My husband and I had planned on shopping that night, for fun stuff I really looked forward to buying—new bedroom furniture, or new tile for the bathroom, or new landscaping. But for the life of me, I cannot remember what we were looking for because I have a mental block about reliving that night, a mental block whose name is Angus.
Angus is our son. At that point, he was attending an all-boy, testosterone-laden, Jesuit-run high school. Our reason for sending him there instead of to a larger, coed school was that we wanted him to focus on getting an education, not on getting a date. And so far, that’s exactly how it had worked out.
Until the night my husband and I had planned our shopping spree. Angus needed a ride to a friend’s house—a new friend, whom we had never met. The nameless friend whose calls made my son disappear into his room, shut the door and drain his phone’s battery.
The friend’s house was in one of those subdivisions with the kind of name that suggests what used to be—Rolling Meadows, Fox Crossing, Standing Tall Oaks—before the earth movers and graders churned the wilderness into nice sloping lawns that drained away from the four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath McMansions. We arrived to find the new friend, a waifish, Winona Ryder type (Heathers vintage), waiting at the front door in her short skirt and tiny T-shirt that stretched a tie-dyed peace sign across her chest. Oh, please! Honey, I had that same shirt back in 1972!
My son had a look on his face that I had seen before, but only when he was experiencing a chocolate birthday cake with six candles on it, or a fever of 103°, or a ginormous box underneath the Christmas tree with a tag that read TO ANGUS FROM SANTA.
He jumped out of the car and then. . . gave her a hug! Not the awkward, lots-of-air-between-us hug that he usually gave me. Nope. This was a full--contact, lingering hug. With back rubbing. That’s when I heard that high-pitched white noise in my ears. I was having either a panic attack or a stroke. As we drove away through the winding streets and I was certain that we were out of visual range, I began to cry—a real honest-to-God, shoulder-shaking, snot-producing wail. Because that tart, that vixen, that tiny temptress who had opened the front door? She had replaced me!
She wasn’t the first girl my son had known. (And just how well did he know her, anyway?) There was, for example, the big group of seven or eight girls who came over whenever Angus’s guy posse was in residence. They draped themselves over the furniture like melting timepieces in a Dalí painting and helped balance out the boy-stink with their heady mixture of perfumes.
They went to the all-girl, so-called sister school to my son’s all-guy institution. My daughter had gone there, too, so I knew these girls. I mean, I knew their type—driven, take-no-prisoners kinds of girls who had it together and weren’t going to settle for anything less than an Ivy League college or a hoity-toity liberal arts school and husbands or boyfriends who were their equals. Those were the girls I had envisioned my son dating. In fact, I had already picked one out. She was the one—Zoey? Chloe? Someone-oey—who worked as a camp counselor in the summer; the one with the red hair; the one who, I was certain, would bless me with a crop of redheaded grandchildren, who backpacked in Alaska, who knew how to set a fracture with a tree limb. Not this . . . person whose name I didn’t even know.
I didn’t get it. Even worse, according to my son, her parents had a problem with her coming over to our house.
Were they worried that he would somehow violate their daughter? That while she was in our home, I’d be too busy in my crystal meth lab or passed out on the sofa after a night of heavy partying to keep an eye on the two of them while they fornicated in my son’s room? No, no, no, it wasn’t that, Angus said. It was the neighborhood.
Who were these people? I admit that our city neighborhood, with its ethnic grocery stores, its higgledy-piggledy window displays, its traffic, its guys at the bus stop with their droopy pants, might look a little different to strip mall–shopping, SUV-driving suburbanites than it did to us. But would Angus now adopt their perspective as his own? God forbid.
He usually introduced me to his friends; he usually made it a point to introduce me to his friends and, in doing so, would bring up an odd fact about me, like “Hey, this is my mom. She once did stand-up comedy!” (What especially pleased me is that he’d leave out the part about me totally bombing.) Had my son not introduced me to her on purpose? Was he suddenly embarrassed by me? Or was he afraid that I would look her up on the Internet to see if she had any outstanding warrants, as I did with all my daughter’s boyfriends?
Maybe the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. See, back in the early ’70s, when I was in high school and dating (or attempting to date), I used to tell the prospective suitor to please, please, please pick me up before 7 PM. And if for some reason he couldn’t? Well, then, I told him, don’t even bother coming over, because by then my father will be home from work. He was a police officer, and the last thing I wanted was to have my father standing in the kitchen in his uniform, with a loaded sidearm, asking my not-yet-boyfriend for his last name and date of birth so that he, my father, could then run him through the computer at work. For me, second dates had been as rare as albino buffalo.
I wasn’t as bad as my dad, was I?
