Three of Hearts, a love long lost, three swords stabbing a bright red heart, with dark rain clouds in the background. The Heirophant, Reversed. Bohemian lifestyle, non-conformity, the Pope’s frown now turned upside down, his dark red coat gleaming in disapproval. The Fool, a new journey, the beginnings of an odyssey, Heracles ready for his twelve labors. Jason climbing aboard the Argo. The peasant boy in the card looks sufficiently untested in battle and wit. A white dog is at his feet, egging him on. Toto and Dorothy on the cusp of Oz.
Archetypes. That’s what they are. They’re all archetypes. Thank Joseph Campbell for lampooning that into societal consciousness, though his other ideas are very much so out there, and that’s probably where people should stop giving him credit. There’s always a heartbreak. Always a scorned lover. A knight riding off into battle, a veteran returning from victory. A saddened queen, a vengeful king, a backstabbing page, a wise old man. Archetypes.
I can see why people might mistake this for divination, for fortune telling. I can pull these three cards and tell a story, vague but somehow specific. It’s all theatrics. I see sadness and heartbreak in your life, in your past…you have suffered from conformity, from societal structures forcing you into something you don’t want to do…but take comfort in knowing that you are about to embark on a great adventure. You will go out and see the world for what it is.
It’s simple enough, really. A story is by any other name would be just as entertaining.
‘Again, with your cards, hm?’ asks Percy, monotonously, as she enters the kitchen. She has a way of speaking that is simultaneously uninterested yet there’s definitely an opinion. For her, maybe all of Abuelita’s teachings she generally disapproves of. ‘You haven’t spent a single moment without them since she bought them for you. It’s all you do these days.’
I sigh, looking up from the kitchen table as I watch her pull out a glass and pour some orange juice in it. ‘It’s not all I do these days. I read Gone Girl last night.’
She throws me a look before she puts the orange juice back into the fridge.
‘It’s a nice day today,’ I say, casually.
Percy grabs a chair and sits down at the table. ‘Yeah. I hated all the rain.’
‘I like the rain,’ I say, looking up at her. ‘It’s comforting.’
She’s tired, I can tell, easily by the dark circles under her eyes. The last couple of days have been rough for her, completing the last leg of her finals before school is done for the year. All she has is Wednesday and she’s finished. Winter break for three weeks. Perfect.
‘Where is everyone?’ she asks, taking a sip from her glass.
‘Dee is at work, and she won’t be home until very late tonight, I think. Mother and Abuelita have gone to South Central to meet a cousin or an aunt or someone.’
‘You mean Tia Coco and Benjamin,’ she says, correcting me.
I suppose you know you’re an authentic Hispanic when random family members start shooting out of the woodwork. But I keep that comment to myself. Percy would never appreciate my humor, with all her racial identifiers and labels.
She sighs, before getting up and glancing at the cards I’ve pulled. ‘What does this mean?’ she asks, pointing at The Heirophant, Reversed.
‘You will die a long, painful death, full of bitterness and regret,’ I say, smirking.
She rolls her eyes. ‘Okay, well, I’ll keep that in mind.’ She stands up, empties her glass, and puts it in the sink. ‘I’m going to Jason’s tonight, so I won’t be home.’
Jason White. Her new beau. Well, they’ve been together for close to three years but he’s new to me. He’s still an enigma. The first time we met was my first night moving back here. A house party, thrown by Percy, with all her friends there. An artsy filmmaker by trade, talking up the ‘starving artist, no job’ thing really well, but as for us? We just didn’t click. I’m more of a facts-based opinion on things that can be fact checked, and he’s more like a ‘but this is how it should be’ sort of guy. He doesn’t watch movies without people of color in them (‘as a mixed black man, let me tell you…’ is what I remember him starting that sentence with), would do away with banks if he could, believes that people with more melanin are the cursed thirteenth tribe of Israel from way back in the day…what can I say? I say I’m pragmatic. He says I’m a cynical ass.
