This article is the prologue excerpted from the memior The Devil, The Lovers & Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach © 2007, Dutton, available wherever books are sold.
Cement lions. I'm a Leo. It's a sign! I pet each one on the head as I run up the steps of Iris's brownstone building on West End Avenue between Ninety-first and Ninety-second streets. It's a thick August night, 10 P.M., not that late, but the street is empty and eerily quiet. As I reach the top of the stoop, I see the shadow of a man round the corner. My stomach tightens. It's not as if I'm new to the city. I'm thirty-three and have been living here for eight years. I'm a big girl. Five foot eight. Size ten shoes. Not easy prey. But my apple cheeks and Bambi eyes make me look less like a streetwise New Yorker and more like a farm girl from Nebraska.
I glance at Iris's business card. Apartment #9. Nine is my favorite number! I push the button, and she buzzes me in a second later without asking my name. Of course. She's clairvoyant. Or the intercom is broken. What if the intercom is broken? What if she lets anybody in? What if the man on the street comes in after me? Calm down. There are lions. There's the #9. I make sure the door is closed behind me and climb the steep carpeted staircase.
When I get to the third-floor landing, I spot Iris's black lacquered door. I knock once and wait. I knock again. No footsteps, no shuffling, nothing. Without warning, the door swings open, and Iris stands there, still as a morning lake, as though she's been there the whole time.
She is a small woman, but her presence could fill a stadium. I don't know why, but I thought she would be big and fat and wearing an oversized purple dress, adorned with blown-glass jewelry, like some new age earth mother spirit goddess. Instead, she is wearing red lipstick, wire-rimmed glasses, a white cotton button-down and crisp, black Capris, making her look more like a European ballet teacher, chin up, shoulders back, silver hair tied tight in a bun. She strikes me as someone who would eat a mango with her bare hands, yet spend hours lovingly ironing her linens.
"Are you going to stand there all night?" she asks in a surprisingly deep voice.
"Sorry. Hi. I'm Kimberlee," I say, and reach out my hand to shake hers.
"I know who you are. We have an appointment."
Iris waves me in, then glides across the marble floor into her living room where there are candles on every surface.
"How long have you been here?" I ask.
"A long, long, long time." By the tone of her voice, I'm not sure if she's talking about the apartment or her many lives on Earth. "Please take a seat. I'll be right back," she says, and leaves the room.
I place my purse on the floor and sink into the navy velvet armchair, feeling my belly jut out over my I-can't-really-get-away-with-such-low-cut jeans.
Everywhere I look, there's some kind of relic from another country, another time: a threadbare turquoise kimono in a shadow box; a unicorn tapestry hanging above the fireplace; black-on-black pottery, the kind I saw when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico; and five African masks in a row staring down at me from the wall.
Iris comes back into the room holding a bamboo tray with two glasses of iced something and what smells like fresh-baked lemon-snap cookies. She places the tray on a side table next to her chair and sits down. I take a cookie and sip some strange tea and smile at her from across the antique mahogany wood table between us.
Crossing her legs, tucking her right foot under her left calf, she asks, "So, why are you here tonight?"
I have no idea what to say. I was expecting more foreplay, the usual back-and-forth between strangers.
"Don't you want to know where I'm from? People always start with that, and then I have to launch into my whole spiel. I was born in Stamford, Connecticut, moved to Plantation, Florida, then Atlanta, Georgia, then Tulsa, Okalahoma, then to Short Hills and Essex Fells, New Jersey, then Manhattan, Westchester, and back to Connecticut again. And no, I'm not an army brat."
I inhale, smile and wait for her to ask the standard follow-up question: "If you're not an army brat, then what are you?"
I'm ready to respond with "corporate brat."
Iris's mood-ring eyes burrow into me, shifting from hazel to green. She leans forward, as if she's about to share a secret with me, and says, "Thank you, but I asked you why you're here tonight."
I laugh nervously.
"How long have you been doing this?" I ask.
"Kimberlee, I asked you a question."
I want to tell her to mind her own business and give me a break, I just got here, let me enjoy my cookie. But then it occurs to me that I'm paying this woman to help me… to help me with what? Why am I here tonight? It's not as simple as I want to get married and my boyfriend isn't ready. Or I hate my job. It's not as if I'm living on the streets or have some terminal disease. From the outside, I'm just another pretty white girl who seems to get along well in the world. But that's not how I feel inside. I don't know how to describe it. It's similar to that feeling you get when you've lost something valuable and sentimental, something you can't get back or replace, that pit in your stomach, the tingling in your arms, the regret you feel for not being able to remember the moment when it left you, not being able to go back in time. That's how I feel about my life. I feel lost and afraid, and all I want is for someone to tell me everything's going to be okay.
