Trading Spaces

Ditching the Midwest for Southern California on the heels of a crushing divorce, the last thing Cheryl Jarvis wants is her 26-year old son for a roomie.

Cheryl Jarvis | Longreads | June 2020 | 15 minutes (3,812 words)

I’ve reread the letter so many times that coffee rings smudge the words. I’ve won a teaching position at the University of Southern California that will pay my way through graduate school. The year is 2004, and a longtime dream is finally a reality. The aftershocks of my shattered, decades-long marriage — the sleepless nights, the lost months — begin to recede as I fantasize about the life that awaits. Like millions of women before me I’ll go west, to exotic, sun-drenched California, to reinvent myself, start anew.

The ring of the phone jangles my daydreaming.

“Mom!”

My younger son, Brian, is calling from his home in Los Angeles. His deep voice oozes charm.

“How’s my Sweetie?” he asks.

When he wants something, he calls me “Sweetie.” In his youth he exploited his blue eyes and beguiling smile to get his way. At 26, with 1800 miles between us, he has to rely on more sophisticated techniques. My antennae heighten. He’s “psyched,” he says, that I’m coming to L.A., and he’s been thinking, what about living together?

No. No. God, no.

Images flash of size 13 sneakers sprawled across the floor, smelly workout clothes hanging in the bathroom and flung over chairs, grimy dishes congesting the sink, junk food crowding the pantry, the house teeming with testosterone, his friends invading with bulging duffel bags and monstrous appetites. I think of the grocery bills that I’ll end up paying, food devoured before I have a chance to shelve it. More memories of his high school days surface: the urgent calls from school to bring money/ homework/ permission slips, the last-minute requests for help with papers and projects, the late-night calls from the police for assorted misdemeanors. His college years — three schools and a marijuana arrest — ratcheted the strain. Finally, in the five years since he graduated, via long-distance mothering, we’ve evolved to a peaceful co-existence that I’ve not only grown accustomed to but have come to love. But living together?

No. No.

So focused am I on reasons not to live together, I can hardly concentrate on the reasons he lists in favor of it. I can’t say that I don’t want to live with him. I can’t hurt his feelings. Worse, I can’t say no. As a member of the SAP (Slave and Pushover) School of Mothering, I’m battling a long addiction to fulfilling his every need.

So focused am I on reasons not to live together, I can hardly concentrate on the reasons he lists in favor of it.

“I don’t think you want to live with me,” I say. “I’m messy.”

“It won’t bother me,” he says. “You’ll have your own room.”

“I’m really messy in the bathroom.”

“No problem. We’ll get an apartment with two of them.”

“I have noise sensitivity. I can’t listen to the TV or the stereo when I’m working. Especially rap music. I hate rap music.”

He laughs. “There is this invention called headphones, Mom.”

Finally, my trump card: “I won’t be able to deal with women traipsing in and out of the apartment. I can’t wake up in the morning with some young thing prancing around in her thong underwear.”

“But that’s why I want to live with you! I’ve got too many women in my life. You’ll be a barrier, and I need a barrier.” He pauses. “Anyway, I don’t let women spend the night. I always go to their place. I don’t like women in my room.”

I used to insist that I’d kill him if he married before the age of 30. Apparently I don’t need to worry.

He jacks up his appeal. His roommate lost his job and can no longer pay half the rent. He can’t afford to live by himself. Everyone he knows drinks or does drugs. I think back to when he was a little boy, determined to have the newest video games. First Atari, then Nintendo, then Sega, and on and on. He’d push and push, sometimes for months. In the end he usually got what he wanted.

I hear the tail end of his litany.

“…and what I need is a positive influence.”

“I’m a positive influence?”

“The most positive one I know.”

I don’t know if this is his charm at work, or if his life in L.A. has been more degenerate than he’s let on. I opt for the charm.

***

Two weeks later, I fly to Los Angeles to find an apartment for the two of us. We sign a ten-month lease, with me paying the security deposit and two-thirds of the rent. It occurs to me — too late! — that he figures he can come out ahead financially. When it comes to giving my sons money, I’m the biggest sap of all.

On the plane ride home I struggle not to feel depressed. I thought my active “mom” days were over. I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to clean. I don’t want to listen. I don’t want to think of anyone but myself. After decades of putting others’ needs before my own, I feel entitled.

With mixed emotions, excitement now tempered by dread, I pack my belongings, load my Honda Accord and leave St. Louis. After three days of driving, I arrive at the California state line, cars suddenly cramming the highway in both directions. The last four hours feel like forty, and by the time I arrive at our downtown apartment sweltering and exhausted, it’s past ten. I open the door to discover that the space that looked small to begin with looks even smaller with Brian’s gear in it. The last place I lived with him was our three-bedroom house, where he had the entire lower level as his personal lair. I am now staring at 920 square feet and feeling both disquieted and diminished. My bedroom is the size of the walk-in closet I had growing up.

