Thought I Would Die When My Son Left for College

One T-shirt at a time, we packed up Smartacus’ too-tiny dorm room.

First published in the June 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

EUGENE, Ore. – Here I am, the cheery existentialist, stirring my motel coffee with a toothbrush.
Interstate motel rooms. Thirty bucks a night just in local taxes. Eight pillows to a bed (in case of orgies?) Yet, no stirring sticks for my coffee. Barely a Bible to ponder as I drift off to a restless sleep.
But at the end of a long day on the road, I take a shower at a Motel 6 in Redding that was almost revelatory. Technically, a baptism. If you can find a free-flow shower head in America anymore, just marry it.
“Hey, White Fang, get in here!” I yell.
White Fang and I are on the road again. Why? To rescue Smartacus from his overtly pastoral college in the Pacific Northwest, to sun him again, to let his toes dry out from the rainiest winter anyone up here can remember.
A wet and gloppy place, Oregon. “Cuppy,” as they say at the track. I rather like it.
You know, I thought I was gonna die when my son left for college nine months ago. Couldn’t breathe for the first couple of days, then a few weeks after that. He was my passion, my purpose.
After he left, all that I had left was this oversized wolf-dog, who now had to listen to my rants about the Cubs, my mad theories about media bias, my observations about chronic war.
I’d become a suburban Socrates. I started wearing togas and wandering from happy hour to happy hour, dad tears and dirty martinis.
Obviously, I wear my emotions on my sleeve; I sing my hymns straight from the belly. This boy, with whom I once shared nearly every waking moment, was gone. We talked every day though — Smartacus, O Smartacus …
“He kind of misses us, too,” I shared with White Fang one day at breakfast. She looked at me. “Then why doesn’t he come back?” she asked.
We both had abandonment issues. My son, my wife, my other son, my daughter, Rapunzel, they’d all left home during White Fang’s childhood, took off one day and never looked back.
You could see the sadness in the dog’s eyes … the Socratic puzzlement, which came with her typically Yiddish ethos: “So it’s you I’m left with? Of all the gin joints. Oy.”

White Fang became a super-bored princess — you know the type. L.A. is crawling with them.

White Fang soon became an ironic, super-bored princess — you know the type. Los Angeles is crawling with them. Shaggy manes. Legs like palm trees. Look so great climbing out of a pool.
To fill the time, I’d brush White Fang constantly. I’d take her to Starbucks for a “pup cup” (pure whipped cream). I spoiled her, which is what you’re supposed to do with ironic L.A. princesses.
My reputation for spoiling girls soon grew (I think there’s a website). Along came Suzanne, the daughter of a wealthy San Marino orthodontist who still, in her 60s, wore a retainer. That should’ve been my first clue.
Suzanne was an empty-nester too. For kicks, she fostered tiny newborns from very troubled homes. I said, “What about me? Will you foster me?”
“Maybe,” she said.
Obviously, Suzanne was further along in her empty-nest recovery than me. She’d overcome that twisted sense of nostalgia parents suffer when kids go off to college. She was reasonable about the whole situation. Yet, like me, she checked in on her adult kids every day.
Meanwhile, she appreciated the jaunty way I talked to Smartacus on the phone, pretending not to miss him. She liked how I sent him a care package for Halloween, full of candy corn.
We started hanging out.
And that’s where things stand now.
There is, I think, a law of fluid dynamics at work here. One person leaves, another fills the void. There are so many people now. My gawd, have you seen the lines at the ARCO?
No, we are hardly short of people these days. And if you’re lucky, you find the right people. But, really, any people will do. Human beings are still — for all their petty faults — the only endlessly interesting elements of our long and nasty lives.
And, often, quite charming. Especially young Smartacus, who always gives more to others than he asks in return. Much like Suzanne.
And now, nine months after dropping him on campus, I feel emotionally loaded — almost greedy. After nine months, I feel like coming out into the waiting room and announcing:
“IT’S A BOY!!!”
Such a summer we’ll have. The house is happy again. I’ll have three great people to help me prep the burgers, start the grill: Smartacus, Suzanne and White Fang.
Really, of all the gin joints …

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