I inhale sharply. “A lot of parents love that soup.”
“Maybe so, but the kids hate it, and that’s who they try to feed it to. Until you can learn to make something the whole family enjoys, I’m sparing the citizens. Have you ever considered a can of Campbell’s?”
“You are infuriating! My gazpacho is healthy and organic. It’s great for the kids.”
“Not if they don’t eat it.”
I level her a glare. “If a kid is hungry enough, they’ll eat anything.”
“For a buck fifty, a kid can get four chicken nuggets at McDonald’s.”
“For a buck fifty, a kid can make a mayonnaise sandwich and keep the other dollar forty,” I say before I realize how much about me this gives away.
Thankfully, just then our table is charged with drinks, chips, and extra-spicy salsa, which Wendy asks for without consulting me. I am delighted when she takes a bite, finds my taste buds unequal to the challenge, and starts wheezing and guzzling water to put out the fire. Curious if the transverse applies, I take a bite.
Ooooohhhhh, it’s heavenly. It’s a lovely, fruity blend of tomatillos and chilies, and instead of tasting nothing but painful heat, I get notes of smoke, roastiness, and bright-green flavor, which, yes, is a color, too, but that’s really the perfect description. Green and bright and so good. “Wow,” I say. “That’s amazing! That’s what salsa is supposed to taste like?”
“Ugh. God,” she replies. “My mouth is on fire. Argh! Why did we even come here if I can’t eat the salsa?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing. But that was before I knew about this salsa.”
“I come here all the time with the kids. They eat free on Tuesday. On Fridays, they have a special deal where for every ten hours your kid reads, you get a free drink and they get a scoop of ice cream. It’s genius, because think about it—who really makes those monthly reading charts happen? The moms, that’s who. Don’t we deserve a bribe for it too? Plus, they give out game tablets at the tables with kids so you don’t even have to deal with the monsters; you can just drink in peace.”
I gape at her. I don’t even know where to start with that little soliloquy.
“Right, right. Judge me. But that’s how I found out about the salsa. It’s out of this world; admit it.”
I look down and realize I was just about to eat it with a spoon. “Ok, it’s amazing. But only with your taste buds.”
“Yeah,” Wendy says, napkin to her eyes. “Did you grow up eating nothing but oatmeal? I feel like I just made out with a ghost pepper.”
“Oatmeal would have been an improvement,” I say, and seeing her face, I add, “We didn’t have a lot when I was growing up.”
“I mean, presumably you weren’t too poor for Taco Bell,” she says. “Is there such a thing as that poor?”
I look at her hard.
She colors even redder than the salsa. “I’m an idiot. Sorry. I . . . it was a stupid thing to say. I had no idea.”
I smile weakly. How can I blame anyone around here for not relating to the feeling of being hungry? Their monthly mortgage payments would have bought me and my siblings a year’s worth of groceries. “It’s ok,” I say. “The hot salsa is probably punishment enough.”
“The heat was awful,” she says. “And then there’s the taste of foot in my mouth. I’ll be needing my second margarita soon.”
“Don’t get too trashed,” I tell her. “Even when we’re sober, it’s hard enough to play nice with each other.”
“But that’s the thing,” she says to me, around gulps of her drink. “That’s exactly what we’re doing wrong.”
“Dealing with each other?” I ask.
“Well . . . ok, yes. That isn’t what I was going to say, but sure,” she says, shaking her head at me. “When we switch back, I have no doubt we’ll probably never speak again.”
For some reason, the comment hurts. I take a glug of my margarita. And another.
“That’s right—feel the dark side,” she tells me. “Have a stiff drink in the Taco Barn. See how it feels to be a human person.”
“Why can’t you just make the cupcakes?” I blurt out. “They are so easy compared to last year’s cupcakes. Those had to be topped with volcanos that really erupted.”
“Zoey says you were supposed to make fifty cupcakes because there are fifty entries to the school science fair, and everyone who loses gets a cupcake. Is that right?”
