Jen Doll | Longreads | September 2018 | 20 minutes (4941 words)
In the summer of 2017, when I was 41 years old, I temporarily lost my parents. This is both less and more dramatic than it sounds. On August 1st, the start of the Long Island beach house rental I’d arranged for the month, I got into a car with my mom and dad, who’d helpfully flown up from Florida to join me for the initial stage of this retreat after I realized I hadn’t driven since I was a teenager, and I wasn’t going to start trying again on the Long Island Expressway.
After we loaded the rental car and I dutifully fastened my seatbelt in the backseat, assuming the position of so many family road trips past, I realized I hadn’t mailed my maintenance for my Brooklyn apartment. “Hang on — I’ll be right back!” I yelled, grabbing the envelope with the check in it and dashing across the street toward a mailbox. My dad waited at the side of the road, but then came a surge of traffic, and then a cop, and he had to drive on. “Noooooooo!” I yelled, chasing after the rental car (what kind was it anyway? I had no idea!) in the heat, knowing even as I did my perfunctory sad jog that there was no way I’d catch up.
I had no phone, no purse, no keys, no way to communicate with them other than to send mental signals: I will be right here waiting for you, a Richard Marx song on repeat. When you lose someone, stay put!, I remembered, a lesson imparted at various times during my childhood. So I waited. And waited. Finally, I saw the rental car heading back in my direction. No need to know the make or model when Mom was leaning out of the passenger side window, waving in the wind, shouting my name at the top of her lungs. They’d found me.
It was not the most auspicious beginning to our trip, and I felt relief and embarrassment in equal measures. I was, by all accounts, an adult. Yet I was never really a grown-up, particularly not when my parents were around.
Let’s pause to consider the accepted markers of adulthood. You’ve heard them. Maybe you’ve achieved some, or even all: Graduating college. Getting a job, nay, jobs. Living alone — even better, buying your own home. Also thrilling: Buying a car. Moving in with a partner. Getting married. Having children — that’s a big one. It changes everything, or so I hear, garnering you a new sort of respect in the eyes of both parents and peers. Embarking on a career successful enough to do any/all of the former. Finally getting decent health insurance.
Heading into my 40s, I was falling short on these markers. While I had bought an apartment — with a parental assist; I had the privilege and shame of being one of those lucky ones — I lived in an expensive city with public transportation and frequently terrible men. For a long time, I had my eyes set not on babies or marriage, but on something more immediately doable: Renting a beach house for the month of August. What a grownup adult dream! I’d leave those suckers in the city behind to listen to ice cream truck jingles on repeat from morning ‘til night, to cope with trash piling up in public garbage bins, spilling over into sticky-sweet sidewalk puddles that attracted bees in ever-diminishing numbers, because humans were ruining everything, including bees. I suspected that the bees in coastal towns were happier. I wanted to live that way, too.
In 2016, I sold my first YA novel, Unclaimed Baggage, part of a two-book deal, and the time had come. I scoured Airbnb offerings through the fall, and finally chose a three-bedroom, two-bath house on a plot of land that butted against a nature preserve at the edge of Greenport, a historic seaport town on the North Fork of Long Island. The space was light and airy, an ideal spot for channeling one’s creative energies, perfect for working on book two (I fully expected book one to be done by then). The house was isolated enough to suffice as a writer’s haven, but within walking, or at least bike-riding, distance to beaches. There was plenty of room for visitors inside, and a farm stand right down the road.
My parents had taken us on so many trips over the years, I loved the idea that I might treat them for once. It was just the sort of thing successful adult children did — finally giving back to those who’d done so much for us. My brother and sister-in-law would join with their baby, all of us under one roof, the same but different. Beyond the joy of giving, I had the intoxicating feeling of my own adult power coming into play. I could choose, I could decide, I only had to click on the “Book” button and look what could happen! Just after Thanksgiving I did it, a large portion of my available cash going to something I wouldn’t see for 8 months. Who cared if endless sunny days and lobster rolls were a vague concept at that point? I could smell the sea-salty air.
It turns out, November to August is a long time. In those eight months, I filed my first book draft, got edits, did a revision, turned in a second draft, got edits again, and started to run on the fumes of hope and invoice schedules, realizing how easy it is to spend money and how hard it is to make it last. I started to panic about whether I could even write this book, whether I could write any book, or anything at all. I feared living largely alone in a strange house for a month. The city was one thing, but sleeping off a rural road with no one to hear me scream?
