Oooh, twisty - Editor
by John F.D. Taff
It was at the reception that Josh spoke the first words that truly scared her.
The wedding, like the rest of Melinda’s courtship, moved with a dreamlike cadence. People drifted in and out of perception, events passed like objects whirling around the heart of a hurricane. Time, rather than connecting these happenings, separated them, split them into odd, unconnected vignettes.
Here she was, as if just awakened, getting married to a man she hardly knew.
It was only five months ago that they’d exchanged their first words across a conference room table.
Josh, the bright, new supervisor brought in from the company’s Chicago office.
She, the eager, dynamic account executive just out of college.
Josh had handled his first meeting as if he knew every intimate detail, spoken and unspoken, about the clients and their business.
“I love an organized man,” Melinda had said to break the ice after the clients left, and the others applauded her effort with nervous, restrained laughter.
He’d looked at her with that baby face, those light brown eyes, looked seriously at her.
“Of course,” he finally said. And that was the beginning.
Melinda had been surprised when, only a month later, Josh produced his ubiquitous black date book, bulging fat around the tiny clasp that held it shut, opened it and said:
“March 4. That’s the day you’ll marry me.”
His handwriting was firm and clear even in the dim light of her bedroom.
As they finished their first dance, they were stopped by Melinda’s aunt and uncle.
“Well, we’ve got to leave,” said the uncle, hitching up his unnaturally brown polyester pants, his gaping shirt exposing flesh the color of suet.
“We’re so happy for you, honey,” cooed the aunt, pulling Melinda in dizzily for a too-tight hug. “You’ll have to get your address to us when you settle in. Do you know yet where you’ll be living?”
“We haven’t had time to think about that.”
“Well,” said the uncle, who had been eying the exit. “You’re both young. Take your time.”
“I’m not worried. I have it all planned,” Josh broke in solemnly, hooking his thumb back over his shoulder.
Melinda followed his aim as he said his goodbyes.
The head table lay in that direction, cleared of the dirty dinner dishes.
The only things left were two champagne flutes, an open bottle of Dom.
And Josh’s date book, like a dark window in the tablecloth.
A chill scurried through her body.
Then, the whirlwind took hold of her again, tugged her along after it.
“So, it’s been nine months,” began Jeannie, shoveling in a forkful of pasta during her annual Christmas lunch with Melinda. “Are you still getting any?”
“Jeannie!” Melinda squealed, taking a small bite of her salad.
Melinda noticed sourly that, as she did every year, Jeannie had ordered the most fattening thing on the café’s menu. She was one of those women who looked good no matter what she ate or how much.
In fact, given her masculine table manners, Melinda suspected that Jeannie looked good no matter how she ate.
“Come on! Everyone’s taking bets on whether you two schedule it in advance.”
“He’s not as bad as that,” Melinda said, picking at her salad. “He’s just … organized. And no, we do not plan that!”
“He carries that book with him everywhere,” Jeannie said, slathering a hunk of bread with butter.
“Not everywhere,” interrupted Melinda, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
The fact was, Josh did carry it everywhere, and yes, she was aware that everyone whispered about this particular eccentricity. Melinda had even joined in before they started dating seriously.
“What does he write in there that’s so important?” Jeannie continued, unabated by Melinda’s interruption or even the food in her own mouth. “Have you ever looked?”
“No, that’s private. I would never do that.”
“It kind of takes the spontaneity out of things, doesn’t it? What does he do when things don’t go as planned?”
“It’s funny. Everything seems to go just as he plans. Always,” Melinda said, spearing a lettuce leaf and chewing on it thoughtfully.
Melinda dropped her fork, took a drink of water.
“Hey, sorry,” said Jeannie, reaching across the table to grab her hand. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Josh is a great guy, a real catch. He’s just a little strange, that’s all. But all men are strange, aren’t they?”
Melinda, though, lost the thread of Jeannie’s lunchtime ramblings, mired in her own thoughts.
Exactly what was Josh writing in his little black date book?
The next morning, Josh rose before her and padded into the adjoining bathroom.
Melinda snuggled into Josh’s depression, pulled his scent-laden covers over her. As she wriggled into a comfortable position, she felt a lump pressing up through the sheets.
Annoyed, she flopped onto her other side.
The lump was still there, bulging like a tumor in the mattress.
She got out of bed, glancing at the closed bathroom door, and knelt.
The sound of the shower started as she ran her hand between the mattress and the box spring, felt the object, drew it out.
The date book’s leather surface bore the quilted imprint of the mattress that had pressed down on it.
She ran her hand across the cover, tapped the straining clasp that held the book shut.
