We were at a bar in the Ballard section of Seattle, one of those little neighborhoods caught in a gentrification battle. The bar in question had a name that was more fitting for a hardware store. Natalie and I were on phase two of our first date; after getting sushi down the street, we’d decided to hit this pub for a drink or two. Eventually the conversation led to our families, and I noted that I had two brothers, one who lived in Oakland, and another one who lived with my mother. “Don’t get me wrong,” I explained, “my mom likes having the company. But living at home just gives him an excuse not to put the work in to live on his own, something he’s never done.”
“Hey!” she said, “I live with my mother.”
It’s worth noting at this point that I didn’t know much about this girl beyond that she was stoic and sarcastic. She could have been angry with me; she could’ve been joking. I really didn’t know. I wondered if Natalie really did live with her mother. She could be the type that has a good job and lives at home for free food, rent, and laundry. Or maybe she’d been living with a boyfriend and had recently moved out.
The possibilities were endless, but I really didn’t think she was the type to just sponge off her parents, so I guessed: “It’s not the same. You have a good job, and you’re just being a good daughter by taking care of her.”
“No, it’s not like that. When I was in grad school, she needed help buying the house so I agreed to move in with her. But it’s my house too, I pay rent and I helped her do a lot of home improvements.”
“Well, then, that’s totally different than my brother.”
“I know; I was just fucking with you. You should’ve seen the look on your face.”
“So how does that impact your social life?” I asked.
“It doesn’t. I mean, I only bring home guys who are significant, but it’s my still my house, and I can bring people home if I want to. My mom just ignores them until it gets to the point where it’s something serious.”
I thought I had dodged a bullet, but Natalie was really hard to read. She seemed coolly detached from the situation, an automaton sent to study me and determine if I was worth the time investment to date. (It didn’t help that she all but said as much about five minutes later.) After we hugged good night about an hour later, I wondered if I’d screwed myself with the living-at-home comment.
It turned out that I had, but not in the way I had thought.
Several months later, Natalie and I were still dating, and her icy façade had completely melted. She was no longer the woman who was looking at me with a bored expression on her face; she was the woman who was making me late to work because she wanted to snuggle for another thirty minutes in the morning. Interactions with her mom were fine, I guess. She and Natalie had rooms on different floors of the house, and aside from a “Hi, Markham, bye, Markham,” our interactions were minimal.
One evening, I cut out of the office a little early, picked Natalie up from work, and took her out to an early dinner in the U District. After our snack, we went back to her place and were just hanging out in her bedroom. Getting under the covers to “snuggle” soon turned into sex, and we wound up having to put her dog outside the room after a most disturbing incident in which her dog licked my bare ass.
About five minutes later, we heard her mom and her mom’s boyfriend downstairs. They’d taken an early afternoon nap and not heard us come in. We suddenly had to be quiet as we didn’t want her mom to hear us. Between a slightly creaky bed and the larger problem of having sex without emitting any happy vocalizations, this was pretty challenging. Outside of the room, we could hear her mom talking to the dog, asking him if he wanted to go for a walk (“Rio! Rio! Where are your leash and the poopy bags?”)
I could hear her mom walking through the house, rifling through things, trying to find the leash. To be honest, I wanted to stop, but we were at a point where if I had decided to stop, dismount, whatever you want to call it, I’m pretty sure Natalie would’ve murdered me. Eventually I stopped caring or even paying attention to what was going on outside, until the door opened, and there was her mom, staring at us in shock.
When you’re caught naked in bed with someone, under the right circumstances, you can talk your way out of it. If you’re just in bed under the covers, you can make that seem sweet and intimate — you’re cuddling, just holding each other. You can even claim that “nothing was going on — we were just sleeping.” If you’re caught doing it missionary, moving slow, looking into each other’s eyes, you’re just making love — good, wholesome intercourse, Republican-approved (except for the premarital part). If she’s on top and the interloper isn’t your mother, well, she’s the one exposed. You can at least escape the embarrassment of your girlfriend’s mom seeing you naked while you’re having sex with her daughter.
