I didn’t think I could narrow my lips angrily more than I already have, but fortunately Wendy has very pointy lips.
“And shower,” she goes on, “and get to my office by eight thirty. I’ll text you the address. After that I can send you more instructions and answer the important emails remotely if we trade phones. Oh, and do you have some kind of system so I can figure out where I’m supposed to be all day?”
I nod and send up a silent prayer that she’ll follow through on my obligations just as rigorously as she expects me to do for her. “I have a planner in the top drawer of the nightstand on my side of the bed. Everything in my life is in there. Zoey is yellow, Samuel is blue, and Joy is lilac. Hugh is red.”
“What color are you?” she asks.
“Huh?” I respond, shaking my head at the question. “I don’t have my own color. I’m all of the colors, obviously.”
“Just follow it to the letter, ok? There’s PTA work and Kindermusik and tutoring and—”
“I’m sure I can handle it,” she says, so smugly I find myself wishing her three kids with flu and head lice at the same time. Then I remember: those are my kids. Goodness. And this experience is supposed to be bringing out the best in me.
Grounding myself in that reminder, I tell her, “Let’s review the rules. Quickly. Before Bridget comes looking for you. Me. Us.”
“Fine. The rules. Easy. One: don’t fuck up my life.”
“Or mine,” I say. “Which includes keeping your language PG, please.”
She rolls her eyes. “Two: don’t let the kids find out.”
“Ok. Right,” I agree.
“Three—and this is the most important one. Don’t. Touch. My husband.”
“Obviously,” I tell her. “I’m a happily married woman!”
“To a man with more hair on his back than his head,” she says. I want to smack her. What is her obsession with my husband’s hair situation? I would certainly rather have some roaming follicles than a head full of hair covering a brain full of indifference.
“What are you going to say to Hugh?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“When he comes on to you or goes for a kiss or whatever. I thought I’d tell Seth I had a yeast infection. Or maybe it’s my time of the month? Or . . . I’m coming down with something? What do you think?”
Wendy’s gaze seems to search mine. “You don’t need to say anything. If you don’t bug him, he won’t bug you.” She says no more, but then, she doesn’t have to. That one little sentence speaks volumes. Unhappy volumes. Again I am grateful for Hugh’s touch, even if he doesn’t always have the best timing.
And I don’t want Wendy anywhere near him.
“Tell Hugh you’re ovulating,” I tell her. “He’ll treat you like you have the plague.”
“Oh my god,” says Wendy. “Of course you use the rhythm method.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask her.
“Mom?” comes a small voice from Wendy’s house, before she can answer. It must be Bridget. Oh, I hope it isn’t Linus. That poor kid. Everything seems to make him worry. Getting him to lie down in his bed tonight and go to sleep was like wrestling an octopus with an attachment disorder.
“You’ve gotta go,” says Wendy. “Here—take your phone, and give me mine. And be nice to Bridge. Tomorrow’s the first real practice of the year. And she’s riding her bike to the field by herself for the first time ever.”
“I thought you said Gemma was driving her.”
“I lied,” says Wendy. “She’ll be fine. She’s eleven. She’s just a bit nervous. But straight up, if one single girl is late to the carpool line tomorrow, I’m taking Bridget instead.”
I nod. It’s totally unfair, and I would do the exact same thing for my daughter.
“Remember the rules,” I tell her.
“Oh, I’ll remember them. It’s you I worry about.”
I can’t begin to respond to that, so I walk away, to Wendy’s house, to tuck Wendy’s daughter into bed. And “be nice” to her. As if I would do anything less. I’m a nice person! I want to shout. I cleaned your entire house. I taught your kids to do laundry!
But then, she didn’t ask me about any of that, did she? She asked me what I planned to wear tomorrow. And if all she cares about is what I wear to her office tomorrow, how much more effed up can her life really get?
That night, after the shrubbery confab, I come back into Celeste’s house to find three sleeping children and a sleeping husband. Samuel is tucked into a slumbering ball on top of his bed, no covers, fully dressed, as though he passed out after a frat rager. I put a throw blanket over him. Zoey is in her twin in her own room, also asleep, even though it’s only 9:20 p.m. The children in this house know how to sleep.
On the giant squishy leather sectional in front of the cooking channel, I find Hugh and Anna Joy, snuggled up together, both out cold. It is the sweetest thing. It reminds me, with a pang, of my maternity leave with Linus, six short weeks when I gave myself over entirely to that strange cocktail of joy, hormones, and fatigue of infant motherhood. Linus’s sleep was disorganized and he stayed up late, so I’d put him in a baby swing in the corner of the room while I tucked in his big sister, sang her to sleep, and, if Linus would have it, spent twenty or thirty quiet minutes doing nothing but watching her sleep and him swing, blissed out on the motion and the mobile above his happy head. Then he’d fuss for his turn, I’d scoop him out of the swing, and we’d collapse in my bed together, Seth happy to be relegated to the guest room for the time being.
When I went back to work, Bridget went back to preschool, but there were two weeks to cover before Linus was old enough to go to the well-rated day care I’d signed him up for before he’d so much as shown up on an ultrasound. Seth was prepping for an installation for the museum’s big triennial, so my younger sister, Ruthie, moved in with us and watched Linus in the interim. I was always home for Bridget’s bedtime, and I remember thinking that life was just about perfect. Sure, I was making good use of a preemptive dose of Zoloft to avoid PPD, that scourge so many women know can cut you out of the good parts of early parenting, and yep, I was tired. But I was needed at work and at home, just enough to feel like I was doing right by both. My sister was so loving to Linus that I never felt guilty leaving him in her hands—I didn’t cry in the car when I left him each morning, like I had after Bridget had started day care. I was over the early expectations I’d had with Bridget about perfect parenting, and six weeks away from the office had done me a world of good. I really thought I’d feel as happy as I did those short two weeks forever.
Reality crept up slowly, like the sneaky bitch she is. Ruthie returned home, Seth reclaimed his spot in our bed, and Linus got on an earlier schedule thanks to the experts at his day care. Our bedtime routine became a rush from the moment I walked in the front door, work demands grew, and over time Seth and Linus’s bonding failed to take off as it had with Bridget. Linus clung to me when I was home, and guilt clung to me when I was at work. Things just . . . got real.
Melancholy, I sit near Hugh and the toddler as their bodies rise and fall with each relaxed breath. In the quiet, I clear out a few weekend emails on my phone, grateful to have it back, and then wonder what my next steps should be. Do I wake up Hugh so he can sleep in bed and try to relocate a sleeping Anna Joy? Do I put her in that little toddler bed in her brother’s bedroom and hope she stays asleep through the transfer? It certainly doesn’t seem right that I should be allowed to sleep in a grown-up room by myself in perfect solitude after doing zilch for the family who thinks I belong to them. And yet I don’t feel right about sharing the bed with someone else’s husband. No, if anyone should be spending the night on the sofa, it should be me.
But that means waking up two happy sleepers I barely know.
Feeling utterly unnecessary and lonely for my own home, where I might still be chatting at Bridget’s bedside or working on my laptop in front of the TV, I go back into Samuel’s room. There’s no sign that the white toddler bed has been used for anything besides storage. It’s made up tight as a drum and covered in stuffed animals and folded boys’ underpants. That’s right—folded size-eight underpants; my suspicion that Celeste mostly makes extra work for herself all day and night is confirmed. Perhaps she’s one of those people who expands the task to fit the time she has to work on it. Perhaps I’d become that, too, if I were knocking around this big house alone all day like I am now.