I feel my face turn red.
Iris is staring at me, waiting for me to say something. But what?
"Okay," Iris says, her voice softening. "I'll ask another question. An easier one, perhaps. Why did you choose to see me?"
I clear my throat. "My friend Karen recommended you."
"Karen? Yes. Karen! A real sweetheart. A bright soul. A love."
Yes, Karen who tells me when Mercury is in retrograde. Karen who reminds me to check out my Astrologyzone forecast the first day of each month. And Karen who punches me in the arm every time she catches me Googling my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend.
"Karen is amazing. She's my savior at work," I say, pressing my hands to my chest the way old ladies do when they see babies. "I'd trust her with my life."
"I'm sorry to hear you work with her in that dungeon," Iris says.
Karen has obviously told her about our basement office at Fox News Channel and the twenty TV monitors that hang in a row on the wall in front of us, to our left and to our right, bombarding us with images of war and terror.
"Yeah. We both work on the Live Desk. I don't know if she told you that or not. We're responsible for producing breaking news for the channel and affiliate stations nationwide. We handle satellite space. We book fiber feeds, manage live shots, count down generics, update field producers with wire copy "
"Stop," Iris says, lifting her hand. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Generics? You might as well be speaking another language."
"I'm sorry, I do that all the time. I lapse into industry speak without thinking. My boyfriend, Noah, thinks it's funny, but it's annoying, I know. Generics are live shots at the top of each hour that affiliate stations can take for free, as opposed to paying $125 for a five-minute custom live."
Iris shoots me a look.
"Sorry," I say, and smile. "Okay, let's say a reporter is covering wildfires in California. They'll get as close to the scene as possible and then update viewers on how many people have been killed, how many homes have been destroyed, that kind of thing, and then wrap with something like, I'm so and so, live from wherever in California for Fox News.' That's what we call a generic live. If a station wants to customize their shot, Back to you, Jim and Nancy, for Fox 25,' then they'll have to pay for it." I laugh and cover my face with my hands. "It's just so crazy to me that I've become the kind of person who knows all this, someone who can tell you the downlink frequency for IA6/K20D1," I say, shaking my head.
"What kind of person did you want to be?" Iris asks.
"Not someone who works at Fox, that's for sure. I've been there for a little over seven years and I'm not even a technical person. Well, I guess I am. But it's not who I am, if you know what I mean."
"No. Tell me," Iris prods.
"Working at Fox is not why I'm here tonight, if that's what you're getting at. Yes, it's a toxic environment. People yelling. TVs blasting. Fifteen-minute lunch breaks. Gross, recycled air. No windows," I say and then count the windows in her living room. One…two…three…four…five…six…
"Windows are important," Iris declares. "Some say we're made of water. I say we're made of light."
Iris's business card pops into my head.
On the front, in light black letterpress print, it reads:
Mirror of the Soul
On the back, in hand-written ballpoint cursive, it says:
the flowers bloom effortlessly.
Maybe Iris is a fortune cookie incarnate.
"What did Karen tell you about me?"
"That you really helped her, that she loves you," I say, wondering how this woman is going to help me.
Iris lowers her glasses onto to her nose to get an unmediated look at me. "Have you ever had your cards read?"
"No, but I've been to a Reiki Master, a craniosacral therapist, an intuitive acupuncturist, a hypnotherapist, and an astrologer named Rakesh. Oh, and another astrologer named Jimmy, but he wasn't very good."
"Well, you should know that I'm not your typical tarot reader. People often associate tarot with fortune-tellers and crystal balls. For good reason too. There are a lot of scam artists out there."
"I thought the cards were kind of like tea leaves, that you could read someone's future if you know how to decode the shapes."
"I don't believe in reading the future."
Excuse me? A hot flush rushes up my arms, across my shoulders, down my back and legs into my feet. But I need you to tell me my future. I need you to tell me that things are going to get better, that Noah and I are going to get married, have kids, be happy, that my life will amount to something, that I will finally become the person I am meant to be. That's why I'm here. That why I came to see you! I feel myself getting smaller and smaller, my breath getting shorter and shorter. I'm spiraling. I'm a spiraler. That's what I do.
Iris snaps her fingers. "Wake up and close your eyes," she commands.
I stare at her unmoving.
"Come on, Kimberlee. Close your eyes."
I close my eyes, but open them a second later to see what she's doing. When I see that her eyes are closed too, I shut mine again and try to relax.
"Okay. Good. Breathe with me."
