By Tamar Gribetz
They thought they could make their daughters’ best friends with each other. They lived in yoga pants – Athleta or LuLuLemon, of course—and they kept the pants on all day. Sometimes they worked out and, and sometimes they just didn’t get the chance. They didn’t work but were highly educated – Ivys or small fancy northeast liberal arts colleges. The few who did work before they had kids had been nursery schoolteachers, social workers, or “in fashion.” A couple of them had even been lawyers, but never really planned on practicing law. It was just a good thing to do, a “good experience” that gave you “credibility.”
Now they had a higher calling: motherhood. Thankless and endless. But they all had nannies and wouldn’t have made this noble decision without the nannies. They tried to plan to meet for dinner Saturday night with their husbands who were mainly “in finance.”
Sometimes I would look at them all cliquey like they had undoubtedly been with others in middle and high school, and I wondered what each would be without the others. Each wouldn’t thrive on their own, but together, they each shone like dominoes. If one piece fell, they’d all tumble. I was the outsider, and I convinced myself I didn’t care. I was smarter than them, and I was my own person and more authentic. Independent. But a part of myself wanted to be included. To be part of them. I had my two best friends, Ally and Michelle, who worked full time. But that didn’t get me very far; I was standing here alone.
I remember a girl from middle school who seemed so ordinary – looks, brains, personality – but she was in the clique for some reason. Did they need a listener, someone not threatening, or was it because her mother was best friends with the queen bee’s mother? I was so envious. It all seemed so easy. None of that aloneness, that angst, that insecurity. She was so lucky. Maybe it was her ordinariness that they liked. I never really got it. I tortured myself over if it was better to just be like her: an ordinary, not very smart, not very interesting girl who never had to worry socially or me, arguably more interesting, stronger, smarter. But so alone.
The moms in the clique were into vacationing in the same places. Not necessarily together, but they chose the same places. I overheard them talk about this at pickup. Barcelona was hot for a couple of years. Now it’s Lisbon. The same restaurants too. There’s a new place in Portchester that they’re all trying now. I’ve seen others insert themselves in the group simply by inserting themselves in the group.
I suppose one could say that I’m standoffish because I stand by myself. But why don’t they come up to me? They have strength in numbers. Besides, I’m welcome if I want. I look forward to the day when their daughters no longer want to be friends with each other. When they outgrow the nursery school set ups. Won’t that be delicious? “Fuck you, Mom. I can choose my own friends, thank you very much. And I can’t stand Meghan.” And just like that, their whole world would crumble. What if.
Sometimes these moms gathered outside of preschool and hugged each other when they dispersed. Watching them, I could feel my skin touching the inside of my jacket, craving warmer contact.
The other day, when I got home from pick up, I had to eat. I craved chocolate chip cookies and milk, but we were out. I had a mix lying around. I wanted to sink my teeth into the butter and let it sit on my tongue, its gooeyness and its crystals of sugar that hadn’t fully settled. I wanted to just have it all to myself, all my pleasure with nobody watching. I had to put Sophie down for a nap so she wouldn’t see, and so I wouldn’t have to share. I had to eat until I was stuffed. And, thankfully, I had plenty of space, having skipped breakfast. And I also had to masturbate at some point after the fulness wore off. I had to be full and spent.
I stood in the hallway outside the Fours classroom and busied myself on my phone, assuming a serious face. Two of the moms from the group, Jodi and Lauren, were talking, trying to be quiet. But I was close enough to hear.
“Should we tell her?” Lauren asked.
“Tell her what? We don’t even know for sure,” Jodi said.
“But we — something is up. You could just look at them and feel it.”
“Maybe they’re just flirting.”
Lauren shood her head. “So that’s bad too.”
Lauren chewed on her nail. “But it could be close to happening, and if she knows, maybe — maybe she could say something in time.”
“It’s not our place. Not with no proof. Besides, you don’t think she senses it? Sees them together at the club and at least feels a little jealous? Or something?”
“Maybe she’s in denial. She doesn’t want to see. But we’re her friends,” Lauren said.
