On Wednesday evening, as Sylvia and I walk the dogs down a cul-de-sac in a nearby neighborhood, a pick-up truck pulls up to the curb and a surly teenage boy emerges from the house, pulling on his shirt. By the time we have rounded the cul-de-sac and are heading back towards home, the drama has thickened. The boy is now standing in the lee of the truck, facing a morose-looking girl with downcast eyes and clasped hands. Bits and pieces of their conversation float our way.
“I’m not going to tell you everywhere I go . . . I’m just not . . . I’ve never done that for anyone and I’m no t going to do it for you . . .”
His voice goes on and on, but the girl doesn’t say a word. She just stands there wringing her hands and looking like she’s seconds away from bursting into tears. Meanwhile, on the other side of the truck, a woman I presume is her mother is sitting in the driver’s seat, hanging a cigarette out the window and blowing smoke.
In my mind, I’m filling in the pieces, making up their story. I imagine that the girl has spent hours swiping her phone, checking for his texts, before finally roping her mom into driving to his house. The whole scene irks me on so many levels: the dangling cigarette, the girl’s voicelessness, the boy’s belittling tone. He sounds so scornful that I don’t blame the girl for looking like all she wants is for the ground to swallow her up.
Sylvia, on the other hand, is ecstatic.
“I can’t wait to be a teenager!” she says, for the fifth time that day. “It just looks like so much fun!” She is practically skipping down the road. “I’m so glad I came on this walk! I got to see a real teenager fight! Oh, it’s so exciting . . .”
I harumph and raise my eyebrows. Exciting boyfriend drama or not, I wouldn’t wish this on her in a million years.
“Just don’t ever go with a boy who talks to you like that,” I tell her.
Later that evening, the girls and I are watching the music video for “White Horse,” Taylor Swift’s 2008 hit single, which Sylvia has been playing on Alexa at high volume at least six times a day. It’s a pretty sad song: Girl meets boy. Boy betrays girl. Girl realizes that all her dreams of princes on white horses are a load of baloney. Now the girl’s sitting on the floor, crying her eyes out, when Sylvia pipes up again, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be a teenager!” She pauses the video at a close up of Taylor Swift’s face.
“It’s so cartoonish! Look. Even her mascara’s smudged.”
I don’t point out that it undoubtedly took a make-up artist forty minutes to get that mascara smudged just right. I don’t say that the scene she’s watching looks like something on tv because it is something on tv, that every minute has been carefully choreographed.
To be honest, the video has choked me up, which, admittedly, is not all that hard. Still, it hurts like hell to have your heart broken, and there is something of that rawness in the scene, no matter how many holes I could poke in it.
“Oh, I just can’t wait to be a teenager,” Sylvia says again as we watch Taylor Swift cry. “It just looks so fun.”
Dee Dee shrugs, skeptical. “She looks pretty miserable to me.”
Suddenly, I’m imagining my girls grown up, and all the heartache and anguish that they’re in for. I don’t know how I’ll stand it. Now, when the kids are sad, I can usually do something. A diplomatic email to a teacher. A cuddle on the bed. A promise of all the happy things to come. But when real sorrow comes, I’ll be powerless. The thought brings tears to my eyes, and I pull Sylvia to me and hold on tight. She hugs me and pats my back reassuringly.
“Don’t worry,” she tells me. “I’m only eight. There’s still—” She pauses to count on her fingers.
“— five years until I’m a teenager. And even then I won’t be a real teenager yet.”
The next day I go to Clayton’s award ceremony at the intermediate school. Some of the fifth grade girls are as tall as I am; a handful of sixth graders look sixteen. Suddenly, Sylvia’s reassurance from the night before feels a little hollow. My little girls are two years away from this! I try to remind myself that I’ve loved every age so far, each year revealing more and more of who my children are. Clayton is a compassionate, book-loving introvert, who takes his history book onto the trampoline so he can fact-check the battle scenes he reenacts in his imagination while he jumps. Dee Dee is a creative and industrious academic, who’s dying to live on a farm, knitting hats and canning pears.
And Sylvia . . . Well, Sylvia is a pop-singing, lip-gloss wearing eight-year-old who longs to be a teenager. She’s already planning the off-the-shoulder tops she’ll wear, the eight piercing she’ll get. She carries Alexa into our bedroom, so she can sing along to “White Horse” and “Love Story” while watching herself in the full-length mirror.
This is not the kind of eight-year-old I was. At times, I chide myself as a parent. How is that she knows so much about teenagers? Should I have forbidden the youtube videos in which a sassy fifteen-year-old with long nails gives squishy toys makeovers? By letting her listen to Taylor Swift, am I standing idly by while she is indoctrinated into the pop-song world of fairytale romances and picturesquely broken hearts?
That night, Sylvia and I have the evening to ourselves. Don and the other two kids have gone to Alabama to see their grandfather, but Sylvia has an acting class on Saturday that she doesn’t want to miss. When we get home from dinner at the local Mexican joint, I ask her what she wants to do. Play outside? Go for a walk? Read a book?
A few minutes later, Sylvia has changed into her Cinderella dress and we are watching Taylor Swift videos together at the kitchen table while I fold laundry. To be honest, I can see why she likes them. They’re romantic and catchy, with just a hint of country twang. We talk about how “Love Story” is about the romantic fairytale, and “White Horse” is about realizing the fairytale isn’t real life. We pause “You Need to Calm Down” and talk about the line, “Shade never made anyone less gay,” and what that might mean. I put in a request for Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” because if I could choose a song to be the anthem for my girls’ adolescent years, that song would be it.
“Oh, yeah,” she says, when the music comes on. “I like that one, too.”