There’s a note on the kitchen counter.

Congratulations, you made it! Here are your keys. They only gave me one set so I made copies for you. I’ve fixed the apartment the best I could, but it’s your place so rearrange it however you want. Can’t wait to see you!

I open the refrigerator to find grapefruit juice and eggs and English muffins and orange marmalade and strawberries, my favorite breakfast foods. Neatly aligned in the pantry are a dozen cans of vegetables, three boxes of cereal, and a stack of protein bars. A new roll of toilet paper hangs in my bathroom. Too spent to be startled, I collapse on a bare mattress and fall asleep in my jeans.


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The next morning, I begin teacher training, which I thought would take a few hours but in fact runs all day long for two weeks. Within days, I feel more overwhelmed than I could ever imagine. The day classes start I still don’t have a desk. Our 300-unit building is a maze, and each day I struggle to find my way to the garage, the mail room, the leasing office. Once out of the building, I encounter drivers cursing me in unfamiliar languages, whole streets cordoned off for filmmaking, police cars patrolling every block, sirens blaring every night. A lifetime of living in a bedroom community in St. Louis has not prepared me for the streets of downtown L.A. I am terrified that on my first day of teaching I’ll get hit by a maniac or mowed down by a bus.

“I’ll drive you to school in the morning and walk you to your class,” Brian says that evening.

“You’re going to drive me to school?”

“Sure. Can’t have you late on the first day.”

When I wake up the next morning, I find another note on the kitchen counter.

Mom — As you start classes this week, I want to tell you how proud I am of you.

It took a lot of courage to come to California and immerse yourself in unfamiliar turf, but you did it. There may have been stumbles along the way, but getting here was half the battle and the road can only get smoother. Here’s to making every day count!

The note makes me smile but wonder: Is it that obvious I need a pep talk?

Two hours later, he walks by my side, a 6’2” bodyguard. I’m 5’9” but next to Brian I feel royally petite. I don’t know whether I’m grateful because I’m going to get to class on time or embarrassed because I need him to help me get to class on time. There’s a noticeable resemblance between us: dark brown hair, broad shoulders, long limbs. I’m nervous someone will see me being escorted to class by — egad — my son, until I realize that I know almost no one on campus.

The first weeks of teaching and studying are painful. My graduate classes in dramatic writing are filled with students younger than my sons, and each day I ask myself why I spent seven years supporting my husband through school instead of earning graduate degrees myself. The toughest part, though, is the teaching. Though I’ve taught for years, I’ve never taught academic writing so I find myself lost in the language of Aristotelian appeals and Ciceronian structure. For all my comprehension the course book may as well be on patent law.

One late night after a long, frustrating day, I can’t find my car in the seven-tiered campus parking garage. It’s not that I can’t find the space it’s in, it’s that I can’t remember the floor. Sure that I’ll be mugged at this hour, I walk tense and dazed from one level to the next, finally locating it on the fifth try. I’m relieved but rattled and, as I maneuver down the narrow turns of the long, spiral exit ramp, the car slams against the curved wall. As soon as I arrive home, I throw myself on my bed. The sobs come quickly and loudly.

Brian comes into my room, maneuvering his way around the papers and books strewn all over the floor.

“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“I’ve made a terrible mistake. I want to leave. I don’t like Los Angeles. I don’t like the classes I’m taking. I don’t like the class I’m teaching. And I hate that parking garage!”

“You just got here. No one adjusts to L.A. overnight. Give yourself some time.”

“It’ll get better,” he goes on. “In the morning the world will be a brighter place.

Isn’t that what you used to tell me?”

Having tucked me in with his words, he pads out of the room.

***

Life doesn’t get better. The workload grows more demanding, the days so frantic I have time only for a bowl of soup in the school cafeteria. One night, I come home especially stressed and starved. I head for a package of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies. The rustling of the package brings Brian out of his room.

“Have you had dinner?” he asks.

“No.”

“Mom, you can’t have cookies before you eat something substantial. It’s not healthy. You need energy to do good work.”

My eyes narrow. I glare at him. “I don’t want something substantial. I want cookies. And I’ll eat the whole package if I want to!”

“Well,” he says, “I’ve made chicken. It’s in the fridge.”

As I add a piece of chicken to the cookies, I realize the only food that’s come into the apartment is the food that he’s carried in. I taste the chicken roasted with bay leaves and garlic cloves and wonder, When did he learn to cook?

