"i envy you,"
I said to my mother. We were two hours into a three-hour car journey, roaring up Interstate 80 to a family wedding. "You lived in an era when dating really existed."
My mother frowned and glanced into the rearview mirror. "Don't you date?"
"No," I said. "Dating implies a certain plurality. As in, 'Tonight I'm going out with Billy Bob. Tomorrow night I'll go out with Jackie Joe. Maybe the next night, if I'm lucky, I'll go out with Hank.' Somewhere along the line, all that fell by the wayside." I turned on my side, irritable and hot. "Could we turn on the air-conditioning?"
"No. It makes the engine overheat."
I sighed, started to make a smart-ass comment about her car, and thought the better of it. "So, Mom. Did you go out on lots of dates? Tell me how it went. Did guys call you up and say, 'Hello, is Peggy there? This is Jimmy Jake, and I'd like to take her out for a soda and a movie.' Was it like 'Happy Days'?"
"Yes, it was like that," she said, slowly. "Although I don't know where you get these names. I grew up in South Dakota, not Mississippi." She glanced at me. "Things were much more defined in those days. Boys asked girls out. Girls played hard to get. A good girl never phoned a boy. You know the story. Blah, blah, blah. It was awful."
"It sounds sort of nice," I said. "I wish we all knew what the rules were."
mom downshifted, weaving in and out of the timid traffic, gunning into the fast lane. "It was all absurd. Then in the '60s, everyone was hopping in and out of each other's bed. The rule then was, if you didn't sleep around, you were uptight. That's when your father and I started having our problems."
"I know, I know." I waved my hand dismissively. I didn't want to hear that litany again, which, over the years, seemed to include more lurid details and pointed innuendoes each time it was told. "Well, here's the deal now, Mom. People don't date anymore. They go out once, they go out twice, and then they're a couple. This getting to know lots of people, trying on new experiences -- it just doesn't exist anymore. Monogamy until proven otherwise."
"Well, what's wrong with that?" she asked hesitantly.
"Wrong? Whatever happened to going out with lots of different people? I mean, if you look at it crudely, dating is really a means to an end. The end, of course, being marriage. But depending upon what route you take, you could end up at a bad end or a good end. Don't you want to take lots of different paths so you increase your odds of coming to a good end? Don't you want to know that the path you took was the best path, so you never have to lie awake when you're 80 and gray and haggard, asking, 'What if? What if?'"
She screwed up her face, an expression I recognized in myself when I was struggling not to say something. "This really has everything to do with sex," she said finally. "It's not prudent to sleep around with many men nowadays." She glanced at me sidewise. "I hope I don't have to tell you that."
"No one's talking about sex, Mom," I sidestepped. "Besides, you can date people without sleeping with them." I rolled the window down further. "I'm just saying it's weird," I said loudly, over the roar of the warm wind, "how monogamy is assumed until proven otherwise. How nobody is on the same page about it. How, if we do have that discussion, and I say that I'm pro-dating -- i.e. I want to go out with other guys too -- that automatically translates in some guys' mind that I'm a slut."
"So things really aren't very different from the '50s after all," she said. "It sounds like you do have rules and proscriptions and boundaries." She pushed the button on her side to roll up my window. "I never knew you were a control freak."
"Yes, but the rules are different for every single person." I pushed my button and unrolled it again. "Could I please have some air, Mom? Sheesh, talk about control. Or turn on the air-conditioning."
"Just deal with it. For heaven's sakes, you're such a wilting lily."
"Oh, pardon me for being used to San Francisco's chilly climate, which, may I point out, you chose to bring me up in." My mother rolled her eyes and I unbuckled my seat belt. "My friend Julianne was saying the other day that she met this wonderful guy. He was incredibly cute, smart, funny, interesting, the whole nine yards. He was at some dinner party that she went to without her boyfriend. Well, now he's all she can think or talk about, all week. She's been with her boyfriend for almost a year, and she says they have a great relationship. 'All I want to do is to kiss this dinner party guy,' she told me" (a G-rated version of what she actually said). "'Is that so very wrong? All I want is a weekend furlough from this relationship. Just one little weekend. Then I'll get this obsession out of my system, and everything will be back to normal.'"
"Naive," my mother commented dryly.
"Mom, she was being facetious," I said. "The point is, if she'd dated more before going into this monogamy thing hook-line-and-sinker with the boyfriend, she wouldn't be lusting after Mr. Dinner Party."
"Now you're being naive." Mom carefully passed a white Toyota full of screaming, red-faced children. "If you think temptation can be cured by a heavy dose of dating in the early years, look no further than your father. Or me. Or anyone. Desire is always there." She moved back into the fast lane and, sighing, rolled my window up once again. Turning on the air-conditioning, she said by way of explanation, "Anything to cure you of looking so hot and bothered."