‘Okay,’ I say, watching her check her phone. ‘Well, good. Tell him I said hi.’
She smirks before glancing up at me. ‘What about you?’
I stare at the cards in front of me, at the ones I’ve drawn, and the one at the top of the unpulled deck. ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’
The Lovers. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the snake in the fruit bearing tree behind Eve and twelve flames eating the tree behind Adam. Raphael sits in the heavens above them, and they, on the earth below.
‘Let me guess,’ says Percy, eyeing the card suspiciously. ‘You’re going to fall madly in love with someone you barely know.’
I snatch the card out of her hand and she snorts with laughter.
‘I’m just joking,’ she says, wiping a tear from her eye. ‘But, you do do that. You realize that, right?’
‘I don’t want to talk about this,’ I say. I don’t. My love life, or lack thereof, is my business. The failures, heartbreak, setbacks. My own cross to bear.
‘Okay, I was just kidding, Luc,’ she says, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll have a great day. Go out. Go for a bike ride or something. It’s a beautiful day.’
I consider. It has stopped raining, for the first time in the last week or so. It would be nice to ride my bike down the hill and over by the beach. There’s a nice strip of cafes and restaurants and bars on Broadway, closer to Downtown Playa de Oro than where I work, that does sound tempting. Jared told me about a record store called Thumbprints that I’ve been wanting to check out. Try my luck on finding an Andy Warhol vinyl of The Velvet Underground or something.
‘Anyway,’ she says, putting her phone in her purse and zipping it up. ‘I’m heading out. I’ll see you later, okay?’
She gives me a hug and I watch her shut the door behind her, and I sigh as I head back to the kitchen table, staring at the card. The Lovers. What does this mean? What do I need to know?
What will this card bring to me?
I bike down the hill, fully enjoying the wind in my face, the sun caught in my hair, houses and trees blur like a ruined watercolor painting all around me; this is as close to flying as I can get these days. Dreams of boarding yet another plane to a far-off land stay only in dreams and never manifest themselves in the form of a credit card purchase or cold, hard cash stuffed into a sofa cushion. I remain a bird chained to land, a fish with its fins nailed to the floor.
Biking through the city, my hometown, was always a very calming and relaxing feeling. Almost soothing. I sure talk a lot of crap about it, never missing an opportunity to generalize everyone here as simple-minded people of comfort and small ambitions, but sometimes I think that if I never grew up here, and I never associated this place with my memories, maybe, just maybe, I would find myself blowing in on the same set of summer winds that put me back here in the first place. The main problem that I always felt here was that I felt bored, longing for something else. I always felt the wind against my face, urging me onward. This is not the final destination. There is more of the world to see.
That being said, I do still love these streets. When I first moved here, I set out for interviews at various restaurants in different areas of Playa de Oro, from the pseudo-Italianate Naples with the half-hearted attempts at canal architecture to the enclosed communities comprising Lakewood, all down affluent, Cal State Playa-de-Oro-ridden Second Street and the wacky village like feel of Retro Row, with its vinyl shops and video cassette stores and art deco styled movie theatres. I even peppered the Pike, which had undergone a staggering renaissance from the dirty little watering hole it used to be, where every other shop was boarded up and the buildings were an ugly, blighted grey. Bright neon lights reflecting from the ocean front signaled a new influx of nightlife, of bars and restaurants, of outlets like Nike and Converse and H&M, and even the movie theater got a makeover.
It’s nice to reacquaint myself with the city. I biked down Alamitos until I reached the park that hugs the entrance to the beach and for a good hour I think I stared at the ocean waves, feeling the salt in the air, seeing the golden light refracting off the sparkling sea. I sat on the grass and watched joggers in neon green and orange trainers pass me by, and I watched a group of women doing yoga on the beach surrounded by their strollers, and I watched skaters with torn up shoes and fresh scabs along their arms and I watched the homeless play Blackjack on a tree stump at the end of the park. A few yards away, a group of people were having a picnic, draining a bottle of lukewarm rose over empty sets of Lunchables.