My dream had turned to reality, and suddenly I wasn’t even sure I wanted it.
On the way to our “Beautiful Country Cottage,” my parents and I talked about families. Friends of theirs had cut their adult daughter off of their phone plan, and she was very angry. We mused about my niece’s first trip to the beach, and when we’d last seen my aunt and uncle. And we talked about my several-months-new boyfriend, Ezra, and his family, a daughter who was in college and a son about to start his freshman year of high school. That weekend, Ezra would meet my family for the first time. He had plans to come every weekend after that, and at the end of the month, he would bring the kids for a few days, I told my parents. I saw this as another notch in my grown-person belt, but when my mother raised her eyebrows, I assumed the defensive. Was she about to tell me I shouldn’t move so fast, or even that this new guy I liked might be taking advantage? I needn’t have projected. What she asked was, “What are they like?”
“They’re great,” I answered. It was true. The first night I’d met Ezra’s daughter I’d tried to impress her with my hilarious but wise adult persona, and while I’m not sure I succeeded, she wrote down what I said in her iPhone — because it was funny? Because it was ridiculous? I’d rather not know. She and I would soon go on to talk about relationships and feminism and books, and I would try to channel my best adult advice tinged with reminiscences from my teenaged past. Ezra’s son and I would binge on Netflix while eating nachos in front of the TV. We’d discuss learning to drive, which sneakers were coolest, and the merits of Gucci slides, along with whatever was going on on the internet (thank God I could speak internet). We’d all groan at Ezra’s dad jokes.
At Christmas a bunch of years before, when I was still in my 30s, my mother had made a strange declaration. She’d announced that I’d probably never have my own kids, but I’d meet a man who had his own and I’d love them just as if they were mine. At the time, this seemed nuts. Now I was wondering if she was actually somewhat prophetic. I had no baby regret, but I saw the teens that had unexpectedly come into my life as a boon. We could be friends, or something close to it, me learning from them as they learned from me. Sometimes it felt like I related to them more than I did to my actual peers, friends who had their adulthood markers neatly crossed off their lists, their babies in their strollers and their savings accounts intact. But who said being a parent was required in terms of contributing to society? I had plenty to offer kids; I wanted them in my life, even if they weren’t mine. I’d been a kid, and I hadn’t forgotten how that felt. My sense of permanent teen-hood was part of why I was writing a young adult book.
The first problem upon our arrival to the beach house was figuring out the bedrooms. There were three, as described in the listing, but what became immediately clear was that only one of them was right for me. The upstairs room with the queen bed and en-suite bath had to go to my parents; it was the most adult-appropriate, and good for a couple. The large room in the front of the house with a full bed and an extra couch for sleeping, that would be my aunt and uncle’s, and when they left, my brother and sister-in-law’s, because it had room for a crib. And the tiny room off the kitchen that contained a washer-dryer and the distinct vibe of spinster aunt, that would be mine. I opened my mouth to protest, even as I knew resistance was futile. This was the only answer. I should have known all along.
“But I’m here the longest!” I said. “And I rented the house.”
“If you get scared when you’re alone, that door has a lock on it,” my mom pointed out.
“It also has a door to the outside!” I said. “Where murderers can get in!”
My dad noted cheerfully, “I guess Ezra can sleep on the couch!”
“What?” I asked. “Why would he do that?”
Frozen in my parents’ belief systems about me were at least three views: I was bad with money (not so, not since my young 20s — well, not exactly!), I was extremely sensitive and probably needed to develop a thicker skin (fair, but I’m a writer!), and, most generally and undeniably, I was forever who I used to be, the teenager under their roof, even when there was a new roof above our ongoing dance of parent-child dynamics. I didn’t blame them, really; I was in a way complicit. When it worked for me, like the ride to Greenport, I took it. When it didn’t, I pushed back. That’s when they’d start going on about my skin density.
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In the days that followed, we reinstated the pattern that typically held while we were together. We’d have breakfast, and then I’d work through the morning and early afternoon as they, along with my aunt and uncle, saw sights and shopped and went on bike rides. In the evenings, we’d come back together, kicking things off with a cocktail hour that moved into drinks with dinner and beyond. Sometimes we talked all night, empty bottles of wine collecting on the table, long-lost friends together again. Sometimes we argued, especially my dad and I, especially when it came to politics. He called me his “little liberal,” to which I took huge offense, which he both expected and intended. “Why do you have to bait me, though?” I’d ask, and he’d grin. This had been the game for so long, and I always lost. They always knew me better. After all, they’d known me since I was born.
