Bina placed the six neon signs ten feet apart in both directions. The boardwalk celebration was kicking off at 6pm but the growing number of pedestrians was already twice what the shop owners would typically see. She noticed that Paulito, the baker, had already placed his A-boards 20 feet apart. She shook her head. He was so disciplined, so on top of things. Something she struggled with constantly. One week she would wake up at 5am to meditate. The next week she would rush in at 11am, having missed the early morning walkers and breakfast with the neighbors.
Every morning, seven of the eight owners from Strip A would sit at the solitary picnic table across from the shops. There were no official leaders, though Paulito and Nilsa seemed to shine in that respect. They were both quite responsible. Paulito brought the food and Nilsa provided good topics to discuss. Both also owned the two more popular shops on the strip. Paulito sold the best pandebono on the beach, and Nilsa’s clients booked their waxing appointments weeks in advance. The other six shops were as random as they were small. Eddie owned a tattoo parlor but in just one year had made two tragic spelling errors gaining him the name Eraser Eddie. Rita sold roses, Tommy Gun managed an exotic fish store, and Estafani doubled as a nutritionist and travel agent.
Bina's shop was just as eclectic. For twenty dollars she promised to point you in the direction of true love. Her signs provided practical warnings that led clients to her door, "Pay twenty now. Avoid alimony later." All one had to do was enter her cliche shop, sit at the classic round table and look into her eyes. After holding your hands in place for just a moment she could answer the age-old question “am I with the one?”.
Her scam was simple. First, she would make certain you paid before any "reading" took place. If the client was a male she would pay attention to how much they would fidget as they glanced around the room. If they placed their hands in their pockets or asked several questions she predetermined that her answer would be "no". Years of failed relationships had provided her enough insight to know that when a man felt he was with "the one" no differing notion could stand a chance. Hence, the more nervous a man displayed to be, the less assured he was in his own decision.
Similarly, the women had their own telling signs. If the woman treated the encounter like a joke, something fun to do with her friends as they strolled along the boardwalk, Bina determined the answer would also be “no”. Women who appeared relaxed and unbothered by the twenty dollars had no skin in the game. They didn't care about the answer because they weren’t really asking the question.
Placing her last sign she walked back towards the colorful huts on the edge of the boardwalk. Her's was painted a cosmic purple with pink galactic swirls that made it stand out though it was the last one in the row. Her neighbors had requested that she spruce their shops up as well but she had never gotten around to it .
She burst into Paulito's bakery and was immediately enveloped in the smell of rising bread.
"Què lo què, Paulito? We doing this thing or not?" She yelled from the door. The shop was small enough to not garner the volume but alas, Bina was Bina. Noticing the man sitting by the window she piped down a bit and approached the counter. From the back she heard Paulito's raspy voice come through the swinging door.
"Yes, but go without me. I have a customer and the first batch is almost done. When I’m done with him I'll come right out."
"You know I don't like going without you and Nilsa already has four people waiting so she's not coming."
"Okay, sit down y esperame." He responded, the sound of metal trays dancing between his words.
"Y'all have a hot date?" The customer asked, smiling as he cooled his tea.
"Who? Me and Paulito?" Bina asked, returning the smile, "Absolutely. We meet everyday, at the same cafe, 6:30, I know, I know he'll be there." She sang to Billy Paul’s tune.
The man chuckled immediately. He was handsome in an ordinary way, simple, with nothing extravagant about his attire nor the form in which he styled his hair. He did however have a small medallion hanging from his neck which bore the image of a twisted tree encircled in colors. Bina's eyes were drawn to it and he noticed right away.
"Do you like it?" He asked, placing his hand on the pendant.
"I do, actually. The tree of life right? With the seven chakras?" She asked, effortlessly impressing him.
"Wow! No one ever knows that. Yeah it is. You're into chakras and things like that?"
"Uhm you can say that." She answered with a grin. "I own the shop a few doors down."
"Oh wow the psychic reading one?" The man perked up in his seat. "That's so dope. I wanted to pass by when I left here but the door says you don’t open until nine."
"Yeah, but I’m opening up a bit early today. We’re all trying to catch the crowd."
"Yeah, it's going to get pretty wild out here tonight." He said, glancing out the window.
"That's what we're hoping for. You'd be surprised to learn how influential alcohol can be in my line of work."
The man laughed again. Eyes disappearing beneath cheeks so high they seem to swallow them whole.
"Oh I'm sure it is very helpful. So what is it that you claim to do?"
"Claim? Claim? I'll have you know that I can predict the survival rate of your current relationship with a whopping fifty percent accuracy."
"And if we add alcohol to that mix that rises to what? Ninety percent?"
“Ninety-seven...if I'm being modest." Bina countered.
"You're awesome." He blurted, not noticing his eyes had not left hers.
"Ha! Thanks, I try." She said, turning away from him. "Yo Paulito, what's good my man?" She shouted again, in an obvious attempt to hide her growing shyness.