But there is no way to romanticize standing doggy style. Especially when she interrupts seconds before climax. (I can remember having a conversation in college where a couple of the girls in my friend’s sorority said they would never do it doggy style because it’s “too much like fucking.”) So there was my girlfriend’s mother with a shocked look on her face that said very simply, “Oh my God, he’s pounding my daughter.”
I have to admit that I thought back my comment about people living at home and thought, “Karma.” Natalie dived away from me as if she was trying to hide on the other side of the bed, and I followed suit. Her mom said “Sorry!” and slammed the door. Seconds later, I could hear her yelling excitedly, half in English and half in Japanese, as she, the dog, and her boyfriend all scurried out the door.
Natalie burst out into laughter as soon as the door to her room closed, and I quickly followed suit as soon as her mom left the house. She grabbed her phone and I watched her send out the following text: “My mom just caught Markham banging me standing doggy style and freaked out. I don’t know what her problem is — it’s not like she caught him giving me a facial or something!” I was giggling and sending a similar text when the reality of the situation hit me. Did we have to break up? Could I ever look her mom in the eye again?
I looked at Natalie, who was still laughing. “This isn’t funny! Your mom probably hates me now.”
“Why? She knows I have sex, and that’s what she gets for not knocking first. This is my house too. I pay rent here.”
I stared at her. She shrugged her shoulders. “I think I don’t care because I already came.”
“But she caught us having sex standing doggy style!”
“Ugh, it’s just sex. She’s probably just a little embarrassed. It’ll blow over. You’re not going to be a weirdo about this, are you? Oh my God, did you see the look on her face?”
Seconds later the room was drowning in our laughter. Laughter turned into kissing, and, well, minutes later we were back at it again.
I stayed for about forty-five minutes after we finished having sex and then bolted from the house, or rather, I snuck out of the house, hoping I wouldn’t run into her mom on the way out. When I was on my way home I got a text from Natalie saying that her mom had apologized for not knocking. Still, I avoided the house for almost a week. At one point I really thought this might destroy our budding relationship, given how apprehensive I felt about having any future contact with her mom.
We went out again a few days later. This time, I wasn’t planning on going back to her place, but she enticed me, saying, “If you don’t come over, we won’t be able to have sex for a few more days. I’ll set my alarm and you can get up before my mom does.”
Unfortunately, her mom got up early, and we forgot to set the alarm anyway. We heard her mom puttering around downstairs, and I waited until she went back upstairs to leave her room; Natalie wanted me to stay and have breakfast, but I just wanted to escape. I was in the kitchen putting on my sneakers when I heard her mom yell something downstairs in Japanese, which Natalie translated: “My mom wants to know if it’s cool if she comes downstairs. She doesn’t want you to feel embarrassed.”
At that point I realized I was being kind of ridiculous. This was her mother’s home, and she was asking me if it was okay if she came downstairs because she didn’t want to embarrass me. I said it was fine; I stopped putting on my sneakers and sat down at the table to have breakfast.
Natalie’s mom came downstairs, and, needless to say, the incident never came up. Instead, she just asked me typical mother questions: how many siblings did I have, what did my parents do, what did I do for work, etc. It was really the first time we’d had a real conversation. About a week later we all went out for dinner, and a few months after that we went on a weekend trip together. Instead of asking me if I could bear to see her in the morning, she was making me traditional Japanese food for breakfast.
It’s weird now to remember that I thought this incident would drive a wedge between Natalie and me. Instead I feel like my relationship with Natalie truly began in earnest after that point. I’m not saying that the key to winning over your girlfriend’s stoic mother is to have her catch you having sex; just noting that there are people with stoic facades who are actually quite jovial, happy, and accepting on the inside. Maybe the “incident” forced us to break through a touch faster.
Still, her mom won’t even come near Natalie’s room if the door is closed. She won’t even knock. She just sends a text message.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.