MY HUSBAND HAD A TALENT for putting the dick in unpredictable, so I wasn't entirely surprised to catch him at an office party with his hand up the skirt of a giggly, jiggly redhead. Or that he had mistletoe dangling from his belt buckle. Even though it wasn't Christmas. Suddenly eight years of wondering if I was paranoid or intuitive were finally answered. Richard was cheating on me, and I couldn't ignore it any longer.
I probably should have left him sooner, but I was dumb in love, plus my mother thought divorce was tacky even though she'd been through one herself. Maybe she worried I couldn't do any better. Turns out, I couldn't have done much worse.
Exactly one year, six days, and fourteen hours later, Richard and I signed on the dotted line and our marriage dissolved, like margarita salt on the tongue, leaving behind the bitter aftertaste of something that started out sweet but ended sour.
The details of our sordid divorce prompted a feeding frenzy for the local Glenville press. Richard was the city's favorite son, after all, and everyone wanted the juiciest morsel for their evening headline. His job as anchorman of Channel Seven news earned him a quasi-celebrity status and a sycophantic following. I, on the other hand, was painted in a single stroke as a gold-digging Real Housewife just after his cash. No one but me seemed to remember the incident with the redhead, and somehow I became the pariah, a one-dimensional villain trapped inside the reality show of my own life. So when my aunt Dody called to invite the kids and me to spend the summer with her in tiny Bell Harbor, Michigan, it was an offer too good to refuse.
"You need a good psychic cleansing, Sadie," Dody told me over the phone. "It's time to purge all of Richard's nasty karma right out of your system."
I had zero faith in her tarot-reading, angel-guided, crystal-waving nonsense, but I was desperate for a vacation. And a chance to hide. Her pink clapboard house, perched high on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan, was the perfect spot to rest, reboot, and figure out what the hell to do with the next fifty years of my life. Sure, I'd probably be dead long before that, but I hate leaving things to chance.
I guided my SUV along the narrow, elm-lined avenues of Bell Harbor. Lowering the window, I breathed in deeply. The scent of hot sand tinged with tanning oil and lilacs reminded me of carefree summers, back before I cared about damaging UV rays and toxins in the lake. The buzz of cicadas nearly drowned out the sound of waves splashing on the nearby shore.
What a drastic change from the shimmering heat and road-warrior mentality of Glenville's asphalt raceway. Bell Harbor seemed frozen in a moment that never existed anyplace else, untouched by the tawdriness of life outside its borders. Like enchanted Brigadoon, except around here people didn't randomly burst into song and dance. Or maybe they did and I just never noticed.
I drove on, past pale houses with spindly white porches draped with American flags. A scruffy yellow dog sporting a red bandana trotted down the sidewalk, his tail swinging high as if he had someplace important to be. Then around the last curve in the road, Dody's yard burst into view. Like at a discount garden store, flowers were everywhere, some real, some silk, some faded and plastic. Overgrown azalea bushes crowded around birdbaths, iron benches, and assorted stone statues of angels and gnomes. My heart thumped unexpectedly against my rib cage like a firefly trying to escape a glass jar.
"Wow! Look at all the junk!" gasped my daughter, Paige. At six years old, she was a master at stating the obvious.
"There's dorfs," added four-year-old Jordan. "One, two, free, four - "
"Those are gnomes, dumdum. And anyway, you're not supposed to call them dorfs because it's rude."
"So is calling me dumdum, stupid head."
"That's enough, you two. We don't call anyone dumdum or stupid head," I said.
My children had spent the better part of our two-hour drive from Glenville in heated debate over such inane topics as whether or not a pixie is bigger than the tooth fairy, if all giraffes have the same number of spots, and where one might find, and I quote, "the poop hole on a mermaid." Jordan, being his father's son, could not resist taking sides in an argument, no matter how arbitrary the topic. My head was numb from their banter.
I parked the car in Dody's driveway and pulled the keys from the ignition. Paige pushed open her door and exploded from the backseat like popcorn, with Jordan fast on her heels. They sprinted into the dense growth of the overburdened flower beds and began running zigzag patterns around the sculptures.
"Be careful in that mess of weeds!" I called out. "There might be prickers in there!"
They went on, heedless of my warning. I'd be pulling slivers from their feet tonight for certain.
