I. Where Past, Present and Future Collide

The first “psychic” reading I got some 12 years ago was involuntary. A shoddily clad heroin addict in Hamburg screamed my future at me: “YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS!” Pressing my face against the subway window I quietly started sobbing.

The next day I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested I go see a therapist.

The first therapist had a card on his desk that read: “If you refuse to remember your past, you will be punished in the future.” The second one found my dark thoughts “romantic.” At the end of the session he led me through an unlit hallway where he suddenly hugged me goodbye. In the following weeks he bombarded me with phone calls, pleading with me to come back.

When the reaper hadn’t knocked on my door within my allotted three years, I moved to New York. There I saw a therapist from Japan. My German accent so violently clashed with her Japanese accent that we spent two thirds of the session trying to clear up misunderstandings. It would have been equally effective had she attempted to read my mind from a bowl of rice.

Then I found Jenna. A young social worker from New Jersey, Jenna was determined to help me create a future more satisfactory than the past. I don’t know where I would be today without Jenna. I once even gave her a cast-iron frying pan as a thank-you-gift. The frying pan came in a set of three, and after schlepping the heavy pans from Macy’s to her office on the Upper West Side, I decided to palm the largest one off on her. Jenna pretended to be flattered and I convinced her to accept my gift by emphasizing that no housewife is complete without a cast-iron pan. Maybe I put a spell on Jenna with my pan because shortly after she decided to have babies and move to the country. I tried to talk her out of it, but she seemed bewitched. At that point I stopped believing—in therapy, babies, large cast-iron frying pans and pretty much anything else.

My loss of belief conveniently coincided with a switch to a new health insurance, which did not cover therapy. I took this as a sign: It was time to accept the inevitable and leave the past behind. I wanted to embrace the present and start facing my future. But what would that future be like, I wondered. Where and when would it begin?

II. Where I Rediscover my Belief in Beauty

One fiercely cold afternoon I am walking around aimlessly in Jackson Heights, Queens, when two stocky Hispanic women approach me. Wrapped like mummies with only their eyes showing in between hoodies and scarves, they are handing out flyers for “Espiritista Victoria.” Effortlessly, the mummies whisk me upstairs.

Victoria’s workplace is right next to a lawyer’s office. In the hallway two boys are playing tag.  I briefly disappear in the restroom to turn on the little digital tape recorder I always carry in my pocket. If I am going to be charged to be told what no one can ever know for sure, I might as well record it. Now I wish I also had a lipstick camera, but since it would be odd to put on make-up in the middle of a conversation, I didn’t bother. Besides, I don’t wear lipstick.

Victoria leads me behind a black curtain into a space that in size and atmosphere resembles a fitting room at Daffy’s. She explains: Tarot is $25 and palm $5 less. I decide for Tarot because Tarot, she says, is “more accurate.” One question at the end of the reading is included and every additional question costs $5. When I ask about the length of “a session,” Victoria acts surprised. “It really depends,” she says.

“Do you want to hear only the good stuff or are you okay with bad news?” She begins.

“I want to hear everything,” I say boldly. I am excited to finally hear someone else talk about me and do all the work.

“Good luck!” She says, as if foreboding unavoidable danger. Then her iPhone rings. It is Cesar, wanting to know whether he could come by at four.

Victoria puts down some cards, and I wonder how she can read their symbols in the dim light.

“The first thing it shows—thank God—you have a very long life.”


“You are a good, a kind-hearted person. You help out a lot.” Now imagine the discordant cry of a train whistle. Victoria must have heard this shout of failure, too.

“I’m sorry. I do feel a little bit of bad energy around you,” she shifts her course. “Have you been down lately? Sad?”

Right now I am absorbed by Victoria’s beauty and all my sadness has vanished. No older than 30, Victoria wears her long, shiny brown hair neatly tucked back in a ponytail. Her lips are gorgeous and her teeth as white as her eyes are black. Her shirt’s low-cut neckline accentuates the smooth skin of her chest.

“I see two children. Do you have any kids?” She asks. The image of Jenna, swinging my large, cast-iron frying pan at her children, appears in my mind.

“What? You don’t want any?” Victoria screeches. “I see two!”

I wish Victoria wouldn’t screech like that because it makes her appear a bit vulgar.

