He frowns. “I want prizes.”
Of course he does. “This meeting is the place to start. But we need your sister. Can you go annoy her into coming in here?”
His face brightens. “Is that helpful?” he asks.
“Be right back.”
In a matter of moments he’s back with an angry tween. I study her face. So different from my own baby girl. Sharper. Prettier, maybe? I don’t know. I suspect they’ll both be gorgeous in a few years. But Bridget is edges and lines and a tight ponytail. She moves with command and conviction. It’s intimidating, and it’s a perfect facsimile of her mother. A woman (to be) who has it all. And doesn’t even see what she has.
“Phone, Mom,” she instructs. She says it with such authority that for a moment I lose my way and consider giving it back to her. But then I remind myself I’m not parenting someone else’s children—not from their point of view. I can treat them as I would my own. Not that my own would ever talk to me that way.
“Sure,” I tell her, calmly. “Once I’m done, it’s yours.”
She crosses her arms. “Go, then.”
“I want you listening,” I tell her. “Not just thinking of what you’re going to text your friends in two minutes.”
Her eyes bug out. “I’m not texting, Mom. I swear!”
Oh, is she not allowed to text? This is interesting. Even Zoey has texting privileges. Perhaps I should rethink that.
I clear my throat. “Do you two notice anything different about this room?”
Their eyes roam the dining room. They shake their heads but say nothing.
“Nothing?” I prod.
“Did you paint?” asks Linus. “It looks shiny.”
“I cleaned, Linus,” I tell him.
Bridget sums it up when she asks, “Why?”
I squelch the urge to cry, Because you’re living in squalor, that’s why! “The house is dirty. So I cleaned part of it. But I need help to keep it clean. And it’s Sunday, you have no school today, and you obviously have nothing to do, so you’re the perfect people to help.”
Much moaning and complaining ensues.
“Plus,” I remind them, “you live here. You get to use all this nice stuff. You have to keep it nice.”
“Dad lives here, and he doesn’t clean,” says Bridget.
Doesn’t he? I wonder. That’s a bit sad for Wendy. “But he earns money,” I say.
“He does?” asks Bridget, incredulous. Oh dear.
I don’t answer, because I have no idea. I know Seth is meant to be a successful urban artist. Don’t successful artists in thriving art scenes like the one downtown make loads of money?
I have this powerful urge to text Wendy to ask about these questions. But coming from me, it’s not like she’d open up. “Let’s focus on what you can do,” I say. “You can clean. You’ll actually like it, too, once you realize how good it feels to have a clean home. You, Bridget, can do loads of laundry on Sundays. While you, Linus, can run the Roomba.”
“We have a Roomba?” he asks, mystified.
I grimace. “Um . . . we’re getting one. Today you’ll just vacuum and dust.”
“We have a vacuum?” he asks again.
“Don’t we?” I ask.
“You gave it to Dad when it broke, remember?” Bridget says.
I don’t remember, because I wasn’t there. Not the point. “Well, he’ll have repaired it by now, then,” I say.
“Mom?” Bridget says. “I’m, like, ninety-nine percent sure Dad used the vacuum in his artwork. You told him he could. You said the Merry Maids have backpack vacuums, so why did you need one here anyway?”
“I did?” I ask.
Both kids look at me funny.
“Well, right, I did.” I’m chewing on all this. They have a housekeeping service, yet the house is filthy. The husband, Seth, took a vacuum to his studio and never brought it back. This is the same husband the kids just told me doesn’t clean or make money. This is all a very curious situation. “Let’s get you guys started. We need laundry baskets and, um . . . dusting wipes . . . and music.”
