It is Thursday evening, just before a long weekend, and instead of relaxing before an extra day of recreation, our family is making frantic preparations: cleaning dark corners, decorating, buying delicacies. Anticipation is high as we prepare for the arrival of the love of my 16-year-old son’s computer focused life, his cyber-girlfriend, Shawna.
It is hard for me to believe. Our Jake, a gawky, scrawny, six-foot tall mass of bone and sinew with few social graces and fewer words has somehow not only electronically entranced a female of the species, but convinced her and her father to drive the 600 miles up the coast to meet us all in person. Usually cool, Jake is a little nervous even though he claims to know Shawna well from five months of chatting on the Internet. They have exchanged pictures, via snail-mail, and hers are on display by the computer terminal. She is an attractive girl with dark hair and a snazzy personality that shows even in the Polaroid. It is easy to imagine that he would want to impress her.
The evening wears on. After pacing miles between the kitchen and living room, Jake cleans his room (unasked), burning a scented candle and inviting me in to see if everything smells okay. Smell must be on his mind. He showers, washes all his bed linens and clothes, brushes and flosses his teeth twice, and sends me to the store for new, better smelling mouthwash. “Jacob,” I finally say, “what’s up?”
“Mom,” he replies, “I don’t want to smell like a boy!”
Late that night it feels like Christmas Eve. I am exhausted from a day full of activity and anticipation. The house gleams, the laundry folded and put away, floors clean and polished, the smell of freshly baked cookies lingering in the shiny kitchen. I collapse on the couch as Jake rises. “I’m going to bed,” he says.
“So early? It’s only 9:00,” I say. He gives me one of his sardonic looks and stalks off. Minutes later I hear the shower.
As I relax into the couch I am aware of a feeling that’s been nagging at the edge of my mind all day. I am worried. Worried that this girl, about whom we really know nothing, will break my son’s heart. That she’ll take one look at him and decide it was all a mistake. Or worse, she’ll mesmerize him and become the only influence in his young, inexperienced life. He’ll become her love slave, unwilling and unable to listen himself or anyone else. For instance, me. I stop myself in mid-fantasy, knowing that if I continue to spin out this tale it will become increasingly depressing.
As I think about it, I am shocked to realize that what I have labeled worry is walking a fine line between jealousy and lack of faith. Jealousy of their youth, their passion, and lack of faith in my son’s ability to sustain a relationship. I don’t know which disturbs me more. It is a thankless task this being a parent. It’s so much work, and just when you think you can see an end to it, it turns on you, and the mirror of yourself in your children becomes too evident to ignore. I see myself in the fledgling relationship of my son and this girl, this Shawna, as a controlling, meddling, overbearing mother. “But I just want him to be happy,” I inwardly wail as my mind answers, “Yeah, right. As long as you can control everything.”
I am too tired to indulge in this kind of revealing self-therapy, and soon I am in bed, realizing that all too soon the new day will arrive and, with it, Shawna and her father. I sleep fitfully, awakening several times during the night, marveling at my state of anxiety. If I’m this jittery, how must Jake be feeling?
Toward morning, I fall into a deep sleep and begin to dream. In my dream Shawna has arrived and is standing by the door. This Shawna is not like any of her pictures. She is tall and ungraceful, uneasily clutching at her elbows. Her dull, brown hair stands up in strange clumps, and she wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses. Her eyes look suspiciously like they might cross at any moment. I reach out to give her a hug, and she shrinks from me ungraciously. I am impatient and sorry for her at the same time. Then Jake comes into the room with a new girlfriend, a girl who looks suspiciously like a smaller version of himself: red curly hair, freckles, lively, cute. In my dream I know her; she is his childhood friend, his sidekick. I am shocked that they have so suddenly become a couple when the day before they were just friends. But suddenly, faced with Shawna, he has realized that his real, true love is the red-haired buddy. And I can’t blame him; she is fun, poised, well-mannered, comfortable. She laughs and is charming while the dream Shawna stands there like a lump. The dream ends with the four us in that room: Shawna, eyes glued to the floor; Jacob and his dream buddy standing close together, smiling, ignoring everyone else; and me in the middle, happy for Jacob, but wondering what we are going to do about Shawna.
I awake, wondering at the intensity of the dream, knowing it’s important. Later, I am at the kitchen sink, my hands in warm, soapy water, when it hits me. I think of how the dream Shawna resembles Jake: his fumbling, adolescent, uncomfortable self. Before I even finish the thought, I realize that the red-haired dream girlfriend also resembles him. She is smart, good-natured, humorous, and ready to love and be loved. For some reason I begin to weep, and I stand at the sink for some minutes, tears running down my face.
The rest of the morning is spent on last minute details: polishing the already clean kitchen sink and counters, gathering up the few papers left on my desk and stashing them in a drawer, brushing down a stray cobweb from the living room ceiling. Then suddenly, the wait is over. There is a knock on the door. The father, a pleasant bearded man, appears, and behind him is the real Shawna we’ve all been waiting for. She is pert and friendly, her dark hair shiny, her eyes bright and direct. I watch Jacob as he says his first hello. He is in heaven. And even though I know that he will suffer from this first love, that this is only one of many steps that will take him away from me and my protection, I also know it is the beginning of a journey that will make him a man. I stand back during the initial flurry of hugs and incoherent greetings, and then it’s my turn. I step forward, take her hand and smile. “Shawna,” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Strangely enough, I find I am.