Jodi nodded. “Exactly, she doesn’t want to know. Remember last week when we were driving to the city and she was talking about her friend from the Hamptons who found out about her husband, and she said she wouldn’t want to know If it were her because then what? Would she want to disrupt her comfortable life? Her endless money, travel, and active social life? She herself made it clear she wouldn’t want to know.”
Who were they talking about? It must be Meryl. Her husband was too good looking, tall, with a thick head of hair and lots of money. Or maybe it was Rachel? She always looked somewhat sad. They all had money, so it was hard to tell. I didn’t dare look up, kept tapping and scrolling.
“Hey ladies!” One of the others approached them. She was out of breath. “I’m so glad I’m not late. I rushed like a lunatic to make it on time.”
“You could have called me. I would have picked up Chloe.”
There. That’s what I needed. That type of support. A sisterhood.
When we got home, Sophie laid down in front of the T.V., and I put Jonah down for his nap. I was friends with most of them on Facebook, if not in real life. But nothing gave it away. Just loads of happy, thin, tan, made-up women with their husbands on vacation or out for dinner. All living their perfect lives. They were blessed for each other’s friendship. Sisters for Life. Please.
Maybe it was time for me to go back to work. For real. Ally and Michelle didn’t waste their time worrying about making friends with the cool girls like a bunch of middle schoolers. What the fuck was I doing? I had been the head of my Marketing team at work before I decided to stay home with my kids. This was absurd! And sad.
So I scooped up the kids and drove to Wegmans to pick up dinner and just to feel productive, busy. To buy things we were out of but that could really wait: vanilla extract, granola, frozen broccoli, another new strange-flavor tea. Still, an activity and a way out of my head, the endless ruminating.
I squeezed pears for ripeness and spoke out loud to the kids, telling them what I was doing, to involve them, as the parenting experts recommended. I felt I was performing for others when out with my kids, and I had to seem like the happy mom. Should we buy apples, sweetie? Would you try a green apple if I bought it? When really, who gave a fuck? This is who I’ve come to.
“Oh, hi Meryl.”
“I guess we’re on the same schedule.” She wasn’t with her kids.
“Yeah, this is my life. Drop off, pick up, supermarket, gym, repeat,” I said.
She laughed. “Yes, we are on the same schedule. So how’s Sophie doing? Does she like the teachers? They seem like a cohesive group.”
“Yes, they do.”
“Ben is happy, so I’m happy.”
“Yeah, that’s how it goes.”
“Are you working these days?”
“No, I’m home with the kids.”
“Oh, I thought you were working. I feel like I never see you at school. You should come join us for coffee. A bunch of us often go after drop off.”
She wore lip-gloss that was just the right color for her skin tone. Nude with a little ruby-red grapefruit tint. I never knew what was the right color for me. Her eyes were kind and forthright. She really had no idea I noticed their coffee dates all year. There was a softness about her features. Her face wasn’t round, but wasn’t angular either. Her blue eyes were a soft, pale blue. Nothing harsh about her. Her hair, a light brown with subtle highlights around her face.
“That sounds great. Thanks.”
“Tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?”
“Great! If I miss you at drop off, meet us at Michael’s on Main Street. There’s a big table at the back where we sit.”
Something inside me stirred when she looked into my eyes. I was being seen. I was there with her. Something in her eyes recognized my loneliness, my need for connection.
“I have plans for coffee with some of the cool moms tomorrow,” I told my husband Joe in my sarcastic tone.
“Wow! You have made it.”
He opened his eyes wide in mock amazement and smiled. But when he turned his back to me to hang his pants on a hanger, I couldn’t help but notice – to my disappointment — that he seemed very happy to hear this news.
The next morning, I planned to get out of the house early so I could run into Meryl at drop off and not have to walk into the coffee shop alone. But Sophie had a meltdown and wouldn’t eat her cereal, insisted on a toasted waffle, which delayed me just enough to have missed Meryl.
As I walked from the coffee shop’s parking lot to the entrance, I felt nauseous like I used to before a sweet sixteen party or a first date. My heart raced as I walked to the back of the coffee shop and saw the group.
