.com and http://hangoverhelper.wordpress.com/.

23 responses to “The Day the Pants Didn’t Work”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Amanda,

    I don’t think you’ve tried ENOUGH music.
    I bet you would kick ASS on the oboe!

  2. Irene Zion says:

    (Oh, Amanda? a photo of your ass and the pants would really make this post POP!)

  3. Amy Shearn says:

    Yeah, New York in the summer is, on one hand, horrible. Especially that whole “cooked garbage smell.” But on the other hand, you can take the subway to the beach! I mean, a dirty stinking beach, but so what!

    Also, totally agree about the photo.

    • Amanda says:

      I feel that way about Toronto summers, too. Hot and filthy and sorta nasty around the edges, but for $5, you can take the ferry to the islands ten minutes away, and lounge on the sand and swim in the lake and pretend the city doesn’t even exist. Sigh…and, since there is also a nude beach, you can let your ass hang out of your non-existent shorts without being concerned you’re overdoing it.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Maybe by music, she meant that your words sing. ‘Cos they do.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    G-d, there are so many fortune tellers in the East Village. When I sublet on St. Marks last summer, I often passed them and considered going in. My life- as per usual- was in shambles. And I thought a little guidance couldn’t hurt. I never did, though. Maybe I’d have learned something too.

    • Amanda says:

      I’d never walked into a streetfront place like that before (and haven’t since, actually). There was something incredibly romantic about it, and at the same time slightly indulgent and foolish. It went with the heatwave, really, and just seemed like the thing to do.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    Fortune-tellers are the bomb. I can recommend a good one in LA!

    “beckoning us to part with our reluctance and our money.”

    Loved this line.

    • Amanda says:

      I love that you visited Los Angeles last year, and in a short time managed to land yourself an excellent fortune teller! It’s all about having access to the more curious resources in a foreign city, isn’t it? Like knowing the best spot for whiskey after hours, or where to buy the perfect pair of pants.

  7. I want to roll around in the absolute deliciousness of this sentence……

    “We looked fabulous and sweaty, the weather basting us in our own juices until we were plump and salty.”

    Oh and an annoying pop refrain that just jumped into my head after reading your piece and I don’t even know who to attribute it to other than my younger daughter’s Ipod

    “You can’t stop the music, the music, the musicccccccc……. ” Repeat.

    Loved this!

    • Amanda says:

      Ha! That song was playing on the radio this morning and I also have no idea what it is, but know precisely the one you mean. It’s a real bastard, gets stuck in your head, just that one bit.

  8. Zara Fischer Harrison says:

    Cake and boyfriends: ultimate determinants of heart disease.
    But like most anti-health consumables, difficult to live without in the long run.
    I second the comment on the basting until plump and salty bit. Delicious.
    And i bet I’ll actually get to see the short shorts pics at the 7:30 club so na na na nana to all of you suckers!

    Can’t wait for the next post.

  9. Judy Prince says:

    Great read, Amanda! Perfect touches: the basting heat (“Our efforts to stay cool meant that each morning, our outfits were a shrunken version of the day before”), the fortune teller with attitude (“I tell you only half. Maybe five dollars, you learn not so much”), and frustratedly rejecting the seductive cake.

    With your next-to-last sentence I sensed a subtle tone change, a wistfulness that “clicked” with a remembered feeling somewhere within me. You wrote: “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.” This busy-stark tableau matched my frustrated early single life when emptiness, often, was my only reaction to cluttered actions and demands for life decisions.

    • Amanda says:

      So, so true. I remember standing there with a cocktail, and noise all over the place, and people in hip trousers and complicated haircuts hemming me in on all sides…and, feeling like, at home things might not be going great, but that my life sorta made sense. Meanwhile, amidst people who were making bigger, seemingly more risky decisions and thereby launching bigger seemingly more impressive careers, I felt like a kid who was stuck at the part where “writing” meant “jotting twee things in my diary,” for lack of a better analogy.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Nicely captured feelings, Amanda, in all of this response. This especially spoke to me: “. . . feeling like, at home things might not be going great, but that my life sorta made sense”. The chasmic leap from home to Jobworld has us sprawled mid-air like screaming flies caught in amber. ‘Twas at that juncture I experienced my first ever headache and a feeling of “infinite sorrow” that others later labeled “depression”. Feeling worthwhile and hope-filled, I think, banishes “infinite sorrow”. I further believe that those powerful positives are easier to possess than most people imagine. Many (fortunate) folk feel worthwhile and really good at doing some things while they are living at home, but then they move out and splash down into bigger ponds with dazzlingly big fish. Career-wise, that’s a huge shock to our mental hard drives—-but then they’re also lumbered with finding The One I Will Spend The Rest Of My Life With!!! MEEP!!!

        Re how to fairly easily feel mostly very positive about yourself in all of this terror terrain—you’re doing it right now: Creatively expressing your frustration (“venting” and inventing). Getting positive responses. Chatting up folks as if they were family.

        At one major low point in my life I read about a woman who was Way “infinitely sorrowed”. A nurse told her she had lovely hands, especially her fingernails. The sorrowed woman looked at her hands, picked up her nail file, started shaping her nails, and really liked Doing Something That Feels Good And Produces Beauty. I did the same thing and my terrifying chasm tamed to something that felt like steps to my family’s front door. Just one person’s offhand compliment. All it took.

  10. Reno J. Romero says:

    funny again. an ass hanging out and a NEW YORKER bitching about it. i mean: really? really? ha! i went to a fortune teller years ago. way long ago. my b-day is dec. 22nd–on the cusp of capricorn and sagittarius. she called me a sagittcorn. wtf? lord have mercy…

    good quick read. boy, you know how to write. thanks, amanda. stay warm.

    • Amanda says:

      I know!!! I mean, what’s not to like about a cute bum poking outta some shorts on a hot day? Cripes.

      A Sagitcorn–nice one. Makes you sound like some mysterious creature people makes wishes on, anytime they’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of you sipping from a forest stream. The melding of unicorn and something slightly less savoury.

      As a Virgo, I like to think I’m too sensible for fortune-telling, but instead it slips the other way–I take the fortune teller’s words then model them into something to over-think about.

      ; )

  11. angela says:

    love this, amanda. you perfectly capture the disgusting new york summer – you wake up, shower, and are immediately drenched again. then you freeze in A/C, get out, drenched again. shower. rinse and repeat.

    • Amanda says:

      You know what? I love that weather SO, SO much. Perhaps because I don’t live there and don’t have to do normal activities like attempt to arrive at an office not looking disgusting. My last NYC summer trip involved purchasing at least three American Apparel shirts under emergency conditions…realising that after walking around the city for, like, fifteen minutes or so, I was no longer in good enough shape to sit down in a restaurant with a friend for supper.

      The thing that amazed me was how lovely and cool-skinned all my New York ladyfriend appeared even by Happy Hour. I’d meet someone for a drink when they finished work, and they’d have commuted across town in a blouse and heels and would look radiant. Meanwhile, I resembled a logger or miner or dockworker, bedraggled and mucky and nasty with grime here and there.

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