I climbed out of the car and headed up the faded wooden steps into Aunt Dody's house. I hadn't been there in more than a year, but I opened the door without knocking. The trusting folks of Bell Harbor didn't knock - or lock their doors either. And they liked it when you called them folks, which is a word I don't normally use, but since I was there for the summer I should try to fit in.
The moment my strappy sandal touched cracked peach linoleum, the wild disarray of mismatched everything landed a gut punch to my minimalist sensibilities. Clutter, both dazzling and unnerving, rendered me breathless. A macrame owl with beady wooden eyes peered vacantly from across the room. A ferret cage, long missing its musky occupant, overflowed with dusty silk roses. A memorial gesture to his passing, no doubt. Porcelain ballerinas competed for shelf domination with Elvis bobbleheads. And a moose head, with its enormous antlers spanning the distance of the mantel over the stone fireplace, had a Detroit Tigers baseball cap dangling rakishly over one ear. My chest squeezed tight. Dody's garage-sale decor always disoriented me.
No one would ever accuse her of being a meticulous housekeeper. No one ever accused me of being anything but.
"Dody? Hello?" I called out.
The clickety-clack of doggy claws on the floor offered a brief warning before I was slammed unceremoniously against the wall as Lazyboy and Fatso, two burly, uncouth hounds of indeterminate breed and negligible manners, slathered me with wet, sloppy kisses. Their love was unconditional, their drool indiscriminate. I raised a knee to nudge them away, but they persisted as if I had bacon in my pocket. They quivered with adoration.
Oh, to be a dog and experience such uninhibited joy.
"Dody," I shouted again. "Call off the dogs!"
"Sadie? Darling, is that you? At last!"
My aunt careened around the corner, flailing her tanned arms high above blonde curls. Either she was excited to see me or the house was on fire. Her turquoise kimono was covered by a pink flowered apron. Expertly shoving the dogs aside with one plump hip, she gathered me in her robust, anaconda-like hug.
"I thought you'd never get here! How was the drive?" She pushed with the other hip as the dogs tried to assault me again. "Did you come down Main and see the new post office? Aren't the gargoyles fabulous? Thank goodness you didn't have to worry about snow. But then it's June so of course there wouldn't be any. Lazy, get off my foot." She pushed him with her hand. "Well? Where are the children! Are they here?"
My aunt was a tsunami in fuzzy slippers. And for some reason, a kimono.
"They're outside counting gnomes."
Her eyes sparkled. "Oh, I can't wait to see them. Have they grown? Of course they have."
She pulled me back toward the door and smacked the screen with such force it swung open, whacked against the side of the house, and slammed back shut.
She shook her head. "Drat, I wish Walter had fixed this door before he died." She opened it with more caution. Stepping into the sunlight, she pressed both palms against her face at the sight of my mischievous offspring. "Oh, there they are! The children. Sadie, aren't they precious?"
Paige was holding a fistful of foliage, root balls still attached, while Jordan was attempting to shove a grapefruit-sized rock into his tiny pocket. My children flinched as the dogs bounded over for more kissing.
"Lazy! Fatso! Behave yourselves!" Dody clapped her hands and the dogs dolefully meandered away.
"Kids, come say hello to Aunt Dody."
Paige trotted over immediately. "Aunt Dody, I got you flowers!"
"Paige! Mommy has told you not to pull things out of other people's gardens!" I scolded.
"But you said it was all weeds in there."
Dody squinted at me from the corner of her eye, then leaned forward to touch Paige's cheek, as if it were fragile as a bubble.
"You pick all the flowers you want, darling. That's what they're for." Dody took the impromptu bouquet, tapping the clumps of dirt against her silk-clad leg. "These are simply lovely. And who is the tall fellow over there?" Dody gestured toward Jordan. "That can't be your baby brother."
Jordan hesitated. He knew Dody, but he had become very shy since the divorce.
"I'm not a baby," he grumbled.
"Of course you're not. Why, you're nearly tall enough to punch Jasper right in the kisser."
My son's lips twitched as he fought to hide a smile.
Jasper was Dody's oldest son and, at six foot four, by far the tallest in the family. He had recently graduated from cooking school but was quick to inform people it was called the Institute of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management.
"Did you know Jasper got a new job at Arno's! Swankiest restaurant in Bell Harbor, thank you very much. He can tell you all about it. Jasper!" she hollered over her shoulder.
"Is he here?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. Didn't I tell you? He moved back home to save money to buy a restaurant."
