I just lie there, as still as death in my hospital bed, and let her go on like this.
And then the dream is no longer the least bit satisfying. How can it be? Wendy isn’t my archnemesis anymore, and she probably never has been. She’s just my friend, who has been looking after my kids with such kindness and love, who has been doing the best she knows how, who has carved out a monumental career for herself, made her family an amazing living, and then suddenly, in the space of an instant, forgotten all she’s accomplished. She’s the mother of the most sensitive boy I’ve ever met and also of the best friend my daughter has ever had. She’s had a chance, all this time, to scuttle a disappointing marriage or even cheat, and instead she has stuck to her commitments, again and again. And no, even dream me knows I’m not a better mother than her. I just took a different road.
It’s like that hoary Robert Frost poem, but without the false dichotomy: Two paths diverged in our woods, and because we are women, and women’s choices change dramatically with every single generation, both paths were less traveled by. And because there is no one way to have a family, no instruction book, and no trustworthy set of rules (and, trust me, I’ve looked), it is likely that both paths are just a little bit wrong and just a little bit right, and which one we take is simply a matter of luck and happenstance.
I fell in love with a wonderful guy who likes me, his job, and his kids. We got pregnant, mostly on purpose. Wendy fell in love with a hot artist who didn’t want kids and didn’t want to say no. They got pregnant, too, and yes, they were both there for that whether Seth cares to admit it or not.
Then there are those women who have no children, or more than they’d prefer. There are those who have lost their partners or intentionally misplaced them. There are those who earn more than the cost of childcare and those who make less. There are those who can feed their children and those who must take help at every turn in the road. In each house in Birchboro Hills is a woman who took one road and then another and another and now tells herself her choices are all her own and where she finds herself now, and in which body, is all her doing. Or all her fault.
I have been dreaming a long time, I finally understand. I’m coming awake now, but I must have been dreaming about the body swap and the sangria fight. I must have dreamed the Taco Barn, the softball game, the handsome coworker, and the rosebush where our backyards meet. I must have dreamed about everything that didn’t make sense.
How long have I been asleep? I wonder, as I come to full consciousness, slowly, inch by ever-shifting inch. Have I dreamed the entire week? Have I been dreaming since that otherworldly hangover seven days ago?
Slowly, painfully, I try to come out of this confusing, unbreakable sleep. It almost feels like I have to pry my eyes open. My bedroom is too bright, there are too many flickering fluorescents, there is too much noise. My head is pounding. This . . . I think. This is the hangover from the sangria from that potluck all those nights ago. Everything else has been nothing but the craziest REM. Now, at last, time and reason have intersected again. And now . . . now everything is different. Now I have new eyes to see my life. My husband, my kids, my amazing, beautiful life. And I’m not so lonely anymore, because now I have a friend. Someone just like me.
What an enormous relief.
But that relief slides away faster than any dream should upon waking. I am not in my bedroom after all, and Hugh is not next to me, and my kids are not down the hall. I am in the hospital, in terrible pain that starts on my face and radiates through my body, through every inch, and Wendy’s sleeping form is lying next to me in a wet puddle of tears, with her face in her arms, on the side of my bed.
And all those noises I thought I was dreaming are coming from the machines plugged into me, and as I wake and try to gasp for my own air around a ventilator, they all start beeping. Louder, louder, until the whole room turns into one startling mechanical scream.
I wake up being physically hauled out of the ICU. As I go, the nurse berates me. “Your friend’s spine,” she tells me, “has been seriously damaged. What were you doing in there? Trying to give me a heart attack?” With that, she leaves me in the waiting room, my face crusted with dried tears, my eyes threatening still more new ones.
“Wait!” I say as she turns on her heel, but before I can ask her if Celeste is going to be ok, she’s gone. I turn to the room, and I see Hugh holding Joy, Bridget and Zoey watching Linus, and Samuel watching an iPad, and boom, it’s waterworks again.
