For first-timers, it can take a few days: Even on the way back from whatever desolate parking lot, museum, or bus terminal has been the scene of the dreaded departure, you may find yourself stopping in front of a Duane Reade or a Staples, reflexively assessing the pyramids of sunblock, spray fans, and brightly colored pens. The impulse to purchase and pack dies hard—inseparable as it is from the illusion that by preparing the perfect trunk, you have anticipated every possible camp calamity and thereby (mommy logic) prevented it. Really, it’s not until the first letter arrives that anything close to exhaling begins.
But then, as the kids themselves might say: OMFG.
Stretching before you—as inviting, as exhilarating, and as distant from reality as any season in which Tom Ewell watched Marilyn Monroe’s skirt twirl up over her head—are seven and a half weeks without your children. Call it the seven-and-a-half-week itch. This is not about the husband left to frolic while the wife goes to the country. This is about the parents left to frolic when the children ship out. Once you are past the farewells, you will find that the childless summer can be temptingly divided between the things you don’t have the chance to do when the children are around, and the things you don’t have the guts to do when the children are around.
In the first category, you’ll find hobbies you once enjoyed but, with parenthood, abandoned. High on this list is sex. Sex in any room. Sex at any hour, duration, and, yes, yes, yes, volume. Also, needlepoint, though it tends to have the opposite effect on a marriage. My friend Cathy purchased some watercolors last summer (all right, so she didn’t get around to using them; paints keep). You’ll find, too, the chance for self-improvement: Jazz Funk Dance at the Y, Mostly Mozart (finally), knife skills at the French Culinary Institute. Also the put-off tasks: You know the list. Time, for the first time, is on your side. Occasionally you might sleep past seven. Occasionally you might stay out late, indulging in the ultimate nakedness: not wearing a watch.
In the second category, you’ll find the riskier enterprises. The character in the novel I’ve just written (Whatever Makes You Happy, Random House; $23.95—speaking of things to do with your time) devotes a good portion of her childless summer to having bone-rattling sex with a man not her husband. I know at least one nonfiction mother who has already purchased the first marijuana she’s had since the days when she waited for her parents to leave the apartment. Less dramatically, it’s worth noting that in the absence of child witnesses, you can ruthlessly edit their artwork, renovate their bedrooms, and wear their clothing. My friend Susie says the ultimate New York empty-nest indulgence is French fries and a martini at Café de Bruxelles. Example-setting can wait. Try popcorn for dinner in front of a M*A*S*H marathon, reliving the days when it seemed that you understood something about Alan Alda that he didn’t yet know himself.
In the end, whether you choose to pursue the better you or the naughtier you, the great joy of the temporarily empty nest is that you don’t have to mourn your children’s childhood, don’t have to ponder whether their rooms should become studies or shrines, don’t have to assess what’s left between you and your spouse (much), don’t have to face an existential What Now? If you’re lucky, you’ll be too busy answering the happier question, What Next?
Make Workshop, $50 classes (195 Chrystie St., nr. Stanton St., No. 502; 212-533-9995).
92nd Street Y Art Center, $155 for four classes (1395 Lexington Ave.; 212-415-5500).
Jazz Funk Dance
Steps on Broadway, $14.50 per class (2121 Broadway, at 74th St.; 212-874-2410).
Mostly Mozart Festival
Lincoln Center, July 28 to August 27 (212-875-5766).
French Culinary Institute, $2,135 for the Essentials of Fine Cooking course (frenchculinary.com).
Nerveana plays nineties tunes (179 Varick St., nr. King St.; 212-243-1999).
French Fries With Martini
Café de Bruxelles serves martini with Grey Goose for $9.25; french fries, $4 (118 Greenwich Ave., at 13th St.; 212-206-1830).