“Stop that. It’s disgusting.” I rolled down the car window for some fresh air. As if the smells emanating from my son’s laundry bag weren’t nauseating enough.
“Mom, it’s not my fault,” laughed my 19-year-old son, secretly proud of his foul emissions. “The dining hall serves only three types of food: fried, deep fried, and grease fire.”
“How about eating more fruits and vegetables?” I suggested, in my overly-helpful-mom tone, the one that even annoyed me. “Surely the university has a salad bar somewhere on campus. Eat something unprocessed once in a while. Try a banana or an orange?”
“They’d just fry that, too.”
“I’m not driving for the next four hours with you doing that,” I snapped. It was a meaningless threat. “Stop eating so much junk,” I snagged the bag of Skittles from his hand. “You can’t get enough of what you don’t need,” I wisely said, then I poured half of the remaining Skittles into my own mouth.
“All right, all right,” he relented, avoiding a prolonged discussion about his bowels. Deftly, he changed the subject.
“So everyone in the freshman math class is freaking out since the professor supposedly busted people for using Chegg. But what’s the difference between checking your answers online or meeting with a TA or paying a tutor? What is cheating anyway? Aren’t we in a collaborative learning structure these days? I propose that we, as a society, should just work collectively in groups to accomplish our collective purposes.”
“That’s some elegant bullshit,” I muttered.
“Thank you,” he seemed pleased with himself, as are most college freshmen. It was silent for a bit, as the highway signs and billboards flashed by.
“At some point you are going to have to define what cheating means to you,” I started, attempting to change my tone from moralizing to matter-of-fact. “Throughout my life, I’ve found that a cheat is a cheat is a cheat.”
“That sounds reductive,” he stated flatly, looking over at me with one eyebrow raised, marking my naiveté.
“There it is: reductive. I swear they must teach that word at freshman orientation and require students to use it in every conversation. Politics is reductive. Religion is reductive.”
“Fine, that sounds repetitive,” he reaffixed his gaze on his iPhone’s screen.
“My point is that people who cheat on school assignments will probably grow up to cheat on their job applications, their taxes, their spouses . . . Cutting corners leads to nowhere good.”
“Right. We are all going to hell,” he mumbled.
“There is no hell,” I poorly attempted to follow his whipsawing discussion threads.
“Hell is other people,” he snapped, then farted loudly to make his point.
I rolled down the window and we didn’t speak for about an hour.
“I’m hungry,” he said plaintively.
I stopped at the next exit and he ate his body weight in burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries.
“Dad said you’re writing again.”
“Well, there’s time now that you’re all gone. Empty nesting is good for encouraging one’s hobbies, I suppose.”
“Cool,” he said, more to his iPhone than to me.
“Does dad read your stuff?”
“Your dad reads the Bar Journal. I don’t think he much cares for my musings when he can read about the limits of statutory authority for tax audit estimates.”
My son and I both laughed.
“If you want to make money, you should write children’s books,” he offered.
“I don’t want to make money,” I said quietly.
He looked at me suspiciously. “How easy would it be to write a children’s book? Just pick an animal that everyone likes—like a panda. Give it an alliterative name: Peter Panda. Have it search for food: Peter Panda Finds a Pizza. Then work in numerals: one pizza crust, two scoops of sauce, three mushrooms . . .”
“I don’t want to write children’s books,” I repeated more firmly.
“You can make bank, Mom,” he assured me, like an overly confident used car salesman.
“How about I just write for myself?” I asked, flustered.
He blinked blankly at me: it did not compute.
“I know!” he said. “You should write a self-help book. Every girl at college would buy it. Call it Conquering Your 20’s: A Woman’s Journey.”
“Hard pass,” I grimaced. “Anyway, you have your demographics wrong. If I wrote a self help book—and that’s highly unlikely—it would be targeted to suburban women. For a title, I’d just pick three verbs, like: Ponder Accept Believe.”
“You have to mention chocolate in the title,” my son added.
“You are so right. How about Chocolate Prayers and Red Wine Blessings?”
“Sounds like a bestseller,” he agreed.
“Look, not that you want to hear this, but most middle aged women just want raunchy romance novels,” I said.
“It’s true. They want to curl up with a paperback novel with a spray-tanned, half naked anabolic steroid user on the front cover,” I stated, “preferably with long flowing hair, aggressively embracing a reluctant maiden. Bodice ripping, optional.”
“What’s a bodice?”
“It’s a lace up top,” I replied. “The cover girl needs to have long hair as well because it’s all part of the fantasy. Women start losing their hair by the handfuls in their 40s, so they daydream about having long locks for some pirate or lumberjack or debauched duke to pull.”
“You are saying that women have rape fantasies,” he concluded.
“I am telling my college-aged son that college-aged girls absolutely do NOT have rape fantasies,” I nearly yelled. “Are we clear on this?!”
“We are clear.”
“Say it. College-aged girls do NOT have rape fantasies.”
“College-aged girls do NOT have rape fantasies, but apparently old ladies do,” he smirked.
“Now who’s being reductive?”
“Seriously, I don’t get any of it, Mom. A good-looking guy flirts with a girl? That’s romantic. If an ugly guy attempts to flirt? It’s harassment. How does anyone negotiate sexual politics? How can you play any game when you don’t know the rules? I don’t want to be on the news for some miscommunication.”
“Maybe dad can draw up some consent forms for you to photocopy,” I said half-jokingly.
“It’s not funny. I don’t want to be accused of anything. I don’t want to do anything bad,” he sulked.
“I agree. It’s not funny. But I would assume you know that drunk people cannot consent, and I would assume you treat your partners with respect,” I said, not worrying about my moralizing tone, which was back in full force.
“It’s just—how do you even meet someone, someone decent? The girls who I’m attracted to can’t carry on a conversation, and the ones who are smart and funny aren’t appealing to me.”
Holy shit, you are a typical, stupid 19-year-old boy. “Well, dear, you need to figure yourself out first. The Greeks carved Know thyself on the temple of Apollo for a reason. Shakespeare wrote: To thine own self be true. If you can figure yourself out, then you won’t be false to any man. Or woman,” I added.
“But how do you find the one?”
“Who says there’s just one?”
“You know what I mean,” he said, dejectedly. “You and dad. You seem to have it all figured out.” Oh, my beautiful boy. You don’t even know what you are saying.
“Yep, we do.” Exhausted, I decided to offer him platitudes instead of painful truths. He could learn those later. “Everyone you meet has relationship advice to offer. You’ll have to gather it, think about it, and figure out what works best for you.”
“Ponder Accept Believe?” he replied, ironically. I punched him in the shoulder.
“This is all I can tell you that I know for sure,” I paused. “If you want passion, date yourself. Find a girl who thinks and acts just like you.”
“Okay,” he said, putting his iPhone down. “That makes sense.”
“But know that passion burns very hot and doesn’t last very long. If you want a long term relationship, you’d better find someone who complements your personality, the yin to your yang.
“Dualism,” he said.
“Right,” I whispered. It’ll strip the problematic passion right out of your relationship, leaving it nice and bland.
“So you are saying since I’m bad with money that I should find a wife to pay the bills.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I wryly retorted. “And she’ll probably be an introvert, so you can drag her along to parties where she’ll feel completely uncomfortable, but at least you’ll be together.” Then I grinned at him, ignoring the tinge of bitterness.
“Makes sense,” he said again, more to finish the conversation than in agreement. He put his car seat back, turned towards the passenger window, and fell asleep in minutes.
The final hour I drove home in dusk, comforted by the faint snoring of a much-beloved son, glutted with the richness of youth and beauty.