Last night my 15-year-old and I took our positions in the family room – him, spread out on the couch and me, folded into a nearby chair – armed with a tin of Trader Joe’s Jingle Jangle and a remote control. A few minutes earlier, he had yelled for me to hurry up – he thought I was taking too long cleaning the kitchen after dinner – and by the time I joined him, my son had already turned off all the lights in the room and queued the movie we’d agreed to watch on Amazon.
He pressed play on the remote and noted the running time of the movie, “The Green Mile,” as it began. “Wait,” he said, “this is really long.”
“What else are you doing?” I asked, and settled deeper into my chair, popping a chocolate-covered pretzel into my mouth.
After his sister left for college in August, my teenager and I decided to put together a list of movies we thought we could watch together on nights that he didn’t have much homework. Well, mostly I compiled the list of films I thought would be appealing to a teenage boy, and he has begrudgingly agreed to watch a few of them with me this fall. Some he has actually liked.
The list is written on a bright orange index card tacked to the bulletin board in our kitchen and we’ve crossed off the ones that we’ve already watched; classics like “Stand By Me,” “Castaway” and “Shawshank Redemption.” We still have a lot more to get through; a baseball cycle for spring with “Field of Dreams” leading the pack, followed by “The Natural” and “Bull Durham;” some supernatural action courtesy of “Goonies,” “Poltergeist” and “Signs;” all the “Predator” movies because Mama can’t get enough invisible aliens.
Watching movies seemed like something my son and I would enjoy doing together to fill the yawning space between dinner and bedtime. The hours that used to be filled with carpools, homework and me yelling at people to get into the shower when my son and his three older siblings were younger. Most nights now my teenager and I retreat to separate corners in the house, and occasionally I hear the thump of rap music coming from his room.
This is the first time that it’s just me and the youngest of my four children living at home. My older daughter moved into a tiny fourth-floor walk up on New York’s Upper East Side last summer and my oldest son just celebrated his first anniversary living in Hoboken. Both had lived at home for a year after college and commuted from New Jersey to their jobs in the city. Between them coming and going and my third child, who’s 20, leaving for college, I’ve always had at least two kids living under my roof until now.
My youngest’s inclination is to slip away from me as soon as possible most nights. He comes home from whatever sport he played after school, showers and sits down with me for dinner and after we’ve cleaned up, he disappears. He goes back up to his room to become one with his iPhone or Google the latest basketball sneaker or lacrosse stick he’s obsessed with. Sometimes he sits downstairs and watches endless episodes of “South Park” or “That 70s Show.”
When I considered what it would be like with just him at home, I knew straight out that our evenings would not be filled with scintillating conversation. I mean, I’ve lived with teenagers before. But I’m still surprised by the economy of words he chooses to share with me.
The other day, I called him downstairs to ask him about the weekend he had just spent at his dad’s. I asked about what he did and what he ate, anything to spark a conversation. He was amiable and sat down and answered my questions: “nothing,” “tacos,” “hung out at Brian’s.” Then after a few beats he got up and started to walk out of the room.
“Wait, where are you going?” I asked.
“Back to my room,” he said, pulling the hood of his football sweatshirt back up over his head as he turned away from me.
When his siblings were teenagers, I was the one who was doing the running. I cleaned up the dinner dishes and then hightailed it up to my bedroom with a glass of wine to hide from them and watch television or read. At one point I was outnumbered – with three teenagers living at home –and they scared me a bit, all snarly and ready to attack like a pack of velociraptors. I moved quietly so as not to attract their attention as they watched the umpteenth episode of “The Vampire Diaries” or rummaged through the pantry looking for something to gnaw on.
Occasionally, one would wander into my room and lie down and watch TV with me and the claws would start to retract. We’d get all cozy propped up on my pillows and sometimes, my little monster would start to open up about school or the divorce, which loomed so large over our life back then. On those nights I’d forget about bedtimes and schedules, just grateful to see the light seeping through the cracks of their hard teen facades. Slivers of their old selves shining through.
Once, I sat down and drew up a chart projecting each of the children’s departures for college over 10 years in an attempt to amortize all the teens living under my roof. I needed to see the light at the end of that emotional tunnel. Back then, I fantasized about what it would be like to have just one child living at home. I thought about how easy it would be to have just one school to drive to each morning and not four. To make dinner and actually have leftovers. To only need to go food shopping once a week. Not to have to hide in my bedroom and dodge their mood swings.
Ten years later, it’s just me and a 15-year-old boy sitting down for dinner every night. Last night I heated up an entire bag of Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken for him, which I mounded on a plate and placed in front of him, while I ate some leftover kale salad. We make quite the odd couple and honestly, many nights we do just go our separate ways after dinner, since I don’t think I could ever get him to watch “Poldark.” A lot of nights I spend FaceTiming his older siblings and accusing them of forgetting about me.
When my older kids come home I spend as much time as I can with them. We take the dog for long walks in the woods or split a bottle of wine and listen to music in the living room. I even went to the DMV with my oldest kid a few weeks ago and we had some really pleasant conversation while he waited for his number to be called.
Initially, my youngest balked when I suggested we hunker down and watch one of the movies on our list. We’d finished eating dinner before 6:00 and had hours to kill before bedtime. He snarled a little, but it takes a lot more than one measly teenager to scare me these days. I’m willing to put up with a little teeth gnashing to get him to hang out with me.
“I’ll watch the movie if you’re okay with me looking at my phone,” he offered, and I quickly agreed to his demands. I didn’t even say anything when he and the dog stretched out on the couch, leaving me to cram into the smaller chair to the side of the room.
We snuggled under blankets as the movie began and every once in a while, I’d look over to see his face bathed in the glow of Snapchat. But more often than not, I saw his eyes watching the movie from under his hooded sweatshirt.
We agreed at the end that it was nowhere near as good as “The Shawshank Redemption,” and he went upstairs to get ready for bed. I stayed in the chair and thought about how much I’ll miss having a teenager in the house some day.
I mean, I will never miss having to ask someone 20 times to take out the trash or tripping over a giant lacrosse bag blocking the back door. And I can do without all the eye rolling and muttering.
But now, I don’t need to make charts to remind me how temporary it all is. I can see the light at the end of my teenage tunnel and it’s getting pretty bright. Teenagers grow up and move out and sometimes, they ask you if you want to go for a walk together or watch a movie. Those once scary creatures shed their sharp teeth and scales and become people you actually like and if you’re lucky, they even like you.