I WOKE UP THE NEXT morning filled with a buoyancy I hadn't felt in years. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and a handsome man who was in no way related to me had stayed for dinner. Oh, I knew it didn't mean anything. But the flirting was fun and having him there had been exciting, like watching a storm roll in from over the lake and wondering where the lightning might strike.
I zipped through my morning grooming routine so I could call Penny. She'd get a kick out of this.
"Hello?" She sounded grumpy. I must have woken her up.
"Hi. Go pee and call me back."
As a sign of respect, we had agreed to never use the toilet while talking to each other on the phone. Well, it was partly out of respect and partly because of the time Penny dropped her brand new cell phone in the toilet.
"I already peed. And I'm not pregnant." She sighed.
"Oh, Penn. I'm sorry. Sometimes it takes a while."
"Yeah, I know. I just thought it would be fun if it happened right away. It's been three months already. We tried for a couple months before I even told you."
"It'll happen. Didn't Jeff tell you he has bionic sperm?"
Penny sighed again. "No, he says he's got a bionic penis."
"Oh. That's different."
"Yeah. If only it were true. Anyway, what's up with you? How's life in Dody's world?" Penny never wallowed in self-pity for long. That was my department.
"Guess who ate dinner with us last night?" I fell back onto the bed and put my feet up on the wall like I used to do as a teenager.
"I don't know. Richard?"
"Ugh! God, no. Why would you even think that?"
I heard her huff. "I'm still in a bad mood. Just tell me."
This should cheer her up. "Running Man!"
"The good-looking guy who runs on the beach every day?"
"That's the one." I provided her with my abbreviated version of last night's events, including the fact that he had an adorable cowlick right in the front.
"He's staying at the Pullmans'?" she asked.
"Yes, while they're on vacation. He said they're traveling around Europe for two months and then going to visit their daughter in Arizona. Des is Dr. Pullman's temporary replacement at the hospital."
"What happens when they come back?"
I readjusted the pillows behind my head. "I don't know. I guess he goes back to Chicago. Does it matter?"
That was not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill hmm. It was fraught with meaning.
I sat up on the bed. "What, hmm?"
"He sounds like a perfect transitional man. You know, get a little wet in the dating pool, as it were."
I fell back on the covers. "Great, you sound like Dody and Fontaine. Just because I think he's cute, don't go making something out of it."
"Hey, I'm not the one who called at the butt crack of dawn to chat about him," she teased.
"Hardly the butt crack of dawn, you lazy ass. It's nine o'clock. Once you have that baby you'll be getting up before the sun. Speaking of that, I should see if my kids are poking forks into the toaster. And I'm determined to get them in the lake today. They're still too chicken to swim. I'll call you later, OK?"
"OK, I'll be around. Probably doing yoga and thinking fertile thoughts. Oh, and before I forget, I happened to be over by your place the other day and your grass looks terrible. It's turning brown."
"It is? It looked fine to me last week. I wonder if the sprinkler system is messed up again. Can you check on that?"
"I can try, but you guys have that hi-tech system. I'd have an easier time defusing a bomb. Can't you ask Richard?"
My stomach churned. "If I do, he's going to tell me I'm the one who messed it up, whether I did or not. I hate to give him the ammunition."
It was so easy now, being annoyed with Richard even when he wasn't there. It hadn't always been that way. I fell in love with him the day we met, but I'd been slowly trying to claw my way out of that hole ever since. Still, maybe he'd surprise me and be gracious and helpful.
Yeah, and maybe I was a D cup. I looked down at my barely Bs and sighed. Nope. Some things would never change.
"Mommy, it's too cold!" Paige screeched. "The waves are ginormous."
"Stop it. They're, like, ankle deep. Come on! Just get your feet wet. Mommy is right here."
We'd been down at the lake for an hour, and my brave little soldiers still refused to dip so much as a pinky toe into Lake Michigan.
