Loco Parentis: Beyond Words

The heart really does have a language all its own

As eager as Marcy is to leave for college, she frets about leaving my dad. “I won’t see him until Thanksgiving,” she says worriedly.

“You’ve been to see him every weekend all summer,” I remind her. She’s great with him, coaxing her grandfather to tell old stories, making him laugh with animated accounts of her doings. I’m not sure he’ll make it to Thanksgiving, but I don’t want her to know that. So off she goes to her new life on a leafy green campus, and I distract myself from my worries as I drive to and from visiting Dad by imagining the new friends she’s making, the professors who are challenging her intellect, the boys she’s meeting — boys who aren’t put off by her independence and outspokenness, as so many of the guys in her hometown are.    

It’s a shock, then, when, just a week or so after we drop her off, I tease her on the phone — “What about the boys?” — and she says, “There are no boys for me here,” so promptly and matter-of-factly that I think she’s about to tell me she’s gay. Instead she goes on: “All they do is drink and party. They’re pigs. They drink until they throw up. They’re all rich. And they’re all white.”

Youth’s sweeping generalizations annoy me. “They’re not all rich,” I protest. “Sixty-five percent of the students there get financial aid. It says so on the website.”

I hear her exasperation sizzle. “You don’t know. You’re not here.” A pause. “Besides. I’m sort of seeing someone.”

I’m amazed. Thrilled. Perplexed. Which of her crowd from back here at home can it be? Tom, who sometimes works out with her at the Y? He’s so nice, and tall and blond and handsome. Or Zak, who was on the school newspaper with her? Or maybe it’s Nolan, whose sly humor makes me laugh. Then again, she was hanging out a lot in August with her friend Gwen, whom I don’t quite trust. God, what if Gwen hooked her up with some shady friend from the food court at the mall? Or what if they met somebody that weekend when the two of them went to the Shore?

There’s another pause on Marcy’s part, a long one, as I run through the options. Then she says, “It’s Mario. From next door.”

Mario? For the past week, I’ve heard him outside every night after supper, talking on his cell phone, clearly to a girl, his Spanish soft and cajoling. “He doesn’t speak English,” I tell Marcy, dumbfounded.

“My Spanish is getting a lot better.”

And it dawns on me: “My God. He’s on the phone with you?”

“Mm-hmm. I can hear you singing in the yard.”

I feel as if I’m inside a wind tunnel, thoughts and emotions swirling too fast to settle. All I can say is what any mom would say next: “How old is he?”

“He’s 21.” She’s expecting it, sounds a little smug. “And he’s not Mexican or Puerto Rican. He’s from El Salvador. He paints houses with Julio for a living. And Mom, he’s legal. He has his green card.”

I burst into tears.

“Mom?” says Marcy.

“I’m sorry,” I snuffle, and I am. Why am I crying? Because he comes from El Salvador? My grandparents were immigrants; I’m not a snob that way. Because he works with his hands? Julio’s house is much nicer than ours, and he has better cars, too. No. I’m crying because I sent Marcy to college so she’d meet someone different from the boys at her high school. Someone she can talk Big Ideas with, who’ll excite her intellectually. Instead … even though I don’t speak any Spanish, it was my job to go over her vocab words with her last year. She’s more on the level of “My aunt’s umbrella” than of Big Ideas.

What do she and Mario talk about on the phone for hours on end?

What am I going to say to Mario when I see him next?

And why did I never realize it wasn’t Lucy who had Marcy spellbound all those years ago, but Ricky?