“Oh, let me tell you. I am such a mess leading up to it, but it was huge this year. Huge. The only downside is that now I have to top myself next year. Speaking of which, I don’t suppose you’re looking for a tentpole for next year’s social season?” she asks me with a twinkle.
I think about Celeste and Hugh. If she has a social season, this is the first I’m hearing of it. I wonder if she’d be thrilled to be invited to the Snow Ball or if she’d groan and get out the Hefty bag again. “It’s a bit early, but I should connect you to my friend,” I tell her. “She runs a productivity-coaching consultancy that might be interested in participating, and her husband is a celebrated sculptor. Seth Charles?”
“Oh, Seth. Of course. Very gifted. Actually, he used to be actively involved in the DIF. Submitted a proposal last year, which of course we’d love to have used, though you might whisper in his ear that his fees are astronomical for a young organization like us.” I groan inwardly. “Not that he’s not worth every penny, I’m sure.” She snaps her fingers. “Why don’t you and Hugh buy a table next year and bring the wife along? I could certainly use a new friend who’s an expert in productivity, right?” She titters at herself.
“Couldn’t we all?” says Jaina. “Every year I think I can’t get any busier, and then I do.”
“Too right. You pretty much have to be a productivity expert these days to get even a second to yourself,” says Ziggy. “And what is it you do, Celeste?”
Jaina gives me a worried look, and when I realize I have to try to answer this question for Celeste, I start to feel worried myself. “I’m a homemaker,” I try. That is what Celeste told me when we first met. That must be her wording of choice. It sure beats life of servitude.
“A homemaker? That sounds lovely,” Ziggy says, barely listening to herself. “Oh, your husband is so lucky to have you at home doing everything. He can just focus on his job, I suppose. You’re the woman behind the man.”
I cringe a little. Poor Celeste, if this is what everyone says to her when she drops the bomb. What did I say when she first told me? I try to remember. I’m sure it was something about how relaxing her life sounded.
“I tutor at my children’s school,” I hear myself say, but Ziggy isn’t listening, turned toward Jaina now, talking about work. I’m making this announcement to no one but the swirly pats of butter found on every hotel banquet table in the history of mankind. Feeling sheepish and suddenly quite left out, I stand up and scan for Hugh. He’s in line for the glass of white wine I asked for ages ago, and I join him.
“Oh, Dale,” he says to a tall, striking woman when I approach him. “Let me introduce my gorgeous wife, Celeste.” I am embarrassed for both of us by his overt fawning.
“Hi there,” says Dale. “Nice to meet you.”
“Dale consults for us sometimes,” Hugh explains. “Always gives me loads of trouble,” he adds with a laugh. “Especially when the bill arrives.”
Dale and I shake hands. “And what is it you do?” she asks.
“I . . .” I decide to try different language. “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” I say.
“Oh,” says Dale. “That’s nice.” She says nothing further, and before I can do anything to stop it, a heavy silence folds over us. Hugh pats me on the back, reassuring, and as Dale wanders away muttering about crab-stuffed mushrooms, he tells me not to worry about it. “They just don’t know what to say,” Hugh tells me, and I can tell it’s not for the first time. “Everyone is so used to making conversation about their work at these things. It has nothing to do with you.”
But as the evening goes on, the interaction repeats, repeats, repeats. I’ve always wished people could resist asking each other what they do for a living in first meetings, but I understand the need for a shortcut to connection. Now I learn that for Celeste, the question shuts down any hope of connection, and my answer seems to make most people uncomfortable. People respond by saying, “Lucky you, Hugh,” as though I’m not there. They say, “Don’t you miss working?” One woman even wonders aloud how much money Hugh has to make to make such a lifestyle affordable.
Only one response strikes me as even remotely sensitive.
“I could never stay home with my kids,” says a woman close to me in age. “Your job is probably the hardest job in the world.”
