May 14, 2011
… was the fake-fur Russian hat from H&M, a North Face parka – one of those fitted numbers with sleeves like a wet suit — and black trousers with an embarrassing brand name. Not Your Daughter’s Jeans. That’s what they’re called. It’s a terrible label to wear on your ass but they’re actually very flattering, and that night, 40 sixteen-year-olds stomping through my house, I needed the ammunition.
My daughter was hostess. I was bouncer and official grown-up. We’d been in tense negotiations over this party for weeks. This was the agreement we finally hammered out:
1. I was permitted to greet her friends and make subtle anti-drinking noises. We had not succeeded in defining what subtle meant in this context. A phrase such as, Is that a bottle in your pocket or are you just glad to see me, while nicely informal, was probably inappropriate.
2. Her father was not permitted to be home. He had been sent out to play poker.
3. In deference to the neighbors, the sound system – an i-pod linked to an amp – would go silent at 11.30. Guests out by 12.15.
4. The upper floors and my office were off limits to guests. The rooftop terrace was a grey area.
5. The party room and the courtyard were off limits to me. Once the majority of guests had arrived I was to go to my room, and stay there.
I knew I would hate every minute of it.
The noise, the antics, the prospect of breakage — all reasonable things to hate, but it was more than that. My American sensibility, which is law-abiding and somewhat Puritanical in nature, was about to come face to face with the lax and louche realities of British culture. And by culture, I mean the drinking culture. If there were a Booze Olympics, the U.K. would medal up. The drinking age is 18 here and the kids start their training early. It’s paid off, all that extreme guzzling, because Brit teens — the girls especially — are considered the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) binge-drinkers in Europe. But there was something else, not as bad as the drinking but still pretty depressing, at least to me. It has to do with the British class system, the idea that there are these three tiers: lower, middle, upper, each one broken down into subgroups, none of them really inclined to mix with any of the others. I’ve lived here a long time, and I’m still not used to it, the boundaries, the limits to what Americans call mobility.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, a starter suburb carved out of farmland. Everyone went to public school (in England, the term is state school). Everyone had an after-school job. We were normal teenagers, we messed around, but if you broke a window at a party, you paid for it yourself. If you got drunk and wrapped your car around a tree, the cost of the tow came out of your own pocket. A boy might spend the night puking in the toilet, but he still had to get up at six, pull on his helmet and pads and run 20 laps on the football field. His Rotary Club scholarship depended on it. We weren’t better or nicer than other teenagers, we were just more worried.
My daughter goes to a girls’ private school. (In England, private schools are called independents. With typical British irony, the fanciest independents are known as public schools – it’s something to do with Henry VIII.) No one forced us to send our girl private; we made that choice. It’s a very rigorous and academic school, you have to pass an exam to get in, but it’s still a class-bound cloister, a hothouse, where her friends call their mothers mummy with a certain confident lilt, and learning to sail and ski are givens. Every September at least two girls show up with their arms in plaster, broken when their horses refused a jump at pony camp, and after Christmas vacation there’s always one anecdote about a younger brother losing control on the slopes and snowplowing into a surprised Prince William and his entourage.
These schools are a world away from the local state schools. They’re a universe away from Pascack Valley Regional High in Hillsdale, New Jersey. That’s where I went.
I called my mother ma.
This was the stuff I was thinking about, standing in the cold outside my front door, waiting for the guests to arrive. The H&M hat gave me an extra four inches of height and the heels of my boots another three, but the boys coming down the street still loomed over me. They were carrying plastic bags. The bags were clanking.
It was one of those moments when I wished I wasn’t a mother. I didn’t want anything to do with this party, didn’t want to think about my house being wrecked, about dealing with a bunch of drunken lads and ladettes– some of them no older than 15 – and the inevitable sobbing girls locked in my bathroom. (Every teen party has them, these weepers. They work as a trio — one girl to do the crying, mascara running down her cheeks, the other two girls to do the clucking and patting.) I didn’t want the stress and the noise, the spills and the vomit and the sheer boredom of being stuck in my bedroom, waiting it out.
The problem is, I love my daughter. She works hard, she’d done her exams, and she wanted a party. I, in turn, want her to be happy, so I agreed. The fact I resented it made me feel mean and inadequate, a bad mother. I’d rather be mother to no one than that.
I said hello to her guests and pointed to their bags. I said, “ I hope that’s not liquor.”
Have you ever asked a teenager if he’s packing drink? He’ll lie right to your face. Politely, though. They’re all polite, these boys. They answered, ‘Oh, no,” with great seriousness and ducked their heads; it was like being conned by a row of Robert Pattinsons in Twilight.
I wasn’t about to call off the party at this juncture, make a scene and embarrass my girl. So I waved them into the house, the tall boys with their six-packs of beer and the girls with long hair and tiny skirts, bottles of flavoured vodka tucked into their handbags. (Later, my daughter told me that Skittles are the sweetener of choice, a handful of them dropped down the neck of the bottle.)
After a while, I went up to my bedroom. I had my laptop and a pile of DVDs: Mad Men, series 1-3. But I couldn’t get into the troubles of Don Draper and his psychotic wife. The party was too loud and intrusive; it came up through the floor and the windows. Music thumped, girls screeched – why do teenage girls screech? – glass broke. I lay on my bed and thought about whether this was as bad as having my house invaded by non-murderous Cossacks, or if it was more like a root canal session at the dentist.
I decided it was like having root canal while Cossacks invaded the dentist’s office.
Having sorted that in my mind, I got off my bed and wandered downstairs.
The rope I had tied across the landing, designed to bar guests from upstairs, had been removed. Someone explained it was because they needed to use the bathroom on the top floor; three girls had locked themselves into the first floor bathroom. I put my ear against the door and heard sobbing and murmured consolation. The party was in full swing.
It was dark and crowded downstairs, the music at blast level, liquid all over the floor. There were a few couples locked together on the sofa but the main activity was drinking, drinking to get drunk. The primary screecher, a girl with a haystack of blond hair was trying to peel off her crop top, still screeching. And then I saw my daughter. She was lifting a glass of wine to her mouth. She was holding a cigarette. There’s the primal scene, the first time a child sees his parents entwined in bed. Is there a term for the first time you see your child engaged in acts of vice?
In retrospect, it was relatively minor vice, a paper cup of supermarket merlot and an unaccustomed cigarette. But at that moment, amidst all that noise and disorder, I thought my heart would break. I gestured to her, the scary international symbol for Come here, and she walked over, mouthing, “What?”
We went to the front hall, and had a huddled conference under the harsh light. We argued back and forth in angry whispers. Throughout it all I kept thinking: I raised you wrong, I should have bundled you up and carried you back to America, away from this world of drinking and entitlement. Sad and exasperated, I finally said, spitting out the words, “What’s wrong with you kids? Why do you have to get drunk at parties? Why can’t you just smoke dope and have sex like we did?”