What I don’t add: that the weird stuff was goddamned delicious.
What she writes back: Ordering more weird stuff asap.
Wendy’s house is my worst nightmare.
If, during this strange shared hallucination or whatever it is, I kill Wendy and end up in the eternal fires of damnation, this house will be a close approximation of what I can expect. It is two messy stories of projects, dirt, and palpable guilt. Every closet I open is full of clutter. Every crevice has ten years of dirt pushed into it. And it contains three of the laziest human beings I have ever laid eyes on. Every time I see one of them, they are draped somewhere as though there are no muscles in the middle of their bodies. They are human throw blankets.
For the first time in my life, I feel sorry for Wendy Charles. Have I been, since moving to Birchboro Hills, very compassionate to the Wendy Charleses of the world?
Have I, once or twice, resented her for being too busy for the rest of us?
Have I put myself in a different category than her—have I thought of myself as an ever-so-slightly better mother?
I look down at the mess I’m standing in. It is hard to be compassionate to a woman who seems to put herself ahead of me. Who believes her paying job is more important than my full-time dedication to my family’s well-being.
But honestly, Celeste. Taking sides in the Mommy Wars? Isn’t that so 2010? I can do better than that. I can see past insecurities and guilt to the truth. Are working moms and stay-at-home moms really so different?
Well, in the case of Wendy Charles, we are very different. She is an uptight jerk, and I am not. But in the case of working outside the home or inside it, we are the same. We are two roads that diverged in the wood. I’m not sure which of us is the road less traveled by—I flatter myself that it’s me, sacrificing personal glory for familial bliss—but both of us work hard, live tired, and struggle with the culture of unreasonable expectations for women. Judging by the amount of home repairs needed, Wendy is living close to her means, forgoing financial cushions so her partner can pursue his goals unencumbered. Just as I do everything I can to make one income possible on our end, from sewing Zoey’s clothes to avoiding restaurant food for all but the most special occasions.
I shake my head. My mom would have seen it right away: I need to open up my darned heart immediately to this neighbor, try to be of service, and see if it doesn’t come right back to me.
Having been forced, by me, to survive on bread (with almond butter and bananas) and water for breakfast, the children have turned down a trip to the park on this absolutely gorgeous Sunday morning. Instead, they are melted like candle wax all over the family room. Their heads are slightly swiveled toward an enormous television playing reruns on Disney Plus, and their fingers are twitching—in Bridget’s case, over a phone screen, and in Linus’s, up his nose.
Wendy’s husband was last spotted back, for the third time, in bed. He slunk off, hair of the dog in hand, in the hope that no one would notice.
So that leaves me, in this supercharged, energetic body, to do as I please while I wait for my body back.
I please to fix this dump up.
The closet I’m standing in front of is ostensibly the cleaning cupboard. There is a broom and dustpan, a bucket, and sprays and such. There are also enough plastic bags of all shapes and sizes to smother a whole elementary school full of children, as well as an opened family-size package of Milky Ways stuffed way, way back behind a book on home repairs covered in dust.
So this closet does get some use.
Except, Celeste, you aren’t judging Wendy anymore. You’re better than that.
Amid the chaos is a bag of cleaning cloths—the kind you have because you tried multilevel marketing in an attempt to make friends and extra cash and have nothing but a box of a hundred cleaning cloths to show for it. (Or, in my case, single-purpose kitchen gadgets.) I grab the unopened package and wrest the cloths free. Then I locate a multisurface cleaner. I apply latter to former and clean the closet’s light switch, its doorknob, and the handle of a bucket I fill with useful supplies. I am away.
