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The Parent Trap

The Parent Trap

 
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One of my favorite movies growing up was the utterly effervescent 1998 Nancy Meyers remake of The Parent Trap starring Lindsay Lohan. It’s perhaps one of the most genuinely aspirational fairytales in the Disney canon, telling the story of two teenage twins who conspire to reunite their divorced parents after discovering the other exists at sleep-away camp one summer.

Of course, hilarity and hijinks ensue, but the girls get their fairy tale ending and the credits roll to a photo montage of their parents’ second wedding.

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Look at these people.

Natasha Richardson STUNS, serving you classy contradiction in a Sexy Mom Wedding Dress. Look at her perfectly content closed mouth smile — you know the English, “keep calm and carry on,” stiff upper lip!!! And check out this demure little see-through moment north of her cleaváge! 40 is the new 30, girls! Eat your heart out, Princess Di (R.I.P.)!!!! Dennis Quaid’s handsome, ageless Hollywood face wrinkles wryly; Daddy knew this was Meant To Be all along!! He radiates a certain kind of masculinity you find refreshingly non-threatening. Anything is possible!! Take, for example, that Grandpa is still alive and Dennis Quaid’s lesbian housekeeper has fallen head over heels in love with Natasha Richardson’s gay butler! Congrats, you crazy kids!! ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!! And then, the girls, Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan, beam identical little smiles and shoot each other a look of pride and accomplishment with their identical little eyes— never such devoted identical twin sisters!! They’ve repaved the road to the rest of their lives and get to travel it together! They made this reality!! We exist because of them!! Natalie Cole’s “(This Will Be) An Everlasting Love” resounds with one of recorded music’s most joyous horn melodies in history and my little gay heart nearly bursts from my chest because ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!

I rewatched the movie tirelessly — mostly for its transatlantic setting, broad physical comedy, and perfect ensemble performances, but also to relish the dream it renders possible and to ponder the question it implores: what would it be like if my mom and dad got back together?

Where would we live?

What would we watch on TV?

Who would I be?

The more I humored the possibility, the more it terrified me. As early as I can remember, I had devised and performed two distinct identities for time spent with my either of my parents.

My mother’s son is largely the forbearer of who I am today — a sensitive romantic with a penchant for the finer things in life — by sheer power of my time-dominant environment growing up. I lived most of my life with my mother and therefore actualized my impulses towards identity most in the world she had helped build for me.

My father’s son is perhaps a more crudely sketched character — an approximation of the masculinity I identified as important to my dad — alternately and understandably because I only performed the character 8–10 hours every Saturday or Sunday. I largely retired him, too, when I stopped seeing my dad in the summer of 2004 at the age of 11.

But after the credits rolled on The Parent Trap, my smile would finally fade from my face and I would consider the fantasy the film presents as applied to my childhood. If my parents ever got back together — by fate, necessity, my intervention, or their election — I would have to reconcile the two separate identities I lived as their son. It sounded like it would be painful, too. I foresaw their disappointment in me when I was finally forced to reveal myself and my con to either of them. My mother would shake her head when I laughed at South Park or scold me when I swore. My father would tease me for spending time doing my hair every day or push me to play football instead of acting or writing.

Perhaps thankfully for me, these naive flights of fancy remained just that. My mom and dad respected each other very much. They would both often tell me stories of all the adventures and memories they shared. They would exchange pleasantries when meeting to pass me off. They had each privately admitted to me the deep love they once had for one another. But they were not going to get back together. My dad remarried. My mom has been with her now-fiancé for something like twenty years. I knew it was impossible, but I think The Parent Trap works well beyond its sparkling celebrity cast and its timeless romantic comedy because it preys on the question that lives long in the heart of every child of divorce: what would it be like if my mom and dad got back together?

When my dad remarried, I observed with vested interest as his life, and therefore mine with him, gained many of the elements of my new stepmother’s life before him. First, of course, I gained new family in my stepmother and stepbrother, who is the same age as me. My performed identity as my father’s son therefore expanded in projection to include them. I welcomed a new maternal energy, hopeful it might invite softness where I had so long not seen opportunity for it. I also relished the added character and shared perspective my stepbrother brought to my life with my father. His interests and energy fell easily in line with what I anticipated my father wanted in a son. Because of this, I found myself alternately piggy-backing on his expressed desires and attitudes and drawing distinct contrast to the kind of young man he was to further develop my identity as my father’s son.

It helped that I liked them both very much. I have many fond memories of the times we shared together. My father had remade the attic of his house as a bedroom for my stepbrother and I to share, generously putting two beds in the room in the event I wanted to stay over. I had yet to really do so, as I’d experienced significant trouble sleeping away from my mother’s house when I had tried before. The new possibility and invitation sated both me and my dad. When I would visit, my stepbrother and I would play at brotherhood in that attic room. We fought over wins and losses in video and board games. We advised each other on school and our burgeoning social lives. We strategized how to get my dad and his mom to bend to our mutual will when it came to things like the evening’s dinner or entertainment. Our relationship genuinely made life easier and more enjoyable for me when I spent time with my dad.

