The extent of the dating advice I received from my mother came the one day she walked in the front door of our house instead of through the garage. I was on the couch making out with my high school boyfriend. Not just making out, but making out while lying down, which was a big step for us, sexually. Nothing could kill the mood of dry humping with our school uniforms on, until we saw my mother from the corner of our eyes. My boyfriend leapt from the couch and skittered across the living room like a startled crab.
"Nora comes from a long line of fertile women," my mother warned us both. "If you two have sex, she will get pregnant."
I ran upstairs to die of embarrassment, and my boyfriend got on his bike and raced home. My mother and I never discussed sex or dating again—until I reached my mid-to-late 20s and she decided it was time for her to let me know whether or not she approved of my dating habits (she didn't).
Like so many women aged 16-27, I flailed through a series of ill-fated relationships, because if I tilted my head at a certain angle and kept one eye closed and completely ignored reality, the relationship didn't look so bad?
"I don't want to meet another guy–don't even want to hear his name–until it's the man you're going to marry," she said one Sunday over brunch while I was explaining how I broke up with a guy over email and he was all bent out of shape about it, even though I did it because I thought he would appreciate the efficiency of the communication.
We didn't speak for around two months after that, which was awkward because we worked at the same ad agency. But women are strong and resilient creatures, and one must never underestimate the power of the silent treatment.
Our silence broke the day after I met the man who would be my husband. My mother and I had passed each other on the stairwell in icy silence, and I turned to let her know I had met someone I really liked. She wanted his name, so I told her.
"Aaron?" she said, turning to go (they had worked together years before at another ad agency). "He's kind of a dumbass."
She hates this story now that her favorite child-in-law has died of brain cancer, but it's true.
It's not entirely my mother's fault that she was devoid of dating advice, because she never really had to date. She met my father when they were both 19. He was just back from Vietnam, 6 feet tall, 125 pounds, and tanned to a deep brown. He was wasted drunk at his welcome home party, falling down the stairs, and she thought to herself, "that's the man I'm going to marry."
And she did. They had four kids and many bad real estate investments and several dogs who ended up "at the farm." They taught my siblings and I that love and romance are not the same thing, and that in some ways, marriage is a lot like a staring contest. Neither of my parents ever blinked, and their marriage lasted 40 years, until my dad died of cancer just a few weeks before my husband would.
God, I know, right? This piece is a bummer.
My mother got 40 years with her soulmate, and I got 4. She lost the man who shared her history, and I lost the future I'd planned with Aaron. Neither of us got enough time. Both of us will always deeply love the ghosts we carry. And both of us are red-blooded American women who would probably like to have sex again someday.
Dating after death is hard. Not only because I'll always be so deeply in love with a man who will be 35 forever, but also because even after just four years, my romance muscle has totally atrophied. I'm not great at the small talk part. On first dates I say things like "So, tell me about your divorce!"
For my mother, it is much more fraught. Aside from the drunk family friend who kept trying to French her under the mistletoe at a Christmas party when I was in grade school, my mother hasn't so much as kissed another guy in over 40 years. And when she meets someone who brings that spark back into her swimsuit zone, it's me she turns to for advice. Me. The girl who once got caught by her parents doing the walk of shame home from her neighbor's house.
It melts my heart, actually, the way she has stopped to ask for directions as she tries to navigate a romantic world that is leaps and bounds away from her analog courtship with my father. What does she wear on a date? What does a text message with an emoji rose mean? And how should she respond?
I feel how she must have felt when she walked in the front door to see her virginal daughter dry-humping a football player on the couch: like I would murder any man who ever hurt her tender little heart. And also that I'm glad she's post-menopausal because I do not want another little brother.
When my then-boyfriend was whisked to the hospital for a seizure that would reveal the brain tumor that would turn out to be the cancer that would kill him three years later, my mother drove me down to the hospital to meet his ambulance. I was shaking with fear and adrenaline, but she was calm and cool as she pulled up to the emergency room door.
"Go in there and be a woman," she told me, reaching over me to open my door.She was fearless and capable then, and I want her to remember that boldness while she reveals this vulnerability to me, that even though the emotional and physical safety net of a decades-long marriage is gone, she is still a bad bitch. So when she sits next to me on the couch and recounts all of the detailed exchanges with a potential paramour, I listen patiently give her the dating advice I wish I'd gotten from her when I was 15. Okay, nope, no I don't. If she said anything like this to me I would have double died of embarrassment.
First things first, I tell her to take all of her undergarments and throw them in the garbage. Some of those panties date back to my middle school days, and it's really hard to feel like a sexual being with ten yards of stretched out cotton pulled up to your nipples.
Like high school Nora, my mom is beautiful, though she hasn't noticed yet. It's tragic to me, because if you've ever watched someone die you know that our bodies are miracles and it is totally worth celebrating them. And how do we do that, as humans? With a selfie or 700. Turn that camera the other way, I tell her. Admire yourself! Know your angles! Feel hot, and he'll think you're hot. It's science, trust me, I took AP chemistry like 15 years ago.
At 15, I would wait by my landline and hope the boys I liked would call to ask me out. I wasted hours lying in bed, listening to my Britney Spears CD and waiting for them to call. But life is too short for that! And in 2016, it's too short to wonder what a text message means or what a man is thinking or how you should reply. If you want to go on a date with a dude, pick up the phone! Just kidding, phone calls are kind of intimate. Text him? And if he sends you something cryptic? You reply however you want to, and you tell him exactly what you're feeling and thinking and if he's the right guy, he'll be totally into that.
Mom is skeptical at best, particularly when I tell her to just take some partial nudes and try out some light sexting, but what else can I tell this woman who is rebuilding her life after 40 years as somebody's wife? What can I let her know about all the things I've learned bouncing from boyfriend to "boyfriend," or from my admittedly minimal dating experience as a widow?
We really have no idea what we're doing, any of us, and that's okay. Dating is an exercise in vulnerability. Our hearts are resilient little objects, and even when yours has been broken and ground into dust, it can regenerate like a starfish that has lost a limb.
Every little heart I stepped on along the way, and every boy who stepped on mine, was just getting me to Aaron. Like the saying goes, you have to kiss a lot of underemployed "DJs" before you find your prince.
"Mom," I say, handing her back her phone after examining a text that includes a rose, a rainbow, and a monkey face, and recommending she reply with a heart-eyed smiley, "you're awesome. Just go out there and be a woman."
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