My eyes bulge with the realization: I went to my own garage. Now Hugh thinks he’s seeing the neighbor woman stroll into his woodshop like she owns the place.
“Oh my goodness, Hugh!” I say. Only Wendy isn’t religious, is she? She’d just say oh my god. Or holy shit. She’s got no qualms with taking his name in vain. Frankly, I have fewer qualms than I probably should, but I don’t mind following the rules when it has the handy side effect of keeping curses out of my children’s mouths. I try again with my Wendy impersonation, forcing my mouth to form the right words, the right drawl. “God, you scared me, Hugh,” I say. I pretend to catch my breath. Or maybe not pretend. This whole mess has me gasping and wheezing.
“I’m sorry,” says Hugh, like he has anything to apologize for. He spreads his hands wide, and I see how familiar they are compared to Seth’s. “Are you looking for me?” he asks. “Or Celeste?”
Every day, without fail, Hugh finds a moment to throw an arm around me and pull me in tight. To me that’s the moment when, after a long day, we both come home. If only I could hug him close now. “Celeste told me to come on over and help myself to her hedge trimmers.” That sounds like something I would tell Wendy exactly never, not that she’d ask. “She’s so neighborly,” I add. I kind of like how soft and slowly words unfold from Wendy’s lips. It makes my accent seem choppy and terse. I look into Hugh’s eyes to see if he likes the lilt as well. Or maybe whether he can feel that I’m in here? But his face just looks tired—something I’ve never noticed before. Has he had a bad day? Or is he overworked all the time lately, and I haven’t paid attention?
“I’ve got some roses out back, about fixin’ to devour any little children who come too close.”
“Ah well,” he says. He doesn’t even make eye contact. Notices nothing about me whatsoever. “Help yourself. But I know that plant; Celeste has pointed it out to me—”
HUGH! I mentally scold. Don’t go selling me out!
“And if you don’t mind hearing it, I think you’ll need chain mail up to your neck to cut that sucker back,” he goes on, no idea how he’s sinned. “You can just leave it to me, if you like. I can get it with the power trimmer when I do the boxwoods next weekend.”
“Oh,” I say. Well, that sure sounds a lot better than getting thorn scratches on every inch of my arms. It’s certainly what I’d do if I were Celeste. But what would Wendy do now?
She’d say no, of course. She doesn’t want our help with anything. And Hugh knows it. Otherwise I bet he would have done this months ago without so much as asking.
“Nah,” I say. “That’s nice, really, but I’ve got it. Won’t take a minute.”
“You sure?” he asks.
“You bet. I’ll just grab these”—I move too easily to the shears and take them down off Hugh’s orderly wall—“and get out of your hair.”
His head tilts. I bet he’s thinking Wendy is in here more than he realizes. I bet he’s thinking she’s using our garden tools all willy-nilly. I wonder if he’ll report me to, well, the person he thinks is me.
Or maybe he’ll reason that if Wendy were in here all the time, her yard wouldn’t look the way it does. I call my thanks behind me and make for the bushes, wondering if I’m about to become a blood donor. I’ll just come at them from underneath, I decide. Surely I can spare myself the worst of it. I get down on my knees and start thinning, the work satisfying, if spiky.
“What the damn hell?” I hear suddenly. I start to stand up, get a face full of brambles, and retreat out the bottom, practically belly crawling to get out of the roses alive. When I get to standing, I dust myself off and take in my counterpart, my body dressed in a camisole, a loose cardigan I didn’t realize I even owned, and some terribly unflattering joggers. They’re comfy, and I normally wear them all the time. But never again.
“Ah, there you are.” Don’t look at your watch, Celeste. Don’t do it.
“What are you doing with those?” Wendy asks.
“I’m trimming the dead wood,” I tell her. “To pass the time.” Shoot, there it is, the verbal equivalent of a deliberate watch check.
“Well, stop it. That’s not your dead wood to trim.”
The words feel loaded. Are we talking in metaphors right now? I put my hands up. “Suit yourself,” I say. I’ll just cut it tomorrow while she’s, what, in the bath instead of doing the hundred things I have on my plate every Monday?