Fontaine sat on a lounge chair while wearing one of Dody's sun hats. The effect was quite spectacular.
"The water is too big, Mommy!" Jordan shouted from his safe spot behind Fontaine's back. "I don't like it."
"Seriously, you guys! If you're not going to play in the water, we may as well go back to Glenville."
Paige gasped. "You can't take us back yet, Mommy! Aunt Dody promised to teach me how to bejewel!"
"I'm not going home," Jordan pouted. "And I'm not swimming either. I'll swim when I'm big as Jasper."
This battle was lost. It was too beautiful a day to argue with them. "Fine, fine, fine. You guys win. But sooner or later you're going to have to get in this lake."
I walked from the shore and slumped down in the sand next to Fontaine. Paige gave Jordan a fist bump of victory before they took off for drier ground.
Fontaine ruffled my hair. "You wouldn't swim when you were little either. Don't you remember?"
"Yes, that's why I'm so anxious to get them in the water, so they'll realize there's nothing to be afraid of."
That was a lie, actually. I knew there were tons of things to be afraid of in that lake. Slimy, sinister creatures lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to grab your ankle and pull you under. Like gargantuan electric eels or waterlogged corpses from the Edmund Fitzgerald. OK, so that sank in Lake Erie, but still...
Fontaine adjusted his Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. "Right. So anyway, I talked to my boss, Kyle, and he agrees this organizing thing could be a massive hit with our clientele. He wants to meet you."
I sat up straight.
"Are you crazy? I'm not ready for that. I'm not sure I want to do it at all. I'm here on vacation, remember?"
"Oh, relax, spazmotron. Just talk to him and hear what he has to say. He's a dreamboat to work with and you'll love him." He brushed sand from one foot with the other.
"I'm sure he's marvelous if he can stand working with you, but that's still not the point. I don't know what I'm doing. I haven't had any special training. I mean, cleaning Dody's closets is one thing, but organizing for somebody else would be too scary." I shook my head.
"Too scary?" He pulled those same sunglasses down his nose and peered at me over the rim. "Too scary, like swimming in a lake just because you can't see the bottom? Honestly, woman, have some cojones. Take a risk once in a while."
A hot wind swirled around us, stirring up sand and stinging me like Fontaine's words.
"That's not fair. I take risks. Didn't I let you talk me into this new haircut? And color? Am I not wearing blue fingernail polish? If that's not a risk, I don't know what is."
Fontaine pushed the sunglasses back up. "Look, you finally divorced the Big Dick. And that is a major step in the right direction. But what have you done to get your life rolling again? And you know I'm not talking about nail polish."
I didn't like this conversation. It was hard enough to ignore Fontaine's suggestions when he was being silly, but when he was being earnest, it was twice as bad. Once he sank his teeth into something, he was relentless. "It's only been a few weeks, you know."
"Liar. It's been over a year since you broke up with Richard. What are you waiting for?"
I kicked sand over his feet, pretending it was an accident. I wanted to defend myself and say I'd been doing all kinds of bold and risky stuff, but I couldn't think of one thing. After catching Richard with that redhead, my life had been occupied with divorce proceedings and trying to get through each day without doing permanent psychological damage to my children. I'd had a garage sale, bought new bed linens, burned the old ones, and changed all my lamps over to energy-saving bulbs. Other than that, I was pretty much on autopilot.
"It's not that easy, Fontaine," I whispered.
He put his arm around me. "I know, sugarplum. But it's time. And organizing is something you're really good at. So you should make the most of it. Plus it's something you can do once you're back in Glenville. Just think about it. I told Kyle we'd have lunch with him tomorrow."
I jumped up, scattering sand everywhere. "Fontaine! Why did you do that? I'm not ready."
"Fake it till you make it, baby girl. Just trust me on this." He stood up and patted my shoulder. "You'll be fabulous. I'll take the kids up to the house now, and you think about it."
He gestured to the kids, and they skipped after him up the steps, leaving me to stare out over the water and ponder.