They cooked dinner — lobsters from the fish market down the road, vegetables at the height of summer ripeness from the farmer nearby. They took care of me, and I let them. But I took care of them, too, in the ways I could. One night I told my mom and aunt we should wait and see how long it took my dad and uncle to clear the table, because the women were so frequently the ones who got up to do it by rote. We waited almost an hour, and then laughed hysterically when the men finally rose to assist. “I’m learning so much from you!” my aunt told me, and my mom, later, peppered me with questions about contemporary feminism.
As the days passed, I decided I was sick of being so limited by my fears. I needed to drive, and I was going to start now. I’d rent a car. I told my mom of my plan, expecting her to be proud that I was plunging headlong into something that scared me. Her answer threw me for a loop: “But I’m nervous about you driving out here!” she said. “You don’t even know how to drive! What if something happens?”
I was cranky and coddled, cosseted and stuck. My parents treated me alternately like I was a child and an adult, feeding me and then telling me things I didn’t want to know, about various ailments, or their relationship, or how something I was doing wasn’t the way they’d do it (which I took to mean: WRONG). No matter how old I got, we were always somewhere between a friend relationship and the relationship of parent and child. One day, they bickered on the way to dropping me off at a yoga class, and I exploded. “It’s not very much fun to hear you guys fight!” I said, and my mom shot back, “Well, it’s not like you’re perfect.”
“I never said I was,” I told them, wounded.
I didn’t want them to leave, and I wanted to be by myself. I wanted to be here, but in Brooklyn. I hated my life, and it was all I’d ever dreamed of. Maybe this is just how it is when you’re working on a book in which you’re channeling three teenagers, each with their own baggage, all that stuff we’re all trying to manage and find a way to exist alongside. Maybe this is the only way it ever is.
But because I was feeling guilt about not spending time with my family, for being a brat while they were here (something I almost always felt after a few days in the parental fold), my book-writing wasn’t going well, either. My parents would listen and try to advise, but it would inevitably sting: “You can’t just work, you need to make time for other things, too,” my dad would say, at the same time that I was thinking, “I only have to work harder! I can’t do anything but work! You just don’t understand!”
My aunt and uncle departed, and late Friday night, after my parents had gone to bed, Ezra arrived, carrying a mason jar full of hydrangeas, and suddenly everything was a little bit better. I felt like myself again in the context of this person who saw me differently.
The next day, my brother and sister-in-law and year-old niece joined us, and I was not the only child in the house, and that felt good. I decided to put aside the book for the weekend. Ezra made burgers for everyone. We played with the baby. But the end of the weekend came too soon, and my parents would be departing Tuesday. I was filled with more fear about being alone. It was a much further walk to town, along a bare highway road, than I had imagined. My mom had convinced me not to rent a car, and now she was making a list of things that weren’t right in the house, the one I had chosen. The bikes in the garage were rusty, and one had a broken chain. We couldn’t get the oven to work. There was no can opener. Who could live without a can opener? Each comment felt like a new deep cut, blow upon blow to my pathetic adult ego.
I tried to escape it all by taking a shower, and when I emerged from the bathroom my parents were standing in the kitchen, discussing what grocery items we should stock the house with before they left so I wouldn’t starve to death. My mom mentioned the broken oven again — she would not let up about the broken oven. They looked at me as I stood wrapped in a towel, and something in me was off, they knew. “Jennifer, are you OK?” my mom asked.
“No!,” I said, a wail escaping. “I’m not OK! I’m just … not!” There in the kitchen, my wet hair dripping onto the floor, I let loose a torrent of tears. “Everything is horrible! This house is horrible! I never should have rented it in the first place!”
“It’s really a nice house,” said my dad.
“It really is,” my mom agreed.
“I think you’re just very stressed out,” my mom added.
And I nodded, because I was. I was very, very stressed out, a raw nerve made more so by all of the expectations I’d put upon myself about this house, my family, myself. Why was it so hard to be happy in a family? Why is it so hard to be happy at all? They circled me in a hug, and I started laughing while I kept crying. I felt completely silly, an adult woman in a towel being consoled by her mom and dad. But somehow, whatever I was struggling with was starting to resolve itself.
