My Son’s Love Life Is None of My Business, Except It Is


My Son’s Love Life Is None of My Business, Except It Is

I Heard My Son Kissing a Girl by Yukiko Tominaga

On Oscar night, I heard my son kissing a girl. He was fifteen years old and this was the first time he had brought a girl to our place. He told me at the dinner table prior to the kissing incident that they were watching Rango in his room. Did the cartoon involve a lot of kissing? Maybe, but I couldn’t remember, so I tried to listen to them to figure out whether the sound was from the screen or from them. Each time I heard the pecking sound, it became more real and I put together the thread of their conversation. Are you okay? said my son. Yes, yes. I’m fine, said the girl.

Between witnessing the first time a Korean movie won best picture and a pit-bull-size raccoon trespassing on our front porch, I texted my son, who was two feet away, just on the other side of the wall. Are you guys ok? There is a giant raccoon outside. Do you guys want to see it? No answer. The pecking sound (now I’m convinced it was) kept leaking through his wall. Of course, they were more than okay, but I didn’t know what else to say or not to say. I would have been more prepared if he had told me she was his girlfriend. I could have told him our house rule, Someone has to be home when you bring a girl, if you do things you don’t want me to see or hear, and, and . . . what?

We lived in San Francisco in a hundred-year-old, two-story house with housemates. The layout of the house allowed our housemates and us to have our privacy. We shared a garage, kitchen, backyard, and laundry room. The sunroom in the back and the entire second floor, two bedrooms and a shower and toilet, were my housemates’ space, and a living room and one huge bedroom with a bath and toilet on the first floor were our space. I divided the huge bedroom into two bedrooms when my son was six. We used two bookcases that my first housemates had left to create two-thirds of the boundary, and we covered the space above them with Ikea curtains. We didn’t build a wall between us.

It’s a miracle that we could still afford to rent a place in this city. Levi had owned his house on this same street, but he died during the rise of the housing market crisis and the house went into foreclosure. It was a miracle that we found a rental on the same street and that my son grew up with the same neighbors and friends. Our landlord, a retired firefighter, a man of few words, never raised our rent until four years ago, and every time he did, he said, “I’m so sorry that I have to do this to you.” There were times when I couldn’t find new housemates, but he didn’t charge me the full house rent. He said, “Just pay what you’ve always paid. You are a single mother. Focus on raising your son.”

Families we collected over the years became Alex’s fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles, and my best friends. They watched Alex while I went to school at night. They invited us over for dinners, camping trips, and into their phone plans. It’s a miracle to be able to feel the entire city helping to bring up one child. My son’s friends didn’t tease him about his living situation. On the contrary, one boy begged his mom to find a housemate and get rid of his brother. This was back when they were still in third grade. The boy who wanted to give away his brother still came to have a sleepover, and I often found him in our living room on the weekends, now six foot two, so he couldn’t fit on our couch to sleep. He slept on a giant beanbag, half of his body hanging on the floor and my son on the couch sleeping, curled in a ball. Whether your parents owned a Tesla, had a vacation house in Tahoe, or lived with housemates, kids didn’t care. They saw each other as they were. The things I saw on the TV show—the social hierarchy, rich kids looking down on poor kids, or poor kids feeling ashamed of their parents—they weren’t our reality. So our nonexistent wall had never been a problem to us . . . until this Oscar night.

The girl’s mother came to pick her up at a quarter after ten.

The mother asked her, “Did you have fun?”

The girl said, “Yes.”

The mother and daughter left with big smiles.

My son came to the living room looking at his phone. He’d just read my text. He smiled and shook his head, “Yes, we’re okay.”

“I could hear you guys and I didn’t know what to do. Is she your girlfriend?”


“I see.”

I couldn’t recall what kind of conversation led us to sit down on the couch across from each other. All I remember was asking him, “Are you guys going to have sex? Do you have a condom?”

He answered, “No, I’m not going to. I’m only fifteen. I don’t want to have a baby. We’ve had sex education, not just once but multiple times. If I have a concern, we have a school counselor for that.”

I told him that it’s better to be safe than sorry so if he needed a condom, I’d buy it. If he didn’t want me to, he could always ask Sam’s dad, Walter’s dad, or any of his fathers. I wanted him to know he could speak to me or any of us.