I bit my lip. It was ridiculous, me trying to be a professional anything. Sure, I was great at figuring out which cupboard should hold baking supplies and which should hold the coffee cups. And maybe Dody's efficient new pantry did sparkle with crisp, color-coded labels. But that didn't mean I was some kind of expert.
Still, what was the worst thing that could go wrong? Somebody wouldn't like the font I used for their labels? Or they'd think alphabetized spice racks were overkill?
Maybe Fontaine was right. I was good at putting things in order. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to start doing that with my own life. Maybe I could do this. Hadn't I already organized kitchens and closets for my friends back home? I could do the same for complete strangers, right?
I sat back down in the sand and let my mind wander over the wonderful possibilities. And there were loads of them. Then I mentally categorized those possibilities. Because that's what I do. As I soaked up the sun, I came up with a plan. Sure, it might be a little risky. But hey, I was a gal wearing blue nail polish. I could take on anything.
By late afternoon, my euphoria, like a tan heading into September, was patchy and fading fast. Back at the house, the brief blip of enthusiasm I'd felt over Fontaine's idea had turned to pure dread. I didn't know the first thing about being professional at anything. And the flirty joy Des had stirred up in me at dinner last night was as dead as a fish rotting on the sand. It stank like that too.
The good doctor had been charming, yes. But that had nothing to do with me. He was a nice guy doing a neighborly house call for a crazy old lady, and that's all there was to that. He must have swarms of women buzzing around. I was nothing more than another drone in his ear. Not that I cared, because I wasn't interested in a relationship. And Penny's stupid notion of a transitional man? What was that all about?
Anyway, he probably had a girlfriend. No doubt some Argentinean supermodel currently on a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. After he'd left our house last night, they'd probably had scandalously wicked phone sex while I, on the other hand, had put on my rattiest pajamas and watched Animal Planet with Fontaine.
What the hell was I thinking, getting all fluttery and jittery over some sweet-talking, muscle-bound iron man? Had Richard taught me nothing?
"What is your problem?" Jasper snapped as I slammed the dishwasher door.
Being unmarried, Jasper naively thought I meant it.
"Then be careful. You'll break the dishes."
"Mommy, did Daddy call today?" Paige wandered into the kitchen. Jordan was sitting at the island, eating ice cream from a dog bowl, because Dody thought serving food in a dog bowl was the funniest thing in the world. I could only pray she had washed it first.
"No, baby, he hasn't. I'm sure he'll call soon." I looked at my watch. Classic Richard. He'd promised to call at lunch, but it was much closer to dinner.
When Dody's phone rang fifteen minutes later, I let Paige answer.
She chatted on the line for a minute, so I knew it must be him. Better late than never, I guess. Then she handed the phone to me. "He wants to talk to you."
Ugh! Talking to the sperm-donor-formerly-known-as-my-husband was just the garlic frosting I needed on this total piece of shit day.
"What do you want, Richard?" I grumbled into the phone.
A moment of silence ensued.
"Richard?" I barked, my voice unpleasantly loud.
"Uh, no, it's Des."
My throat went dry, like a wooly mitten was stuck inside. Shit. Shit.
"Sorry. I thought you were somebody else," I choked out.
His laugh was shallow. "Yeah, I get that a lot. Women wishing I was somebody else."
My own chuckle sounded equally false. My temples suddenly throbbed as if an alien were scratching his way out. I bit my lip and pressed my hand to my head.
"I wondered how Dody was feeling," he added after another awkward pause. "I can stop over if you want me to."
Dody was fine. She'd beaten me at five games of backgammon that afternoon and only skipped her tai chi class because Harry took her for a ride on his Harley.
I didn't want Des coming over. Seeing him again would just prolong the torment for me. I wanted to go back to watching him anonymously on the beach and not knowing his name or that he had a fluffy gray cat and no wife.
"No, don't bother. Thanks, but Dody's fine."