I sigh, standing up. I find myself getting lost constantly in understanding that everyone has this entire world apart from anyone else’s, that there are thoughts and secrets and hidden desires and aspirations, dreams that nobody will ever know or understand. I stare at people sometimes trying to imagine, trying to pull out of them those buried wants and needs, trying desperately to understand how their mind works, how they function as people, drawing out their basic primal desires and bonding over the idea that humans are all weak and wonderful and full of love and heartbreak and sorrow and kindness. But not everyone sees the same thing.
I leave the park and end up on Cherry, finding myself wandering around a café called Hot Joe, the sign scrawled in a blinking red-orange neon sign. With my bike neatly secured along a metal stand, I push the door open (by the bar handle, never the glass; seeing handprints and fingerprints and smudges along glass hurt me in ways I can’t begin to describe) and am greeted by the fierce smell of roasted coffee beans and steamed milk and freshly powdered cocoa. A boy, no older than about twenty, with his fire-red hair donning a buzzcut and a black shirt underneath his apron, is intently calibrating the espresso machine. I approach the counter, glancing at the dry and day-old-looking blueberry muffins and wilting croissants in the pastry case, before I catch his green eyes flick over at me, then back to the machine; a click is heard, followed by a sigh, and the general air around the café seems to relax and simmer down, reminding me of the kind of instant serenity that rushes over the skin in the form of goosebumps after the crisp snap of opening a can of Coke.
‘Hi there,’ he says, sluggishly while offering a smile. ‘What can I get you?’
The thoughts he sends me are irregular, chaotic; a mass like a cloud lingers around his head, and I feel instantly assaulted with various images of bright lights, darkened walls, belly shots…a little vomit along the grass outside…rolling around sloppily with a figure in a dark room. And then, Tylenol and a blue Gatorade, tripping over foreign furniture while fitting into underwear, slinking out of a mostly empty apartment…and, alas, coffee, lots and lots of coffee; the stench of regret, bitter and sweet, seeps from his pores in the hue of heather.
‘Hi,’ I say, smiling. ‘I’ll have – ’
‘Two large iced coffees,’ a voice I instantly recognize emerges from behind me, and, stunned, I turn to face its owner.
Noah was wearing a maroon colored beanie today, a thin, white tank-top with the emblem of the Rebel Alliance printed on it, and a radiant smile bright enough to insult the gods with its sheer blasphemy.
‘Do you want room for cream? Sugar or anything?’ asks the barista.
‘Leave room on both, we’re big boys,’ says Noah, winking at me. ‘We can dress our own coffee ourselves.’
‘You got it,’ says the barista, taking the large, plastic cups and filling them with ice.
‘You know,’ says Noah, starting off. ‘For someone who doesn’t really like Playa de Oro you sure do have a habit of hanging out here.’
‘I’m from here,’ I say with a smirk. ‘And I never said I hated this place, you know.’
‘I’m just teasing,’ he says, slyly. ‘What brings you all the way to the wonderful neighborhood of Oceanside?’
‘I like surrounding myself with higher income tax brackets. I think the weather tends to be better.’
He laughs, his chocolate brown eyes shining brightly in the sunlight streaming into the café, and for a second, I can see a darkness in his eyes. But only for a second, and then he reverts to bleeding all warmth and all laughter into the air around him.
‘How have you been?’ I ask, politely. A flash of The Lovers briefly enters my thoughts…and the word idiot then suddenly falls into my head like an anvil, hammering down into my mind. A card is a card is a card is a card. No lovers here. Besides, Adam and Eve led to the fall of man. Happy endings don’t exist. Not even in fiction.
‘I’ve been good,’ he says, that wonderfully intoxicating manic smile etching itself across his face as he looks at me. ‘Better, now that you’re here I guess.’
Flattery doesn’t go a long way usually but I can’t help but buy into it. ‘Is that right?’ I ask, shaking my head. My cheeks begin to hurt from smiling. ‘Well, what are you up to?’