“I know, Mom. Please. Can you just stop?” he said and left to take a shower. I could see he was getting upset. I knew I had failed at our first talk and possibly I had lost the chance for it forever. I sat on the couch while he took a shower thinking about what had happened to my ideal parent image, that I would be a parent who listens to her child, be open to his freedom, and trust his answer. So, I decided to leave a box of condoms in his room without mentioning it. Did condoms have a size? I didn’t know. If they did, what size would I need to get for him?

When he came out of the bathroom, Alex said, “I know you’re worried and I’m glad that you spoke to me. I got upset because you began to rumble the same line over and over. I’ve already heard about sex and protection so many times from so many people.”

I told him I was happy that he was with her, especially knowing he had asked her out back in September, and she’d told him she was too busy at the time. He smiled and we said good night and went to sleep. The talk was done. Good, we made a verbal contract, I thought.

I worried about everything. I worried if he could make friends, if I could feed him in this city, if I could retain my job, if I could help with his English homework, and if I could behave well enough to be accepted by his community. But with each worry I had, his life proved they were only my fears. He was much more resilient and so was I.

There was one more worry, which I had not resolved. I had never had a serious, committed relationship after Levi died. This was not a sacrifice. I wasn’t worried that my love life would ruin my son’s life. I was worried about spending money. I didn’t want to spend money on a dating site, transportation to a meeting spot, activities a date and I might be doing together, birthday cards for him, birth control pills, and other miscellaneous expenses that would come with having another person in my life. I also didn’t want anyone to pay for my portion. I was now an independent woman, unlike when I was married to Levi, when I had to depend on him for my survival. My life was already full of love with people and with the community we were involved in. I didn’t need any more love.

Could a parent without romance teach a child how to love? How could Alex learn to care for his girlfriend if I failed to show him what a couple should look like? So many novels and movies were born out of passion, and I knew loving someone was never a waste of time even if it only lasted three weeks. I knew it in my head, and sometimes I wanted to hire someone to be my boyfriend once a month so I could show my son that love was the greatest thing a human could experience. But I couldn’t. I loved my life and I hated spending money.

Sometimes I wanted to hire someone to be my boyfriend once a month so I could show my son that love was the greatest thing a human could experience.

The following week, Alex acted the same as before that night. He let me hug him, and some mornings he came to my bed to lie next to me. At dinner, we spoke a bit about his girlfriend and her overweight Chihuahua mix in the midst of conversation about his schoolwork and the volleyball team. But I was still consumed by that night. Alex moved on from the subject and I couldn’t.

There was a ninth-grade parent meeting on Thursday night before the school play. After the meeting, I went to introduce myself to Alex’s counselor and spoke about his passion for history but really to seek her advice about my son’s love life. “Yes, AP U.S. history sounds great. What I want to ask you about is that he has a girlfriend now. Will they have sex?” I asked.

She, with a serious look, said, “I cannot answer yes or no. But they are learning about protection and consent. You can set a house rule, speak with her parents, and ask him to inform you where he is.”

I asked her if it was common in this country for fifteen-year-olds to kiss, and she said it was. She also told me, in a pitying tone, that it would only get harder from here.

Right after we said goodbye, she held my hand and said, “You must know your son is a great kid. He’s friends with everyone and cares for them all. Really cares. That’s a gift. I’m not just saying this to make you feel better. I want you to know how special that is!”

At the play, my son instructed me to sit in the front row, alone. I turned my head to the back. In the dim light, I spotted the shadow of his girlfriend’s head leaning on his shoulder. They seemed so comfortable with each other.

Who had told him that lending your shoulder makes others relax?

I didn’t have any memory of being loved by men. I remembered I had been loved, but I couldn’t remember what it felt like. It wasn’t as dramatic as a hole in my heart or my memory having been blocked out by a traumatic experience. My past must have existed because of what was born.

At night, when I was alone in the kitchen, I often listened to its buzz while I brought the corner of the fridge into focus. As I sat looking at the corner, my mind time-traveled to seventeen years ago with Levi. The diner that served the large blueberry pancakes, the heated conversation about our ideal society (back then I was into a barter-based society), the desire to be open to someone and the wish to find a person who would be my soul mate. Our coffee had gotten cold––the sign of enthusiastic discussion, we’d forgotten the time and space. I remembered the sensation, but this wasn’t my emotion because I didn’t taste it. Buzz, buzz, buzz. What’s so noble about loving someone anyway?

