I am standing in Celeste’s master bathroom staring at myself—at herself—in the mirror, feeling more lost than I’ve ever felt in my life, when I hear footsteps on the hardwood. Hugh peeks in through the open door and cracks the widest smile, a smile so bright I could do my eyeliner by it. He is gazing at me like I hung the moon. “How did I get so lucky, babe?” he asks me. Before I can fully come to, he gets in a peck on the cheek, and I realize there is absolutely no harm in that. There is no harm in letting a tiny incremental bit of the love that Celeste basks in every day filter down onto me.
And I do feel it. I feel that there is nothing I could do in this situation that would change how Hugh feels about me—about Celeste. This is the reason, I am starting to understand. This is what makes Celeste want to be homemaker extraordinaire. The guy isn’t a teen dream or an artistic genius. But he is so present with her. He is so available to her. And the same for the kids. All week, as I’ve bumbled the juggling act around here, I’ve never had to ask him to do a thing to cover for me. Hugh just does what needs doing, by default. If the kids need care and feeding, he cares for and feeds them. When Celeste needs a night out, one appears.
And, I think guiltily, I’ve nabbed that night from her and left her with Seth.
The event is being held in a beautiful historic hotel downtown, with original chandeliers dripping from the ceiling, lush red carpet, intricate plasterwork, and finely napped chaises by the entries. The hall is a-mingle with a good-looking crowd. That magic of black-tie clothing, the way everyone stands up straighter and looks a little more timeless, lets me imagine for a moment that I’m in a period drama. Before that stupid video call with Ruthie, Celeste directed me to an enviable jewelry box where she keeps the gifts Hugh picks out each Valentine’s Day, and I was able to adorn my look with dangly gold drops that glisten halfway between ear and shoulder and a tennis bracelet that gives me instant confidence among all these swanky donors.
I will need it. Even if Ruthie’s call hadn’t shaken me up, this gala would. I do a lot of events for my business, but my clientele are not the sort of people who are usually in a position to write huge checks to worthy charities. At least not before I work with them. That’s where we’re going, if we strive hard enough together.
To be fair, until Linus came along, there used to be scads of art-related schmoozing events to go to with Seth. But those were all about the cultural elite, and by their very nature the cultural elite are broke all the time. This doesn’t mean they’re not a lot of fun, but it does mean I’m a fish out of water tonight. Celeste, I have to imagine, was born for this. And Hugh is a natural host. He introduces me around everywhere. He seems to know every soul in the room and understand their connection to this charity, a fundraiser for the local domestic-abuse-intervention services. With easily two hundred people here and handbags I can mentally price out from my online-window-shopping habit, it’s safe to say the event will raise some serious funds.
Hugh is here at the invitation of his counterpart at another company, where they do something even more dull than whatever it is Hugh does—he tells me that when I ask him to clarify corporate reinsurance. We’re sitting at their table, and Celeste has apparently met two of the women here before. Both of them give me cheek kisses when I arrive, and one of them, a small brown-skinned woman with a pixie cut, pats the chair next to her. I sink in gratefully. The rounds of greetings took Hugh more than forty-five minutes, and though I think of myself as reasonably attentive and astute, I can only remember maybe two names, and then only because they were Dandelion and Ziggy. My brain hurts. Plus, pointy shoes.
“Great to see you,” I say when I sit down, to be on the safe side in case they are already the best of friends.
“You too. That dress! It must be new.” Ah yes, they do know each other! Celeste has a friend! Quelle surprise.
“Do you love it?” I ask her. “I couldn’t decide between three.” In the end, I picked this pleated and embroidered cream dress because it looked like it would be the hardest possible thing to make from scratch, and I thought Celeste would see the value in it.
That, and she looks hot.
“I do love it. I was expecting the black one. You love the black one.”
“The black one looks like a Hefty bag,” I blurt. My compatriot nearly chokes on her drink. When she’s recovered, she tries to say something in response but instead just gapes at the air a bit.
“See?” I laugh at her. “You think so too. I took one look at it in my closet yesterday and realized, Celeste Mason, you can try harder. Not to surrender overmuch to the patriarchy, but if Hugh is nice enough to drag me along to these events, the least I can do is excavate my waistline.”
The woman—Celeste’s friend—laughs gaily. “You and the patriarchy, always in heated negotiations.”
Is that so? I wonder.
“Am I?” I ask her.
“Well, of course. No matter how many times I tell you staying at home is a worthy choice, you’ll never stop being weird about it. I blame that ticky-tacky suburb of yours.”
Gulp. “By the way, you look great yourself,” I say, desperate for a topic change.
“Thank you. You know I hate these things, but this is as good a cause as can be, and Ziggy is the mother of one of Arvind’s classmates. I’m going to be coming after her in a few weeks for a table at the president’s dinner.”
I pretend to know what and who she’s talking about. “Oh yes, of course,” I fumble.
“Speaking of, you getting tired of that public school yet?” she asks me laughingly. “I know you guys can swing tuition now that Hugh’s gotten yet another promotion . . . ,” she leads.
“We’re good,” I say. Wow. Celeste rolls with private school people. And sews her own kids’ clothes. Go figure. “It’s a wonderful school district, you know,” I add. It really is. Ticky tacky though our suburb may be, the kids’ school is fairly utopian, between its excellent teachers, diverse population, and community focus. That’s how we ended up there. Those great schools are Seth’s archenemies.
“I know, I know,” the woman responds. “But ours is a wonderful school with a forty-five percent Ivy placement.”
I try not to look shocked at this. My goodness, that’s high. Should I be sending Bridget to a school like that so she can go to Harvard or Yale someday?
Get real, I remind myself. Schools like that are for kids of women like Celeste. Not for us. I go searching around for a fresh topic.
“How is Arvind?” I ask, grabbing hold of the one proper noun she’s shared so far.
“Too clever by half. Zoey?”
“Same, but also, she did my hair tonight, so I’d better give her credit where credit is due.”
As though she were my own daughter, I fill up with pride. “Thank you. Zoey’s got such an amazing flair for style—watch for her on an upcoming series costarring with Tim Gunn.”
I am interrupted by the arrival of a stranger at my table. No, it’s not a stranger. It’s Ziggy.
“There you are, Jaina!” she exclaims. Off they go, kiss kiss. “And it’s Celeste, right? Hugh’s wife?” she asks me.
“Very good,” I congratulate her, grateful for her steel-trap memory—we met for maybe ten seconds earlier. And also, now I know the name of Celeste’s tablemate, which will make the remainder of this evening a lot less awkward. “Ziggy? Do I have that right?”
“It’s short for Ghislaine,” she explains, without explaining. “Such a mouthful. What I wouldn’t give for a nice normal name. And do I even look like a Ghislaine?” she asks me. I have to admit she does not, as she is neither a mermaid nor a bottle of perfume.
“I’m thrilled to see you both here,” Ziggy goes on. “This time of year everyone is. So. Busy. I don’t take any guests for granted, especially not for a more intimate event like this one.”
I keep my eyebrows in place.
“Celeste, I’m not sure if you know this—I’m also the development director for the Downtown Initiatives Fund. Our big night is in January every year. The Snow Ball?”
“Of course,” I say. I’ve never been to the Snow Ball—I don’t know if you have to be invited or what—but I’ve certainly heard of it from the photos that run in the local magazines. “How did it go?”