“Wow, you can really see how much thinner your right leg is when you wear tights,” Ethan says.
I like the outfit I have on — soft red sweater, short skirt, black leggings. But Ethan’s right. The difference between my two legs is obvious, thanks to my slouchy boots. On the left, you can fit two fingers in the gap between my calf and the loose leather. On the right, you can slide in a whole hand. I know from his matter-of-fact tone that Ethan didn’t mean to be critical. Still, I suddenly feel like I’m the thirteen-year-old in the room, the one carrying the heavy funhouse mirror that magnifies all my faults.
We’re about to head for Greenwich Village — land of ex-boyfriends, land of you-never- know-who-you-might-see. I should change, I think. Wide pants or a long skirt; either would make better camouflage. I glance at Ethan who looks great. Tall and lean in his white jeans and black jacket. But I can tell from the way he’s frowning into the hall mirror as he pats down his wavy hair that he’s battling his own distorted reflection. And I remember it’s my job to model rejecting that rejection.
“Extra storage,” I say, shoving my hand in the baggier boot. “In case we buy something.”
“This is Greenwich Village,” my mom said.
I was nine or ten and we were on the long subway ride from Queens into Manhattan for a Broadway show. The train pulled into a station called West Fourth Street and, when the doors opened, I watched a woman in a paint-splattered smock step out of our car. Two lanky guys in dirty jeans followed carrying guitar cases.
“A lot of artists and interesting people come here,” my mom explained.
A few years later, when I was a little older than Ethan, I took that subway to Greenwich Village whenever I could. I’d meet my friend Deb in front of what was then The Waverly Theater and we’d wander the narrow, winding streets, browsing in used bookstores and Indian clothing shops and fantasizing about the brownstone we’d live in near Washington Square Park when we were both famous writers. What I loved about the Village was that I was okay with myself there. Partly it was the anonymity of being in a big city; but more than that, it was that the people around us seemed comfortable with who they were. No cookie cutter Farrah Fawcetts crowded Bleeker Street the way they did the halls of my high school. No one I passed seemed to care if my hair feathered correctly, if I wore brand name sneakers, or, for that matter, if I had an awkward walk. In Greenwich Village, for the first time, I saw people wearing earrings in places other than their ears. I saw a man in a skirt and another who wore colorful snakes as though they were scarves. And so it was in Greenwich Village that it first occurred to me that a limp could be seen as an interesting uniqueness, like a well-placed beauty mark or a tattoo.
It no longer seems so unusual to me to be in a place where people are generally accepted, oddities and all. Maybe it’s because high school is thirty years behind me. But even the teens I know seem to embrace individuality in a way I certainly didn’t experience growing up. Nonetheless, living with one, I’m painfully aware that self-consciousness and angst are alive and well in adolescents. The thirteen-year-old I once was would be surprised to know that a kid like Ethan — handsome, popular, athletic — can get down on himself. It might even buoy her up to know it. But I’m his mother, not his peer, so when he aches I ache along with him.
Even while those hormones wreak their inevitable havoc, I’m proud to say Ethan has stayed close to me. Not that he comes home and immediately opens up about what’s on his mind, but I’ve learned ways to create the space for it to happen. His dad has too. Richard takes Ethan to the woods where they hike or ride mountain bikes. Me, I take him to the Village.
I’m not exactly sure what Greenwich Village means to Ethan, but I can actually see his body relax when we get off the train. We wander those same winding streets I loved as a teenager and I point out my personal landmarks, including the brownstone I finally did get to live in, though I had a 400-square-foot studio on the ground floor instead of the whole house I’d imagined.
“Joni Mitchell was right,” I tell Ethan. “My dreams lost grandeur coming true.” He rolls his eyes at me.
We browse in Urban Outfitters, and then head to Washington Square Park where Ethan plays a game with a gruff-looking guy at one of the chess tables. Afterward, we stop to listen to an a capella doo-wop group sing Under the Boardwalk.
“I’m getting hungry,” he says, so we walk to John’s Pizza where the dark wooden walls and booths have graffiti scratched in them like old school desks. It’s there, between bites of our beloved half mushroom/half olive pie, that my beautiful boy tells me what he’s been seeing lately in that mean-spirited mirror. I can’t talk him out of his perceptions, but I cross my uneven legs in their baggy boots and I listen. And I let him know I know how he feels.