Embarrassed by Victoria’s wrong intuition (and annoyed by her screeching), I say, “Maybe it’s my sister’s two kids.” (Whenever Victoria is at a loss I feel a sudden urge to help out. I don’t want her to feel humiliated or discouraged. I want her to continue, so I can get the most for my $25.) But Victoria has pride and doesn’t allow herself—or me, for that matter—an easy way out.

“No, with you,” she screeches. “I see two.”

As if his provenance might reveal the secret behind our childless marriage, Victoria wants to know where my husband comes from.

“Mexico,” I offer.

Suddenly Victoria sees a lot of people who don’t want us to be together. One short, heavy woman keeps reappearing. “This woman is jealous,” Victoria says, “and her skin is darker than yours.” This is a game with a rather predictable outcome, I think, and happily play along.

“My mother-in-law?” I say.

“Possibly,” she answers.

But except for my mother-in-law, the future promises to be hunky-dory: good health, a life-long marriage and professional success. Someone might die soon, but since it is neither my husband nor I, I really don’t care.

Now it is time for my question. “When will success arrive and what is it going to be like?” I ask, hoping that Victoria takes this as the single two-part question it is meant to be.

Two small t-shaped furrows surface in between Victoria’s eyes. In this critical, pensive mode her face looks even more beautiful.

“Success will come around August,” she promises. “I give you another question.”

“For free?” I asked insecurely. “How do you know all these things?”

Her Rumanian grandmother was a psychic, and Victoria started “picking up on it” when she was 12.

The head of a small boy with fuzzy dark hair appears between the curtains. “Mom! What day is it today?” (The psychic gene clearly hasn’t been carried down to Victoria’s son.) Victoria looks at me, quizzically. “Monday?” She says. I shrug. “Tuesday!” She corrects herself, laughing.

I leave Victoria with the feeling that the future will be a-okay.

III. Where I Learn That the Future Is Still Under Construction

I am hooked. My visit with Victoria has triggered my investigative reporter compulsion. In a trash alley off Roosevelt Avenue I come upon an abandoned table with cards, candles and a painting of parrots. A mural of stars and woven lines leads me up the building’s stairs. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blasts from behind closed doors. I knock, but no one answers. I knock again, this time a bit harder. Finally Anna appears. She looks pale, skinny and disheveled and wants $60 for a reading. Her voice raspy and abrupt, she calls me “sweetheart” after each sentence. “Excuse our appearance, sweetheart,” she says, twitching. “We are still under construction.”

Having had bad experiences with the psychic skills of dope fiends before, I am spooked and excuse myself. “Sorry,” I say, “I don’t have much money.”

“That’s okay, sweetheart,” Anna says. “How much you got?” “Ten dollars,” I say, knowing that $10 wouldn’t buy her a fix. She shakes her head and walks me back to the door.

On my way home I pass a chalkboard, on which, in rainbow colors, Psychic Theresa advertises her skills.

When Theresa opens the door, it is clear that she didn’t foresee me coming. She looks utterly surprised and makes me wait in the hallway for another ten minutes. I count the dead flies on top of splatters of blood on the hallway walls.

Like Victoria, Theresa has a little altar where she mixes Christian artifacts with New Age objects. Toys and drawing books are scattered on the floor. Theresa turns off the big flat-screen TV and makes herself comfortable on the white couch. For me she has pulled up a plastic folding chair. Theresa’s shoulder-length hair is brown and wavy with an inch of grey emerging from the scalp. Her teeth are a nicotine-stained mess; the tidiest things in the room are her neatly plucked eyebrows. Theresa’s face provides a window into a life that hasn’t been easy. She coughs up some heavy phlegm and we begin to hold hands.

“You’ve been a little bit confused lately,” she begins. Lately? Confusion has been a part of my life, like breakfast, lunch and dinner. Right now, for example, being so close to a stranger confuses me.

“Your lifeline is long,” She adds in her husky voice. “Negative substances is not good for you. You do that in moderation.” Trying to figure out what constitutes moderation, I glimpse at Theresa’s brown teeth and take another whiff of her smoky breath.

“Things have not come easy to you,” she murmurs mystifyingly. “You take things in life very serious.” Theresa talks slowly, like in a trance: “Doubt… problems… negativity… disappointments… bumps… struggles… lack of trust.” In New York you can never go wrong assuming bumps, problems and struggles. And there is really no reason to trust anyone in this world. Suddenly Theresa surprises me. “You like to write,” she says. My surprise, though, bursts like a bubble, when she adds, “Or do you like to make music, paint?” (In New York, one or the other always works.)

