Looking back, I see they were undeniably cool. Not for parents, but objectively, without qualification: cool. Cool in the ways of most cool people: youngish, fun, carefree, at ease in any environment, intelligent without a trace of nerdiness, fit without obsession, and attractive without the distancing effect of real beauty. They were boisterous, exuberant, playful, with a love of solecism. Even their fighting left an impression on me, appearing when it appeared right on the surface. No subtext, no resentment, just straight emotion and the freedom to express frustration and anger. It was beautiful, really, the security that allowed for such honesty. They were like foreigners to me: passionate, volatile, and fascinating. They drank wine liberally with dinner, were not opposed to an afternoon beer or before-dinner cocktail. The house was always full of bodies, some their family’s, some their guests’, strict distinctions of whose and whats not of high priority. The air between the two of them was charged with sex. Kids pick up on this stuff before they have language for it.
It wasn’t ever like they were performing because they wanted to impress you or be friends with you, the way some parents did. They were cool just by doing their thing, letting you do yours, and having the confidence to let that be enough. To clarify: this wasn’t expressed in an uncaring way. It was respectful of differences in age and interests.
Some of this rubbed off on their kid. He was cool and fun-loving and did not mind being made the fool, which constituted his particular cool. My own particular cool was of a different kind, which might be beside the point in describing this family, but which you may come to appreciate after reading the following anecdote.
The parents were at a dinner party and were supposed to pick us up at nine-thirty, right after we got done playing tennis under the floodlights. (We split sets. We always split sets.) Five minutes late was as good as early. We killed time using our rackets to hit rocks up at the streetlight. Some of them hit the light but, disappointingly, didn’t break it. Around ten, we went back over to the court, figuring we might as well keep hitting till they got there. But the timer on the lights had gone out, and if we turned it back on there would be a ten-minutes delay before it came on. So we went back to the waiting point and sat for fifteen more minutes. There would have been some dialogue here as we worked our way around to the decision that, screw it, we’d walk. It was, what, a mile, not much more. We walked it all the time during the day.
Starting out, we got only as far as the corner before we heard the revving of an engine in low gear. The driver shifted, and the car accelerated at us like fury before squealing to a stop. We didn’t recognize the shiny gold beamer, but we knew the voice commanding jovially, “Everybody in!” The dad reached across and opened the passenger door. The seat folded forward—I climbed into the back and the kid sat up front. The mom, I figured, was still at the party. I clicked my belt and felt the thrust of the seat against my back.
“Where’s the minivan?”
“Where is it?”
“Who cares about a minivan when you have an engine like this.”
Then the dad rattled off some numbers about torque or horsepower or zero to sixty or some such. The drunkenness wasn’t new to me. The intoxication was. The world I was riding in wasn’t the same one I’d just played tennis in. The dimensions of the night suddenly expanded, revealing its texture: what had been smooth and seamless was now suddenly full of holes. A person could just walk right through them, disappear.
We hit forty-five. The laws of the universe quivered. Reality moved sideways. I could see it taking life. The residential streets were quiet as we swerved the roundabouts and drifted through corners. I was neither scared nor thrilled. I knew I would live forever. The kid in the front seat thought it was the best thing ever and rolled down his window to whoop into the night. The dad matched his boy’s whoop before coasting to a stop at a red light, where he lit a fat cigar and blew the smoke up through the sunroof.
Amidst all this whatever it was, I sat back and took it all in. That’s what I was saying about my kind of cool. I saw everything. I didn’t have to try to be wise beyond my years. That’s where I was: beyond them, watching it all unfold from some distant point that by now I know not everyone gets to. I’m still there. Dead center.