I was concerned that my daughter was worried about what to do in the dark on a first date. Her fears were far bigger than that.
My daughter skims the surface of her 15th year with humor, a bit of angst and much of the internal awkwardness I remember from that time in my life. She is attending high school and has found her niche in the theater department. Her new friends are lovely. They check in on her when she is absent and one girl even brought her flowers on the final night of her performance in the school play.
I am a firsthand witness to all of these events and more because I teach at the school she now attends. We are navigating our boundaries, but I can’t pretend that it isn’t wonderful to drive to work with her each day. Our car rides are her confessionals. She often shares the most about herself when we are both looking at the road, her music playing in the background as the sun arcs against the eastern sky.
Recently, she confided in me that she had developed a crush on a boy. It wasn’t an outright admission. I noticed that she talked more and more frequently about him. Soon after, this boy arrived in my classroom holding Lilly’s hand and he asked me if I minded if he dated her. I shrugged and tried my best not to embarrass her. I said that as long as she didn’t object why should I. On the way home that afternoon, I asked what ‘dating’ means these days. “We’re just going to hang out,” my daughter replied. I was relieved. We live about 30 minutes away from the school where I teach so their hangouts would be limited to mostly campus—and I would be nearby. As she fell asleep in the front seat. I noticed her features and how the child in her face was fast disappearing—the way her cheekbones were redefining her adolescent self.
Later that week, my daughter asked me if I would be willing to drop her off at a movie theater halfway between our house and her new boyfriend’s community. I noticed that she was blushing. “Is this a date?” I asked her. She replied that she thought it was. It was the first week of October. The desert was beginning to cool off at night. Days were shorter and the electric-air that seasonal changes bring was palpable. My husband and I let Lilly know that we would be happy to drop her off and pick her up after the movie ended. Our son, Andrew, who is two years older, joked that he would be glad to get them tickets to the theater where he has a part-time job—but, he added, “I’ll be sitting behind you the whole time.”
Every evening on the days leading up to the movie date, I found my daughter trying on outfits, or looking at hair tutorials online when she should have been doing her homework. There were some whispery conversations with her girlfriends that week and what seemed like more time on her phone. I tread lightly. It was impossible not to wade in a shallow nostalgia as the big day drew near.
My first date also took place at the movies. I remember scouring magazines for outfits and hairstyles with my friends. The way I worried over a first kiss—would he be gross and try to French kiss me? If he did, would I be gross if I liked it? Would he hold my hand? Would my hand be sweaty? She settled on straightening her long hair and pulling it back in a half-ponytail. She wore a casual dress and light sweater with matching sandals and she was lovely. The only evidence of nervousness that I could detect in her was when she flung an eyeliner pencil on the ground after becoming frustrated with not being able to make an even line on her eyelid. I asked her if she wanted me to help.
Our ride to the theater was mostly quiet. My husband drove and reminded Lilly that if anything made her uncomfortable she should text him immediately. He quickly followed that statement by clearing his throat. I noticed his grip on the steering wheel tighten. Turning in my seat to see her better, I asked her if she was at all nervous. I had debated asking her this question and was prepared for an eye roll or the silent treatment.
The road we were on was poorly lit. Her face appeared in the strobe-like flashes other cars’ headlights created. “I’m not nervous about him or anything like that,” she said, “I’m just worried about the theater.” My husband and I looked at each other quizzically. Had we driven her to wrong one? I noticed that her eyes were focused on her hands which were busy with the fabric of her dress. Even as a toddler, she has done this—smoothed fabric as if it would erase her apprehension. Quietly, she persisted, “Mom, where should we sit? What if an angry man with a gun comes in?” she asked.
This was the first week of October, after all. Three campus shootings had occurred earlier in the week. The news had been filled with statistics about public massacres. And, it struck me, this was not new to her. She lived in a post-Columbine world. Lockdowns were part of her school vernacular. On the evening of my daughter’s first date—she was more consumed with worry over mass violence than she was of distracting a boy from trying to get to second base. I shook myself out of a stunned silence and my husband and I discussed exits, aisle seats, how to play dead and scoot below theater rows.
Earlier that evening, I speculated how I would feel when I watched her greet her sweetheart. I wondered if her father and I would recall her as a little girl in fragmented stories, or if we would sit with this event in silence. When we arrived to the drop-off loop, her date came to the car and greeted us. He told Lilly that she looked nice. My husband squeezed my hand. After they entered the lobby, we parked outside the theater. We looked at each other and I knew that he shared my thoughts. How the darkness once promised adventure but now contained invisible hostilities. How our children’s growing independence, which hours before seemed natural and thrilling, now seemed wholly terrifying. How, once, we had felt simply unprepared for their gradual leave-taking, only now to be dreadfully and completely disarmed.
Photo credit: Sailko
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA from Arizona State University. She writes and teaches high school Creative Writing and English in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area where she also resides with her husband, their teenage son and daughter, as well as their three-legged dog, Skipper.