It's Thursday morning, and once again hundreds of landscapers descend on our lawns, waging war against overgrown grass, weeds, and yes, even unruly edges. By then end of the day their battle has been won; but they'll be back next week, and the week after, to fight the fight again in good faith.
Actually, I've come to know some of their faces. During my morning walks, I shyly glance up at them and nod thank you as they politely turn off their mowers so I can push my stroller by. It's a shame how the August sun has ravaged so much of their hard work. Everything was so pretty a month ago. Now all of the lawns look brown and fried. Oh well. Maybe the heat will put itself to good use and fry a few pounds off my butt, too.
I stop under a shady tree and check under the stroller bonnet. My daughter is fast asleep. I turn up my headphones, pick up the pace, and make my way up and down the winding, hilly streets. I walk to the beat of the music.
My husband tells me exercise is the best way to clear my head. I really don't know what he's talking about. Today I'm pondering the difference between "sacrifice" and "compromise." Here's the quandary: In my personal lexicon, sacrifice suggests the need to give something up, mostly for a purpose other than yourself. Compromise, on the other hand, is a settlement reached from give and take, a happy medium between selfishness and sacrifice. They're clearly two different words with two different meanings. So how then have they managed to become interchangeable?
I walk past house after house. They all look somewhat different, whether it's the color of their driveway pavers, whether they're brick, vinyl or aluminum sided, whether they're a ranch or colonial. But when you get down to it, they're all really same. They're upper-middle class homes in suburban New Jersey. Plain and simple.
Then I think about the people who live in these homes. Are they all the same, too? Of course they're not. Everyone's different. We all have different needs, different interests, wants, desires (and judging by some of these homes, different taste). It stands to reason that someone in this idyllic neighborhood has to be a little unhappy. Someone's not living the life they've envisioned. Someone had to have given up a dream or two. But no one's letting on. Everyone I see just skips merrily along. Even me.
Perhaps that's because we're led to believe that the adult thing to do is to accept that life, especially if you choose to share it with someone else, is about compromise. Right? Wrong. Apparently it's more about sacrifice. Someone ultimately gives up just a little bit more than they should. At least it feels that way to me.
Ah, nothing like a clear head.
As I make my way up my driveway, I avoid eye contact with my elderly neighbor who is always eager to chat. Sorry, but I've got a sleeping kid and a thousand things to do. I whiz by and she thinks I'm engrossed in my music. Good.
Sweating and exhausted from the summer heat, I stumble as I push the stroller through my front door. Thankfully my daughter stays asleep. I'm greeted by a waft of cool, air-conditioned air. I go to the kitchen and gulp down a glass of water.
I take a good look around the house and survey the damage from the night before. You would think I have a family of ten living here or I run a daycare or something. Every morning it's the same thing: my house is a complete disaster area. And it's just three of us--my husband, my daughter and me (oh yes, and one cat). My daughter I can excuse, she's just a toddler and I expect to be picking up after her for a long time to come. My husband, on the other hand, is just a slob. There's no excuse. Personally, I think he throws things around just to spite me. He figures I'm no longer an active member of the work force, so he might as well keep me busy.
My daughter wakes up. I let her out of the stroller, hand her a juice box, and lead her into the family room. Thank God for Noggin, I think to myself. She's transfixed by Oobi and is letting me clean up. For eons mothers have been trying to find ways to entertain their kids so they could get stuff done around the house. Who knew all it would take is a talking hand?
I look at the clock. It's 10:00. I think it's weird how my concept of time has changed. Ten o'clock used to mean a mid-morning meeting. Now it means 'I better take the chicken out of the freezer pronto or it won't be defrosted for dinner'.
I sigh. Once again I'm reminded of compromise and sacrifice. And though watching chicken melt is far more riveting than those boring, demoralizing meetings, I often long for the life I once had. Not because I miss my job--hell no, I hated my job. And not because I gave up so many material things like a new Kate Spade bag each season, my apartment in the city, expensive dinners at trendy restaurants, and the frequent spa visits (even though I did get a great seaweed wrap last week after getting engulfed by a wave at the shore.)
No, what I really miss is my autonomy, my life, my me. You know, that thing I spent 37 years cultivating and nurturing. I often feel like a stranger in this home, this neighborhood, my own skin. It's not me. It's us. I traded in my life for the married woman's model: our life. So how is it that our life is not my life? I sigh. Therein lies the rub.
But I'm not a whiner, and I'm not a complainer. On the contrary, I'm actually pretty resourceful. And because of that, I've brought about an upside to my situation. I've taken this "down time" in my life to rediscover another passion of mine, to reclaim a life-long love. Astrology. Yes, when I'm not taking care of my daughter, I'm working on building my home-based astrology practice.
