“What about Ben,” I think, “Would he want to come to Tuscany, too?”
I had just clicked “buy” for a plane ticket to Italy in June, a vacation that I had been fantasizing about for five years: the Coliseum in the hot Roman sun, Michaelangelo’s muscular David. Most of all, I had been dreaming about leisurely dinners in the Tuscan countryside, and, in my mind’s eye, all of us – me, Bob, my husband, and our twenty-six year old son and only child, Ben — would share this meal together.
I imagine inviting Ben to travel to Italy with us. Then my stomach starts to churn.
When our son was young, Bob and I simply packed our bags, buckled Ben’s seatbelt, and whisked him off to wherever we wanted to go. But now our child is a grown man.
“Do you think he will want to come?” I worry aloud to my husband.
“Yes,” Bob says. “Look, he can afford to travel on his own. If he doesn’t want to come, he will just say ‘no.’”
My husband’s logic seems clear. But I’m trapped in a familiar web of maternal confusion – pick up the baby up or let him cry, ignore that rude remark or take away the car keys, plan a family vacation with an adult child or accept that he now only travels with friends.
In February, we drive from Massachusetts, where Bob and I live, to visit Ben in Brooklyn. We sit in his neighborhood Indian restaurant having dinner, and I tell him about our plane ticket.
“Interested in a trip to Italy?” I say, as I look down at my plate and spoon the last bit of chicken tikka masala into my mouth.
“Maybe,” he murmurs. Then he glances away and swallows the rest of his beer.
Here is what I wish I could say.
I’ve been fantasizing about a meal in Italy for years. I’ve pictured the three of us eating dinner on a terrace, overlooking a valley of vineyards. A pressed, white cloth covers the table, and a smiling waiter flies in and out of the kitchen, placing course after course in front of us: prosciutto, pasta Bolognese, steak Florentine. Moonlight reflects off our glasses of red wine. Our heads bend toward one another, and we are laughing.
“Please come with us,” I would say to my son.
But I am silent. My son has a job, responsibilities. I imagine him at work, scrunching up his brow, like the twelve year old chess player he once was, as he writes complicated computer code.
When we go back to Boston, I try not to interrogate Ben on the phone about the trip.
“How’s work? What did do this weekend?” I ask when we talk. “Make any plans for the summer?”
“Not yet. Too busy,” he replies.
Finally, Ben tells me that he has decided to come on vacation with us. But as the weeks go by, he never mentions Italy.
And, neither do I.
“He’s an adult,” I tell myself. “He doesn’t want you to remind him what to do.”
But night after night, I lie in bed, tossing and turning with worry.
I imagine Ben saying, “I’m sorry. I just can’t get away. Too much work to do.”
Finally, at the end of April, he tells me that he bought his ticket to Italy. Hanging up the phone, I take a deep breath and picture the terrace where we will eat.
In mid June, we all get on the plane, us in Boston and Ben in New York, and arrive in Rome in the early afternoon. After a few days exploring the city, we rent a car and head for Tuscany. Two hours later I see a sign for Montepulciano, the hill town close to our bed and breakfast. We settle into our room, unpack, and head out to dinner at a nearby hotel.
We park our car and look around for the restaurant. Bob spies the entrance, opens the door and smiles at the waitress who motions for us to follow. She walks us into a large dark room. Heavy wooden chairs encircle the many empty tables. A waiter leans against the side wall, yawns, and stares out into the deserted room.
The three of us trail behind the waitress. Finally, she leads us through an open door out to a long terrace. Families crowd around the many tables, chattering in Italian, spearing small pieces of cheese, sipping red wine. The smell of warm bread wafts through the air. In the distance, I notice the cypress trees forming a serpentine pattern. Looking down over the terrace railing, I see row after row of deep green grape plants.
Ben and I go back and forth, discussing the options on the menu: a caprese salad followed by tagliatelle with butter and garlic or the salad and then ravioli? Ben and Bob deliberate about the wine.
“I always order the wine the costs just a little more than the cheapest one,” Ben tells his dad. Bob hands the wine list to our son.
When the waitress returns with a bottle, she pours a little in Ben’s glass. He smiles and nods.
“Cheers,” we say in unison and clink our classes together.
“To Tuscany,” Ben announces.
“With love,” I almost add. Then I feel the words slide into a crack in my voice.
The courses arrive slowly. The soft, fresh mozzarella cheese layered with tomatoes melts in my mouth. I take a bite of the salty prosciutto, and my tongue tingles. The spinach and cheese ravioli, nestled in a deep bowl, reminds me of soft little pillows. Finally, the smell of the rare steak makes the saliva pool in the back of my throat.
“Remember how you cut my ear when you were giving me a haircut. I must have been about five.” Ben laughs to my husband.
Bob grins back, his fingers forming a scissor slicing through the air. I giggle, too. But then I push aside my son’s hair to see if the small scar remains visible on his full grown ear.
“What about your trick in the Chinese restaurant,” Ben says as he turns to face me, “You jumped out from a dark corner to surprise me, right after I had scared you. That was brilliant.”
The wide, blinking eyes of my then ten year old son enter my mind, and I wonder if he will ever play the same trick on a boy of his own one day. Then I picture my son’s face in two decades, crow’s feet lining the corners of those hazel eyes and his dark brown beard streaked with gray.
I ask Ben about his plans for a new job and graduate school. His mouth turns downwards, his eyes narrow. My son swallows hard.
“Let’s just enjoy our meal.” he replies.
As we move from the pasta to the main course, I chew each bite carefully, hoping to make the meal move in slow motion. I concentrate on the small details: the slant of the sun, the green of the grape arbors, and the sweet smell in the air. I try to memorize my son’s long, narrow face with the large black glasses that rest on his nose and the chortle he makes when my husband cracks a joke.
Leaning back in my chair, I get a better view of Bob and Ben with the Tuscan countryside in the background that frames their faces like a Renaissance painting. The lights in the distance glisten, making me feel like I am watching my husband and son through a precious diamond.
“I think we should go to Japan together next summer,” Ben announces.
I look over to Bob who grins back at me.
Dinner draws to a close, and the three of us share a tiramisu. I start to feel a chill in the air. Bob signals for the check and pays the bill.
My son will never be twenty-six again. Like all the earlier versions of Ben – toddler on the big slide in the playground, clarinet player in the elementary school band, college debater – this one will disappear too. When he returns to Brooklyn next week, Ben will move in with his girlfriend. He is excited, and so am I. Yet, there is a sharp pang in my chest that I simply can’t ignore.
We get up to leave the restaurant, and I turn around for one last look at the Tuscan countryside. I can see the hill town’s lights sparkle in the distance, like small bright stars. Ben drapes his arm around my husband’s shoulders. As my son strides out into the night, I watch from the darkness behind him.
Ellen Holtzman is a writer and practicing psychologist. Her previous essays have appeared in CommonHealth, Cognoscenti, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and the anthology, Same Time Next Week.