Last night, I read in Denver at the Tattered Cover
Bookstore, one of my favorite bookstores in the world (along with Powell's, of course). I went to college in Fort Collins, and my friends and I would often drive to Denver to attend readings at the Tattered Cover. It was sort of surreal to be back as an author.
The last time I was in the store was about six years ago. My college roommate and I drove down to hear Margaret Atwood read. On the way, we stopped to have our fortunes told at Psychic Readings by Kay, which was next to the highway in a little house under a big neon sign. We told each other that we weren't going to take it seriously. We were mostly curious what sort of readings one could get by the side of the highway. We thought it would be a kick.
My roommate went in first and came back to report that it had been a big success: Psychic Kay had told her that she was going to fall in love and travel the world and make lots of money. Then I went in. Kay studied my palm for a few solid minutes, then pursed her lips, leaning forward to get a closer look. "Have you been practicing witchcraft?" she asked.
"Well," she said. "You have very dark energy around you. Someone has put a curse on you."
This seemed entirely unlikely. I was an English Lit. major. I worked part time in a bookstore. Who would be cursing me and why? My manager at the bookstore sometimes got disgusted with me for forgetting to clock back in from my lunch breaks, but I couldn't imagine that this would inspire him to turn to the dark arts.
I pulled my hand away from Kay. "What kind of curse?"
She shook her head ? the news was not good. "Your energy is blocked," she told me. "You will be stagnant, unable to move forward in love or work. You will be a failure."
Even as I was reminding myself that I didn't believe in any of this hokey roadside psychic crap to begin with, I could feel myself starting to panic. Blocked? Stagnant? Failure?
"Don't worry," Psychic Kay said and patted my hand. "I sell magic stones. They will lift the curse."
Magic stones, it turns out, do not come cheap. Kay's cost between three and five hundred dollars, depending on how quickly one wanted one's curse lifted. But the bookstore job paid minimum wage, and I had to eat and pay rent. I could not afford magic stones. So I paid Kay my fifteen dollars for the reading and she showed me to the door, shaking her head at the hopelessness of my situation.
After that, my roommate and I drove the forty minutes to Denver in near silence. It wasn't that I believed in curses or magic stones or Psychic Kay. But her words had shaken me all the same. I was a few months away from graduating from college. I'd applied to three MFA programs, been rejected by two, and was still waiting to hear from the third. I was in a relationship that was not going to last. At the time, I couldn't admit this to myself or anyone else. But still, I knew it: the relationship was ending. And Psychic Kay, she knew it too. She saw it. Not in my palm, but in my eyes. I was edgy and nervous and scared to death of what was just around the corner. What a perfect opportunity to unload some magic rocks.
Enter Margaret Atwood.
I was fourteen when I read The Handmaid's Tale. It was the first book I'd ever read that really got inside my skin. When I was finished with the book, I remember thinking that the world looked different, that it was wider, bigger, more open in someway. It made me want to pay attention. It made me want to write.
She read from The Blind Assassin that night at the Tattered Cover, then took questions from the audience. I don't remember many particulars, just that she was funny and self-deprecating and a little odd. My roommate and I stood in line to get our books signed, and I tried to think what I should say to Margaret Atwood when it was my turn, how I could ever begin to explain how important her writing had been to me, how important it continued to be. I wanted to be eloquent and concise and sincere in my gratitude. Instead, I handed her my book, paused for a moment to get the words just right, then said, "I love you."
She cocked her head slightly as she signed. "Thanks."
"No," I told her. "I mean, I really love you."
Beside me, my roommate covered her face with her hands.
Margaret Atwood handed my book back and put her hand over mine. "I really love you too."
As we crossed the parking lot to our car, my roommate turned to me. "Margaret Atwood just told you she loved you," she said.
She thought about this for a moment. "She totally lifted your curse."
A week later, the third and final graduate school accepted me into their program. I moved to Montana, where I wrote my first short story, where I fell in love. Was this the work of Margaret Atwood's magical powers? Probably not.
But just in case: Margaret, wherever you are, I still love you.