SUMMER DAYS FLOATED BY AND turned into a week, and then one more. Life became idyllic. Insipid love songs seemed profound. Implausible romantic comedies radiated truth. Everything around me took on the wholesome cuteness of fuzzy kitties and sparkly rainbows. Had it always been that way and I hadn't noticed? Is love a many-splendored thing? Truth be told, I'm not sure what splendored means, but if it means really, really good, then yes, love is splendored.
Yes, of course I knew this thrill ride was temporary. I wasn't really in love. My charismatic new friend (with benefits) had slipped a supersonic potion into my Kool-Aid, and I gulped it down before considering the consequences. I was sublimely, mystically drunk with the effects and riding the wave of joy. Soft whispers of common sense warned me this preposterously illogical jubilation would wear off, but for now I wanted to enjoy it. Like that moment you step on the scale after a bad case of the stomach flu and you're down five pounds. You can't help but be excited, even though you know as soon as you eat anything you'll gain it all back. This was like that. Only so much better.
In addition to playing in the lake with my kids, shopping with Dody and Fontaine, eating far too much ice cream, and reveling in naughty blanket time with Des, I'd attended an organizing conference and came back to Bell Harbor full of ideas and enthusiasm. I was determined to make a go of it, and Kyle had found me two more clients.
As I paced around the sunporch one evening waiting for Des to pick me up for a date, I was plotting how to fit two hundred pairs of shoes into one closet.
"God, woman, would you relax? I can feel your estrogen surging from way over here," Fontaine barked.
"What's estrogen?" Jordan asked from his spot on the floor, where he and Paige were playing with beads and pipe cleaners.
"Nothing, baby." I made a face at Fontaine.
Dody joined us on the porch, wearing blue wire-rimmed sunglasses, bell-bottom jeans, and a smock top circa 1960. She had an orange headband tied around her forehead like a ninja.
"Nice duds, Mom."
She shook her booty. "Thank you, dear. Harry and I are going to the Age of Aquarius Festival at the fairgrounds. When does Des get here, Sadie? I have a medical question."
"Please do not pester him with more of Anita Parker's medical quandaries, Dody. She needs to talk to her own doctor."
"It's not for Anita. It's for…for somebody else."
"Then that somebody else needs to find her own doctor too."
I craned my neck, trying to peek out the window to see if that was Des's car I heard.
Dody's phone rang and Paige hopped up to answer it, scattering beads in every direction.
"Hello? Oh, hi, Grandma."
I shivered with the chill of doom. Was that thunder from the underworld I heard?
Paige continued chatting. "We're making bead bracelets. Uh-huh. Yep, she's here, but she's going to the movies with Des."
No! No! Paige don't tell her that! I nearly ripped the phone from her delicate fingers. The less information my mother had, the better.
But Paige added nail after nail to the coffin. "Yes, he's a boy from the beach. He talks kind of funny, but he gave me and Jordan suckers when Aunt Dody's head was bleeding."
OK, that was enough. I pried the phone from her.
"Hi, Mom. What's up?"
"Who is she talking about?"
"Nobody special. Just a friend."
"Does he have a speech impediment?" Mother would have done well during those dark periods of history when imperfect children were left to the wolves.
"He's Scottish, Mother. It's an accent."
"Hmm. Are you seeing him?"
The Spanish Inquisition had nothing on her. Thank God my mother didn't believe in waterboarding.
"He's a doctor from down the street. He gave Dody some stitches when she fell and cut her head. Now he's taking me to the movies, but please don't make a big deal out of it."
She harrumphed into the phone. "Honestly, Sadie, all I do is show a little interest and this is what I get."
I bit my lip. "I'm sorry, Mom. What can I do for you?"
"I was calling to schedule a visit with my grandchildren, if it's not too much to ask."
"They would love that," I lied.
"Richard is seeing someone else too, you know."
I waited for the pollution of sadness to clog my lungs and make it hard to breathe. But it never came. Technically, Richard was always seeing someone else, even when we were married. But this was the first time the idea didn't make my chest ache.