"If there's one thing you can't rush in this life, Bina, it’s..."
"Bread. I know, I know." Bina interrupted. "That's his signature phrase." She said looking back at the man.
"It's a good one."
"I think so too, but I'd never tell him." She whispered.
"Do you love what you do?"
"Uhm, that's a good question.” She paused. “I do, I mean, I do sometimes, but like every other job, sometimes it's not that great."
"Oh like when you have to tell someone that they're not with the right person?"
"Well, no, that's not that difficult. Most of the people that get a no already knew that before they came to ask. They’re just looking for confirmation.”
"So what don’t you like about it?" He asked.
"I mean, I doubt it’s my calling, you know? I’d rather be making art. I love drawing and experimenting with colors. I love the feeling I get when I finish a piece. I mean, they may not be masterpieces but when they’re completed, it really feels like they are.” She answered, lost in her own words. “But, I mean, I barely finish anything nowadays.”
“Why not? Why are you more committed to doing what you don’t love?”
She deemed the question sharp. The man didn’t know this but the truth was she had placed more effort in opening the sham shop than she ever did in showcasing her art. Doubt and the constant negative self-talk consumed her daily. And as she considered these thoughts she began to experience feelings she had always reserved for the privacy of her heart.
"I mean, I’m sure the right answer is that I’m holding myself back, and that I shouldn’t do that. But honestly that’s easier said than done. I have a lot of fear, you know? Like all the time, it’s my default setting. I feel stupid the moment I let anyone see my work. Sharing things that are so personal to me makes me feel…I don’t know…I don’t like it.” She said, growing slightly annoyed. “And honestly, that was a really invasive question.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The man quickly apologized. “I didn’t mean it to be. Your answer was really…transparent. Thank you for sharing it with me.”
This infuriated Bina even more.
"Here is the pandebono, my friends! I have the ones for the neighbor too. So take this tray, Bina, and I’ll bring the coffee."
Paulito's voice pierced through the cosmic tension that suspended the pair.
"Oh. Wow. Yes, Paulito! Awesome. Thanks. Finally!" Bina stammered, a series of incongruent thoughts, disoriented by the honesty of that whole exchange. A bit bewildered and recoiling at an alarming rate, she walked towards Paulito and took the warm tray.
The man quickly rose to open the door as she dashed towards the exit. He too seemed a bit disheveled. Realizing he had upset her he offered to carry the tray.
Bina was far too disoriented by her own vulnerability to be in his presence a moment longer and refused the help almost immediately.
"Thank you but I got it. It was nice chatting. Go get your pandebono, you’ll love it." She said, walking past him.
"Oh okay, cool. Yeah, thanks." The man responded, not wanting her to leave. "Man, it was really nice talking to you." He blurted.
"Yeah. I enjoyed it too." She said, still walking.
"Hey, listen, I’m sorry if I offended you. I really didn’t mean to, I just hope you start doing what you love, you know? Finishing more paintings." He shouted at her back, in one last desperate attempt.
"I will. I really will. Thanks." She said, turning around to face him with a smile that didn’t match the sadness in her eyes.
Off she went in the direction of the beach as Eraser Eddie rubbed his large stomach in an exaggerated fashion. Bina reached the table with an unfocused chuckle and placed the tray in the center. She sat facing the ocean, picking away at the once anticipated bread with very little interest.
"Nilsa is not gonna make it. Look at her line now." Eddie said with a mouthful.
Bina looked back towards Nilsa's shack. Two new clients had joined the line. From the corner of her eye she caught the brown skinned man leaving Paulito's shop. He was looking in her direction and she quickly turned around to face the waves.
"Oh que cute." Estafani said, nudging Rita.
"Yes, berry cute." Rita responded. "Berry, berry. I see him in Paulito's window talking to Bina."
"Oh Bina! New boyfriend?" Estafani exclaimed. "No, Bina, no! Give this new one to me.” She said, just as Paulito approached the group.
"Get out of here." Bina said with a weak smile.
"Here's the coffee." Paulito interrupted.
"Oye what happened today, Paulito? We’ve been waiting!" Estafani protested.
"I had an early customer, and boy was he a talker, right Bina? Chatty, chatty.”
"Oh so y'all were copulating!" Eraser Eddie teased.
"Spell it." Bina countered, making Estafani spit out her coffee. “I was just being friendly.” She added, poking Eddie’s belly.
"Right." Rita jumped in. "I 27 years friendly with my husband."
The group laughed, heads cocked back, mouths full of bread.
"He said he would try to come back again tonight." Paulito shared.
"Oh, cool." Bina replied with an air of indifference that didn’t fool Paulito.
For hours Bina’s focus was on the expected return of the brown-skinned man. She had more foot traffic than she ever expected yet she was distracted. The crowd was pleasant. Nearly everyone was tipsy and well fed, with fun new trinkets they'd acquired along their walk. Even Rita and Estafani’s customers were walking out with multiple bags. Any other night this would have made for the perfect evening. But Bina was tense. Anxious. Desperately desiring for the talkative man to return, but not fully understanding why.
