Several years ago, a friend who evidently did not know me very well tried to set me up with her husband’s best friend. “He’s a great guy,” she said. “And his divorce should come through any day now.”
“He probably doesn’t want to be dating yet,” I suggested. I was twenty-five, and divorce was a thing that my friends’ parents did, not a thing that my potential dating partners did.
“Oh he’s ready,” my friend said. We were walking around her townhouse community. She was pushing her ten-month old son in a stroller, and I was surreptitiously checking my phone to see if the guy I wanted to hook up with had texted me back.
“He needs to date,” my friend went on. “His ex-wife was a total bitch. She cheated on him like, right after they got married.”
“That’s sad,” I said. I looked at my phone again. Nope. No new texts.
“She got drunk one night and told him. Then she took their new puppy and drove away. Got in a wreck. Killed the puppy.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s—that’s really horrible.”
“So yeah. He totally needs to date someone.”
And, because there’s no chapter in He’s Just Not That Into You that deals with how to dissuade your friend from setting you up with a man who can only be described as a walking vortex of sadness and loss, I smiled and changed the subject and assumed that was that.
At the time, I lived alone with a cat in a mouse-riddled apartment in a trendy part of town. The best things about the apartment were the expansive front porch, the claw foot tub, and the cable that never got cut off from the previous tenants. The worst things were the leaky ceiling in the kitchen, the black mold in the pantry, and the aforementioned mice, who mostly hung out in the broken radiator in my bedroom. It was the first place I’d ever had to myself, and I thought it was wonderful.
My friend, on the other hand, had an actual condo with an actual mortgage. She and her husband did things like save up money to take vacations. I spent what little salary I had on vintage clothes and Chanel No. 5, which my cat knocked off a mantle and shattered all over the floor almost as soon as I had gotten it. For my vacations, I sat under the large fan in my living room and read used travel books.
I did not feel as though my friend and I inhabited equal places in life, nor did I feel like hers was a life that I wanted. Still, I saw in her life something exotic and interesting, and, though I would have never admitted it to myself, something pleasant.
A few weeks later, my friend invited me to the soft opening of the very fancy restaurant where her husband worked. A soft opening, in case you didn’t know, is a night in which the staff of a new restaurant practices for friends and family before it opens up to the public. Often, the food is free, as it was on this particular evening. Because I was teaching on a lectureship that was meant to provide more in the way of experience than actual salary, the possibility of a free steak dinner appealed to me, and so I agreed to go.
I showed up at the restaurant to see my friend standing at the bar, balancing her baby on her hip and talking to a man who I knew had to be he of the ex-wife and the dead puppy.
They saw me before I could rearrange the look on my face from one of abject horror to one of gracious acceptance, a transition that we southern women can usually manage in a matter of milliseconds. I was still hungover from the night before. I’d finally hooked up with the guy I’d been trying to hook up with, and it had been both exciting and a disappointment. I was a month out from a longish-term relationship with a man I had assumed that I would marry, and so it was exciting to have sex with someone different, but it was also disappointing to have sex with someone who was not my ex-boyfriend.
“Are you ok?” my friend asked.
“I’m great!” I bleated. “I just had something in my eye.”
My friend nodded and shifted her baby higher on her hip. “This is Jimmy,” she said. Jimmy extended his hand to me, and suddenly, what I thought was going to be a handshake turned into a hug.
“Oh,” I mumbled into his golf shirt. “Nice to meet you.”
“Heard lots of great things about you,” Jimmy said when he finally relinquished me.
“I wouldn’t believe all of them,” I said with a laugh that I hoped would convey No, really, I would not believe all of them.
The bartender leaned across the bar and asked if I wanted a drink.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Pinot noir.” I’d just read an article about how pinot noir was the most sophisticated wine, and while I did not want to impress Jimmy, I hoped to demonstrate that I had very high standards.
Jimmy ordered a Bud Light—“in the bottle!” he said. He turned to me and commented that it tasted the same, anyway. I raised my head in what could possibly be construed as a nod. I did drink Bud Light on occasion, but only on dollar draft Tuesday at the neighborhood dive, and then only in an attempt to be more uniquely ironic than the hipsters with their PBRs.
My friend ordered a girly cocktail with a stupid name as the bartender slid my pinot noir towards me.
“Now that’s a dang big glass,” Jimmy said, and I nodded.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a red wine glass.”
Jimmy cocked his head and considered that. “Yeah but why is it so big?” he asked.
Actually, it was a good question and one that I didn’t really know the answer to. But, because I was twenty-five and often answered questions that didn’t know the answer to, I stumbled through an explanation of how the glass helped the wine to breathe.
Jimmy considered this for about half a second before he shrugged and said, “Sounds complicated. Must be why I like beer.”