My brain pinged in alarm. She knew perfectly well she hadn't told me, because if she had, I might not have come. She knew I wanted a man-free zone for my summer vacation. If Jasper was there, I'd have to share a bathroom with his whiskers and his toilet seat neglect. He'd fart at random and blame it on the dogs. And I'd have to wear a bra all the time! What the hell kind of vacation was this going to be? My trepidation over coming resurfaced.
It hadn't been an easy decision to pull the kids away from everything familiar. Any extended visit with Dody had the potential for mayhem. So did most short visits. But the tipping point came when Richard forbid us to go. The passive-aggressive glee I got from telling him he couldn't stop me was worth having to put up with Jasper.
I walked over to my SUV and opened the back to unload. It was loaded to the brim. I was a notorious overpacker and brought everything we could possibly need for the summer - and several things we wouldn't. I liked to plan for every potential contingency. You just never knew when you'd get stranded in a remote place and need a ball of twine or rubber cement. Richard always teased me, but he had no idea how much of my effort went into making sure his vacation ran smoothly.
Dody turned to my children. "Darlings, there are toys for you in the kitchen. It's mostly old junk from my friend Anita Parker. She just cleaned her attic."
Paige and Jordan squeaked and immediately ran inside. The promise of toys, even crappy old toys from some stranger's attic, was enough to get Jordan over his shyness.
Dody turned back to me. "Anita's bird died. Did I tell you that? What a tragedy." She lowered her voice in solemnity. "Gobbled up by her own cat! Can you imagine?"
"You mean the bird that bit me when I was little?" I was terrified of that bird.
Dody nodded. "Probably." She hugged me again. "Oh, I'm so happy you're finally here! Three years is too long."
I reached out from her embrace and tugged on another suitcase.
"It hasn't been so very long, Dody."
"Pish-posh. Those times you stayed at a hotel don't count." She brushed a strand of hair from my cheek, as if I were three instead of thirty.
"We didn't stay here because Richard was allergic to the dogs."
"Bullshit. He just didn't like me."
I didn't argue. She was right. Richard thought Dody was rude and invasive and that her house always smelled like cabbage and patchouli. Which it does.
Deliberately moving on, I said, "I signed the divorce papers last week."
"You did? Thank goodness!"
I received another effusive embrace.
"I never liked him either, you know." Dody wiped her hands together as if her memory of him were a greasy smudge. "Now that's over and done with, we can find you a better man."
I jerked out another suitcase and nearly slugged her with it. "Why would I want another man?"
Her expression of bewilderment suggested I'd just turned down chocolate cake. "Because, silly, you can't stay single forever."
I dropped the luggage with a thud into the dirt of the driveway.
"Technically, I've been divorced for five days, Dody. Uncle Walter died six years ago and you're still single."
"But you've been alone for over a year now. And I'm playing the field. As a matter of fact, I met a simply delightful man just the other day. Didn't I tell you? We met at the shooting range."
"The shooting range? What were you doing at the shooting range?"
"Target practice, silly. You shouldn't own a gun if you don't know how to use it."
I nearly slammed my hand in the trunk.
"Use it? When did you get a gun?"
This was not good news. My aunt wasn't responsible enough to own a squirt gun, much less something with real bullets.
"A few weeks ago. We have that skunk, you know."
"The one who keeps getting in our trash. Last week he sprayed Lazyboy right in the face."
"So you're going to shoot him?"
"Of course not!" She reached down and picked up the smallest suitcase. "I'll shoot over his head to scare him away. Anyway, his name is Harry."
"You named the skunk Harry?"
She looked at me as though I was the one talking crazy. "Why would I name the skunk Harry? That's ridiculous. Harry is the man I met. He's a dentist. Lovely teeth, I must say. And his granddaughter works at the new Starbursts."
"Yes, the coffee place."
"Oh, you mean Starbucks."
"Yes, that's the one. I love those Ralph Macchios, don't you?"
"She means macchiato," said Jasper, coming out from the house at last. He gave me a fast hug then scooped up several suitcases. "Welcome to Casa de Loco."
My cousin hadn't changed much since the last time I'd seen him. Taller, skinnier, if that was possible, but still a boyish version of my aunt, with curly blond hair and light blue eyes. And he wasn't particularly hairy. Maybe he wouldn't leave too many whiskers in the bathroom.
