When Lola, a veritable 13-year-old fille fatale (think: highlighted, long hair; large, black faux reading glasses; cropped T-shirt; short shorts, etc.) chose my son for their eighth-grade banquet/dance, my husband and I were painfully aware of how this love story would end: the outcome dangled in the balance, like a caterpillar tent, waiting to unleash its twitchy cache on the bare neck of my son’s unsuspecting soul.
It was the Monday night before the dance, and Lola had just broken up with her latest boyfriend. She immediately called my son, Tanner, whose iPhone is always set to speakerphone mode. “I really wanted to be with you all along,” she pleaded, “but Parker asked me out first.” Plausible enough, I thought.
“I’ve been giving you signals for a long time,” she insisted. “And you haven’t even noticed me.”
“Oh, okay,” he answered. Afterwards, he said, “Mom, I guess I’m dating Lola now.” It’s worth noting that the year before, I had found one of Tanner’s friends sobbing at a sleepover at our house after Lola sent him a “break-up text” via group message, which Tanner also received.
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Lola spent the ensuing week calling Tanner every night on FaceTime, talking casually about everything from her pets to her period to what she would wear to banquet and what he should wear. Tanner often sat shirtless, his 5-foot-8-inch, smooth-skinned, ectomorphic frame hunched over the kitchen counter, working on algebra, listening to dubstep, and snacking on cheddar cheese and apples. Their evening chats were so commonplace, their dialogue became the white noise of the evening. But when her insouciant tone changed one night, I started listening more closely.
“Parker thinks I flirt too much,” she said, coyly.
“I don’t think I do.”
“Do you think I do?”
“What is flirting, anyway?” she asked.
“What is f-l-i-r-t-i-n-g?” she repeated, even flirtier.
“I don’t know. Being nice to people?”
“Then, you’re the one flirting with me right now? “ she finally said.
And on and on she went, as he fell harder for her. I intended to stay out of it, but later, I said, “You know, Tanner, people never break up overnight.”
“Oh, Mom,” he answered dismissively.
After school the next day, I took out the new couple for ice cream. She genuinely seemed to like him, and I felt badly about my preconceived notions.
That night, my husband joined Tanner and me for clothes shopping for the banquet. As Tanner earnestly tried on innumerable suit jackets, with matching pants that wouldn’t fit, even with a small belt cinched to the last hole, I never admitted how, like my husband, I was waiting for the other glass slipper to drop.
Tanner finally settled on a couple different looks: a sharkskin suit jacket, black skinny jeans, two black dress shirts, one purple tie, and a more conservative black-and-gray one (in case Lola didn’t think one of them would complement her dress.) When we got home, he laid out his treasures on his bed, as if for his first day of school.
At week’s end, he tried on his new outfit, and since his dad was away for work, I helped him tie his first tie. He stood in front of the mirror and boyishly said, “Does this look good, Mom?” His sweet innocence tugged hard on my heartstrings.
The Saturday morning of the banquet, Tanner and I headed to Safeway’s floral department to pick up a last-minute wrist corsage. But they were out of mini roses, as the high school prom was the night before.
“But wait,” the florist said, “Here’s something someone forgot to pick up last night.” She handed me a cold, fogged up, clear plastic box. Inside, was a wrist corsage with slightly wilted white roses and black ribbon. It looked like a bad omen in a box. She threw in, “for free,” the matching, also abandoned boutonniere, then sprayed a little water on each, the way war-time mothers might have subtly removed mold from a piece of cheese before handing it to their children.
As we were walking out, as if on cue, brokenhearted Parker lurched in slowly, without ever looking up.
“Oh, man, I feel so bad about this, Mom,” Tanner said. “He looks so sad.” I assured him everything would be all right.
But everything did not turn out all right. From what I gathered, the dance was like a scene out of Happy Days: Chachi (Tanner) goes to get some punch for himself and his date, returning to find Joanie (Lola) making out with Potsie (Parker). And Chachi is left standing, mouth agape, holding two glasses of something pink and fizzy. Except it happened at the beginning of the evening, shortly after Tanner gave her the fated flowers. Tanner said he didn’t want to discuss the details, so I tried (my best) to honor his wishes.
The end of the year was near. When I picked him up at the local skate park after school one day, he was sitting at the edge of the skate bowl with his knees up, his arms crossed on them, and his head down. He was crying, and didn’t care if his friends saw.
“Mom, remind me in the future to listen to you about girls.” I repeated the adage of how he must learn from his own dating mistakes, and not from the mistakes of others. “I’ve been holding it all inside, Mom,” he said.
“What are you holding inside?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Girls…stuff at school. I opened my heart, and I got burned.”
We headed home, and he lamented how he now had to write a poem for Language Arts, about something he loves and feels passionate about. He tells me he has “nothing,” and sits brooding for a long time. I gave him another chance to tell me what happened with Lola.
“It’s done, Mom!” he yelled, uncharacteristically. I wouldn’t ask him again.
On the last day of eighth grade, I drove him to school. I was relieved to hear that Lola had left school early to live with her dad for the summer, in another state. Tanner was checking his messages. As I suspected would happen, Lola was already lonely and texting him. I rolled my eyes, and refrained from saying what I wanted to say. As I pulled into the parking lot, he said, “I’m not mad at her, Mom. So you shouldn’t be.”
But I was. And maybe still am.
Kerrie Houston Reightley is a freelance writer and mother of two sons and a daughter. When she’s not program-managing for Seattle Tennis and Education Foundation for under-resourced children, she’s attending Crew regattas, where Tanner is a lead coxswain on his high school team.