Last spring, my son Hayes graduated from Georgetown with a degree in finance and was immediately offered a six-figure salary in New York City at one of the big banks. I was amazed. In 1978, when I graduated from Brown with a degree in Russian History, I could hardly land a four-figure job at the 7-11.
Off he went to Manhattan, but things very quickly went very badly. His girlfriend, the beauteous Queen of Ecuador (she was from an illustrious South American family and looked like Penelope Cruz), dumped him two days after he got there. Meanwhile, the six-week training program at the bank was mind-numbingly dull. And while he had not liked New York when he’d lived there as an intern his junior summer, this time, he really hated it. Just making his way from his apartment to the subway in the sweaty morning rush hour crowd was almost more than he could take.
My unflappable son began having what looked like a mini-nervous breakdown. There were daily phone calls, there was crying, both unprecedented enough to warrant a nervous visit. I offered names of therapists, prescriptions for Xanax and Zoloft, a $16 bowl of New York guacamole and a pitcher of margaritas — I would have tried anything. I knew that Hayes was at an age where some young men develop schizophrenia, bipolarity or major depressive disorder. I have a cousin, now 60, who has been institutionalized since he graduated from Oberlin when I was a little girl. So actually I was scared to death.
Not counting the death of his father when he was six, Hayes had had a pretty smooth ride to this point. In fact, a beleaguered, trouble-magnet high school friend of his had once joked that the entire Southern School District faculty and administration woke up each morning scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What can I do for Hayes Winik today?” But now the proud HMS Hayes had sailed into the shallows.
One late summer night before my younger son Vince went back to college in New Orleans, he barged into my bedroom at 3 am waving his cell phone. “You talk to him,” he said. “He’s a pussy!” Having grown up in the shadow of Mr. Perfect/Ivan the Terrible, he had no idea how to deal with this weepy, crumbling incarnation of his lifelong idol and oppressor.
The next week, Hayes took leave from the bank, came home to Baltimore, and got not one but two jobs downtown. Apparently people were still wondering what they could do for Hayes Winik.. He sublet his room in the Manhattan apartment we had just found, gave notice at work, stuffed his stuff back in my little Yaris and had taken over my guest room by Labor Day.
I believe it’s supposed to be a bad thing when your children end up back in the house after college, a sign of hard economic times and indulgent child-rearing practices. Well, maybe older couples who have just finished saving for their long-postponed second honeymoon feel this way. For them, there is a whole new genre of self-help books, like Kathleen Shaputis’s The Crowded Nest Syndrome: Surviving the Return of Adult Children. For me, there was no oh, shit factor. While I was worried about Hayes’s well-being, my nest was far from crowded and there was no honeymoon activity in sight. I was living alone with my 10-year-old daughter from my failed second marriage; both of us rejoiced at the return of her adored big brother.
As the leftovers in my fridge disappeared and my cabinets filled with giant urns of protein powder, as the pundits of ESPN SportsCenter returned to sing their lullaby to the blob under the afghan on the couch, my heart was glad.
When I was very young, I was sure I would never get married. Though I was wrong, there was a reason I thought so. It’s not that I was unsuited to monogamy (on the contrary), it’s that I sensed I was too ornery, too bossy and too macho, not to mention too crazy, for coupledom.
But I was getting ahead of myself. At the time I had no idea what being alone really meant, and I had zero ability to enjoy it. I rushed into the arms of my first husband and my second and more or less proposed to each of them. The first one died young, the second and I nearly killed each other, and when I found myself single at 50, I was a little confused. Following the herd, I began frantically trying to date, using the Internet and all other resources available. I saw men of many races, ages and IQs. I rarely had fun, almost never had sex, and after a couple of years realized that what my therapist said was true. My dream date was myself.
Like a jalopy sputtering to a halt, I had my last abortive outings in the fall of 2010. “I’m not really dating any more,” I told M—, a carpenter, over dinner in a Fells Point tavern. “I have my friends,” I said, “my family. My work. I’m busy, I’m happy. I’m starting to think of being single as a way of life, not a state of emergency, an urgent problem that has to be solved.”
M— looked bemused. He told me most of the women in our age group he goes out with say the same thing. He thinks it’s the men who are really driven to pair up again, while women can make do with what they have left over from their original families.
He wasn’t the only person who told me this. One of the last guys I met for coffee courtesy of OKCupid and PlentyOfFish, the free dating sites people try after their Match.com dues run out, was a hatchet-faced cynic with the demeanor of a failed, embittered Catskills comedian. He listened to the beginning of my apologetic anti-dating speech, nodding sourly. “Oh, let me guess,” he interrupted, “you’re very close to your children? And your dog? And you have a warm, loving circle of friends? What a surprise!”
With my 22-year-old son coming home, I planned to close the book on these pointless encounters. But I had not really lived with Hayes since he graduated from high school in 2006, and that was an hardly an idyllic time. We were in a farmhouse in a boring part of Pennsylvania, my marriage to his stepfather was loudly and appallingly falling apart, and as any teenager would, Hayes judged me for the mess I gotten myself into. HE certainly would not make mistakes like that because HE was a much more sensible person than his crazy mother. Just as I had once figured out who I wanted to be by trying to be nothing like my mother, he had formed his identity in opposition to mine. Here is the simple version:
My mother: Golfing, bridge-playing, stock-market-investing Yankees fan.
Me: Bohemian, tattooed, poetry-writing Deadhead.
My son: Golfing, high-school-football-playing, finance-majoring Cowboys fan.
If he looked down on me as an old hippie with weird friends, I had beefs about him as well. Most of them stemmed from what appeared to be his genuine belief that he could be in any number of places at once and that all routine travel occurred at the speed of light. This is why, for example, he was in Atlantic City with my car when I landed at BWI expecting him to pick me up. Ask his friends, ask his ex-girlfriend — we had all suffered. His charm usually got him out of any fixes he got himself into, or at least his charm and a bunch of sweet-smelling white lies.
But post-breakup and breakdown, Hayes had apparently decided to be different. He didn’t fudge, he didn’t waffle, and if he slipped up, he didn’t throw on six more layers of bullshit. Also, he had mysteriously become a voracious reader, and was having me haul piles of nonfiction books and novels home from the library. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography. Zeitoun. He even read Portnoy’s Complaint and became a Michael Pollan fan. Oy! I made him pay for the organic grass-fed beef himself. After all, he was making double my salary.
At the start of the new year, Hayes started looking for houses with three old friends of his. They found a place three blocks from the Federal Hill party district and proceeded to unleash themselves on the bar scene. It looked like Hayes had made a pretty complete recovery.
As much as it horrified Vince — who is actually the more emotional of my two sons — in retrospect, I think the crying was a really important part of what had happened. When Hayes was six and his father died of AIDS, he did not cry. He was a brave little soldier, always insisting that he was okay. Perhaps he thought if he started, he would never be able to stop.
And then 16 years went by, and the dam broke. The flood didn’t last forever, just two weeks. But a different person was on the other side of it: a person who didn’t have to put so much energy into pretending things are better than they really are.
And what about me? Well, I was a little sad, of course, as my mothering activities shrank back down to normal, and Jane and I lost our man around the house. Fortunately Hayes still shows up for dinner once in a while, often with a roommate in tow. And any minute his brother could be on our doorstep, especially since he plans to go into the music business. I have ex-step-children I haven’t even mentioned, Jane’s only 10, and I’m seriously thinking of getting a second miniature dachshund.
For a born-again single person I like my nest a little crowded.
Marion Winik is the author of eight books, a greeting card, and a refrigerator magnet. She teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Baltimore. More info at marionwinik.com.
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