"Good for him. Listen, I have to run. But I'll call you tomorrow and we can figure out a time to visit, OK? Here, talk to Dody."
Dody tried to evade me, but I kept jabbing her with the phone until at last she took it. "Hello, Helene." She stuck out her tongue at me and then walked into the other room.
I checked the window again. "Where is Des? He's late."
"He's not late, cupcake. You set your watch ahead, remember?" Fontaine reminded me.
"Yes, because I don't like to be late. He should do the same thing."
"Tell him that. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."
When at last Des arrived, he kissed me on the cheek and I forgot all about the waiting.
Paige held out her hand. "Here, Des, I made you a bracelet. I used boy colors 'cause you're a boy. But there's a pink bead too so you'll remember it's from me. And a red one to make you think of Mommy."
He tried to fit the tiny bracelet over his man-sized wrist. "Is red Mommy's favorite color?"
Paige nodded, her curls bobbing. "Yes, 'cause it's the love color."
I pretended to be fascinated by my fingernails.
"Thanks. I'm going to put it in my pocket for now so I don't lose it," he told her. "But I'm sure I'll get lots of compliments on it at work."
Paige giggled. "Fontaine is going to read me and Jordan a story after you guys leave."
"Really? What story?"
"The one with the mean troll guy who puts the princess in a tower. And he won't ever let her out until she guesses his name."
Des smiled. "Oh, I've heard that one. Do you know his name?"
She nodded emphatically. "Yep. It's Rumpled Foreskin."
Fontaine and Des erupted with laughter.
I cuffed Fontaine on the side of the head. "Darn it, Fontaine! Did you teach her that? If she says that in front of Richard, I'm the one who gets yelled at." I turned to Paige. "It's RumpleSTILTskin, honey."
Fontaine grinned. "I didn't teach her that, I swear!"
"You're not staying for lunch?" my mother asked a few days later when I dropped off the kids in Glenville for their visit.
"Sorry. Wish I could, but Kyle wants me to meet another organizing client. This will be my third." I stood a little taller, proud of my achievement.
"I still don't understand why you want to paw through other people's belongings. It doesn't sound appealing to me at all. If you're short on cash, you know you could ask me rather than becoming a housekeeper."
I slumped back down. "Thank you, but I'm not short on cash. I'm organizing because it's fun."
I didn't tell her I'd signed up for a business seminar and added my name to an online registry of professional organizers. Or that Fontaine had drawn up business cards for our proposed joint venture. I also failed to mention both he and Dody were pressuring me to move to Bell Harbor permanently. No point in telling her about it when it would never happen.
"So you'll keep the kids here for two days and then Richard will pick them up. Does that still work for you?" I asked instead. I wanted to get out of there before she peppered me with questions about Des. Or anything else, for that matter.
"Yes, I suppose that's fine. It'll be nice to see him."
I did not agree. Richard had been pleasant enough the last few times we talked, but I could not shake the feeling he was up to something. I guess old habits die hard.
"OK, well then, I'd better run. I haven't checked on my house in weeks."
I drove across town and into my old neighborhood. The avenues looked different, the colors or dimensions slightly skewed. Kids I didn't recognize were playing in the yard next to mine. They stopped and watched me as I fumbled with the key in my front door. At least the grass looked fine. Richard must have fixed the sprinklers.
The door stuck a little and finally gave way. I stepped inside.
My extravagant Glenville home had a musty, closed-up smell. Dust sparkled in the rays of sunlight coming through the windows. I'd been looking forward to stopping by, anxious for some tranquility after the endless chaos at Dody's. But it was eerily quiet, like a cave deep underground.
