Loco Parentis: The Love Seat

Just when my 16-year-old daughter was resigned to entering a convent, romance came calling, in the form of a highly engaging Latino boy exactly her age. Besides inadvertently helping Marcy prepare for her AP Spanish test, ­Javier has taught her to appreciate baseball — at least while he’s playing; exposed her to exotic ethnic foods (Plantains! Sofrito! Condensed milk!); given her a new perspective on the term “extended family”; and made her happy in the way that only first love, tremblingly new and blushing, can. I know I should be grateful to him.

The thing is, though, that he’s sitting on my sofa in front of the TV, and my daughter’s head is in his lap. With one hand, he is tracing little circles on her bared upper arm. With the other, he’s twirling a strand of her hair. And he’s bending down to murmur in her ear.

They’re watching one of Marcy’s pet reality shows. I can’t believe he wouldn’t rather watch the Phillies game, but apparently what’s on the screen doesn’t much matter to him. Imagine that. Pre-Javier, I would have been sitting in the rocking chair beside the sofa, making caustic comments to Marcy about the morons on her show. Now, I can’t figure out where to sit. I don’t want to intrude. On the other hand, I’ve been at work all day and haven’t seen my children, and would like to be sociable. Even more, I’d like to see the Phillies game. But as Marcy is all too willing to remind me, because her father and I are cheap troglodytes, we only have one TV in the house, and she and Javier aren’t allowed up in her room, so where exactly is it that I’d like them to go besides the sofa? Defeated, I retreat to the kitchen, reading the paper there until my husband Doug, who hasn’t got my rarefied sensibilities, finishes practicing the trombone, strolls into the living room, settles into the rocking chair, takes the remote control, and flips to the Phillies, deaf to Marcy’s protests. (Javier is noticeably silent.)

The two young lovers trudge into the kitchen to sit at the table. I scoot back to the living room to see the game.

“It’s my house,” says Doug, apparently not as insensitive as I’d thought. “I have a right to watch the Phillies.”

I pat his knee. “Of course you do.”

But reclaiming the living room isn’t just about the Phillies. It’s also about that sofa-lounging. “It makes me uncomfortable,” Doug confesses, his voice low.

“I know. Me too. He does have his feet on the floor, though.” A prior, brief relationship of Marcy’s that similarly centered on the sofa resulted in the imposition of what she scathingly describes to friends as “the two-foot rule”: If she’s on the couch with a date, at least two of their four feet have to be on the carpet. This seemed like a good compromise at the time Doug and I imposed it, and Marcy’s 12-year-old brother Jake, sitting Buddha-like at the computer in the living room corner through all this, placidly observing, points out that the two-foot rule does allow for any combination of feet.

What I can’t figure out, though, is how we came to need the two-foot rule. I had a boyfriend when I was Marcy’s age, and if the two of us ever so much as held hands in front of my parents, I can’t recall it. We did our necking the old-fashioned way, in friends’ basement rec rooms or in the backseat of his car. Of course I’ve encouraged a more open dialogue with my daughter, on sex and everything else. Of course Doug and I have strived to make our home a comfortable, safe haven for Marcy and her friends. We just never expected to be so successful at it.

In the very early days of Javier and Marcy’s coupledom, he was more a part of our family circle. He came to dinner, sat with us and watched the Phils on TV, made conversation. He was still in the proving stage then, intent on showing he was worthy of our princess. We liked him. I like him still. But there is something about coming home from work and finding him on the sofa, fondling my daughter, that just —

“They’re not doing anything wrong,” Doug says.

“No,” I agree faintly.

“As long as they’re right here, we know what they’re doing.”

“Yes,” I tell him.

We stare at the Phillies. Marcy’s laughter floats out from the kitchen, fraught with all the bright, tremulous wonder of discovery.

“If you give me 10 bucks, I can probably talk them into walking up to Rita’s with me for Mistos,” Buddha offers from the computer desk.

“Can we talk about my curfew?” Marcy demands. We’re on our way to the mall to buy her underwear; otherwise, Javier would be along. I find myself grateful she still has any scruples.

“Talk away.”

“The town curfew is 11 o’clock. Why should my curfew be 10:30? If I’m not here, I’m at Javier’s house. You know where I am. And if we wanted to do something, why would we be any less likely to do it at 10 o’clock than at 10:30? You let me stay out with Jessica and Clarissa until 11. You only want me home earlier when it’s Javier.”

How does one explain to the rose of one’s heart that curfew is the last gasp of parental control? Being the boss of when Marcy comes home lets me harbor the illusion that I still have any influence at all over what she does at Javier’s house, where there’s a TV in his bedroom and the two of them are allowed up there — without so much as a door-open rule. Javier’s mother, Estelle, has four sons, no daughters. She’s bound to see things differently. “Ees puppy love,” she told me in our first conversation about our conjoined children. But she’s a pit bull. Javier doesn’t have a set curfew; he heads home whenever Estelle calls. She doesn’t need a door-open rule.

