"SADIE, I HAVE THE MOST delightful surprise for you!" Dody waggled ring-bedecked fingers as she floated into the family room. Since Dody's surprises typically involved herbal concoctions that smelled of decaying yard waste and tasted slightly worse, I was not excited.
"I'm reading to the kids right now, Dody. Can it wait?" Jordan was next to me, half listening, half playing with his trucks, while Paige paid rapt attention. Reading was her favorite pastime, a byproduct of being named Paige Turner, I guess.
"It can't wait. I've arranged a reading for you with my psychic advisor, Madame Margaret." She beamed like I'd won Powerball. "She's wonderful. You'll love her." She shoved a stack of picture books to the floor and sat down on the sofa with a whoosh of fabric.
"Dody, I don't need a psychic. I need an accountant."
"Oh, pish-posh. All they do is account. But Margaret can light the pathway to your higher purpose."
I wasn't certain I had a higher purpose. I couldn't even get through the self-actualization exercises in my Oprah magazine.
"Do you really believe in that stuff?" I asked.
"I believe in whatever helps a person clear away their negative energy and focus on the positive. And you, young lady, are chock-full of negative energy. Margaret can give you just the push you need. She's expecting us in an hour."
"What about the kids?"
"We can drop them off at Anita Parker's. I've already asked her."
I was not on board with this. I didn't need some kooky Gypsy making up a bunch of crap about me taking a long journey or meeting a tall, dark stranger. Or worse yet, she'd be a real psychic who told me my future held nothing but heartache and loneliness. I already knew that. I'd get better advice from a bartender, along with a gin and tonic. But Dody had made up her mind, and that meant I was going.
An hour later I settled into a folding chair at Madame Margaret's Boutique. Mystic baubles and Wiccan whatnots adorned dusty glass shelves. The scent of lavender and kitty litter wafted faintly through the air, and clinky, plinky Eastern music played softly. What the hell was I doing here?
A short, pudgy woman with silver bobbed hair and red-framed bifocals entered the room. She had on a pink running suit. I was surprised and frankly a little disappointed when she sat down across from me. This was the psychic? Where were her veils? And her thick, black eyeliner? Where was the gold hoop earring? This was a rip-off.
She smiled warmly and shook my hand. "Hello, I'm Maggie."
"Hi," I said stiffly, not wanting to give anything away. If she was so psychic, she should guess my name.
"And you are Sadie," she said.
"Yes!" I gasped. Wow, she was good!
She chuckled at my reaction, tapping a piece of paper on the table between us. "Your name is here on my schedule."
"Oh, yeah." I shifted in my chair.
She handed me a deck of ornately decorated cards. "Shuffle these, please. I'm not sure we'll need them, but it will make you less nervous."
"I'm not nervous," I said, too quickly. Should I be nervous just because she was about to tell me my future looked bleak and devoid of joy?
She closed her eyes and breathed slowly.
This was ridiculous.
Then she opened her eyes and took the cards from me, flipping a few over in a deliberate pattern. They had crazy pictures: a tower getting struck by lightning, a couple of toga-clad women holding up golden chalices, a hermit with a lantern. And a black-cloaked dude riding a horse. That card had the word death printed right on it! That could not be good.
She stared at the cards for a silent minute and my skin began to itch. Were they so full of doom she'd didn't know what to say? But when she spoke, her voice was very calm.
"You are unbalanced."
Unbalanced as in crazy?
She pointed to the first card. "This is the Tower card. It represents long-held beliefs and ideas being challenged. All aspects of your life are currently in flux and you must be open to change. Certain troubles will end only after you get rid of something or someone, either physically or emotionally. Have you recently ended a relationship? Or are you thinking of ending it?"
Dody must have told her about my divorce. I nodded once, still not wanting to reveal too much.
Madame Margaret nodded back. "It was the right decision. He was flash and little substance. But there is more work to be done with him before you get to a better place. The Hermit card speaks of inner wisdom. You have it, you just don't trust it. You must adjust your attention from your everyday life and look inward. That is where your problems begin and where they will be solved."
Oh, I don't think so. My problems started and ended with Richard.
"Ah, and the Six of Cups," she went on, pointing to another card. "Very significant in this position. It connects one's past with one's future. It makes sense these two would be together in your present circumstances. You may suddenly find yourself thinking about past experiences, maybe even yearning for the beauty of an old relationship."