I take a breath and feel it stop in my chest.
"Breathe deep. Breathe into your diaphragm," Iris says, reminding me of my voice teacher at NYU, Pat Mullen, who would have us place our hands on our tummies and breathe so deep that our hands would push out with every breath. When I breathe deep, really deep, I cry, which is probably why I don't breathe deep.
I take another breath. It stops in my chest again.
"Take a breath in," Iris says, and breathes in.
"And breathe out," Iris says, and breathes out.
Before I know it, I'm breathing. Really breathing.
My chin starts to wobble.
Fuck. It's happening.
I hear Iris say, "Kimberlee, you need to take better care of yourself. You need more air. You need more water. You need more light."
I crack my eyes open and look at this strange woman sitting across from me and start to cry. I tilt my head back and wipe the corners of my eyes with my fingers to make sure my mascara doesn't run.
Unfazed, Iris hands me a Kleenex from her pocket and says, "Okay, Kimberlee. Lets begin. The cards will show us the way." She grabs the deck off the table and thumbs through it, pulling out cards as she goes. "Usually I use the whole deck, but tonight, I'm only going to use the Major Arcana."
I look at her as if she's channeling the spirit of Charlie Brown's teacher: Whah, whah-whah, whaaah. "Major Arcana?"
"Yes, the tarot deck is comprised of seventy-eight cards: twenty-two Major Arcana, and fifty-six Minor Arcana or pip cards. The twenty-two Major Arcana cards hold the most meaning, the most significance, and have strong ties, not only to Jungian archetypes but also to the Kabbalah Tree of Life."
Talk about speaking another language.
"Can you please explain what that means?" I ask.
"In Lurianic Kabbalah, a sixteenth-century school of Jewish mysticism, it was understood that contemplating the sephirot-the ten emanations of the Tree of Life-could assist us in seeing the divine."
"All I know about Kabbalah is that Madonna and Ashton Kutcher are into it."
Iris reaches under the table for a book and opens it to a picture of the Kabbalah Tree of Life.
"This is called the flash of lightning,'" Iris says, tracing her finger from top to bottom in a zigzag. "And this is the path of the serpent'," she adds, zigzagging back up the tree. "All paths, ascending and descending, left to right, from Binah to Hesed, right to left, from Hesod to Din, have meaning. They connect with the lessons of the Major Arcana. But this is not a Kabbalah lesson," she says, and closes the book.
"Phew," I say and laugh.
"Tarot has a very real and long-standing spiritual and psychological base. For centuries, people have used these paths, symbols and archetypes to understand their humanity and divinity."
"Kimberlee, if you're not serious about being here, you can leave."
Jeez. You're hardcore.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I'm serious."
"I need to know that you are willing to explore new ways of seeing yourself and your life. I need you to be open with me. Open to this process. Can you do that?"
"Yes," I hear myself promising, worried I might fail by not understanding a word she says or not seeing something I'm supposed to see.
"There's no wrong way to do this. I just need your active participation. Are you ready?" Iris asks, her eyes turning sea-blue.
"Yes. I'm ready," I say, not at all ready.
She hands me the twenty-two whatever-they're-called and says, "Feel the energy of the cards, then put your energy into the cards by shuffling them as many times as you want. When you feel you have sufficiently charged the cards, hand them back to me."
I hold the thin stack of cards in my hands.
How do you shuffle twenty-two cards? What if I stop shuffling a second too soon? How will I know when my energy is in the cards?
"Do what feels right," she says, placing her hand on top of my hand for a second.
My thoughts shut off like a lamp with her touch. I can actually feel the air in the room shift, like swimming into a warm spot in the ocean. I take a deep breath and feel my belly jut out over my jeans, but I don't feel self-conscious or bad about it this time.
I shuffle once, twice, a third time and pause.
Three times seems so cliché.
I shuffle one more time and hold the cards tightly in my hands, trying to transmit all the hope in my heart through my fingertips.
"Okay, I think I'm ready," I say.
Iris cuts the deck with her right hand, the ruby ring on her middle finger sparkling like Mars in the night sky.
"Do you have the candle I asked you to bring?" she asks.
"The only one I could find was this green votive candle at the bodega around the corner," I say, pulling it out of my bag.
She places the candle in a cobalt blue ceramic dish on the side table next to the tray of cookies and lights it with matches from Hell's Kitchen.
"That's my favorite restaurant! Don't you think it's some kind of sign I'm meant to be here?"
"I don't believe in signs. I believe we see what we want to see. They happen to have excellent guacamole. Are you ready?"
"Yes, I'm ready," I say, and this time I mean it.