I SPREAD OUT MY BEACH blanket, wishing with all my heart that my sunglasses were bigger and darker. The sun was blazing and not helping my dull hangover. Thankfully Paige and Jordan were watching a movie with Dody up at the cottage so I had a few minutes to myself. I settled in with my new book, The Moron's Manual for Starting Your Own Business. A gift from Fontaine.
The smell of hot sand and cool water was a tonic, lulling me into a lethargic stupor. I closed my eyes and my mind drifted back to last night. The end part was a little fuzzy. The last thing I remembered was watching Des lumber unsteadily down the beach toward the Pullmans' house.
I opened my eyes sleepily. There he was, lumbering again. I blinked, thinking it might be a mirage. But he was really there, making his way toward me much slower than usual.
"Hey, how are you?" I asked when he finally reached my blanket and sat down with a heavy thud.
"How do you think?" he asked. He took off his sunglasses, making me gasp.
His left eye was swollen and red, with dark bruises all around it. He looked like the final scene from a boxing movie.
"Oh! My! God! What happened to your eye?"
He scowled. "You guys got me drunk last night."
Uh-oh. I think I might be in trouble. I hesitated to ask, "And?"
"And when I got home it was very late and very dark."
I bit my lip. "And?"
"And you know that table you moved in my front hallway to make it look more welcoming?"
He said welcoming the way most people say horseshit.
"Well, I walked in the door, tripped over the goddamned cat, and crashed into the table on my way to the floor."
He was annoyed. And I should feel terrible! This was all my fault, just like Dody tripping over Jordan's truck had been. But the mental picture of him stumbling and bumbling through a dark house and falling flat on his face was too much to bear.
I tried to fight it. I really did. But then I busted out with a full-volume, head-tipped-back guffaw. I couldn't help it! I slapped my hand over my big, loud mouth but the laugh was already out there.
"You think this is funny?" he asked.
I pressed my lips together and shook my head, but the bubbles of laughter were filling up my throat and going into my nose.
"Sadie," he huffed again. "It's not funny!" But one corner of his mouth twitched.
"I know!" I nodded fast then burst out laughing even harder.
He stared at me, until at last, he started laughing too.
"I'm so sorry, Des!" I choked out.
"You don't seem sorry."
"Oh, but I am, really." I tried to appear sincere, attempting to do my Sad Paige impression.
He shook his head slowly.
"Does it hurt?"
"You bet it does. I woke up this morning and thought my head was going to explode. I figured it was just from the drinks, but then I saw myself in the mirror."
I laughed again, imagining the scene.
"Of course, it hardly hurt at all when I did it! The cat kind of broke my fall. Anyway, I'm willing to let you make it up to me." His other eye crinkled in amusement.
"And how would I do that?" I asked.
He put his sunglasses back on. "Go out to dinner with me tomorrow."
All the alcohol still in my system rushed back to my head. I felt dizzy and slightly seasick. He was asking me on a date. I didn't want him to ask me on a date. I had an allergic reaction to dates. I wasn't sure what to say. "I'm only here for the summer, you know."
Des smiled. "Dinner should only take a couple of hours. We should be back in plenty of time for you to pack up for Glenville."
The seasickness swelled. I tingled with hope and panic. A date. He was asking me out on a date. A million reasons I should say no pinballed around inside my skull, colliding and ringing warning bells. Loudly.
"So how about it?" he asked.
"Um, sure," I heard someone answer. Someone who sounded just like me. "That would be nice."
"Great." He fell back against the blanket, flung his arm over his eyes, and promptly went to sleep. Wasn't that just like a man?
Arriving back at the cottage after my afternoon in the sun, I found bags of pretzels, candy wrappers, and soda cans strewn all around as Dody, Fontaine, Jordan, and Paige lounged together on the big brown sofa in the family room. They were watching Phantom of the Opera.
"Um, I'm thinking that movie is not so appropriate for my kids, Dody." I bent over and started picking up wrappers.
"Don't be ridiculous. It's a musical. Didn't your mother ever let you watch musicals when you were little?"
"Yeah, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
"See?" She drank from her soda then offered it to Jordan.
"That's not quite the same thing."
"Shhhh, shhh!" Fontaine hissed, not taking his eyes off the television. "The Phantom is luring the girl into his dungeon lair."
"I know! That's a little dark and twisted for a six- and four-year-old, don't you think?"
Paige was sitting on Fontaine's lap, enthralled by the movie. "Why is he wearing a mask?" she whispered.
"Because he's a mutant musical genius," Fontaine answered. "Like Lady Gaga."
I looked around the room, conflicting thoughts swirling in my mind. If I went to dinner with Des, I'd have to ask one of these two to watch my kids. Could I really do that? Jordan's head rested in Dody's lap while she petted him like a dog. Richard would have a conniption if he saw this. Where was my parental guidance? Where was the adult supervision? I bit my lip and thought about Des's hair and the way it was always just a little messy, begging me to run my fingers through it. My hand twitched. I could almost feel his hair against my palm.
Oh, what the hell. My kids would be fine.
I took the plunge. "Dody, can you watch the kids tomorrow night so I can go out?"
Fontaine's head popped up like a prairie dog's. He immediately paused the movie while he and Dody looked at me as if I'd just announced my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Who are you going out with?"
I crossed my arms. They didn't need to sound so surprised. "Just dinner with Des."
My aunt and cousin high-fived each other. Very mature.
"Of course I'll watch the children," Dody said.
Fontaine hopped up, oblivious to Paige tumbling onto the floor from his lap. "And I'll go pick out your outfit."
