"YOU'LL LIKE TOM AND TASHA. Don't be nervous," Des said as we drove to the Bell Harbor marina.
"I'm not nervous. What makes you think I'm nervous?"
"You haven't said a word all morning and your lip is bleeding."
I put my hand to my mouth. OK, maybe I was a little nervous, but who wouldn't be? Today we were sailing with two of his friends from medical school. They'd arrived this morning from Chicago on their own boat. I didn't know starboard from starfish, and they'd been sailing together for years. Wasn't that reason enough to panic? And Tasha was still friends with Des's ex-wife. She wouldn't automatically hate me on sight. Would she?
Des said Tasha was a dermatologist. Super. She'd critique my skin and tell me I should be using better sunscreen. Her husband, Tom, was a forensic pathologist. I guess if the conversation got dull, I could ask about untraceable poisons to snuff out Richard.
Fontaine had dressed me in my nautical best, with white capri pants and a navy-and-white-striped top. I'd drawn the line at the jaunty red scarf he tried to tie around my neck. I didn't want to look like the millionaire's wife from Gilligan's Island.
Jasper packed a picnic lunch for us to share, loading the basket with classy but exotic items for which I planned to falsely claim credit. And of course Dody, eager to do her part, flicked kosher salt at my face as I walked out the door, believing this would prevent seasickness. It took a village to launch me on this voyage.
Des and I walked down the dock, reading the names of each boat. We passed the Tipsy-Turvey, the Go Daddy, and the Blue Velvet, as well as the Breaking Wind and another brazenly named Blow Me. We arrived at the last sailboat in the row, one with bold blue letters across the hull. Boatox.
"Yay Des!" I heard a woman call excitedly. "Hey, Tom, come up. They're here."
I don't know what I expected, but Tom and Tasha were not it. He was fair-skinned with wispy blond hair and distractingly large teeth. Tasha was short and stocky, with dark, curly hair pulled into two pom-pom ponytails on the top of her head, reminding me of stuffed animal ears. She wore a functional but unflattering black swimsuit and gray sweatpants rolled down at the waist and up in the legs. I changed gears from worrying they'd find me too country mouse to worrying they'd find me pretentiously well dressed. Thank God I wasn't wearing the scarf.
We hopped on board, both of us receiving warm hugs.
"Sadie, it's great to meet you," Tasha said. "From what Des has told us, you're much too good for him. Come on; let's get you guys settled so we can get under way."
"This is a beautiful boat," I said.
"She's a beast, but watertight."
I assumed that meant we wouldn't sink. Very reassuring. I wasn't sure what else to say. "It's a lot bigger than I expected."
Tom turned to Des. "Bet she never said that to you."
Oh, yeah. This day was going to be fun after all.
We headed out into open water after stowing our gear in the cabin below. (That's nautical speak for We threw our crap inside the boat.) It was fascinating, watching the three of them coiling ropes and rigging sails and jibbing jibs. As the day wore on, I discovered I liked sailing. And I liked Tom and Tasha. They were funny and gracious and relaxed. Des was practically giddy, and it occurred to me this was the first time I'd seen him interact with anyone besides my family. He always seemed to enjoy himself with my people, but today he was clearly in his element. It was a bittersweet realization.
We sat near the back, with Tom and Des taking turns at the wheel. Or the helm? Is that what it's called? I didn't have the nerve to ask. The sun was gorgeous and bright as we cut across the water, and the waves were gentle enough to keep me from puking over the side. Either that or Dody's salt had done its job.
"Can I get you anything?" Tasha asked. The wind whipped my hair into my mouth every time I tried to talk. I now understood her pom-pom hairdo.
"No, I'm fine. Thanks. I brought a basket of snacks, by the way, in case anyone gets hungry."
Tasha smiled. "I already dug through it. Looks delicious."
"Sadie's cousin is a chef," Des told them.
I tapped his arm. "They were supposed to think I packed that myself."
"Sorry. I'm no good at subterfuge."
