My mom arrives ten minutes before my date, and after giving her a quick hug, I tell her the rules: "You can say your hellos from the top of the stairs, but you cannot come to the front door."
"Yes, ma'am!" she says, and heads upstairs to find her five-year-old granddaughter, Mae.
My mom is in town for part of the summer, so I'm taking advantage of all the childcare I can get. But tonight is awkward: It's enough that my daughter will be meeting my date tonight, but at age 33, the idea of my mom meeting him, too, seems absurd. At the top of the stairs, I latch the child-safety gate firmly, a handy way to keep her from descending to the door when my date arrives.
Mae is in the kitchen, coloring at her art table, and I give her the drill: "One movie, no sugar snacks, teeth brushed--"
"You look pretty, Mommy," Mae says, ignoring my litany.
As I place a mug of coffee in front of my mom, she asks me who this mystery man is. I tell her that a girlfriend has set us up, and I've only met him once, briefly, at a local media party.
"He's Jewish, 45 years old, never married," I say. I go on and on, pretending like Mae is not catching every word, when I know this isn't really inappropriate.
The doorbell rings.
"There he is!" my mom says excitedly.
I quickly smooth out my sequined skirt, add a coat of lipstick, and descend the stairs in my high-heeled boots. When I open the door, both my mom and Mae are standing at the top of the staircase, waving to Stuart.
"Hello there!" my mom yells out in her flirtatious, sing-song voice.
"Hello there!" Mae mimics, giggling.
When I look at Stuart in his jeans and a white, collared, button-up shirt, I feel overdressed. Still something about his casualness looks fatherly -- I can imagine him cheering from the sidelines of a five-year-old's soccer match. His eyes are bright blue, the same color as both my mother's and mine, and I wonder if my mom can see them from the top of the stairs.
But I'm not going to allow her to get that close; I block his body, not letting him inside. "I'm glad everyone had the chance to meet!" I say, and slam the door behind me.
As Stuart starts the engine of his car, he says, "Wow, I can't remember the last time I met a woman's mother on a date."
"Yeah, and I even have a ten-o'clock curfew," I say, trying to make light of the situation. But the truth is, as I sink down in the passenger seat, I feel very small, as if I'm in my own PG-13 version of "Meet the Parents."
What the hell are you doing with your life? I think. You graduated from high school 16 years ago, and you still have boys knocking at the door to meet your mom. Not only that, but my kid was right there, greeting him, too. That's a lot for a man to handle on a first date.
But none of this is the real reason why I shut the door so fast behind us. The real reason I rushed us is because I want first rights of refusal. Of course, it matters immensely how my mom and daughter feel about the man who's taking me out. However, I get to look and see first, and then I will decide whether he gets to come upstairs.
When I invite a man upstairs, it's quite an honor: It means letting him enter my most personal space, where I raise my daughter, write, sleep, read, cook, and make love. You've heard the expression, "There's not a lot happening upstairs." Well, that's not true here: everything happens up these stairs.
Stuart is telling me about his job as an ad rep, but I'm lost in my own thoughts as I look out the window. What if I had invited him to come upstairs? What if I'd introduced him to my family, the old-fashioned way? Step right up and greet three generations of temperamental, strong-willed females, let's see how you do.
I would have gone into the kitchen to make him a cup of coffee. As Mae colored nearby, my mom would have sat with him on the sofa and asked him what his college major was, and what he does for a living. Upon finding out that he has a Master's in Creative Writing, she would have beamed, "Wonderful! Rachel, come quick, did you know this?" (She has the same degree.)
As I served Stuart his coffee, Mae would have rushed in with her drawing and thrust it into this lap. Would he have glanced at it quickly and said, "Nice!" Or, would he have held the picture with both hands, examined it carefully, and asked, "Can you tell me about what you've drawn here?"
It's tricky knowing when to introduce my date to my daughter because the last thing I want is men coming in her life like new toys on an assembly line, used for a time and then given away. But a man meeting my child is a true test. Will he bend down on one knee and talk to her face-to-face? Or will he ignore her as she hovers at his legs, and look into my eyes instead?
Over dinner, Stuart and I talk about writing, our parents, and our Jewish education. I wait for him to ask about my daughter, but he doesn't.
"Have you ever dated a single mom?" I ask Stuart.
"I did date a woman with a kid, but I only met her son once -- when he walked in on us," he's laughing, but I don't think it's very funny.
"Well, what happened?" I ask.
"I stayed put so she could tuck her son back in," he said. "It didn't really concern me, it wasn't my kid."
I'm offended. Doesn't he get it? That could be traumatizing for a kid!
His potential for father-material is not looking very good. When he drives me back home, he reaches out and takes my hand. I'm anxious about how the night will end. When he parks the car in front of my house, he leans over for a goodnight kiss, but I'm grateful for my old-fashioned excuse to turn my cheek and jump out of the car.