I’m not as forceful as she is. Besides, I’m operating with a wounded heart. I’ve invested 16 years in building love and trust with my daughter. I let her buy the uncensored 50 Cent CDs. I give her Victoria’s Secret for Christmas. I have never once looked in her diary. How could she want to be anyone’s girlfriend but mine?

“So what do you say, Mom? Eleven o’clock?”

I have absolutely no reason to believe that my daughter is any more trustworthy than I was at her age, despite the fact that she has never yet given me any reason not to trust her. To the contrary, she came home from the ­roller-skating rink in eighth grade and told me all about her first French kiss.

“Okay. Eleven o’clock.”

“Thanks!” she chirps. “You’re the best mom ever. Now, about my birthday this year. What would you and Daddy think if I had a coed slumber party?”

Marcy and Javier are on the sofa. Two feet are on the floor — Javier’s. Marcy is more or less in his lap, and they’re — well, they’re kissing, that’s what they’re doing, as I come through the living room with a basket of laundry. I clear my throat noisily. They part, languid as tides. I shoot my daughter The Look, the one that says: I’m disappointed in you. It used to crush her. She stares back at me steadily, refusing to acknowledge what I want her to — that she is out of bounds.

All right, all right — if she weren’t kissing him here on the sofa, she’d be doing so someplace else, perhaps someplace far more conducive to boundary erosion than my living room or Estelle’s fiefdom. All right, all right — she and Javier are good kids. All right, all right — I’d rather have to clear my throat when I come through my house than listen to pre-Javier Marcy bemoan her miserable singlehooditude. Honestly, I would.

So what is it, exactly, about Marcy’s couch-cuddling that makes me so uncomfortable? Perhaps it’s that her entrée into the world of kissing and stroking and murmured endearments points up how bereft my own life is of that sort of thing. She and Javier are a rebuke, a living reproof: If I were a good wife, Doug and I would be taking up that sofa. We’d be watching American Idol together; his fingers would be tangled in my hair.

Does Doug think that, too? When he sees Marcy and Javier, does he remember the early days of our courtship, when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and neither of us farted? Does he worry that after a quarter-century together, we’re too accepting of Rod McKuen’s summation of the tragedy of middle age: “But no more the young heart leaping in the dark room”?

I can’t ask him, because to do so would be to admit that I suspect something might be lacking. Something that has to do with tingles and goosebumps and breathlessness, that Javier and Marcy have in spades.

A friend of mine once confided that every now and again she dresses up in a French maid’s outfit and seduces her husband. I have never been able to look at her the same way since. Oh, sure, I know there are books about this stuff, going all the way back to Marabel Morgan’s advice to greet the hubby at the door dressed only in Saran Wrap. But that people actually do such things flabbergasts me. It implies a state of planning regarding sex that’s just way over and above our household’s modus operandi, not to mention our energy level.

Another friend with whom I discuss Marcy’s sofa-sitting remembers Marabel Morgan, too, because of an interval that her Total Woman book touched off in his parents’ marriage in the ’70s. His father, the friend says, purchased a Flintstones-esque animal-print nightshirt. Mom invested in a series of filmy negligées. The two of them naughtily wore them around the house, just as Marabel suggested. And my friend kept happening on them in the living room, Dad in his faux tiger skin, making low, growly noises in the back of his throat, Mom blushing and tittering. “It was,” my friend says, shaking his head, “the worst, the most awful thing a teenager could ever witness.” They don’t want to see us; we don’t want to see them.

Maybe that’s because beneath the bluster, the “Back in my day” and “Eeeuw, gross, Mom,” each side of the equation realizes the other has something it’s missing. Okay, so Marcy and Javier have the awakening of passion. They also have the prospective terrors of herpes and pregnancy and AIDS, not to mention the exhaustion of having to maintain a constant fever pitch of excitement — and they can’t even fart. My relationship with Doug may move in well-worn grooves, but they’re our grooves, dug deeper with each challenge weathered together: college looming, aging parents, too damned big a dog. I can see why Marcy thinks we’re boring. Does she sense, though, that familiarity is its own sort of turn-on? A heart that can’t leap still thrums. Despite the hype, it’s an organ dependent on monotony.

“I wouldn’t be 16 again for anything in the world,” grown-ups say, or else they qualify it: “Oh, I’d go back — if I could know then what I know now.” But the mind can’t grasp at Marcy’s age what time and wisdom teach — and who would want it to? First love defies logic by definition; it is the original leap of faith. We do things we shouldn’t in its throes, and things we’ll never do again.

Would I go back? Start anew? Be that giddy and gullible? I look at my daughter, supine on the sofa, Javier’s arms around her as they set out to explore new worlds. Buen viaje, you two. Me, I’m like some grizzled veteran, Cortés grown fat on Aztec treasure, lying between clean linen sheets on his estate at Seville, his belly full of sausages and wine. I don’t miss the conditions aboard ship, just the atlas-shifting moments of discovery.

E-mail: hingston@phillymag.com.