"I can vouch for that," Tom added. "In medical school, we showed up late for finals one time because of an awesome road trip the night before. I started telling the professor we got mugged on our way to class because that was the only thing that would save our asses. But Mister I-Cannot-Tell-a-Lie starts telling the truth! The truth!"
"It is the best policy." Des grinned.
"I was there that day too," Tasha added. "It was hilarious. Tweedledee and Tweedle-stupid here started arguing in front of the professor."
"So what happened?" I asked.
"I got marked down a full grade for lying and George Washington over here didn't."
I listened as they recounted more stories, ones they'd obviously told time and again. It was a glimpse into Des's world that had been blank before. But I almost wished I hadn't heard any of it, because it made me fall a little harder, a little faster. When I hit the ground it was going to hurt.
"Des tells me you're an organizer? I could sure use one at my house. Even with a housekeeper and a nanny."
"You have a nanny? I didn't realize you had children."
Leave it to a man to forget a detail like that. Des hadn't mentioned them.
Tasha rerolled the hem of her sweatpants. "Three boys, ages six, seven, and nine. They're hellions. We come on the boat to escape them. You have two of your own, don't you?"
Apparently Des had filled them in more thoroughly about me. "Yes, Paige is six, and my son, Jordan, is four."
Des interrupted. "Paige is a riot, very expressive and dramatic. And her hair is in perpetual motion. Jordan is like your Sam, very analytical, always building something. He didn't like me at first."
I looked over at Des in surprise. That was interesting, listening to him describe my children. Was that note in his voice affection? Or just familiarity?
Tasha's glance went from me to him and back again. Suddenly it seemed we were all staring at Des, and there was a long, silent pause in the conversation.
"What? They're cute," he said defensively, abruptly becoming very focused on finding something in the picnic basket.
Tasha looked at me again, and for the first time that day, I felt like I was being measured.
Tom cleared his throat. "So, Des, you interested in doing The Mac this year?"
Des stopped rummaging in the basket and sat up. "You got room?"
"Maybe. Hampton's wife is pregnant, and if she doesn't pop it out before the race she's not letting him go. That's women for you, huh?" He smiled at Tasha.
"The Mac? Is that like a boat race or something? I think I've heard of it," I said.
"It's a huge boat race from Navy Pier in Chicago up to Mackinaw Island," Tom answered.
"They've been doing it for a couple years now, haven't they?" I asked.
"About a hundred."
"No, seriously?" Gosh, I love feeling that stupid.
"A hundred and two, actually," Tom explained. "And if you do the race twenty-five times, you become a member of the Island Goat Society."
Hating to feel stupid notwithstanding, I had to ask, "What on earth is the Island Goat Society?"
"Bragging rights, mostly. They call the sailors goats because after four or five days on the boat, we're all pretty shaggy and stinky."
Tasha added, "And because they act like animals. The postrace party on the island goes on for days. It's nothing but a bunch of rum-soaked middle-aged men behaving badly. I went once. Never again. I saw a fifty-year-old man peeing on a topiary on the front lawn of the Grand Hotel."
"What the hell is a topiary?" Tom asked.
"It's a shrub pruned to look like an animal or something."
Tom shook his head. "Anyway, Des, if Hampton can't go, should I call you?"
"I probably can't get out of work, but sure, keep me in mind."
Dinner at the Yacht Club rounded out my nautical experience. Des sat next to me on a bench while we waited for our table. His arm was draped around my shoulders as he played absently with the back of my hair.
He kissed my temple lightly. "Would you like a drink while we wait?"
"I would. Thank you."
"What would you like?"
Tasha looked at Tom expectantly.
He let his gaze drift over to the moored boats instead.
She cleared her throat.
He pushed himself up with a sigh. "I suppose you'd like me to get you a drink?"
"Yes, dear," she teased. "If it's not too much trouble."
Tom shrugged. "Well, I'm up now. Did you want a martini?"
"I hate martinis, Tom. You know that. Vodka tonic with lemon."
"OK, one gin martini, two olives, coming up."
"Very funny," she said.