Wow, not a chance of that happening.
"This is also a period of emotional renewal. You will finally break free and come into your own with a deeper appreciation of your journey."
So far this seemed like standard issue fortune-telling to me. Pretty ambiguous stuff, especially since Dody had obviously prompted her.
She pointed to another card. "This is the Ace of Pentacles. It promotes good health. And the Star next to it is the card of inspiration, insight, and hope. Contact with someone who will change your life dramatically. A new relationship, perhaps."
Oh, yeah. That had Dody-speak all over it. I was being set up.
"I'm not anticipating a new relationship," I said. I needed to nip this right in the bud.
She smiled benignly. "One rarely anticipates this kind of thing. But that's the beauty of tarot. Now you know to watch for it."
I wanted to argue but could see there'd be no point. She seemed like a nice enough little lady, this wacky sidekick of Dody's. I guess I could let her spin her tale.
"The Three of Cups here tells me you are entering a period of fun."
Thus the cups, no doubt. They must be full of vodka.
"Over here we have the Knight of Swords and the King of Swords. These may be men in your life, both past and present. Both have charm and wit and eloquence, but one hurls himself at you like the wind and is gone just as quickly. He is easily bored."
Hmm, that could sure be Richard.
"But the other represents someone in a position of trust and responsibility, a professional advisor. A lawyer or a doctor."
Oh my God. Seriously? Did Dody write a script for this woman?
Margaret frowned and stared at the next card. "This Wheel of Fortune suggests your luck is changing. A new phase is beginning, but destiny and fate will allow you very little control over coming events. And you crave control at all costs. But, dear, the best thing you can do for yourself right now is go with the flow. And trust those who care about you. Many choices confront you, but only one is right. You cannot do everything on your own."
Yes I could. I'd been doing it alone for ages. Richard was no more help than a husband-sized cardboard cutout.
Then she smiled. "But it will all work out for the best. See the Two of Cups here? That is a new love affair. This next man is a much better match for you. But love has a price. This new relationship won't come without sacrifice."
Didn't they all come with sacrifice?
Did she say love? No thanks. I'd sacrificed enough for Richard. I was tapped out.
Then she sat back in the chair and regarded me for a minute. "We can't control events in our life, Sadie. Sometimes we can't even control our reactions. But the harder we fight against the waves, the more exhausted we become. Control is an illusion, you know."
No, love is the illusion.
She flipped over a few more cards and smiled again. "Excellent. The Four of Cups. You do not let possessions own you. Yes, go with that. Don't be afraid to tap into your natural strengths. You have much more than you realize. You'll find the balance you need as soon as you let go of how you think things should be and accept them as they are. Watch for the big wave. It'll push you in the direction of joy. You will be happy, Sadie. It's all over these cards."
Of course she'd say that. I'd hardly fork over a 20 percent tip for a vision of mayhem. She went on for another fifteen minutes or so, telling me to trust my instincts and let go of the past. Good advice, sure, but most of the stuff she said could have come straight from Dody's mouth.
See, I should have spent that money on gin and tonic. At least then I'd have a nice buzz.
"You deliberately avoided telling me Fontaine was living at Dody's, Sadie! Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Richard's voice was raspy with anger.
He and I were standing in the parking lot of The Waffle Castle where I'd gone to pick up Paige and Jordan after their most recent visit. The kids were currently sitting in my car, watching us rant and rave, just like old times.
"Keep your voice down! And I didn't mention it because I don't see why it matters, Richard. So what if Fontaine is staying there?"
"So what? So I don't want my son exposed to God knows what kind of shit Fontaine has going on. Is he bringing guys over there?"
He stuck his finger in my face, and I wanted to bite it off and spit it out.
"No, he isn't. But honestly, you're such a homophobic asshole. You don't care if Jasper is swinging from chandeliers with hookers. You're only worried my cousin will turn your son gay."
He grabbed my arm and pulled me farther from the car. "Keep your voice down. And damn it, Sadie, that's not fair. You're putting words in my mouth."
A couple walked by. The woman's step faltered as she saw us, but the man hustled her past.