That first-girlfriend go-round eventually fizzled, and I was glad to be able to check it off my list of growing-up milestones: chicken pox, first bike ride, first fender bender. I knew that this was one thing on my list we’d be revisiting later and that, let’s face it, I pretty much had to get on board with it, because what was the alternative? Me being the only woman in his life? That would be just plain sad. And it would, according to my CSI- and Law & -Order–watching husband, turn my son into a serial killer, and that’s not what I wanted. Of course not. I wanted him to meet a girl and bring her around to the house, maybe over for dinner, where she’d offer to help clean up and we’d all bond in the kitchen, trading tales of my son’s cuter-than-cute moments.
So I was confident that after all this personal growth I’d experienced from the shock of Girlfriend One, I’d handle his next romance more gracefully. Two years later, my personal growth? Stunted. There was a new girl in town. Or at least in my kitchen. One who didn’t need a security detail to visit the neighborhood. Angus even introduced me to her, although we met sort of by default, since she was standing by the sink and I happened upon the two of them, post-grope, as I walked through with a load of clean laundry.
“Mom? Uh . . . this is—” and here is the part where I should mention that I think I need to add ginkgo biloba as a dietary supplement, because her name has totally escaped me. I do remember that it was an odd name and that I had to have it repeated to me because I kept getting the pronunciation wrong. All the more reason that I should remember it, right? Yet I don’t, probably because the events that occurred next made her dead to me.
I feigned nonchalance about the relationship because I wanted my son to see how I’d gotten used to the idea of not being the only woman in his life. The Girl would come over, and they’d disappear to watch TV in the front room, the room that was in a direct line to the bathroom, which I avoided using so I wouldn’t disturb them. Kidney disease? It’s what a mother does for her son.
Yet over the course of that -summer—the one right before we were to enter a new phase, The College Years—her appearances dwindled. Were they still an item? I wondered. One morning in the kitchen, I noticed that Angus was tired, which meant his defenses were down. I moved in.
“So, I don’t see [her name] coming around . . . What’s up?”
“I mean, how are things?”
Grunt, accompanied by shrug.
“Are you two going out this Friday? Do you need the car? Or maybe [her name] could come over here, and I could make homemade pizzas?”
Two grunts punctuated with a roll of his two puffy red eyes. Wait . . . had he been crying?
“Are you OK?”
His chin quivered. “She . . . broke up. . . with me.” He blew his nose into a kitchen towel and launched into the whole Days of His Lives saga. I found it hard to keep up with the plot twists, the players (who was Trevor? And what did Brittany have to do with anything?).
Basically, what I could figure out was it had all come down to him being more invested in the relationship than she had been. He had fallen for her hard, but she was more intent on skimming the surface. She took what she could get and—Oh, no! What exactly did she get from him?—then she crumpled him up and threw him onto the dressing room floor of life, like a rejected outfit, his tags still attached.
I listened to him obsess about how she had slowly ripped out his beating heart and then stomped on it with her bejeweled flip-flops. Well, I half-listened, because my inner voice, the one that usually belittles me, had in this case taken on the lilt and tone of a very tightly wound Jerry Springer Show guest—You want Mommy to go and cut her? I swear! Nobody messes with my baby! Little bitch!—as I mentally hit her over the head with a folding chair.
I tried to be consoling, giving him the best hug I could (since he was a head and a half taller than I was, it didn’t resemble a hug as much as a backwards Heimlich maneuver). Did he want some cookies? A hot-fudge sundae? I would have thrown together marinated beef tenderloin with stuffed mushrooms if he’d had a hankering. But he just wanted to be alone.
Once at college, he took his time getting back in the saddle. Fine. He needed to adjust to a new school, and I needed to adjust to his being farther away from home, which, I have to say, wasn’t all that hard. (Who knew I had so many towels?) But then summer came, and he was back for the break.
He spent the first few weeks horizontal. If he wasn’t sleeping, he was busy languishing on the sofa, clicking through channels. Then he got a job in a clothing store, and one sunny afternoon I met his more-than-a-friend work friend, who chided him in our kitchen when he left the milk out on the counter and didn’t put his cake-crumby plate in the dishwasher. A keeper! I liked the way she looked at him and laughed at his jokes. How she said that he and I were cut from the same cloth (the one woven with a dry-witted weft and a warped sense of humor). As they walked out the front gate, to go wherever they were off to, I smiled and thought, Good for him!
And good for me. I know now that I’ll never be replaced, not really. If I’m lucky, the women who come into his life will be less like my enemies and more like reinforcements. If all it took to help him mature was a little good-natured ribbing from someone who wore a size 2 and had eyelashes to die for, I could live with that.
Mel Miskimen is the author of Cop’s Kid: A Milwaukee Memoir.