It’s getting on seven o’clock Saturday night. I’m sitting in the kitchen, by myself, a pot of ribs in the oven, a pair of dinner settings on the table, thumbing through an out of date newspaper. There’s no sign of Andy anywhere. We had planned dinner at six so we could be finished before an eight o’clock football game he wants to watch with his friends, but he called around 5:30 to tell me he was running late. I am feeling squeezed; not an uncommon feeling when it comes to Andy.
Andy is my nineteen year old son, back in Cambridge after a rocky freshman year at Cornell where he mostly learned what he doesn’t want – Ivy League pressure, fraternities, Engineering. He’s taking a year off, living with his mother, working part time as a lifeguard, taking two courses at a local college, and planning to hike the Appalachian Trail with some high school buddies come spring. Since being home he and I have dinner together once a week, a schedule I pronounced the day he returned, in a parental voice that disallowed negotiation. For me, it seems a paltry amount of time after spending 18 years of three afternoons a week plus alternating weekends together, but to an adolescent fresh off a year of independence, I suspect I’ve created a burden.
The oven clock dings seven and my temper stirs. Maybe when he finally arrives I’ll remind him how important it is to keep appointments. But he did call, which is polite. Maybe I’ll demand a bigger time slot in the future so I cannot be boxed in between other plans. Maybe I’ll… The basement door opens, shuts. I catch a deep breath. Maybe I’ll just put my temper on hold, skip the disciplinary tone and let the evening evolve. After all, how many times did my father expect to have dinner with me when I was nineteen? Exactly never, which is why I think it is important.
“Hey Dad, sorry I’m late.” Andy bounds up the stairs, flushed from hurry. The kitchen throbs with youthful energy that quashes my anger. Andy stands taller than me, leaner too. He drapes a casual arm around my shoulder and smiles with an easy confidence that I’ve seen him throw in a thousand directions, but when he tosses it my way, it always makes me glow. Perhaps someday I will look at this young man, so different from me, without being dazzled. But by the mystery of genetic fate he is my son, and that wonder has yet to wear off. Where I am rock, he is wheel where I am Woody Allen, he is Brad Pitt, where I am the infield fly, he is the long ball; and although the world accommodates solid chumps, nebbish comics and spiked parabolas like me, what we idolize is what Andy’s got – fluid beauty and grace.
Andy’s appetite is huge but simple, long on protein, tolerant towards vegetables and salad, short on dessert; so dinner is ribs, ribs and more ribs plus a few raw carrots, rice and a mix of romaine, parmesan and Caesar. He is full of talk; he’s got a new venture. Seems he did the math and realized that part-time lifeguarding was not going to generate the money he’ll need to spend four months on the AT. His mother and I decided that although an extended walk in the woods is a valiant undertaking, it is not the same as sitting in a college classroom, so we are not going to foot the bill for his hike. His entrepreneurial response has been to post notices around the neighborhood seeking odd jobs. I smile at the naiveté of telephone pole posters in an internet world, but sure enough, Andy’s phone has been ringing. He spent the afternoon putting together furniture for a local business, will be painting a porch tomorrow and is cleaning out an old women’s basement on Monday. “I already have jobs lined up for next week; if I didn’t have classes on Tuesday and Thursday I could make a killing.”
After Andy reports his business news, our talk falls into our predictable pattern. I ask about his classes, he responds. They are a breeze. I ask about lifeguarding, he responds. It is the easiest job in the world. I ask about college transfer plans, he responds. He has seen his old guidance counselor, has made some selections, and is on track with the paperwork. I ask about his older sister, Abby. He responds. They have not been in touch. I ask about his friends. He gives a breakdown on the ones I know. There is an interview quality to our talk. After all, we are father and son, close by the measures applied to that relationship, but not exactly friends. Some evenings, towards the end of the second helping, some thread of interest will take hold and our conversation will linger beyond the meal. We might latch on to politics, where Andy is well informed but uninterested; or science, on which he is keen; or even religion, which he finds incomprehensible. On those magic nights we transcend our litany of logistics and single sentence responses. We explore the realm of ideas on a plateau unbound from our roles as parent and child.
But Andy eyes the clock; almost eight, and I accept that this will not be one of those nights. “Do you want any dessert?” I ask in the dim hope of delaying his departure; Andy rarely eats sweets. “You know, some ice cream would be good after the ribs.” Ice cream is a staple in my house, on hand with greater predictability than even milk or bread.
I get us each a dish. I sit back down and ask if he’s seen any movies. “No time, but I’m reading this cool book at the pool.” Lifeguards have long breaks, which Andy finds good for reading. “It’s a Harlan Corbin mystery.” I had never read Harlan Corbin until I learned Andy enjoyed them, and then I read one to get the taste. He asks me what I am reading. I tell him I am deep in Les Miserables, the annual novel selected for my Great Books group. I explain how contemporary I find the style, the participatory narrator, and the long tangential detours Victor Hugo takes to immerse the reader in 1830’s Paris. Andy compares my comments to some of the books he read in his freshman seminar at Cornell. The clock slips past eight. For all that he considers his year there a waste; his critical thinking skills are keen and sharp.
Our spoons scrape the bottom of the ice cream bowls. Andy stands up, grabs mine, heads to the sink and starts to wash them out. I don’t even have to ask. I grab a towel, begin to dry. We stand side to side, silent in our simple tasks. I am thankful that we never got in the habit of an automatic dishwasher.
“Dad, do you mind if I ask you a question?” Andy’s voice is measured, thoughtful.
My heart stops. Only a terrible question could require that preamble. But there is no choice in how to respond. “No, go ahead.”
“How did you do it? I mean, how did you and mom do it?” He struggles for words, which results in a question so broad I am baffled and a little worried.
“Do what?” He was three years old when his mother and I split up; he has never asked a single question about it. Even though she and I have one of those odd, lucky divorces where we remain civil and sometimes friendly, he must know that at some time in the past, a time proximate to his birth, a volcano erupted and two reasonable people who had committed their lives forever crumbled under the folly of such optimism. We shall never know how the separate lives Lisa and I carved out of our diminished, if more realistic, expectations contributed to the children we have raised.
“How did you teach me and Abby to be responsible? How did you know when to give us what we wanted and when to hold back?”
“Do you mean why didn’t we give you money for the Trail? I know some of your other friend’s parents are contributing.”
“No, that’s not it; I mean I guess that’s part of it. You see, I have to make the money and so I am making it, and they don’t have to make it and so they’re just hanging around. How did you know that it would be better for me to make the money myself?”
I could have cried, except I knew that would be wrong. I pushed the well of sentiment in my chest aside and focused on his words. “There is no formula, Andy; your mother and I make it up as we go along, just like you do.”
“No you don’t.” He sets a dripping plate in the rack and looks me in the eye. “You and mom are not random. You’re the furthest thing there is from random.”
I laugh. It’s rewarding, and also creepy, when your children come to know you so well. “It’s about consistency, and having guidelines. Some things are easy. We pay for college, but we don’t dole out party money. The grey areas are trickier. Like last year when you were having a tough time and so I paid for your spring break trip; but this year we figured if you really wanted to do the Trail, you have the time and ability to make the money yourself. Sometimes you’re still a kid and need a little extra help; but sometimes it’s good for you to shoulder your own load.”
“Well, just for the record, you should know that you’re doing it right.” Andy looked out the window as he said this, which I appreciated. Compliments between guys are always awkward.
“Thanks.” This was enough deep bonding for one evening. I had gotten more than I could expect from our dinner; it was time to set him free. “So, where are you watching the game tonight?”