[Author’s note: this is as accurate (as I can make it) of a recounting of a long-running series of conversations between my son and myself over a period of years. I became a single father when he was only three and remarried when he was five. We have had (and have) a pretty close relationship throughout all these years, and discussed any number of things, not the least of which has been the subject of relationships.
I realize, looking back on this, that I probably could have given him better advice than I did; but I was trying to find a way to deal with these issues using both honesty and humor, and this, for better or worse, is what resulted. – S.B.]
It started when my son was in second grade. He wanted to know why the girls on the playground would come up and push him, or hit him, and then would run away; or why sometimes they wouldn’t talk or respond to him.
“Because girls are mean,” I said. (I realized, of course, that the stock answer is, “That means they like you,” but I went with a different tack.)
“They are?” — he asked me.
“Yes. And boys are stupid.”
He looked at me as we drove along in the car, expecting more.
“It isn’t that boys aren’t mean sometimes, and girls aren’t stupid sometimes, because they are. But girls, no matter how mean they act, will hardly ever admit to being mean: and boys, no matter how stupid they act, will hardly ever admit to being stupid.”
“So, girls are mean… that’s why they hit me during P.E.?”
“Yes, and you don’t understand it because….”
“… because I’m a boy, and boys are stupid.”
So now, go forward about a year-and-a-half. We are at a party at my fabulously wealthy ex-boss’s house sprawled over 15 acres and a lake. My son is playing hide-and-seek with our host’s daughter and her friends (all girls) and I am standing on the back deck, drinking with a bunch of other guys from work and the husbands of women from work. My son walks by (cutting between two back doors in the back of the house), and we have this exchange:
“Whatcha doing, son?”
“I’m playing hide-and-seek with Aliza and her friends.”
“I think they might have left the house.”
“No, the one rule was, they couldn’t leave the house.”
“Okay, but I think they might have left the house.”
He shook his head and doggedly returned through another door back into the house to continue looking. Forty-five minutes later, he returned to the back porch, looking dejected.
“They left the house,” he said, as about twelve other men watched our conversation with intent.
“Yes. And why did they do that?”
“Because girls are mean…” he said in a weary, sing-song voice.
“And why did you fall for it?”
“Because boys are stupid…” The men all laughed and nodded their heads.
Later that night, in the car, driving in the dark, my son suddenly asked, “Does it ever change? Girls being mean and boys being stupid?”
“Yes,” I answered, wondering how exactly to say what came next. I added, slowly, after some silence, “One day, when you are much older, alcohol comes into the picture, and it turns all the boys mean and all the girls stupid.”
He had heard of this alcohol of which I spoke, so after a moment, he asked, pursuing a different angle, “Why are girls so mean?”
“Why are boys so stupid?” I asked in return. “I’m a boy, and I’ve wondered my whole life. You do what you can to try not to be stupid, but it happens sometimes. I don’t know why girls are so mean. They will swear up and down that they aren’t.”
“Have you ever had a trick played on you like Aliza played on me?”
“Yes. Many times and at almost every age.”
He sighed, and sipped some from one of the soft drinks we had brought back from the party. “Did mom? Is that why you guys got divorced? She says its because you took too many arguments.”
I had to smile at that use of the word ‘took’. “Yes, something like that. And of course, she’s in love with Amanda –”
“– and you fell in love with –”
Well, I had fallen in love with the woman who was now my wife, and she was the least mean woman I had ever known. I, however, was still woefully stupid, and I explained something to that effect to him as we arrived home.
My son has turned thirteen (the ages are getting clearer in my memory) and has a crush on a girl at school. He name is Ziena, although everyone just calls her “Z”. She is an artist. I pick him up from his middle school, and ask him about his day.
“If I ask Z to the Halloween dance, would you be able to take us?”
“Sure, it’s next Friday, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “Thank God,” he added, mumbling.
“You’ve already asked her, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. I didn’t mean to, because I don’t know how to dance, but she was standing, talking to me at my locker about how she’d like to go, and how much fun it would be, and how nobody’s asked her, and suddenly I heard myself asking her.”
“Did she wave her hand and say, ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,’ too?”
“Dad, she didn’t play a Jedi mind trick on me…” then he paused for moment and started laughing. “She did, didn’t she? I’ve been Jedi mind-tricked!”
We both laughed at that, not so much because it was funny, but because it seemed so true.
Before Friday arrived, we had arranged it with Z’s parents that they would come pick my son up and take them both to the dance; I would go and pick both of them up and take her back home. This way, everybody got to meet each other, and we could assuage the universal fear that our children are dating axe murderers and cultists.