As she reached for an unopened box of crystals, the golden bells that hung from the top of her door rattled against each other. Bina turned around in jumpy anticipation. In came her best friend Deena. Deena had greeted her friend in the same way for the past five years and tonight was no exception.
"Who's the Bina to my Deena?" She said, arms wide open as she approached.
"Ha! I am!" Bina exclaimed. Relieved to see it was only her friend.
"Man, it's popping out here tonight. There's a bit of crowd right outside your door. Do you have wine or champagne? We can pour some out in plastic cups to lure more people in." She said, already heading towards the back of the room to check.
"Oh that's a good idea. I have an open bottle of red back there. We can use that." Bina replied.
"Girl, I brought the boy I met online to walk the strip with me but he doesn't want to come inside. He’s talking about how he doesn't believe in this kind of stuff. And I’m like, ‘oh, but you believe in online dating.’" Deena chatted from beyond the beaded curtain.
Immediately Bina glanced towards the door. It was too dark to make out Deena’s new interest. But just as her stomach began to tighten, the brown-skinned man entered the shop. His eyebrows furrowed in clear anguish.
"Oh you decided to come in." Deena exclaimed, holding the bottle of wine.
"Bina, this is my new friend, Oliver. Oliver, this is my old friend, Bina."
This was the first time the pair had heard each other's names.
"Oliver." Bina repeated, not realizing she had whispered it.
"Yeah. He needs a reading.” Deena continued. “We have to know if this online thing is going to work for us. You know how many frogs I’ve kissed, but I think we may have a prince in our hands. He’s a Scorpio, so there’s that issue, but apart from that we’re kinda compatible. We both like skating and watching dance competitions. I mean if you ask me, what else is needed in a successful marriage, right? He says he doesn't believe in any of this but I told him it's because he hasn't had a reading by the master herself. My best friend, Bina the Mystic Diva."
Deena grabbed Oliver by the hand and sat him at Bina's table. She flipped the “Do Not Disturb the Spirits” tag on the door and clapped her hands in excitement.
"Oh, uhm, right now? I mean sure, but shouldn't we serve the wine first?" Bina asked, attempting to distract Deena. But Oliver was already sitting down and Deena tended to be impatient.
"Yeah, I’ll do it afterwards. Just give him the quick best friend special. Oliver, you have to give her your hands and stare into her eyes. That's how she does it."
"Okay." Is all Oliver could muster.
Bina sat at the table and extended her hands towards Oliver. Her mind raced as she contemplated what she would say next. If she told the pair that they weren’t meant to be, Deena would be annoyed with her, upset that she had not played along. She considered explaining herself afterwards. Letting Deena know that she had met Oliver earlier that day and had felt a connection. But this would reveal two crucial truths that she was not yet ready to accept. One, that she liked Oliver; and two, that she was selfish enough to suggest that her ten minute conversation was worth more than whatever Deena had already begun to establish with him.
On the other hand, if she said yes, Oliver would know that she was truly not interested in him. She had already refused to continue the conversation earlier today, had even given him her back as he called out to her. A third act of indifference would be difficult to surpass.
"Do it!" Deena insisted.
Finally looking up, Bina gazed into Oliver's eyes as she clasped his hands in hers.
Suddenly, as if struck by lightning, the room was bathed in blinding white light. Images of her and Oliver danced around the room as if they were on a merry-go-round. She saw herself crying in the shop. Saw herself dancing with Oliver on a dark beach. In another image she saw herself with a full round belly that Oliver kept kissing over and over again. She blinked in confusion and the images were gone. The room reappeared as it had been, warm lighting coming from obscure lamps, and Deena sitting on the side stool anxiously awaiting the result.
Bina looked back at Oliver. From the way he glanced around the room she was certain he too had seen something. His hands rested gently within hers and she realized she was gripping them rather tightly. Immediately she let them go, straightening herself out in the chair.
"So what did you see?" Deena questioned, wrapping her arms around Oliver's neck.
“What?” Bina asked in terror.
“Are we meant to be or not?”
Bina glanced over at her friend and back at Oliver.
"I saw...I think I saw...well, between you and us, Oliver, this is all a joke. You don't really have to pay twenty dollars. Deena is just an awesome friend that supports everything I do."
"No, I think you're the real deal." Oliver responded, with an air of seriousness that Bina could sense immediately.
"So what’s the verdict, Bina Bee? Am I the one for him?" Deena asked, her wonderful smile draping across her face.
"Yes. Yes, you are, friend." Bina responded, dropping her gaze.
"Ha! I knew it!" Deena exclaimed, kissing Oliver on the cheek. "See, I told you Bina would confirm it. We're a work of art, baby"
"Yeah," Oliver responded, taming his bitterness, "an unfinished painting."