Today, I was working a party on East Eighty-Sixth Street. The parents had rented their building’s rooftop terrace. There was a decent-sized dance floor with a decent DJ, a make-your-own-music-video karaoke booth, even a pool. I was honestly an afterthought in the entertainment department; girls visited me after they’d had their fill of Taylor Swift songsand funnel cake.
About two hours into the party, the moms were finally buzzed enough on Bellinis that they’d stopped monitoring me and I was able to sneak in a break. I was taking advantage of the food spread: artisanal cupcakes, build-your-own tacos, a pizza oven. The salt and the soda were helping my hangover.
I shouldn’t have drank last night, but Liv invited people over. I didn’t really know them; I’m not sure Liv did past the two hours prior at the bar. Liv is really good at making bar friends. At one point, one of the strangers asked me what I did for a living. I started to say “actress,” but Liv talked over me and said I worked parties. The guy looked confused, like he didn’t know which one of us to believe.
“He asked what you did for a living, hon,” she said, laughing. “You’ve never gotten paid acting.”
“I got paid a little—”
“But not, like, a living.” She laughed again and gave me a squeeze, nuzzled her nose to my cheek. “My little starving artist.”
Later, Liv got mad at me, saying I was bringing down the party. Saying I should be happier. She said I suck energy right out of the room. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I save all my energy for work. Maybe it’s just easier to have that kind of energy when I’m pretending to be the kind of person who has answers to things. So I drank to get through the argument, and then Liv wanted me happier, so I drank to be happier. So then at work I was unhappy and hungover. And still surrounded by people I don’t know. So I guess that’s the same.
I’d just finished telling a twelve-year-old that this next school year would feature a lot of change (slap,new card) but also a lot of opportunity (slap, new card), and that she should chase that opportunity, to not be afraid, run toward it and (slap)great things will blossom from it. This is as specific as I get. The girls asked if it would upset the fates if they recorded the card spread for TikTok. I said of course not.
I was busy trying to relight the bodega candles I’d placed on the table. The rooftop wind was not cooperating. I got so invested digging a wick out of the wax that I didn’t notice when the girls left and she sat down.
I looked up from picking wax out of my thumbnail. There she sat before me, adjusting her skirt against the sweat-dampened seat of the patio chair. She was middle-aged, but I couldn’t tell how old. Fine lines starting to etch on her forehead. Expensive clothes, but messy hair. Her eyes were tired, baggy, but her look was sharp. One of the moms, I assumed.
“Can I ask a question?” she said.
I thought she was going to recruit me to help with catering. An hour earlier the hostess had asked me to fetch more napkins for the pizza guy.
“Can I ask the cards a specific question, or is it a more general . . . thing?” She stumbled at the end, like she didn’t know the right word to say.
“You can ask a question.”
I didn’t know if this was true, but I figured I could improvise.
I waited for her to say something more, but she just pursed her lips in a thin line and nodded at the cards still scattered on the table. I scooped them up and began placing them in a stack. Usually, I try to give it a lot of flair for the girls, fanning the cards in and out, making little “hmmm” noises, laying my palm on the resting deck with my eyes closed, like I’m taking in some kind of energy.
I didn’t do any of that this time. I watched her watch the cards as I pulled them together. I was wrong. Her expression wasn’t dull at all; it was rigid. Her focus scared me.I didn’t think she’d blinked since sitting. I placed the deck before her. She stared it down.
“Should I leave him?” she asked.
In some distant corner, far, far away, a group of girls squealed to Harry Styles and rushed the dance floor. She glanced toward the colored lights bouncing off the parquet floor, the DJ booming instructions into the mic. Get low. Get high.
Her cheeks flushed, as if suddenly self-aware.
“This is . . . I don’t . . .”
She fidgeted with the handle of her purse, making to leave. Before she could fully stand, I reached across the table and laid my hand flat on the blue cloth. She paused: a moment of decision, a choice that felt like it was mine just as much as it was hers. The choice to commit to the question, to open the door after turning the key. She lowered back into the chair.