“Mrs. Charles!” says Zoey, jumping to her feet. And then, again more cautiously: “Are you ok, Mrs. Charles?”
I nod vigorously. “I’m fine. Just fine.”
“Mom!” shouts Bridget.
She wraps her arms around me, and in a matter of seconds she is squeezed out by Linus, and I take them into my hug together. My heart fills up until the love actually hurts. I hold my kids as tightly as I can, whispering, “It’s Mom. I’m here.”
And then I make room for Samuel and Zoey. Even Anna Joy gets in on the action for a sweet, short moment.
When the children have peeled away, I move to sit by Hugh. “Have they told you anything?” I ask in a low voice.
“Only that there’s spinal cord damage,” he tells me. His face is the color of wet ash. “They say it could be hours before they know more.”
I nod and swallow hard. Yes, I want to go to pieces. But now is the time for me to be a mother and a friend. I reach out my arms for little Anna Joy, and she practically leaps into them. Oof—she’s much heavier now that I’m in my real body. “Other mommy!” she cries delightedly.
Hugh looks at me, shocked. I’m shocked myself, but then, just a little bit of me gets this. The little ones always know.
“Let me take care of her, and you get some rest,” I tell him. “She’ll need you bright eyed when she’s back up and running.”
He shakes his head. “They said that maybe . . .”
“Don’t listen to that,” I tell him with fake confidence. “She’s tough as hell. And she loves you guys so much,” I add. “I believe she’s capable of truly anything, if it’s for the sake of her family.”
Hugh nods. “You’re right. That’s completely true. I had no idea you knew my Celeste so well.”
He takes Zoey’s and Samuel’s hands tightly in his own. “Come on, Team Mason!” he says to them. “Everybody send up a quick prayer, and then let Mom work her magic. She’s got this.”
I nod. “Bridge, Linus, your dad’s here, right?”
Linus looks up at me. “He’s in the cafeteria,” he says.
“Perfect. Go find him and tell him to give you twenty bucks for lunch—dinner—whatever meal comes next—and send him up here in your place, will you?”
“But we want to wait here with you,” says Bridget. “To find out if Mrs. Mason is going to be ok.”
“This is what I need you to do,” I say to her, channeling Celeste. “And we know that Celeste is going to be ok, so just stay down there and wait for a text.”
Hugh nods. “You go too, Zoey,” he says to his daughter, peeling off a twenty from his wallet. “Samuel, you want to stay with me or go eat with them?”
Samuel looks at Linus, who shrugs. “Eat,” he says.
I tell Bridget to tell Seth to buy the boys comic books from the gift shop. “For both boys,” I say. “He can complain to me later if he doesn’t like it.”
The kids scuttle off. I make a pillow of the kids’ softball blankets, and Hugh conks out instantly, and Anna Joy and I play with the busy box in the corner of the waiting room for what feels like hours. In that time I think over what I told Celeste back in that hospital room. I imagine what she would have told me.
At last, a doctor arrives in the waiting room. I sit there in my double hospital gowns with Hugh on one side and Anna Joy running circles into the floor, and together we hear the news. “She’s awake, and her latest scan is looking promising. She can have visitors now,” she tells us.
Hugh looks at me, and I laugh. “Go, Hugh!”
The poor man sprints away, leaving me and his toddler to fend for ourselves. Seth is nowhere to be found, but Hugh has left Celeste’s handbag behind in the waiting room, and there, right where I left it, is my phone.
I call Davis. Of course I do. I call the person who has become my main confidant, with one exception: I never, ever talk about Seth with him. Now it’s time to break the rule and get real. And get real with myself.
He answers on half a ring, asks me where I am, and I tell him the hospital. This he knows, somehow. “Where in the hospital, I mean? Because I’m in the ER, and you’re not, and the nurses seem kind of put out about it.”
I swear into the phone.
“Sorry?” asks Davis.
“That wasn’t for you,” I explain. “I did do a runner, because I was worried about my friend. She’s in bad shape.”
“Celeste?” he asks. “The woman who saved your life?”