I try to detect the derivation of Theresa’s accent, but fail. Although from different parts of the world, we both share a struggle with prepositions. “You’ve been very stressed out through this,” Theresa says, and, “I believe you are going to ride this over. I don’t believe there’s going to be problems through children. I see two.”

Here we go again. When I don’t respond, Theresa looks at me perplexed. She shifts course, adding, “Maybe it was difficult to be pregnant or holding a child?”

Thankfully, the elevated train rattling by right next to her living room window drowns out all the nonsense talk about children. I scoot around on my chair trying to straighten my back, but to hold hands with Theresa I have to slightly bend down and forward, which hurts my neck.

“You’re having problems with your back,” Theresa now murmurs, her psychic mind having stumbled across yet another inarguable truth. I say that I do right now because of the way I’m sitting on her folding chair. She offers me a seat next to her on the couch. We are now inches away from each other, still holding hands.

Theresa, too, warns me of jealous women and tells me that later on I will regret my decision of not having children. When I don’t respond she loses interest. She coughs one last time. “That’s my advice. You come back,” she orders and sees me off into the blood splattered hallway. The future, it seems, will be just as ramshackle and haywire as the past.

IV. Where the Future Amalgamates With the Past

I miss Jenna. I like revisiting the past. How can the future ever materialize without the past? Maybe I could find another therapist? Despite my efforts my insurance won’t budge. This is when I remember JC, a faint figure from long ago.

A storefront psychic in my old neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, JC always astonished me. Soaked in sweat and gasping for air, she would schlep her grossly obese body to the corner store several times a day to buy soda, candy and lottery tickets. She would stand at the counter rubbing off her tickets, then mumble and curse at her lack of luck. For obvious reasons I never went to have my fortune read by JC. Yet I suddenly miss her presence.

Rumor has it that JC closed her storefront and started hanging out at the local pharmacy. When I ask the pharmacist about JC’s whereabouts, he grins. JC, he says, moved on and up to Manhattan. But where in Manhattan she opened up shop, he doesn’t know.

Assuming that Greenpoint psychics keep in touch, I decide to see Sophia a few blocks up on Manhattan Avenue. “Psychic Sophia Wróżka,” the neon sign on the second floor window reads; but the entrance gate is down and the clerk at Radio Shack on the ground level shoos me off when I hassle him about Sophia. From the liquor store clerk across the street I learn that Wróżka is not a last name, but means psychic in Polish. Sophia put up the translation to attract customers in this primarily Polish neighborhood. The clerk calls Sophia an imposter who is really a Jew from the Middle East. Each winter Sophia disappears to the sunny South.

This is when I notice that all psychics, except of JC, carry names ending with the letter “a”: Victoria, Anna, Theresa, Sophia—and finally it occurs to me: Jenna. Now I am convinced that JC is short for Joanna Cassandra and that Jenna is really a witch. While to some the letter “a” may suggests wonder, awe and lust, to me it brings memories of the pains of the past: “Aaaaah!” I would say, my mouth agape so the doctor could check my pus-coated tonsils. “Aaaaah!” I would cry, when my tongue was covered with flaming red spots.

V. Where I Cease to Believe in Foreseeing the Future and Decide to Carry On

Manhattan is the place to be. For fortunetellers, that is. Maybe I will find Joanna Cassandra. Maybe I will finally find my way to the future. Hopefully, I will find my way back to Queens.

People scurry about 8th Avenue like vermin. Suddenly I am one of them. On 23rd Street a storefront psychic named Patricia offers “psychic solutions.” I knock. After several minutes Patricia opens, wearing pink pajamas. “Can I help you?” she asks, rubbing her eyes. It is eleven and for Patricia the future has not yet begun. She tells me to come back after one.

I wander south, my gaze affixed to the windows of basement apartments. On MacDougal Street I finally see a large window advertising readings. I knock on the door. A toothless, pant-less man eagerly waves me in. The small storefront is separated from the living quarters with a curtain and decorated with artifacts from different religions. (Think Buddha sculpture next to crucifix.) A myriad of stains have dyed the once golden carpet the color of gray-green mucus. I hear the TV blaring and the rhythmic huffing and puffing of an oxygen machine. The sound stops and Gina appears. Her thin gray hair is greasy and her four brown teeth jut out randomly like charcoaled tree trunks after a forest fire. Gina wears a stained nightgown that may have been white long ago. Tarot and palm readings are $25 each, she informs me. I ask what she suggests we do. “Palm,” she says, sounding utterly indifferent. Gina’s breath smells like a dead rodent, and I wish she would have taken the time to brush her four teeth.