Ever since I was a kid, I was obsessed with astrology. For years I read and read about the subject, learning everything I could on my own. Then right after college, I took some courses and actually got myself certified. (Yes, there is a certification.) That meant more to me than getting my Master's degree. OK, far less lucrative, but far more meaningful.
Even my name is astrologically appropriate: it's Ariel, which means "little lion." Coincidentally, I am a petite Leo woman. I have some of the typical Leo features, like long, wavy golden brown hair and big, golden brown eyes. Like most of us Sun-ruled, hedonistic, bon vivants, just give me a few drinks, and I'm the life of the party. Shit, we Leos don't even need the drinks; we can get stupid drunk from mere compliments and attention.
However, if you should be lucky enough to catch me during one of my more sober moments, I can bore holes through you with my eyes and cut you to threads with my tongue. You can thank my Scorpio rising for that, along with the penetrating observations and aloof attitude. Leo is gregarious and extroverted while Scorpio is guarded and secretive. As you can imagine, I always feel like I'm teetering between and introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert. Anyway, enough about me.
So after I had my daughter, we left the Upper East Side and moved to suburbs--partly because it's cheaper to raise a kid out here, and partly because my husband's company's headquarters is located out here. At that time we decided it would be best if I gave up my high-paying corporate job in the city to stay at home with the kid for a while. Sure, money would be tighter than we were used to, but the benefits of my daughter having me around 24/7 outweighed any financial sacrifices we'd have to make. I guess I should add I was let go from my job while I was pregnant, so I really had no job to return to.
It took about five minutes of staying home full-time before I found myself wanting to do something more stimulating than watch the Wiggles. Plus, I really hated having to account for every dime of "my husband's money" that I spent. So I decided that this was my chance to seize an opportunity, follow my heart, and to do something with my life that I really felt passionate about. I put a flyer up in the local new age bookstore advertising my astrological services. Since then the response has been lukewarm, but I'm slowly building a clientele, I have some extra cash in my pocket, and I'm doing something I love, to boot.
So despite the sacrifices I've made, I'm at least happy to be spending my days and nights with my two greatest loves: my daughter and astrology. Right now I can only see clients at night when my husband comes home so he can watch the kid. I have a little office above the garage. Hopefully when my daughter gets older and she goes to school I can expand my hours to daytime, too. Of course my husband has different plans. He'd rather see me rejoin the rat race--sooner rather than later, I might add.
Anyway, now that the kid is engrossed in TV, I make a mad dash for the shower. I have a chart to analyze for a new client coming over tonight that I haven't even had a chance to look at, yet. Plus I have Stella's playgroup this afternoon. I better get cracking.
Twenty minutes later, refreshed but still damp, I go to my computer and pull up my e-mail. In order to run an astrological chart on someone, I need a date, time, and place of birth. I collect this data and book my appointments all through e-mail, so I really don't have a sense of whom I'm dealing with before they come by. I can't even tell if I'm dealing with a man or woman, dead or alive, from an astrological chart. That doesn't make me a bad astrologer; it's just the nature of the beast.
I scroll, delete a bunch of junk, and find the e-mail from my client. I open and read it. It's from a guy. I gather the necessary data, plop it into my astrology application, and voila, I've got his chart. I skim it briefly and take in the basics. It's not clear from his e-mail what he wants to get out of our session. I figure I'll prepare a basic natal chart reading, my most popular request. It'll tell him everything he needs to know about himself: the ins and out of his personality, his strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and even a little bit about his destiny. I print out the chart, gather up my resources, and make my way into the family room. This way I can keep an eye on my daughter as I try to figure out Brad the middle-aged Libra.
About three hours later I look up and notice I'm due to be at my daughter's playgroup in a half hour. I've stopped working only long enough to feed her lunch and change her diaper. I can't believe how fast the day goes. I wrap up my work, throw on some lipstick and a bra, get my daughter in her car seat, and head out.
I'm not sure who these playgroups are for: the parents or the kids. I know I go for my daughter. She just loves the other kids. And since I really don't know anyone in the area (my friends are all in the city and my family packed up and moved to Florida), she can use the socialization. I can tell the other moms look forward to the socialization just as much. Me, I never have anything to say. No let me rephrase: I try to just smile and nod. Not only is this playgroup at my husband's boss' house, I have been asked to "icksnay on the astrologyvay." These people are pretty strict with the religion. So how comfortable can I be?
