Joyland

Toronto |

Valentine's Day

by Peter Norman

edited by Kathryn Mockler

1

On Valentine’s Day, he writes a word on an index card. Before leaving for work, he puts it inside a gilded box on Lea’s dresser. Every year it’s a different word; it’s meant to describe her. He uses a thesaurus to help him. This year he’s settled on melliferous.

But when he rises on the morning of the 14th, he forgets to leave the box on her dresser. First time in over a quarter century; just clean forgets. He laughs it off that evening, shows her the card, everything’s fine.

But inside, Lea freaks.

She takes it as omen. 2-14-02. Whenever she sees a 2 or a 14, she panics. She finds herself glancing at licence plates, scrambling the digits of phone numbers to determine their mathematical relationship to 1, 2 and 4.

She’s never been superstitious. Never given numbers much thought at all. He’s the accountant.

She wonders if he’s having an affair, which might have distracted him on Valentine’s morning. Perhaps his lover is a 28-year-old—double 14. Or maybe he has simply fallen out of love with Lea over 28 years of marriage. Or is a genetic prophecy being fulfilled in his cells, the 14th chromosome in the 2nd helix, the senility gene? He will grow forgetful, then comatose, and he will be stolen from her.

Tension and headaches force her from work for two weeks. Insomnia relegates her to the couch in the TV room, where she sits up all night watching infomercials.

 

2

In the earliest hours of March 21st (4-21), while watching a promo for Inner Visions Psychic Network, she spies its phone number scrolling along the bottom of the screen: 1-900-214-2014. Heat flares up in her chest. This can’t be real. She’s tired, she’s not seeing straight. Yet there it is, flowing along the screen’s edge, over and over, unchanging: 2, 14, 2014. The day her husband forgot the card. She calls.

An operator shunts her through to a woman of indeterminate age, who asks for her name and birth date. “So what do you want to talk about, Lea? Love, money, health?”

Lea wants to come back with, You tell me, you’re the psychic. Instead, she just says, “Love.”

“Okay.” A silence. “I’m seeing something troubling your heart, some emotional disturbance. Does this have to do with a man, Lea? Or a woman? Someone close to you?”

Well, duh. This is rampant fraud. Is Lea going to provide all the actual info while this charlatan states the obvious? But Lea follows the lead. “I’m worried about my husband. I think ... I’m not sure he loves me anymore. Is he having an affair?”

“Lea, tell me the first letter of your husband’s name, and his date of birth.”

Lea sighs. “Forget it,” she says. “I’m not worried about my husband. I’d better go. How long have we been talking now?” $5.99 a minute, the infomercial had warned.

Naturally, the psychic doesn’t want to let Lea go. “Hold on a second, Lea. I’m getting something strong here. Um ... something about ... about numbers.”

An army of frigid ants tramps up and down Lea’s spine. “Yes?”

“Yes, some numbers that you should ... um ... avoid. Two dangerous numbers.”

“What are they?”

“Give me a second here, it’s not too clear yet ... it’s just coming into focus ...”

Dead air, at these extortion rates? Lea is about to hang up in disgust, when:

“There they are! Three and fifteen.”

Three and fifteen! 2 + 1 and 14 + 1. This is too much; Lea can’t handle any more. “Thank you,” she says weakly, and hangs up. She trembles as she slumps back on the couch, its warm, white nest of sheets.

Her husband appears in the doorway. “You okay, hon? I thought I heard you talking.”

Lea can’t look at him. The TV is still on; the psychic infomercial has given way to another 30-minute ad, this one promoting ... Lea isn’t sure. Strippers? Dance poles? “I’m fine,” she says. “Just talking in my sleep, I guess.”

“Mm.” He has been less than thrilled about this new sleeping arrangement. Why the change? When did it begin, anyway? Sometime in February? He can’t quite be sure. Anyway, it’s been a royal drag, and now Lea’s sick pay is just about up and she shows no sign of being ready to return to work. Can they afford an expensive psychiatrist? Do they need one? Or is Lea just being self-indulgent? He can’t tell anymore. He retreats from the doorway, trudges upstairs. He settles into the big bed, too big for one man, settles back into the rut his body has worn in the mattress. He is fast asleep within seconds, and oblivious when the phone rings.

Lea stares at it. Who the hell would be calling at 3 a.m.? Prankster? Family emergency? Her sister’s been under the weather for seventeen years but is never in mortal danger. Both her parents are dead.

But nothing shows on the call display; the screen is dark. The voicemail is set to kick in after four rings, but it doesn’t. The phone keeps blaring. Five, six, seven, and finally Linda picks up.

