It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it myself. – Joyce Manyard
Earlier this Spring, Tom told me that his daughter Lily, who just turned 30, wanted to celebrate her birthday in Spain with some friends, including a stay with us. They were planning to come in mid-June. I was excited. Between the pandemic, a move across the country from San Francisco to Brooklyn, and a new job, Lily hadn’t been able to visit us in over three years. Tom said she and her friends were going to spend a few days in Madrid, followed by Valencia, and finally, our place in Javea. I envisioned Lily and two or three girlfriends staying in our little apartment, spending their days on the beach before heading home for afternoon siestas. There would be poolside happy hours, trying on cute sundresses, and debating what to wear for evenings out clubbing. I could see the nail polish and blow dryers, aloe vera gel for sunburns, and boxes of new espadrilles piling up on the coffee table.
After a few days of indulging in my visions, it occurred to me to ask Tom how many people were actually coming. Trying to sound nonchalant he said, “Uh, I think about seven.” My eyes widened. Tom took another look at me and must have decided to rip off the proverbial band: “And five of them are guys.” In less than a second, all my sweet, frilly visions lay shattered.
It’s no secret I’m not great with disorder, especially in my home. It’s how I’m wired. Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent, so I’ve never needed to learn to deal with the years of “kid chaos” that most of my friends experienced. My mind swirled and I immediately started catastrophizing. How could we possibly fit that many people in our little casita? And my god, the mess! The disorder! Who even were these people? And five guys? What if they’re a bunch of meatheads? What if I have to endure idiotic jokes for days on end? Everything would be broken. It would be a complete disaster. Tom saw me spinning, and said, “Karen, please; it’s only for a few days. And it’s my daughter.” I pulled myself together and tried to smile gamely: “Of course,” I said, “we’ll make it work.”
The day before Lily and her friends arrived, we put fresh linens on the guest beds and plumped up the pillows. We stocked the cabinets with coffee and snacks, and filled the fridge with beer and lemonade. I watered the red geraniums I had planted in pots the week before to add a pop of color around the pool deck. Tom made homemade guacamole. Late in the afternoon we heard a car pull up in front of our house. Tom yelled, “They’re here!” and dashed out to greet them. I followed.
The group was in a red Hyundai SUV with three rows of seats. We stood by the gate and watched, partly in amusement, partly in shock, as one by one, they continued to spill out of the vehicle in almost comedic sequence, like some sort of clown car. A good five minutes later, everyone was untangled from their too-tight quarters, and standing on the pavement surroundedby an assortment of backpacks, suitcases, and shopping bags. Altogether, there were Lily, her friend Sarah, and five guys: Ben, David, Gavin, Konrad, and Will.
Except for Sarah, whom Lily had met while living in San Francisco, the rest were Brooklyn to the core. There was an abundance of black cotton and tattoos, the latter of which heavily featured each other’s street addresses and phone numbers, as well as logos of random European brands such as Eni Gas and Bayer Aspirin. And they were city-pale, the pallor of their skin further accentuated by the black clothing and ink. For a moment, we stared at each other. Then, suddenly, we were engulfed in a scrum of handshakes, hugs, and introductions. Afterwards, we shepherded them towards the front door. Somehow, we managed to wedge everyone into our three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, thanks to two sofa beds and an outdoor shower. As we sat around the pool that first afternoon, drinking beer and eating tapas, it felt like we had known them our whole lives. They laughed, joked, and teased each other – and us – incessantly. In short order, all the guys began calling Tom “Dad.”
I leaned back in my chair, watching them horse around in the pool and listening to their non-stop banter, which they delivered in an exaggerated parody of bad Spanish, even though most of them spoke the actual language quite well. Yes, they were raucous. Yes, they swore like sailors and smoked like chimneys. But in spite of repeated attempts to prove otherwise, through their sophomoric humor and constant ribbing, I could sense the underlying solidness; the decency, kindness, and character. So, although it felt like the whole house had been upended, and their stuff was all over the place, and everywhere I looked I saw wet towels and empty beer cans filled with cigarette ash, I realized I was simply shrugging it off.
Despite their earlier exhortations that this would be an easy and early night, by 8:00 pm they were dressed to go out and piling back into the car, calling for Tom and I to join. We headed to Octopus–a scruffy bar on the main beach known for its cheap beer, dim lighting, and classic rock playlist–to meet up with two of their friends, a couple in town from London named Maya and Kris. We reached the Arenal and strolled along the paseo, crowded with beachgoers, past rows of restaurants, bars, and shops. Along the way, I tried to point out landmarks like Cabo San Antonio and El Montgo as the sun set inland. But I soon realized that I was talking to myself. Lily, Sarah, and Tom had stopped outside a little beach boutique, deep in conversation. The rest stopped to check out the wares of one of the north African vendors. I winced as I watched the guys pick their way carefully around the array of Nike shoes and designer handbags that the sellers, with their aggressively smooth sales pitches, swore were authentic: stopping to browse is a classic rookie mistake. But this time I needn’t have worried. The New Yorkers were pros at this type of thing, and moments later they walked away wearing baseball caps covered in Louis Vuitton logos, in red, tan, and rose-gold, which they proceeded to wear for the rest of their stay with us. At no time during their visit did they remove the price tags, which dangled from the sides of the brims like fishing lures. Brooklyn irony at its finest.
