Loco Parentis: Creature From the Third-Floor Bedroom

Who is this huge, hairy being lurching down the stairs?

My son Jake’s sneakers are ratty, so we’re at the mall, in Schuylkill Valley Sports, which I like because we get 10 percent off if I show my YMCA card, even though I have never once remembered to do so. I eye a beguiling pair of women’s cross-trainers while a salesgirl measures Jake up and then heads off to fetch the Nikes he likes. When she returns, she opens the box, takes out a sneaker, and starts lacing.

“Whoa,” I say. “That can’t be right.” The shoe is as long as an aircraft carrier.

“Size 13,” the salesgirl says, checking the box.

“He doesn’t take a 13. He takes a 10.”

The girl shrugs. “I measured his foot.”

“Those look like clown shoes,” I say in disbelief.

“No they don’t,” says Jake. He grabs the sneaker and yanks it on, followed by its mate. He stands. I bend down and press my thumb to the toe of his right shoe.

There’s barely half an inch to spare.

The salesgirl bends down, too, to press his left toe. “I don’t think you want them any smaller than that,” she says tentatively, glancing at me.

“Jesus,” I say.

Jake, who’s 12, is looking at me, too. “So I have big feet. So what?”

“So nothing. How do they feel?”

I’m pretty familiar with Jake’s big sister Marcy’s body. She and I get naked with each other in the bathroom or the locker room at the Y, and it’s no big deal. I haven’t seen Jake naked, though, since … well, since he and Marcy were taking baths together, back when the Spice Girls were hot. I don’t remember exactly when he got private, but it was with a vengeance. He won’t even try on clothes when we’re shopping; purchases are brought home, tried on, and then returned if they don’t fit. Bathroom doors are locked when Jake is inside.

I can understand that; it was a major deal when the kids were old enough for me to lock the bathroom door again. Still, something is going on with Jake beyond that door, and I don’t know what.

I’ve always thought of my kids’ growth as an orderly progression, an easy upward curve on those charts in the pediatrician’s exam room. Jake’s adolescence has blown that out of the water. It’s not just the feet. It’s the look of him lately — massive, shambling, protean, like some fairy-tale character who’s a bear by day and a boy by night. He takes up an incredible amount of space, and when he moves, he blunders into things. “Sit down!” I order him at breakfast, as he ricochets off the hot stove and thuds against the sink.

His body these days seems to have been assembled, Frankenstein-like, from leftover parts. Somewhere inside him is the man he will become. But the process of becoming isn’t tidy, time chipping away like Michelangelo at a hunk of marble to reveal David. It’s more organic than that — more like Alien. The man who will be Jake is tensing and writhing beneath his acne-speckled skin.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table, eating supper, when I glance over at my son, who is digging into baked ziti with superhuman enthusiasm. My glance engages, lengthens. Jake keeps shoveling ziti, then slows, gradually becoming aware that I’m staring at him. “What?” he demands, swiping his napkin across his mouth, clearly hoping that’s the issue.

“Your head is so big,” I say in wonder.
Jake colors, with embarrassment that shifts to anger. “What kind of thing is that to say?”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him, instantly repentant. “It’s a nice head. It’s just … really big.” What is the matter with me? Kids his age are hopelessly self-conscious, sure the world is focused in on them — and I have to reinforce that paranoia? But I can’t help myself, can’t keep from marveling. I spy our images in a mirror in the mall as we walk by, and I stop, tugging Jake’s sleeve: “Hold on.”

“Mom …

I stare into the mirror. “My God. When did that happen?” He is three inches taller than me.

He shuffles away, mumbling: “You don’t have to make a big deal about it.”

His reaction confuses me. “You’d rather be tall than short, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess.” But there’s an undercurrent of alarm in his eyes. He has long since outstripped me and his sister, and just lately has overtaken his father. He is growing so prodigiously, and so randomly — limbs elongating at different rates, ears and nose and lips enlarging ahead of the rest of his face — that he doesn’t wake up with the body he went to sleep in. It’s clearly disconcerting. At basketball practice on a Saturday morning, he catches the ball in one hand and holds it there, palming it. Startled by this feat, he stares at his outstretched fingers.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

 On a slow weekend, in the video store, Marcy grabs Troy. “This is the best we’re going to agree on.”

