The sweet baby-girl voice is unmistakably Anna Joy.
“Mommy, you’ve been in there all day. Now can I have milk?” she asks.
“Course you can, sweetie,” I tell her, not needing to channel Celeste to feel a warm affection for the little one. “You need help?”
“I’m coming in,” she says. The door opens, and the small girl tumbles into Celeste’s pretty sanctum. I pat the bed beside me, and she comes to the edge and flings her tiny body up onto it. With a deep, contented breath, I take her in. She is pocket size, wispy haired, and dressed in cotton brights that look like that email ad I saw in Celeste’s inbox earlier. I can’t remember if she’s three or four, but she’s pretty as a picture and still has those giant baby eyes that are impossible to say no to. My heart tugs. Three children sounds like a recipe for disaster, but this little girl makes my ovaries cry out for more. Hush, ovaries.
“Did you get a good nap?” she asks, and before I can answer, she tells me that she and her daddy went outside and planted flowers from the nursery and Zoey can hit a ball into outer space and Samuel is mean.
I put my arm around the small girl. I want to tell her I had a pesky older sibling, too, but the truth is, Samuel probably isn’t all that mean, and if Celeste has siblings, I don’t know anything about them. “What happened?” I ask instead.
“He says I’m a booger.”
I can’t help it; I laugh.
Her face crumples up. “I am not a booger! He’s the one who tried to pick his nose and wipe it on me!”
I cringe. Kids are repulsive. “Oh, hon. You’re nothing like a booger. Unless”—I pause for effect—“did he mean to say you are a unicorn booger? Those are very magical and beautiful. That’s probably what he meant.”
She tilts her head, giving this some thought. “That’s what he meant,” she agrees, with a giggle. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, she lifts up my shirt and dives in toward my breast.
“Hey!” I shout, startled. “What are you doing?”
“You said I could have milk,” says the muffled voice, and then, bam, in horror I feel the sensation of someone else’s toddler latching on to my nipple. My brain shorts out. WHAT IS HAPPENING? shouts every neuron in my body. I wrench back, only to feel a sharp yank of pain, a hot sting, and then, dear god, milk letting down.
I haven’t had this sensation in seven years, and I remember every tingle, every swell, as if it were yesterday.
And I hate it.
Without thinking it through, I put my palm on the child’s face over my shirt. “Off!” I cry. “Stop!” I sound like I’m shouting at a strange dog. “Child!”
She comes to and stops. I feel breast milk—Celeste’s milk—run out under my breast and down my stomach. Ugh. “What are you doing?” I ask her again.
She wrenches free of my shirt and looks up with big innocent eyes. “I ate all my lunch,” she tells me. “I ate the peas.” As if I am worried about vegetables right now.
“Honey,” I say, softening. I want to ask her, Does she do this every day? How many times a day? How fast can I get her to stop? But instead I flounder, flail around, and decide, Ok, this isn’t my place. I’m not the preschool nursing police. If Celeste doesn’t want to wean her last child . . . that’s her business. Right?
I’m selling no one on this open-minded business. I am judging. Hard.
Still, I’m not going to scar this child for life over a hallucination magic spell injury-related delusion. Instead I say, “Oh, sorry, sweetheart. I should have told you Mommy is feeling funny today, and my milk . . . is feeling funny too.” I try to relax my previously bugged-out eyes as I say this.
“What kind of funny?” she asks.
“Just a little cold. But . . . the virus hurt my head, and I can’t remember how old you are?”
Anna Joy’s eyes brim with tears. “Mommy! I’m three! Are you sick with Old Timers’ like Great-Grandma? Are you going to die?”
My heart plummets. “No, no, honey. I’m ok. It’s just a headache, and I’m still drowsy from my nap. I’m totally fine, and I’ll be able to do . . . what we normally do . . . in a day or two. Do not worry.” I say again, “I’m fine.”
“But I can’t have milk,” she checks.