I've literally thought about giving my daughter a pack of M&Ms and a can of Coke beforehand with the hope she might go berserk and pillage the house. Everyone would understand (and would be relieved!) if we left, never to return. At the very least, it would make her so hyper I'd have to chase after her the whole time, relieving me of small talk duties.
I look back at her through my rearview mirror. She catches my eye. "Hi, Mommy," she smiles. "Hi, Stella," I smile back. I sigh. I'm reminded why I'm going and suck it up.
There's a man-made pond with a fountain at the entrance of the plat, proudly named Chesterfield Estates. I pass one McMansion after another; gigantic, cookie-cutter homes plopped down on tiny plots of land. Because the neighborhood is so new, there's little to no landscaping. Despite the beauty of the houses, they look undone. It's like they're wearing expensive, designer outfits but they didn't do their hair or makeup.
I turn left into the long driveway paved with pink pavers and park behind a Lexus SUV. Marcia, the lady of the house, must have seen us pull up, because she's waiting at the door.
"Hi, Ariel. Hi, Stella," she gushes. We exchange pecks on the cheek.
They moved in only a month ago, so the inside of the house is as bleak as the outside. I walk straight into an enormous living room with ceilings over two stories high. The glare from all of the beige and white hurts my eyes. The furniture looks diminutive and lost, as if it's being consumed by all of the negative space. New carpet smell wafts up my nose.
Marcia is as innocuous as her décor. She's thin, about 5'7 and has straight, shoulder-length, blonde hair. She has big, clear, light blue eyes. She's wearing a baby-blue sweat suit and white Keds. I'd say she's in her mid-thirties. I never see her wear a stitch of makeup. She's pretty, though not in a sexy way. Always chipper and cheerful, she's a career mom and very active in her church. And judging by the size of her house, her husband is making a mint.
We walk to the kitchen in the back of the house. The playroom is right off to the side. The kids are staying inside today: the hot, August sun would bake them alive. Stella sees the other kids and runs ahead of me.
I greet the two other moms sitting at the kitchen table. I pull out an empty chair and plop down. "Man, is it hot."
"We were beginning to give up on you guys," says Helen, the woman to my right. I look down at my watch. I'm ten minutes late. Leave it to Helen to point out my tardiness.
"What would you like to drink?" chirps Marcia.
A shot of tequila. "A diet whatever you've got would be fine."
"So how are you guys?" I smile looking at Helen and Julie, who's to my left. These two women, plus Marcia and me (and of course our respective kids) make up the Thursday afternoon playgroup.
Helen grew up with Marcia. She claims she was once a dancer. If that's the case, having two kids really did a number on her body and poise. She's taller than Marcia, but built like a bruiser. She's got short, frizzy dark hair and wears these big, ugly, tortoise shell glasses. Consequently, her mouth is as big as her ass. She has some sort of problem with me. And she takes pleasure in trying to get under my skin.
Julie was Marcia's neighbor before they moved. (They only moved ten minutes away from the old house. They couldn't bear to be too far from their church.) She's a beautician. She got married pretty young--in her early 20s--and she has four kids. She's a sweet girl, but very Jersey. She sports the high hair look of 1988, has long acrylic nails, and wears lip liner at least 10 shades darker than her lipstick. I can imagine what her clients look like.
"We were just talking about Julie's situation," says Helen.
Oh God, don't tell me she's pregnant again.
"Situation?" I inquire. I nod thank you to Marcia as she hands me a Diet Coke.
Silence. Julie looks down at the table. "I think Steve is having an affair," she mutters. Her husband Steve is a local cop. Marcia reaches for her hand and squeezes it in sympathy.
This is definitely not typical playgroup conversation. Last week it was the great debate, "Blue's Clues: Steve vs. Joe."
"That's awful," I say. "Why do you think he's cheating on you?"
"For the past two months he's been working a lot of overtime, mostly night hours, you know? But I've been checkin' out his pay stubs, and I haven't seen any more money. I mean, where could he be goin'?"
"Now sweetie," says Marcia still holding her hand. "There's no need to jump to conclusions. Maybe they cut a different check for overtime."
"No, he's been on the force for 15 years, and they've always included overtime in his paycheck."
"Has he come home smelling like cheap perfume? Any lipstick on his collar?" asks Helen.
"No, none of that." she says.
"Come on, then. No perfume? No lipstick? He's not having an affair. He's probably attending some sort of meeting he doesn't want you to know about, like AA or therapy or something," reasons Helen. Her words of comfort are truly touching.
"Or maybe he's taking a ballroom dancing class," adds Marcia, trying to lighten the mood. "Your fifteenth anniversary is coming up. Maybe he wants to surprise you with a night of dancing."