My eyes flicked to the woman’s forearms to check for bruises, scanned her face for extra makeup. Nothing. No physical abuse, then. But there are other ways. She had a fidgety slump to her posture, like someone who was used to being told she was stupid.
She paused: a moment of decision, a choice that felt like it was mine just as much as it was hers.
“It’s just sometimes,” she said, “he isn’t very kind.”
I knew about that. I’m young, but I know the weight of the small slights that pile on top of you, straw upon straw.
“Now you shuffle it,” I said.
She shuffled soft, making the cards flutter like a flock of pigeons startled into flight.
I asked her to pull cards from various spots in the stack, wherever she felt the right energy. These were things I would flippantly say to the teenage girls, but now I’d lost my fake accent, I’d stopped making faces and jangling my Mardi Gras beads. I looked into her eyes and leaned in close, and whatever I said was sincere. We were under a spell, she and I. Entwined, somehow.
I can’t remember what cards she pulled. I remember laying two in the center, crossing one over the other, four around those two, and four in a line on the side, just like the diagram in the booklet. (Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.) Usually I look at one card at a time, I remember the list of words that accompany each, major and minor arcana, cups and swords, upside-down or right side up. Usually I vamp from there.
But this time I saw. I really saw it.
It was bright. It didn’t matter, one card or the other, what words went where. They all ran together. Blinding images stuttered and flashed before me like a projector aimed straight through my eyes. I saw her fork in the road, and where each choice would lead.
Slap. I saw the life she would live if she stayed. Stooped shoulders, sagging lower each year. Hair grown lank. Insults. A bitter man who thinks himself polite because he doesn’t raise his voice. No hitting, but no warm touch. A dried yellow crust in the corner of a frown. Relief and grief and guilt when he dies. No more years.
Slap. I saw the life she would live if she left. An empty apartment full of moving boxes, rebellion in her eye. Candles. New couch. A handful of lovers. One is too old. One is too young. One puts a hand over her face when he comes. These men think themselves polite because they are honest. None stay long. Age spots on sagging cheeks. Dampened hope. A set of scales, on one side a feather, on the other a social security check. A TV blaring in an empty room.
I emerged from these flashes and knew them to be true, as true as the bad things I was sure to agree to later that night, and on and on in years to come. This was an unalterable future. I looked up at her face: back to middle-aged, no longer old as it had been in my mind.
Her eyes held expectation.
“Well?” she asked.
True tarot readers will tell you that the cards don’t tell you the future, that the cards are here for guidance through your choices in the here and now. But I don’t really know how to read tarot cards, so I gave her the simple answer.
She smiled and sighed and thanked me, squeezing my hand as she stood. We didn’t make any small talk. I never did find out if she had a kid at the party or if she’d just wandered in. I watched her depart toward a bleak future.
After the party the caterers let me take home a box of buffalo wings and some rainbow cake pops. When I came in, Liv greeted me with a kiss and a dark look. “Where were you?” she asked. “You said you’d be home by six.”
I didn’t remember saying that, but she insisted I did. There were many questions. Why hadn’t I answered my phone. Was I fucking someone else. After the argument and my many apologies, I lay in bed beside her and waited until her breath grew steady. I didn’t sleep. Instead, I stared out the window and pictured some apartment across the city where a woman was packing a bag and telling a man he could go fuck himself. I let that play on a loop in my imagination, like counting sheep.
Even now, I don’t question what I told her. I figure, if both doors lead to loneliness, might as well choose the door where just once you got to say no.
Marissa Levien is a writer and artist living in New York with a kindly journalist and their two cats. She has been published in Saint Ann's Review, LARB PubLab, and on Glimmer Train's Honorable Mentions list, among others. Her debut novel The World Gives Way was published by Orbit Books in June of 2021.