“Lea, this is Rosetta from Inner Visions Psychic Network. We spoke a few minutes ago.”

Lea doesn’t say anything. She winds the phone cord between two fingers. It’s getting insolubly knotty.

 “Lea, I’m sorry I wasn’t so sharp when you called,” continues Rosetta. “It’s early in my shift. I always start out groggy.”

“That’s fine. What do you want?”

“Uh, this is kind of awkward, but I’m not really supposed to call you? I’m supposed to let you call me, so you can pay. Hang up and call the network again; request me, and we’ll talk.”

“Rosetta, I can’t really afford to call you guys. It’s a lot of money. What’s this about?”

“Valentine’s Day. When your husband forgot the card.”

Lea slams down the phone, dials the number with a trembling finger “Rosetta, please.”

“Thanks for calling back. Look, I know you were really upset about Valentine’s Day. You’ve become fixated on the numbers 2 and 14 because your husband—whose name begins with D, by the way—forgot to leave the card in the box on your dresser before he left for work.”

“Okay, you’ve proven yourself. Now tell me what I want to know.”

“He feels distant from you.”

“I knew it. Why? What is it? Another woman?”

“It’s this anxious phase you’re going through. It’s such a strain for him. He sleeps alone. He worries his income will have to support both of you. He knows you’re troubled, but you won’t tell him why. He thinks you’ve lost the desire for intimacy with him. He needs to support you emotionally, Lea. He needs to feel needed.”

“Then why the fuck did he forget about the Valentine’s Day card?”

“He was out of sorts that morning. He’d had an upsetting dream. He dreamed he was married to another woman.”

“So it is another woman!”

“It was a dream, Lea. And it wasn’t a real woman.”

“He dreamed of ... what? An inflatable doll?”

“An imaginary woman. Nonexistent.”

“So he has a dream woman, and it’s not me.”

“He dreamed you came over for tea at his and his wife’s home. He had this feeling that somehow, in some alternative life, he was married to you. This other woman pouring tea was his wife, and wedding pictures were all over the house. Thousands of them, he realized as he looked around. Covering every surface of table and wall, even the ceiling. But the faces came in and out of focus, and he couldn’t tell who was who. Everything was shifting. His tea became tar, and then suddenly it was boiling with flies. He wanted to honour his vows to his wife, but he could sense he’d be better off as your husband. He belonged with you.”

“This is disgusting. I feel sick.”

“He woke up and forgot the dream, but his disorientation lingered. It gnawed him all morning, but he couldn’t put his finger on the source. He had the card ready, with melliferous written on it, but in his confusion he forgot to put it in the box. By the time he realized his mistake, he was already pulling into his parking space at work. He loved you very much, and wanted you to enjoy the card, and was relieved when you seemed so happy to see it that evening.”

“How dare he have a dream like that?”

Patiently, Rosetta explained the mental streams and cross-currents that had collided that night in Lea’s husband’s mind. She laid bare some of the essential confusions in his thought, the questions he never asked and would never be able to answer, his sudden awakenings in the thick of the night with those questions emblazoned on the air before him, only to fade before his waking brain could read them.

Rosetta described Lea’s husband’s dread of the number four, sparked by a superstition he had learned about on a business trip to Taiwan, and how massive and insurmountable that dread had become; she told Lea that he had asked his boss to transfer him to the third floor so he wouldn’t have to ride the elevator past the fourth. He had kept this neurosis carefully hidden from his dear wife, so that it would not worry her.

Over minutes and then hours, the entirety of Lea’s husband’s being was revealed and dissected. Rosetta’s voice became a palpable presence in the TV room, rising from the telephone’s earpiece and billowing out like a cloud of moths. Her words and revelations crowded against the TV, the couch, and against Lea herself, squeezing and finally suffocating her, so that in the morning, when Lea’s husband, whose first name did indeed begin with D, checked on his wife in the TV room, he found her dead, the phone cord twisted in her stiff fingers.

 

4

From the insurance settlement, D—— received a substantial sum of money, but it could not recompense him for his grief. Around the same time, an unusually steep phone bill arrived—$2,140, to be precise. Puzzled, he scrutinized the call list and discovered that his wife had dialled a 1-900 number on the night of her death and had spent over five hours speaking with a telephone psychic. He called the number himself but got an automated out-of-service announcement.

Sometimes at night he awoke disoriented, words seeming to blaze in the air before him, spelling out questions. In time, he developed the habit of writing these questions down. They accumulated in a gilded box. No one came into his life who might answer them. When the box was filled, he bound it in elastic and placed it at the back of a closet, and from that nook it was never removed.