My eyes darted everywhere. Was she over at the swing set? Hiding behind the jungle gym? Maybe she’d felt brave this morning and crashed the gate of the older-kids’ playground, the one with the climbing wall that rivals the Grand Teton. But after multiple canvasses of Dupont Circle’s Stead Park, she was nowhere to be found.
Don’t worry. I haven’t lost my daughter. I don’t even have one. (I do have one son, 2-year-old Leo, who is usually trying to hurdle a seesaw.) But I have lost a friend. Or at least a potential friend, a woman I’ll call Jane, whom I met at another playground, one that is situated more in my neighborhood. That day, when Jane showed up at the Francis-Stevens Education Campus in DC’s West End, with a little girl just a few months younger than Leo, we gravitated toward each other, pulled by our kids, who both wanted to hit the swings. Jane was wearing a Gotham Writers’ Workshop baseball cap and, like me, zero makeup. Also, like me, she was in her mid-forties, didn’t employ a nanny or a daycare, and didn’t hover with a travel-size bottle of Purell clenched in her fist like the rest of the mothers did.
We talked about what it was like to switch gears so profoundly in midlife, whether we’d still be changing diapers into our fifties, and the discon- nect we sometimes felt around friends whose own kids were being bar and bat mitvah’d or packing up for college instead of learning how to drink from a sippy cup. We also talked about how hard it was to meet compatible mom friends. That’s when she told me she and her daugh- ter, Lily, often went to Stead Park’s playground, which was in her neighborhood and where, she promised, the mothers were more “our speed” (which I took for code as “older”).
Jane was, in a word, cool. And by cool I mean funny and straightforward and unguarded. I hadn’t met anyone in a long time at the park— or anywhere, for that matter—where I thought, well, finally, here is someone else who gets it. Jane understood how lonely the world could be when your day revolves around a sandbox and a two-hour nap, how isolating it can feel when your only conversational partner has the vocabulary and dry wit of a caveman. I allowed myself to imagine a Hollywood montage of our future play dates together: Jane and I taking walks along the C&O Canal and solving life’s problems; Jane and I hitting the Sunday flea market while our hus- bands (who of course would also be best friends) took the kids to the zoo. Jane and I putting our kids down together for a nap in the Pack ‘n’ Play before devouring a Real Housewives marathon.
“Will I see you again?” I asked when she and Lily eventually packed up to leave. I felt like the girl who had just had the best blind date of her life.
“You’ll take my contact,” Jane said, spelling her last name and dictating her number and e-mail as I typed into my cell phone.
And then she was gone. When I got home, I sat down to send her an e-mail but, seeing an empty spot where Jane’s contact info should have been, it dawned on me: I had never hit the “save” key.
I had tried to make cool friends before. When Leo was around 3 months old, a woman I knew from the neighborhood hosted a morning play date for a set of new mothers and invited Leo and me to join. Although I didn’t know her well, I liked her, and figured I’d like her friends.
“It’s going to be real casual,” she e-mailed the day before the get-together. I showed up in leggings and a sweatshirt decorated in spit-up. Since I was finally rejoining the ranks of society, I also wore a bra. My friend answered the door looking like Angelina Jolie, gracefully holding a child on each hip and some- how managing to serve me coffee at the same time. Her friends were similarly attired, with blinding engagement rings and babies dressed up in pinafores or tiny seersucker pantsuits. We all sat in her living room, our babies on our laps or wedged into the multiple Bumbo seats scattered about, and shared mothering questions. Most concerned nannies—hiring and firing—or who was the best pediatrician in Spring Valley. When it was my turn, I asked, “How is it that your hair is clean and you have all found the time to apply lipstick?” No one laughed or even commiserated. These were not my people.
Another new mother, someone I had met in my pre-baby days, invited me to join her Cleveland Park mom group. I was promptly deluged with about 40,000 e-mails a day. All the babies had Hollywood-sounding names like Stone and Win (were they boys or girls?), and the burning issues of the online discussions were crowd-sourced and ranged from the dimensions of the perfect cheese cube to finding a cowboy hat for a 19-month-old. These women often scheduled Moms’ Nights Out, and I fantasized about showing up at the restaurant, finding the table of the most likely candidates, and declaring, “Uh-huh. Just what I thought.” Then I’d turn on my heels and exit in a blaze of maverick mom glory.
My mom was a cool mom. Around town, she was considered fashion’s final say, and her shop, artichoke, inc., was the trendiest boutique the Bermuda-bag-toting women in West Hartford, Connecticut, had ever experienced. While my friends’ mothers drove carpool in oxford shirtdresses and Pappagallo shoes, my mother was usually decked out in something resembling early Cher. When I was in fourth grade, she horrified my teacher by pulling me out of school early to see a special performance by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
A young mother (just 26 when she had me), she developed a close friendship with Gail, the college student who boarded at our house. She and Gail were the hippie versions of Lucy and Ethel, inseparable in their antics and efforts to befuddle my father. He once returned from a business trip to find our den swathed with a wildly swirling paisley fabric that had been staple- gunned to the walls, transforming the room into a Bedouin tent.
“Okay, Scheherezade, the party’s over,” I remember him saying before the backdrop came down. And so I kept searching for my Ethel. When I wasn’t prowling the spongy play area at Francis- Stevens, I was madly propelling Leo in his red Push Around Buggy five times the distance over to Stead Park with the hopes that, like that final scene in Sleepless in Seattle, I’d have my own reunion. Maybe on top of the jungle gym.
One day at Stead, I approached a clump of mothers. “Do you know Jane?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. “The one with the little girl named Lily?”
“I don’t think so,” said one, before resuming her conversation about how to make kale chips. Of course they didn’t know her. Jane would never hang out with women who make their own kale chips.
Week after week went by, and I was sure that when I was at one playground, Jane would be at another. I was also sure that Jane thought I was a jerk for taking down her number and then never getting in touch. “Why don’t you put up signs in the neighborhood?” suggested my husband. “Like they do for lost dogs?”
Besides stalking the playgrounds, I did something equally sketchy-feeling. I Google-imaged her, vaguely remembering the spelling of her last name and performing various letter combinations until I found a photo that looked most like hers. And remembering that her address was her first and last name @yahoo.com, I sent that face an e-mail.
“Are you the Jane I met at the park?” I began, going on to explain the mix-up. “I sure hope this is your e-mail because I really liked you!”
When my note didn’t bounce back, I felt hopeful that I finally had found her. And when I got no reply after a week of waiting, I sent her another e-mail. After all, maybe my initial message had landed in her spam folder.
“Even if this is the wrong Jane, please reply to this e-mail and let me know,” I wrote. Another week went by with radio silence. And then another.
I had all but given up until just last week, when I made a last-ditch attempt over at Stead Park. The hot commodity for the toddler set on this day was the ride-on fire engine, and soon Leo and a little girl began that familiar tussle for ownership. Her mother and I began to referee, and pretty soon I felt the urge to ask if she knew Jane.
“Please don’t think I’m creepy,” I said levelly, trying to modulate the insane amount of jubila- tion I was feeling. “But do you have her contact information?” I explained our meet-cute story and hoped she would help end my search.
“Sure,” she said, thumbing through her cell- phone contacts. And then she gave me Jane’s e-mail. It was the same email address to which I had been writing.
With a sinking feeling, it occurred to me that maybe I was the one not cool enough for Jane.