Five of Cups

by Abigail Greenbaum

The day my husband announced he was leaving, two days before Halloween, a pack of Rider Waite tarot cards arrived in the mail. Tarot folk wisdom suggests that instead of seeking out your own cards, you should wait for them to come to you. (Although I don’t think deliveries from Amazon were what anyone had in mind.)

Of course I had ordered the cards myself. When I picked out the pack, I was already predicting my need for them. My husband was on tour in Australia, operating concert lighting for a musician’s world tour. Most times his absence didn’t bother me — I knew what I was in for when I married a roadie, and, confession, I often enjoyed my time alone. But disturbing signs were beginning to accumulate. Earlier in the fall, he called to say he wanted to tell me something important, but instead bragged about fighting French men in French bars. When my doctor asked if I wanted to run a full STD packet with my annual exam, I said yes. Before flying out for Australia, my husband turned away from me in bed, claiming jet lag for the first time in our almost four-year relationship. I couldn’t yet see that he was making plans with another woman, but I sensed something about my life that needed knowing. The solution? Tarot cards.

I can admit more than a tiny dose of the obvious here: when faced with an uncertain future, we want to know the future. The occultist Papus, writing in Paris in 1909, suggested that while men use the occult for “resolving all major philosophical problems … in the case of the women who find their curiosity aroused by Tarot, it is not the latter aspect that draws them, so much as the fact that, with Tarot, you can determine certain laws of chance in a way that renders it suitable for divination.” While part of me bristles at this easy split — men want to know the nature of evil, women the name of their next lover — Papus wasn’t necessarily wrong. Today, American women are more than twice as likely as American men to have their fortunes told. In addition, we’re similarly more inclined to believe that fortunes can be told.

As my marriage dissolved, I did what I’ve been trying not to do for twenty-some years, ever since my major league baseball hopes were vaporized by mean words from a lazy infielder on the T-ball field: I started to throw like a girl. When tears, conversation with friends, gallons of wine and herbal tea, two different bags of Hershey’s Halloween assortment, yoga, Desperate Housewives, Xanax, candles, and running failed to bring me any sense of calm, I tried to deal out my future in cards.

The deck came with instructions, and I pulled a Celtic Cross spread, one of the oldest patterns for reading Tarot. I prefer things that come with history: used records, prewar buildings, wedding vows from the Book of Common Prayer. “This crosses you, for good or for evil,” the instructions said, of the second card in the spread, the card that tells what you’re up against. My cross came up the Five of Cups, and even though I’d read very little about how to interpret Tarot, I knew it for a bad card. It shows a lonely figure in a black cloak, huddled between spilled goblets, across the river from a ruined castle — a scene so desolate I was not surprised when I looked it up in the deck’s instructions: loss, they suggested, divorce. Later, when I showed the card to a guy friend, an exuberant dude who is more likely to find spiritual solace in the Jim Rome show, even he shuddered and urged me to “put that scary shit away.” Since then, people have told me to read Tarot in fuzzier ways, so the dark cards stand for blocked energy or transformation. Those New Age readings feel weak to me — the cards are dark because sometimes men and women are dark to one another! In that moment, I fell for Tarot because it didn’t offer me empty cheer or false promises. A mass-produced picture based on a 19th-century magician’s symbols based on a Romany deck of cards was doing what my husband could not: telling the truth about my future.

Maybe drawing that card was luck, not divination, but Tarot quickly became my favorite painkiller. Maybe Tarot cards are no more than mirrors for whatever desires and fears animate our thinking when we read them. This past summer a psychic called me troubled by love, and I was not impressed. How many women in stable relationships knock on the door of a strange trailer in North Mississippi because a sign says five dollars, fortunes told? When I’m happy, I don’t want to know the future, because what does it really mean to tell the future, other than telling how the places and relationships and routines that gird your life will change?

Yet, one year later, I know both the Tarot deck and the fault-lines of my marriage much better, and I still believe those cards. The Nine of Swords — a woman waking into a sword-filled night — shows an anxious mind. The Fool — an open-hearted innocent walking the edge of a cliff — is a card for starting over. Sometimes, when I’m wrapping the cards in a silk scarf to guard against nosy bad spirits, I glimpse the Five of Cups. These days, the darkness of that image is cut with history. Hello old friend, I want to say, you were right, and I am grateful. I haven’t drawn the Five of Cups again, but I continue to turn the Hermit and the High Priestess, cards of solitude. In the spread of my marriage, I foretold necessary space, and my husband read damaging distance. Maybe because my ex and I often stayed in different time zones, or because joining one’s life with another person’s is an uncertain act, our relationship hinged on faith. My obsession with Tarot might be as simple as replacing one belief with another: when my husband left me, I needed someone new — in this case, a deck filled with wheels and stars and lovers and crawfish — who could have and hold my trust.

Abigail Greenbaum lives, writes, and sometimes shoots cans in Rome. Georgia not Italy.

Photo by Girish Menon, via