Museum? Matinee? Pedicure? she texts me.
I think for a moment and laugh. You can get your own toes done tomorrow. I’m going to go sit by the river and have an indulgent lunch completely and utterly alone.
Perfect. Enjoy your day-drinking, she quickly replies.
By the time I’ve packed the kids a modest lunch to save them from Friday meatloaf, run them to school, cut out a hundred math manipulatives and laminated them, and run an errand to the local awards-and-trophies store, it’s almost lunch. I cannot believe I’m even considering taking time out today, much less that someone I was brawling with a week ago is the one who gave me this chance. But I’ve learned my speech forward and backward, and Celeste’s right: this is my last chance before I go back to being Wendy, the Woman Who Has It All—something I am desperate to have happen and yet . . . not entirely sure I’m ready for.
I know exactly where I want to spend this respite: the Water’s Edge, one of my favorite prekid date spots. It’s a stodgy old bar and grill with a patio where you can sit by the river on a gorgeous day like this one and have a perfectly made sidecar and just stare for hours at the boats and the ducks and the clouds and the people passing by.
Or you could do all those things if you weren’t a woman with far too much to do.
Well, guess what. I’m not that woman for a few more hours. I slide into the Water’s Edge, find myself the perfect barstool, half-in and half-out of the building, where the sun can only reach me through a vine-covered pergola. I order one of those sidecars I remember from a visit here years ago, with a wedge salad to make it look like lunch. They show up almost at the same time, first the pretty ruby-colored drink served up with sugar on the rim, then the quartered head of iceberg dripping with blue cheese, bacon lardon, and bright-red cherry tomatoes, the most indulgent way to eat vegetables that I know of short of fried zucchini.
I ask the bartender if they also have fried zucchini, and he says, “Not on the menu, but I can arrange it,” so I order that too. Then I turn my eyes to the river, eating, drinking, wondering what to make of my life.
If you had asked me before last week if I was happy, I would have told you, quickly, that of course I was—and considered you weird for asking. My daughter is a starter on her softball team, my son is a sweet kid with a voracious appetite for books, my husband is working tirelessly to break through with his art, and my self-made business is earning more with every quarter. But a far, far more accurate answer would be that I had no idea, because who has the time to think about happiness? Happiness is for people with nothing better to do.
But it’s one thirty on a Friday. I’m at the bar with breaded, seasoned, fried slices of zucchini and a glorified cognac delivery system right in front of me. I have nothing scheduled but to watch the world go by, and guess what: I have time to think now, and it’s very dangerous. Basically, the second I slowed down—by force, hallucination, magic, or some combination of all three—every single hole in my drywall, real and metaphorical, has started to show through. My kids are indeed a bit coddled. My husband is maybe not the artistic genius I thought I married. And the job I love so much is hardly curing cancer or solving climate change. Am I throwing away the most precious moments of my children’s lives for my own selfish dreams?
Suffice it to say I order another drink. While the bartender makes it for me, I ask him rhetorically, “Where did it all go wrong?”
Before he can give me an answer, the front door of the bar opens, and Seth walks through it.
My jaw opens. There is an awful lot I’d like to say to Seth right now. I have a head of steam and just enough of a buzz started to think it would be better to give him a dressing-down he dearly deserves than continue to sit here in the sticky cauldron of my own feelings, where no one but me can truly take the blame. I think of all the things I’d like to tell him. Things I have been holding in for a long time. That he hasn’t sold a piece in years, that he’s doing nothing to help our family, that he’s a colossal disappointment to me in almost every way—things that are hurtful and mean and that will be really, really hard to take back.
But just before I can even get started, he says, “Oh, Celeste! What a surprise!”
Right. I can’t take my fury out on Seth, because I’m Celeste, and Celeste shouldn’t have any fury toward her next-door neighbor’s husband. Actually, right up until this moment I didn’t even know Seth knew who Celeste was, exactly.
“Hello,” I say, forcing a weak smile. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, I’m here every Friday. My studio’s a few blocks away, and this bar is the perfect place to get centered when I’m stuck,” he tells me. “I’m a sculptor,” he adds, as though I asked what he was stuck on. (I didn’t.) “Sometimes the studio just gets so oppressive. This is where I come to take the pressure off.”
I nod. “I see. I didn’t realize sculpting involved so many cocktail breaks.”
“The muse works on her own time,” he tells me with a charmingly wry grin.
I’m not in a charmable mood. “How is the muse treating you these days?” I ask him, not just because it’s what a neighbor might ask but because I genuinely want to know—What’s going on in that studio of yours after all this time? What do you have to show for yourself?
“Damned poorly,” he says. “I must have pissed her off at some point.” He flashes me a grimace that’s leaden, sorrowful. “To be honest, I haven’t liked much of what I’ve been making for a long while now.”
I look at him for a moment. Of all the weirdness that I’ve experienced since Celeste and I swapped bodies, this is the weirdest. Talking to my husband when he has no idea he’s talking to me. Seeing him without the fog of Who emptied the dishwasher last, and what time will you be home, and did you put a new chain saw on our credit card? is like seeing him for the first time in years. His handsome face, his backlit blue eyes, a start of a shadow creeping across his jaw as the sun rises up high in the sky. A sadness at the corners of his eyes and lips that speaks of talent frustrated, hopes fading, life disappointing.
There’s no way to look at this man and not be overcome by all the things we’ve shared. The day he proposed, the first gallery show, the parks installation, my opening day of business, and most of all, the children, Bridget and Linus, our greatest acts of cocreation. My heart seems to contract as a wave of memories washes over me. All at once I remember what Celeste said early on—how perhaps there was a greater meaning to this swap—and I can’t help it; I wonder . . . could this moment be it? Maybe this is the very, very beginning of how I find my way back to him. Maybe this is what it has all been for.
I swallow hard. “Why don’t you order a drink and tell me about it,” I ask him. I’m hoping that without the tension of our sorry marriage, I can get a better idea of what’s going on with his art. Maybe then I can understand how we’ve gotten so far apart.
He frowns. “You have time?” he asks me.
“Taking a day off,” I tell him. I pause for a moment. “I’m just taking some me time to figure things out.”
“So I’m not the only one,” he says, with a little tip of the head. “Can I get a beer?” he asks the bartender. “Something local and hoppy?” he adds.
The bartender offers him some goofy-sounding brew and gets to pouring it. When it’s in front of Seth, I watch him take half a sip, set it down, and shake his head.
“Before I got married,” he tells me, “I had almost bottomless energy for my artwork. Art craft, I should say, because the craft of it was more important than some arbitrary standard about what made something art back then. I could just . . . do me . . . and make it the best I could, really, and sometimes, when all the stars aligned, what I wanted to make was what galleries wanted to see too. And then the reviews came in, and . . . the things they said about me.”
“Mmm?” I lean in. I remember all the hours we spent talking these things over, the late nights dreaming of what he might create next, of what art meant to us, of all the beautiful things our future could be.
“I mean, ARTnews called me ‘the next must-acquire sculptor,’” he tells me now.
It’s a review I have etched in my memory, and I pass a framed copy of it every time I walk through our hallway, but how long has it been since I thought about that moment, the champagne and the celebrating and the tears of joy?
“Wow,” I say. “They covered you? They don’t mess around.”
“Exactly,” he agrees. “That kind of feedback, it’s so exhilarating, you know?” He pauses a moment. “Wait, I’m so sorry. I forgot to ask you what it is you do, Celeste.”
I think fast, not wanting this conversation to get shut down by Celeste’s standard answer to this question. “I work from home,” I try.