"I'm not fine!" Dody shouted, trotting in from the sunporch. "Is that Des? Tell him it hurts! Tell him I'm dizzy. I'm seeing spots. Give me the phone, Sadie! Give me that phone." She tried to wrestle it from my hand.
I covered the receiver and twisted away from her. "God, Dody! Be quiet. Don't be silly."
"It's really no bother," I heard Des saying on the line. "I'm on my way home anyway."
Dody snatched the phone. She was certainly agile and strong for somebody needing a doctor.
"Please do stop by, Des, dear. I'd feel so much better if you did. I've been feeling the teensiest bit light-headed this evening."
I rolled my eyes. She was using her breathy, Elizabeth Taylor voice. And she was light-headed because Fontaine had given her a quadruple martini. What a faker. The only reason she wanted him over here was to try and get me laid.
Oh, fine then. Let the Patron Saint of Desperate Housewives bestow upon us the blessings of his company. I still wasn't on the market. I didn't need a transitional man. I didn't need any man. I was fine.
I stomped upstairs and threw myself on the bed, wondering if every divorced woman felt this way or if I was just that special. I never should have let myself get worked up over him in the first place. Or this job business. It was all too ridiculous.
Minutes later, Fontaine's well-coiffed head appeared around the door frame.
"What the hell are you doing? The McKnight in Shining Armor is on his way."
"So, primp. Do some fluffing and some poufing. Time's a-wasting." He grabbed me by the ankle to pull me from the bed.
I tried to kick him with my other leg. "Fontaine, he's coming to see Dody, not me. I'm not interested. And even if I was, which again, I'm not, I refuse to make a fool of myself."
He dropped my foot. "Are you really that dense? Did you not catch him checking you out last night?"
I sat up. "He was not checking me out."
"He was! Even though you looked like hell. So let's glam you up a little and get this party started." He flung open the closet door and began rummaging.
Ego tapped me on the shoulder. Fontaine's compliment was taking effect.
"Did he really check me out, or are you just saying that?"
Fontaine avoided eye contact. "Baby girl, would I lie to you?"
"That's true. I would. But I'm not lying to you now, so get your butt in that bathroom and put on some mascara already!"
By the time Dr. McRunning Man arrived, I had brushed, flossed, moisturized, blotted, and put on a sundress. Fontaine peeked out the bathroom window when we heard a car in the driveway.
"BMW convertible," he said.
Of course. What better way to showcase his Argentinean supermodel? I looked in the mirror, hoping to see a miraculous transformation, but I was as average as ever.
"I love your new 'do," Fontaine said, fluffing my hair. "I was right about going with the darker brown. You should never argue with me again."
"Brown hair and brown eyes. It's kind of boring, isn't it?" I asked.
"No, it makes you exotic and mysterious."
I snorted with laughter at my own expense. I was about as exotic as vanilla yogurt.
"Well, the snorting isn't very sexy. You might want to work on that." Fontaine left the bathroom and trotted downstairs to open the door. I hesitated another minute. I didn't want us all pouncing on Des the moment he arrived. I should let him get in and settled so I could make an entrance. Even though I cared nothing about him. This was just for practice.
I heard the door open and shut, and voices wafted up the stairs. Oh, God. The accent was killing me.
"Hello, Fontaine. Mrs. Baker. How are you feeling today?"
"Fine, now that you're here. I'm sure I asked you to call me Dody."
"Yes, ma'am," he answered.
I moved to the top of the stairs, counting to one hundred, and then I strolled down like I just happened to be passing through the family room on my way to somewhere intriguing.
I caught sight of Dody swooning on the chaise again, wearing a red-and-gold silk robe. It was gift from Uncle Walter for their sixteenth wedding anniversary, allegedly purchased at the Great Wall of China gift shop.
Des was sitting by her side, her wrist in his hand. He looked up, and my breath caught. Was that a hint of positive appraisal in his expression?
I sucked in my stomach, just in case, and smiled. "Oh, hello."
