ruthie blum 88.
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"When I'm 18, will you buy me a car?" my 16-year-old son asks, twirling a forkful of spaghetti against a spoon.
Having recently spent what amounts to the Gross National Product of Africa to repair my own jalopy, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I do know, however, that any flippancy on my part could put me in parental jeopardy. Experience has taught me to use sarcasm sparingly around my children, whose characteristic wit turns into dim-wittedness whenever they want something badly enough.
"Two years is a long time," I say, weighing each word carefully, to prevent the dreaded accusation of "you promised!" being hurled at me at a later date. "Who knows if I myself will even own a car by then?"
If I do, I hasten to add, I will welcome his replacing me as resident chauffeur.
"Two years is a long time," he says, in between slurps of pasta. Quoting me for argument's sake is a skill he and his siblings have honed to perfection. "How do you know you won't become a millionaire during that time?"
"You have a point," I concede. Though he and I both know that the chances of this happening are next to nil, since I never buy lottery tickets.
"On second thought," he says, tapping on the table in time to a song he hears in his head, "if my band gets really successful, I could be the one to get rich."
"Now you're talking," I beam, as proud of his talent as I am tired of being the bread-winner of the family.
"No, I'm serious," he insists, getting up to locate a pair of drum sticks without putting his plate in the sink.
"So am I," I emphasize, cleaning up after him while telling myself that doing so is actually an investment in my future.
"If and when you do make a lot of money," I continue, "would you lend me some of it?"
"Sure," he answers, matter-of-factly. "But it wouldn't have to be a loan. I could just buy you something."
I am intrigued.
"Sounds fair," I say. "What would you buy me?"
He shrugs, his shoulders slumped somewhat, and avoids eye contact.
"A new life," he mumbles.
A new life?
"Oh," I say, starting to stammer. It seems that the most profound conversations I ever have with my kids creep up on me when I'm least prepared. I want to tell him that I was thinking more along the lines of a dishwasher. Or a robot that folds laundry. I want to protest indignantly that there is nothing wrong with my current life, thank-you-very-much.
But false piety doesn't go over big in my household. Mainly because I forbid it. Too bad my kids haven't internalized any other of my many rules and regulations - like putting their clothes away, for instance - so completely. Too bad the only music of mine that reaches their register is that of malaise.
"WHAT DO you mean?" I ask, trying to sound neutral. Frightened at the prospect that this "new life" he imagines for me doesn't include him in it.
"I dunno, nothing," he answers, starting to tap nervously, this time with a stick, on the edge of the kitchen counter. This time not hearing some imaginary melody. Other than my tone of voice - for which he and his siblings have always had perfect pitch.
"No, I'm serious," I persist, aware that my window of opportunity is about to shut, since conducting heart-to-heart conversations with his mother is not one of my son's favored activities.
"So am I," he says, clearly sorry he has opened up this particular Pandora's Box when he has more pressing things to do right now, like practice the drums. "I was only joking."
I was only joking. The number one euphemism for "I don't take responsibility for what I just said."
"If you were 'only joking,'" I say, "then humor me by playing along."
"What do you mean?" he asks, trying to sound neutral. Frightened at the prospect that this "new life" he imagines for me doesn't include him in it.
"I dunno," I answer, my foot starting to tap nervously under the table. "What would my 'new life' look like? What would it consist of?"
He rolls his eyes. I keep mine fixated.
"I don't understand the question," he sighs.
"The question," I sigh back at him, "is, 'What is lacking in my life that if I were to have it would make it a more valuable one?'"
He stops tapping and looks up at me.
"Nothing, I guess," he says, hesitantly.
"You're damn right," I say, practically yelling. At myself, more than at him.
"Uh-oh," he suddenly flinches. "I'm gonna be late for my rehearsal."
"Why?" I ask, looking at my watch. "When does it start?"
"In five minutes," he whines, bracing himself for an in-depth lecture on time management. Which I promptly supply.
"Can you drive me there?" he asks, sheepishly. He is prepared for an additional onslaught about consideration for others - and about taking personal responsibility for his commitments. He is equally certain that his request will be met. He is right on both counts.
"Do I have any choice?" I ask, grabbing my car keys and ushering him to the door.
"Well, it's your fault for making me lose track of the time," he says, tapping on the bannister as he follows me down the steps and onto the street.
"So, what was your answer again?" he shouts to compete with the rap song blasting on the radio.
"About what?" I ask, maneuvering the early-evening traffic that is threatening to make me late getting him to his rehearsal.
"You know," he says, relieved to have me back to my old self. "About whether you're buying me a car when I'm 18."