On Tuesday, they left. I dug back into my book, figuring out some important things. I was alone most of the week, and I didn’t need a car at all. I biked to yoga on a (working) bike Ezra had brought me. Little bits of Klonopin before bed staved off the night panic, and though I woke up a lot, I felt pretty rested in the mornings. When I got scared, I locked the door to the little bedroom, like my mom had suggested. I also slept with the lights on, and when I came home from being out, I’d check under every bed and in the closets for potential murderers. But I didn’t really need to go much of anywhere, except into my teenage characters’ minds and hearts. All that was already there, living just below the surface, and sometimes right on top of it.
Every Friday night, Ezra would arrive late with another bouquet of hydrangeas. We came to like the little room at the back of the house. It just felt right.
The weeks kept going by, faster than I thought they could. Biking down the highway was fun. It made me feel like a kid again. Sometimes I’d cook a proper dinner, and sometimes I’d eat a plate of Goldfish, washed down with a glass of rose, and I’d think: This is living.
Friends came to visit, and I had writing company in the day. I was happy when they stayed over, another known presence in the house at night. Things were happening in my book. I was feeling more confident about the fixes that were finally coming out of my fingers, out of my brain. I talked to my parents on the phone and my mom would ask with concern how I was feeling, and my dad would remind me to try to get out and not just look at the computer all day. His advice felt less like an admonishment and more like caring. I talked to my therapist as I sat in the sun in the backyard, and things started to become more clear. To my parents, I was always and forever their kid, but that was simply a matter of perspective. We morph in and out of personas and roles, because we are all much more fluid than we are solid, we are all changed by the context. None of that made me less me.
We neared the end of the summer. How was this possible?
The second to last weekend in August Ezra was bringing his kids with him, and I knew which rooms they should have: the ones I would have wanted if I were them. His son loved to draw, and the big room at the front of the house had a chalkboard wall he could sketch on. Upstairs, the room with the full bath and the arched low ceiling would be perfect for his daughter. Ezra and I would, as usual, stay in the little room off the kitchen. It was ours.
The three of them arrived late on a Friday night, emerging from the car sleepy and blinking in the dark. They seemed shy. I hadn’t seen them in a while. It was the weekend of the eclipse, and I excitedly talked about what we could do, giving options I thought they might like, but they shrugged in that teenage way, whatever we did was fine, no big deal, whatever. Of course, I had to work anyway, I was down to the wire with my deadline.
So we did whatever.
During their stay, I’d ask for their opinions on plot and characterization, whether things seemed realistic, or what they’d want to read at a particular point. (Their advice was always spot-on.) We’d play card games at night, and one day we drove to the beach at Orient Point and Ezra’s daughter and I sat on towels, digging our fingers into the warm sand and talking as Ezra and his son ventured into the water. We went to another beach, this one swarmed with bugs, and when they started to attack us we ran back into the car and watched them dash to their deaths against our windshield. We walked along the pier and around Mitchell Park and talked about rappers and music and Snapchat, and we went into the store that sold every kind of hot sauce and then a souvenir shop where Ezra’s daughter bought a shot glass, because she was collecting them. We each paid a dollar for access to Greenport’s camera obscura, a small, dark building with a rotating mirror on the roof that projects an image of what’s happening outside onto a table in front of you. The table moved up and down, reflecting this mesmerizing movie about no one we knew, and we watched as a little boy ran to meet his parents, teenagers canoodled on park benches, dogs barked at the sea, people went about the varied and fascinating business of life.
On one of the last days there, as we walked around, we stumbled upon a table set up by the local animal shelter. There were several dogs for adoption, and we pet them and made our “awww” noises. Then we noticed a cage with three tiny black kittens in it, tumbled on top of each other, sleeping.
“We’re doing free adoptions for the month of August,” the volunteer told us, convinced she’d found takers. It seemed another prophetic message: Three cats, three of us! (I immediately lumped myself in with the kids without even stopping to think about why.) And anyway, they were free? Ezra was the only one of us not entirely thrilled with this idea. The practical parent, he pointed out the obvious — where would the kittens go while I was still in the Airbnb? His daughter would be renting an apartment in the city with three strangers in the fall. Any of them might be allergic, and could she really handle having a cat as a college student? What would she do with the cat in her as yet undefined, exciting future? “I want to go to grad school in California. I could drive cross country with him!” she said. “I want to name mine Pablo!” said Ezra’s son. “Look at how cute they are!” I said. “How can we not take them?”