"Anyway," Dody said, "Harry is Italian. He has a mustache, like the Italians. And there's the gun too, of course. But do you know the very best part?" She gave a girlish giggle. "He looks just like Dr. Phil!"
Seriously? That was the best part?
"I met him, you know, Dr. Phil," she went on as Jasper and I carried my stuff into the house. "At a taping of his show. He told me my scarf was very unique. It was the one Walter got me at Fort Knox. You know, the one that looks like a giant hundred dollar bill? Anyway, that Dr. Phil was the most charming man ever, even if he was staring at my bosoms." She straightened her shoulders. "Walter always did say I have an impressive rack."
"God, mother," Jasper winced.
"What? I do."
"What took you so long, Mommy?" Paige demanded when I finally joined them on the beach later that evening. Jasper had gathered some chairs in a semicircle so we could watch the sunset near the water. He and Dody were there, waiting with the kids.
"I was putting things away," I said.
She put her hands on her hips and frowned. "You're always putting things away!"
"Darling, would you and Jordan find me some bird feathers?" Dody interrupted. "If you do, I'll make you each a dream catcher."
Paige nodded and skipped away, pulling Jordan with her.
Jasper gestured to a beach chair. "Have a seat. Want a beer?" He reached into the red cooler sitting next to him in the sand.
I couldn't recall the last time I'd had a beer. The women of Glenville didn't drink beer. They sipped expensive chardonnay from delicately stemmed goblets. Of course, most of them polished off the entire bottle in one sitting to wash down their Prozac. And by them, I mean me.
But I was officially on vacation. Time to kick back and relax. "Sure, I would love a beer. Thanks."
No sooner had I taken the bottle from one cousin's hand when the unmistakable melody of my other cousin rang out.
"Free at last, baby girl! You are free at last!"
Fontaine, Dody's younger son, galloped down the deck steps two at a time, his lime-green shirt unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze. His dark hair was artfully gelled into place and he sported a dashing new goatee. He kissed the air next to my ear. "You look fab, Sades. Broken heart agrees with you."
"Thanks, Fontaine. You don't look too shabby yourself."
He smiled, flashing unnaturally bright teeth, and flexed a slender bicep. "I know, right? I've been doing yoga with Mom."
Jasper choked on his beer. "It's revolting to watch."
Fontaine twitched a dark brow. "You're just jealous because I'm so bendy."
"Right. If I ever need to stick my head up my own ass, maybe I'll join you. Here's a beer." He tossed it to Fontaine, who caught it with a flourish.
"Boys, play nice," Dody said, extending her leg and wiggling her foot. "Fontaine, do you love my new flip-flops? I got them for a steal at the dollar store. They were a dollar."
"What are the odds?" Jasper mumbled, immune to the thrill of finding cute, cheap shoes.
"Sparkly, Mom. Good find." Fontaine plopped down into a beach chair and I did the same.
The sun glowed orange, casting light and shadows across the sand. It was nearly time to tuck my kids into bed, but Paige was giggling, tossing feathers into the air and watching them float downward. Jordan was poking at a dried clump of seaweed with a driftwood stick. Maybe just this once they could stay up late. Tomorrow we could establish our bedtime routine.
"Fontaine, tell Sadie about your magazine interview," Dody said. Then she turned to me. "He was interviewed for a magazine, Sadie. Isn't that exciting? It's all about his new interior design job and how everybody is doing fong shewy."
"It was a blurb, Mom." Fontaine sipped his beer.
"Nonetheless, it was very flattering." She dabbed moisture from her eyes. "You've got your fancy decorating job, and Jasper works at such a nice restaurant and has a beautiful girlfriend. You are both doing so well." Her voice caught with emotion. "Walter and I are so proud of you."
"Have you been talking to Dad again?" Jasper's tone was as dry as the sand.
"Not directly, of course. But my spiritual advisor has. She's very wise." Dody lifted her foot again, admiring how the sun reflected off the sparkles of her one-dollar flip-flop.
"Wise enough to swipe your money and tell you gibberish. If she's so good at communicating with Dad, ask him where he left the good rake."
"He can't be bothered with such trivial, earthbound questions," she answered.
"Why? It's not like he has someplace else to be," Jasper responded.
"Oh, phooey. I'm not discussing this with you anymore. Sadie, ask Fontaine about his magazine article. Oh, and the renovations at his house. That's why he's staying with us for a few weeks, you know."
