The Psychic

by Carolita Johnson

A friend had gifted me a reading (or séance? or session?) with her psychic/life coach. It wasn’t my birthday. It wasn’t Christmas, or Hannukah, or any holiday that I knew of. The only thing that had happened recently was that my friend’s book had been launched. So maybe she was celebrating her book launch by giving me this present. But you know what? I didn’t even think about it much after asking her if she was sure she wanted to spend that kind of dough on me (“Go,” she’d urged, “Dr. Stayci gives good advice”). What’s so strange about a friend giving you a present, right? And, assuming she wouldn’t be like that psychic on 6th Street who tried to get me to buy her a Rolex and a 32 Regular cashmere suit to “pray over” (“isn’t your future happiness worth an investment?” she’d asked), who couldn’t use a little good advice?

So I went. As I raised my knuckles to rap on Dr. Stayci’s door, the door opened and there she was. But it wasn’t telepathy, it was just that she was escorting her previous appointment to the hallway. Her previous appointment was crying. She was tearfully thanking Dr. Stayci. I watched as they hugged and promised to stay in touch, and as the weeping previous appointment brushed past me, I was led in with a bemused sense of foreboding.

Dr. Stayci looked like a troll. I’m not one to say that in a mean way, so believe me, she really looked like a troll. Her hair was sticking out like old worn-out broom straw the color of dead grass, and her eyes were just like two great saucers surrounded by concentric dark (mascara?) circles and wrinkles, with dilated, psychedelically spiraling pupils. (Okay, that was just the impression she gave, amalgamated with visceral memories of nursery rhymes.) She had obviously done her nails herself, in a color that was considered elegant in the seventies. She was wearing some kind of loosely draped, poorly sewn outfit which, it later transpired, she’d made herself and was quite proud of. She had a habit of spreading her arms wide while talking, and hunching a little as she hovered over you, like raccoons try to do when they stand up and mean to scare you out of their way in a narrow forest path. And I think she might take “troll” as a compliment, because I’m not unconvinced that she strove for that look.

With this in mind I simply accepted her physical attributes as part of the act, introduced myself, and took a seat. And this was one of the first things she said to me after she closed her eyes and began her “reading” of me: “You have… a spring in your step… it’s an… it’s inappropriate.” The funny thing was, I had the impression she’d been about to say, “annoying,” instead of “inappropriate.”

“Isn’t a spring in one’s step good?” I asked, acting as if I were surprised that a psychic might want to throw me off my guard. Pretending I was unaware that I usually annoy a certain kind of person just by virtue of existing.

“No! It’s not appropriate for a woman your age. How old are you, anyway?” Whereupon she picked an age she seemed to think was insulting and flung it in my face. But the thing is, at that point in my life, I looked nothing like how old I was, so she was still a little on the young side. Nonetheless, I decided it was in my best interests to play it her way, and pretended she’d guessed too old. I gave her the slightly injured, “so what” shrug with the requisite supercilious raising of the eyebrows, and said, “So? This is New York, and I’m a freelance cartoonist. I don’t have to walk or look or dress any particular way at all.”

“You were dressed like a SLUT at [my “friend”]’s launch party,” she growled, and added, “You looked like a WHORE… You. Looked. Ridiculous.” Now here she had me truly perplexed. I’d come from my day job, and simply changed out of my jeans to a knee-length fluted tweed skirt and wool lace tights to LES-ify my casual look a little. Blotted and powdered my face a little, and basta. “Are you sure you remember me right?” I asked.

“I was there! I saw you!” she roared with a wave of her feral arm, then lowered her voice and squinted into my face to add, “And you laughed too loud. People turned around to look at you.”

This was true. I had definitely laughed too loud at one point when a man (some kind of religious figure, I forget what, maybe a priest?) made a joke during a toast that nobody else laughed at right away because it wasn’t immediately apparent (except to me) that he was trying to be funny. My laugh came — generously, I might add — milliseconds too early, so, yeah, it was a little loud, given the silence it was born into. But it had been a well-intentioned laugh, and I wasn’t in the least ashamed at the time. I just figured I took a bullet for the guy. Nevertheless, I now began to feel the creeping heat of abashedness crawl up my spine and into my scalp. And it’s not easy to make me feel abashed, as anyone who has known me for the last 10 years since I decided no longer to suffer fools knows. She’d hit a nerve.

Seeing she had her hooks in me at least part-way, she primed me for the rest of the evening: “I’m going to tell you things your mother should have told you,” not realizing that my mother has already told me everything there is to tell as far as every mean, reproachful, denigrating, cruel, undermining, slap-down-y, patronizing (or should I say matronizing), vicious, appalling, uppity, sick, bitchy little thing anyone could ever imagine someone’s emotionally abusive mother “ought” to have told any annoyingly confident young woman with an inappropriate spring in her step.

Which is the following: That I was lost. That I wasn’t making enough money. I didn’t know how to dress. I didn’t know how to make the right kinds of friends or how to act around important people that could help me reach my goals. As for my goals, I didn’t have them properly identified, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I was going to miss my boat. My life was slipping through my fingers. I couldn’t keep a man. People were taking advantage of me and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, and people were mocking me. I was making a fool of myself all the time, and I was delusional if I didn’t believe her.