"Look," Richard hissed once they were out of sight, "I don't have time to discuss this. I'm late for work. But you need to deal with this, Sadie. I'm not having either of my kids in that kind of environment. So get your fag cousin out of there or scoot your ass back to Glenville. You've got a five-bedroom house sitting empty while you're playing your stupid little summer camp at Dody's. Enough is enough. I want my kids back where I can see them more often."
My temples pounded. I could hardly breathe, and I wanted to punch him in the groin. Or at least think of something vile to say that would hurt him as much. But I was too slow.
Richard jumped into his car without another glance at Paige and Jordan and sped away.
Shaking like I'd touched a live wire, I climbed into my SUV.
"Mommy, why was Daddy yelling?" Paige asked.
I took a breath. "He's just frustrated about a work thing, baby. He'll be fine."
Just as so many times before, I lied to them about their father. I was not going to be the one to turn them against him. When they were older, they could decide for themselves what type of man he was. Until then, I would protect them.
Back in Bell Harbor that afternoon, I was still shaken by the argument. I didn't want to leave Bell Harbor. Not yet. And I wasn't going to ask Fontaine to leave either. I had no intention of even telling him what Richard said. But I was going to have to do something.
I took the kids and dogs down to the beach. Maybe a little sunshine would clear away the storm clouds in my head. Dody had passed on my invitation to join us, already committed to a belly-dancing class with Anita Parker.
I dumped a basket of plastic toys onto the sand to occupy Jordan. Paige had her dolls, and for me, a chair, a wine cooler, and a trashy novel. Sunshine, alcohol, and a little pulp fiction. That was a vacation.
Lazyboy barked, tearing around like a mongoose was on his tail, and eventually settled down beside me for a snooze. Fatso sniffed around in the sand, looking for half-buried junk food left behind by other beachgoers.
After a few minutes, I heard a sharp, short whistle. The dogs were instantly at attention, running toward the sound.
It was Des, jogging down the beach. The ubiquitous jolt that occurred every time I saw him buzzed through all my joints, and I once again reminded myself to get over it. Yes, I was attracted to him, much more than I dared admit, but it was pure infatuation. The thrill of emotions he stirred were almost cartoonish, all zing and zip and zoinks. It was fun pretending he was the Bionic Man with the Sensitivity Chip Upgrade. But he wasn't. Not really. He was just a guy, and if I got to know him better, I'd uncover all his lousy flaws. It was fun to flirt and pretend it meant something, but it didn't.
Des picked up a hunk of driftwood and tossed it, sending the dogs on another wild run, then came and sat next to me.
"Hey," I said back, discreetly tucking the trashy novel and cheap booze behind my chair.
The kids were a few feet away, digging a hole to Australia. (Contrary to urban legend about digging a hole to China, if you dig a hole from Michigan, you'll end up in Australia. Just another bit of useless trivia clogging my brain, along with the fact that toilets flush in the opposite direction on either side of the equator.)
"How are you?" he asked.
"Good. How are you?"
"Good. Where's Dody?"
He chuckled and shook his head, probably trying to dispel the mental image.
Paige ran over. "Hi, Des! See my mermaid? Her name is Rosemerelda Abernathy Sparkleberry Turner. Do you like her?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you like my new bathing suit too? It has yellow flowers on it. See?" She curtsied, tilting her head and putting a hand on her hip.
"I do. It's very pretty."
"I know." She turned and ran back to her trans-Earth Australian tunnel.
Jordan looked up and waved.
Des waved back.
We sat silent for a minute, watching the kids play.
"You're quiet today." Des leaned sideways, bumping his elbow against the arm of my chair.
"Am I? Sorry. Bad mood. Fight with my ex-husband." Damn it. Why had I said that? Hearing about someone else's ex-spouse was like watching slides from a sucky vacation that you didn't even go on. And yet I found myself still talking. "Richard doesn't want me to stay here. He's afraid Fontaine will give Jordan an incurable case of gay fever."
I looked over at my son, who was every inch the stereotypical boy. He'd abandoned the hole digging to punch and kick at the air, engaged in mortal combat with some imaginary foe.
"That's pretty stupid. What are you going to do?" Des asked, leaning back and tilting his face to the sun, eyes closed.
I took the opportunity to let my own eyes travel over him, but at my silence, he looked at me once more.
"I don't know," I said. "It depends how much trouble Richard wants to cause. It just makes me so mad because Fontaine is great with the kids. He's played with them more in a month than Richard did in five years."