The men walked away and Tasha's eyes met mine, hers gleaming once again with that speculative look, as if she were wondering if a spot on my face was food or a precancerous mole. After a moment she smiled and moved closer. "I've never seen Des like this before, you know," she said.
I squirmed. "Like what?"
"Like all lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, 'Baby, can I get you a drink?' And I've known him for a long time."
I tried to smooth a wrinkle from the front of my pants. "So…is that good or bad?"
"It's good. It's cute. I'm just not used to it." She sat forward on the bench and rested her elbows on her knees. "Don't get me wrong. I only mean he's so…playful. He's always been wound pretty tight, but he seems different today."
"Des is wound tight?" I couldn't hide the surprise in my voice. I'd never considered him to be the least bit tense. Compared to me, he was practically anesthetized.
"Yeah, well, he's had a tough couple of years, I guess. First his dad died while we were in med school. And then of course Stephanie put him through the ringer. That rotten bitch."
I blinked. "Stephanie? Is that his ex-wife?"
Tasha nodded, the pom-poms on her head bobbing to and fro. "What a piece of work she turned out to be."
Was she teasing me? "I thought you two were friends."
She crooked an eyebrow. "Me and Stephanie? Hardly. Especially not after what she did to Des."
I was torn between wanting and not wanting to know. I couldn't resist. "And what did she do, exactly?"
Tasha's other brow rose. "Des didn't tell you? That figures. He's too nice for his own good." She slumped back against the bench with a grunt and shook her head.
I waited, morbid curiosity mingling with anticipation and dread. Certainly I wanted The Ex to be a reprehensible shrew, one who could never lure him back into her bed. But on the other hand, I hated the implication that someone had hurt his feelings.
Tasha glanced over her shoulder to see where Tom and Des were. She spotted them still standing at the bar waiting for our drinks. She turned back to me.
"Did he tell you anything about her?"
"Just that they were young and stubborn and got married during med school. He said it didn't work out because they had different priorities."
"Different priorities?" Tasha snorted. "Wow, now there's an understatement. After they'd been married for about four years she had an abortion without telling him."
I felt my jaw slap against my chest and all the air burst from my lungs. "She did? Why?"
"Because she had another year of residency and didn't want to take the time off." Tasha's face was flushed, her jaw set hard. She crossed her arms. "She never even told him she was pregnant because she knew how much he wanted kids. She was afraid he'd try to talk her out of it. And he would have. But he didn't even find out until it was all over. God, he was a mess after that. Then he started doing this stupid nomadic, locum tenens shit. Classic commitment avoidance. It's time he picked a spot to land." She looked me over again without a hint of subtlety. "But I've got a good vibe about you and this place. I haven't seen him this happy in years. You're not going to break his heart, are you?"
I might have laughed at that if I hadn't been in utter shock. Before I could respond, Tasha said, "Uh-oh, here they come."
She made a chopping motion with her hand across her throat. "Des will kill me if he finds out I told you."
This was information overload. My head was reeling. In all the time we'd spent together, Des had never hinted at anything so tumultuous. Suddenly Richard's textbook infidelities seemed almost passe.
Des smiled and handed me a drink.
My responding smile was tremulous. A neon sign of tender emotions must have flashed across my face because he took one look at me and said, "God damn it, Tasha. Can't I leave you alone for two minutes?"
She grabbed her drink from Tom's outstretched hand and took a big gulp, nearly choking. "Darn it, Tom, that's a martini!"
Driving home from the marina later that evening, I leaned back in Des's sporty little car. The wind tonight could hardly do more damage to my hair. The air was moist and warm. I could still feel the rocking of the boat as we sped along under old-fashioned street lights.
"So what did you and Tasha talk about when Tom and I were getting the drinks at the bar?" he asked, the line of his jaw stern.
"Not much. She told me you were awesome and I shouldn't break your heart." I meant to tease, but he didn't smile or say anything. I reached over and put my hand in his, adding, "I won't break yours if you don't break mine, OK?"
He didn't look my way. He only lifted my hand and pressed his lips against the back of it.