When things get me down, so much so that I begin to wonder why I thought I could pull off this parenting gig in the first place, I go to Walmart. No, I’m not a fan of the store, for all the reasons people who don’t like Walmart don’t like Walmart. Yet it has become an inexorable part of my landscape as each of my sons has entered the Wild West of adolescence.
It happens that we live in a small town, so there aren’t many late-night options. Among the only 24-hour establishments are a convenience store, a Rite Aid and a crowded kosher Dunkin Donuts, where you have to squeeze between lounging Rutgers students and their MacBooks. None of these places offers enough space for thoughtful lingering and everything else closes between 9 and10 p.m.
Alas, I find myself in desperate need of a hideout at precisely the hour when there’s nowhere to go.
The excitement, on nights when it happens, starts to bubble a bit earlier. Everyone has come home from school tired and ravenous, with plenty of studying ahead. A younger sibling annoys an older one by asking for the ketchup. Someone’s stewing over a missed free throw. Another’s frustrated, having left his Spanish homework in his locker, and a third can’t believe we’re out of apple cider and whitening toothpaste.
Over these and other matters of all shapes and sizes, the boys might transform from mild-mannered Dr. Jekylls into excitable Mr. Hydes as the evening unfolds. It can be just one testosterone-fueled adolescent volcano, or when I’m really lucky, all three erupt at once. They begin to speak in tongues. Nothing they say makes any sense.
Why are they are so out of sorts? Well, they’re teenage boys, and I’m convinced they themselves would be hard pressed to articulate a reason. It’s easy to get sucked in, to fall into the trap of responding to them when their barbs fly, rather than focusing on how utterly ridiculous – and in the alternate universe of adolescence, normal - they sound.
In the beginning, I fought back, a losing battle if I ever saw one. I had no idea what I was up against. Then, I figured out that I simply needed to get some air in order to be able to hold my tongue long enough for the Hulk-moments to pass.
And so, in search of refuge at 10:35 p.m., I established my Walmart ritual for those nights when the not so tough need to get going. The store, despite its flaws, meets my basic criteria: open ‘til midnight, nearby, sells drinks, relatively clean bathroom.
By the time I arrive, the greeters have all gone home to bed. No one notices me as I troll the aisles, though I wonder, during stretches when I’m there night after night, if someone will assume I’m on staff or charge me rent. Then, for weeks – sometimes months -- at a time, I won’t need to go there at all.
At first, the idea perplexed my family. I didn’t tell them where I was headed, but they found me out by activating the “Find My iPhone” app. I’ve since wandered the aisles so frequently that I can tell you the exact layout of the store.
I know they carry a 2’ toilet paper holder shaped like a standing bear and flip-flips year round. They sell several brands of sriracha, the complete DVD set of Hogan’s Heroes, glow-in-the-dark hunting gloves, and curiously, the widest assortment of air freshener scents I’ve ever whiffed.
I have no more affection for the store than I did before, but I have come to appreciate the $5 CD bin in particular. Through the music of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I stroll down memory lane to my own adolescence, thinking about how I sang my way through whatever possessed me at that age. Once again, Kansas, Bon Jovi, Donna Summer and Linda Ronstadt are helping me through teenage angst -- not mine, but that of my sons.
Once I’ve restored my equilibrium, or the manager announces that the store is closing, I head home. I turn on “You’re No Good” and belt out the lyrics, hoping to G-d no one I know sees me singing down the road. Actually, by that hour, I’m not even sure I care.
By the time I reach the front door, I’ve sung all of the hurt and frustration out of my system, confident that giving everyone breathing room was the best course of action. Whatever was gnawing at the boys – the pressures or hormones that caused them to transform into alien beings that resembled them – has, for now, dissipated, too.
I find them asleep, or lulling in that pleasant state just before it. Sometimes, an awake one will offer a soft I’m sorry, or ask if I’d bought Fruity Pebbles. A sleeping one won’t swat my hand away when I brush the bangs from his brow.
Praising the power of an old song to heal, I remember how good it feels to forgive and forget and head to bed.