Des nodded slowly. "That's too bad."
I nodded too and pulled my wine cooler out from behind the chair. "Have you ever been married?" Dody's take-no-prisoners bluntness was rubbing off.
He nodded and kicked at the sand with his foot. "Yeah. It didn't go very well."
"Sorry." I passed him my drink, which he accepted.
"It seems like a long time ago now."
"So what happened?"
He took another sip from the bottle. His words followed slowly. "Different priorities, I guess. We were pretty young. Pretty selfish." He shook his head again and handed back the drink. His hand grazed mine. For the briefest second our eyes locked. My heart went hot and shimmery, like the last burst of brilliance from a sparkler before it goes out.
Des almost smiled, but then his face changed, as if he had just that second remembered he'd left a pot boiling on the stove or had forgotten to put on his pants. He turned his gaze back to the water. "You know. Shit happens. Marriages end."
Part of me wanted to press. Part of me knew I wouldn't like what I heard. And anyway, he obviously didn't want to talk about it.
"No hospital today?" I asked instead.
He sighed, and it felt like the sun had faded somehow. "Nope, not today. But I still have tons of stuff I have to do. I suppose I should get to it."
He stood up slowly, almost as if he was waiting to say something more. But he just said, "See you later."
He turned and jogged down the beach.
Note to self: Don't ask Des about his marriage because it makes him sad. And then it makes him leave.
I readjusted the new leather work bag on my shoulder and smiled my best professional-organizer smile. Kyle was right. His old lover Patrick, and Patrick's new lover, Owen, had a lot of stuff!
Their new house was a historical behemoth, the oldest in Bell Harbor. That meant beautifully carved woodwork, an expansive veranda wrapping around the entire place, and old-fashioned pull-chain toilets. It also meant dozens of tiny rooms, the most illogically designed kitchen I'd ever seen, and no closets. Literally no closets! My worst nightmare! This job was going to be a bigger challenge than I expected, and since it was my first organizing assignment, I had to get it perfect.
My clients were crazy-happy in love and so excited to be moving in together. They didn't care about the details of setting up their new home; they just wanted the boxes unpacked with some semblance of order.
But if I failed, and the clutter overtook this house, they'd start fighting over golf clubs tipping over in the hallway or important mail getting lost amid stacks of random paperwork. My failure to create order from this chaos could doom their relationship. They might not realize it was my fault, but I would. So I had to get this right.
"This is the master suite," Patrick said, opening yet another door. "Aren't the windows divine? We're thinking sheer, sexy fabrics all over."
"And there's a maid's room right next door," Owen added. "We're thinking of turning that into a walk-in closet."
A closet? Thank God.
"Because half the fun will be coming out of it," Patrick snickered.
Owen sighed. "That one never gets old for you, does it, baby?"
We spent the rest of the day talking about their hopes for various spaces. I took dozens of notes and pictures and promised to get back to them within a week.
At Patrick's request, I also agreed to bring my label maker with me next time to mark their bathroom towel hooks His and His.
Strolling through the hospital lobby a few days later, after Dody's doctor's appointment, I heard a familiar accent. As usual, a tingle trickled down my spine and straight to my girlie bits.
"Hey, Sadie!" Des called.
Dody and I turned, and Des missed a step, taken aback, no doubt, by her turquoise boa. It was sparkly with sequined feathers and dangled from her shoulders like a Muppet Show cast member. Walter had allegedly bought it from a Romanian housekeeper who'd pilfered it from Diana Ross's dressing room. I had my doubts.
Des, of course, looked dashing in his doctor duds. What is it that makes a generic white lab coat and scrubs look so sexy, I wondered, just before wishing I'd put a little effort into my own appearance that day. I mean, yes, I was on vacation, but would it have killed me to wash my hair? Was that extra ten minutes in bed worth it? At the moment I wasn't even certain if I had brushed my teeth that morning. Damn it!
I smiled with lips together, trying to taste the remnants of toothpaste in my mouth.
"Why, Dody, don't you look stunning today?" His smile was broad.
She fluttered her boa along with her lashes. "Thank you. That's just what Fontaine said."
Des nodded, eyebrows quirked. "Fontaine would know."
He winked at me over her head, causing my bra to try and unclasp itself in sweet surrender.
"What brings you ladies here today?" he asked.