I used to insist that I’d kill him if he married before the age of 30. Apparently I don’t need to worry.

Nothing’s familiar in this city of nearly four-million, and everything confuses me, then irritates me, including the wayward computer wires hanging visibly beside my desk. In a fit of pique I try to lift the 200-pound desk and wrench my back. I’m in for a three-week siege. I can’t sit, drive, or move without hurting. Brian takes me to the health center, collects my medicines at the pharmacy, borrows a hot-water bottle from a girlfriend, drives me to and from class. My crying jags are relentless.

“This must be a sign,” I say. “I’m in the wrong place. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You wanted a graduate degree,” Brian reminds me.

“There’s too much work!”

“What’d you expect from grad school?”

“I don’t know, but not this! I haven’t even had time to go to a movie!”

An avid filmgoer, I haven’t seen one since arriving in L.A. Going to the movies could always lift my spirits, but here in the city that produces them, I don’t have the time or energy to battle the freeways, the crowds, the parking.

The next Sunday, to celebrate the healing of my back, Brian takes me to the famed Chinese Mann Theater and to dinner afterward. It is my best day. Life feels hopeful again.

The next week, he sees me lean over to lift a file basket.

“Mom!” he yells, “don’t lift anything heavy! I’ll do it.”

He moves the files.

“Have you been stretching like you’re supposed to?” he asks.

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to.”

“I remember when I was growing up, you’d be outside jumping rope before breakfast. You used to teach exercise. What happened?”

“My marriage ended. I’m depressed.”

“If you’d work out, you’d feel better. You need to at least stretch, protect your back.”

To support his acting and screenwriting endeavors in Hollywood, he’s held a multitude of jobs, including one as a personal trainer. Within five minutes of getting up every morning, he’s stretching his long limbs. He goes to the gym three days a week; other days he swims or runs. I’m lucky to drag myself out of bed each morning.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I say.

He shakes his head, non-aerobically.

***

Euphoria that I can walk again without hurting is short-lived. Within days, I have lost my glasses and must now wear contacts 14 hours a day, something I haven’t done in 20 years. I discover that my old frames are no longer available, and staring at hundreds of new ones at Lenscrafters, I cannot make a decision, which leaves me desolate. I take out my contacts as soon as I get home in the evenings, but without glasses my life is a literal blur, which produces a constant headache. Then the roughest patch hits: I come down with a severe cold and a hacking cough, ensuring that my nights feel as miserable as the days.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so pathetic. I’d been a magazine and newspaper editor used to deadlines. Now I procrastinate on every class assignment. I’d been a TV producer, speed racing to create a national talk show five days a week. Now I’m moving so muddled and slowly Brian is leaving me notes: I made tuna salad — it’s in the fridge — and I vacuumed. Don’t forget to go to the health center!

X-rays reveal bronchitis. I walk around campus like a zombie, my eyes bloodshot, my chest aching. Longing for comfort food, I discover I left my wallet at home. I call Brian with a frantic plea. Thirty minutes later, he brings the money that will get me through the day. After a late-afternoon class, I arrive home at 7 p.m. and crawl into bed with an Agatha Christie mystery. I hear a knock, then see a shadowy hulk in the doorway.

“Just checking to see how you are,” he says.

“I’m sick.”

“Have you got your short story finished?”

“No.”

“Isn’t it due in two days?”

“Yes.”

“Then what are you doing reading another Agatha Christie?”

“I don’t want to work on the short story. It’s too hard.”

“Maybe if you’d sit at the computer and start writing it’d get easier.”

I glare at him.

He shakes his head.

“Boy, it’s going to be a long time before I have children,” he muses. “Living with you is like living with a difficult teenage daughter.”

I know criticism when I hear it, but his words make me secretly happy. Anything I can do to ward off an early marriage.

He looks at me curiously.

“You know, I grew up thinking you were supermom. Now I look at you and wonder, have you changed, or was my perception really off?”

“I’ve changed,” I say quickly, then utter my mantra. “My marriage ended. I’m depressed.” I pause. “Your perceptions were right.”

He doesn’t look convinced.

At Christmas, I’m too sick to battle the crowds. I tell him we’ll go out afterwards and he can select his own gifts. Christmas morning, he surprises me with presents: books and chocolates and a bamboo plant. The tags all read, “from Santa.”

“I thought you needed a special Christmas,” he says.

***

Over the winter break, I run into our apartment manager, a beautiful young woman named Ashley. She asks how my son is. “Such a hunk,” she adds with longing.