“Hey, Julie. Right here.” Meryl called and waved.
I tried to act casual and strutted over with a forced smile.
“Everyone, you know Julie . . . Sophie’s mom.”
“Hey,” they all called out.
Meryl sat at the end of the bench and had everyone move over to squeeze me in.
“We’re all complaining about how tired we are,” Meryl said. “We don’t sleep like we used to, lots of anxiety apparently.” She winked at everyone.
“Or Mommy bladders,” said Monica.
“I think it’s a combination of both. You wake up to pee, and then your mind starts racing,” Suzie said.
“Yeah, suddenly the need to pack a healthy, nut-free snack is terrifying. But my 3:00 a.m brain is convinced it is,” Jodi said.
“My therapist told me to never trust my 3:00 a.m. brain,” Lauren warned.
Jodi said, “That’s another thing: Therapy. Mike thinks I don’t need it anymore, that it’s enough. But I think it’s the best spent money.”
“If only the good therapists took insurance,” Monica said.
“Mine does. But Mike says I shouldn’t submit in case I want to be a judge someday. Please! I haven’t practiced law in ten years. It aint happening. He thinks there’s still a stigma to see a therapist because when he was a kid everyone spoke about a boy who went to therapy when he flipped out over his parents’ divorce.”
“We’re all in therapy. You could tell him that,” Monica said
Jodi rolled her eyes. “He’s old fashioned. Anyway, it’s not negotiable. He has no idea how bitchy I’d be without therapy.”
“What about couples counseling? Does that count as therapy?” Meryl asked.
“Are you and Brad – ,” Jodi asked.
“Maybe. I’m sure he doesn’t want me to talk about it.”
“Everyone should be in couples therapy. Even prophylactically. Marriage is tough,” Jodi said.
“Anyway, I insisted on it because I feel like we’re not good. Like things have shifted. Like maybe he’s cheating.”
“But would you even want to know?” I blurted out.
I felt everyone’s eyes on me.
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
I raised my eyes and Jodi glared at me.
“Why, Julie? Would you want to know?” she asked
I shook my head. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Sounds like you have.”
“Jodi!” Meryl said.
“It’s something we have all thought about, I’m sure. I’ve thought about it. I don’t think I’d want to know,” Jodi said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because what good would it do? I’d upend my life and then what? If Mike is cheating, it would stop eventually. He’d get bored and maybe tired of all the work.”
“Jesus, Jodi!” Suzie said.
“No really. I see how my divorced friends struggle to meet someone. It’s shit out there. We’re older and there are so many losers out there. We’re not in our 20s anymore.”
“Wow.” Suzie said
“Complete honesty is over-rated and painful.” She looked directly at me.
As we walked to the parking lot, Jodi ran up to me.
“Did you hear my conversation with Lauren the other day?” Jodi asked.
“You were nearby.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Just the way you asked Meryl if she’d want to know. It’s interesting. That’s all. The timing.”
“I got to go,” she said.
I felt sick. My stomach churned. I fucked this up before it even began.
Meryl walked up to me as I was getting in my car.
“Hey. I don’t think Jodi likes me,” I said.
“Oh. She’s always a bitch. A lovable bitch, but a bitch. You can’t take what she says personally.”
“I really have thought about what we discussed. I don’t think I’d want to know if Joe was cheating on me.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to know either.”
“Have you ever discussed it – with the others?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. It’s just that I do think about it. As I get older . . . that’s all. I think it would make things worse.”
“But it might suck to have to wonder all the time,” Meryl said and shrugged. “I gotta do some errands before pick up.” She smiled, “I’m glad you came.”
“Yeah, me too. Thanks.”
I decided to put the whole exchange with Jodi out of my mind. It was none of my business. I became friendly with the coffee group. The women included me at pickup and drop off. I knew it was only because I was cool enough for Meryl, that it was fake and shallow. But – I have to admit—I liked having women to talk to at school. I didn’t stand by myself at pick up pretending to be reading an important text on my phone. I had friends to talk to at preschool, to laugh with. Sophie was even asked on more playdates from the moms of the coffee group.
