Thank You Marcus Berlin Willoughby

My friends Lydia and Michael have a lovely house in La Floresta, the hearts and minds of saints and, most significantly for this story, four painfully cute doggies. Nothing grounds you in the now more than the intense attention of canine goodwill ambassadors. Enveloped in wiggly wonderfulness, I could not have known I was about to be ripped from the present into a long-forgotten day 30+ years in my past.

Lydia had my full attention as she proudly introduced her motley crew. The girls Emily and Lark were named after characters in Mary Poppins, she explained. The third girl, Princesa, Lydia confided, required a fancy title because she is so ugly. (It’s not true Princesa, you are as cute as a button!) The only boy is a rescue named Willoughby. I didn’t need to struggle to remember where I’d heard that name before.

When I was formally introduced to Willoughby, I immediately flashed back to the quad at Humboldt State University on a balmy afternoon in the fall of 1988. I was a young single mom back then; my baby girl was almost a year old. At 23, I felt much older than my classmates (especially when they asked me to buy beer for them). A few friends had set up a picnic on one of the grassy slopes that ring the main quad. My daughter was crawling to and from my friend Amanda and me, delighting us both. A boombox blasted the new U2 album, Rattle and Hum. Edge’s clangy guitar intro to the song, Desire, pulled my attention to the center of the quad. And there he was, a brown-skinned Adonis, shirtless, playing hacky sack like a boss.

“Who’s that?!” I gasped.

“Marcus Berlin Willoughby,” someone answered.

I could not stop staring. His smile was reckless. He was long and lean. He moved with grace and confidence. He was obviously well practiced at a game with little or no glory. There is no score in hacky sack, no winners or losers, just a group of people working together. The skill with which he played demonstrated an unusually intense focus. I never wanted anyone more in my life.

This is not, however, a tale of lust, or love, unrequited or otherwise, but a story of societal expectations and the realization that I had the power to define myself. My first year of motherhood had its moments of hardship, but overall, I loved mom life and the role that went with it. At that point, I felt at home in the asexual, nurturing stereotype of motherhood. I’m reasonably sure now hormones and the intense focus newborns require worked together to foster this picture of myself. Until that day, sexual thoughts seemed a thing of my past.

My desire for Marcus served to remind me that I could be a grown up woman and a mom. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem too revolutionary. We moms, however, are forever clucked, pursy-faced and finger wagged into behaving in a seriously non sexy manner. If we dare embrace our sexuality, we are saddled with the implication that we are at least tawdry and at worst bad mothers. Non moms face this same slut shaming, but mothers are subjected to exponentially more vicious judgement. Watching a handsome young man play hacky sack and wondering what else he could do with his lithe body didn’t suddenly compromise my ability to parent. It did shatter the illusion that the role of mother had a set and restrictive definition to which I was required to conform.

I never did meet Marcus, though I may have said hello to him in passing. It was enough to know there was a future for me in which mom was just one of my roles. Wherever you are now Marcus Berlin Willoughby, I owe you a debt of gratitude. And know that every time I hear the U2 song Desire (and also apparently when I meet hella cute doggie namesakes) I remember that warm fall day in 1988 and the bright future it promised.

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