One of my favorite and most admittedly superficial spoils of life with my new step-family was the gorgeous in-ground pool my stepbrother’s incredibly kind grandparents had at their nearby house. It always seemed they were so incredibly enthused about the complete happy-family life their daughter and grandson were endeavoring, and that boundless enthusiasm enveloped me in the relatively limited experience I had with them. Every time I came by with my dad, stepmother, and stepbrother, they would engage me, as all good grandparents do, in genuinely fascinated conversation about my growing up. They listened with intent and warmth, and I felt so comfortable with them.

Between their energy and the balmy, languid summer days spent at their pool, some of my fondest memories of times with my dad are set there.

My dad tried, relentlessly, to teach me how to swim. He was patient, engaged, and excited for me to learn the skill that would allow me to play at the pool the same way my stepbrother did — fearlessly jumping a cannonball into the deep end, wrestling with my dad before he inevitably tossed my stepbrother off like a sack of potatoes, and diving to find and return three rings my dad would discard at various spots around the pool. For all the fun it seemed it was to swim, I was petrified I would somehow drown. Despite my father’s persistent guidance, I did not learn how to swim until well after I stopped seeing him. But it was the time we spent trying — me to do as he said, make him proud, and genuinely pick something up from him and him to commit, teach me as best he could understand to, and transfer a skill set from father to son — that mattered.

In between my attempts to flail hard enough to stay afloat and move in one direction, my dad and I would relax beside each other and chat about anything and nothing at all — my school, his work, a movie I had seen that he was thinking of taking the other boys to see, his memories of the time he spent working on a tugboat, my life with my mom, his tattoos, and plans for our futures. My guard fell most in perfect little moments like this when summer and a Saturday or Sunday evening sync up perfectly, golden hour hangs light in the air, and time seems as unfathomably endless as the deep end of the pool to a kid who can’t swim.

It’s easy to take moments like those for granted.

When evening gave way to night, golden hour fell dark, and autumn’s chill nipped at summer’s toes, it would be time for my dad to drive us back to his house, where my mother waited to pick me up.

Unlike our time together at the pool, these twenty minute drives from my step-grandparents’ house back to my dad’s were tense, brittle, and finite.

Sometimes he had been drinking throughout the evening — a Beck’s German pilsner here and there — and while I rationally knew my father wouldn’t put us in danger, our exposure to that particularly volatile element disturbed me deeply before I even clambered into the passenger seat still sodden and tasting chlorine.

I buckled up and felt my stomach churn. An obsidian dark blanketed the suburban roads we wound and was only broken by the yellow glow of the tall streetlights that passed metronomically, marking time against our thick, stunted silence.

In between the darkness, I looked for my father, and when the dull glow sliced through the windshield just so, I found brow-furrowed, hallowed-eye hurt revealed beneath his mask.

I squirmed in my seat and felt our time together revealed to be the product of a custody agreement.

Perhaps my youth afforded me a dexterity in performing this repeated transition that my dad did not have. Perhaps he tried and I couldn’t see it. All I could see was his stubbornness and disappointment every time I went back home. He made it feel like leaving him, just as we were getting a good thing going, over and over and over again.

No matter how it may feel as it passes, there is never enough time for two lives to fit inside one. I traversed an internal terrain between my two identities to prepare for my return to my life with my mother. My father traveled to the margins of his new life to peer back at a volume he had left long ago, one that continued to develop well enough without him.

We pulled up to his house. My mother was, early as always, sat outside in her car, waiting patiently.

My dad turned the key over and the inside lights went on to illuminate each other, the house, and the driveway outside.

The bridge between my two lives was thankfully bright enough, indeed.

My dad put his hand on my leg, patted me and smiled. My mother walked up to the car to chat with my father through the driver’s’ side window.

“Hi Mike,” she greeted him like she did me.

They made pleasant small talk — work, traffic, our day at the pool — and glanced over at me, their reason for this moment and so many more, now and again. When their conversation turned to me, I saw them parent together. In a flash:

What would it be like if my mom and dad got back together?

Where would we live?

What would we watch on TV?

Who would I be?

For all the fear those questions inspired, I reminded myself I was safe and things weren’t likely to change. I was with my parents, the two people who loved me most and wanted nothing more than for me to be safe and happy.

“You know, Soph,” my Dad once started, looking at my mother with embarrassment and pride, “we had a good thing, didn’t we?”

The question cut through the humid summer night, hanging between them before it curled its way around my eyes, ears, mouth, and neck. It held me tight.

What would it be like if my mom and dad got back together?

Where would we live?

What would we watch on TV?

Who would I be?

“For a while, Mike, yeah,” my mother smiled. Her response was light and certain — final — and made the question and its followers disappear into the night like frightened fireflies.

“We really did,” my dad beamed.

We each took a breath. They looked at me and I back at them. I wondered again and wonder still.

What would it be like if my mom and dad got back together?

Where would we live?

What would we watch on TV?

Who would I be?

That is a different story. I tell my own.


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