Ballroom dancing? That borders on the idiotic. Personally, I don't blame Julie for being suspicious. And I'm not sure it's responsible of her friends to suggest she bury her head in the sand. I really want to stay out of this, but all of a sudden I lose control of my mouth.
"How about his cell phone bills? Have you thought to track who he's been calling? Also, are there any suspicious charges on your credit card bills? How about those?" I suggest.
Julie looks at me like I'm some sort of genius. "You know, that's a really good idea. But wait, he gets his cell phone through the force. They get the bills. But the credit cards, I can check those. Thanks so much, Ariel."
I add, "Cheaters are usually so sure they're smarter than you and slick enough not to get caught, they get sloppy and leave hints everywhere. You just have to be wise to it, that's all."
"So Ariel, how do you know so much about tracking cheaters," asks Helen. "Don't tell me there's trouble in paradise."
There she goes with her digs. She'd love to hear my husband is cheating on me. I simply reply, "From Days of Our Lives."
Marcia chimes in. "So how is Josh, Ariel? Greg says clients fight over who's going to get him next."
I have to hand it to Marcia, she takes being nice to a whole other level. Though she's not my cup of tea, I do appreciate the levity she brings to our conversations.
Ah yes, my husband, the wonderful Josh. Marcia's husband Greg (yes, no kidding, Greg and Marcia) owns a consulting firm, and Josh is his ace consultant. And in their eyes--including most everyone else's--he can do no wrong.
Actually, it's really no mystery why he's so popular. To start with, he looks like a movie star. My mail carrier once described him as the most handsome man in all of Monmouth County; my mail carrier is a 65 year-old grandfather, mind you. Josh is a slim but muscular six feet, has a full head of dark blonde hair, high cheekbones, full lips, and sparkling emerald-green eyes. When he walks into Barney's, suits jump off their hangers and just beg him to buy them.
With his Ivy-league education, he's as intelligent as he is good-looking. He's genial, polite, and a conscientious worker. And to top it all off, he comes off as so unassuming, so completely unaware of how perfect he is.
Actually, I am, too.
I never bought into that Mr. Perfect crap. I actually wouldn't date him at first because he was too good looking. That's right. I'd dated pretty boys like him before and I really didn't feel like wasting my time with another narcissistic maniac. But since we worked together for a while, I had no choice but to let him prove to me that there was substance underneath all of that beauty.
He wound up proving it to me regularly in the copy room, the janitor's room, and even once in the men's room.
It was about seven years ago. I was working as a Communications Director for a large financial institution. He was hired to come in and do some consulting work. I remember one day he just appeared, this stunning guy just sitting there at the Help Desk with the computer geeks.
"Hi, my Outlook is down again [not my disposition; Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail application]. I really need it up ASAP," I said to one of the Help Desk guys.
"Have you filled out a work order?" he asked.
"No, it just happened."
"Fill out a work order and when our manager gets back from lunch he'll send one of us over."
Now I was getting annoyed. "Look, there are four of you sitting here. Can't one of you please just come and take a look at my computer? I have to get a press release out by the end of the day, and I have to send it off to legal for approval NOW."
"Sorry, those are the rules. I don't want to get in trouble."
Grudgingly I filled out the stupid work order and marched back to my office.
Not even two minutes later Josh appeared at my door.
"So they sent the new guy over to take the axe?" I asked.
He looked at me quizzically for a second, then he got it. "Oh no, you think I work at the Help Desk? No, I'm a consultant they brought in to help with some new software."
"Oh, hi," I smiled. "I'm Ariel."
"I'm Josh. And I'm also a free agent--no work order required. Let me check out your Outlook." He sat down at my desk and went right to work. He smelled good.
"Sure," I replied.
I silently sat across from him while he worked and ate my sushi. After about five minutes, he looked up and announced the problem was fixed. Just like that.
"Thanks so much, you saved my life!" I said rushing over to my computer.
"No problem," he smiled. "Now anytime your Outlook is down, you know who to turn to."
Three years later we were married.
It starts to rain as I drive home from playgroup. I can see the heat rising from the street. I think about Julie and feel sorry for her. She's been married to her husband for her entire adult life. He's all she's ever known--her love paradigm. Now to suspect him of cheating on her; it's a kind of betrayal I just couldn't fathom. It must really suck. What would I do if I were her? I'm not sure. I guess I'd get the facts before really freaking.
By the time I get home I snap back into reality. It's already 5:00 and I've got to feed my family and be ready for my client by 7:00. It's gonna be tight. If I had a normal husband, I'd stop off and pick up a pizza. But it's Thursday night, and Thursday night is chicken night. Specifically chicken breasts baked in a light, lemon-garlic sauce, served with a side of wild rice.