I color bright pink. It’s not, I want to reassure her. Being stressed about my small business twenty-four seven while feeling like a terrible mom is worse. But then I take a moment. Celeste is right: if I were doing her job well, I’d be wrecked by now. And without my business forming my identity, who exactly would I be on a night like tonight? I’d be the person no one knows how to talk to.
I’d be Celeste.
For reasons I don’t totally understand, I get such a huge barrage of text messages from Wendy between Wednesday night and Thursday morning that I think for a second she’s finally gone the rest of the way round the bend. But then I realize, no, she is still in the bend, exactly where I left her, but something must have come up at the gala that upset her. Maybe the usual stuff about how awkward those events can be, how no one knows quite what to say to me if I don’t make it easy on them by joking about watching soaps and eating bonbons all day and then quickly turning the subject back to them.
Whatever the reason, she’s being strangely nice, considering what happened the last time I saw her. She’s asking how things are going and if I need anything and telling me what a nice house I have and how helpful Zoey is being. And dammit if I’m not softening toward her too. That bomb her sister dropped yesterday has completely shifted how I see her. Sometimes I’m critical of her parenting, but could there have been a more loving act in the world than the sacrifice she made to bring Bridget and Linus into it?
Maybe, I think, I’ll tell her that when we meet up tonight to get blitzed on artisanal sangria (with vodka) and switch bodies again. As I’ve done a hundred times in the last few days, I pull up the tracking number, wondering what time it will arrive today.
Then I set down the phone and have a dark moment.
When I recover, I text Wendy: Vodka delayed till tomorrow. Still want to meet tonight?
Within moments I get back the swearing-face emoji.
A few minutes later she writes: TACO BARN 6pm. Need margaritas.
I have never been in the Taco Barn, an actual barn-shaped restaurant that sits just outside the village. In a long-past life a place like the Taco Barn would have seemed like the best of indulgences. But in my current life, Hugh and I have two date nights a month, with our brilliant sitter filling in, and we always go someplace worth the trouble of paying someone ten dollars an hour to keep our humans alive.
Plus, Hugh loves to try whatever spot has just been reviewed in our alt weekly—his small nod to hipness. Because the Taco Barn has a sign under the neon sombrero logo that reads MARGARITAS AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD, I feel quite sure that fine dining is not the thrust of this place and that the carnitas will not be from heritage pastured pigs.
In fact, I find as I slide into a vinyl booth right at six, ground beef and “Barn Blend” cheese are your only choices for all the traditional Tex-Mex fare, and then for a two-dollar upcharge you can have shrimp “diablo,” and there’s a little asterisk that indicates that diablo items may be too spicy for milder palates. Around our table are many, many mild-looking palates, most of whom are under the age of ten or over the age of seventy. The kids are squirmy and the seniors tipsy. This is why I cook all our kids’ meals at home.
But Wendy, despite being in my body, looks utterly at home when she slides into a booth here, and she immediately waves over a server and orders a house “marg, rocks, no salt.” I get the same, because when in the Barn, do as the animals do.
“You’re late,” I blurt.
She just shakes her head at me. “I thought you had a stick up your butt before this whole experiment,” she says in reply. “Now I think you have Big Ben up your butt, chiming on the hour.”
“Are you kidding me?” I ask her. “You’re the retentive one. Normally I have the nice, pleasant life you’re living right now. Because of you, now I’m the one racing around like a chicken with her head cut off.”
“Are you kidding me?” she echoes. “You showed me your planner, you know. If I were following it, I would have made six nap pads for next year’s 4K classroom, sold cold pureed tomatoes and garlic for a dollar per half cup, and baked fifty cupcakes for a classroom event that requires zero freaking cupcakes. Talk about beheaded chickens.”
“Oh no. I forgot about the cupcakes!” I say, whipping my hand over my face. “Wait, you didn’t do the gazpacho?”
“I didn’t do the gazpacho,” she says shamelessly. “No one likes gazpacho.”
“I earn at least thirty dollars with that fundraiser every week!” I argue.
“I will give you thirty dollars not to make me swallow a Dixie cup of cold soup,” she replies.