One Christmas vacation a few years back, my sister picked me up at the train station in our hometown. We were both visiting for the holidays. On the drive home she gave me the skinny on the new man our mom was dating, her first serious boyfriend since she divorced our father."He's, uh well, why don't you reach under the seat?" my sister told me.
I did and pulled out a pair of crumpled thong panties that seemed to have been discarded in haste.
"They're Mom's," my sister said, waiting for me to figure out what would have compelled our mother to take off her underwear in the car.
"Oh my god," I shrieked, dropping the panties as if they were on fire. "The new guy? And her? In the car?"
"And everywhere else they can manage it."
My sister and I spent our holidays that year watching with mounting horror as our mother flirted and canoodled with her new boyfriend. She'd announce she was taking a shower, and moments later he'd follow her into the bathroom. "He loves to wash my hair," she gushed.
Whenever they thought we weren't in sight they'd make out like a pair of horny teenagers. He goosed her. She slapped him playfully. He spent an entire dinner raving about her great legs. She blushed and started wearing shorter skirts. He serenaded her with love songs on his guitar. They had sex loudly while my sister, who was staying in the room next door, turned up the volume on the television and explained to her young son that the noises Grandma and her friend were making were the two of them coughing.
Part of me was thrilled that my mom was finally getting some. Her self-esteem had taken a hit after the divorce, and I knew she'd been terrified about the prospects of a woman in her late 50s finding companionship.
The other part of me wanted to rip my eyes out of their sockets, stuff my fingers in my ears and chant "La, la, la -- I can't hear you" until it was time for my train back to Toronto.
What is it about our parents' sex lives that turns us into prudish five-year-olds?
A friend, a very pro-sex, proudly promiscuous gay activist, told me that when his father came out to him a few years ago it freaked him out so much that he actually asked him whether it was just a phase he was going through. When he bumped into his dad at a bathhouse a few months later -- mercifully his dad still had his towel on -- my friend couldn't have sex for weeks after. "Every time I'd try to go down on a guy," he says, "I'd think, "Oh my god, my dad does this.'"
No one wants to imagine his or her parents drunk with desire, out of control with lust. The incest taboo accounts for part of the ick factor. As for the rest of it, I think it stems from some childish self-centred need to have our parents remain safe, predictable eunuchs. We don't want them destroying our childhood delusions that they will always be boring and reliable and exist only to look after our well-being.
Once, at a party, a friend of my partner's parents mentioned that when their kids were young the whole family had to share a hotel room when they travelled because money was tight. After the kids were asleep, she and her husband would sneak off to the bathroom to have sex. One night they were so randy that they broke a towel rack, and the next morning they had to lie to their kids and the hotel management about how it happened. "Mom," lamented one of her now-adult sons, "how could you? That was our trip to Disneyland. You've just ruined Disneyland for me."
Sex, after all, is what we do to rebel and grow up and differentiate ourselves from our parents. Like those teenagers with hippie parents who seem somehow cheated by their parents' laissez-faire attitudes about drinking and drugs, the children of sexually active parents have their illusion ruined that sex is an adventure unique to them. How wild can sex be if Mom and Dad are doing it? And what if, god forbid, Mom and Dad are even wilder than you?
My mom's new boyfriend has become her long-term partner, and their life has settled into comfortable domesticity. There's no more stumbling upon them playing slap-and-tickle while they wash up the dinner dishes, no more discoveries of my mom's thongs under the car seat. I can't say I'm not relieved to have my mom back on the virgin side of the virgin-whore spectrum. But that's just me being selfish. For her sake, I hope there are still plenty of love songs and long hot showers, as long as I'm not within earshot.