“That’s what you’re wearing tonight?” Ethan asked me.
It was the afternoon before his eighth-grade graduation and we’d run into each other in front of the pizza place on our block. I was on my lunch hour and he was wandering with a group of friends after having finished his half day of school.
“Maybe.” I had on a simple flowered sundress. “Why?”
Ethan shrugged. “I just thought it would be fancier.”
I recalled the rented black tux, laid out on his bed, complete with electric blue tie and vest.
“Maybe I’ll change,” I said.
A moment later, he and his friends were off. I watched them jostle each other as they drifted down the street. Jared and Haley had both shot up this year; and Lily, who is still petite, was suddenly all womanly curves. Ethan and most of his crew had been in class together since kindergarten, but soon they’d be heading off in different directions for high school. It created a kind of urgency about spending time together now. Meanwhile, my time with Ethan seemed to be diminishing to brief encounters like this.
When I got home from work later that afternoon, Dan was waiting for me.
“I bet you just saw a very handsome man,” he said.
“I see one now,” I answered, putting my arms around him.
“You didn’t bump into Ethan? He just left.”
“Nooo,” I whined. “I can’t believe I missed him!”
“I offered to help him with his tie, but he’d already done it. I felt it and it seemed perfect.”
I pictured Dan standing behind Ethan so he could feel down the length of the tie the way he would on himself. This is an aspect of having a blind partner I really like. The necessity for touch allows Ethan to be easier with it than the average teenage boy tends to be. Still, I felt a flicker of jealousy that Dan got to be a part of this rite of passage while I was still at work.
“He taught himself by watching a demo on YouTube,” I explained.
I went to look through my closet for a more graduation-worthy dress. “Maybe I should wear the evening gown from when I was a bridesmaid,” I joked to Dan. I put on a pretty black wraparound summer dress and my dressiest sandals.
As I was freshening up my makeup, the buzzer rang and our good friend Julia came in.
“Ethan’s graduating!” she said. “Can you believe it?”
Back when I was pregnant, Julia and I used to meet at our favorite cafÃ© for steamed milk with orzata. It was her way of making sure I got enough calcium. When Ethan was six months old, she and I took him on his first vacation to the Jersey Shore. From the time he could talk he’d call out “Joel-ya!” when he’d spot her from his stroller or from the top of the monkey bars in the park. More recently, the three of us would meet for dinner and she and Ethan would quote their favorite comedians, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I said, giving her a hug. “Now the family’s complete.”
There were under thirty eighth graders in Ethan’s small, progressive charter school, so the graduation ceremony was warm and personal. A snippet of each student’s favorite song played as he or she walked to the stage. They also chose quotes that were read aloud as they went up to receive their diplomas. In between was a montage of all the short films the kids had been in since third grade. The room darkened and there they were — not the cool elusive teens they’d so recently become, but the open, playful tykes that I half expected to see whenever I entered their bustling classroom.
When it was over, I snagged Ethan for some photos, then we went to celebrate at a local family-run Italian restaurant. Well, three of us did. You know I want to be with my friends after, Ethan had warned me weeks in advance. Their plan was to go out for burgers, then hang out at the pier that overlooked Manhattan.
As Julia read the menu aloud for Dan, I thought about how, until recently, an adult-only evening like this was a rare treat, and one I often sorely craved. Tonight though, I felt like Ethan’s childhood had rushed over me like a brief summer storm. I pictured him, two hours earlier, striding down the aisle of the auditorium to the driving opening chords of Satisfaction — long, lean, and confident in his dark, well-fitting tux. “He looks like a man,” the principal said to me and I knew she didn’t only mean his appearance. He’d changed in recent months, grown more quiet and reserved. The word private came to me bringing with it a sudden ache.
“So, how does it feel to be the mother of a graduate?” Dan asked as our steaming plates of pasta arrived.
“Bittersweet,” I answered. Time was moving, as always, in one direction only. Ethan was growing and evolving, still my boy but, in many ways, someone new for me to get to know. But then, hadn’t that always been true, phase by phase? And didn’t I always adjust after some hesitancy?
Something is different this time, though. In this newest phase, he mostly belongs to others.
“You look lovely, by the way,” Julia said, bringing me back to our table and my loving chosen family.
I told her about running into Ethan that afternoon and how he’d expressed his disapproval of the first dress I chose. “He wanted me to wear something fancier.”
Julia smiled. “That’s kind of sweet.”
I ate a forkful of linguine and thought about that. Maybe Ethan’s critique was actually his cryptic way of letting me know how important to him my presence at graduation was. I want you there, he might well have been saying in his new encoded way, celebrating with me as fully as possible.