There is a beauty parlor in San José where lonely hearts go.
Off San José’s main thoroughfare, Avenida 2, below a residential tower, down a flight of stairs into an underground arcade, the beauty parlor sits hidden in an alcove at the back of the small mall.
Styling chairs upholstered in shiny forest green vinyl line a wall-length mirror and stand out against the institutional pale green walls. A woman sits getting her hair cut as two young children with gelled and spiked hair run in between the chairs.
Past the salon, a small waiting room sits at the bottom of another flight of stairs, its three walls lined with a hodgepodge of small black chairs. A man wearing glasses reclining against the back wall rises to meet us.
“We’re here to see don Julio about the cards,” I say.
Julio, which is not his real name, is a tarot card reader. We’ve come to see how someone finds love in the cards.
The bespectacled man nods with a smile and opens a small door cut into the wall to consult with the card reader. After getting his approval, the man gestures to the cupboard door and we duck inside, half bending, half standing, as my photographer and I introduce ourselves.
Julio sits on a stool in what looks like a converted closet with a small wooden table in front of him and a tarot deck in his hands. Julio’s salt-and-pepper hair is cut short and combed back. The cupboard’s only light is a single unshaded incandescent bulb. The room is hot, like an Easy-Bake Oven. I start to sweat in the cramped space but Julio seems at home in his den. His pink dress shirt is unbuttoned halfway down his thin chest, the only sign that he too feels the muggy heat of the room.
“The cards tell many things, not just about love,” Julio says, starting to shuffle the worn deck.
He flips the cards face up, one by one, until he reaches one with a single, roughly hewn club.
“If the club faces this way,” he says, indicating up, “it means love. But if it’s like this,” he says, turning it upside down, “it means there is a betrayal; they’re cheating on you.”
Betrayals, or at least the fear of them, are one of the main reasons people come looking for answers in Julio’s cards, he says. That, and love lost.
Julio, who asked us not to photograph his face, has been reading cards and people’s fortunes for 23 years.
He says that people should be ready for love, even if they’re not looking for it.
“There are older women who say they don’t care about love, but if I read love in their future I’ll tell them. Could be that their husband left them 20 years ago and I say, well, your husband’s coming back. You need to prepare for love to re-enter your life.”
He picks up the deck again as he speaks, the noise of the shuffling cards rolling like a snare drum.
Julio says that after he reads the cards, he sometimes offers to cast a spell, or a “job,” as he calls it, to nudge a beau-to-be into reach. Besides tarot cards, Julio works with perfumes. He might send someone off with a list of herbs to buy from one of the fragrant spice stalls of the Central Market, or to a casa esotérica, a shop that specializes in powders, essential oils and the other shopping needs of anyone looking to change their luck in love.
One such shop we passed that day displayed simple white packages advertising love spells with talismans and tubes of what looked like brightly colored rock candy. Some packages promised more aggressive results: “Dominate your mate” or “Tame the stud.” Others, snickering guarantees of potency: “Mattress Breaker” or “Panty Puller.”
“If I read in the cards that the lover won’t come back, I won’t cast a spell,” Julio says. “If your girlfriend leaves you and I see there was cheating, lies. No matter what you do, she’s not coming back.”
Less scrupulous practitioners of his craft could charge someone upwards of half a million colones, $1,000, for spells, he says. Julio, however, prefers to avoid legal troubles and contents himself with prescribing perfumes.
“People are very desperate, especially in love … Especially in love,” Julio says, shaking his head.
If I’m looking for love in time for Valentine’s Day, I might be out of luck.
“If I do a love spell for both of you,” Julio says, gesturing to the two of us, “maybe his will work in 15 days; maybe yours will work in two months, six months. Why? I can read the cards very well, and they may say something very good. But only God knows the time.”