Three Wishes(3)


by Liane Moriarty

Guests at Maxine’s birthday party thought they’d never seen her look so beautiful—slender, glowing, almost incandescent! Who could have guessed she’d been impregnated with some Catholic boy’s triplets?

Frank and Maxine were married, of course. In their wedding photos, they both have the blank-eyed, sedated look of recent trauma victims.

Seven months later, their triplet daughters came kicking and howling into the world. Maxine, who had never even held a baby before, was presented with three; it was the most despair-filled moment of her young life.

Well, that would be Gemma’s preference for how it started. Cat would argue that if she was going to begin with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle, Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funn-y, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.

And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.

It was a Wednesday night six weeks before Christmas. A nothing sort of night. An unassuming midweek night that should have vanished from their memories by Friday. “What did we do Wednesday?” “I don’t know. Watch TV?”

That’s what they were doing. They were eating spaghetti and drinking red wine in front of the television. Cat was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with her back up against the sofa, her plate on her lap. Her husband, Dan, was sitting on the edge of the sofa, hunched over his dinner on the coffee table. It was the way they always ate dinner.

Dan had cooked the spaghetti, so it was hearty and bland. Cat was the more accomplished cook. Dan’s approach to cooking was somehow too functional. He stirred his ingredients like concrete mix, one arm wrapped around the bowl, the other stirring the gluggy mix so vigorously you could see his biceps working. “So what? Gets the job done.”

That Wednesday night Cat was feeling no specific emotion; not especially happy, not especially sad. It was strange afterward, remembering how she sat there, shoveling Dan’s pasta into her mouth, so foolishly trusting of her life. She wanted to yell back at herself through time, Concentrate!

They were watching a show called Med School. It was a soap about a group of very beautiful young medical students with shiny white teeth and complex love lives. Each episode featured a lot of blood and sex and anguish.

Cat and Dan shared a mild addiction to Med School. Whenever the plot took a new twist, they responded with loud enthusiasm, yelling at the television like children watching a pantomime: “Bastard!” “Dump him!” “It’s the wrong medication!”

This week Ellie (blond, cutesy, cropped T-shirt) was in a state. She didn’t know whether to tell her boyfriend, Pete (dark, brooding, abnormal abs), about her drunken infidelity with a guest-starring troublemaker.

“Tell him, Ellie!” said Cat to the television. “Pete will forgive you. He’ll understand!”

The ad break came on, and a manic man in a yellow jacket bounced around a department store pointing an incredulous finger at the Christmas specials.

“I booked that health and beauty thing today,” said Cat, using Dan’s knee as a lever to help her reach over him for the pepper. “The woman had one of those gooey, spiritual voices. I felt like I was getting a massage just making a booking.”

For Christmas, she was giving her sisters (and herself) a weekend away at a health retreat in the Blue Mountains. The three of them would share an “exquisite experience” of “indulgent pampering.” They would be wrapped in seaweed, dunked in mud, and slathered in vitamin-enriched creams. It would be extremely amusing.

She was pleased with herself for thinking of it. “What a clever idea!” everyone would say on Christmas Day. Lyn definitely needed the stress relief. Gemma didn’t need it but she’d be right into pretending that she did. Cat herself wasn’t especially stressed either, but perhaps she was, because she wasn’t pregnant and she’d been off the Pill now for nearly a year. “Don’t get stressed about it,” everybody said wisely, as if they were the first to pass on that hot little tip. Apparently, the moment your ovaries noticed you were worried about becoming pregnant, they refused to cooperate. Oh well, if you’re going to get all huffy about it, we’ll just close down.

A health insurance ad came on. Dan winced. “I hate this ad.”

“It’s effective. You watch it more closely than any other ad on television.”

He closed his eyes and averted his head. “O.K. I’m not looking, I’m not looking. Oh God. I can still hear that woman’s grating voice.”

Cat picked up the remote and turned up the volume.

“Aaaagh!” He opened his eyes and grabbed the remote from her.

He was behaving perfectly normally. She remembered that afterward and it made it worse, somehow. Every moment he behaved normally was part of the betrayal.

“Shh. It’s back on.”

Ellie’s betrayed boyfriend, Pete, appeared on the screen, flexing his freakish abs. Ellie gave the TV audience guilty looks.

“Tell him,” Cat told her. “I’d want to know. I couldn’t stand not to know the truth. Better to tell him, Ellie.”

“You think so?” said Dan.

“Yeah. Don’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

There were no bells jangling a warning in Cat’s head. Not a single chime.

She had put down her wineglass on the coffee table and was feeling a pimple that had just that very moment appeared on her chin, undoubtedly a malevolent herald of her forthcoming period. Each month it appeared like an official stamp on her chin. There will be no baby for this woman this month. Nope. Sorry, try again! Cat had begun to cackle bitterly, throwing back her head witchlike, as soon as the first treacherous spots of blood appeared. It was such a joke, such a crushing anticlimax, after all those years of anxiously ensuring she didn’t have a baby, after all those months of “Are we ready to make this momentous change in our lives? I think we are, don’t you? Ooh, maybe we should have one more month of freedom!”

Don’t think about it, she told herself. Don’t think about it.

“Cat,” said Dan.

“What?”

“I have to tell you something.”

She snorted at his ponderous tone, pleased to be distracted from her pimple. She thought he was sending up the show. “Oh my God!” she said and hummed the Med School sound track that helpfully warned viewers when something dramatic and awful was about to happen. “What? Have you done an Ellie? Have you been unfaithful to me?”