I was invited for coffee again the following week. I think they all assumed I would join them regularly, and when I didn’t come for a couple of days when Jonah was sick, they texted me afterwards to be sure everything was okay. Jodi was even friendly to me as if we never had those words in the coffee shop parking lot. I was happier all around, even with my kids at home. I got to know Lauren and Monica better. They invited me to walk with them on Sunday mornings. I bought an expensive pair of yoga pants from Athleta to walk in. I couldn’t be seen in my ten-year-old sweats. Joe seemed happy I was making friends, though I tried to play it down for fear I might jinx it. I was embarrassed at myself for being so happy about this, but the truth was it felt good not to be lonely.
One Friday afternoon, Meryl invited the group and the kids to her house after school. While we sat around the kitchen table, Meryl confided to us that she was almost certain her husband was having an affair — probably with someone from the club or through work. She had confronted him, and he denied it.
“I’m just sick of worrying about it. If it’s happening, I don’t want to be the blind, clueless wife. I should have some dignity. Right? I mean I’m fed up and pissed off.”
“Yeah, I guess. But are you sure? Think about it. What would be better in your life if he confirmed your suspicions?” Jodi asked. “Your life would have to change once he knew you knew. I mean, do you really want a divorce? Do you want to split custody of the kids, fight over money?”
Meryl wrung her hands. “I’m surprised you’re so one-sided about this. Yes, you’re right. I have thought about it. But I can’t act so stupid. I should have some pride. If I knew it would end soon, maybe I wouldn’t want to know. But what if it doesn’t?”
“It always ends. If something is happening, it will end. But you don’t want your life to blow up because of some temporary fling. If anything is even happening,” Suzie said.
“I think it is. Shit, I don’t know what to do.”
The conversation ended when the kids ran into the kitchen after someone fell, nothing serious, but tears and cries and blame cast. What a convenient distraction, how we busied ourselves with our kids. We cleared the juice boxes and pretzels, forced the kids to say, “thank you,” zipped up coats, tied shoes. I lingered on the side with Sophie as everyone left.
“Call me if you want to talk,” I whispered and gave her a hug.
“Thank you, Julie. I’m so glad we became friends,” she said as she squeezed my hand.
For the next few days, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I should tell Meryl the conversation I had overheard between Jodi and Lauren. Part of me felt the wise thing was to shut my mouth because I knew nothing for certain. And we had just become friends.
Over dinner, I asked Ally and Michelle what they thought.
“Are you kidding,” Ally said, “How could you not say something?”
Michelle shook her head. “Jesus, Jules. Wouldn’t you want to know?”
I knew in my gut that I would too, no matter what I had said to Meryl. I lifted my glass of wine and took a sip, to avoid having to look at them, ashamed that I had even asked such a question.
The following day, after I folded laundry, cooked dinner, shuttled the kids to appointments and playdates, a familiar loneliness descended on me as it normally did in the late afternoons. It was when I finally stopped running that I was able to feel its sting. It creeped into my gut and began its gnawing. I thought of Meryl and wanted to pick up the phone to say hi. Only it didn’t seem honest, knowing what I suspected and keeping it to myself. I crawled onto the couch and closed my eyes as the children watched T.V.. I thought of Meryl. I envisioned our vacations together, our kids playing in the sand, as we lay under our beach umbrellas sipping chardonnay, our husbands (her’s new) running together in the mornings before it got too hot. I saw myself picking up Ben with Sophie at school so Meryl could go to therapy or get a pedicure. After preschool, our kids going through lower school together, middle school, then high school. Remaining friendly, looking out for each other, referring to each other as “close family friends.” I saw Meryl with a husband who treated her well, respected her, Meryl grateful that I had stepped in and helped her realize she deserved more.
I texted Meryl and asked if we could meet for lunch the following day, a Friday.
“Listen, Meryl, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What?” Her face appeared frozen.
“I didn’t want to say anything until now . . . because . . . well, I’m not even sure, but –”
“What? You’re scaring me.”