“It doesn’t have the gods in it,” Jake complains, having read a review in my copy of Time.

“It has Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom,” Marcy says in rebuttal.

Jake lets it go. At home, he sprawls across the living room floor, riveted by a 3,000-year-old tale of love and hate and betrayal. He hisses sour, cynical Menelaus. He entreats poor groveling Paris: “Get up! Go on! Fight!” He is disgusted by the Trojans when they fall for the horse.

When the credits roll, he looks at me. “Do we have the book of this?”

I pick up a copy for him at Barnes & Noble — leather-bound, gold edges on the pages, one of those built-in bookmarks. I have an old paperback from college, but I find myself wanting him to know that this book is important, to differentiate between The Iliad and Lemony Snicket. He seems to understand. The gold-edged book goes with him to school every day — so faithfully that I begin to wonder: What does he see in Paris and Hector and Achilles that matters to him? Becoming a man in 21st-century America seems light-years from the way one proved oneself in ancient Greece.

And yet. And yet. The games he plays on his computer, hour after hour, are all about gods and heroes. They let him act out, in safe, unsocial isolation, what he would do if confronted by a monster, a rival, a seductress, a killer, a traitor, an enemy ship. When your own body has become terra incognito, the ability to control entire universes with your fingertips must be unspeakably alluring. Alone at the keyboard, he’s not just Hector; he’s Zeus, manipulating mortals at will.

What could be more appealing to a kid who doesn’t even know what he’ll look like in the morning? Achilles, Ajax, Paris — Jake could turn out like any one of them. It’s not the lesson Marcy got from the movie; she’s Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, fought over but no fighter. Female, she has nothing to prove except that she’s worthy of desire. But Jake … oh, God, what a mess of contrary expectations Homer and history throw at him: Be strong. Be sensitive. Don’t be afraid to cry. Don’t be a sissy. His father and I are no better. We love him immeasurably. But what is it that we want most for him? From him? I can’t decide. I want him to play football. I want him to love poetry.

I tuck him into bed, my vast boy-child, into his sea of stuffed narwhals and penguins and walruses. I bend to kiss him.

“I have a mustache,” he says, running his thumb across his upper lip.

 We live in a small town that’s big on football. But Jake has always been too large for the local PAL teams, where kids are categorized by weight rather than age; if he’d played with his pound peers, he’d have been up against 14-year-olds when he was eight. So we were stuck with soccer. “That kid would make a hell of a lineman,” my husband Doug would say as Jake pounded a corner kick.

His chance at football finally came last fall, in middle school. Since he had zero experience at the game, we were a little nervous. But the coaches didn’t cut him, and our hopes rose and flared. He was playing the line, just as we’d imagined — “Offense mostly. Defense sometimes,” he said offhandedly. He had a playbook to memorize, and a helmet and spikes and a uniform and pads. He loved the uniform. He loved going to practice. He was as excited about football as we’d ever seen him about anything. Late at night, Doug and I would talk about how great it was that Jake seemed finally to have found his niche.

The day of the first game arrived. “Nervous?” I asked Jake at breakfast.

“A little,” he admitted.

“Dad and I will be there,” I told him. “We’re so proud of you, honey. Good luck!”

That afternoon, as Doug and I approached the stadium — the stadium, the middle-schoolers play in the high-school stadium! — my heart was fluttering. There wasn’t any band, but there were cheerleaders, and the big-time scoreboard. We were late, as usual, and we’d missed the opening kickoff. We chose seats on the shiny metal bleachers, waving and calling to other parents we knew. The sun was shining, but the air was nippy. “Football weather,” a veteran mom said, tucking her blanket close.

Doug had brought field glasses. “What’s Jake’s number?” he asked, scanning the sideline.

“I don’t remember.” He’d tried his uniform on for me, but after so many years of the kids playing sports, I couldn’t recollect. “Seventy-something.”

