And then it only gets worse. Four, it turns out, is the ICU. I feel choked up just reading the label on the elevator button panel. When I tumble out, the waiting room is crowded with truly miserable-looking strangers in a mix of dress, some in pajamas and a few with pillows and blankets, and I am hardly noteworthy even in my unique garb and accessories. I scan for Hugh or the kids. Since they aren’t there, they must be with her in her treatment room. That’s good news, right? Unless . . . well, what kind of treatment is she getting, exactly? Exactly how badly did I break her?
I pick up some speed in my step and bustle right past the waiting room, piggybacking on the people in scrubs coming and going without notice. Maybe the robe gives me the right look for it, because as soon as I cross the electronic double doors, I see that in all likelihood I am not supposed to be there in that ICU at all. There’s no talking except for the buzz of a few TVs and the sound of the machines keeping digital vigils. Many of the doors are closed, and the open ones have curtains that put the patients out of view. The whiteboards outside each room have dates of birth in lieu of identifying patient names. If I’m going to find Celeste, I’m going to have to remember when her birthday is—highly unlikely—or look in every room one by one until I find her. Or until I get kicked out.
So fine. I’ll look in each room. They are a picture of extremes. I peek into them only if there isn’t the slightest bit of sound, no rustling even. And I quickly understand the bleaker truth of the ICU. It is not a place for healthy people. These patients are not on any road to recovery I’m familiar with. They are plugged into things from every direction, and their eyes are closed, and if a couple of them are ever going to wake up, there is truly no telling. This is where they brought Celeste, I think in horror. She is one of these poor people in one of these awful rooms.
I find her, eventually. Fifth room I try. The room has a bouquet of balloons from all five kids and a vase of roses just from Hugh, and it is the note, You got this, that makes me start to cry. Celeste has a ventilator mask and adhesive nodes on her chest, wires disappearing into her sheets and gown. She’s got some sort of tensioner in place over her head to keep anything from moving. There is a bloody bandage on her head, maybe from where we hit the ground. Her face looks awful. Purple, black, and brown from the cheekbone down, and two gray circles around her eyes. She looks like she was hit with the bat, not the ball. So much for so-called softball.
Tears fill my eyes. Tonight, if I had only done every single thing differently, we’d have met by that miserable rosebush. The one that thanks to Celeste will probably actually flower again. We’d have fought about idiotic stuff—productivity and screen time and freaking Seth, of all things that don’t deserve even another moment of our precious breath—and we’d have sort of ended up laughing at ourselves and the whole situation like usual, and . . .
A moment of understanding alights. Celeste, for all her pantry reorganizing, was trying to be my friend all along. No, she was being my friend. She was being a really freaking good friend, actually.
Is that why I feel as if I would trade places with her right this second if I could? A small sob wrenches loose. If there were any tiny bit of justice in this world, it would still be my brain in that dying body, and she would be alive, with the family who loves her, the beautiful life, the happiness she deserves.
But there is no justice in this world. Not now, at least. I pull the rickety guest chair by the wall closer and closer, until I can reach Celeste’s hands with my own, and I begin to tell her how very, very sorry I am.
Sorry I didn’t see what friendship she had to give, see it from the very start, the very first time she sat out on that lawn in that adirondack chair with her glass of wine and invited my kids to play with hers.
Sorry I missed all the wonderful things that she was in favor of the one single thing she was not.
Sorry that I got her into this, and sorriest of all that I have no idea how to get her out.
When I wake, it’s from a truly bizarre dream. In it, for some reason I’m in the hospital—real me, not Wendy me—lying there with my real, freaking fantastic body—not Wendy’s, but mine. Strong and pliant, voluptuous, sexy. And I’m just so freaking overjoyed about it.
But then I realize I’m hooked up to stuff, blooping, bleeping stuff that I can’t make heads or tails of, and for some reason—dream logic, I guess—I’m not free to move anywhere. And then in comes a woman I could once truly call my archnemesis without too much exaggeration, and she just full-on apologizes to me for basically half an hour straight.
