Ben, my oldest son, is thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the room with a thousand-yard stare, which can only mean one thing.
For the past year or so, he has been growing into an awareness that girls might merit special attention. More recently, they have emerged as full-bore forces of nature. He comes home with reports that some friend or other has asked a girl to “go out.”
What does this mean, exactly?
To Ben, “going out” is still mostly an abstract concept, like Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities are to you and me. Sure, you know the term. Maybe you’ve even put a little skin in the game, even though you really have no idea what’s behind that curtain.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get burned.
Susan Dunlap was the first girl I ever asked to “go out.” This is what I remember about her: she had black hair cut in a pageboy; she had a small nose; she was partial to cardigan sweaters. In the sixth grade, the playground was divided by long-standing treaty into a boys’ side and a girls’ side. “Going out” meant that you had permission to meet in the demilitarized zone beneath the geodesic monkey bars in the middle of the playground. My personal fantasy conjured a scene of great specificity: Susan, backlit by a brilliant April sun, her pageboy framed by the dome’s interlocking metal triangles, her thin cotton cardigan ruffling in the gentle breeze. And me, her dashing companion.
When I asked her to “go out,” she blushed. The exact shade, I remember thinking at the time, of Big Red chewing gum. She even blushed the shade of my favorite chewing gum. Could she be any more perfect?
Then she said this: “No.”
In the movies, the guy who got dumped always had some macho outburst, an existential fist shake at his lovelorn status. So after school I smashed a Hot Wheels car on the pavement and shouted, “Women!”
That night I was supremely bummed out. My Hot Wheels car, a 1975 red Camaro, was busted.
I was sure I would never find another girl I wanted to “go out” with, but then came seventh grade. Pam Owens singlehandedly put sexy back in tan corduroys and Wallabees. She sat next to me in home economics. She laughed at my jokes. When I used the sewing machine to make a perfect fabric version of a paper football, all the other girls (including the teacher, unfortunately) thought it was stupid, but Pam thought it was like, totally cool!
We had it goin’ on!
In my mind.
The day I asked her to “go out” she laughed. Not a tittering, flattered laugh. A barking, snorting guffaw.
Then she said this: “I am definitely not into that.” By that she apparently meant me, because within a week the news was all over school that she was “going out” with someone else.
Which explains why I did not ask anyone to “go out” again until I met Dena in grad school. And even then I did not ask her to “go out” until we were already engaged.
So, it is against this inauspicious backdrop that I find myself trying to help Ben decipher the opposite sex. Not long ago, every time Ben saw Melanie (her name has been changed to protect the author’s family’s lower extremities) she kicked him. She would cross a crowded room specifically to bash her toes into his shins.
“Why is she doing this to me?” he said one afternoon, rubbing his shins ruefully.
“It probably means she likes you,” I offered.
“How, Dad? How does it mean she likes me?” He was hoping I would hand him a Rosetta Stone to decipher the things girls do and say. Unfortunately, Ben and I are in this together. I have no better explanation for why affection should be expressed via shin kicking than he does.
The shin kicking went on for weeks, and then one evening he said, “Dad, today Melanie came up to me and said, ‘I’m not going to kick you anymore.’ Does this mean now she doesn’t like me?”
“Depends. Did she start kicking someone else?”
He sighed. “I so don’t understand girls.”
Without realizing it, he had summed up what it means to be young and discovering the mysteries of relationships. Sometimes love kicks you in the shins. Sometimes you miss a smashed Hot Wheels car more than a lost girlfriend. But rarely does it make any sense.
In the next few years someone will come into Ben’s life who removes the quote marks from “going out.” The preoccupation will be with more than a cardigan innocently riffling in an April breeze, and the potential hurt will run much deeper than his shins.
I don’t pretend I’ll have any better answers for Ben than I do now. The best I can hope is that he’ll still come around with his puzzlements and his questions. The pleasures and the pains will be all his own, but hopefully I can provide a little context for both. When things go wrong, maybe I can help him shake his existential fist without breaking important things.
And the times when the mysteries are too deep and impenetrable for either of us? That’s what the thousand-yard stare is for.