One Sunday last spring, I went to Harmony Playground in Park Slope with my family. The sun was shining, all the families had just gotten back from their Easter vacations, and the dads were pushing their kids on the swings, exhausted from a long weekend of full-time child care.
Jake was sitting on the jungle gym with our 9-month-old daughter, Alice, who was holding onto the metal guard bars and panting with excitement. I was feeling exuberant and maternal, enjoying how much fun Alice was getting to be now that she was close to walking. I glanced around happily when suddenly my stomach lodged in my mouth.
Sitting on the edge of the sandbox, next to her very bald husband, was my EBF, or ex–best friend. I had used this acronym for years, and all the single girls I knew had one. Whenever I told my breakup story, I’d get a nod of understanding and a confession: “I’m still hung up about mine eleven years later” or “I can’t talk about mine without crying.”
I’d had a falling-out with my EBF almost five years ago for a litany of reasons, some spoken, others unspoken. And yes, one reason involved a guy. She had been treating me horribly for a long time, but my ego couldn’t handle her rejection and almost a year after we stopped speaking I wrote her a long e-mail pleading to reconcile. She responded that she was very sorry but in truth she had never considered me her best friend anyway. This is why you don’t contact ex-friends.
After I got pregnant, I began to see the acronym EBF on mothering message boards. I didn’t understand why so many mothers were obsessing about ex–best friends until I realized that it stood for something else entirely: exclusively breast–feeding. “I’m EBF,” a mother would post, “and I’m worried about my milk supply” or “If you’re EBF-ing, do you still have to use birth control?”
I glanced over at my EBF. Her back was to me, but her back looked happy. She was talking to her brother, who lived in my neighborhood, and watching her toddler-nephew play in the sandbox. “Oh, God,” I said to Jake. “It’s my EBF. Quick, tell me. Does she look ugly?”
“I don’t even know where she is,” he said.
“Sandbox. Three o’clock.”
He wouldn’t turn. “Why are you even thinking about her?” he said. “You’re here with your husband and beautiful daughter.”
“I can’t help it,” I said. “She totally traumatized me. She dumped me.”
“So what? She’s a bitch,” he said. Men have a way of saying bitch that can totally brighten your day.
I craned my neck to see if she had gotten fat, or old, but her sturdy husband was blocking her entirely. She was a blank slate. And so I went to the darkest place.
I felt like I had nothing in life, as if she, not I, was the fulfilled mother in the playground with her hot husband and cute daughter and I was a spinster thirtysomething, trudging a walk of shame. I wondered whether she was pregnant and if that was why she was in a playground hanging with her nephew. And if she was, was she having an easy time of it? Or was she a mother already, watching her own toddler in the sandbox? Had she had a horrible labor? Was she about to? If she knew that I hadn’t been able to do natural childbirth, would she think less of me? Would she get an epidural? Would she tear?
And even if she wasn’t a mom, was her marriage better than mine? If she didn’t have a kid, it had to be better. Were they living out the newlywed honeymoon I had for only a year because I got knocked up? Was she happy in a real way, or was that carefree, sunny face a cover? Did she and her husband fight? Did he ever storm out the front door, so incensed he couldn’t even stay in the apartment? Did she have lots of friends who were there for her, or did she sometimes wish she had more? Did she ever look back on things with me and miss how funny I was? Had I really never been her best friend, or was that something she said just to hurt my feelings?
I grabbed Alice and raced to a nearby bench. “What are you doing?” Jake asked.
“EBF-ing,” I said, unclipping my nursing bra. My daughter is a really adaptable baby, and within seconds she had happily latched on.
“Are you sure she’s hungry?” Jake said, sitting down next to me.
“This isn’t about her,” I said.
“Don’t you think it should be?”
I swiveled around to face him. “Do you honestly think I’m the first woman in the history of motherhood to breast-feed for selfish reasons?” He didn’t say anything, but he looked at me like I’d gone totally Brooke.
I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. The prolactin started pumping, and I got the relaxed feeling I always got while nursing.
I fixed my hair and straightened my collar. My body worked even if my best friend had dumped me. I knew how to nurture even if I’d stalked every guy who ever agreed to a second date.
I wanted to look beautiful, like the good but not neurotic mother of a strong and healthy child, the wife of a tattooed hottie, the envy of all the playground moms. I wanted her to see my tan face, my strong swimmer arms, the highlighted hair from my first postpartum visit to the colorist.
I switched Alice to my left breast so she was facing my EBF and then I took a deep breath and I turned. The eye contact would look accidental. I would take on the “Oh, is that you?” face of a caught-unaware happy person.
But as I turned, my heart thumping, my face expectant, I saw that there was no one there. Gone was the bald head of my EBF’s husband, gone the happy-go-lucky nephew, and gone the skinny back of the woman who broke my heart. I turned all the way around to see if they were on the slides. Nowhere. No one. There was no glory, no final confrontation where she got to be the contrite Andrew McCarthy to my thoroughly empowered Molly Ringwald. I’d been robbed of my only opportunity to have the last laugh.
