The Big Chill: These Are Your Parents

On Film / Essays — Jul 29, 2014

These are your parents.

You are not yet born, or you are very young, and they are gathered for a weekend far away from you, in a house by the water.

If you don’t yet exist, they are considering you—you’re an inevitability they are not quite ready to accept. And if you’re already alive—chubby, dressed in patterned leggings and Velcro sneakers and a headband with knit fruits adorning it—they are trying to forget about you. Just for the weekend.

They are gathered with the people who knew them before—when they were younger, some would say just plain young, and fancied themselves revolutionaries. They came together, all seven of them, just as they crested into adulthood, and they fell in love: not one on one but as a group, fell in love with the puzzle they made, with every perfect piece.

The men loved the men, and they showed it—by jogging together, by playing tennis in impractical shoes, by hugging tightly after too many drinks, maybe even saying it: “I love you, you know.”

The women loved the women, and they showed it too: by sharing sweaters, by inventing nicknames, checking in by phone every morning.

And the men loved the women, and the women loved the men, in different patterns and variations, some passionate and some accidental. And everyone could forgive, because sex is just sex but friendship is something greater. Everyone loved everyone just right, and that love could save, and for a moment it was bliss.

They had big ideas: About politics and philosophy. About capitalism and sex. About late-night TV and translations of French poetry and whether smoking was actually bad for you and whether you could drive after a vodka (yes, you could). About who their parents had been and who they would never become.

They knew they would never work just for a paycheck, your parents. They would never stay put when they wanted to leave. They would never stop listening to music while they cleaned the house or start worrying about what people in town thought. They wouldn’t just be. They’d be happy.

They weren’t the craziest kids on campus. No, that honor was reserved for the true topless radicals, the free-loving fleabags. But they weren’t squares, either. They found a rhythm, a style, that let them feel at home anywhere. In physics class or at a love-in. At a Bible Belt gas station on a cross-country road trip or walking through San Francisco, sunglasses on. They had the armor of their convictions and power in their number: seven. They had one another.

But things change. Graduation comes. One moves home to care for her dad. Another has asthma and needs health insurance (“An office job, man—it’s not as bad as you’d think”). And one falls in love with the kind of guy her dad would adore, despite her best efforts not to. Space and time do their dirty work, and suddenly “group” is just a mind-set, not a reality, and after a little while no one can delude themselves any longer.

So now these are your parents, their bodies starting to change, little paunches visible under their dress shirts, asses widening, sleepy when they used to be awake, sad when they used to be horny. These are your parents, older now but not yet old. And they have lost a friend.

They are young enough that no one expected this, that death is not yet inevitable. This is an affront to their security, an impossible occurrence. This is unthinkable. This is a shock, and, worst of all, this is the only reason they have found in ages to gather.

Someday, in the car on the way to school, your mother will mention her friend who died. She’ll laugh thinking of a joke he used to tell, or remember a cake that his mother taught her to bake. And you will know, intellectually, that she had a friend who isn’t here anymore. But you won’t grok the reality of it: That she loved him and he’s gone. That he was real to her, with a face she knew just as well as you know the Saturday morning cartoons. That he was a constant for her and that constant was removed, and now she knows what life can do. None of that is real to you; none of that can be real. She doesn’t seem sad, and so you cannot imagine that she ever was.

There is so much you can’t imagine. You can’t imagine your parents on this weekend, dancing around the kitchen to Motown as they cook a big meal, moving their butts jauntily and leading with their shoulders. Many years later, at your bat mitzvah or your cousin Stephanie’s wedding, the way they dance will make you want to kill yourself. But if you could see them over this weekend, all together, if you trained a camera on them and let them dance back and forth, you would understand: they were young once too, and this is how they learned to dance, and now every time they dance that way they feel young again, even if you’re scowling at them from across the room and wishing they would explode.

What if someone found a way to show you? To show you that your father’s friend with the glasses and the nasal voice, someone found him sexy once, held his hand furtively, thought he was the wit of the century. And your mother’s friend with the boucle? jacket who calls a thousand times to ask if you got her email about her son’s wedding invitations? Someone once wanted her badly enough that he chased her into the freezing yard and gnawed on her neck like a lamb shank. And that big lazy drunk who sends money at Christmas, who gets food stuck in his mustache and dates social workers? Well, he did the gnawing. And your aunt who isn’t really technically your aunt, she did want kids of her own. She tried.

Your mother and father have had moments when they couldn’t stand to look at each other, and moments when they couldn’t believe they had found each other. They’ve touched other people, then touched each other again, and been surprised that it still felt the same. They’ve been in screaming fights with people besides you. They’ve been hurt by people besides you, been scared for people besides you, been something other than your parents. Been too drunk to get up the stairs and too coked up to sleep.

You will grow up with certain friends who have been chosen for you purely because your parents don’t mind sitting in lawn chairs next to their parents, can find something to talk about. Sometimes your mother will even see the other mothers socially, put on a bunch of gold rings and spray perfume in her henna-red hair and head out the door to meet them at ten past seven for a glass of wine. But you will know the difference between those friends and these old friends, these primal friends, these friends as entrenched as bone. You will know the difference even though you can’t articulate it. You will just know that when they get together, whenever that is, the cadence of their speech changes, their laughs go up a register, they throw their heads back and shake their hair and that laughter comes unbidden, and at surprising times, and about things you don’t think are funny. The laughter is catching, and soon the guys are laughing too, outside by the grill, ignoring their kids and letting the laughter move them. Their eyes soften and their foreheads smooth. They look like old photos.

You will have seen those photos, of your parents and their friends on this weekend, in sweaters so baggy and slacks so olive drab that you won’t be able to tell whether they were hip or Hasidic, or what they might have thought when they looked at one another. But what if you could know? Know them right now, on this weekend, which is still happening for them and tells you all that they are: They are beautiful and they are hideous. They are young and they are ancient. They are laughing and they are angry. They are trying to remember who they were and become who they will be. It has nothing to do with you. It is the reason for you. It is just a weekend, the weather changing minute by minute, minutes slipping away.

And someday, even further down the line, you will be standing in the bedroom, looking out at the slice of the river that is your view, your lover flipping through the mail in the kitchen, and you’ll realize that at some point, without knowing it, you missed the deadline: You’re not going to graduate school for ceramics. You’re not moving to Sweden for a year. You’re not going to become a cop. You’ll probably never shave your head or launch a campaign to save one single redwood tree. You aren’t vegan anymore. Your contribution is your tax dollars, your good moral center, your respect for your building’s recycling rules. You wear sunglasses when it’s sunny, a raincoat when it’s not. You keep almonds in your purse, and you charge your electric toothbrush. You trim your hair. You aren’t where you thought you’d be. You are just where they found you. So you pick up the phone, and you dial someone who remembers you as you want to remember yourself.