“What’s wrong with having sex?” my ex-roommate number 3 asked. Mi Cha and I were at a sake bar a few blocks from my house, owned by an elderly Japanese couple. Mi Cha had recently discovered a wonderful American TV show called Cheers and suggested I should find a go-to bar but with the twist of an owner who could act like a therapist so that I could prepare for the empty nest.

“Getting pregnant and having a baby at fifteen,” I answered. “People who have a child at a young age live in poverty. It’s a guarantee for suffering. Why do you dive into a situation that’s already a clear tragedy? Can you imagine the dream your child has to give up to raise his child? I don’t want to see him regret his life and blame the kid for it. Passion does not raise children. Planning does.”

I could have gone on more but I stopped.

“So, if they don’t get pregnant, you’re okay with them having sex as much as they want?”

“Oh yes, all day, every day! In fact they should explore what gives them pleasure when they are still young. Both are equally naïve about love. Every touch and whisper feels like a new discovery. We don’t get that kind of joy once we’re under the pressure of having a roof over our heads. Sex becomes body maintenance, like eating fiber and going to the bathroom.”

“Or a business transaction.”

“I love sex being a business transaction, Mi Cha! Except once we become accustomed to American culture and we begin to voice ourselves, ‘more free time, less sex,’ husbands travel to find another young naïve woman who dreams to live in America. Or, they evaporate suddenly and we find them in Japan with another woman. That happened to my friends Kotomi, Maki, and Yoshi. Yoshi told her husband she wanted to focus on raising their kids rather than spending time in bed with him. He said she didn’t love him anymore and he took off next day. Poof! Just like that. A few months later, he sends a divorce paper from Japan. The husband traveled to Japan and brought back a woman who was ten years younger than Yoshi. Can you believe he crossed the sea, to her home country, to pick another wife?”

“My friend has sex with her husband when she wants a new handbag.”

“Why can’t a husband have an affair with someone and leave us alone, and just give us money to take care of our children? For us, Asian wives, family comes first and sex . . . not even on the list! But when we tell that to a therapist here, they say it’s our fault that we neglect the couple part. The couple part? People in this country are so obsessed with being a couple!”

“Asian immigrant. Because we can’t speak for Asian American wives. Asian immigrant wives. Or do we say immigrant Asian wives?”

“Don’t ask me. I’m Japanese. My English is as bad as yours. Hey, Mr. Sasaki, does ‘immigrant’ come before or after ‘Asian’?” I asked the couple who owned the bar in Japanese.

“We were dancers who made a life in America by serving sake and fake sushi. We didn’t need much English,” the husband said in Japanese. “But I tell you, the other day, I was watching this Japanese TV program. The show asks ordinary people to show inside their house. They visited a young couple’s house and found out that this couple had five kids. They had an accident pregnancy when they were fifteen but decided to have the child. You’ll think their stories are packed with suffering. No, the opposite. Full of joy. They had no financial help so they struggled but their parents welcomed their decisions with their whole heart. No questions asked. You see, a problem becomes the problem when you see the incident as a problem. And the best kind of happiness is the one that happens without planning. Let it unfold. You should watch the TV program. It made this old man cry.”

“You cry for everything,” the wife said. “You cried with a video clip of a cat giving birth to six kittens. You cried when our granddaughter played an awful violin at the recital. But yes, the best joy comes from an accident. We fled to America because my father threatened him with a Japanese sword when we asked his permission for marriage. My father was a famous sword master and wanted me to marry his apprentice. The worst thing my father had ever done to us brought the best outcome.”

We left after three sakes. Mi Cha paid for my drinks. I asked the bar owners if they could accept me staying at the counter with one cup of sake next time and as an exchange, I would do dishes for them. I would leave, of course, once the bar got busy. They laughed and said yes. If every single seat were taken, they would consider me good fortune and keep me in the corner forever because it had never happened in the last twenty-five years.

“How long will it take you to forgive Levi?” Mi Cha asked. We were just passing Precita Park. Sake had warmed us, and we decided to take a detour to my house. We were tipsy.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t talk about him and it’s as if he never existed. You’ve told me how he died and about him as Alex’s dad but not as a man you loved.”

