The weirdest thing about living with your parents is having people constantly observing your every move: “Is that a second glass of wine?” “Who’s calling?” “Are you going to put the cheese away?” “Why does the dog like you more than me?” “Haven’t you already taken a shower today?” And on and on, world without end.
After five years in New York, I decided it was time for a change. I packed up my Williamsburg apartment and moved across the country to the little island in the Puget Sound where I was born. I had decided to go to nursing school, and I had also decided to live with my parents while I completed a year of prerequisites at the local community college. It’s been four months.
I’m an only child, which means my parents are basically obsessed with me. People think that being stalked by strangers is such a big deal, when a far more insidious form of stalking is the one that happens when my mom comes and leans against my door jamb to see what I’m watching on TV and then suggests that maybe I’d like to go outside. It’s a kind of stalking that has been heretofore ignored by the legal system.
The worst is actually when they don’t comment, because it usually means they are too horrified to fully process my latest affront and will need time to think about it before knocking on my door three days later while I’m in the middle of an episode of The Good Wife — “Another episode?”— to say, “I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day.”
Whenever my mom says that she’s been thinking about what I said the other day, I know nothing good is coming. She’ll relay some recent observation, and then share how it fits into a pattern of bad behavior she’s been observing for decades but hasn’t been able to fully comprehend until now, when I’ve finally handed her the last piece of the nasty little puzzle. If I try to argue she’ll say OK in a serene way that suggests you can lead a 29-year-old to water, but you can’t make her fall in love with the nice guy down the block.
My mom has become obsessed with the idea of niceness, as well as the idea that I only date “assholes.” I tell her about someone I’m seeing and her first question is, “Is he nice?”
This is always asked in a tone that suggests the answer is not likely to be yes. I say yes immediately, even though, until this moment, I hadn’t even considered it. Funny, smart, attractive, sure — but nice?
My mom relays the story, again, about how when her brother was dying of AIDS in the ‘80s he told her that he had never really cared about kindness, but could now see that it was the only thing that mattered. I liked this story, but couldn’t totally see how it applied to me. Why would you want to date a nice guy when you could date someone who didn’t care about you one way or the other?
The dog has recently taken a shine to me. She follows me from room to room, not unlike my parents, and stares at me with an anxious yet vacant look on her face, not unlike my parents. The only real difference between her and them is that when she does this, I love it.
I’m so much more patient with a dog who wouldn’t even notice if I died than I am with my mom, whose life would end if that happened. Of course, my mom noticed that the dog had started following me around. She asked, “Why does Bella like you more than me?”
This made me wonder, Why does Bella like me more than you? And then I remembered: Can’t dogs smell cancer?
Something about living with your parents is that they are getting old. Their friends are dying. Since I’ve been home, two peripheral but longtime friends have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. For the first time I’ve started to think about death in a serious way. Every time I can’t think of a word — what is the other, better word for incurable cancer? — I assume it’s the beginning of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
My dad tells me that his friend’s wife was diagnosed with the kind of brain cancer that people die from — WHAT IS THAT GODDAMN WORD — and I start to notice these two vertical wrinkles between my eyes. These lines are called “11s.” I know this because I spent almost two years writing for a beauty magazine. I wonder if I would still be obsessed with these wrinkles if I didn’t have a name for them. Like how cultures that don’t have a name for “periwinkle” just don’t see that color.
A month later my dad tells me that his friend’s wife with the terminal (GOT IT) brain cancer has died. The same day, I almost veer off the road while studying my “11s” in the rearview mirror. The parallels between our lives grow stark. The parallel lines between my eyes starker still.
In the nutrition class I’m taking, I learn that women are supposed to have only one alcoholic drink a day. I text my friend who is a nurse at NYU and he tells me that he’s had several good-looking, educated, and well-off female patients (he uses those adjectives because he knows me) come in dying of alcohol-related organ problems. He says that these women drank only a couple glasses of wine a night. The follow-up frowny face feels pointed.
I wonder if drinking two drinks a night (and sometimes more, reader) is contributing to my “11s.” I tell a friend about my “11s,” and she says, “Yeah, I see them,” instead of the correct thing, which is, “Are you kidding? You look 9!” Then she tells me that she gets Botox every three months. Twenty-nine years old. Botox is an arms race; as soon as someone starts getting it, we all have to. I suppose you can choose not to participate in an arms race, but would you still be able to call yourself an American?
Something I have always liked about my mom is that she never talks about her looks. She never says she looks fat or asks if she looks fat or stares at herself for a long time in the mirror with her brow all squinched up, thinking about how she looks fat. My mom discourages me from doing things like buying $51 exfoliating shampoo. I try to convince her that the shampoo might be worth it: “This woman says it changed her life!”
“Yeah, it made her poor,” she says.
It’s weird to be around people who aren’t in their twenties. They have a seizure every time their cell phones make noise, but they do seem to understand other things.
My dad eats pickled herring straight out of a jar in the refrigerator. When I try to explain to him that this is disgusting, he says, “It’s just herring.” This is his favorite line of reasoning. You object to something, and he responds by saying, “It’s just [insert objectionable thing here].” Obviously, it’s impossible to win against someone who fights this dirty.
But then I had this weird thought: Maybe it is just a herring or a wrinkle or a dog who likes you. So many of the things that consume my mind don’t matter to my parents at all. In fact, the only things that do seem to matter to them are being nice, trying to do the right thing, and enjoying yourself in a way that doesn’t make other people want to die. Everything else is just.
Obviously things like “being nice” are boring and offer no opportunity to buy exfoliating shampoo. But after just four months of being forcibly immersed in them, I’ve noticed surprising thoughts start to pop into my head, like, I don’t want to kill this person for walking slowly on the sidewalk. Or, If I don’t get into nursing school this year, it won’t be the end of the world. Living in a small town helps — there is no one else on the sidewalk — but it seems like something else is happening, too. The going is slow, but you can go the whole way like that.
If there’s one other thing that’s important to my parents, it’s to always get in the water. Lake, river, ocean, pool, hot, cold, night, day: As far as they’re concerned, if there is a body of water, you would be well-served to be in it. In our family, John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” isn’t the story of a tragic descent into alcoholism but a description of the best day ever.
We swim off the seawall in our little town. Each time is the same. I’m up to my stomach, hemming and hawing about how cold it is, and they’re halfway toward the tree-covered island across the sound.
“Get in!” they yell, and part of me hates them and wants to get out and sulk like I did when I was 16, but a bigger part of me knows that the swim is worth the shock. I duck under and come up with a yelp. The water is freezing. It feels great.