Josh walks through the door around 6:15. Stella is in her highchair feasting on chicken nuggets.
"Daddy!" she squeals. I wish he would great her with the same excitement, but enthusiasm really isn't his bag. Instead he gives her a reserved, "How's it goin'?"
"Hi, Josh, how was your day?" I ask, taking the chicken out of the oven.
"Fine. Busy." He inspects the kid's dinner. "I thought you were going to start feeding Stella what we're eating for dinner."
"Yeah, I'm going to. But she asked for nuggets, today."
"You should have asked for an ice cream sundae, Stella. You might have gotten that, too." He walks over to the mail and silently starts leafing through it. Sometimes I just want to shake him. Never mind asking how my day went, can't he see I'm taking dinner out of the oven?
"Josh, dinner's ready. Please go change out of your suit and wash up. I've got a reading at 7:00."
He disappears, returns five minutes later, and slips into his seat. We start eating.
"So what did you guys do, today?" he finally asks.
"Oh, yeah, it's Thursday. How was it?"
"Good. Stella had fun."
"I managed. Actually, Julie thinks her husband is having an affair. That's what we talked about."
"Really?" He raises his eyebrow. He can't resist gossip. "Why?"
"He claims to be racking up tons of overtime hours but has no extra money to show for it."
"That's dumb. On his part, I mean."
"So you think he's having an affair?"
"Probably," he replies in a matter-of-fact tone.
I can't believe my husband already has this guy convicted and hung. "Don't you think she needs a little more evidence?"
"I guess it wouldn't hurt. But you women over-think things. Where has he been going? What has he been doing? He's a cop, he's been married to the same woman since he's a teenager, and frankly I could see him doing it. Anyway, I hope it's not true."
He changes the subject.
"Speaking of playgroup, Greg mentioned to me that Marcia invited us to a potluck picnic at their church this Sunday. You didn't say anything to me about that."
"Yeah can you imagine," I giggle. "Why, you want to go?"
"Well, he is my boss. Maybe we should."
I'm taken aback. "You can't be serious. No way. To start with, we're Catholic. Non-practicing Catholics. They're born-agains!"
"No one is asking us to join their church, Ariel. They just want us to come along and hang out."
"Well, I'm just not comfortable going to a church-related function. Sorry," I say, hopefully putting an end to the conversation.
But he's not done. "Ariel, don't you think it's in our best interest to do a little more socializing with my boss and his family?"
"Hey, I show up to Marcia's playgroup every week."
"How?" I'm getting defensive. "It's at your boss's house, hosted by your boss's wife."
He raises his voice. "Because I'm not there! It's about you and me, husband and wife, kid in-tow, socializing with the boss's family. Not just you sitting there at a playgroup."
"Look Josh, if I'm wasting my time showing up at Marcia's playgroup once a week, please let me know. I can go out and find another playgroup to go to--perhaps one in a closer neighborhood, with people I can actually talk to."
"Ariel, that's not my point!"
"Josh, don't get pissy. I'm not stupid, I get your point. You're asking me to take one for the team and go to some dumb potluck at some holy-roller church in hopes that it will better your career. And I'm trying to tell you that I think it's bullshit."
There are a few moments of silence. I want to tell him that he's living in a dream world; if he really wants to advance his career he should go into business for himself. Greg and Marcia are living a lot better than us, and apparently thanks to Josh's hard work. But I know that would start a bigger argument than we're already having, and I really don't have time for that.
"So what do I tell him, then?" he asks.
"Tell him we're busy. Better yet, tell him your wife is an astrologer and she's afraid your church will crumble to the ground if she walks through its doors." I get up from the table and put my dish in the sink. "Look, if you want to socialize with them, ask them over for drinks tomorrow night."
"Ariel! They're born-again Christians! They don't drink!" He's completely exasperated.
I know they don't drink. I'm just trying to be a pain in the ass.
"Boy, I wish they would be as considerate of our interests as we are of theirs when planning a get together."
"You know, the sarcasm is not necessary, Ariel!"
"If you need me, I'll be above the garage. My client will be here in a few minutes." I storm out of the kitchen.
The guy who owned our house before us was a psychiatrist, and he used the room above the garage as his home office. To protect the privacy of his patients, he built stairs leading up to the office on the side of the garage so they wouldn't have to go through the house and suffer the watchful eyes of his family. This arrangement works out well for my clients, too. Instead of having to ring my front door bell, they just have to do is climb the stairs and knock on the door.
As I stomp up the stairs to my office, it's still raining and sticky hot. And I'm adding to the heat by fuming over my discussion with Josh. "We're a team, Ariel." Yeah, right! Team Josh, that is.
