Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reading Forever with Boys

Another essay to join the Not Ready for Modern Love Collection. In this one, I think I get closer in topic and tone to my goal, but ultimately, this doesn't clear the hurdle. Maybe it lacks drama? The ticking clock I've set up is artificial so perhaps there's no real tension in the story. Anyway, Onward.

Reading Forever with Boys

By Ellen Neuborne

I have a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever. It’s ten years old and it’s never been read. I purchased it at the now-closed Astor Place Barnes and Noble when my daughter was a baby. As I nursed her in the one semi-discrete corner of the coffee shop I happily day-dreamed about when she’d be a teenager and I would give her this book. We’d read it together, I knew, and have long mother-daughter talks about love, sex and relationships.

I kept that fantasy fully intact until this month, when my oldest prepared to enter high school. My oldest is not my daughter. My oldest is a boy. And it’s a very different thing, reading Forever with boys.

As his first day of school approached, I took the book out of its hiding place – and promptly put it back. I couldn’t do it. It’s not like I’d never discussed sex with my son. We’d given him the birds-and-the-bees lecture years ago (to which he had responded in typical 7-year-old-fashion: “That’s disgusting!”) And I had no illusions as to what he’d already seen -- on the Internet, on cable. Heck, his favorite sports programs are sponsored by Viagra. He’d been briefed.

But my vision for Forever was not to have a sex conversation, but a love conversation. What did it mean, I’d say to my daughter, to be in love? How and why does sex enter into that conversation? How do you know what you want and when you want it? How do you say that to your boyfriend?

Or girlfriend?

I had never envisioned the Forever conversation as anything but woman-to-woman. Clearly, I was caught short.

Thinking I could get around my hang up, I marched up to the remaining B&N in my neighborhood and purchased Changing Bodies, Changing Lives and handed that to my son.

“When you’re reading, if you have any questions, you can ask me. Or your dad.”

“Whatever,” he responded.

When I went into his room later that week to pick up his laundry, I noticed the book open on his bed. I patted myself on the back mentally for being such a good, educating mother. I peeked a little closer to see – it was open to the page on sexual fantasies. Oy vey! I fled.

And worse, I knew I’d cheated. I’d skirted the issue, avoided the hard part. If it was my responsibility to face and educate my daughter, did that not also apply to my son? Is it not also our mission to raise feminist boys?

I read Forever for the first time in junior high, standing in the stacks of Community Bookstore while my mother shopped at the Key Food across the street. I read it 15-20 pages at a time, as my mother’s shopping schedule would allow. I have no idea if she would have purchased it for me. It had sex in it. I wasn’t even brave enough to ask.

I read it again as a graduate student, this time more critically, looking for ways the author used sex as a craft element of the novel. I was stunned and moved as I read with adult eyes, the story of Katherine, the 18-year-old protagonist, who moved through her first relationship with clarity, self-awareness and maturity. She was no push over, this young woman. She was fully in control of her life, her sexuality, her relationships. She was everything I would want my daughter to know and admire.

So, what did I want for my boy?

I tried buying a new copy of Forever for him. I thought maybe I could do it if I wasn’t giving my daughter’s book away. Didn’t help me. Now I just had two books stuffed into my nightstand drawer. And I think they were both laughing at me.

But finally, in the weeks before he would step out into the full world of high school, I did it. I took a copy of Forever, knocked on his door.

“This is a book I’d like you to read,” I squeaked out. “I think you’ll like it and there’s lots for us to talk about in here.”

He eyed it. “Looks like girls book,” he said.

I tapped into my mother/daughter daydream for the response. “This book is a story about young people in love. There’s a lot here that I want you to think about, that I want you to know about, as you go to high school and start, well --”

“-- meeting women?” he supplied helpfully.

God, this was harder that I expected.

And then he sat up from where he’d been slouched on his bed and gave me the signal that he really was prepared to listen: he took his ear phones from around his neck and placed them on the nightstand. “Why do I have to read a book? Can’t you just tell me what you want to tell me?” he asked.

So I did as he asked and took the direct route. For the next few minutes he listened politely while I pontificated about girls and respect and listening and inner beauty. And sex. How sex changes everything. How it’s more than a physical act and you can’t possibly imagine how it changes you and changes a relationship until it’s already over. How I wished I could do it all over again, knowing what I know, that I wanted him to read and think and ask questions.

When I stopped, he looked at me. “All done?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you want to say anything?”

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Whatever.”

I put Forever on his nightstand and left. In a few days, it was covered up by his copies of “Sporting News” and “Modern Drummer.”

If you’re looking for a nice, wrapped-up, closure ending, it won’t happen here. Teenagers don’t give you closure. They are an open-ended conversation. When you say Forever, they say whatever. That’s what I have to embrace as my oldest starts high school. You hope they’ve heard you, but you don’t know for sure. No book can give you the certainty of forever. With teenagers, you only get today.

Ellen Neuborne is writing a novel about mothers and daughters and sexual politics.

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