Last month I found myself in the unlikely position of being a person that someone is nervous to meet. Me, the woman who would spend my life in my pajamas if I could, sprawled on the couch watching “What Not To Wear.”
My 16-yr old stepson was introducing his new girlfriend to my husband, my 10-yr old daughter and me over dinner. Her mother dropped her off at the restaurant and it struck me, as I sat in my jean jacket, toe ring and cheap gold hoops, that I was suddenly in the role of being “vetted” as a person responsible for making sure that my stepson was worthy of this woman’s daughter. As we shook hands there was an instant yet silent vow of promise that her daughter would be safe on my watch. At that moment, I realized more than I had before, that I was a parental figure to a 16-yr old boy.
Before my husband and I actually met face-to-face we e-mailed and spoke on the phone every chance we could. We met online and in our “profiles” we both emphasized the central role our children played in our lives as one would hope that most parents would. At the time we met, my daughter was a very sassy 8 (and ¾) and my husband’s boys, 15 and 19.
There was a very steep learning curve for all of us as we merged lives. I was becoming used to (although certainly not always successfully) navigating the moods and whims of a tween. She and I, in the three years between my first and second marriage, had created our own special dynamic, both combative and fiercely loving. Her father and I split her time straight down the middle, so when she was with me, we were intensely focused on each other. We had dance parties, put outfits together, snuggled on the couch and had sleepovers in my king-sized memory foam bed. We yelled, she slammed doors and went ballistic when I brushed the knots our of her hair, but this was us. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
My husband entered into our marriage with an entirely different set of circumstances. His divorce was bitter and due to all sorts of circumstances, his boys blamed him for the break up of their family. There was distance and anger and intense sadness on my husband’s part. I suppose the most undeniably unique aspect of this mix, is that his oldest son is transgender who transitioned from female-to-male at age 17. Now here’s the thing–those who have known me a long time would say that if anyone could handle this without missing a beat it would be me. My entire life has revolved around an incredible mix of people with issues of gender identity, socio-economic status and race. That being said, I certainly didn’t come armed with a script or have any idea how to explain this to my daughter (who, when I did, was so non-plussed she said “That’s so cool!”).
When my husband and I first started seeing each other the 16-yr old had no problem meeting me. We talked about the trials and tribulations of straightening our hair, I hipped him to an awesome flatiron, and I think he thought I was pretty damn cool. It took the 19-yr old a while to agree to meet me but when he finally did, I know I put him at ease. I know from what my husband tells me, and from what I sense, that at this point, while their mother seems to be on a bit of a hiatus from being a parent, that I’m doing a pretty decent job of paying attention to them and making them feel loved.
After over a year of knowing these magnificent young men, my life has been completely changed and enhanced in ways that were entirely unexpected. My heart swells when they smile and when they laugh with their father. I am moved beyond words when I watch them in private moments with my daughter. I know, having two big brothers of my own, that the relationships that are forming between them will be utterly priceless as the boys pave the way for her and counsel her as she follows along their trajectory.
It didn’t take us long to LOVE my stepson’s new girlfriend. She is adorable and delightful and makes him happy. As a mother, I’ve wanted to call hers to tell her this because every parent wants to know that they’ve done a really good job. I haven’t done this yet, because somehow, I still feel like I’m getting used to this role, but I will and in turn, I hope she tells me what a fine job my husband and I are doing to raise “our” son.
At thirteen, immediately after my parent’s divorce, my mother and I moved into what is apparently the only gated community in New York with its own zip code. I’ve recently learned that it also has its own self-generating power plant, so really, who wouldn’t want to live there?
The Towers apparently sit on the highest point of Queens. According to the rather fascinating Wikipedia entry, this “hill” was formed in the “last glacial period.” Now, apparently due to some serious melting, it’s an 18-hole golf course. The height sets off the three buildings so they can be seen from as far away as Connecticut. They cut a rather imposing figure from the Long Island Expressway and Grand Central Parkway. You could literally stand in one place and be in both Queens and Long Island at the same time. My favorite part of their placement is that they share land with Long Island Jewish Hospital where my mother spent time going in and out of the inpatient psych unit. Someone was clearly thinking ahead.
Living in North Shore Towers made me REALLY popular with my classmates who lived in normal, upper-middle-class suburban sprawl and didn’t have a “retail concourse” that included a movie theater and two restaurants underground. It housed the first atm machine I had ever seen (this was in 1979), buttons on the wall of a bank that made cool sounds and spit out money.
This subterranean mall connected three buildings. It was the perfect place for the disgruntled children of bitter divorces and hated stepmothers to run amok, completely unsupervised. We smoked cigarettes in the stairwells in our pajamas and smoked pot outside in the bushes near the pool. We went out for lunch at the deli-style restaurant, The Nibbler, and ordered whatever the hell we wanted. We made the rounds of each others apartments, all carbon copies of the others, and watched game shows after school. Like all other teenagers in America, we got bored out of our minds.
Recently as I’ve reconnected with people on facebook from junior high and high school, I’ve been reminded of the wild parties I used to throw at my apartment. Now very successful business men and women, after the initial “HEY, what-have-you-been-up tos” will say, “Remember those parties you used to have at North Shore Towers? Man, I used to get so drunk!” As soon as they say it, I get an image of well-groomed Jewish teenagers spilling through my door.
I have no recollection of how these parties formed. I guess I’d make a decision to have one, I’d tell one person, and friends would call others and say “Party at Gayle’s.” I would go down to the underground supermarket and buy Cheese Doodles and soda, chips and Lipton onion soup dip mix, M&Ms and called it a day. I have absolutely no idea of how the carpools worked, how late these kids stayed, and, the most vague of all, is where was my mother? Did these parties all happen when she was in the hospital? Was anyone staying with me? I remember just ONE time that she was in her room, in bed, and I went in to check on her with a cigarette in my hand. She asked for a “puff,” mistaking it for the first joint she might ever try. It took me a minute to convince her that it was just a cigarette.
I was not a drinker back then and can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been hungover. I don’t know who brought alcohol to these parties and I certainly don’t remember who brought the porn classic, “Deep Throat.” I DO remember a bunch of eager boys sitting on our orange nu buck suede couch trying to act really cool as if this was something they did every day. I remember flitting about also trying to act cool even though I had never seen porn before especially not in my own living room with 20 or so of my friends around. I remember it being really bad quality being played on the Sony Betamax but still being able to make out Linda Lovelace doing some pretty dirty things. I learned a LOT of things that night that I wasn’t necessarily prepared to learn.
The night came to a rather abrupt halt when someone (I remember it as Jimmy Klein but I think I’ve since been corrected) vomited orange soda all over our guest bathroom and then locked themselves in. I don’t know who picked anyone up or how they were ever allowed to come back. People don’t throw up at my parties anymore, and if anyone is watching porn they’re doing it on their i-phones, sitting on a sage green and not an orange suede couch.