I set my purse on the dusty black granite countertop in the kitchen I loved. I had spent hours agonizing over which colors to choose during my most recent redecoration, completed during a period when Richard seemed never to be home. The monochromatic shades of charcoal and gray that had appealed to me for being stylish and classic now seemed unfriendly. Everything here, the cold stone counters, the stainless-steel appliances, the painstakingly placed decorative plates, it all had a lifeless quality to it. You couldn't find a flaw in the design, nor would you find a hint of personality. I'd have to redecorate again when I moved home. Maybe Fontaine would help me.
I kicked off my shoes and walked over the plush carpet to the family room. Above the marble-tiled fireplace was an enormous family portrait. Richard, Paige, Jordan, and I posed in white shirts and khaki pants. I remembered that day. It was awful. Richard had been late so I refused to sit next to him for the photographer. Then Jordan had cried because Richard scolded him. The smile on my face peering down from the picture looked sincere, but I knew the effort that took. I was an expert at masking my irritation from the rest of the world. But I could see the sadness around my own eyes. That picture would have to go. I'd only left it there for the kids' sake. Paige, Jordan, and I would get a new portrait taken soon.
To the left of the fireplace was a mark in the wall from when I'd thrown a shoe at Richard. I couldn't remember now why I'd thrown it, but I'm sure he deserved it. How had we gotten to that place? Hating him had not come upon me all at once. It was gradual, creeping over me slowly, insidiously, like frostbite, until eventually I was frozen solid.
I'd loved him once. I think he'd loved me too – the way an athlete loves a trophy. I was still in college when we met, and he was already a reporter at a tiny local station. Oh, how shiny and new love seemed in those first months of marriage. We'd had fun, and I loved his attention. At first our fights were seldom but loud, then they faded away altogether, along with any kind of communication other than sex. That was Richard's idea of conversation.
"You want to?"
"Yeah, I guess. If you want to."
A siren wailed in the distance, bringing me to the present and scattering thoughts of Richard away.
I went upstairs and lingered in the doorway of my bedroom. Like the streets outside, I felt as if I'd never seen this room before, or was gazing at a museum display.
Here we show the habitat of the modern American family. Note how the male and female of the species sleep as far apart as the mattress will allow.
The huge four-poster bed in the center of the room would have to be replaced. I hated it now. Richard had given it to me as a gift for our fifth anniversary, but I'd been paying for it ever since.
I opened the top drawer of my dresser, where I kept my jewelry. I rummaged around until I found the black velvet box holding my engagement ring and wedding band. I flipped it open. Even with the shades drawn, my ring sparkled. It was a rock and a half, another extravagant gift. Richard thought love should show on the outside, and so he was generous with his wallet. Technically, I guess he was generous with all parts of himself. I chuckled to the empty room. Yes, that was Richard's flaw. He was just too generous.
An idea formed in my mind in an instant. I slipped the box into my pocket.
Heading back downstairs, I dialed my phone to call a neighbor. I had still not connected with any of them the entire time I was in Bell Harbor. Sheila from next door didn't answer. Neither did Nora, or Elaine, or Connie. I'd left them all messages earlier this week, saying I'd be in town but had heard nothing back.
Stepping onto my sunporch, I looked across the backyards. And there they were, sitting on Nora's patio. An odd sensation tingled in my throat and I had another idea. I pulled my phone back out of my pocket and dialed Sheila's cell once more. She was never without it. I watched through the window and saw her pick up her phone from the glass-topped table and check the caller ID. Her head turned toward my house, and she set her phone down without answering.
Oh my God. I was being shunned. Why?
I sat down hard on the seat next to the window and waited for a rush of indignation. But just as I had when hearing Richard was seeing someone, I felt…nothing. Had I missed these women? Not really. And clearly they had not missed me either. Perhaps being out of the neighborhood meant I'd have no juicy gossip for them and therefore served no purpose. Two months ago, I would have stormed across the grass and demanded an explanation. Now I realized how this simplified things. I had purged some useless friendships without a messy breakup or hormonal drama. When I moved back to Glenville, I wouldn't waste my energy trying to reconnect. I'd find new friends. Better friends. What had Madame Margaret said? "Out with the old, in with the new"?
I guess that went for people too.