I try not to dread my girls’ adolescence. But I remember how I acted out with bad boys my parents knew nothing about. My mom trusted me; she drove me down to some sketchy party in Pittsfield at Nanci Mahoney’s stepfather’s cabin on the lake. Nanci spelled her name with an “i” and smoked in the girls’ room and wrote death-wish poetry on her hand. She’d taken me under her wing since we were in the same homeroom and both loved Stevie Nicks. Nanci didn’t care that I was an Honors Class nerd, and I saw her as a doorway to experience.
In hindsight there was nothing my mother could have done to stop me. Effortlessly the door opened and I crossed the threshold. Now I have daughters I know it’s only a matter of time.
“Mommy, did you know in ten hundred years the sun will go out?” Carmen speaks carelessly, delivering this Kindergarten fact the way she’d mention the life cycle of a frog.
“Really?” I say. I’m at my post at the sink, loading the breakfast dishes.
“Yes,” she confirms. “All the people will die. And all the animals.”
“Wow. Are you worried about that?” I aim for curious nonchalance, my voice untainted by anxiety. But my daughter has already raced off to join her sister in the playroom, where they have five minutes before school to line up their cow and horse armies for a major offensive.
Ten hundred years seems an eternity for a 5-year-old, but when I do the math it’s only forty generations. Is this slapdash astronomy what Miss Lily— Carmen’s sweet-faced, sassy teacher, she of the brunette mane and the striped tops and the snug Seven jeans— is teaching her charges at Circle Time?
I’m not concerned about misinformation. It’s possible Carmen fabricated the future of the sun from something she read or overheard. My youngest has an active imagination and an uncanny ability to sense the deep currents of adult affairs, even if she can’t understand them.
At bedtime I climb the ladder into her loft bed, pressed up close to the ceiling in a vaguely claustrophobic nest of pillows, blankets, Ducky, Big Duck, Fuzzy, Strawberry, and the rest of the guys. My girl is naked as usual, too warm-blooded for PJs, her smooth, round belly radiating heat. We snuggle under covers and do our nose-rub and eyelash-kiss routine. Given the chance, Carmen will want to touch tongues, then turn this weird, wet intimacy into a full-on French kiss with an ardor that startles me every time. The child is a sensual creature. I don’t fear her passionate nature now, but when my mind fast-forwards a decade to Fifteen, I feel nausea.
Already Carmen can lie without thinking twice. She often sneaks down from her loft after bedtime for gummy bunnies and string cheese, even though I’ve forbidden her to eat up there. She’ll steal her sister’s Halloween candy and stash it under her sheets, or claim she hasn’t broken a glass when there are shards on the floor. Small trespasses, yes— but is she capable of more? One night she asks me what Daddy is doing.
“Watching hockey on the couch,” I reply. “And I’m going for a walk.”
“Okay, Mommy. Good night,” she grins.
“Carmen… “ I warn. “What are you up to?”
With tickling, the truth comes out. The kid is plotting to sneak downstairs and hunt for the leftover cupcakes she suspects are somewhere in the kitchen. “And then I’ll hypnotize Daddy and invite my friends over and we’ll all have a cupcake party!” Her blue eyes widen and she laughs like a baby hyena, adorable but scary. I push back the thought of her in high school descending a ladder of sheets, slipping into a car piled with boys, maybe a rusted-out, extra-cab pick-up. The truck roars off down our dirt road in a trail of pebbles and sweet marijuana smoke. At Fifteen, I wouldn’t have dared this kind of transgression, but Carmen has always been fearless. I was a good girl who asked for a ride.
At Nanci Mahoney’s party, the dank cabin smelled of lakewater and cigarettes, and Nanci danced on the screen porch shaking her smoky copper-colored hair. I sat on a futon while a punk boy in combat boots drew a design in body paint on my shoulder. He pushed up my tee-shirt sleeve and held me still. Then he dipped the brush in black paint and began making delicate strokes on my skin. The brush was a wet feather, more exotic than a fingertip. Neither of us uttered a word until he finished; he’d painted an elaborate Anarchy sign on my deltoid, embellished with whorls and scrolls.
“There,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
In the background, The Church crooned “Under the Milky Way”— as usual, the song lyrics expressed my reality more succinctly than I ever could: “Wish I knew what you were looking for/ Might have known what you would find…”
I didn’t make out with Punk Boy that night, but there were other parties. When my Dad picked me up, I sank into his dark car, feigning exhaustion. The leather seats encased me like a protective skin. I told him no, I didn’t drink any beer, yes, the party was fine… kind of boring. I was skilled at keeping small secrets. I’d learned from my mother, after all, just as my daughter is learning from me.
“Mommy, what’s more important— friendship or kissing?” Carmen springs this question on me one night after a round of nose-rubbing and tongue-touching. My skin prickles. A miniature lightning rod, my child has picked up on sparks between me and a dangerously charming neighbor. The June evening simmers beyond our window; the first fireflies blink find me, find me out in the meadow. I’m restless, ready to clock out of mom duty and go check my email.
“Friendship,” I answer firmly. But sometimes electricity trumps everything, and you find yourself kissing without care of the future, kissing until your mouth aches, kissing as if the sun might go out.
Diana Whitney is a yoga teacher, writer, and mother of two in Brattleboro, VT. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post.com, Pilates Style magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Puerto del Sol, Lyric, and various other publications. Diana has a Masters in English Literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and attended the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her irreverent parenting column, Spilt Milk, ran for four years in several Vermont newspapers and is slowly working its way into a memoir. Diana recently completed a book of poems, Wanting It. She blogs at www.spiltmilkvt.com.