Love? I was stuck with the word, again. I’ve examined, analyzed, and dissected the word, and come to a conclusion: the definition would be more precise if we replaced the word with “attachment,” “survival instinct,” “loneliness,” “excuse,” or “infatuation.” “Love” is a cheap, vague, lazy, overrated word that allows us to escape from any situation.

“Nothing to forgive him for because there is nothing he did wrong. Well, except that he had no life insurance. I don’t care if Buddha tells me the source of all suffering of humankind comes from attachment, I’m going to attach, glue, fuse, embrace to the life insurance!”

“Hear, hear! No life insurance, unthinkable.”

“Yes, if the sex becomes a business transaction for couple, financial security should come with it.”

‘Love’ is a cheap, vague, lazy, overrated word that allows us to escape from any situation.

“Right! Right! But, Kyoko, you know, dead people don’t get hurt. Only alive ones do.”

The Japanese TV show that Mr. Sasaki suggested showed the house of a couple in their thirties. They lived with five children in a three-bedroom single-family house, a small distance away from Tokyo. The mother showed the camera crew around the house. The laundry machine runs in the morning and at night. There is always someone taking a bath. Look at this place, it’s like a steam room. The camera shot the edge of the shower door. The black mold stained the silicone sealant. Don’t show the mold on the TV, it’s embarrassing, said her daughter. The mother laughed while her daughter giggled, hiding behind her. Despite the number of people living in the house, the living room was well organized and clean. Two refrigerators were occupied in the kitchen, and a son and another daughter were cooking curry rice. The son sliced onions and the daughter sautéed them with carrots and meat. Another giggled from shyness about their showing their cooking skill on a national TV show. The reporter asked the eldest daughter, who was twenty, Don’t you want to have your own place? I thought about it a bit when I was sixteen but no, she said, they are like friends who will never leave me no matter what, including my parents. The reporter asked the eldest son, who was nineteen, Don’t you wish to have privacy? Well, this is all I know, he said, and he shrugged. The reporter became even more aggressive with the parents and asked, Might you have been able to do things you wanted to do if you didn’t have a child so early? The father scratched his head and said, We couldn’t wait to get married. By the time we were legally allowed to marry at eighteen years old, we had three children. My wife and I literally skipped our way to the city hall. It was hard to raise five with a high school diploma. My wife quit school and we’ve borrowed money from loan sharks. But I cannot think of any other life besides this. At the end of the show, they shot the mother and the youngest son dancing along to music on the smartphone, then switched to the dining scene, where some kids ate standing and others sat on the sofa while the mother ate sitting on a stool. They all found their place in one room. “Imagine” by John Lennon began to play, and the screen and music slowly faded out as the show ended.

Friends who never leave you no matter what, I wish I could give siblings to Alex, I thought. The bar owner was right, every incident has two sides.

Even if his girlfriend and Alex got pregnant, and decided to keep their baby, it was possible that this could turn out to be the best event in their lives rather than the worst. Even for me, it would be an opportunity to hold a baby again. They would need help while they were in school. I could help! I might become good friends with her parents, and we could be a family of six. I’m still young. If things work out, I might be alive for their great-grandchild.

I began to see a bright future. If a person who still struggled to figure out the word order of “immigrant Asian wives” and “Asian immigrant wives” was able to raise a child in this country, our kids should be fine. Besides, he wasn’t alone. He would have his girlfriend, me, and her parents. The child would be loved by so many people. And just as Alex had, the child would bring abundant joy to the parents.

When I freed myself from my own prejudice, I hit the greatest spiritual plateau. Yes, mental freedom was much more important than physical freedom. The lump I had been holding in my chest for a long time, which I used to torture myself, was finally melting away. I’ve got to start taking vitamins. I must live long for their baby.

On the following Saturday, my son told me he was going to his girlfriend’s house at night.

“I’m thinking about your future and your baby. I think I’ll be okay. I mean we’ll be okay,” I said as I followed him to his room.


“I was afraid that having a baby would make you unhappy. But that was my fear, and I realized the same incident can make other people happy. So I won’t worry anymore about you having sex with your girlfriend.”

“I told you, we watch movies in the living room and her parents will be in and out.”