I nodded. I didn’t have anything to add. My friend, either sensing that the conversation was stalling or, more likely, tired of holding her child, ushered us towards our table. Waiters buzzed around us, their faces tight with concentration. My friend caught her husband’s eye and winked at him. He smiled and winked back.
Ah, married bliss. Or something like it.
I tried to imagine what this was like to have a relationship like theirs, wherein winking was not corny but rather a true measure of affection. I could not. My ex and I had had one of those relationships wherein we’d go to parties and drink gallons of whatever. He was twice my size, but I had a higher tolerance—or at least I knew when to stop drinking, knew when I was standing on the fulcrum of fun and disaster.
Most nights ended with him horizontal in some position: sprawled out on his bed and unable to take off his shoes, lying on my kitchen floor and telling me how much he loved me, and once, on a very bad night, passed out in the middle of the hall, blood trickling down the side of his head from where his guitar case nicked him as he fell.
He was older than I was by ten years. We met in grad school. Before that, he’d worked at a crematory. I thought that everything about him—the drinking, the bouts of melancholy, the way that towards the end of the relationship he relished telling me just how unattractive he found me—were just things that writers who were smarter and more talented than I would ever be did.
We broke up twice. The first time lasted just three weeks; the second lasted for good. It was after that second breakup that my friend and I reconnected. She and I had gone to high school together back in Georgia, and then we ended up living in the same town in North Carolina. We figured it out via Facebook, and the next thing I knew, we were spending our Thursday nights eating Vietnamese take-out and watching American Idol. I didn’t really like American Idol—I thought it was cheesy and beneath my usual bar of sophistication—but I was in that post break-up mode of “trying new things” and anyway, I was lonely.
My friend and I hadn’t been particularly close in high school—she was a couple of grades ahead of me and had been in the group of cool theater girls who had shiny hair and who all the guys flirted with at cast parties. I did theater too, but I was one of those theater girls who was shy and intense and often angry. I did not have many friends.
I was surprised that my friend was now my friend rather than my acquaintance. I was seven years out of high school, but I still had sharp memories of being a freak. I decided she’d probably either forgotten this about me or, more likely, that she was lonely, too. She’d just quit her job in order to stay home with her kid. Her husband was at work most of the time. And there I was, a single woman without children or a significant other competing for my attention. Basically, I was the best friend a new mom could hope for.
Sometimes, my friend and I would spend our afternoons at the pool in her complex. I hadn’t been given classes that summer, so I had precious little to do. Most days followed the same pattern: wake up late, make an egg sandwich, read, pretend to write, make a tomato sandwich, read, pretend to write, and then go for a run following a route that would bring me just close enough to my ex’s apartment to not count as stalking.
The pool afternoons were a nice break. My friend and I would slather the baby with sunscreen and push him and his various accoutrements up the hill to the pool, where we would then spend the next hour or so marinating in the shallow end and passing the baby back and forth in his float.
We’d go on weekdays, which meant it would be us and other moms and babies. Once, we struck up a conversation with a very tan woman of indeterminate age. She had a tattoo of a hummingbird on her shoulder, and every time she moved her baby, the bird fluttered. The baby had on a cute gingham print swimsuit and a matching floppy hat—a level of taste I found surprising in a woman with a hummingbird tattoo.
“Do you want kids?” the woman asked me after she had ascertained that the baby was my friend’s and not mine.
I cocked my head and squinted. “I guess?” I said. “I mean, once I meet someone I’d want to have kids with?”
The woman nodded as though I had made a profound point.
I’d never been asked this question. The friends back in my real life didn’t have kids, nor did they talk about having kids. It seems like it should have been a question that came up when I was with my ex, and yet, for whatever reason, it never had.
“Kids are just so great,” the woman said. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, which might have been because she was at the pool, or not.
I nodded. I did not think kids were so great. They never did things that I found interesting; all they did was want and need and demand. I never knew what to say to them. My repertoire of child-appropriate questions ran out after “what is your favorite subject in school?”—a question that I knew to be profoundly boring and yet the only question I could ever think to ask.
And then there was this: I always felt as though I was being judged when I was around kids, as though how “well” I did with them would predict how good of a mother I would be, which in turn reflected my suitability as a woman.
I always figured I’d have kids. It was what women from my corner of the world did. My mom told me that I’d find my own children interesting. She said that she hadn’t really liked kids before she’d had my brother and me. And, because my mom and I have always been similar, I believed this.
But the more time I spent around my friend and her baby, the less I wanted kids. My friend’s life when we weren’t at the pool seemed to be relegated to watching TV with her baby in her townhouse living room. The living room was dark and claustrophobic, with one window that looked out onto the parking lot. There were no trees, only the blinding blue sky.