"Oh, it's nothing serious. Just a checkup with my vaginacologist," Dody answered.
"Dody!" I gasped.
"What? Oh, you're so squeamish, Sadie. He knows about these things. He's a doctor, after all. Right, Des? You know all about lady parts, don't you?" She gave a coy flutter of her boa.
His face was Vulcan bland. "I am familiar with vaginacology, yes."
"We were just going to the cafeteria to have lunch," Dody said. "Won't you join us?"
"No, we weren't," I blurted out, rattled by his presence.
"Yes, we were. I'm starving." She turned and stared at me with intense, round eyes.
Des checked his watch. "I've only got a few minutes, but I'll walk with you."
He pointed in the opposite direction, indicating the enormous cafeteria sign we'd blithely passed. We turned and walked together down a short hallway, arriving at the cafeteria a minute later.
It was nearly deserted. Probably because it was only ten thirty in the morning.
"Maybe we should just have coffee," Dody said. "I'm not so hungry after all."
I knew it! That meddling old liar, still trying to force Des into my world.
"I've got time for that," Des said, gesturing to a corner table. "Why don't you go sit in that booth over there? I'll get the coffee," he offered.
"No, let us buy the coffee. We owe you," I said.
He leaned forward, his hand touching the small of my back. "It's OK. I get it for free." He waggled his brows, nodding, as if free coffee was the best perk ever.
Looks like I had no choice. "OK then. Thanks."
He joined us at the table a few minutes later, setting down three cups and sliding into the seat next to me. He pulled some sugar packets out from his coat pocket and handed them to Dody. She was beaming as though he'd just proposed. To her.
"You like it black, right?" he asked me.
I nodded. "That was a lucky guess."
He tapped his temple. "Keen powers of observation. You drank it black the other night when I was there for dinner."
I looked down at my cup abruptly, not wanting him to witness my growing enchantment. Richard wouldn't be able to answer how I took my coffee if he was covered in honey and tortured with fire ants.
"How long did you say you'd be staying here in our lovely Bell Harbor, Des?" Dody asked, sensing I was mute with adoration.
"A few more months, maybe longer. It depends."
"Depends on what?"
He smiled. "On a variety of things."
His answer made me itchy. It was too vague. What was he hiding?
"And what do you do when you're not working?" Dody obviously realized she'd hit a dead end with the last question, but it wasn't about to dissuade her. I sensed her annoyance at my complete inability to market myself.
I sipped my perfectly black coffee, trying to ignore the heat of Des's leg near mine. That was tough to do in a booth so small. It was also hard to not notice the tiny spot near his sideburn that he missed while shaving, or the faintest little scar at the corner of his eyebrow, which I suddenly had an urge to press my lips against.
"I run, bike, travel, I play basketball. I read and watch movies. The typical stuff, I guess."
"What type of movies?"
"All kinds. I'm pretty easy to entertain."
"Do you like romantic movies?" she pressed on, batting her lashes at him. Her boa fluttered from her breath.
I sighed. Subtlety was nowhere on Dody's radar.
Des chuckled. "I do, actually. I grew up with three sisters, remember? So I've seen quite a few."
"Ah, that's delightful. So what was New York like?"
Des leaned back and his arm brushed along mine. I accidently squeezed my Styrofoam cup, nearly spilling what was left of the coffee.
"New York? I've never been there."
"Really? I thought all illegal aliens came through Elvis Island?"
Des laughed out loud, shaking the seat we shared.
"Dody," I sighed, "there is so much wrong with what you said I don't even know where to start."
"Why, what did I say?"
Des's phone chimed and he pulled it from his pocket, still laughing. "Dr. McKnight."
He cleared his throat and listened, then occasionally responded. "Yes. No. Ten minutes. Tell her she can wait." He paused again. "No, I waited for her all morning and she never showed up. I'll be there in a minute."
He hung up, setting the phone on the table, and took a sip of coffee.
"Was that your girlfriend?" Dody asked.
He coughed as he tried to swallow. Of all her bizarre questions, this seemed to be the first one to trip him up. His face flushed as he tipped the cup back one last time and drank the last of it. Then he crunched the Styrofoam and gave my aunt an enigmatic smile. "Dody, I don't have a girlfriend."
"You don't?" she exclaimed, beaming at us. "Well, that's just a shame! Isn't it, Sadie?"