To a fly on the wall it would probably seem that I'm not being supportive of my husband, that I'm being argumentative, even hostile. But I am so sick of how everything revolves around him. Everything. I used to socialize with interesting people, take spontaneous weekend trips, and choose whom I wanted to speak to and about what.
Now I'm expected to go to some potluck dinner at some holy-roller church for his career. Potluck dinner, my ass. I'll bring the Jell-O shots. And what about my career? I can't even talk about astrology in front of his boss' goody-goody wife at a freakin' playgroup. Shit, I don't even have control over what I want for dinner.
The second I open the door to my office, I turn on the air conditioner. I should have come up earlier and done that, but too little too late. My client will be here any moment and I need to regroup. My office is really nothing to look at: just a couch, a table and two chairs, a desk and a few astrological posters on the walls. But it's private and cozy, and I feel centered the minute I walk through the door. I flip on the stereo, which is set to a classical music station. I clear off the table in the center of the room and quickly light a patchouli-scented candle. I take a moment to stare into the flame and take a few deep breaths. Then I hear a knock.
"Come in, please," I call out.
I wait a few seconds, but no one comes in. I figure he doesn't hear me, so I go to the door and open it. What I see cracks me up--this tallish man, cigarette in one hand and an umbrella in the other, quietly tip-toeing his way back down the stairs. He's apparently changed his mind about his reading.
He quickly turns around. "Oh, hi," he says. "You must be Ariel." He smiles, but I can tell he's embarrassed he's been caught skulking away.
"You know I won't hurt you, right?" I give him a warm smile, trying to put him at ease.
"Oh, no, that's not it. I thought I'd have one more cigarette before I came in," he replies looking up to me from the bottom of the stairs.
I look back at him. Standing under his big, black umbrella with the rain teaming down around him, he reminds me of some tragic figure in a romantic 1940s movie. He takes a drag on his smoke. "Besides, I'm not sure I really want to know."
"About the future, all that stuff. I figure what I don't know won't hurt me."
"Whoa, slow down. I'm not a psychic, I'm an astrologer. Completely different. Come on up. At least get out of the rain."
He thinks for a few seconds. Then he stomps out his cigarette and starts climbing the stairs. He shakes out his umbrella and walks into the room.
"Sorry, I feel really silly. It's just that I've had a really lousy day, and I couldn't take it if you were going to tell me that things could get any worse," he says.
"Well I know all about crappy days," I laugh. "Please, sit down. Would you like something to drink?"
"Thanks. Yeah, water would be nice."
I take a good look at the guy as I pour him his water. I just did his chart, so I know he's going to be turning the big 5-0 next month, but he doesn't look a day over 40. Apparently he's a smoker, but his teeth are pearly white, and except for a few laugh lines around his bright blue eyes, he has no wrinkles. He's got a full head of dark hair that he keeps rather longish on top. I can tell he's got some money from what he's wearing--all designer stuff, tasteful but not too conservative. And for someone who has had a shitty day, he seems pretty pleasant. I bring him his water.
"Thanks," he says. "That candle smells really nice."
"Yeah, patchouli is a favorite of mine." I sit down across from him.
Silence. For like an hour it seems.
"So, you're completely different than I imagined," he says.
He's imagining me? He has that kind of time? "Oh, how so?"
"I guess I expected someone a little older, less pretty, more, more" he waves his hand, "more out-there."
This guy is priceless.
"That's a compliment, right?" I know it is.
"Yes, yes, of course!" he quickly replies. "Jeesh, I'm really batting a thousand, aren't I?"
"Forget it; I'm just playing with you. Thanks for the compliment." I lean in a little closer to the table. "I'm a Leo and I just love compliments. And as a Libra, you just love giving them. We're going to get along just fine."
"Oh, you're a Leo. My daughter's a Leo. Very spirited."
"Yes, we're a lively bunch," I smile. "So Brad, what brings you in, today? From what I've gathered, you don't seem too interested in transits, present or future. I'm assuming you want me to go over your natal chart. Am I right?"
He takes a sip of water and swallows. "A while back a friend of mine went to an astrologer in the city and he learned all sorts of things about himself. Things that years of therapy couldn't even reveal." He takes another sip of water and continues, "So I have a pretty big birthday coming up next month, and I'm still confused about what makes me tick, what would make me happy, my purpose in life, all that jazz. I'm hoping maybe you can shed some light for me once and for all."
OK, this is different. Up until now I've done readings for housewives wondering if it's the right time to have another baby. This guy wants self-actualization. Tall order, but it can be done.
"No problem. We'll probably need more than one session, but I'd be happy to work with you on this. It'll be fun."