“Is that him? Seventy-two?”

I borrowed the glasses. “No. That’s Kyle.” Slowly I panned the helmeted and padded players on the field, and then those on our sideline. “I don’t think he’s out there.”

“Of course he’s out there. Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Maybe he’s hurt. Maybe he got mouthy with the coach. Maybe he’s sick.” Then I relaxed. “There he is. Seventy-eight.”

The mom in front of us turned. “Seventy-eight is my son. Dwayne.”

“Oh.” I trained the glasses on the field again, increasingly anxious. Where was Jake?

Suddenly he swam into the lenses, huge in his pads, handsome in his uniform, unhelmeted, grinning, laughing. I jerked my head up, scanning without the glasses to place him, pin him down. There. “See him yet?” Doug asked. I nodded. “Where is he?”

“He’s working the chains.”

“He’s what?”

“Working the first-down chains.”

Doug took the glasses back. He stared through them for a long moment, while I watched Jake scamper happily on the far sideline, measuring yardage, doing his assigned task. The Penn State scholarship no longer seemed like a sure thing. I was both appalled and amused by how far I’d let the fantasy spin before ever seeing the kid play a single down. He got into the game for two series, in the third quarter.

He told me afterward that he really liked working the chains.
 Girls become women, become Helen, become beauty. Boys become big and hairy and frightening, and turn into monsters. Jake knew this long before the mustache emerged. Last Christmas, he shelled out his own money to buy me the DVD of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We’d watched the tape version dozens of times when he and Marcy were little, but I hadn’t seen it for years. I love the movie for Beast’s awkward attempts to civilize himself, and Belle’s hesitant realization that princes don’t always look the part. But most of all, I love that slow, swirling dervish-dance at the end, in which Beast rises up toward heaven in a spangle of starbursts and is transformed magically, miraculously, back into a prince.

Is that what will happen with Jake? Will his outsized feet and braces-strapped jaw and haphazard body parts metamorphose, one of these days, into a god? A hero?

“Backrub?” he asks hopefully, plunking down on the sofa beside me like a big, shaggy puppy. He longs to be touched; he wants to hold hands these days when we walk down the street. He complains that he hurts: his neck, his arms, his shins — growing pains. He sidles into me, bumping, connecting, then looks for my reaction: Am I repulsed? Do I still love him? He’s alone in the forest, surrounded by monsters, Reptar and King Kong and Cyclops, Voldemort and Vlad the Impaler and Hitler and Bundy and Dahmer. He longs to know as much as I do: What will he be when he grows up?

Our children are born with so much promise, such a world of possibility. A four-year-old boy can become anything: doctor, astronaut, pro baseball player, jazz saxophonist — and we want it all for him. We endure the endless driving to games and science fairs and rehearsals, pay for the cleats and camps and private lessons, because we just can’t quiet the hope that whispers in our hearts: Is he the Golden Child? But time has a way of paring down the possibilities, and one by one, the futures fall away: He never practices the sax, he can’t hit the fastball, he’s afraid of heights, he can’t even bear to eat Cornish hens, so how’s he ever going to cut up a cadaver?

They know, our sons. They sense our disappointment in them. How could they not? They’ve seen how vested we are at every turn, heard us scream at them from the sidelines, listened to us bitch about the time spent and money shelled out — and all for what? So they could fail. Drop out. Give up. Latch onto that damned computer teat for hours on end, spinning fantasies in which they are the heroes we once thought them, epic, immortal, blessed by the gods.

They will become other things, of course. But not those things, the ones we dreamed of on hot summer mornings when they were four years old and whacking at t-ball with big plastic bats. And though we love them — we really do love them — how can they help but wonder, given our behavior, our disillusionment, the half-intentional cruelty with which we have rubbed their noses in their less-than-stardom: Do we love them as much as we could? Would I love Jake more if he were the starting quarterback?

Which casts his gift of Beauty and the Beast in a different light. What he was telling me, I think, more defiantly than I gave him credit for, is what the mother of every killer and convict and drunk and loser must carry in her heart and try to reconcile: I am still that boy.