Loco Parentis: Warning: Danger Ahead

LAST SUMMER, IN PREPARATION FOR HIGH SCHOOL, my son Jake began growing his hair. At first he just looked shaggy, but as the months went by and his locks grazed his shoulders, then dipped below them, I started asking if he wanted to get a haircut. I didn’t ask aggressively, or insistently, or even coaxingly, because when I was growing up, I saw so many fierce battles between my dad and my big brother David over his long hair that the idea of expending all that energy on something I knew for a fact wasn’t going to matter five years down the line seemed insane. I didn’t care if Jake grew his hair down to his waist. I just wanted him to know a standing offer was there. He always said no, and after a while, I stopped asking. He’s got really pretty hair.

Then, in the fall, when I’d almost forgotten what color his eyes were, he came home from school and announced, “Somebody said maybe I should get my hair trimmed.” I didn’t ask who somebody was, because I had a pretty good idea it was the same sort of somebody who’d said Jake should try Axe spray deodorant (“the Phoenix kind”) and wear red more often (“So could I get more red shirts?”). In other words, “somebody” was a girl, one he likes, so he wouldn’t have told me who it was anyway.

Jake’s big sister Marcy has been boy-crazy since Hanson sang “MMMBop” when she was seven. She’s spent the ensuing decade careening from crush to crush, and I’ve heard about them all, because she’s constitutionally incapable of shutting up about the boys she likes. Jake plays things closer to his chest. Despite repeated grillings by Marcy, he’s never confessed to a crush that I know of. Even when she dangles temptation — and she’s pretty good; she’s watched a lot of Law & Order — she can’t get him to say whether he thinks Paige is cuter than Leah, or Genna’s hotter than Brie.

Of course, your first worry as a mother when your boy is coy about girls is that he’s gay. Not that you’d have a problem with that, really, what matters most is that he’s happy, but you know, it does get complicated, and life is hard enough, so all things being equal, you’d just as soon he not be, even though of course you’ll be loving and supportive, but his dad is gonna hit the wall. So as said son sits in the living room at his computer, you’re heartened when, as his sister is watching Sex and the City and mentions how Sarah Jessica Parker is just falling all out of that sweater, he spins his wheeled desk chair around fast enough to get whiplash. O-kay. Your second worry is that he won’t respect women, especially after he’s heard his sister tell all her friends on the phone that she would do anything to get that really hot guy from gym class to go out with her, even though he’s not very bright, because he is just so hot and has the cutest butt in the world. This fear is slightly tempered by the knowledge that he’s also seen the banshee side of Woman Scorned: “Don’t you ever,” Marcy snarled at him the other day, out of the blue, “tell a girl you’ll call her and then don’t.”

He knows she speaks from experience. She and her first real boyfriend, Javier, broke up a few months back after more than a year together — a year they spent entwined on our sofa, for the most part. Jake bore witness to the way Marcy shone in the light of Javier’s admiration, and how he could coax her out of her blackest moods with a little flattery and some low-voiced Spanish endearments. Jake’s still in awe of that; it’s a skill he’d very much like to acquire, since he figures that compared to his sister, any other female will prove to be cake. He takes French, not Spanish. But his grade has gone up markedly of late.

NOT TOO LONG AGO, my husband Doug took the family out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. The waitress brought our drinks, and we sat perusing menus until she came back to take our orders. I went first, and then she turned to Jake. “I would like the fettuccine with lobster sauce, please,” he said, and I glanced over at him. He sounded funny somehow. Different.

“What dressing on your salad?” the waitress asked.

“What kinds do you have?” he countered, even though she’d just finished listing them for me. We rolled our eyes, but she laughed and reeled off his eight options. Jake pondered while she waited, pen poised over the pad in her hand — waited so long that she laughed again. “Honey mustard,” he finally said. He was smiling to himself, his hair shading his eyes. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something peculiar. He looked so happy, so self-satisfied.

Doug and Marcy gave their orders, and the waitress left. Marcy leaned across the table to her brother. “What was with the English accent?” she demanded.

And all at once, I realized: Jake had been flirting with the waitress. It was like being present at the moment, 400 million years ago, when the first lobe-finned fish hauled itself out of the water and lurched onto land. My son hadn’t been especially adept, but he’d done what he’d set out to: He’d engaged the attention of a girl who was older, and attractive, and he’d made her laugh. Twice. At 14, this was a major accomplishment.

For me, the moment was both pride-­inducing (You go, boy!) and unsettling. I’d only just finished watching Marcy endure the travails of first love. Now I had to steel myself for the prospect of slogging through the whole thing again.

THERE REALLY IS SOMETHING ABOUT FIRST LOVE. In those teen years, when we are only half-forged, when we feel awkward and unattractive and ill at ease, what we long for more than anything is to be noticed — to be marked out as special. To be deemed worthy. And our first loves do that, at a time when we’re secretly convinced we aren’t worthy at all. Javier gave Marcy this gift; she gave it back to him. Unlike all the other people who love us then — siblings, parents, grandparents — our first loves don’t have to. They choose to.