When they showed up at our house, her mother and father came up to the door with a dark-haired girl I’d seen my son talking to on the ramp at school for years. We exchanged pleasantries, and my son, who was dressed in what seemed to me to be an extremely eccentric fashion (that he was equally extremely pleased with), left.
The dance was not terribly long, so a couple of hours later, I drove the twelve miles out to his school, and joined a line of cars waiting for them to come out. When they got to the car, she was very chatty; he seemed oddly silent.
“Mr. Son’s-Dad, thanks for giving me a ride home. That was so much fun..” I got a little lost in the next part of her monologue, which mostly had to do with a “stuck-up” girl named Marissa and her “god-awful dress”.
We dropped her off, and I asked my son how it went.
“Oh, fine,” he said.
“That’s not very convincing. Did you dance?”
“One dance, yes. She spent most of the time with her friends.”
“How was the one dance? Slow or fast?”
“She wouldn’t slow dance, which I wanted to try, but I danced the very first dance with her. I had no idea what I was doing.”
“Do you remember the song?”
“Sounds perfect for eighth-graders,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know why she tricked me into asking her if she wasn’t going to hang out with me or really even dance with me,” he said. “And don’t say, it,” he added, “I know girls are mean like that. But she never seemed that way. I don’t think she likes me at all, she just wanted to tell her friends somebody asked her, and it could have been anybody.”
It seemed like we were always having these conversations in the car. I thought back on previous conversations, and added, “You may be right, but I don’t think she was trying to be mean to you. She danced a dance with you, came there with you, left with you. If she disliked you, she wouldn’t have wanted you to ask her in the first place. As you get older, it gets easier to focus directly on people you are on a date with, but it is uncomfortable at first. Did you see a lot of couples dancing every dance together?”
“No. Not many,” added, after thinking for a while. “Mostly, the girls stood together and talked, and the boys ran around and threw things at each other and acted like idiots.”
“That last part never changes.”
I entered my sixteen year old son’s bedroom to tell him it was time for dinner. He was staring at the cellphone in his hand, looking dazed.
“Emily just broke up with me.”
“She said, we need time apart. If its meant to be it will be. It would be good for us if we maybe saw other people.”
“Oh, she gave you both barrels, didn’t she? Is there somebody else in the picture she likes?”
“She says not.”
I thought back to my son’s football games (he was in the band) when I had seen his girlfriend hanging around rather closely with another guy, out of my son’s sight.
“I’m sorry. That sucks.” We headed downstairs for dinner.
At the dinner table was my wife and two of my son’s three older stepsisters, who were 21 and 24 at the time. “I have a question,” he said. “When a girl says, ‘we need time apart and it would be good to see other people,’ she’s breaking up, right?”
The older sister spoke first. “Yes. It also means she’s already dating someone else, usually.” The younger of the two sisters nodded her head in agreement.
“Did Emily break up with you?” my wife asked.
Since my wife had an intense dislike of Emily, who she thought a selfish, spoiled rich girl, she tried not to look too pleased.
“Dad has told me how mean girls are my whole life, and how stupid boys are. But its really mean not to just tell the truth. All this stuff about whats ‘better for us’ and how ‘if we’re meant to be together, it will still happen’ is just a smokescreen. If she likes someone else, why doesn’t she just tell me the truth? Why are girls such cowards?”
This last characterization did not sit well with the women at the table. “All girls aren’t like that,” the eldest said, “She probably told herself she was trying to spare your feelings, but you’re right, she’s really doing it in a way that has the least sucky consequences for her.”
Later that week, he said to me, “I wish I didn’t care. It would be great to go through life not caring, just being mean to people, and doing whatever I want.”
“Please don’t do that. If you choose that road, you have no chance in hell of ever being really happy, because that’s where you’ll be — in hell.”
“But she’s already got her new boyfriend. And I still miss her, even though I’m starting to hate her.”
“Well, you are being honest about how you feel. Believe me son, it is better to be who you really are, and feel how you really feel than it is to lie just to get what you want that second. You have to believe me about this, if you don’t remember much I’ve told you as you get older, believe this: who you really are is good enough for the people you’re really meant to be with.”
“That’s not as easy to remember as ‘girls are mean, boys are stupid’,” he said, laughing.
Then say it with me:
“Who you really are is good enough for the people you’re really meant to be with.”
He still remembers that to this day — so maybe boys aren’t entirely stupid, after all.