I am sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, crying on my plastic menu.
It is my son’s freshman year and he is home for holiday break. The menorah is up, the Christmas tree is decorated and there are presents underneath. This year I bought him a musical dreidel and a gingerbread man, like I’ve done all his life. There are chocolate coins too. And more things under the tree. We are an interfaith family. An atheist interfaith family.
After Christmas at our home in Florida we are going to NY until New Years. Then, Bill and I will come home and Stephen will stay in NY for his January project, making a movie with his classmates from Oberlin College to be shot on the streets of Manhattan.
Stephen is silent on the way home from the airport. I make small talk. How was the semester? Do you know your grades? Won’t it be fun to spend two whole weeks together?
He refuses to eat the lasagna I made because he had a slice of pizza at the airport and the he doesn’t eat two similar meals on the same day. He used to eat spaghetti three times a day.
“What would you like? An omelet? Sir fry veggies?” He’s a vegetarian.
“I need protein.”
“Stir fried veggies with tofu?”
“Tofu is soy. Soy is full of GMOs. I stopped eating it.”
“Here’s the menorah all lit up, and the tree and look, a musical dreidel and a gingerbread man. Remember how you always loved gingerbread men?”
“Maybe later.” He goes to his room. I hear music.
I knock and am given permission to enter. “Hi, what are you listening to?”
“Nothing you ever heard of.”
He announces he will not observe any of the holidays. “They are capitalistic plots of the bourgeoisie designed to make people keep consuming. You made me a consumer by buying me all those toys when I was little. I am not bourgeois like you. Look around at all your stuff. Your oriental rugs. Your Limoges. Your closet full of shoes. All a person needs is a pair of pants and a tee-shirt. Maybe two tee-shirts. Look at your endless wealth that you got through exploitation. I’m an anarchist now and I don’t believe in possessions or celebrations.”
“We worked for our money. You know the endless hours I work,” says Bill.
“And we didn’t exploit anyone. Your father’s patients love him. And librarians don’t exploit people. I lend books for free, dammit.”
I want to tell him more. I want to remind him that of the 1600 students at Oberlin, someone must be richer than us. Like the famous Hollywood film director’s two kids who go there, or the son of the Hollywood couple, his friend whose father is a vice president on Wall Street, or the heiress to an organic diary conglomerate in San Francisco. Their milk is in our refrigerator.
Maybe he will feel better in NY. We fly there on the 26th. We stay at the brownstone of a friend who is on a Caribbean vacation.
For dinner we go to a Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam. It’s packed. It’s holiday time on the Upper West Side and the Jews need their Asian food. Finally, we get a table. We are reading the menus.
“What are you having?” I ask Stephen.
“This is hard for me to tell you,” he begins. “But I don’t believe in long-distance relationships. All of my friends are in Oberlin. I see them every day. You two are the only people I have a long distance relationship with.”
“We’re your parents,” I tell him, “not long-distance relationships. You didn’t want to go to college in Florida. We let you go wherever you wanted. A lot of your friends had to stay in Florida. But we saved so you could go anywhere you wanted.”
“That may be true. But, I don’t think you’ll be seeing much of me for a long time. For years maybe. I hate Florida and I’m not coming home for any more vacations. I only came home for this one because they closed the dorms.”
The waiter comes over with a pot of tea and three cups. Obliviously, he asks, “do you need a few more minutes to decide?”
I’ve lost my appetite. I forget that Stephen is 18 and he doesn’t have a clue, that his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for empathy and foreseeing the consequences of one’s behavior, won’t develop for another eight or ten years. And I can’t read the damn menu because of these tears that will come and go for the next five or six years.