“Of course it’s okay, if you wear a condom. I’m just telling you I’ll be honored to be a grandmother.”

“I won’t have sex.”

“Why? I said it’s okay.”

“Because I’m only fifteen and I want to go to college. I bet she does too.”

“But you’re a teenager. And by nature, they are impulsive, romantic, and unrealistic. You will have sex and when you do, there is a chance . . .”

“STOP!” he shouted in English. “Just leave me alone! I said I don’t want to, okay. She doesn’t want to either. Why do you keep bringing that up? All you think about is sex. You are disgusting. I just want to spend time with someone I care about!”

Care. Before a baby, before sex, and before love, there are two people who simply enjoy being with each other.

“Please, please, Mom, just leave me alone,” he said. He was in the corner of his room, his head down and his arms in front like he was protecting himself. I’d seen him in that exact position at his karate dojo when he was scared of being hit. Did I do this?

“I’m so sorry, Alex.”

“I don’t know why you’re so worried. I mean I know because you care about me, but you know I’m not stupid. I can think.”

I had always been able to make him feel better, but I knew, this time, only our distance could heal him. I left the room.

The sad thing about being fifteen was that you had to be driven to your destination when no bus was available, and the biggest protest you could make in response was to sit in the backseat of your mother’s car. Two hours later, Alex asked me to drop him off at his girlfriend’s house. He sat in the back and we said nothing.

“Do you want to meet Abigail’s parents? They are very nice,” he said right before he got out.

“Yes, I do.” My future in-laws! I wanted to joke, but I knew he probably hadn’t recovered from our last talk.

I followed him to the front door. As soon as the door opened, Alex and Abigail disappeared inside.

“Oh, so good to see you again.” The mother hugged me. “We love Alex! Abigail couldn’t be happier since they started dating. Tonight, they’re going to cook for us. I’ve bought all the ingredients for quiche. He is such a good boy. He is always welcome to stay at our house. He’s like our son to us.”

They insisted that I should come back for dinner. I declined their invitation politely and told them I’d be back at eleven. Abigail’s mother said they understood. “No rush. Enjoy your free night,” she said.

I went to my car and stayed a bit. I had no plans for the night. Their large living room window faced the street where I was parked, and behind the sheer curtain, I saw shadows crossing back and forth. The white curtain and the warm light that cast shadows. Alex was in the midst of mundane happiness, and I watched it from outside.

I arrived at five minutes after eleven. He got into the passenger seat.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I’m glad,” I said and started driving.

“You know, the baby talk you did earlier. Were you doing the reverse psychology thing?” he asked.

“No, I was not. I was serious. I had this enlightening experience at a sake bar and that led me to accept being a grandmother. My mind was free from pain, and I saw a bright future ahead of us.”

“A sake bar; they must have served you some shit, Mom.”

“They also serve fake sushi.”

“What’s that?”

“California rolls, Boston rolls, dragon rolls, rock-n-rolls, you know.”

He laughed and said, “You know, I talk about you to Abigail all the time.”

“Like what?”

“Like this. Things you do and say are so weird and my friends find it entertaining, especially when you’re serious about it. All other parents are, how do you say, nice, right-minded, boring.”

I laughed with him. I was already in his memories and soon would only be in his memories. He could find his own happiness, I thought. From now on, I’d find myself more of an observer than a participant.

“What if I told you that I decided to marry your father only after I found out that I was pregnant?”

“What? What’s that got to do with me?”

“Well, everything, if the what-if was true, no? I’m only wondering because I saw a Japanese reality TV show the other day and—”

“Okay, Mom. First, you watch too many Japanese reality TV shows. You know they aren’t really real. Second, I’m too busy living now to care about how I came to be. My life is happening as we speak. It’s here and now. And it’s all mine.”

“Am I too narcissistic?”

“Nah, more like self-absorbed. People just don’t care about you as much as you care about yourself.”

“That is narcissistic.”

He laughed.

“Besides, I’m five foot nine and know more English than you do. I’m a healthy ordinary person with a bit of a big ego and you still drive me to my girlfriend’s house and pick me up at eleven p.m. Do you get my point?”

“My baby.” I stroked his cheek.

He rested his face on my hand and cooed.

I told myself to remember this moment, his skin, his profile from the driver’s seat, and the love that drove me to madness.

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