I spilled beer on the front of my shirt. "You're staying here too?" Damn! How many men was I going to have to put up with during this visit?
"I'm moving a few walls. But the drywall dust is hell on my nasal passages. Besides, you'll have way more fun with me here. You can't just sit around all day with my mom."
Au, contraire! That is exactly what I planned to do. A big, fat nothing! I wanted to lie on the beach for hours, play checkers with my kids, watch mindless television, and give up all personal grooming habits. I was here to escape from men, but my visions of a perfectly estrogen-driven summer vacation were vanishing faster than the polar ice caps. Sure, Fontaine was fun, like cotton candy is fun. But it's also sickeningly sweet and too much gives me a splitting headache. Just like Fontaine.
I forced a smile. "That's great. We'll have a blast."
I looked back over the water and gulped down my beer. This wasn't at all what I had planned. But then again, what in my life was turning out the way I expected?
Fontaine tapped his elbow against mine. "So, sugarplum, aside from the total collapse of your marriage, what else is new?"
He was as blunt as he was fashion conscious, which is to say, very.
"Not much. Richard is still mad I got the house. My mother is still mad I got divorced while my sister is mad I didn't dump him sooner. And I'm thinking about cutting my hair. How about you?"
He nodded. "Yes, I definitely think you should cut your hair."
"That's not what I meant. Hey, wait a minute! You said I looked fabulous."
He was already getting on my nerves.
"You do, mostly. But your hair shows hints of giving up. We'll have to do better since you're back on the market."
I sat forward in my chair so abruptly a flock of nearby seagulls launched into flight. "I am not on the market!"
"Of course you are." He set his empty bottle in the sand.
"That's what I said!" Dody nodded emphatically.
"I am not." I shook my head, equally emphatic.
"Don't even bother, Sadie." Jasper chuckled. "You're their summer project. Didn't you know?"
"Pish-posh, Jasper. Shush yourself," Dody hissed.
"Is that why you invited me here?" A wave of nausea rolled over me and the back of my neck prickled like heat rash. I should have known my aunt's insistent invitation cloaked an ulterior motive. She wasn't president of the Bell Harbor Busybody Association for nothing.
"Don't listen to him, darling," Dody assured me. "We just want to nurture you and mend your broken spirit."
"I don't have a broken spirit!"
Fontaine and his mother exchanged a look. One that said She's so pathetic she doesn't even realize how pathetic she is.
"Seriously. I'm fine. I just need a little vacation."
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, kitty cat." Fontaine sighed. "We just want you to have a little fun, you know."
"Yeah, well, fun for me does not involve men."
"But darling," Dody chided gently, "you can't fight against the universal balance. Without the despair of today we can't experience the joy of tomorrow."
"Did Dr. Phil tell you that?" Jasper asked, draining the last of his beer before reaching into the cooler and taking another.
She shook her head. "Not Dr. Phil. Kung Fu Panda. But nonetheless, Sadie can't let one bad apple sour her on romance."
"Romance?" Fontaine snorted, crossing his arms behind his head and stretching. "Who's talking about romance? I'm talking about crazy, rowdy sex. Like...with him." He nodded toward the shoreline.
Jogging along the water's edge was a man. Quite a man, in fact. Tanned, tall, muscular, and sweaty. The type of man who knew how the sun bounced off the waves and flickered over his gleaming muscles. Vain bastard. He was exactly the kind I wanted to avoid, with his long, stupid legs and his dumb, broad shoulders. He might as well have unfaithful tattooed right on that bulging bicep I couldn't take my eyes off of. Damn.
"Who's that?" I whispered, sounding significantly breathier than intended. Did I mention he was sweaty?
Fontaine smiled. "I don't know. I just call him Running Man."
Running Man continued on, giving an awkward wave as Dody, Fontaine, and I continued to stare and Jasper picked at the label of his beer.
"Hey, Fontaine!" Paige scampered up, breaking our collective trance.
"Hey, sweet stuff! Give me some sugar." He pulled her close for a kiss on the cheek.
My daughter adored Fontaine, thanks in no small part to their shared appreciation of all things glittery.
"It scratches," she said, reaching up and tapping his goatee. "Why is that on your face?"
Fontaine laughed. "That's called style, girlfriend. It's what sets us apart from the animals. And the rednecks."