When I was ten, a boy stole my prized possession, a purple ten-speed my mom had found at Goodwill, from out front of Casey’s General while I was inside returning cans. I had to walk all the way home with my heart flapping along on the bottom of my plastic flip-flops. Two hours later, before I’d even had the guts to report my loss to the family, that wretched kid came to our house shamefaced, wheeling my beautiful bike.
His mother made him apologize and then give me all his money and mow our front yard. Taking that Mason jar full of quarters and watching him toil in the July sun was almost as good as this dream.
In it, Wendy hits all the things I wish I could have been vindicated for. She tells me I’m a better mother than she is. She adds that I’m also probably a better wife. She talks about my beautiful, happy home, my blessed life, how she’s been jealous and stupid and petty, and it goes on like that for some time. Dream me eats it up with a spoon.
She tells me Hugh is a saint and she was an idiot to put Seth on some pedestal or to think I had anything to do with his recent bad behavior. She admits she was deflecting her anger onto me to help her cope with the idea that her husband is a philanderer and that she was hoping that if it was my fault, maybe she wouldn’t need to face the painful idea that her marriage is the source of many of her current problems.
Then her voice grows thick, and she tells me that she’s not quite sure how she’ll live without Seth, and things take a sadder turn. Crying softly, Wendy tells me she doesn’t know if she can survive a divorce or put her kids through all the suffering a split would entail. Through quiet, rolling tears, she tells me that she would give anything to reset us to one week before so she could have done things differently. So she could have taken ten minutes to sit down with me one night after dinner, in the front yard, and get to know me. So she could have spent the two seconds forwarding the potluck emails to the new softball moms instead of just deciding they’d have to figure it out the way she’d had to. So she could have asked Hugh if he knew what to do with the mangy shrub between our two backyards and told Zoey how glad she was that she’d become friends with Bridget and told Samuel that Linus had a totally unused Razor scooter that he was welcome to borrow anytime.
“I wish I had brought you guys cookies.”
For some reason that completely random sentence makes her cry harder.
“But then,” she tells dream me, “I would have had to look up from my emails to do all of those things.”
In my dream, I grab her hand and say, “No, no, Wendy! You’re a wonderful mom. Your kids adore you. They’re fed and clothed, happy, and they think you hung the moon!” but she doesn’t hear me. She keeps right on.
“Celeste,” she says, and my name is raspy through her tears, “I almost wish I didn’t know husbands like Hugh existed. Ready to help when they are needed. Able to give love with no strings attached. Capable of loving children with the same fervor as a mother would.”
My heart pulls at the very mention of Hugh, but because it is a dream, I can’t seem to remember where he’s gone to. How to get him back.
“But now I know, and I know I can’t keep wasting my life with a man like Seth, no matter how much I once loved him, no matter if he’s a genius or a fraud. Staying with him does my kids no favors. And it does me no favors either.”
I want to nod, shout, clap, cheer. I try to. But nothing comes out. Nothing Wendy can see.
“If anything happens to you, Celeste, I will never, ever forgive myself. You’ve taught me so much. You’ve shown me the things I refused to see. You, your beautiful family . . . if something happens to you today . . .”
She chokes on a sob.
“Just know that I have your back. Today and from now on. No matter what. Know that Zoey and Samuel and Anna Joy won’t be able to get rid of me. Know I will bring over a million cookies or potted plants or biryani; I will learn how to make biryani if that’s what they need. If it’s the worst . . .” She stammers the words. “It won’t be. But no matter what, from now on, your family is my family. Your babies are my . . .” Her voice cracks, and she can’t go on.
Tears spill over my hand, which she’s grasping as she cries and cries, and for some reason that only makes sense in dream logic, I can do nothing to comfort her whatsoever. To tell her I’m fine, just asleep. Just dreaming.