Tomorrow, she told me, is laundry day—a whole day just for laundry! I imagine her home alone while her kids are at school, hanging their clothes out on the line instead of throwing them all in the dryer with a fragrance ball, and then later folding each pair of Spider-Man boxer briefs lovingly, while listening to a critically lauded audiobook, maybe, and contemplating a slowly braised dinner. Sounds luxurious, if I’m being honest. Meditative. No rushing, no stress, no psychotic breakdowns over potluck beverages.
But then, how many times have I read a think piece about rejecting the cult of busyness and wanted to shout at the well-meaning writer, It’s not like I have an option!
I do not.
Except, for now, I do.
As Celeste, I can reject the hell out of that cult of busyness. I can go sleep in that big bed by myself tonight, figure out that color-coded planner tomorrow, and go through the motions of Celeste’s idyllic little domestic fantasy until all this is over. A week, I think, as I pad to the master bedroom, alone, without anything whatsoever to do. I can stand to do nothing for a week. It might even do me some good.
The next morning I wake up slowly to the sun, thinking I’m myself, and when I slowly remember the swap, I’m not as surprised as you’d think. After all, the bed I’m in is not my bed, the pretty pink pajamas could never be mine, the ache in my hips is not my ache, and the icy toes on my back belong to someone else’s slumbering toddler. In the bathroom I look at the mirror reluctantly, but of course I still see Celeste. My fingers rise to the underside of her eyes, trace the spot where my real face would be puffy and sallow on any given Monday morning. Instead I see smooth olive skin and full, glowing cheeks. I tilt my head in surprise as I take the time to give this other woman a real look. Celeste is one of those women with great raw materials and absolutely nothing done with them. It’s 7:00 a.m., and I am probably needed in the kitchen, but maybe later it would be nice to give her a little glow-up. Maybe Celeste was half-right, and this strange experience is meant to improve her life, not mine. Seems like the least I could do in exchange for the vacation.
In the pretty white kitchen with hanging copper pots, things are grooving along nicely. Hugh is eating a boiled egg. The kids are eating . . . what? I look closer. Breakfast burritos? So the Earth Mother lets her kids eat frozen burritos for breakfast, eh? Well, they look damned great, and my stomach rumbles. Don’t mind if I do.
But in the freezer I find a horrifying sight. Shelf upon shelf of plastic Ziploc bags, meticulously labeled, jammed with endless homemade foods for reheating. Two gallon-size bags full of “breakfast wraps—bacon” and “breakfast wraps—spinach” respectively. I pull them out to get a look at what’s behind them and find five—FIVE!—homemade pizzas, mummified in loads of plastic wrap, each labeled, on cards, with baking instructions. Then two lasagnas. One broccoli and sausage, one traditional. A moussaka. A shepherd’s pie and a cottage pie. I don’t even know what the difference between those two pies is, but apparently Celeste does and has labeled them accordingly. Then there are packages of prepped raw ingredients frozen flat and shelved upright like books. Crock pot fajitas. 6 hrs, medium. Instant pot salmon pilaf. Add asparagus after quick release. It goes on. I see premade veggie soups. Precooked quinoa. Bags and bags of rich tan chicken stock.
Jesus on the cross. Is this woman expecting an apocalypse? One with working small kitchen appliances?
“Mom,” says the boy child. “I ate the last sausage wrap.”
“Ok,” I say, because he is telling me this as if it is actionable. As if I am going to go and make a dozen more sausage wraps, individually package and label each one, and stack them in the freezer for these children to eat when—HELLO—they SELL these things at the store. Not to mention Eggos. Not to mention has anyone in this house heard of cereal for breakfast?
“We’re fixed for eggs, though, thanks, babe,” says Hugh. He comes at me looking kissy, and I duck the whole ordeal like I’m a boxer. Hustle and flow. Or is that float and sting? I don’t know; I just know I’m doing some kind of sporting cliché to avoid touching Celeste’s husband. And ugh, hard-boiled-egg breath first thing in the morning? Hard pass.
Zoey looks toward but through me, exactly like Bridget does. Must be a tween skill. “Mom, did you figure out what I’m supposed to wear today?”
I look at her blankly. “What do you mean?” I reply.
“To softball!” she says. “Mom!”