Instead, we took the volunteer’s card and went to get lobster rolls. But we kept talking about the kittens — what did we need to do to adopt the kittens, we should go get the kittens, what was the best name for a black cat, what were the kittens doing now?
In the end, we did not get the kittens for innumerable totally legitimate reasons, and because of that, and everything else — the difficulty of being whatever age you are, when you’re in it, the neverending push-pull of want and need and can and can’t, the parental yes and the parental no — the next day, I found Ezra’s daughter crying in the kitchen, her head on his shoulder, much the same way I’d cried with my own parents a couple of weeks before. I understood.
Even though I’m pretty sure every YA author claims their teenage soul still exists, a literally unadulterated thread linking current-self to past-self and allowing for skillfully channeled teen voices to speak purely on the page — handily accessed for delivering teen themes and emotional truths via the increasingly veiny fingers of the adult writer — the fact is, adults are not teenagers. Oh, sometimes we would love to be, just the way I’m sure a lot of teens would love to switch places, Freaky Friday-like, with us … not permanently, no, but just for a tiny taste of how the other side lives.
In the absence of body-swapping magic, we circle each other warily, vaguely jealous of our very different powers — on one side, youth, ever the more valued by those who find it no longer in their possession, the exuberance of doing things for the first time, of believing that anything can happen. On the other side, there’s money, wisdom (maybe), and most importantly, freedom — to do what you want, to live how you desire, to escape the stringently defined teenage ecosystem, which is at its worst tyrannical, and at best claustrophobic. As an adult, anything can happen, but you’ve got to work, and pay, to make it so. You may be judged, sure, but the cage of existence has loosened, somewhat, from those earlier years. And yet, you can always regress again, when you’re with your parents, when you’re going through a particularly stressful time, when someone calls you a name or tries to make you feel less than yourself.
That teen space is always there, and I could put myself back in it in a moment. How I felt this need to fit in and this desire to be good and how both of those things conflicted with my desire to be myself — whoever that was, sometimes I thought I knew. I remembered feeling rejected, yearning, wanting more. I remembered feeling stuck, and how some days it felt like I was traversing entire continents, and how every so often I pretended to be sick so I didn’t have to go to school. I remembered falling in love, and falling out of it. I remembered dreaming about growing up to be a writer, just like my inspirations: Betty Smith and Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary and Lois Lowry and E.L. Konigsburg, women writers who stayed forever vital by writing about young people. I remember wanting a kitten so badly that I’d cry.
So much of being a so-called adult seems to involve pushing off those younger years, those old memories, those mistakes and supposedly immature accomplishments, to say you’ve moved on and are so glad you’re not there, anymore. But I suddenly saw the beauty in how my parents saw me: They kept me young as I got older, as I hurtled to the next version of their daughter. And so it was with everyone we know in a life, everyone we care about and have the luck of caring about for a long time, across stages of existence and age, because we all keep being new people, whatever ages we are. At the same time, we are always that which someone has known. You are ever transforming, but you keep the first somewhere within. You are you are you. We are not that different from teenagers, no matter how old we ever are.
On the day of the eclipse, I stayed home and worked — I would finish in a matter of a few days, I could see that now, and the panic I’d felt in the first weeks in Greenport was being replaced with something new, a kind of excitement tinged with apprehension, a frenetic need to be done. It was the “Great American Eclipse” and people were viewing it everywhere: Ezra’s mom out West, my parents in Florida. Ezra took the kids on a boat ride and then to watch the moon block out the sun. Alone inside the house, as it started to happen, I could feel the sky become an odd, murky grey, and I went to turn lights on. I walked to the back door in the little bedroom, unlocked it, and went outside. I wouldn’t gaze straight up at the sun — that would be dangerous. I knew better than that! Instead, I simply ventured out into the backyard as it got darker and darker, as birds became oddly quiet and the crickets ceased to chirp. I stood still and breathed and kept my eyes level and looked straight ahead, because sometimes you only need to see what’s right in front of you. Sometimes you just need to be wherever you are.
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Jen Doll is a freelance journalist and the author of the young adult novel Unclaimed Baggage as well as the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. She’s written for the Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, GQ, New York Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Vice, the Village Voice, The Week, and other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton
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