I hear the rolling wheels and metal clank of my son’s scooter on our front porch. “I’m not staying,” he explains as he runs in, “just getting my USB and going to Jake’s.” Then he darts back out the door and off the porch, bangs shading his eyes, red bandana circling his neck like a bandit.
“Forgetting something?” I ask, pointing to the abandoned scooter.
“Oh yeah!” Desmond’s face cracks into a ghost of his father’s grin—and he’s gone.
As I begin preparing dinner, I command Alexa to play eighties music and soon my kitchen fills with songs I remember from high school: “Africa,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “Living on a Prayer.” Now, decades later, mothering a tween during a pandemic, each song speaks to a veil of anxiety and yearning I try to identify. When I hear Toto’s “Africa,” the lyrics are overlapped, like an echo, by the cover version I listened to all last summer en route to Desmond’s sports camp. “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become.” Freddie Mercury’s sultry, “How do you think I’m going to get along / Without you when I’m gone” brings me back to the quad in high school, dancing with my first kiss, a guy who would break up with me, and then console, “Nothing lasts forever.” Blindly, I reach for a pot in the left cabinet, but it’s in the right-hand one instead, and I feel as though I’m living in a warped mirror of my life, reliving a decade where the songs are the same, but the world is upside down, as though I am in my own episode of Stranger Things. In this world, my 11-year-old son leaves on a scooter instead of a bike, plays Fortnite with his friends instead of Dungeons and Dragons.
When friends ask how Desmond is doing with all this, I speak in Boglins and burbles, “He’s joined a scooter gang. They hang out at the plaza and get boba.”
Before the coronavirus, Desmond played four sports: baseball, basketball, flag football, and lacrosse. When he wasn’t at school, or practices, or playing, he was watching professional sports. He wasn’t allowed to go to the corner market without an adult. His video gaming was limited to a two-hour daily maximum, and two days per week were strictly game-free. During the summer and other breaks from school, he was in day sports camps from nine to three.
I supervised it all, and honestly liked my 2000s helicopter mom status. I liked driving my son from basketball practice to lacrosse practice, savoring the time spent talking to him in barely moving traffic, sneaking through back alleys to make it to the field on time, eyeing his sweaty reflection in the rearview mirror as I passed him baby carrots and a homemade sandwich. It was satisfying to nourish Desmond, know his whereabouts, and partake in his activities. I liked writing in small slots of quiet time when I knew he was accounted for, and knowing exactly what time I would retrieve him. When he started middle school, I told myself, I would let him walk the few blocks there, allow him some more independence.
I didn’t envision that a pandemic would speed up that timeline.
Last spring on the first day of canceled school, Desmond sprang from bed yelling, “This is awesome! No school!” In the kitchen, he sat down in front of our laptop to watch some YouTube videos. “Only a half hour,” I said. “Like normal. Just because you’re not at school doesn’t mean that you can be on a screen all day.” I felt my stomach tighten, aware even as I attempted to limit Desmond’s screen time that my words were false. Even the best efforts of a helicopter mom could not make our new reality normal.
Two years earlier, we had been through a Fortnite addiction with him, and he had chosen to quit cold turkey. He didn’t play video games for almost a year. When he asked if he could start gaming again, I told him that he was the one who chose to stop, so he could choose to start again. “But no Fortnite. Never again.”
He agreed. “No one plays Fortnite anyway, it’s dead.”
During the early weeks of quarantine, Desmond was content with FaceTime basketball games of Horse. He’d set my phone against a light pole and talk with his friend while they played with separate balls at separate houses. I remember pacing on the sidewalk in my Uggs and a baseball cap, watching, as a neighbor walked by, shaking his head. “This is crazy.”
I agreed, hoping I didn’t start finding crazy normal.
But not far into the pandemic, basketball was abandoned for gaming, which became the only play date. At first, Desmond was playing other video games, but then all his friends started playing Fortnite again. A revival I rued, but I didn’t want him to lie on the couch and play Call of Duty by himself. He needed to socialize with his friends, so I acquiesced. The novelty of pajamas all day had worn off, and his new mantra was “Quarantine life sucks.” He was depressed. He complained that there was nothing to do. Everything he loved to do had been taken away from him like a punishment: no competitive sports to play or watch, no Benihana celebrations, no recess at school. I knew how he felt. “What about Horse?” I asked, missing the smack of the ball echoing through our quiet neighborhood and watching him from the kitchen.
“I don’t want to ever play basketball again,” he said. “I played too much. I’m sick of it.”
He flung himself onto the leather couch, our resigned cat in his arms.
We bought him a new bike to replace the one he had outgrown, but he needed practice with his dad before we would let him ride alone with his friends—and maybe that sapped his interest. The ping pong table we bought from a neighbor also failed to engage him. But when he began borrowing a friend’s scooter, we bought him one for himself, and that took, an affinity I now suspect was due to the scooter’s alluring glimmer of independence.
Now, while our government has placed restrictions on us, I’ve found myself loosening them for Desmond. And in the absence of sports to play or watch, and school to attend, I’m starting to see what happens without all that organization I used to relish. Surprisingly, there is a lot of drama—boy drama with fighting that reminds me of my junior high years, when we girls circled in and out of cliques in nice and spiteful turns. I had thought such preteen drama was restricted to girls, but my husband tells me about the surprise he felt at eleven, when he learned that his two best friends had been talking behind his back all summer. The pandemic’s endless unstructured hours seem to have escalated the dramatic impact of these preteens’ budding hormones, allowing too much idle time to talk about stupid things, like who is spoiled and how many devices they have. Too much time to find trouble.
Sometimes, my son wears a brave face as he scoots towards me on the porch after being out with friends. Then indoors, the rolling tears begin.
What happened? I ask, but he brushes me off, I don’t want to talk about it now.
I miss the car, the mysterious truth serum it emanated to get my son to open up. Or was it the lack of eye contact, with him staring at the back of my head? Or the slow, lulling movement of stop-and-go traffic?
This new normal unbalances me, as if I stood on a ladder’s top rung without a handhold: my son looping Fortnite, scootering, video games, a blip of ping pong, a blip of school work. I don’t like worrying about him while he plumbs the unknown, the constant buzzing of anxiety as I track him on the Apple Watch I bought to cope with his newfound freedom.
And yet, despite the tears and the lack of communication, I can see what Desmond and his friends are learning in this strange time, lessons absorbed without help of teachers, coaches, or parents. I’ve observed them fighting about things that happened as they scootered and milled around the plaza, yelling during heated games of Fortnite and then working out differences amongst themselves. My son has learned lessons that my words couldn’t teach him. He felt the pain of a bad, peeling sunburn, and began applying lotion without a fight. He fell hard on his scooter, his body soaring over the handlebars, scraping the sidewalk, his helmeted head smacking concrete. For months, he had argued with me about wearing that helmet. His friend, who doesn’t wear one either, and made fun of Desmond’s, witnessed the fall. Shaking his head, he commented, “If he wasn’t wearing a helmet . . .” I watched, silent, as Desmond absorbed those words.
When I see my son glide away on his scooter, I recognize his smile of freedom, and I am his age again, feeling the cool, salt air against my face as I cruise down the hill away from my stifling childhood house. “Just go around the block,” warns my mother, but she doesn’t watch. Off I go, pedaling as fast as I can, letting go of the handlebars as I speed, lightheaded, through the streets of our beach neighborhood. And now, with both fear and hope for my son, I remember what I understood instinctively back then: once I ventured out, there was no looking back.