“Oh, right,” I say, and I’m reminded of rule one. The way Zoey just spoke to me definitely feels like I’m on the edge of fucking up something important. I should really go get that planner and have a good look. “I haven’t had my coffee yet,” I tell her.
Hugh looks up. “I thought we were quitting coffee? For the frogs in the rain forest? You’ve gone without for three months!”
I have no idea what he’s talking about, so I just nod and say, “Yeah, that’s how long it’s been since I had my coffee!” with a forced laugh. “And it’ll be three more. Don’t worry.” Like hell it will. I will have a double espresso in my hands the minute that man turns his back. What is Celeste trying to do to me? “It’s just an expression, you know. Anyway, practice gear. You just wear a T-shirt and shorts. Stuff you can move in.”
“Are you sure?” she asks. “Did you talk to Bridget’s mom like you said you would?”
I raise an eyebrow. “I absolutely did,” I tell her. I’m talking to her right now, as a matter of fact.
“Then I’m screwed,” she says.
Samuel says, “She said ‘screwed’!”
Hugh looks at both of them, very daddish. They both look down for a minute; then Zoey hands Hugh a quarter from her backpack.
“How are you scr—stuck?” I ask.
“I don’t have any shorts, remember? You told me my tennis skort would be fine. I’m going to look so stupid, Mom.”
I put my hand to my chin. “No shorts?” I ask. “Not one pair?”
“I had those old ones from last year, but they made me look stubby,” she said. “Remember? I looked like a tree stump. You agreed.”
Hugh and Samuel are watching this conversation like tennis spectators. They look highly interested, the way you’d look if you were about to, say, witness a street brawl. So I shake my head. “If that’s true, it was the shorts’ fault. You’ll look great in any decent shorts. You’ll look like an athlete. I’ll get you a few pairs today while you’re at school. And remember, the point of softball practice is to get better at softball, not to win a fashion show.”
Zoey scrunches up her face. “Can you win a fashion show?” she asks snarkily.
I want to roll my eyes, but then I think of Zoey’s beautiful hand-tailored clothes and realize this whole fashion thing is a big part of this girl’s identity. “If anyone can,” I say, “you would win for sure.”
She looks at me, surprised. “Thanks, Mom,” she says. “That’s really nice.”
“No problem,” I say. “You’ll rock it tonight.” She beams. And because I can’t resist, I add, “Just do what Bridget does. She’s a great friend to have on a day like today.” Silently I give a prayer of thanks that Bridget is able to be herself on the field and not fret about what she looks like in her sweaty, dirty, never-stops-smelling softball gear. She’s really a pretty down-to-earth kid, purple skirt aside. And for god’s sake, she owns a few pairs of shorts like a normal human.
“Samuel,” I test out. “Do you need shorts too?”
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “I’m good, Mom.”
Hugh laughs. “If not for basketball shorts the kid would be pantsless three hundred and sixty-two days a year, Celeste! Besides, you buy him two new pairs every time you go to Costco. I think he’s set.”
Oh, I see how it is. Hand-sewn Vogue Teen clothes for the dress-up-doll daughter. Costco athleisure for everyone else. Even Celeste herself is resigned to yoga pants that come in three-packs. Something I definitely should work on while I’m here . . .
“Actually, Hugh,” I venture, since he seems fed and happy at the moment, “I might like to get myself a few things while I’m shopping anyway. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Mind?” he asks. “I’ve been telling you to do this for months! And you need something for the work thing on Wednesday too. Do you want me to call that sitter Gary recommended?”
I don’t know who Gary is, but I assume he’s not a serial killer if he’s friends with these squares. “Yes, that would be great.” And it is so great! This guy is sending me shopping to buy a dress to wear to an event for which I don’t even have to hire the sitter myself. I may have to get Hugh to pass along some pro tips to Seth.
“Get something sexy,” says Hugh. Zoey makes a retching noise. I try not to join her. “She’s a beautiful woman, kids,” he tells them. “Even if she is your mother.”
At that, the baby stumbles into the kitchen, bleary eyed. I’m not sure where she slept last night. Or where Hugh slept, for that matter. I hope it wasn’t that toddler bed. “Mommy!” she cries. “Are you well enough to do milk today?”