I ask which hand she wants to see, but she doesn’t care. She grabs the one closest to her and begins. “Your lifeline is long. There is a lot of doors that you want to open, but you can’t open them so quickly. Positive changes are coming.” Suddenly she looks up. “Where are you from?” I don’t know what my provenance has to do with anything, but answer politely. “Germany.”

“Because you are a very strong and stubborn person,” she continues. I wonder what Gina’s response would have been had I said France? (“Because you are arrogant and love Jerry Lewis”?) Or Switzerland? (“Because you are punctual and drab”?) One of Gina’s nails buries into the lines of my palm as if trying to unearth a secret. Her nail slightly taps with each sentence.

Gina, too, mentions a “negative woman” who drains my energy. “Who’s that woman?” she demands. This time I shrug, short of saying, “You tell me!”

Gina persists. “Who is that woman?”

“My cat’s been very sick,” I say, adding, “It’s a female. Does that count?”

Gina just shakes her head. “What kinda work do you do?”

Oh come on, I think, I’m the one who’s supposed to ask the questions. But I can’t come up with any.

“What’re you writing about?”

“Murderers,” I say, alluding to one of my most recent subject matters. Gina giggles the raspy giggle of an old witch. She then goes over the usual, her insights matching my previous psychic experiences: success will come; I’m confused; I am strong physically; I found love; and I am made for two children. Vasectomyvasectomyvasectomy! I want to scream, but bite my tongue. Why do fortunetellers have such a hard time imagining that there are women—and men—in the year 2010 that don’t feel like they are made to have children? But this is clearly not the right time to talk about procreation.

“Legal matters,” Gina continues, as if marking off keywords on a list. “Could it be paper scamming for you?” she asks like a restaurant waiter offering Lamb terrine as a special. She then mumbles that something positive is about to happen involving the initial R and the initial D. At this point I’m just relieved that it doesn’t end with the letter “a.”

“You interfere in other people’s privacy—why is that?” Gina asks.

“I am a writer,” I say, annoyed.

“Oh, you are a writer?” Gina says, as if she’s heard this for the first time. “What do you write about?”

“Murderers,” I repeat. And again Gina giggles.

Gina is done with my hands but urges me to also do a Tarot card reading. When I ask her about the difference between the palm and the tarot card reading, she says, “I’m gonna see the future.” At this point, I’m having so much fun that I agree.

Gina slaps one card after the other on the table, repeating what I just told her. “You are married. And this is you,” she says, pointing at a medieval maid on a horse. “You go to other people’s face.” She aggressively taps on a card on the table. The next card shows a medieval knight with swords in his back. “This is what you write about,” she says. “You work with the devil.” She now points at a card showing the image of a man with hooves, horns and tail. Gina is on a roll. She switches cards so rapidly that I hardly get a glimpse of their images. “The world. Changes. You see?” Slap. “A man will show up. A very stubborn man.” Slap. “You are going to be very successful. But not tomorrow.” Slap. I feel as if forced to run into oncoming traffic.

”When will that be?” I interject.

“In six years,” Gina says. Slap.

“Where do you see that?”

She looks at about ten different cards before picking one that supports her assertion—kind of. The card has five star-shaped symbols on it.

“But wait, those are only five stars.”

“This year and then five more,” she quickly responds. Slap. “You have to get it together. Alrighty? That’s it,” she concludes, shuffling me to the door.

Gina and I both know very well that no one can see the future but you alone—not even if your name ends with the letter “a.” Having found love, a dependable home and more or less meaningful work, I now sometimes catch bright glimpses of my future. And the more I can feel those glimpses, the more the dark past retreats.

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SABINE HEINLEIN is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013). She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Margolis Award, an American Literary Review Award and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell and NYFA. Her work can be found in German, American and British publications, among them The Idler, Tablet Magazine, Epiphany, Die Zeit, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, The Iowa Review, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

3 responses to “My Fortune Told in Five Acts”

  1. Robert Ayers says:

    Excellent piece! A very entertaining read.

  2. dwoz says:

    Always a pleasure to read you, Sabine.

  3. how to know when you are in love…

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