She was bad for me, in the way that a wild teenage boy can be bad for an earnest diligent girl. But Holly came into my life long after high school. I was brushing forty, newly separated, and the mother of a three and a half year old.

Holly and I knew each other by name and to say hello, had once spent an hour together in our local McDonald’s playroom on a bitter winter afternoon back when our boys were a year old. Now, over two years later, while we chatted on a warm spring evening just weeks after my husband left me, I did something that had recently become a habit. As Holly lifted her hand to brush the hair from her eyes, I checked for a wedding band. I saw none.


“I think I’m getting divorced,” I blurted.

“Oh, yeah? Me, too,” she shrugged. “Are you planning to send Ethan to summer camp?”

I studied her face for signs of shell shock or sleep deprivation, both of which I saw daily in the mirror. As on her ring finger, there was nothing there.

“Yes,” I answered. “Just in the afternoons.”

Holly spoke about problems her son, Shane, was having in preschool. He was hitting the other kids. “Maybe camp would help. Or maybe he needs more unstructured time.”

I tried to listen, but my mind was on our broken marriages. “So,” I said. “How are you coping on your own?”

Holly looked at me blankly for a moment. “Oh, the divorce. We’ve been planning it since I got pregnant. It’s not a big deal” She stopped and stared at me. “You’re really down, aren’t you?”

“It’s hard,” I admitted.

She dug into her overstuffed cotton shoulder bag and handed me a crumpled business card. “I’m taking my kid to Six Flags on Saturday. Wanna come?”

A turquoise Honda waited in front of my apartment building that Saturday morning adorned with a prominent Save the Whales bumper sticker and a surprising number of dents. A small boy pressed himself up against the back passenger window so that his features flattened and distorted. Ethan grinned at him, then hid behind my legs. I glanced around for Holly. She strode out of the corner grocery carrying a styrofoam cup.

“This is as far as I can make it without coffee,” she said. “Hey,” she called to Shane. “I told you to stay strapped in.” Turning to me, she added, “Ethan can use the car seat. My guy won’t stay in it anyway.”

“You boys ready for a fun day?” I asked, as I strapped Ethan in.

“You’re a dumb-head,” Shane responded.

The front passenger seat was covered with a yellowed copy of The Onion and, fittingly, a few scattered onion rings.

“Just toss that stuff on the floor,” Holly instructed me.

“I don’t drive,” I told her once we were on our way. “It’s a treat for me just to be in a car.”

“Today’s your lucky day, then.” She rolled down her window. I did the same as we turned onto the turnpike, enjoying the breeze created by our sudden speed. Beside me, billboards flipped past like flashcards. Just days before, I’d cried to my brother that I’d never be able to take Ethan on day trips like this now that his dad was gone.

“Is the subway broken?” Ethan’d asked, getting me to wipe my eyes and smile.

“You warm enough back there?” I turned to check on Ethan. He cowered in as far a corner of the car seat as he could while Shane did his best to kick him in spite of his limited range. “Okay, no kicking, guys.”

I immediately felt guilty for including Ethan in the reprimand, but I wasn’t used to scolding someone else’s son.

Holly swatted Shane’s legs. “I’ll tie them if I have to,” she hissed. “Son-of-a-bitch,” she muttered. It took me a moment to realize she was referring to a driver who’d cut in front of her rather than her little boy. Nonetheless, I was beginning to think this trip was a bad idea.

But zooming at eighty miles an hour, there was nothing I could do. Besides, Piece of My Heart was playing on the radio. Holly sang along and I joined her. Thankfully, before long, both boys drifted off to sleep.

“So, why is divorce so expensive?” Holly asked.

I shrugged.

“Because it’s worth it!”

I laughed, suddenly feeling lighter, younger. “I’m glad we’re doing this,” I said.

The rest of the drive was like that. The two of us making jokes and singing to Janice and Aretha, giddy as teenage girls. Then it was time to wake the boys.

As I undid the straps on Ethan’s car seat, I described some of the rides he’d get to try. Before I realized what was happening, Shane was off, running through the crowded parking lot in a fast zig-zag motion.

“Damn it,” Holly yelled as she chased after him.

“Hold my hand,” I told Ethan, though he was already clinging to me, unsure of what to make of his new friend.

They met up with us, sweaty and red faced, at the entrance. Shane looked up at me, so I gave him a smile. “Poopy Brain,” he said.

Holly shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Boys.”

Shane escaped two more times while we were on the ticket line. Then when it was our turn at the window, he dropped his shorts and peed. Holly alternated between ignoring Shane and pelting him with angry threats. I grew more and more uncomfortable, the lightness I felt in the car floating off toward the top of the rollercoaster and beyond. I thought Holly might be a little crazy and Shane, well…maniacal.

But once we got the boys on their first ride, miniature motorcycles that followed each other in a floating circle, Shane’s whole demeanor changed. His face lit up and he waved at Holly. I remembered then that he was a very little boy naturally craving attention.  “Look, Mommy!” He called. Ethan did the same.

At noon, we stood in line for chicken fingers. Shane picked a half eaten candy bar off the ground and bit into it. “You don’t want that,” I told him. “It’s dirty.”

“He does that,” Holly said, letting him finish it.