I set down the trimmers and ask, “So how did today go?” My voice has gotten hushed. I don’t want anyone besides us to hear anything from here on out.
“It was fine. I lay low. Spent the day hoping we’d be swapping back tonight.”
I frown. It’s clear she had even less luck chasing vodka than I did. “Wendy, about the vodka . . .” I break the news of the expedited shipment’s specific timing. She screams an obscenity.
“Hush!” I whisper back. “Do you want to wake the dead?”
“FRIDAY?” she scream-whispers.
“You looked; I know you did. And you didn’t do any better.”
“But I cannot have you being me until Friday! I have a huge work event Saturday that I cannot miss. My entire fiscal year depends on it.”
“I have a lot going on too—” I say, but she just rolls her eyes. “And I miss my family already. This isn’t what I want either. But if it comes by Friday, we’ll survive. You’ll have yourself back for your big crucial work event. I’ll have myself back before my house starts looking like . . .” I stop myself before I get to the word yours.
Her shoulders slump. “I just want my life back,” she says. “And not a week from now. Today.”
“Me too, believe me,” I tell her. “But, Wendy . . . ,” I start slowly. “Do you think maybe it’s about more than my sangria? Like maybe . . .” I am not sure how to proceed. “Like this is some kind of, um, divine intervention to help you out with things?”
She looks at me, shocked. “Help ME out?” she asks.
“Well, yeah,” I say. “You’re always so rushed and stressed out. Your life seems so hectic, and your house . . .”
“What about my house?” she asks defensively.
“It’s . . . well, there’s a hole in the bedroom,” I try.
“Seth’s fixing it,” she says. “You can’t rush an artist.”
I want to ask about all the other things that need fixing or the family of dust bunnies I found multiplying under every piece of furniture in the house like . . . well, like actual bunnies. Instead I say, “I guess not,” meekly. She’s taking even more offense to this line of discussion than I predicted. “But look, maybe we can put a good spin on this, since it’s happening.”
“By fixing my terrible life,” she says.
“I will say today has been the most stressful day of my life in several ways,” I tell her.
She laughs, a dry, joyless laugh. “No surprise there. Compared to my life, yours is a cakewalk. And not because I have a hole in my bedroom wall. Because I have a huge, time-consuming job that supports my entire family and am raising two very different children at the same time. You don’t know anything about the kind of stress I’m living with.”
I rear back. “Oh, don’t I? I know I only have the small, meaningless-by-comparison job of taking care of three children who will make the world a better place, supporting the local schools, and, oh yeah, driving YOUR kids from place to place, but believe it or not, my days can be stressful too.”
“Hardly,” she replies.
I roll my eyes. “If your life is so darn hard, maybe you should change something about it.”
“That’s probably the most naive thing you’ve said to me yet. This is what it is to be a working woman. Take it from me—you can have it all, as long as you don’t ever want time to enjoy having it all.”
I say nothing to that. It’s just too tremendously sad to respond to. But she must see the bleakness on my face.
“Look,” she says. “I know you’d like to spend all night out here criticizing my homelife and cutting down my shrubbery, but we simply don’t have time. You’ve got to say good night to Bridget in ten minutes, and I’ve got to go . . . what? Pack color-coordinated bento lunch boxes and iron T-shirts?”
I set my face tight, as if I weren’t just slapped. “Just pack Sam and Zoey turkey and provolone on whole wheat. Add some sprouts from the window box by the kitchen sink, and throw in a few carrots—but be sure to wash them first. The whole thing will take three minutes. I do laundry on Mondays, so they’re fine for clothes for one more day. Which my children can iron by themselves, I assure you, if the need arises.”
Her face gives away nothing. “Fine. And as for you, try to get the kids to school with their after-school gear and money for lunch, because there’s no coming back for anything once you head toward the city for work. And you have to dress nice.” She gestures to the only clothes suitable for cleaning I could find in her entire wardrobe, old gray leggings and a yellowed T-shirt. “Like really nice. Like a real person with a job.”