We finally reached Octopus. Within minutes the tequila shots arrived, followed by beer chasers, followed by more shots, followed by more beer. Tom had taken our car, so I quickly offered to drive their rental. The gesture was prompted as much from hospitality as it was a desire to save my liver. Maya and Kris showed up, a charming couple, as the rounds of drinks continued. When the Jäger Bombs started, I decided it was a good time to leave. It wasn’t yet 11:00 p.m. and the group was just getting started. They’d find taxis later. So much for an early night. I drove home and went to bed.
A few hours later, I woke up to the sounds of loud music, splashing, and people talking and laughing. It was still dark outside. When I felt around beside me, Tom wasn’t there. I rolled over and checked my phone: 2:33 a.m. I closed my eyes and fell asleep. At 4:30 a.m. I awoke again.The party was still going on but it seemed a bit more subdued. This time, Tom was sleeping next to me. It was then I realized the sounds were coming from our backyard. When I finally got up about four hours later, everyone was fast asleep. I tiptoed into the kitchen and quietly made coffee. As it brewed, I looked out the window onto the pool deck below. It looked like a bomb had gone off: beer cans, stubbed out cigarettes, towels, and a few random socks were strewn around the flagstones. Still-wet bathing suits were draped over the chaise lounges. A pair of eyeglasses lay at the bottom of the pool. An hour later Tom got up and we went for a run. Returning home an hour later, the group was still sleeping, but the pool deck was now spotless.
And so it went for the next two nights. Each morning when we awoke, there were bodies everywhere, and never in the same place as the night before. No one went to bed before 4:00 a.m., nor did they get up before noon. And in between? Well, it was a blur. There was the happy hour we threw at a local beach bar in honor of Lily’s birthday, where we introduced the group to several of our friends. One of the couples, Paul and Miranda, helped them continue the party, first to the start of the San Juan festivities, then to a gin bar, and finally, to an ‘80s music disco. Their two little kids tagged along the entire time. There was the afternoon when, after a few hours of drinking beer, the guys tried to shave Ben’s head, botching the job so badly that Tom was called to step in. There was the sunset picnic on the beach, again with Paul, Miranda and their kids, all of whom were now honorary members of the group. It was supposed to be – really, this time – an early night, until Paul had the idea to crash a party at the Yacht Club. The next thing I knew, we were walking through the main doors, in our shorts, faded T-shirts, and flip flops, garnering more than a few semi-shocked glances from club members.
The following afternoon, after bear hugs from everyone and a presentation of two sweating bottles of semi-chilled white wine as a thank you gift (“Don’t get too excited, it’s cheap”), the group successfully managed to refold themselves, origami-style, back into the red Hyundai, along with their luggage and a big bag of leftover beer from the picnic. Tom and I stood by our front gate, yelling goodbye and waving, as they drove down the street, rounded the corner, and finally disappeared from sight. We headed back inside. The house was silent and seemed very empty. On the low wall by the front door were three large garbage bags stuffed with neatly sorted recycling: crushed beer cans in two, empty beer bottles in the other. In spite of two separate sweeps to double-check that nothing was left behind, we nevertheless discovered: five socks (and only one matching pair), a black cardigan, a white bra, a pair of bleach-stained navy blue boxer-briefs, the rose gold fake Louis Vuitton cap with the tag still attached, and a few euros in change. There was also a red balloon with an image of Ben’s face, his full name, cell number, and the captions, “Designer, Friend, Criminal” and “Over 30 years of experience!” We also found seven different entries in our apartment guest book, ranging from “Thanks for not just being excellent hosts, but great company and friends,” to “Every time I tell my stories from Spain, I will raise a toast to the greatest hosts in the world,” to my personal favorite that made me laugh out loud, “You’re a hot couple!” The next morning we awoke to a photo of Ben, in a Madrid tattoo parlor, getting the Cupra logo, the luxury brand of the Spanish car company, Seat, on the back of his still newly-shaved head.
We missed them.
And we realized some things. First, we can no longer party like 30-year olds. Not that Tom didn’t try his best, even though it meant catching a horrible cold from lack of sleep and a copious amount of alcohol.
Secondly, no matter how small, houses, like hearts, somehow expand to accommodate as many others as necessary. It’s the loaves and the fishes parable.
Thirdly we realized, once again, the joy in being old enough to expand the parent-child relationship to include friendship, and to realize you enjoy hanging out together. It’s like the reward for the bumpiness up through the teenage years. You can even laugh at all those memories of circumstances that once seemed so dire. As the saying goes, comedy is tragedy plus time. And even though I’ve never had kids of my own, it seems to me that this is when parents can finally let go from having to…well…parent. It’s time for them to move from the field to the sidelines.They can still cheer, but no longer call the plays. It’s liberating and poignant all at the same time.
Finally, I realized you can tell a lot about a person by the type of friends they have. It’s our friends who reflect back what we see in ourselves, or hope to one day. Unlike families, we get to choose our friends. These are the people we welcome into our lives, whom we trust with our hearts, our dreams, our vulnerabilities. Our friends are those who are there for us as much as we are for them, unconditionally. And it’s true friends who call us out, gently, on our bullshit. So it’s heartening when we see our children, no matter their age, surrounding themselves with good people. It says a lot about who they are as individuals, the things they value, and the choices they make.
As Marlene Dietrich noted, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4:00 a.m. that matter.” I have no doubt that this sentiment is true of Lily and her group. And that makes me really, really happy.
Plus, they’re all still up at that hour anyway.
This post is dedicated to Lily, Ben, David, Gavin, Konrad, Sarah, and Will.
* My Back Pages by Bob Dylan