The Courtship of Marcy’s Mother

Monday night, Scout night, away-lacrosse-game-this-afternoon night, science-project-due-tomorrow-why-don't-we-ever-have-any-empty-oatmeal-boxes night. Dinner's half on the table and half still in the oven when the doorbell rings. “Sit. Eat,” I order Marcy and Jake, and go to answer it. On the front porch is an undistinguished-looking boy of 14, hands jammed in the pockets of his sweatshirt.

“Is Marcy home?” he says.

If this were one of Marcy's girlfriends, I'd know what to do. I'd say, “She's in the middle of dinner, Clarissa. Come on in.” Clarissa would follow me into the kitchen, and we'd throw another plate on the table and offer her some chicken fingers, and we'd eat and get to Scouts on time.

But this is one of Marcy's boy friends. I fumble unsuccessfully for his name: Aaron? Edwin? Adam? “Uh, hi,” I finally say. I can't ask him in to eat, because Marcy doesn't eat in front of boys, especially not this boy, if he's the one I think he is. And I can't just ask him to sit down in the living room and page through a magazine like it's the doctor's office. If he can even read. But if I don't get those chicken fingers out of the oven, the smoke alarm will go off, and Marcy will die of embarrassment. No matter how this plays out, we're going to be late to Scouts.

“How are you today?” Aaron/Edwin/Adam asks politely.

“I'll just … go and get her,” I mumble, sidling back toward the kitchen.

“I said, how are you?” he repeats emphatically.

I freeze in my tracks. Apparently, I've stepped outside the script. “I'm very well, thank you. How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.” Satisfied, he relinquishes me. I rush back to the kitchen, yank the chicken out of the oven, and plunk it on the table. “Who was it?” Marcy asks curiously.

“A boy.”

She drops her fork with a clatter. “What boy?”

I take a shot at it: “Adam.”

“I don't know any Adam.”

“Aaron, then.”

“Aaron? Aaron came here? Where is he?”

“In the living room.”

“Oh. My. God. You didn't talk to him, did you?”

“No, she mimed the entire conversation,” says her smartass little brother.

Marcy is on her feet, yanking at the elastic on her ponytail. “You better not have done anything stupid,” she hisses at me.

It's spring, and the sap is running and the birds are nesting, and I haven't felt so insecure since I was 14. When I used to imagine this stage of my daughter's life, I pictured myself grilling eager young swains like some pit-bull district attorney: “And just what makes you think you're good enough for her?” I'd be tougher than nails.

What I never expected was that I'd be the eager one — anxious for these boys to like me, fumbling to figure out how to behave around them, terrified lest I do … well, something stupid, that might cause the guy of Marcy's dreams to go court Clarissa or Brittany or Grace instead. And since to Marcy “something stupid” covers just about everything about me beyond standing and breathing, these are stressful times indeed.

“Don't be weird, please,” my daughter begs, when the Latest Version is due to come by so they can go to the movies with a gang of buddies.

“Weird how?”

“You know what I mean. Don't sing Neil Diamond songs. Don't make bad puns. And don't try to do the Harlem Shake.”

Clearly, I can't be myself. “What is it okay for me to do?”

“The really best thing would be if you went out to the garage.”

She's kidding. I think.

From time to time, it's crossed my mind that the reason Marcy wants me out of the picture is that she's afraid her suitors will see me and flee back through the front door, screaming: “She'll look like that when she's middle-aged?” Then I think back to my teen years, and I realize: Nah. Youth lives only in the present. These boys don't think about the future. Even the girls don't daydream about weddings. They don't want to get married. They only want to be in love, to have somebody to talk on the phone with and write notes to in math.

