Yesterday, I had to swallow my pride and admit to my son that I didn't know what I was doing.
For my comeuppance, I chose a leisurely walk down Diamond Street to Glen Park Village, where we were meeting Sandra Bullock for dinner. It came on the heels of him shouting, "Just give me my privacy!" at me. What was my crime? Asking him who he was texting.
My real crime was knowing exactly who he was texting but making him tell me. Why did I do this? Because we are two weeks into our first girlfriend experience and someone planted the idea in my head that my son might be doing things via text that he shouldn't be doing.
Let me tell you this: at the time, I had no idea whether he was or wasn't, but feel strongly that he was not. Although we may live in a world of non-stop titillation, my sense is that we’re still splashing around in the shallow end of the adolescent pool. Even so, my denials were tempered, because if the past couple of months have proven anything it's that EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW ABOUT OUR CHILD NO LONGER APPLIES.
So I chewed on that for awhile. Is this the little boy who brings a book in front of the bathroom heating register, to block any monsters that might float out while he's in there? Or is it the child who told me, later, that he didn't want me to refer to him as "12 years old" anymore. "It makes me sound too young," he said.
Until this year, I had moments when I worried that he was going to resist growing up and become one of those weird adults who plays in kickball leagues and participates in flash mob square dances. Sometimes, when we'd had a run-in, or something had upset him, he would tell me that he didn't want to stop being a little kid. "Do you have to grow up?" he'd ask.
Yesterday, he used the phrase "too young for anything" a half-dozen times. And yet, he was so freaked out by the idea that I was watching "Scream" on cable that he woke up three times in the middle of the night with bad dreams. I would really appreciate a user's manual right about now.
Prior to this week, the girlfriend thing was just rumor and innuendo. There was the slow dance. There was The Hammer spotting him "speaking animatedly" to a girl – Rachel, the same girl from the slow dance -- while walking down Brotherhood Way with his class. There were questions about Valentine's Day.
Then one day he blew the lid off the whole thing by asking me if he could ask Rachel out on a date. We were driving home from school and he'd already buttered me up by telling me that he'd raised his science grade to an A minus. "I've got other good news," he said, "but it's kind of personal."
"Can I ask Rachel out on a date?"
Where did this tradition of fathers and sons sharing important information while driving begin? Is it an expression of the in-born male tendency to package intimate moments within the Styrofoam popcorn of casual conversation? Did we learn this from reruns of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father?" Who doesn't want to be driving around in a vintage MG, heart-warming father-son moments taking place in-between downshifts?
It may not be the same in a Volvo wagon, but I did my best to rise to the occasion. The okay was given; the date was set.
The texting followed this week, while Sandra Bullock was off being forced to attend dinners in San Francisco restaurants with Zagat scores above 22, because a contingent of co-workers from Basel, Switzerland was in town for meetings. We stayed home, ate pizza and edged our way nervously around the beginnings of the father-son relationship, chapter two: "The Teenage Years."
Obviously, there will be missteps. I can't imagine a parent being less effective at imparting wisdom to their child than I was last night. At one point, I saw a look of total confusion on my child's face. Not the one from childhood -- the look of wonder that says, "Please, wise parent, share with me your world of knowledge." No, this one was pretty straight forward. It was a look that said, "What's this jerk talking about? I've got better things to do with my time." It was a look so dismissive, so annoyed that it left me incapable of being anything but sheepish and embarrassed.
"You know," I stammered, "I'm your dad. We worry about you."
"Seriously? I have no idea what you're talking about," said my child to me. "Just give me my space and we'll be fine." With that, he retreated to his room, closed the door and started furiously typing away on his PC. "Well, that went well," I said to myself.
So I decided to throw myself on his mercy. Minus the opportunity to be in a moving car, I had to improvise. As a fallback, walking isn't so bad. You can focus on the street, jam your hands in your pocket, take deep, cleansing breaths, remark that the guy who just sped by needs to slow down. You can make your words float gently toward their intended target instead of falling to the ground like unexploded bombs.
"This is your first time having a girlfriend," I began.
"No. I had a girlfriend in second grade. The same one, in fact," said the clever Jawa.
"You know what I mean. It's a different thing when you're twelve."
That's when he told me he didn't like it when I called him "twelve." He'd prefer to be called a pre-teen.
"Well, this is the first time I've been the father of a kid with a girlfriend. You're going to have to give me some time to adjust."
He liked that. He let down his guard. I was able to be frank and tell him what was on my mind. As he sees it, having a girlfriend at 12 involves "a lot of hugging" and occasionally holding hands. And the "pressure" he was getting from his friends was to ask her out on a date, which he did. Overall, he seemed to be handling the situation with impressive poise, if you can ignore the fact that he's suddenly decided he enjoys the way saying, "I have a girlfriend" sounds.
Do you remember how it felt to say that the first time? It was like a quantum leap on the road to adulthood, like you grew a foot overnight. Long before "having a girlfriend" became a "relationship" that could sometimes be defined as a "girlfriend-boyfriend" relationship, and sometimes not, or your "significant other" didn't like the way "girlfriend" sounded, he is free to tell it like it is.
This time, he can and will confidently try out the words, let them hang in the air, turn them around to get a better look. Seven months and eighteen days to Bar Mitzvah and one step further from being a little kid.