Glancing at the impassive bathroom door again, she unsnapped the clasp, opened the book.
She noticed something strange right away. There were no pencils or pens at all in the date book, nothing, in fact, with which to write.
In a way, that didn’t surprise her. Josh always seemed to be without a pen, as she’d learned on countless trips to the grocery store, where he was never able to find one to write a check.
Not knowing what else to do, she flipped to that day’s date.
The shower stopped.
She saw three lines of Josh’s neat, blocky handwriting before she closed the book, shoved it back underneath the mattress.
7 a.m. Mel peeks--shame on her!
10 a.m. Get an X-Mas bonus today!
Then below that:
7 p.m. Mel and I go out to dinner.
As the doorknob turned, Melinda slid quickly into bed, tousled the bed covers around her.
Josh walked out with a towel tied around his waist.
“Hi. Getting up?”
“Sure,” she answered nervously.
He bent and kissed her, tousled her hair.
“Come on, sleepy head, rise and shine, or we’ll both be late.”
Melinda stood, acting sleepier then she was, and shuffled to the bathroom.
“If you’re that tired, maybe you should wake up a little earlier in the morning, have a cup of coffee...
“Catch up on a little reading.”
She turned, too shocked to pretend otherwise.
Josh smiled at her, a gentle smirk.
She said nothing as she entered the bathroom and closed the door.
“So, you finally did it,” laughed Jeannie on the other end of the phone.
“My curiosity got the better of me,” sighed Melinda. “I figured a quick peak wouldn’t hurt anything.”
“He’d written ‘Melinda peaks--shame on her!’ and something about a Christmas bonus and a surprise dinner tonight,” she answered, goose bumps rippling across her arms. “He gave me a funny look after he got out of the shower. As if he had seen me do it.”
“He’s pulling your leg, Mel, playing with you because you won’t ask.”
“I don’t know...,” she said. There was something so confident, so knowing in the way he’d written it in his book.
“Why don’t you just ask him? I mean you two are married. No secrets and everything, right?”
“No, that’s none of my business.”
“So, you’ll peek, but you won’t ask?” Jeannie snorted. “I still say he’s playing a joke on you. You should get back at him. When he tells you about dinner tonight, tell him you don’t want to go.”
“That would be cruel.”
“You’ll go. But let him stew a little, just like he’s letting you stew. Have a little fun for god’s sake.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Melinda, relaxing. Josh’s look this morning had been playful. Maybe it was a joke.
“And if you’re still curious about what’s in the damn book, ask him. Oh, gotta go! Here comes my boss. Merry Christmas!”
“I have good news!” Josh beamed as he walked through the door of their apartment that evening, set the date book down onto the table in the foyer, shrugged out of his topcoat.
He pecked her on the cheek, and she flinched imperceptibly at the touch of his lips.
Melinda repeated the words coldly in her mind as he said them.
“I got a Christmas bonus today! And a pretty big one!”
She told herself that it could still be a joke. Josh could have known he was getting a bonus for weeks and written it in the date book.
But he hadn’t said anything, never even hinted at it.
And that wasn’t like Josh.
If Josh were to play a joke, Melinda realized, this was not the kind of joke he would play.
“I thought we’d celebrate a little—the holidays and the bonus. I made reservations at Carta Blanca at eight.”
She suddenly felt very manipulated, joke or not.
“I don’t think I feel like going tonight.”
The look of sheer incomprehension that spread across his face almost made her laugh.
Almost made her cry.
“I made plans,” he shook his head as if trying to dislodge something.
“I don’t feel like going out to dinner tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”
Josh stood there for a moment with his mouth open, and Melinda noticed his face begin to flush. He didn’t seem angry, just shaken.
You don’t get this upset just because someone doesn’t want to go to dinner, she thought.
‘You’ve got to go. I mean, I planned it,” he said softly.
Unconsciously, like a child reaching for a favorite blanket, he grabbed the date book behind him without turning, clutched it to his chest, fumbled with it.
“I’m sorry honey, but not tonight, OK?”
Josh merely stared at her, and Melinda almost wavered.
But she saw again how he hugged the date book to his chest, how his fingers stroked its leather binding.
Melinda went into the bedroom, left him standing in the hallway staring at where she’d stood.
The next morning, Josh rose early and left for work without her, a sure indication, she supposed, that he was angry. Melinda had never really seen him angry, probably because life never gave him a reason.
His departure left her without a way to get to work, but she felt a little queasy anyway--and it was only a day or two before Christmas. So, she called in sick and spent the morning in bed.