“She’s gone,” I told Jake.
“You sound disappointed.”
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m totally relieved.” I pulled Alice off, but she wasn’t done yet and she dove right down for more. “Jesus Christ,” I said. “You’re a barracuda.”
A few days later, we went to the Tea Lounge on Union Street. Jake went up to the counter to order breakfast, and I had just gotten Alice out of her stroller when I spotted a slender, dark-haired guy sitting at a table, typing on a laptop. I started to shake. It was my VLG, or very last guy. The VLG is the one you were with right before you met the one you wound up with. He represents your former life: the person you were before you got a clue, the one who left answering-machine messages for guys who weren’t worth the time.
I’d met this particular VLG online on a hipster dating Website. His headline was cart, horse, pearls, swine, which was just generically intelligent enough to let me project my own heavy meaning.
When I showed up for the first date, he arrived on a Vespa. He took me for overpriced Portuguese, and we stared moonily at one another while making small talk. Within a few seconds, I crossed over to sit next to him parade style. Afterward, I took him to Sonny’s in Red Hook, and we sat on a bench looking at the summer sky. By the time he dropped me off at my apartment, I had written both sets of vows.
“I’ll definitely call you tomorrow,” he said.
I wanted to look beautiful, like the good but not neurotic mother of a strong and healthy child, the envy of all the playground moms.
But he didn’t. I spent the next six weeks fielding his excuses for not being able to see me a second time: He was at work, he had friends in town, his roof caved in, he threw his back out, he was on a heavy dose of Vicodin, he lost my cell-phone number, he lost his cell phone. A month later, he took me sailing off the Chelsea piers, but after that romantic trip, he told me he was leaving the country.
When I met Jake a few months later, I was on the lookout for all the signs of flakiness—but they never came. He called when he said he would, his work never prevented him from seeing me, and he never showed up on Vicodin.
So when I saw my VLG, I saw an opportunity for the closure I didn’t get with my EBF. In the years since we’d dated, I had won. He had to be feeling like Carrie when she spots Aidan and then he turns and he’s wearing a Baby Björn. I was the one who got away.
He stood up and came over. Alice reached out to him. “Hi,” I said. “I have a baby! Time flies, huh?”
“It sure does,” he said, looking nostalgic. It got quiet, and I realized we didn’t have a whole lot to say to each other, we never had, but I’d just convinced myself we did because he was Jewish, artistic, and depressed.
The silence got long, so I bounced Alice up and down and blurted, “Is it weird?”
He scrunched up his face and got the kind of overgenerous pitying expression you’d give to a crippled dog. “Not really,” he said. “Somehow I always imagined you having children someday.”
You don’t get it! I wanted to scream. I wasn’t saying, “Is it weird because I’m such an unlikely mother?” I was saying, “Is it weird that time passes so quickly?” And whatever I meant, it wasn’t loaded or heavy. I was just making conversation!
But I couldn’t say any of this. It would be like explaining evolution to a born-again. If he could understand why he was so quick to be patronizing, he wouldn’t have misunderstood in the first place. He was a mopey narcissist with no acuity. How could we have had a future anyway?
“Hey there,” he said to Alice, and I could tell he was into the fact that he wasn’t speaking baby talk. I bet he did this with all his friends’ kids, prided himself on not raising his pitch.
“So how’s everything going?” I said.
“Pretty good,” he said. He looked back at his computer. “Actually, I should kind of get back to work.” He sat down and then his cell phone rang and he answered it, joking in that way guys do when they’re talking to smart, sardonic guy friends.
I’d gotten married, pregnant, and given birth, but after all this time, he was still dumping me. I wanted him to see me with my kid and suddenly realize what a fool he’d been. I wanted him to feel jealous. But he didn’t look jealous. He looked happy to be unfettered, sitting drinking coffee without a kid crawling up his leg.
When we were dating, he always sent me e-mails from Vegas and L.A., and although he complained about the travel, I could tell he liked it. He loved being a workaholic. He loved his bachelor life, his big apartment, and his lack of dependents. He didn’t see me as the embodiment of all his regrets. He saw me as what I really was: a frazzled, breadwinning, hormonal, overtired Park Slope mother.
I sat on the couch with Alice and took out the Tupperware with her oatmeal and banana. I balanced her on my knee and fed her loudly, saying things I never say, like “Ready for more?” and “Yummy!”
After just a few bites, though, she started squirming, crawling on the couch over to where the VLG was sitting. He didn’t notice. He just kept blabbing on his cell phone like a cell-phone jerk, which is the only thing worse than a loud-parent jerk.
“Come back,” I said quietly to Alice, yanking her up. “That guy doesn’t call back.” It’s never too early to start teaching good values.