As a child, I was closer to my mother. She was the parent to whom I could tell the truth, knowing she would understand and assuage my guilt. Not that confessing to wrongdoing was ever easy but never in a million years would I have ever confessed anything to my father. I never looked to him for comfort or forgiveness because from an early age I never felt accepted as the son he wanted.
Starting high school at fourteen I’d begun the healthy teenage process of separating myself from my parents, although not knowing to put it that way at the time. I was disengaged from my father already, and Mom was driving me nuts. I felt guilty about this, but I’ve always experienced guilt about something. Guilt has never been a problem for me. I could give a master class.
Mom had a profane sense of humor which was genuinely funny until I was in high school, sexually insecure and easily embarrassed. For example, if I asked where Leslie was, Mom wouldn’t answer, “She’s in the bathroom.” Instead, she’d say, “She’s where your mother sat when she was a bride.” (Short drum roll, please.)
Her favorite riddle: “Why is a tight pair of jeans like a cheap hotel?” (You shrug) “No ballroom.” (Short drum roll followed by a bass drum beat. Thank you.)
When measuring the snow on our front porch to see if high school would be cancelled the next day, I called from the door, “Hey, I got eight inches.” Mom quickly responded, “That must make Rachel happy!” (Repeat the last sequence; add deafening cymbal crash.)
A final example. I’m in the bathroom with the door closed. Mom passes by in the hall. “What are you doing?” she asks, starting down the stairs. Then chuckles, “Wait, don’t tell me.” Every teenage boy wants his mom to know when he’s jerking off. (Cue the trumpets. Ring down the curtain. Lights out.)
Rachel and I became friends while sitting next to each other in sophomore English class. At first, she thought I was weird because my notebook was too neat. A member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Club, she played the clarinet in the orchestra; I acted in the drama club. Our set of friends overlapped. While sophomores, we met at school functions and friends’ parties. We were casual friends. We only started ‘dating’ as juniors. Once I had my license, I borrowed my parents’ car when taking Rachel out. After our date, we kissed chastely on her front porch.
Typically, I arrived home between midnight and one. At the end of our street, I turned off the lights and the engine to let the car roll into the driveway. I tiptoed up the back steps and unlocked the kitchen door. The door was stubborn, and I eased it open to keep it from creaking. But no sooner did I take off my shoes and pour something to drink, I’d hear my parents’ bedroom door open and footsteps on the stairs.
Mom was always awake. And waiting. She came downstairs wearing her bathrobe, poured herself a glass of wine, and leaned against the kitchen counter. “Did you just get in?” she asked. “How was your date?” I didn’t have much I wanted to share, but that wasn’t the point.
She began with her latest beef. “Your father is the limit...” It was never anything serious or shocking. Her complaints were picky but still got under her skin. Dad was stubborn, he spent too much time working on his (fill in the blank), or he dismissed her idea at a neighbors’ party. Often it took me time to understand the context, but I avoided asking a question because the explanation tended to be longer than the story itself.
These midnight conversations were unavoidable despite how quiet I was. I use the word ‘conversation’ loosely since I said little. My participation involved listening with an agreeable nod of my head or an interested murmur. I fought an unbearable urge to yawn. Bored and tired I had too many of my own problems to unpack and examine. She must have known I didn’t care, but if I pretended to listen and grunt in the right places, she was happy. Talking about her complaints provided her with a way to let them go. Leslie and I never worried that my parents might divorce. As we grew older, they rarely had vocal arguments at home. They staged combat in the arena of passive aggression.
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