He had a right to be mad, she told herself. Josh has never done anything to hurt me, to deceive me. If the only thing that comes between us is a date book, I’m lucky.
And besides, she heard Jeannie’s voice in her mind, if you’re that goddamn curious, ask him!
Melinda rose about 10 a.m., showered and dressed quickly. On her way to the kitchen, she noticed the Christmas tree lights were on. That softened her heart, because she knew Josh must have done that for her before he left that morning. He knew that she loved to stare at the flickering, colored lights on the tree. Josh always joked that it would have to do until they had a fireplace.
In the kitchen, she made coffee and sat looking at the twinkling Christmas tree.
Maybe I am beginning to obsess about his date book.
But another part of her, and it was becoming more strident every day, told her that something was going on.
Something was not right.
She wondered if she’d done the right thing in marrying Josh so quickly. How much did she really know about him?
He’d come from Chicago, that much she knew. His parents were dead, and he was an only child.
Aside from that, she realized, she didn’t know very much about him.
And, my, wasn’t it beginning to get cold in here?
When they got married, everything Josh owned was packed into about a dozen boxes and tucked away in a corner of the storage area in the basement of their apartment complex.
Melinda put the coffee down, bit her lip.
Maybe there was something in those boxes that would shed a little light onto whatever was going on.
That wouldn’t be as bad, she rationalized, as peeking into his date book. Because whatever was in those boxes was just stuff.
And now his stuff, as Jeannie would say, was her stuff.
Melinda entered the storage area through a heavy, locked door.
This was not a place she came to often. It scared her to be in this dark, dankly cold and windowless chamber. They kept little here of any real use or value.
A small corridor wound around a maze of tiny rooms walled in chicken wire. The bare bulb cast just enough light to create vague, ominous shadows.
Couches whose prints were woefully out of style, ancient, hulking TVs, moving boxes filled with goods long forgotten, and anonymous shapes draped with yellowed sheets were the common items here. In several of the rooms, exercise equipment peeked from their owner’s embarrassed attempts to hide them here away from everyone’s sight, like the family’s deranged aunt.
Melinda felt the heat of the small key she clasped, walked quickly to their enclosure. The key slipped into the padlock, and the warped door lurched open. Inside were Josh’s old mattress and box spring, a few broken lamps, and a stack of boxes marked “Josh’s Things.”
Melinda rocked the top box on one of the stacks to test its weight. It wasn’t very heavy, so she brought it down to the floor.
The box was thick with dust and sealed with wide, overlapping strips of packing tape.
The key’s jagged teeth ripped through the tape quickly, and she peeled back the box flaps onto wadded newspaper. Plunging her hands inside, she closed around something so unexpected that she felt around for a moment longer before drawing it out into the insufficient light.
She stared dumbly at it for a minute before setting it atop one of the other boxes and searching through the newspaper again.
Then a third.
She picked the box up—It was very light now—and dumped its contents.
Nothing but crumpled paper.
Suddenly, the room seemed much smaller, the air close and heavy.
She pulled another box from the stack—funny how the weight shifted uncertainly inside—and dropped it to the floor.
It, too, was filled with newspaper and three bricks.
Grabbing another box, she shook it.
It felt like the first two, so she tossed it aside.
And the next.
And so on through the next five boxes, until she reached the bottom three boxes.
The first one was very heavy, and she knew she had found something important.
Wielding the key like a razor, she split the box open. Unlike the others, this was filled to the top with something dark. She reached in, touched something cool and smooth and slightly veined.
A familiar smell, soothing and earthy, drifted out.
Her dumb hand lifted what her quicker mind already knew was in the box.
Dozens of them, all neatly and compactly arranged inside. All alike, all clad in black leather, just like the one Josh carried.
Each book had a date stamped on its spine.
The box was stacked two deep with them, dating back to 1989.
Melinda selected a year at random—2003—and pulled it out, rifled through it.
Hundreds of entries in Josh’s precise handwriting filled the narrow-ruled lines of the book, some interesting and some mundane, as one would find in any such book.
Then, she saw something that made every hair on her body stand straight up.
It was an entry dated August 24, 2003.
Melinda has her first interview with P&S.
She dropped the book, pushed away from the boxes.
In August 2003, right out of college, Melinda replied to an ad in the newspaper for a position at Pratt & Singer. She had three interviews before she was hired.
This was two years before she met Josh.
Melinda took a deep, gulping breath, pressed her hands against her temples.
She took the job at Pratt & Singer a few days after their offer, which came about a day after her final interview.
Scooting back over to the book, she counted forward mentally, flipped through it to find the date.
When she found it, she began to cry.
Melinda accepts job--of course!