“A few weeks ago, I heard Jodi and Lauren talking at school about suspecting some husband was having an affair with a woman at their club. I didn’t know who, but given that you’re suspicious of Brad —”
“No.” She ran her hands through the roots of her hair.
“I’m not certain they were talking about Brad, but then Jodi acted strange in the parking lot after we had coffee when she thought I had overheard. Then you said something about suspecting someone from the club. It just seems like maybe — I don’t know. I just thought I should tell you. You’re my friend.”
“Shit. I was hoping, praying I was wrong.” Her voice was flat, barely audible.
“Maybe just ask Jodi. I know she’ll be pissed at me for saying something. But it’s more important that you find out what’s going on. You’ve been so worried and —“
Tears welled up in her eyes. I held her hand, and she hugged me for a while. I smelled her coconut shampoo and felt a tenderness for her that I had rarely felt for a friend. I wanted to protect her from a world that she had mistakenly thought was harmless.
The following Monday, I saw Meryl at drop off. She wouldn’t make eye contact.
“Hey, how are you doing?” I asked her.
“Fine. Great. You?”
“Okay. I tried texting you over the weekend to check in and see how you were doing.”
“Yeah, I had a busy weekend. Lots of running around, family obligations.” She looked down at her phone.
“Are you going for coffee now?”
“I’m not sure. I might have to run some errands. See you.”
The others from the coffee group were talking in a corner. I walked up to them, and they turned quiet.
“Are you guys going for coffee?”
“I think it’s not a great idea if you come today. Meryl is upset and I think we should keep it a small group,” Jodi said.
I walked up to Meryl as she was about to get in her car.
“Meryl, are you upset with me? From the other day?”
“Look, Julie, I have a lot going on. I’m not in the mood to get into this now.”
“Into what? I was only trying to help. I thought you’d want to know. You said you did.”
“This is complicated. I don’t want to discuss it. Brad and I are good, we’re working on our relationship.”
“Was it true?”
“I don’t think that is any of your business. I gotta go.”
We haven’t spoken since that day except for a cursory hello at pick up and drop off. The other women in the coffee group acted like they did before. It was like those weeks of friendship had never happened. I stood alone again and busied myself with my phone. I ran my errands right after drop off and pretended I was happy that I had time to get the house in order, be productive, run to the gym instead of wasting time at the coffee shop. But when I saw the group huddled together in the morning, laughing together like sisters, I felt a nostalgic longing for something I suppose I never even had.
It’s been a few weeks since Meryl and the group dropped me. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about middle school, about the clique I felt excluded from in 7th grade. I remember one afternoon, the girls called me into the locker room. They demanded to know if I was in their clique or not because I spent a lot of time with Lisa, another girl in the class. I had to make a choice, they said. Be part of us or not. I couldn’t be sort of in it. Instinctively, I said I still wanted to be friends with Lisa, with whom I had been friends since kindergarten, that I didn’t want to choose. I was surprised by my own words; they just came out. They also looked surprised. They had assumed I would have chosen them, been honored to be included, apologetic for making them even feel otherwise. They dropped me the very next day.
Over the years, I often wondered if my life would have been better had I embraced the clique. I’d have had a built-in sisterhood, would’ve rarely been lonely. I had drifted from Lisa anyway over time. But now, looking back, I remember my younger self at that moment in the locker room, how it just didn’t feel right: being tethered to a group. Being stuck like that. Having to conform, being controlled, dictated to.
Though I didn’t understand it back then, I now know that’s what I had rejected: having to compromise myself, to mold myself into something that was no better than I, just bigger. Chipping away at the best part of myself so that I could fit into a uniform block that was merely mediocre. I had made a choice! It wasn’t something that happened to me! And, foolishly, all these years, I had romanticized the very thing I had rightfully rejected.
The other day I noticed my yoga pants thrown over the chair in my bedroom. They would soon gather dust, and I would donate them to charity like other trendy clothing I had sampled over the years, but ultimately rejected because they weren’t comfortable or just weren’t me. Because really, I could wear whatever the hell I wanted – even my ten-year-old sweats – when I walked alone. Proudly.
Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Poetica Magazine. She teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on a novel and other short fiction.
Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.