“Yes. I’m fine, but no milk today—that’s right. If you’re thirsty, I’ll get you something from the fridge.” And get myself a strong belt of whiskey while I’m up. My eyes narrow at the sterling-framed wedding photo of Celeste and Hugh on the dresser. Did she say anything about this when she was here earlier? She did not. A heads-up that a full breastal assault was coming would have been nice.
“Can I have cookies, then?” she asks. “Cow’s milk and cookies? Since I ate my peas?”
I look at her sideways, the innocent young girl who just violated my swimsuit area. What other attachment parenting delights are awaiting me in this house? Family bed? Cloth diapers? Guatemalan wraps?!
When this is over, I am going to have a strong word with the woman who stole my body.
But that will wait until after I find out what kind of cookies they keep around this joint.
After I’ve fed Seth and the kids a pretty little stir-fry in homemade orange sauce that makes even red peppers fly down the children’s hatches, after I’ve washed up the dishes and started planning a week of packed lunches and cleaned out and rearranged Wendy’s cutlery drawer, I go to find my phone to send out carpool schedules for the week ahead.
But, of course, it’s Wendy’s phone on the charger, and on it are three texts from my phone number—so Wendy—asking me if I seriously expect her to nurse Anna Joy (yes), if I want to try getting drunk again to swap our bodies back (yes and no), and if Bridget did her World History assignment yet (what does she take me for?). I ignore them for a beat, then tell her what she needs to know, and I add the bad news. I went back to the website where I ordered that birch-sap vodka . . . and found nothing but an ad for web hosting.
She responds instantly: What’s that now?
I hover over the phone screen. I’m not sure exactly how to tell her that after an hour of frantic googling, I’ve found a liquor store in Seattle that, with expedited shipping I gladly paid through the nose for, can get it to us no sooner than Friday. At the earliest.
As in, almost an entire week from now.
Do I say, Hey, girl! Just so you know, I have to live in your hot mess of a life for a week, so I’m gonna try to Mary Poppins this dumpster fire you call your existence into something safe for humans before I give it back to you? No. Even a nice, reasonable person would take affront to that. A reasonable person is not who I am dealing with. Considering I gave Wendy an out-of-body experience by bringing a better sangria to a party than she did, it’s best if I soft sell this turn of events in person.
But before I can even sidestep, she texts back. Never mind. I’ll find it myself. God, how do you make everything so COMPLICATED?
Be my guest, Wendy, I think. Nothing could make me happier than to be rid of her and her life ASAP. I tell her good luck with that and ask her when her kids go to bed. I assume it’s much later than it should be.
She writes back immediately. Linus: 8:30. Bridge, 9. She doesn’t ask about my kids. I guess they’ll go to bed when Hugh puts them to bed. He usually excels at bedtime, an area where he is especially motivated.
How are my kids? I text back. Three dots, then nothing.
Five minutes pass, me fretting the whole time, before she finally writes back: Sam has been outside playing with some neighbor kids since after lunch. He only has been back for food. He eats a lot. Zoey is still doing her homework. She needs batting practice—do you guys have a punch card to the cages? Oh, and Anna Joy is fine.
Just fine? I wonder. I wait for her to say more or ask about her own kids, but she does neither.
This mode of communication, or lack thereof, is killing me. I text: Meet me in the backyard at 9:30. It’s late for me, but then, with Seth in bed most of the day, maybe he’ll do the morning routine with the kids tomorrow to even things out.
Maybe? Why do I sort of doubt it? So far today he’s done nothing helpful except for an hour of softball training with Bridget. If he’s acknowledged Linus’s existence today, I certainly haven’t seen it.
It’s a good thing he’s hot.
Poor Hugh, I think. He’s a gem of a man, so why am I having all these roving thoughts about someone else? Sure, Hugh’s not Adonis, per se. Or any other god, for that matter, not since he stopped replacing his worn-out boxer shorts about five years ago. But he doesn’t deserve me ogling the neighbor man.
Wendy finally writes back: You don’t, by any chance, have any leftover fancy vodka from the potluck that you’re holding out on me?