A Single Mom Escapes the Friend Zone, One Non-Date at a Time

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Modern Love

The nicest thing I own is the first thing you see when you walk into my house: a red handmade rug bought in Tehran, haggled over in Farsi and delivered, in person, to the Brooklyn apartment of the man who would become my husband.

Back then, James told me the woman who gave him the rug, a woman he had recently dated, was by then “just a friend.”

I didn’t believe men and women could be “just friends.” At least not if they were single, with one or both actively seeking a romantic partner. Yet I also agreed to be “just friends” with James, at first.

I was the one who contacted him. We had both joined a dating service called, pretentiously enough, The Right Stuff, after seeing an ad for it in The New Yorker. “I liked your profile,” he wrote in his first email, “but didn’t contact you because you have a child.”

At least he didn’t write, as several others had, “Thank you for being so honest.”

It’s a line that makes you ask yourself: How could a mother lie about being a mother? Not ethically, but logistically? Maybe a liar would wait until the man is smitten, then spring the child on him and shout, “Surprise!” But to what end?

I had tried to meet other single parents. I met a man who humble-bragged about the $10,000-a-month child support his ex-wife demanded for his daughters’ clothing allowance. I met another who asked how much I weighed, as if I were a chicken he was considering for a recipe. Then there was the man who told me about his summer plans to share a house with other singles on Fire Island.

“Do you do that every year?” I asked.

He let out of a puff of air. “Of course not. Next year I’ll be married.”

“Married to who?” I asked.

“I don’t know yet.” Meeting my eyes over his mojito, he said, “Maybe to you.”

I also met plenty of nice men with whom I had nothing in common except similar philosophies on effective potty training. So when I saw the Right Stuff ad, I thought: At least someone I meet through an ad in The New Yorker will be someone who reads The New Yorker, and we’d have that to talk about. Maybe I could find a man who reads the arts listings, and maybe even (if I could be this lucky) the poetry and fiction.

I did. He was JamesNYC125. I was RedWeather. He responded to my first email: “A redheaded editor in Brooklyn — what could be better? But dating a woman with a child would be complicated, as I’m sure you know.”

I did.

“Let’s not date,” he suggested. “Let’s just get together as friends.”

That summer we both had travel plans, so a whole month passed before our first date — or our first “playdate,” I guess. In the meantime, we emailed every day. I sent him poems. He sent me music. Even while discussing academic publishing, from my side as an editor and his as a researcher, we couldn’t help flirting.

An economist, he would answer a question with: “Probability of 1.”

“I love it when you talk math talk,” I’d say.

And he would reply, “I can do it any time you want.”

Our first meeting was on Smith Street. We talked books, then strolled to BookCourt, slid a novel off the shelf and read passages aloud. His timing was perfect, his voice what I’d hoped it would be from the emails.

“I’d love to walk with you on the promenade,” he said, and then sneezed. “But I should nurse my cold.”

I wanted to nurse his cold, too. I wanted to boil him a pot of lemon-honey tea and kiss him. Later I did, leaning against a car parked at a meter outside an elementary school. We both pretended I hadn’t.

The next morning, he called to ask me to a modern dance performance in two weeks. We both lived in Brooklyn but met, for the second time, in Manhattan. His hand grazed my thigh in the dark, a moment I would replay over and over in my head.

For our third non-date, I suggested attending a concert on a barge docked near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Our knees touched in our cozy seats two rows from the string quartet.

Next we hiked Bear Mountain. “I didn’t think a skinny girl like you could outpace me,” he said. Then later: “I’m only letting you walk ahead so I can get a good view from back here.”

So I vamped my hips. When we removed our hiking boots and socks in the car, we stared at each other’s naked feet.

Non-date No. 5 was dinner at my place. Back then, the nicest thing I owned was also the first thing you saw when you entered: a red futon couch.

I chose the cover from the remnants section of a fabric store on the Lower East Side. It was something I could unzip and clean whenever a child spit up, spilled Cheerios or wiped peanut butter on it. When I pulled a book off the shelf to show James, the Pokémon cards I used for bookmarks fell out.

Later, we found ourselves in bed. Finally. And that’s when he confessed, “I’m dating someone else.” She was a fellow economist he had met at a conference around the same time he met me, an Iranian-American who lived in Washington, D.C.

“Now you tell me?”

“You knew we could only be friends.”

“You have sex with all your friends?” I removed his hand from my belly. “I bet she doesn’t even know about me.”

I told him we had to either date or not see each other again. We were both traveling for Thanksgiving, so we decided not to email or phone until we returned home. Then he would call and tell me which woman he chose.

Somehow I had turned myself into a dating-show contestant, a real-life version of one of those “Bachelor” shows my friends watch.

I flew to Austin, Tex., to share the holiday with my brother. “I’ve met the one,” I said. “Just because it sounds corny doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

“Does he feel the same way?” my brother asked.

I asked myself that question from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night, too.

James and I had emailed every day for months, long letters detailing our whole lives. I kept checking my inbox in Austin, though I knew it would come up empty.

On the flight home, I tried to imagine my competitor. She grew up in the center of an ancient civilization. I grew up in Detroit. Her furniture probably smelled like an exotic perfume, not peanut butter. She was not a single mother. He had already informed me about how complicated dating a single mother could be. Did I even have a chance?

Trying to think like a statistician, I put my odds at 50-50. Or, as an economist would say: probability 0.5.

Minutes after I arrived home, James called. “I choose you,” he said.

I dropped the phone and fell onto the bare floor.

Weeks later, he buzzed me up to his apartment. The door opened to reveal the most beautiful rug I had ever seen, so finely woven it was more like a tapestry. The kind of precious object that could be ruined by a few stray Cheerios crumbs.

“It’s a gift from a friend,” he said. “She bought it when she visited her family in Iran.”

“She’s trying to get you back,” I said.

“What? She’s just being kind. Don’t you love it?”

“Sure.” I loved imagining what I would do to it after it collected enough dust. I’d take it outside, hang it upside-down and beat it with a stick.

But James turned out to be right. Sometimes a rug is just a rug. And sometimes men and women can be friends, even after they have been romantically involved. Rug Woman never tried to win him back.

Time passed, and I asked James if he ever wished he had chosen her.

“No,” he said. “You’re perfect for me.”

Right. I wasn’t the kind of person who would fantasize about walloping a beautiful rug. At least I wasn’t anymore.

Months later, James met my son, Jonah. I cooked Jonah’s favorite, “chicken with crumbs,” and after our dessert of apple crisp, we played Clue.

The next day, Jonah asked, “Can I have another playdate with my new friend?”

“Which one?”


Now we share the rug. It holds a place of honor in the house James and I bought together. We wipe our feet on the porch before crossing the threshold, food is banned from the entryway, and I vacuum it with care. I treat the rug as we all deserve to be treated. Like a friend.