She sat there, covered with dust, and cried for some time, her stomach a trembling knot inside her.
How could he have known?
When she had collected herself enough to continue, she looked at the other two boxes.
If there were date books up to the present in this one...?
A chill swept through her at that, made her teeth chatter.
She crawled to the two unopened boxes, hesitated.
Selecting one at random, she scored the tape with her key, ripped it open.
Inside, she accepted what she saw in a numb, matter-of-fact way.
Of course, these date books each bore a year on their spine as well.
Beginning with next year.
Calmly, Melinda extracted a book from the box, flipped it open.
Of course, it already had entries in it.
She dropped the book back into the box, knelt before it, thought of two things.
The look on Josh’s face when she decided not to go to dinner last night.
Shock. Disbelief. As if something fundamental had shifted, gravity ceased to function or the sun no longer rose in the east.
The night of her wedding, at the reception.
I have it all planned.
She looked at the boxes, two opened, one still sealed.
“You certainly did.”
Melinda glanced at her watch. 1:30 in the afternoon.
Josh would be home around 6 p.m.
Realizing that she needed time to think about all of this, she grabbed a few books at random out of the second box and quickly left the storage area, locking the mess behind her.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Melinda had another cup of coffee and a few more surprises.
The ones that stayed with her the most, though, burned their dates into her mind.
4 p.m. Melinda finds out we’re pregnant! (It’s a boy—of course.)
10:31 a.m. It’s a boy! Kevin Michael Brandeis. 8 lbs. 6 oz. 23 inches.
7 a.m. Mel’s doctor appointment—bad news. Cancer.
9:30 a.m. Cancer has metastasized. Mel doesn’t have long.
8 a.m. Stay up all night with Mel. Slipping fast. Chemo not helping.
9:47 p.m. Mel dies.
Melinda read about her own death with a curious, detached shock.
Just like that, occupying no more room or emotion than a lunch meeting or an appointment to have the car’s oil changed.
Written in a date book more than two years in advance.
Something else caught her eye, too.
Something that, even after reading about her own death, struck Melinda as much more sinister.
8 a.m. Rachel has her first interview with Braxton-Montgomery Inc.
When Melinda first read this entry, it aroused a twinge of jealousy.
Then, however, she remembered an entry she’d read earlier downstairs.
8 a.m. Melinda has her first interview with P&S.
She suddenly realized that this wasn’t new to Josh—the quick marriage, the unexpected raises and bonuses.
He planned them. Planned them all.
Right here in the pages of these damn date books!
She would love him, marry him, bear him a son, conveniently die.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to either woman, wife No. 2 waited in the wings.
If, indeed, Melinda was No. 1.
But was Josh causing these events by writing them down? Or did he write them down because, somehow, he knew they were going to happen?
Neither of these explanations was satisfactory; neither believable.
For a long time, Melinda simply held her cold coffee cup tightly and stared at the flickering lights of the Christmas tree in the living room wondering what to do.
Confront him? Ignore it all? Divorce him?
The whirlwind that had been their relationship seemed like it was collapsing in on itself, spinning onto its center.
It was all too much to ingest in one afternoon.
When she looked at the clock next, it was 4 p.m.
Josh would be home in two hours.
That mess needed to be cleaned up before he returned.
Stacking the books in a pile, Melinda was struck by a sudden thought.
What if I wrote something in one of these books?
She returned the books to the box they were in originally, carefully resealed them all with packing tape.
The bricks, too, were replaced in their nests of wadded paper, sealed in their boxes.
When she left the storage room, the heavy door booming shut behind her, Melinda had only one thing in her hand.
And it was marked “2004.”
The party swirled around the house, spilled out onto the wide, Spanish-tiled patio, skirted the edges of the pool.
People mixed and mingled, laughter erupted here and there over the locust-drone of conversation, liquor and food were abundant, and the music was too loud.
All and all, it was a great party.
Outside, on the edge of the motion, Melinda stood alone, nursing the same margarita she’d held onto all night. A black dress, slim and made up of more cutaways than silk, shimmered in the reflected light of the torches.
Her eyes moved slowly around the expansive backyard, following a single figure as he made his way through the throng, talking, drinking, laughing.
She smiled when she caught his eye, a flicker of laughing light at its core.
“I love you,” he mouthed.
“I love you, too,” she said aloud, though they were too far apart to hear.
He disappeared into the crowd, and she stared at the spot where he had stood.
Five years, she thought. Has it really been that long already?
The promotions, the cars, the new house...
“Great party!” came a voice whispered directly into her ear.
Melinda jumped a bit, sloshing margarita carefully away from her onto the tile.