“I want candy, too,” Ethan whined.

“After you eat your healthy food,” I reminded him.

Holly studied me. “Are you always this uptight?”

The comment stung. Was I uptight? My husband had said so, too.

On the drive home, both boys sang a tuneless song with a repeated refrain of poopy-head.

“Ethan, why don’t we teach them I Had a Rooster,” I tried. Everyone ignored me.

Here is where I’d like to say that I thanked Holly and then kept my distance, returning us to the acquaintances we had previously been. Or that I’d at least been protective enough of my son to see her only when he was visiting his dad’s. But the truth is this volatile pair became our near-daily companions for the next year.

When Ethan called me a poopy-brain or kicked another kid in the playground, I knew the right thing to do was to stop placing him in Shane’s company, but I rationalized that this behavior was typical of boys his age. Besides, his testing it out gave me an opportunity to talk to him about why he shouldn’t do such things. For the most part, Ethan was still well behaved. Maybe he could ultimately set an example for Shane instead of the other way around. At least that’s what I told myself each time I strapped him into Holly’s cluttered car.

The truth is she offered us adventures I couldn’t bring myself to refuse. A ride on Thomas the Tank Engine at the Strasburg Railroad; whale watching in Cape May; the Clearwater Music Festival. It wasn’t just that she drove us to these places, but that she was spontaneous, always energized and raring to go. My husband used to make plans like these and invariably loose his motivation on the allotted day.

“I’m beat. Let’s just stay home and rent a video,” he say.

I was tired of videos. Tired of staying home. That banged up turquoise Honda smelled of fast food, true. But it also smelled of freedom. Wind in my hair, a promising destination, and a girlfriend who could make me laugh when she wasn’t causing me to cringe.

Instead of shielding Ethan from Shane’s influence, I scolded him for succumbing to it. If you behave like Shane, we won’t be able to see him anymore. My threats as idle as my husband’s promises had been.

Holly and I also spent time alone together. We saw plays in Greenwich Village, ate dinner in small ethnic enclaves in Jersey City, watched films with strong female characters or sexy male leads. Holly painted my apartment for me and drove me to the pediatrician. She helped me sweep up shards of glass when a light fixture fell from the ceiling in Ethan’s room. Ours reminded me of the kind of friendships my husband had. Unemotional and matter-of-fact, he and his buddies were there for each other at any hour, as long as the need in question was concrete and fixable with actual tools or brute strength.

Only once during our inseparable year, did I break down and cry like I would with other women friends.  Holly had come over wearing a United Cerebral Palsy Bike-A-Thon sweatshirt. I’d worked at UCP during the early years of my marriage and given my husband that very shirt. He had worn it often and I could still remember how its soft fabric felt against my cheeks when he held me. I explained this to Holly between sobs. She listened sympathetically and wiped my eyes with the offending sleeve. But in less than a week, she wore it to my apartment again. I didn’t cry that time, but I felt bruised by her insensitivity.

Holly could also be cutting and stunningly mean. You’re making that kid neurotic, she’d snap if I so much as told Ethan to wash his hands before a meal. Or, Man, you need to get laid.

Despite all this, I liked who I was when we were together. I was looser and more relaxed, my laughter easy and sudden in a way it hadn’t been since early in my marriage. Even my ex-husband noticed the difference.

“There’s a breeziness about you lately,” he said, eyeing me flirtatiously. “You look great.”

I felt a glimmer of satisfaction knowing I was becoming the person he had wanted me to be. At the same time, I sensed myself finally growing away from him. When he first left, I’d felt adrift and alone. Most of my friends were single, childless and busy with their careers. Without family nearby, I lacked a network of people within which to raise my child. Now Holly and I and our boys were becoming our own kind of kin. I was a part of something again and I clung to it. Our quasi-family might have been dysfunctional but, unlike my marriage, it was vibrant. In Holly’s unpredictable company, I felt alive.

Once, my husband asked me if she and I were a couple.

I thought of how she striped down to her underwear to paint my living room, and talked to me while perched on the toilet. I thought of how I’d gotten in the habit of checking with her before I made plans with other friends. No, I told him, but I felt my answer was a half truth.

Over time, though, her roughness and instability got to be too much for me. Once, at a carnival, a vender suggested she not feed her son ice from the dirty bucket where he kept his soda cans. She cursed and screamed at him while Ethan and Shane stood frozen by her side.

Soon after that, Ethan joined Shane as he peed in front of our neighbors’ doors. I finally began limiting my time with Holly to when Ethan was at his dad’s.

“Shane says he and Ethan got a divorce,” she told me sadly.

But even when it was just the two of us, Holly would embarrass me with sudden angry outbursts at wait staff, or hurt me with snide remarks about my parenting skills. I let our friendship peter out until it finally ended.

“She was bad for you,” other friends said, honest with me now that it was over, just as they had been about my marriage. I didn’t disagree.

But sometimes I think about that first day at the amusement park. I went on one ride by myself, a seat like a baby swing that zoomed high in the air and circled, first in one direction, then the other. I felt like a bird in flight while somewhere, far below, my new friend sat in a spinning teacup flanked by both our boys. In that one moment, thanks to her, I believed anything was possible. And it felt good to feel free.