‘Two iced coffees with room,’ says the barista, setting them down on the counter. ‘Thanks guys; it was nice seeing you, Noah.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Cory,’ says Noah, smiling as he grabs the cups. ‘I’ll see you later, buddy.’
‘Let me guess,’ I say, as we approach the coffee bar. ‘Two Sugar in the Raw’s and low-fat milk, two percent if available, right?’
‘I may have to spite you and only use one packet of Sugar in the Raw,’ says Noah, pouring a bit of low-fat milk from the carafe into the black coffee, the result is like mixing paint and oil against a draining sink. Tiny pillars of white mix into a caramel brown as the coffee soaks it up. ‘I think I have too much of a sweet tooth to do that though. What was your question again?’
Me, I’m personally more of a half-and-half and simple syrup. The crystals in raw sugar bother me and stick to my teeth uncomfortably. ‘Oh,’ I say, pretending to forget my question. ‘Right, I was just asking what you were up to today.’
‘Well, I figured since I bought you an iced coffee, you owe me a bit of your time, now,’ he says, stirring the milk carefully into the coffee. It becomes a dark brown the color of oak before he puts a lid on it and slurps from it deeply.
‘Is that how it works these days?’ I watch him as I pull from the straw out of the corner of my lips. ‘No smoke signals or offering to slay dragons in caves?’
‘Call me a millennial,’ he shrugs. Still slurping liberally from his cup, he strolls over to the door and pushes through it, before turning around to look at me. ‘Are you coming?’
The sunlight hits him, and he lights up, like Adonis emerging from Hades triumphantly, his glow around him an ethereal gold.
Somehow there was only one right answer to that question.
We watched the sun die beneath the waves, and when the lifeguard retired for the night a few yards away, we climbed aboard the empty lifeguard tower and watched as the moon shone brightly across the ocean, followed closely by the stars. Sand, sand everywhere, on my hands, in the empty plastic coffee cups, in our hair. With the night sky and the moonlight comes a comfort in me I still do not understand; I feel native to the night sky, strong. As though anything and everything is possible at my fingertips.
‘When I was younger,’ I began, ‘I used to sneak out of my house and take the bus all the way to this beach. In the middle of the night. I love the beach at night, even though this one is dirty. I think it has something to do with the way it smells.’
‘How does it smell?’ asks Noah, looking at me. He wraps his arms around his knees as he brings them to his knees, and as I close my eyes, I can feel thoughts bleed from his head in hues of warm amber and scarlet red, hard feelings, of laughter and desire.
‘Like magic,’ I say, tasting the salt in the air. ‘It smells like magic.’
He looks at me and continues to lower the constraints of his mind, and memories shoot out and break against my skin, of crying, holding himself up by leaning against a tree and watching his clothing being thrown out of his home, shirts and pants floating in the wind in slow motion, shoes being hurled out of a second story window, of bright lights in the night sky, the LA skyline, dirty underground clubs, making love on a golf course and reading text messages he shouldn’t have read, anger and violence, harsh words and bitter revelations…updating a Facebook status marking single and the four hundred different reactions and the dozens of comments that follow…
‘Lucas,’ he says, quietly. When I don’t respond, he leans close to me.
Fresh, white paint, boxes, tears against photos of spending a day at Disneyland with him, and suddenly, my concentration is broken; I look at him and he is surrounded by every color in the world, like the northern lights lightning up the air around me, blinding me…and I feel his lips brush against mine, soft, gentle, tasting of vanilla and cinnamon, and the feeling of electricity shooting down my skin and my spine. In the distance, fireworks go off above The Queen Mary.
‘I really like you,’ he says, breaking contact, his brown eyes full of sadness and hope.
‘I like you too,’ I say, still reeling from the pure electricity flowing through me.
He wraps his arm around my shoulders and I do the same as we look up at the sky. In the stars I can make the faint outline of that damned card, The Lovers, and if I look close enough, I can almost see the archangel, Raphael, grinning wickedly as he watches.