"Oh, how so?"
"I just love digging into a natal chart, looking at it every which way. It's interesting. And you know, astrology does have many of the answers you're looking for. For example, I know why I have a hard time being bossed around--Saturn in Aries in the 6th house. I know why I love to talk about psychology, power, and all sorts of "deep" stuff--Moon in Gemini in the 8th house. But unfortunately, I've found that merely understanding what makes you tick isn't enough to make you giddy. It's what you do with this information, the practical application of this knowledge, that'll make you happy."
"Sure. I totally understand."
"By the way, I'm curious--how come you came to me and not that uber-astrologer your friend went to in the city?"
"Well, I haven't spoken to that friend in a while." He hesitates. "He's actually my ex-wife's best friend's husband, and we really don't have much to do with each other anymore. I actually forgot all about our conversation about astrology until recently when I saw your flyer in this new age bookstore."
"Oh, really?" I'm rather surprised. "You're into new age literature?"
"No, actually, I'm really into Thai food. I was picking up take-out from this Thai restaurant and I was waiting for my order to be finished. So I strolled next door to this bookstore to pass some time. That's where I saw your ad."
"Ah yes. I know exactly the bookstore and the restaurant you're talking about. Great Pad Thai. I go there for lunch occasionally."
"Not dinner? They have great specials at dinner."
"No, not dinner. My husband is not a big fan of Thai food. Too spicy. And he hates coconut. He thinks all Thai food has coconut in it."
He sincerely shakes his head. "Oh, that's a shame."
Yes, it is a shame on so many levels, I think.
We continue to chitchat for a while, then I realize we're already 40 minutes into our hour session and we haven't even started on his chart. "So Brad, where shall we start? How about with your Sun sign. What do you know about being a Libra?"
"Hmmm ... We're charming, artistic, social, shallow, self-indulgent, flirtatious, indecisive, argumentative, moody..."
I interrupt him. "Whoa. Slow down. Apparently you've done some research on your Sun sign, but where are you getting your information? Is there an anti-Libra movement going on that I should know about?"
"I'm just reiterating a conversation I recently had with my ex-wife," he replies sardonically.
I see the guy has a dark sense of humor. Right up my alley. "Oh, I see. Well your, or should I say her definition of a Libra is a little skewed with negativity. Sure it's accurate to say every sign has its good points and bad points. But there are far more good things to say about Libras than you mentioned. Libras are very fair people. They're romantic, stylish, great at parties, and are masters of compromise and getting along with others. By the way, what is she? Your ex-wife, I mean."
"She's a lot of things. But I'm assuming you want to know her sign. She's a Sagittarius. By the way, are Sagittarius and Libra compatible?"
"Normally. Fire and air get along. But I'd have to see what else is going on your charts."
"You can do that? You can tell if two people can get along by comparing their two charts?"
"Well, yeah. It's called a compatibility, or more accurately, a synastry reading. It's a pretty popular request among my clients."
"How accurate are you? Do you have any statistical data? Marriages-to-date, stuff like that?"
"No, sorry. No Power Point presentation. But let's get something straight. I'm not pulling my information out of a crystal ball. Astrology is pretty definitive. It' our free will that makes or breaks our relationships."
He lets out a poignant laugh. "I hear that!"
I grab his glass, get up from the table and refill it. "So now that we've covered your Sun Sign a bit, any questions?"
"Yeah. I'm curious. What's the best match for a Libra?"
Back to the relationship stuff. Typical. I sigh and sit back down. "I get that question a lot. I can give you the whole run down of how the masculine signs, fire and air, get along best with each other, and the feminine signs, earth and water, get along best with each other. Then again, some astrologers are really into the whole polar opposite thing, though I'm not sold on that as the ideal. The truth is, you have to compare two people's charts, their planets, their houses, their aspects, to find out if they're truly compatible with each other."
"OK. So you just can't tell me if a Libra gets along with a Sagittarius. It's too deep," he muses.
I can see the wheels turning behind his blue eyes. "But before you told me that Leo is compatible with Libra, did you not?"
"Yes, as a general rule. They're both positive, masculine signs. Fire and air. But that doesn't mean you're going to get along with every Leo you meet, and vice versa."
He smiles. "Give me an example, then. Me and you. Beyond the whole masculine, air, fire, water, whatever you're talking about, explain to me if we're compatible."
I'm silent for a few seconds. I don't know what to say. Finally I ask, "Why?"
"To help me better understand." He gives me a sly look and drinks his water. I can't tell if he's playing with me or is being sincere.
He's the client, it's his money, so I concede. "Alright then, give me a minute or two to see." I look down at his chart.
