Telling Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong

illustration of father teaching daughter

by Rick Epstein

“Dad, tell me about the first time you ever kissed a girl.” I had just turned out the lights for bedtime when my 11-year-old daughter’s question whisked me back 30 years.

I sat down on Marie’s bed and told her about my 15th summer, the season I spent haunting Jenny Johnson’s house under the vigilant supervision of Mrs. Johnson and her able lieutenant, Eddie, age 10. Whatever Eddie had been doing with his time before I came along, he put it on hold so he could give me his full attention. My interest in his sister made me as interesting to Eddie as a bearded lady or a dog-faced boy. Mrs. Johnson was religious and strict, and practically kept Jenny under house arrest. But I was allowed to hang around there day after day, holding her hand, drinking iced tea and playing game after game of Risk.

Eventually, on a made-up errand, Jenny and I went down into the cool darkness of her cellar, and my first kiss was applied to the side of her lovely face. She kissed me back with affection. Maybe I wasn’t a dog-faced BOY, but I turned out to be a boy-faced DOG. For the next several months I would precipitate dramatic, tearful situations because at long last I was off the bench and a player in The Game. Ugh. I didn’t share that part of the story with young Marie. I just couldn’t.

A few days after that chat, I got home from work and checked the answering machine for messages. Instead, I found an accidentally recorded conversation between our babysitter Heather and her boyfriend. (This was before all children received cell phones as soon as they learned to say “mama.”)

Her: “Hello Bobby?”

Him: “I got soaked waiting for you in the rain.”

Her: “I didn’t ask you to wait for me.”

Him: “If I got pneumonia, you wouldn’t even care, would you?…”

I didn’t want to hear any more; this was painful stuff, especially since Bobby reminded me of my own repulsive self at his age. But I had to find out if any messages had come in for me, so I let the machine run.

Him: “I saw you talking to Troy today in the lunch line; you LIKE him, don’t you.”

Her: “He was borrowing a quarter.”

Him: “Do you always laugh that much when somebody wants a quarter? …”

A thought struck me. “Marie! Come here. I want you to hear something.” I explained, “It’s wrong to eavesdrop, but your education is more important than Heather’s privacy. Listen carefully to her boyfriend. He’s not interested in Heather. He’s interested in his own power. He’s doing everything he can to make Heather feel guilty and sorry. Avoid this kind of guy. Maybe he’ll grow out of it and maybe he won’t. Find a guy who is on your side and wants to make you feel good, not bad.” She nodded and I re-played the dialogue.

Every girl’s boudoir should have these words framed and hanging on the wall:

DOES HE LOVE YOU? or does he just love what he can do to you?

You beget children, you read to them, teach them the rules, show them the Grand Canyon, get them a cat, set an example by embracing virtue more avidly than you normally would, straighten their teeth, buy them some fancy education — and all it takes is one sick relationship to knock your whole program into the weeds.

So I meet my daughters’ new boyfriends with apprehension. Marie is now 26 and dating an eccentric extrovert named Aaron. The one time he came out from the city to visit us, he acted normal. But in his urban habitat he shows less restraint. Marie says he’ll walk down the streets singing and playing his accordion. He sometimes paints dots and stripes on his face to stimulate the public. Last Halloween he went to a party mostly naked, wearing only some seashells accessorized by a belt made of the actual tails of dead fish and a necklace of their heads. I’m told the smell was a room-emptier. Aaron is studying for a master’s degree in philosophy or something equally profitable, yet he manages to work a lot of impulsive tree climbing into his busy day. He keeps a hammock high up in a tall tree in a city park and calls it his office.

It would be reassuring to hear a professional opinion that he’s merely celebrating life and is not in the grip of a terrible disorder.

But the bottom line is: Marie says he cares about her happiness. And if their romance should terminate in marriage, so be it. (Although you can’t help but wonder what HIS child-raising program might include.)

Rick can be reached at

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