“You are amazing,” he tells me. “That dress—when did you get that?”
I look up from my own reflection in the mirror to his. Celeste does look really good. He’s right. I got the makeup done while Joy waited patiently in my lap between nap and pickup today. I picked out dresses from Nordstrom and tried them on over yoga pants while Samuel read books to Joy right outside the fitting room after school. I paid for this dress using Celeste’s credit card (with her permission—look at me evolving) and am breaking out the shoes from Monday with the pointy toes.
After I pick her up from softball practice, I tell Zoey to go borrow Bridget, mostly because I miss her, and let the two girls do an amazing wrapped bun that puddles Celeste’s curls into a pretty pile on top of her head and makes the silver-gray streaks look like all part of her master plan. Zoey is surprisingly excited about this—apparently she’s been wanting to wear her own hair in elaborate styles for some time but has been discouraged because she looks too “grown up.” I know where Celeste is coming from, for sure, but I also know that Zoey is all about expressing herself through her style, and anyone who gets in the way of that is eventually going to feel like the enemy, no matter how good her intentions.
“Now you’re beautiful, Mom,” Zoey tells me proudly. And then pauses and says, “I mean, you’re always beautiful. Sorry. But it’s, like . . . did you get taller?”
“It’s about confidence. About throwing your shoulders back and putting on something that makes you feel great and saying, This is me, world! ”
The two girls look at each other conspiratorially. I take her hand and Bridget’s. “You guys doing ok?”
Bridget tilts her head. “You and my mom have been acting really weird lately. Ever since you guys started hanging out, my mom’s been, like, cooking and showing us how to do things. And being kind of mean to my dad.”
I try to keep a poker face. “Mean how?” I ask her.
“She’s just . . . like, she’s not here for it right now. You know how you sent Zoey over for drills with him last night? He said he was too busy, but he didn’t seem busy, and my mom saw the whole thing and loudly told everyone she was cleaning the oven so everyone had to get out of the house to avoid the fumes and he might as well go help us out. And she said it pretty, like, bossy. I mean, I didn’t even know ovens could be cleaned, so this was an unusual thing. I think she’s mad at my dad.”
“These things can be more complicated than a kid can understand,” I start to say. But it sounds ridiculous in my mouth. I’m not the kind of mom who speaks with authority and makes sweeping statements.
Zoey raises an eyebrow. “But, Mom . . . you’re being weird too.”
“Look at you,” she says, gesturing to the mirror. “It’s like you’ve had a whole makeover. And you’re suddenly ok with us eating normal-person lunch and leaving the block on our own as long as we’re home by seven. Now you’re letting me do a braided topknot, and Samuel told me you refused to go in to school to talk to Dr. Randall because you just didn’t want to.” She pauses for a breath. “And also, you know, you kind of hated Mrs. Charles until, like, three days ago.”
“Oh, no. I didn’t hate her. Did I?”
Zoey frowns a bit. “I think so? I mean, she’s been kind of not nice to you for a while now. Sorry, Bridget.”
My darling daughter just shrugs, the traitor.
I frown and tilt my head. “How has she not been nice?” I ask. Though I quickly regret it.
“Well . . .” Zoey looks down at the sink. “The cookie thing, right?”
“What cookie thing?” asks Bridget.
Zoey shrugs. “We moved in a year ago here, because my dad got this promotion, and we were really nervous about moving so far away from home. But your mom never came over with cookies.”
“Came over with cookies?”
“You know. It’s a thing. Whenever someone moved into our old neighborhood, we made cookies, gluten-free ones in case of allergies, and then we took them over to the new people to say hi.”
“Ok,” I say cautiously. “To be clear. That’s nice and all, but most people do not actually do that. That’s kind of specific to . . . our family.”
“They don’t?” Zoey asks.
“No. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with baking people cookies, but it’s not a thing you have to do to be nice. Most people are way too busy to drop everything and bake whenever a stranger shows up in a moving van. Besides, not everyone wants cookies.”
“Sure, but we got plants. And a cheesecake, and that biryani dish that I learned how to make in the Instant Pot. And mostly people here just visited to say hi.”
“Exactly,” I say. “No gifts necessary.”
“But Mrs. Charles never even said hi.”
“Well,” I prevaricate, “it’s a big neighborhood.”
“But in the entire time you’ve been here, no one new has moved in except you guys,” points out Bridget. “And our backyards are touching.”
“Bridget!” I scold. “You’re supposed to be on my—I mean your mom’s side.”
“I am. Which is why I’m trying to figure out why you used to hate her.”
“I never hated her,” I say, praying that’s at least sort of true. “Especially not over cookies. I understand that people are busy in Birchboro Hills,” I tell them. “Do you know what it means to be productive?”
“It means to cough something up,” Zoey says.
“What?” I look at her sideways.
“A productive cough is when you’re sick, and then you have to go to the doctor because you start coughing snot out of your lungs.” She turns to Bridget. “One time, they gave me an x-ray, and it was pneumonia, and my mom asked the doctor if it was because my dad let me swim in an outdoor pool when it was fifty degrees out. And the doctor said no, that wasn’t necessarily it, but my mom told my dad if he did that again it would be his lungs on the line, and he said, ‘I’d better sleep with one eye open, kids,’ and then Samuel told him no one could do that, and Dad said he could, and Samuel tried to stay up all night to prove that he couldn’t. And then Samuel got sick too.”
Great story. “To be clear,” I say, “the word productive means producing something, not just coughing things up. You can produce work or products or happy customers, for example. Bridget, your mom knows a lot about productivity, because she is an expert for her job. And she and I are . . . different kinds of productive.”
Zoey looks at me. “So, then, you’re saying that you can produce a ton of things like kids and meals and cookies and clothes from patterns, and Bridget’s mom can’t produce as much, because she’s spending all day stuck at her office?”
I try not to make a growling sound.
“Zoey,” I try. “Not everything someone does or makes is productive. Only doing or making something useful is productive.”
“Samuel is not useful,” she says. “So I guess he doesn’t count toward your productivity.”
Bridget has a good laugh at this.
“Ok, sure,” I say, not entirely certain my point is coming across. “See, Mrs. Charles works and employs people and supports the economy. And she pays taxes on what she earns, and that money goes to everyone’s benefit. What she does at work may not look like she’s making anything, exactly, but she’s actually way more productive at work than if she were staying home.”
Bridget nods. “My mom kicks butt,” she says, and inside, I give myself a mental high five.
Zoey thinks this through herself and then nods. “Ok. Ok, I get it.” She turns to Bridget. “It’s not that your mom meant to ignore us when we moved in. It’s that her cooking is awful, so her cookies would not be useful, and she’s a productivity coach, so she can’t do things that are not productive, like bake awful cookies.”
The two girls nearly hurt themselves laughing. I decide to let them concentrate on my hair.
Between two kids who are running back and forth between houses constantly and Wendy’s texts, by Wednesday midday I realize that my counterpart has started holding up her end of our bargain. Even better, the birch-sap vodka has shipped and should be here by tomorrow, a full day early. I text her about meeting for a drinks date over Thursday lunch.
She writes back quickly. You’re having lunch with Davis and the staff for Cat’s baby shower. Dinner.
Right. Do we have a present?
I keep a stack of gift cards to Target in my upper right desk drawer. Six o’clock Thursday?
I can’t be away from your kids at night, I type back. What I leave unsaid: I have no idea if or when your husband will show up.
Sure you can. They can come over to my house. Your house. Hugh can watch them all.