I madly chop the onions and chilies and drizzle olive oil in the pan. No time for measuring. The baby sleeps, still in her car seat, like a ticking time bomb. I need to empty the dishwasher, clean up the mess from breakfast and lunch, and make enchiladas for dinner within the hour.
I peel the tomatillos, step over the husks scattered on the floor, turn to the stove to poach, them and there he is. Kysen, my 15-year-old, blocks my path. He has grown five inches in the last two years. It still disorients me to look up at him. I navigate around him.
I plop the tomatillos in hot water, pour the enchilada sauce into a Pyrex, and turn towards the kitchen table to stage the dip and roll process.
Now he sits down and stretches his torso across the table, head down. I arrange the tortillas, the baking dish, and the cutting board around his cascade of long curls.
When home, Kysen rarely leaves his room. It seems my very presence annoys him. Today, he’s in my way. Why doesn’t he hole up as usual so I can finish these enchiladas?
He takes a long swig of milk, then sets the glass down so it teeters on the border of the table. I push it back to safety. He doesn’t know where his arms and legs begin or end. He’s a walking pair of chopsticks that haven’t graduated from fork.
“Do you need something?” I say to the back of his head.
“Dad was going to pick me up for dinner. But I already had plans to meet someone, and I don’t want to flake.”
“So, do you want me to call dad and explain that?”
“No, I already did.” He drums his fingers on the table and stares at them.
I pull queso and crema from the refrigerator, and move the pot to the sink to drain the tomatillos. He blocks me, leans against the counter between burner and sink. He’s a moving obstacle course. What does he want from me?
Go to any bookstore and peruse the Parenting section. At least two shelves will be devoted to pregnancy and babies. These are superfluous. Pregnancy guides? The baby will come out one way or another. Baby manifestos? Feed them, change the diapers, hold them, talk to them. But teenagers, that mysterious country of unknown language and customs, merit only two or three treatises. Two advocate tough love and boot camp. The other claims to decipher the teenage mind. It says your teenager will resent you for not knowing what she or he will not tell you.
“So, do you need a ride or something?” I ask.
I sit back down at the table to chop the condiments. He sits down too. He stares at the table as though searching for something in the grout between the tiles.
Normally, on the rare occasions when he does speak to me, he makes the absolute minimum effort at articulation. But now, he speaks clearly.
“Anyway, I don’t want to flake on this person, and I told this person I would meet them downtown.” He picks up a scallion and flicks it back and forth, watching it intently.
“Of course not.” I chop the cilantro and scallions frantically, keeping one eye on the sleeping baby. How long do I have?
His elongated fingers tap the table impatiently.
I recall the small hands that once felt compelled to constantly touch my face. Once, as he sat in my lap while I typed on the computer, I slapped away his hand like he was a fly.
“Stop touching my face!” I snapped.
He left the room and returned with a torn paper and the first attempts of a pre-schooler at phonetics.
“PLZ KN I TUCH YR FS.”
I kept that paper on my desk for a long time, to remind myself of what a bitch I can be.
Now, it appears that he found whatever he was looking for in the grout and he speaks quickly.
“You know that Axe body spray, on commercials? It comes in chocolate… Do you think that would smell good?”
“Chocolate always smells good. “ I toss the chicken, onions and chilies with a generous plop of crema fresca and a dash of Cholula.
“Can you give me some money for it? I might walk to Walgreens and buy some.”
“Sure,” I answer, shaking the chipotle powder.
“Also, Walgreens has these plain white t-shirts for four dollars. Do you think that would look good, a plain white t-shirt?” he asks.
“Plain white t-shirts always look good,” I say.
“So I think I’ll walk to Walgreens now, then I’ll take a shower. I’m supposed to meet this person at 4:00 so I’ll probably leave here about 3:30,” he says.
It finally dawns on me, this awkward use of gender-neutral vocabulary.
“Is this person a girl?” I ask.
He frowns. I expect that he will select something from his standard rotation of responses to anything I ask. Why are you in my business? You are hella nosy. Stop interrogating me. Why do you have to know that? Don’t even talk to me!
I grate all the cheddar and Monterrey Jack into a tall pyramid on the plate.
Finally he answers.
It’s as if a butterfly unexpectedly lit on my finger. Any wrong move will scare it away.
I try to keep my expression neutral and concentrate on enchilada assembly. This one psychologist says your teenager will confide in you most when neither of you can make eye contact.
I pack and roll with such fervor and intensity I could work in a Cuban cigar factory.
“Anyway, I’m meeting this person” — he still can’t say she — “but I don’t know what to do then.”
“A movie?” I suggest.
“Nothing I want to see.”
“Bowling? Bowling?! We’re not talking birthday party ideas for ten year old girls! That is so lame.”
I regroup. Think!
“Hmmm . . . well, Fisherman’s Wharf is fun. You could get the cable car at Powell Street, hop off at Za on Hyde for a slice of pizza, walk along the wharf, and get a sundae at Ghirardelli Square.”
“Ride a cable car?” He repeats, his eyes wide and incredulous. “Do you think I’m in some kind of cheesy Jennifer Aniston movie?”
He unfolds his long grasshopper appendages upwards from the table.
“I’m going to Walgreens,” he says.
I’m putting the enchiladas in the oven when I hear the front door open and his feet clomping upstairs. I can whiff him before he even makes it into the kitchen wearing the new white tee shirt. The house smells like a Hershey factory.
“Does this Axe smell okay?” he asks as he waddles back into the kitchen with his new extra-large jeans hanging down to his knee. He wears the slightly anxious expression I remember from the first day of kindergarten, the first day of soccer camp, any unknown territory.
“Come here so I can smell it,” I say.
I lean in close and stick my nose through the thick brown ringlets to his neck. Underneath the chocolate scent, I can tell he has helped himself to my “Be Curly!” frizz control.
“It smells great.”
“Does this t-shirt look good?” It’s an extra-large and hangs down to his knees.
I want to say, you have been adorable since the day you were born. I want to say, just be yourself – you are the most interesting person I have ever met and if she doesn’t think that, the hell with her. I want to say, pull your jeans up and belt them so you can walk without waddling from side to side. But the book says only answer what they ask.
So I say, “You look handsome.”
He turns to me one last time before he leaves.
“I guess we’ll take the cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf.”
He returns after dark and whooshes past me when I open the door to his knock.
This book says that read once your teen divulges a confidence, especially if the teen has taken your advice, back off. Do not expect to be buddy-buddy; expect a chilling effect from the indignation of needing you. So I do not ask how it went, what is her name, do you like her, did you have fun, was the pizza as good as you remember from when you were little?
I hear him singing in the shower, if that’s any clue. He takes multiple long showers per day now, for reasons I don’t care to speculate on.
I fix him a plate of enchiladas and leave it on the table. I know he won’t come down to eat until I’m gone. I pour a glass of wine, and take a moment to bask in the warmth of a feeling that I won’t again take for granted. Warm like a child’s hand on my face, needing me.