"Don't you need your chart to compare it against?" he asks.
"No, it's all up here," I point at my head.
"Impressive," he says.
I decide to keep it basic and start to compare some of our personal planets.
While I'm working, Brad tries to break the silence with some babbling. "I like the music, by the way. Classical is very relaxing. Can't stand that new age stuff, though. Glad you're not playing it. Do you mind if I step out and have a smoke while you do that?"
"It's raining," I respond, not looking up. My eyes are darting around his chart. "Smoke in here."
"Oh, I couldn't possibly impose. I don't get the sense you're a smoker."
"Recovering. I'm a recovering smoker. Haven't had a cigarette in three years," I reply.
"Wow, that's great. How'd you quit?"
"A dear friend of mine died of lung cancer. That and a good hypnotist snapped me out of it."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I'll at least blow it out the door," he says getting up.
Blow it toward me, please, I think. Conjunction here, trine there, sextile here, conjunction, trine, trine, sextile ... I'm surprised I didn't see any of this before while I was doing his chart earlier. But then again, why would I have? What the hell am I doing, anyway? I thought he wanted to self-actualize. And now I find myself, a married woman, comparing my chart with another man's to see if we're compatible. I look up at him. He's standing in the doorway staring at the rain and dragging on a cigarette. So what do I say?
I decide a quick and factual approach is the best way to go. "OK, to answer your question, yes."
"Pardon, I'm sorry?" He snaps to attention. Apparently, he was starting to zone. "Yes, to what?"
"If we're astrologically compatible. I did a very quick run through, and all in all, I would say yes."
He raises his eyebrow. "Oh, OK then. How so?"
"Well, our personal planets either trine or sextile each other's. And we both have the same Ascendant and Moon sign. Basically we're pretty similar in the way we deal with our emotions and relationships. And quite a few of our planets fall in the same houses. I mean, I could go way, way deeper than this and dig out tons of details, but this should suffice to briefly answer your question."
He grins. "Interesting." He stomps out his smoke, closes the door, and sits back down. "Ascendant? What's that?"
"It's also known as your Rising Sign. It's the exact degree of the sign rising over the horizon the minute you were born. It's the ruler of your chart. It's often called your astrological mask because it's the side of yourself that you let the public or strangers see. In theory, once they get to know you, then they get to know the real you, which is your Sun sign, Libra."
He starts tapping his fingers. He's thinking. "So what's my Ascendant?"
"Scorpio," I reply.
"And that means..."
"That means that when you meet someone new, you put on this sort of Scorpio mask until you get comfortable. So before you let on that you're really a charming, personable Libra, you give off this rather intense vibe and appear kind of quiet and watchful."
He gets wide-eyed. "Oh yeah, that's true. People actually think I'm shy when I first meet them. I'm just sizing them up. It takes me a while to trust people. So you have this too?"
It's not a disease, I think to myself. "Yep."
"So what else does it mean to have a Scorpio Rising?" he asks.
"Passion. Scorpio is the sign of passion and since the Ascendant rules our chart we're often ruled by our passions. Things are usually black and white with us--we're not into grey areas. Plus, once we get obsessed with something, whether it's our work, a creative project, or even another person, watch out. Nothing gets in our way."
"I can see that..." he says out loud, though it seems like he's talking more to himself.
I look up at the clock, "You know, our hour is up. But, I have a couple of really good books I'll lend you that do a great job of explaining Rising signs, Moon signs, Venus signs, etc. Take home your chart, look up your planets and read up on them. That way when we meet next time we can talk about how everything works together."
"Great. Thanks, I appreciate it. So when can we meet again?"
"Same time next week?'
"Fine with me. I'm in the area. Thursday is my day off."
"In the area?" I'm a little confused.
"Oh, my main residence is in the city. That's where my job is."
"Really? A place in the city and the suburbs?" I say walking him to the door. I hope I'm not prying but I'm curious.
"I was born and raised in the city. But my ex-wife now lives out here with her husband. Since we share custody of our two kids, I got a place out here too. They stay with me Monday night through Thursday afternoon. I'm going back to the city tonight."
"Well, drive safely," I say.
"Thank you." He hands me a check. I'm glad he remembered to pay me because I would have forgotten to ask. He gives me a dimpled smile. "I'm glad you caught me trying to get away earlier. It was nice meeting you, Ariel."
"You too, Brad. See you next week."
He opens his umbrella, descends the stairs, gets into a big, silver-grey BMW and drives away. I turn back into the room, which seems uncomfortably empty now. I gather my things and lock the door behind me. As I make my way into the house, I have a burning desire for a cigarette.