I nod. “There can only be three real awards. That’s a lot of disappointed little scientists.”
Wendy snorts. “I cannot think of any less necessary cupcakes in the history of cupcakes. And that includes the time when there were three cupcake trucks parked next to each other downtown fighting for business.”
“What about all the kids who don’t win?” I ask her.
“They get the joy of doing science.”
I shake my head. “They also get cupcakes.”
“Not this year,” Wendy tells me.
“Wendy, please. I am going to have to make them myself if you don’t, and I’m going to be up all night tomorrow baking.” I narrow my eyes. “When exactly will we have time to switch bodies if I’m busy frosting fifty little DNA helices until four in the morning?”
She lets her head roll back and stares at the ceiling. This is exactly what my tween does when I’m being “unreasonable,” and I hate it.
“Ok, Celeste, imagine this. Imagine a world where instead of you creating an extra thing to do for the science fair, you go home and read an inspiring memoir.”
“Oh, that’s rich. I’ve searched your house and found only four books outside the self-improvement realm, and none of the spines are cracked,” I respond.
Wendy draws her phone like a Wild West sheriff in a gunfight. “E-books,” she says, showing me her digital library. It’s enormous. “Read ’em and weep. Literally, because I mostly read historical fiction set during World War Two.”
I stifle a smile, refusing to acknowledge that she almost made me laugh. “Well, fine. Let’s say I don’t make one little batch of fifty cupcakes, and instead I read a few chapters of”—I zoom in on Wendy’s most recently read title—“a novel about a French Resistance fighter who saves a brie factory from the Nazis. The end result? I stress eat a wheel of brie, and forty-seven kids leave the science fair without a, ahem, sweet taste in their mouth.” I salute my little pun internally. “In that group of children is one little girl who has the potential to cure cancer, but in that moment of losing at the science fair and being sent home with nothing, she decides to major in art history.”
“You’re telling me the kid who can cure cancer is so easily defeated that she gives up due to the lack of a consolation prize?” she asks me, amused. “I sure hope she gets cancer curing right on the first try! Also, why wouldn’t this hypothetical genius have won the Birchboro Hills Elementary School science fair, exactly? What kind of fair are you imagining? Is it full of former Nobel winners?”
I cross my arms. “It’s just nice to hand out cupcakes,” I say.
“It’s nice to have meaning in your life. Baking consolation prizes isn’t meaning.”
“Is being mean your meaning?”
Wendy puts a finger up and then takes a long, long drink of margarita. “Celeste, for real, I have been you for almost a week now, and no matter how much I now appreciate the intricacies of your life, I still do not totally understand your choices. If I comprehend correctly, you somehow dedicate your entire life to the comfort of three people, two of whom do not even have fully formed frontal lobes. Additionally, the moment you get free time, you spend it doing things for complete strangers’ kids. Things that largely go unnoticed and unappreciated, like science fair cupcakes and unpaid Ubering. Yesterday night I went to that big event with Hugh, and everyone was dressed up and on their absolute best behavior, and I—well, you—looked straight-up stunning. And still, literally no one wanted to talk to me—you—except Jaina, and I suspect only her because you and Hugh bought a table at her private school fundraiser. You don’t even have kids in private school! How can you possibly tolerate that?”
I shrug. “It’s not as bad as all that,” I say.
Wendy scoffs. “The minute someone asked me what I did for a living, the conversation was dead. No one knows what to say to you. Your life path is the conversational equivalent of asking about a bad rash. Is that how you really want to roll?”
It’s like she whipped a BB gun out of my nice big handbag and shot me in the forehead. I’m not dead, but I’m furious. “You,” I tell her, putting my margarita glass down hard, “are awful. Just awful. And I was just starting to think you might be human.”
“Hey, I was being sympathetic,” she says.
“You were being rude. Do you know how much I’ve done for you since we switched bodies?” I ask her. “For your kids?”