That pretty much sums it up. Everything my own mother had told me or made me believe all my life, I mean. And it was exactly what Dr. Stayci was telling me, too.

A weaker person would have thought: Wow. Mom must’ve been right! Because 20 years after I’d rejected all that brainwash from Mom, here was a troll-like psychic who prided herself on being a bitch (or so she’d said), going by a cheerleader’s name spelled in a contrived way and preceded by a doubtful title, and being paid (paid, no doubt, by someone I must surely have offended in some way) to tell me exactly the same thing!

But I just said, “I know what you’re doing.”

She said, “What?”

“I know what you’re doing. You’re tying to break me down, so you can build me back up again. It’s what they do in EST, and Landmark, and in boot camp. I know what you’re doing. And it’s not going to work. I listened to this stuff from my own mother all my life. I’m already broken and rebuilt, by me. I know you mean well, but I really think I should leave.”

But she would go on, reader. And so, understanding that her work ethic wouldn’t allow her to let me go until she felt she’d done what she’d been paid for, I sat back down. At least I think that’s what her stubborn refusal to allow me to leave till she was through metaphorically holding me by the neck between her wolf-like teeth and shaking me like a moribund field mouse meant. There might also have been a mean streak in her. So I stopped resisting and let myself be sucked in ever so slightly. To at least make it consensual.

She got me to cry, reader. Really. But don’t worry, it wasn’t the real kind of crying. It was the kind like when you’re watching a movie, and crying during a really moving scene. Like the scene where the brainwashed cult victim gets “broken” by the deprogrammer after hours in isolation, is brought back to her senses, and weeps with gratitude, pulled back to the warm breast of safe, middle-class convention, and suckled on approval. Or like practically any emotionally manipulative scene from The Champ, where poor Ricky Schroder swings from apparent rejection by his father to pure, grateful, orgasmic filial joy. I cry at that kind of thing the way people who know they’ll never get married cry at weddings.

This seemed to make her happy. Why did I want to make her happy? Because she obviously wasn’t going to let me out till she got what she wanted. I’d been in there nearly two hours! It kind of made me feel good that my friend was paying for all this overtime, because whatever her motive for putting me in this woman’s clutches was, I’d decided she wasn’t going to get away with it on the cheap.

So, during the rebuilding phase — the part where I’m so grateful for the cruelty to have ceased that I’ll listen to anything and lap up every little bit of advice as if it were mother’s milk (or in my case, Similac) — Dr. Stayci advised me to take a look at my friend who’d gifted me this session. Look how she dresses. (In expensive designer clothing, lots of make-up, colored and blown-out hair, plenty of jewelry, ostentatious designer high-heels.) She advised me to learn from her example, because people took her seriously, dressed, as she was, for success. Well, maybe not dress just like her, but I could change a few things about my style. Like wear more makeup. Whiten my teeth. Wear my hair in a more womanly way (like, not in pigtails). A nice, pink, modest lipstick to tone down my huge lips. And maybe pearls. Yes, she saw me in pearls. Pink pearls. They could become my signature look, she mused.

I blinked away my tears looking up at her in a way that I knew would gratify her and thanked her, trying to pity her as I pity my mother, but not show it. I was hungry and needed to bring this session to a close, no matter how much I yearned to anger her and add up more hourly fee for my friend to pay. So I let her tell me how she’d done it all for my own good, agreed that she was right after all, wasn’t she, that I was wrong to have resisted, wasn’t I, and then hugged her while crossing my eyes. Promised to buy those pink pearls. I left trying to look like what I imagined she thought grateful, humbled, slapped-down bitches looked like. Made a face at the door after she closed it — but not so she’d see it through the peephole and drag me back in for more. I’d have to hit her if that happened and I had no time for any more nonsense: I needed some soup. And maybe some salad. And a steak.

Out on the sidewalk, as I walked with a reinforced goddam spring in my step, I called a friend who’d been waiting in a restaurant for me for over an hour and half to tell her I’d been unavoidably detained by Dr. Stayci’s superfluous rebuilding of my self-esteem.

Although I saw my friend again a few times during a brief period of denial, having been assured that she didn’t think I’d dressed like a slut at her party, Dr. Stayci was pretty much the death knell of our friendship. How do you forgive a so-called friend something like that? How is it possible she didn’t know what was in store for me? And anyway, she got a Blackberry and soon began communicating only in short texts, which greatly degraded the content and integrity of our discourse. Within a few months, there was no friendship left to lose, as far as I was concerned. Words are important to a friendship, I’ve always thought. Our friendship would’ve shriveled away, Dr. Stayci or no Dr. Stayci, once that Blackberry came between us. I have very few Blackberry friends.

So, did I ever buy those pink pearls? Fuck, no. And I just keep right on walking with a spring in my step.

Previously: Hildegarde of Bingen to the Rescue.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.