Before long I’ve got the two kids working. They’re not bad kids and seem totally game to help out their mom once the path is made clear. They are listening to Top Forty played very loudly on the TV speakers and picking up all kinds of things, things I wouldn’t have necessarily had down as toys rather than trash, like Linus’s collection of acorns and a stack of box score sheets that Bridget assembles and files in an elaborate system in her bedroom desk. In an hour and a half the children are back in front of their screens, only now Bridget is getting up every fifteen minutes to address the laundry, and Linus to dust one more room. Meanwhile I take up residence in the kitchen, taking pantry items that are minutes from expiration and cooking, cooking, cooking up a storm. In four hours everything in this house is honestly livably clean, there are six freezer meals ready to roll, and a mound of clean clothes is being folded at the speed of snails as Disney Plus resumes and the kids feast on turkey sandwiches and apples cut into eighths.
I want to run across the backyard and get Wendy and show her what I’ve accomplished in her house in half a day of walking in her shoes. I want to walk through the house taking “after” photos. I cannot wait for Seth to return from wherever it is he’s gone and see what a nice home he has so I can get him started on some of the long list of overdue repairs it needs to be its absolute best. I’m not exactly clear on how to replace porch screens or fill in drywall, but Seth is a sculpture artist. He’ll know his way around a staple gun and plaster repair. And I certainly know how to paint the dining room, which, now that I look at it, could really use a warmer color, one that isn’t quite so hunter green. I could try to strip the white paint off the baseboards and return them to the pretty dark walnut they used to be too. Without meaning to, I slip into the slightest little fantasy of me and Seth—who is, let’s face it, the hottest husband on the block—in painting clothes, rolling a rich, creamy light brown on the dining room walls side by side, and him embracing his lovely wife in a tender moment, and his wife being me . . .
And then my eyes fly open in horror. I have been in Wendy Charles’s body for less than a day, and already I’m fantasizing about stealing her family, her home, and her husband.
When I come to again, it’s midafternoon on a Sunday, and I’ve done nothing today but rest. No kids have come in to shout at me about the Wi-Fi being down or to demand a ride, a bagel, or a ride to buy bagels. It is just me, the wonderful bed, and my dreams. The only way in the world I could get this kind of break is by stealing someone else’s body, and the truth is, I resent that.
I was there, sure, when Seth and I decided together that he would pursue his passion and I would pursue our health insurance. But I don’t remember when we agreed that he wouldn’t bring in any money anymore, after years of selling his works. Or when we agreed all the costs of his art would fall to me, and the success of my business any given month would determine whether we could afford special family trips, date nights, or other perks, like, you know, the dentist.
I would like to reconvene that meeting ASAP, and I would like to renegotiate my terms. As soon as I get my body back tomorrow, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
There is a planner next to Celeste’s bed, and reading it would be wrong, but tearing a page out to write on seems borderline ok, so I do exactly that. At the top, in my prettiest writing, which is not pretty at all, since I have been writing in all caps since I was seven, I scrawl,
THINGS TO CHANGE SO I STOP HAVING HALLUCINATIONS
Under that I write:
Let me sleep in on Sundays.
Get Seth to sell a piece but not spend the money right away.
I pause and look around Celeste’s bedroom.
Install those room-darkening curtains I bought three years ago, I add.
I think about what else would make my life better. Ideas leap to mind, but when I pull those threads, a thousand things our family needs to operate come unwound. If someone else does the laundry, the towels might all come out pink. If someone else picks up the clutter, Linus’s beloved trading cards could end up mangled. When it’s Seth’s night to cook, we get expensive takeout 100 percent of the time, so that’s not something I can increase the occurrence of without going broke. And if I run away to Rome, I will definitely miss everyone. Most days.
But what other tasks can I delegate? Financial management, maybe? Managing our household finances is the most stressful part of my life, because the people in my house don’t quite get how money works. But for that very reason, sharing the money duty would end in bankruptcy.
I draw lines through laundry, cleaning, cooking, money on my list. Not much is left.
Still, I’d really like to sleep in on Sundays.
I underline that item twice and then fold the paper in half and then fourths, knowing it would confuse the hell out of Hugh if he saw it lying around. Just as I’m doing that, there is a tiny low knock at the door. “Mommy?”