Fontaine shook his head and turned his back, pretending to cough.
"Hi, Sadie. You look nice," Des said.
Dody nearly clapped her hands with glee.
"Oh, thanks," I said again, plucking at the top of my sundress in the universal gesture of "you mean this old thing?"
Jordan ran over, wrapping arms tightly around my waist. "Why are you so pretty, Mommy?"
I smoothed his hair and whispered, "It's just a sundress, honey. Mommy wears them all the time."
"No, you don't." Jordan frowned.
"Would you like some candy, J-man?" Fontaine asked, nipping this conversation in the bud. Thank you, Fontaine.
Des turned back to Dody. "Shall we have a look?" He took off the bandage, and Paige leaned in close against his arm, resting her hand on his shoulder.
"Wow, those snitches are weird," she said.
He smiled. "You think so?"
Paige nodded. "Definitely. Like Frankenstein, only not so green."
"Paige, back up. Give him some room." I tugged on the back of her shirt.
"She's all right," he said. "Paige, hand me that white square thing."
She reached into his backpack and pulled out some gauze.
We watched while he applied some ointment and a fresh bandage.
"Des?" Paige whispered, leaning toward his neck.
"I like your perfume."
His head went up for a second then dropped to his chest. I remembered the story of his sister spraying him with her flowery perfume. "It's cologne, Paige," I corrected. "When a boy wears it, it's called cologne."
Dody piped in, "I can't smell anything. Lean over here, dear. Give me a whiff."
"Oh my God, Dody!" I gasped. "You can't ask to smell somebody. It's rude!"
Des's face flushed.
"No, it isn't. It's rude to say they smell. Not to ask to smell them. Besides, I know he smells good. You told me so last night."
Des's head lifted, his smile instant as he looked at me. Now it was my turn to blush.
"He only stayed about twenty minutes," I told Penny over the phone, taking a sip of merlot. I needed to decompress and debrief over the recent visit from the man I cared nothing about. From my vantage point on the deck I could keep a judicious eye on my kids, who were playing on the beach. Not that I worried they'd go in the water. Still no chance of that.
"It's Saturday. Do you think he had a date?" she asked.
"He said he had work to do. Sounds suspicious to me."
"Everything sounds suspicious to you."
"With good reason. If he's not at the hospital, what could he be doing?"
Her chuckle was loud in my ear. "Maybe he's a vampire. Or a male escort."
"Or both," I mused. "Paige told him she liked his perfume. And Dody asked if he was wearing shoulder pads."
Dody had yet to give up on the eighties shoulder pad craze, certain it was making a comeback. She heard somewhere, probably during the eighties, that shoulder pads made your hips look slimmer. So she'd tuck in three or four at a time inside her blouse, only she wouldn't pin them, so inevitably they'd fall down, creating migratory lumps all over her torso. Eventually they'd fall out of her sleeves, leaving a trail like Hansel and Gretel.
"I assume he wasn't wearing shoulder pads," Penny said.
"No," I sighed. "The shoulders were all his own."
"Did you invite him for dinner?"
"No, because Jasper wasn't home and I've forgotten how to cook. Besides, it would've seemed desperate. Anyway, it's not like I wanted him to stay." I drained my glass in a final gulp.
"You know what's kind of weird, though?"
"Richard's inordinately huge nostrils?"
"Besides that." (They weren't that huge, by the way.) "Jordan is starting to trust him. You know how shy and clingy he's been since Richard left. But after Des changed Dody's bandage, Jordan started showing him his trucks."
"Weird," Penny agreed. "Maybe it's like how dogs can sense a dog person."
"You think my kids are like dogs?"
"No. Well, a little. But I mean, maybe he likes kids and they can sense that. He's an ER doctor, right? He's probably had lots of practice putting kids at ease."
Disappointment flicked me in the forehead for not thinking of that on my own. Any connection he had with my kids wasn't some grand sign from the universe. Once again, it was just his good bedside manner.