"Fine," I said. "And I will go call Penny."
Penny didn't answer her phone, which was an enormous problem for me. I needed her to talk me down from the ledge onto which I had crawled. What the hell was I thinking, telling Des I'd go out to dinner with him? I could have said I had plans. I should have told him I had to sort Dody's ceramic-unicorn collection or help her tie-dye a tablecloth. Maybe it wasn't too late to cancel. I could wait until tomorrow and then tell him Jordan had a fever. But Des was a doctor. He'd want to come over and help. Frickin' Hippocratic oath.
Fontaine walked into my bedroom and started strewing my clothes all over.
"What are you doing?" I yelled. "That's sorted and organized."
"Into what categories? Ugly clothes and uglier clothes? I have been dying to do this, girlfriend. We have got to take you shopping. What the hell is this?"
He held up my most prized possession, a sweatshirt from spring break during my senior year of college. It was faded, tattered, and perfect for wearing while eating peanut butter with your fingers and crying about your incredibly shitty marriage. I tried to snatch it from his hands.
"Give me that."
"Not a chance. It's going in the composter with this other pile of crap you call a wardrobe. Like this stuff would ever decompose. No wonder I've had a stuffy nose. It's all these synthetic fabrics you snuck in here."
Fontaine's assault on my meager wardrobe further shredded my nerves. What the hell was I going to wear?
"There is nothing to work with here," he sighed. "Get your shoes on. It's time for a little Extreme Ho Makeover."
"You expect me to go shopping simply because some guy asked me out to dinner?"
"Of course not. But you can go shopping to buy things to make you feel pretty. You deserve it. It's not for him, it's for you."
Fontaine sang a different song two hours later as I stood in the dressing room of a Bell Harbor boutique.
"Des will love that!" he said.
I was stuffed into a tiny red dress with a plunging neckline and not enough fabric. Even my feet felt naked in strappy high-heeled sandals with rhinestone buckles.
"It's skimpy. He'll think I'm trying too hard."
Fontaine shook his head. "The only thing that dress will make him think about is taking it off you."
My stomach recoiled like I'd been kicked in the gut. Taking it off me? I hadn't even thought of that! I mean, I had thought about it, but only in the most movie-version way. The way I imagined the right conditioner could make my hair swirl around like it does in the commercials, or how I daydreamed about doing something fabulous for mankind and being congratulated by Bono.
Fantasies were one thing, but actual physical contact with another human being? Fontaine was talking about skin to skin. There was no way I was ready for that. I suddenly remembered my last horrific blind date. This time I would know better.
"The shoes are too much. I have shoes I can wear."
"Those white sandals I saw in your closet? No fucking way, baby. Those puppies have been donated to the community theatre for their production of The Golden Girls. Next stop, Victoria's Secret."
I didn't feel any better about the dress, or the shoes, or my silky new unmentionables the next day either as I stood in front of the mirror minutes before Des was scheduled to pick me up. I tugged at the neckline, but that only made the dress shorter. No good. And the sandals were cruel, pinching my toes as if I were Cinderella's ugly stepsister who had accidentally scored a date with Prince Charming. What if he showed up and said, "Wait, I didn't mean you. Where's the pretty one?" I started to hyperventilate.
"Fontaine, I have to change. Let me wear the black pants."
"Get a hold of yourself, woman!" he scolded. "You're not going to a craft show with Dody. This is a date. Don't make me slap you, because you know I will."
I knew he would. He'd done it once before, when I used up the last of his strawberry-kiwi-scented exfoliation scrub.
"Anyway, why are you so blasted nervous? It's Des."
I tried to take a deep breath, but the dress wouldn't let me. "I know. That's the problem." I bit my lip. My voice dropped to a whisper. "Fontaine, what if I start to like him? I mean, really like him?"
Fontaine patted my arm. "Then let yourself really like him. The alternative is pure boredom, and you're too fun for that. Now I'm going downstairs to make you a cocktail. You're so jittery, you're making me nervous. Just relax."
Fontaine went downstairs, and I sat in my bedroom to collect myself. I could do this. Of course I could. This wasn't some cheesy blind date like the last guy had been. It was Des. He was a nice guy. This would be OK.
Dody and the kids were in the kitchen and I was coming down the stairs when my date arrived. Fontaine opened the door to let him in, and I was grateful for the distraction they offered. Gracious. Des looked so delicious he took my breath away. I'd only seen him in doctor stuff and scruffy beach clothes, in which he was damn fine. But cleaned up? Yum yum. His hair was combed, and he wore nice slacks and an ironed shirt. The idea of him standing at an ironing board pressing his clothes for a night out with me gave me tingles in all the places tingles tingled most often.
The kids swarmed around him like eager puppies, and he scratched at their heads as if they were. Fortunately Lazyboy and Fatso had been locked out on the porch, or Des would be covered in slobber. Then again, that might happen anyway. My tongue suddenly felt too thick for my mouth.
Finally Des looked at me. His eyes started at my shoes and traveled up slowly, making my nerves so taut I thought I might be audibly crackling. He hesitated ever so slightly at the neckline of my little red dress. Damn. I think Fontaine was right.
I stood up a little straighter, leveling my shoulders like a broken athlete daring to go out onto the field for one last play. Put me in, coach. I'm ready.
I saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "You look nice."
The words were plain and simple, but the way he said them made me flutter inside.
"Thanks, so do you."
"Oh!" Fontaine uttered softly, pressing a fist to his mouth. He wrapped an arm around a beaming Dody. "You kids go on. We'll be fine here."