The morning after the Taco Barn, I had a mild headache, some less mild flatulence, and an early schedule. I got up humming, thinking about the conversation we had, Wendy and I, and the magic vodka that would be winging its way to my front door today. I couldn’t wait to be back home, but I would not be exactly the same. I’d have a friend, a real friend, someone who I knew could understand me in a way no one else possibly could. I couldn’t think of a better way to thank her than to give her some time to herself before she went back to her real life and I went back to mine.
But since she and I texted this morning, I haven’t heard a word from her. Maybe in my attempt to give Wendy some overdue R&R, I’ve overstepped. I try to reach her, to figure out if she’s mad, happy, delirious, or what, exactly. I try her on her cell, at home. But she doesn’t text back, and though I borderline stalk her, I never see my minivan return to my driveway.
And there’s something else that doesn’t show up.
Dinnertime rolls around, then the movie, and still no magic vodka. I check every door, both houses, the mailboxes, the sides of the garages. I check the routing information four hundred times. An hour. There’s no update. The message just reads, Out for delivery. But it’s getting later and later. Soon it will be dark. Soon I will need to meet Wendy by the rosebush with the sangria ready, and neither the woman nor the sangria will be here.
I want to fall apart. I want to fall apart on the kitchen floor of Wendy’s house and cry and scream and hit my fists on the ground like all three of my kids have done in turn, all at different local parks. But I can’t fall apart. I have to figure out logistics for five freaking children, make sure Seth knows what to do tomorrow, and face the horrifying fact that if that vodka doesn’t arrive on time, I will be presenting a sold-out speech that can either make or break Wendy’s entire business. On a subject I have zero competence in. I breathe in and out a few times and then, as the Minions credits start to roll, I send Samuel home to Hugh and put Linus in his own bed. Then, not sure what else to do, I stall the girls with the excuse of ice cream sundaes.
The girls look at me sideways. The moment I get Zoey alone, I explain I need her to go on a recon to her house to look for her mom and check everywhere for packages. I’m 99.9 percent sure I sent the vodka to Wendy’s house, not mine, but I put my own number on the shipping form, and I’ve had my own phone in my grip all day, just in case they called for a signature. But maybe . . . if they came earlier in the day, they’d have rung the bell at a neighbor’s . . . or maybe I’m grasping at straws.
“No sign of Mom or package,” says Zoey when she gets back. “Dad looks a bit worried.” Zoey does, too, and I wish I could hug her and tell her that her mom is here, perfectly fine.
Instead, heart in my throat, I slip away and text Hugh. Home soon, I write optimistically. No need to worry. Just recharging my batteries. Again I refresh the tracking page. Nothing is new.
“Something weird is up with my mom,” says Zoey to Bridget when I’m walking back into the kitchen. “She’s been out of it this week, letting us do all kinds of weird stuff that’s normally banned. Cartoons, packaged snacks, dressing up, computer games, and generally just letting us do normal kid stuff. And the other day I heard her say a swear word.”
“Swearing isn’t the end of the world,” I interject, glad, at least, that parenting is something I can do even in times of extreme worry. “But it is an adult privilege. Keep that in mind.”
“Well, ok, I guess, but it’s really unusual for my mom,” she tells me, then turns back to Bridget. “And she’s been letting me watch regular TV. Like, movies other kids in my grade watch.”
I keep my face neutral, but I’m wondering if maybe I haven’t missed how old Zoey has gotten lately. Maybe too old for a strict diet of PBS Kids and Monopoly Junior. “How does your brain feel?” I ask her. “Totally rotted?”
“Not yet. Actually, I didn’t really like the movies all that much. One was so stupid—a mom and daughter change bodies and then run around like crazy pretending to be the other person. What even is that?”
I try not to snort.
“But I did love this show about fashion designers on cable that she showed me. Bridget, have you seen that one?”
“I haven’t watched anything good for, like, an entire week. I’ve been doing a bunch of other stuff. Mom says I can save TV for weekends now,” she says, in a performative grumble in my direction. “And keep it PG.”
Earlier today Bridget was found voluntarily doing her free-reading time for today and the entire weekend so she can goof off after her softball game—for which she’s all packed and ready a full day in advance. Linus, who has no free-reading issues whatsoever, has been seen folding his laundry, including several pairs of clean undies that tell me he’s kept up with the new mandate of changing his shorts every day.
The spackle on the bedroom hole is dry, the house is clean, the freezer is full, the chore wheel is spinning. I’ve done what I thought I came here to do. The problem is, I seem to have misplaced the woman I intended to do it for.
“Whoa. That sounds like my mom normally,” says Zoey.
Both girls turn their heads to look at me. Bridget coughs. “I’m not sure they’re a good influence on each other after all.”
I laugh at the kids. “What is this show that’s so fabulous?” I ask.
Excitedly, Zoey describes a program about designing and sewing outfits on a two-day deadline that sounds, if not meritorious, at least pretty fun. I think of the gritty fantasy drama Bridget had on earlier in the week when she thought I wasn’t paying attention. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. “Here’s the new content rule, Bridget, and Zoey, I bet it’s the same at your house: if you can’t stand the thought of your mother sitting next to you while it’s on, it’s a sign it’s not right for our family.”
She nods. “I guess that’s cool. But we have to go now, Mrs. Charles. Coach says we have a curfew of nine p.m.”
I look at my watch. “It’s only eight thirty,” I say. Do packages still go out at eight thirty? I wonder to myself, as the nervousness begins to morph into something more like panic. If only Wendy would get back to me. She’d know—she’d have to know—what to do.
“But all we’ve done the whole night is hang out with you,” Zoey says, bemused. “The whole point of coming over here is to get some girl talk.”
“I am a girl,” I point out, and both Bridget and Zoey roll their eyes in unison. “Right,” I say and realize, It’s true. Zoey is ready to grow up. She’ll only trust me more if I can let her, just a little bit. “Ok, have fun. And set your own timer so you don’t blow curfew.”
“Where will you be?” the girls ask me.
“I’m just going to sit out front for a minute and get some fresh air,” I tell them. “On the front porch.” Where I can see the mailbox. And watch for a minivan that belongs to a woman I am sorely missing.
The worst thing about Seth is that when he tries to cheat on me, with me, he does it in a great bar. So I can’t even get a shot of whiskey without relocating.
Is that what happened? I ask myself as I race, dazed and frantic, back up the waterfront to the parking garage where I left my car. I mean, I’m very clear on where I stand on cheating husbands, and so is Seth. But was this cheating? Attempted cheating? I mean, can you really cheat on your wife when she’s not in her own body? The logistics are both mind boggling and exhausting to consider, so I decide to stop. Instead, I start ruminating about Celeste, about how Seth could want her, of all people. Seth has always said how much he appreciates that I have kept trim, not “let myself go,” as he calls adult women walking around in bodies that have any variation from the ones they had in college—and to think I bought into that! As soon as he has half a beer, he’s all over the ultimate mom. I look down at that body now, hating it, not for thighs or belly but for existing and trapping me inside it and making everything in my life seem so fruitless. Exposing it as a lie.
Before Celeste, I tell myself in anger, I had a great life. Before her, my husband wasn’t a louse, just an artist. My kids weren’t spoiled; I was just making up for how little time I had at home. I wasn’t a workaholic; I was just in building mode. And the guy at work wasn’t a crush; he was just a friend and a reliable sounding board.
God, what a pack of stupid, impossible lies.