“Sorry,” laughed Jeannie, grabbing her arm to steady her. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“No,” Melinda answered quickly. “Just snuck up on me that’s all. Having fun?”
Jeannie paused in mid slurp, gestured with her glass back to the house. “Rich is inside keeping a group of people either totally enthralled or mindlessly bored with his views on health care litigation, it’s hard to say. You tell me.”
“Well, I think it’s going well,” Melinda answered.
“Was he surprised? I know I’d be if Rich did anything half as romantic for our fifth anniversary.”
“Oh, he knew about it. I scheduled it way in advance. Even wrote it down in his date book just to make sure he wouldn’t forget,” Melinda said, draining the lukewarm, salty remains of her drink and setting the empty glass onto a nearby table.
Screams and laughter erupted from a knot of people gathered around the pool.
“Ahh, yes. The date book,” intoned Jeannie. “I’ve always wanted to know how you got that away from him.”
Melinda smiled at the question, at the memory.
“It wasn’t easy. I take care of all of his appointments, his meetings, everything. He’s got me, so he doesn’t need to worry.”
From the slightly overlarge, sequined evening bag she held like a football in the crook of her arm, she produced a date book that looked like every date book Josh had carried with him.
“He might not carry it with him anymore, but you certainly never seem to be parted from it,” Jeannie laughed, swiping a flute of champagne from a tray that bobbed past them. “Well, he’s a changed man, that’s for sure. Ever since you got that thing away from him, he’s been so...fun.”
“Yes,” said Melinda, her eyes finding Josh again in the crowd. Hands were grabbing him, lifting him. He was laughing hysterically, trying to escape.
“But I’m worried about you, though,” Jeannie said softly.
“Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ve got it all planned, remember?”
In the distance, Josh arced above the light of the tiki torches scattered around the patio, fell into the pool tuxedo and all with a tremendous splash, more screams, and a round of applause.
Melinda smiled again—too broad, too much teeth—lightly punched Jeannie’s arm, moved away to get another drink.
Jeannie was quick to notice that Melinda had unconsciously gathered the date book to her as she left, enfolded it in her arms where it melted dark and seamless into the black of her dress.
Later, much later, that night, Melinda sat before a mirror at her vanity table, gathered her hair in a bun, rubbed her makeup off.
Josh came out of the bathroom, snuck up behind her, shook his wet head like a dog’s.
“Hey!” she cried, jumping as droplets of cold water fell onto her.
“Surprise!” he yelled, kissing the top of her head. “Happy anniversary and thanks for the party.”
“Thanks yourself,” she huffed in mild annoyance. “Now, go and dry yourself off.”
Josh moved back into the bathroom, came back out with a limp and sodden clump of clothing.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to salvage this,” he said, smiling at her in a naive, boyish way that melted her heart like it always did.
It was good, she had decided long ago, to see him this way.
He’d always been so serious, too serious, she thought.
It had taken a great deal of time, patience and pencil erasers to go through all of those old date books. But she had decided back then that her marriage, as new as it was, definitely was worth fighting for.
And changing those passages may have saved my life.
Admiring him as he stood naked in their bedroom, his hair slicked back, holding the sopping remains of his tuxedo, she knew she had done the right thing.
“You’re dripping. Just hang it in the shower, and I’ll take it by the dry cleaners tomorrow and see what they say,” she said, rising and shooing him away. “And hurry up. It’s getting late.”
“I’ll just be a minute. I want to dry my hair first.”
Melinda removed her robe and climbed into bed.
It was a large bed, the kind she had always wanted. Their apartment had been too small for such a bed, but not so this house. She had seen to that.
The covers billowed around her as she made herself comfortable, the whine of the hair dryer coming from the bathroom.
She stretched, rolled over, frowned.
There was a lump in the bed, an ever so slight upraising of the mattress, more on Josh’s side than hers.
She rolled back and forth over it, hoping to flatten it out.
It did not flatten.
For a moment, she thought it was the remote, a pair of socks, a misplaced book...
Melinda’s heart stopped as she threw the covers off, bounded to the floor on Josh’s side.
There, between the mattress and the box spring.
There, cool and textured to the touch.
There, the tiny, straining clasp.
There, when she drew it into the golden light of Josh’s reading lamp, the date.
Her hands shaking, she unsnapped the clasp, fumbled through the pages.
There, the familiar, blocky handwriting.
2 a.m. Melinda peeks again. Now, she knows.
I’ve got it all planned.
Behind her, the sound of the hair dryer had stopped.
The bathroom door opened, and a shadow fell over her.
And she closed the book....