There’s no use saying anything about this, though, to Marcy, whose feelings on the subject remain raw. She’s still mad as hell at Javier, despite the fact that she broke up with him. She’s mad because he didn’t turn out to be what she wanted him to: perfect, her prince, her all-time-lifetime companion.

“You know,” I say, trying to be helpful, “it really isn’t very likely that you’d wind up getting married to the first boy you ever loved.”

“Didn’t Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jovi meet in ninth grade?” she shoots back.

“I’m not saying it never happens — ”

“And Clarissa’s parents met in high school. They went to the prom together. The picture’s on their mantel,” she says accusingly. “It’s ­really cute.”

“Do you want to marry Javier?” I ask.

“No, of course not. He’s an idiot. He hasn’t even taken his SATs.”

It infuriates her, though, that Jake still worships Javier, who’s in the band and on the soccer team with him, and was a whole lot nicer to him than she is. Her rage is fueled by the fact that while she hasn’t found a worthy replacement, Javier has moved on to a new blonde. Marcy doesn’t particularly want him anymore, but she doesn’t want him to want anyone else. Most of all, she wants to hold an inviolate place in his heart, forever and ever.

She might not believe it, but she already does.

“WHAT KIND OF BIRTHDAY PARTY DO YOU WANT THIS YEAR?” I ask Jake in October, weeks before the big day. In the past, he’s always had half a dozen of the guys sleep over to celebrate, with too much root beer and pizza, and games that seem to consist mostly of all of them racing headlong up and down the stairs with makeshift weaponry.

He thinks about it. “Maybe a boy-girl party,” he says.

“We could do that,” I say, careful not to betray my excitement at the prospect of finally meeting his Phoenix Axe/red shirt adviser.

“How many kids could I have?”

“Maybe … 25?”

He nods. “I can work with that.”

And that’s the last I hear of it for another two weeks, whereupon I say, “What about your birthday party? We have to get invitations out soon.”

“I know,” he says quickly. “I’m making up a list. I have a consultant who’s helping.”

“Who?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “It’s complicated,” he tells me, “because there isn’t any good day to have it until after football and marching band cavalcade season. Those take up all the Friday and Saturday nights. I may have to wait until after Thanksgiving.”

Whoa. My son, Mr. Instant Gratification, is willing to wait an extra month and a half for presents and root beer and cake? He really is growing up.

AS OF THIS WRITING, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY STILL HASN’T COME OFF. Like with Jake’s hair, I’m not nagging, just asking occasionally. You walk a strange line as the parent of a teenager. If I encourage Jake’s interest in girls, I feel a little sordid. And as eager as I am to meet whatever young lady he has his eye on, I’m leery, too.

I didn’t think (surprise!) that Javier was good enough for Marcy — not smart enough, not focused enough, not ambitious enough. I didn’t tell her that when they were dating. I worked hard at remembering how unfailingly gracious my parents were to the lunkheads I brought home to meet them.

My dad remembers, too. “I was only really scared the one time,” he tells me. “That older guy who was divorced. With the kid. And the Cadillac.”

Ah, yes. Vince, who picked me up in a very dark bar one night, and wooed me with expensive dinners and his fancy house equipped with a newfangled thing called a Jacuzzi. Vince, who gave me a big-ass diamond ring. Vince, whose bitter ex-wife threatened to call my parents and rat him out as a liar and a cheat. I try to imagine Marcy or Jake showing up with someone as creepy as Vince. They wouldn’t, I tell myself.

But I did.

So maybe it’s not so bad that it got ugly between Marcy and Javier there at the end — or that Jake was there to hear the blistering fights, and Marcy’s angry tears and recriminations over … what? Minor disappointments, even she admits in retrospect. “I was such a bitch to him,” she confesses. “I didn’t give him any space.” Which is not to say she holds him blameless. Last January, when they were juniors, she and her girlfriends were shopping for formals and gabbing about who was taking whom to Winter Ball. This year, as world-weary seniors, they’re curled together on my sofa like kittens, simultaneously studying AP Chem and watching Orlando Bloom movies and complaining about how all the guys they know are losers. They’re in a holding pattern, disillusioned with what’s available to them, living for the prospect of college next year. They feed each other’s cynicism and self-pity — and they meet my tentative offerings of, “Well, I think that boy Howard is kind of cute” with jeers. “You don’t know anything about him,” Marcy says scornfully. “You don’t know what he did to Brittany. He’s scum. Just scum.”

No wonder we look back on first love so fondly — it’s the only time we give ourselves to another without any hint of doubt, any inkling of the inevitability of sorrow, any knowledge that what feels so true and right and eternal can (and likely will) turn out to be none of the above. Half of me is glad that Marcy’s grown so pessimistic about love; now she’ll be more guarded, not give her heart so freely. The other half …

Jake, hon, let’s not rush it on that birthday party. The sooner you embark on the grand journey of first love, the sooner it will all be over, and you’ll wind up wary and jaded and way less vulnerable to blue eyes and a cute butt. There’s a reason they call it the loss of innocence.