There is nothing, truly, more stress relieving than deep cleaning. As I learned from my own mother, the act can be a meditation, a devotional, when done in one’s own time. When there is no shame attached (I should have taken care of this weeks ago), no regret (I wish I’d never bought this many gewgaws to dust), and no anger (How does one even get raspberry jam on the top of a picture frame?), and there is nothing to do but just clean the room you’re in from the ceiling down, one thing at a time, it’s actually quite restful. If a child isn’t “helping” you, if you have all day, if you’ve been well rested and fed, cleaning is no different from a peaceful walk or a nice yoga class. You know what to do, you do it well, you breathe deeply and move gently, and when you are done, you can see everything you’ve accomplished.
The dining room, the nookiest and cranniest room in this house, will soon be gleaming. I will, before the children so much as solidify into human form again, have this one shining example of a clean, hygienic house. It is here I will meet with the youth of tomorrow and explain how they, too, can enjoy rooms as clean as this. They will breathe in the fresh air and take in the newly conditioned dining table and vow to the woman they think is their mother to help her keep the house in this lovely, restful state to the end of their days. I Windex the glass of the picture frames. I use a toothbrush—one of the kids’ that looks like it should have been tossed months ago—to clean the grooves in the sideboard’s legs. I lightly moisten the dustcloths with water and get to the baseboards, seeing, as I do, that a touch-up on their white paint would not go amiss. I wonder where the honey-do list is in this house. A chalkboard? A notepad? No matter. I will start a new one and give it to Seth when he gets up. I spend the next hour and a half in this deep state of happy achievement, and when I am finished, I alert the children that they are needed around the table.
But nothing happens.
Are they dead?
I crouch over the boy, Linus, and feel for a pulse.
“What are you doing?” he asks. He doesn’t sound upset or mean, just curious.
“Oh, good,” I respond. “I thought maybe you’d died.”
His eyes drift from the TV to my face. He’s seeing Wendy, I remind myself. Wendy’s get-up-or-else face might be less effective than mine. His eyes glide back to the screen.
I do what I would do with Samuel the odd times he’s not bouncing on the couch cushions or climbing around on the top of the sofa, unable to pay attention to the screen. I grab his shins and flip him over on his stomach. “C’mon,” I say. “I’ll wheelbarrow you to the family meeting.”
“What’s a family meeting?” he asks absently, scooching around on his stomach to watch TV in this new position, his shins still in my hands.
“It’s how we sort out who is doing what around the house,” I say, wondering what process Wendy normally uses to delegate, or if this meeting is, in fact, going to come as a terrible shock to these kids.
“I pass,” says Bridget, who has, in that unnerving tween way, been following events on her phone, on the TV screen, and in the room without moving an eye muscle.
I am taken aback. Momentarily. I move, as casually as I can, toward Bridget’s side. The remote is on her armrest, the phone cupped in both hands. My hand darts out like a cobra striking. Hit one, the phone. Hit two, the remote. Phone in pocket, TV off, remote in other pocket. Take that!
“MOM!” the children shout in unison. They look really surprised. And angry. Wendy must be a far nicer mom than I am. No wonder the house is a pit and the kids seem to think they don’t have to take care of their things.
“Screens are for helpful children,” I say. I skip off to the dining room. It’s so rare I get to torture my own children this way anymore. I feel a lovely blast of nostalgia.
Bridget sits tight, but in a matter of seconds Linus is there, surprising me by walking straight between my legs where I’m sitting admiring my handiwork. He puts his head on my shoulder, and his voice whines, “I’m helpful, Mommy. You always say I’m helpful.” I feel tears on my neck. Oh dear.
“Of course you’re helpful, Linus,” I say. Is he? I have no idea. He certainly didn’t seem it just now. I think quickly. “And now you’re ready to level up to the kind of helpful that helps people even when it’s not convenient for you.”
He looks up at me. “I don’t think I want to level up.”
“Oh, but leveling up is the only way to get to the good stuff,” I tell him.
“Prizes?” he asks. His tears have vanished. No, they’re on my shirt collar, with some snot. But they’ve stopped coming.
“Maybe,” I say, kicking the can down the road. “Or the satisfaction of knowing you are doing the right thing.”