Maybe that's why Marcy's beaux seem so cipher-like to me. They're not really coming to call here as themselves; they're just a succession of faces sticking out through the hole in the cardboard cutout of what my daughter imagines a boyfriend is from years of watching TV. The boys have been watching the same shows; they're all preternaturally polite, in smarmy sitcom fashion. My husband Doug and I recently overhauled Marcy's bedroom as a Moroccan terrace, painting low terra-cotta walls and a blue sky, strewing Oriental carpets, building a canopy for the bed. After Marcy showed it off to Aaron/Edwin/Adam, he pulled me aside and intoned solemnly: “You did a really nice job.” Thanks, kid. It means so much, coming from you.

Though I can't take the ciphers seriously, it gives me pause to realize that every one of them is some other mother's darling boy. Somewhere not too far from here, there are women who don't think my daughter is good enough — who frown at the phone when she calls their houses, who judge her as harshly as I do their offspring.

Or maybe not. “Aaron's mom told him she thinks I'm pretty,” Marcy informs me, glowing. “Do you think he's cute?”

“Uh …” This seems a perfect chance for me to do something stupid. “He's really not my type.”

Marcy shudders in revulsion. “Oh, God! That is so gross! I can't believe you said that. I don't want to know.”

  This may be what's worst when it comes to my daughter's suitors — I can't tell her what I really think about them. And I don't dare ask what they have to say about me — because deep down, I know they don't have anything to say. I'm as much a cipher to them as they are to me, nothing but another brief barricade at a doorway, someone to be placated with the sop of momentary good manners and appealed to for cold Mountain Dews.

And that's so unfair. Because my heart, ever young, ever green, longs to flirt with these boys who congregate on our porch, who come ringing our doorbell. Try as I might, I can't square the image in the mirror with the image in my soul. I want to show them how cool I am, seduce them with my wit and savoir faire. Like Blanche DuBois, I really do believe I'm still irresistible, if the lighting is right. Is that what Marcy is afraid of when she issues her gag orders? Does she think I could do it? Is she scared I might? Or does she simply see more clearly than I do how pathetic — how stupid — a mom yearning to be cool can be?

Either way, I try to rein it in. Though all I've learned since I was 14 does give me a certain Mrs. Robinson edge, I'm not so deluded that I don't recognize my time has passed. As hard as it may be, my sole role now — the only one left to me — is to make Marcy shine.

  My daughter stumbles home from school in tears, shoulders quaking. “What's wrong?” I ask, in the midst of making stir-fry.

“It's over!” she cries. “Aaron and I are through.”

“Why? What happened?”

“I don't know,” she sobs, then reconsiders. “Actually, I do. Clarissa told him that I think Manuel is hot.”

“Do you?”

“Well … yeah. But Clarissa had no business telling him so! And just because I think Manuel's hot doesn't mean I don't still like Aaron!”

I turn to look her in the eye. “Were you maybe … a little bored with being his girlfriend?”

“No!” Loyalty wars with honesty. “Well. Yes.”

In my mind, I picture Marcy and Clarissa five or six years ago, Barbie and Ken dolls in hand. “I want to go shopping!” Barbie would swan. “I need to go to the mall!”

“I hate shopping!” Ken would shout back. “You're so stupid!”

“Shut up and get in the car!”

The dolls' exchanges weren't much different from those Marcy has on the phone with Aaron/Edwin/Adam: all emotion, no substance. Nothing much happens in these kids' lives, so they argue over misinterpreted glances, imagined slights, attentions supposedly paid elsewhere. But at least now she's shouting at flesh and blood.

I guess that's why we have this progression of young men, Aaron and Edwin and Adam, who don't seem all that different from one another, and who pass out of our sphere without much genuine angst on Marcy's part. Love is like playing the piano; you learn by practicing. Marcy started with Barbie and Ken, moved on to 'N SYNC and the Backstreet Boys, then took on her classmates. Bit by bit, day by day, the objects of her affection have grown less plastic, as her concept of “love” deepens and strengthens and becomes more real.

And even as she play-acts being in love, I'm rehearsing my mother-of-the-bride part, inching closer to the day when I hand her off to somebody else to cherish and protect. With each new boyfriend, I'm drilling myself in how to bow out, step aside, keep my mouth shut — maybe even someday head out to the garage.