“If you’ve been flirting with Davis to break me and Seth up, that is a seriously shitty and maniacal thing to do. Even if you’ve been flirting with Seth, that’s horrible enough. The other night, when we met up for drinks, it seemed like you were finally starting to get me, a little bit. Like you were trying to help. It seemed like you were starting to think of me as a friend and care what happened in my life.” Wendy’s voice cracks, and I see that under these crazy allegations and anger is a woman whose life has completely fallen to pieces. A woman with no idea how to pick them up.
“I am doing that!” I insist. “I have been trying to help, and I do care what happens in your life! Look, I’m sorry if I have been flirting with Davis just a little. He’s an amazing guy, he’s fun to look at, and yeah, ok, marriage with Hugh is stale at the moment—though as soon as I get my body back, I am going to change that, because like I said—he is my whole world. And yes, I’ve been hard on Seth, but all in the spirit of trying to help you. Genuinely help you. I thought you’d have an easier time baking if I organized your pantry. I thought Davis might give Seth the extra motivation he needs to step up, you know, the way a little competition can motivate. That’s what you’re always saying about softball, right?
“But I didn’t know Seth would be unfaithful. I didn’t know things with Davis could cause a work problem. I thought of it as kind of a fun, harmless thing.” My voice is pleading.
“You brought Davis to meet my son!” she says in this weird half yell, half whisper that is actually more unnerving than just a shout. “They liked each other and talked about nerd books. That’s not harmless. That’s a thing.”
I open my mouth to defend myself, but she’s right. I’ve made this into a terrible mess. “I’m sorry. I see that now. I didn’t think it through,” I say.
Wendy shakes her head in disgust. “You and your apologies,” she says. “Look me in the eyes and apologize for hitting on Seth, why don’t you?”
“I can’t do that, because I would never hit on someone else’s husband,” I insist. “And because I would never be unfaithful to mine. Think it through, Wendy. Besides, if someone did hit on Seth, it wouldn’t have any effect unless your husband was already open to cheating. Your issue here . . . it’s not with me.”
For a second I think she’s hearing me. Her shoulders sink; her anger seems to crumple up inside her. But then, as if her whole life depends on it, she turns on me again. “Really?” she says snidely. “Really? Because it sure seems to me like my life was fine before you came around and stole it from me.”
And that’s it. That’s all I can take. I look at her, dead serious, and open the pantry door. I’m fed up. I’ve been an idiot, but I’ve apologized for it. I’m not going to apologize anymore. “Your life was not fine,” I say as I step into the opening. “Your life just plain sucked. The only thing that’s different now is that you finally know that.”
She leaves me in that pantry, so angry I can barely see. That stupid, color-coordinated, date-organized, perfectly labeled pantry, where I will never be able to find anything again. I scream in fury, swipe my hand over a row of pottery canisters I haven’t seen since my bridal shower, and see them go flying across the wall, crashing, flour and sugar and . . . I don’t know; I can’t read the label through my tears. Porcelain going everywhere. For a few moments I can hardly breathe from the explosion of flour particles, and I cough and sputter and wipe my face. My clothes are covered in white, and I feel like such an idiot—I’ve made a bad situation worse. Times a million.
I brush off the legs of Celeste’s sloppiest stretch pants and unzip the matching jacket I wore out in the morning’s chill, then shake it out right there on the floor. After all, it will be me who has to clean it out tomorrow, if everything goes the way we think it will. Me who has to clean up this mess I made. If I possibly can.
Then I walk out of the pantry, into the bright light of day. The kitchen is empty, thank god. I close the pantry door tightly and leave the way I came, through the kitchen door, a trail of white footsteps following behind. Out in the yard, I try to push away new tears and gasp deep breaths to calm myself down, but there’s no way Hugh—every bit as caring as his wife—is going to miss the state I’m in, and soon wet tracks are running through the flour dust on my face. I walk into Celeste’s house with gritted teeth, slip off my dusty shoes, and pad upstairs to the shower. On the way I pass all three kids, who stare at me but don’t dare speak, and Hugh, who says, “Celeste! What on earth happened to you?”
I don’t answer; I can’t. I just push past him to the bathroom and close the door. “I’ll explain it all later,” I say to him after a moment, when I hear him follow me to the door. “Don’t worry. Please. Just . . . can you cover for me with the kids? I don’t want them to know how upset I am. I don’t want them to be scared.”
Hugh’s voice rings through the door clear and true. “Of course, honey. Of course. Do you want me to take the boys to the science fair on my own?”
The science fair. For which I purchased fifty green ribbons from the awards store that read Star Participant! Because that was the absolute least I could do for Celeste.
“That would be amazing,” I say, truly meaning it. “I packed a bag by the door—be sure to give it to Dr. Randall for me, would you?” Here’s a man who may not notice that I changed his wife’s hair and made over her brows and put on lipstick for the first time in eleven years, but he knows that his son has a science fair today, and he was already planning to attend. Hell, he’s awake, and we all know that’s not the case with the man of my house. Goddamn Celeste. Why did she get so lucky? And why did I wreck everything between us to make her pay for it?
I’ve acted like such an idiot. There is no universe where I could truly, in my right mind, think she would come between Seth and me. Now that I’ve had my tantrum, no better than that of a three-year-old, I can see that the only thing Celeste did wrong was to be there when I was hurting.
Well, that and the pantry overkill.
“Wait, Hugh,” I call. Already the thickness of my voice is fading, I am breathing again, and the fog that has surrounded me since yesterday is starting to lift.
“What’s up, babe?”
“I know this is odd, but can you and the kids go straight from the fair to meet me someplace at noon? There’s someone I want to support. Someone who is doing something really hard today, and she’s done some very kind things for me lately.”
“Sure . . . ,” he says, his voice questioning.
“I know I’m acting crazy. I can explain everything, and I will. But not right now.”
“Of course,” he says, without so much as a pause. “Whatever you need. Celeste, I don’t know what’s been going on this week, but I do know I love you, no matter what. When you’re ready to talk, I hope it’s me you talk to. Got that?”
Those loving words, offered so freely, twist the knife. I nod silently, and then, thinking of what Celeste would need me to say, what she would do for me in my shoes, I say, “I love you too. No matter what.”
“Okeydoke!” he replies, happiness forced over the top of worry. “I’ll see you in a couple hours. Take your time and use the fancy face mask; we are good to go.”
“You’re the best,” I say. God dammit, he really is the best. He’s the unicorn, maybe. But I’ve been an absolute toad.
The shower makes me feel better. I start to get my wits again. This is my life now, postknowing, a seesaw of tantrums and acceptance, one that I would very much like to get off. I try some deep breathing and remind myself as best I can the mantra I teach my clients after a major setback: Every minute that passes, I get further from the moment Seth tried to cheat on me. Every hour that goes by, it’ll hurt less. In a couple of months . . . ok, maybe a year, it will all be a fuzzy memory, something I can’t really believe ever happened. Kind of like this entire switcheroo in the first place.
Until he does it again.
Of course, the next time Seth tries to cheat, it won’t be with Celeste. It won’t be with someone who would tell me what happened—that’s for darn sure. My heart sinks back down the teeter-totter until it hits the ground. The next time may, just twenty-some hours later, have already happened.
Is Seth a serial philanderer? I finally allow myself to wonder. My first thought is that I can’t imagine when he’d have the time. My second thought is that I don’t actually know where he goes or what he does all day. I’m in the city working. He’s in the city making art. Except there is no art to show for it, no gallery shows coming up, and not even a big materials purchase in a few months, come to think of it.