I think of his dark curly hair, his olive skin, the megawatt smile, the muscled

torso that from hips to shoulders makes a perfect V. I remember when he was in high school the trips to the dermatologist, the shyness with girls that continued through college. When did he become an object of lust?

To Ashley I say, “You think so?”

“Absolutely. And what a catch. He’s always coming to the office asking for this for you or that for you. That’s how you know how a man will treat you. You look at how he treats his mother.”

I think back to how he treated me during his high school years, when he greeted me with a scowl most mornings and seethed when I asked about his day. His immaturity caused problems with school, with girls, with teachers, with the law. I think of the night he was arrested on a marijuana charge and my car impounded, the emotional weight of living with a defiant child.

My thoughts return to Ashley’s words and the articles in women’s magazines that make the same point. I think of the women’s phone numbers scribbled across business cards and Post-it notes that I’ve seen lying on his desk when I’ve gone looking for staples. I’ve also seen the condoms in his wastebasket. His bartending job means our hours at home rarely coincide, and I realize how little I know of his life when he’s not with me. One thing I do know: He has women in his room after all. I realize that as long as I don’t have to see them, I don’t care.

***

One day I overhear a phone conversation. “I couldn’t have my mom trying to handle L.A. on her own,” he says, “so I’m letting her stay with me for a few months, showing her the ropes.”

So that’s how he explains me. I find his words both poignant and exasperating. Poignant because I realize he needs to save face. Exasperating because his lines with other women are as smooth as they are with me.

***

Second semester, I may know my way around, but the schoolwork shows no sign of easing. I panic when I have to turn in an assignment, panic more when I have to read it in class. I came to L.A. filled with ideas for screenplays, but screenwriting is the hardest writing I’ve ever done. Within two months I know it’s not for me.

“Could you read my screenplay pages?” I ask him. “Tell me honestly what you think.”

“Sure.”

He sits at the dining table and reads.

After a while, he looks up.

“It’s a good idea for a script,” he says, “but the dialogue’s terrible.”

“That bad?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What am I going to do? I have to read it in class tomorrow!”

He cancels his plans to go to Malibu with a girlfriend to help me with my screenplay.

“I’m sorry I’ve become such a burden,” I say.

“That’s okay. I’m glad I can finally pay you back.”

“Pay me back?”

“Yeah. For all the times you helped me.”

“With your schoolwork?”

“That, and everything else. All the meals you’ve fixed for me. All the times you took care of me when I was sick. My bike accident, my knee operation.”

“I’d forgotten about all that.”

“I haven’t.”

I let his words hang for a moment.

“So… does that mean you’d like to live together another year?”

“Well… I didn’t say that.” He pauses. “But if you need me to, I will.”

I cry because my first year in L.A. wasn’t just about earning a degree and getting over my marriage. It was about living with my son and discovering not the boy I’d known but the man he’d become.

I consider his offer. I think how comforting it would be to have him do the heavy lifting for another year, to handle the shopping and cooking and leasing-office logistics. To have someone who cares how my day goes and, when it doesn’t go well, who’d be a sleeve to cry on. A steady and companionable presence.

What makes the offer tempting, however, isn’t need but want. My desire for his company embarrasses me.

“That’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

“It’s funny, but I thought living with you would keep women away. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve got more of them calling than ever.”

I think of Ashley’s words and smile.

***

Thankfully, the school year finishes before it finishes me. One year down, one to go. I find a studio apartment in another building downtown. Brian moves in with a girlfriend. The day we move out of our apartment I find a note on the kitchen counter:

Mom — I’m really glad we had this time together. Living with your mother is never going to be an ideal situation, but you’ve done more good for me this year than you realize. The day may come when our times together are few and far between, but we’ll always have Los Angeles.

I cry while I pack. Not over my grad-school work, which was disappointing at best. Not over my teaching evaluations, the worst I’d ever received. I cry because my first year in L.A. wasn’t just about earning a degree and getting over my marriage. It was about living with my son and discovering not the boy I’d known but the man he’d become. At a time when I felt like a has-been as a wife, lamentable as a student, and lost as a teacher, I realized that to have raised a son like him, somewhere in a former life I must have done well as a mother.

Not until a year later, when the pain of divorce and the demands of graduate school had lifted, did I realize that he’d been in trouble when I’d moved to L.A, struggling with his finances and floundering with his career. I don’t know which was the bigger surprise, that his caregiving would feel so good to him, or to me.

* * *

Cheryl Jarvis is a New York Times bestselling author and freelance writing coach. Her books have sold in 19 countries.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Whole 60
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People
We Are All We Have
Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging — and Grief
How I Got My Shrink Back
Molly and the Unicorn
Self Portrait with iPhone