Amid the weeknight din of Ruby Foo’s, the hostess bore complimentary cocktails—a peace offering, for making Julie and Samantha wait twenty minutes for their reserved table. She offered one drink to Julie and one to … Wait a minute. Peering at Samantha, she said, “I want to give this to you, but …”
Samantha, who had just been listening to her mother describe what an “awful, awful slob” she was as a teenager, nodded toward Julie and said, “You should give it to her.”
Would Samantha have accepted the drink if her mother weren’t there? I wanted to know.
“I usually take it when she is here,” Samantha said. “Usually people never really think she’s my mom. She’s very young looking. People honestly more often think we’re lovers.”
“Did you say lovers?” Julie said, laughing. She tipped half of her daughter’s unsipped cocktail into her glass, the other half into mine.
“Like, in Italy, people thought that,” Samantha said.
“We were probably clutching elbows or something.”
“Somebody whistled and I was like, Mom, we’re never touching in public again.”
But back to the drinks.
“Even if I’m not getting anything, I’ll sit at the bar with her,” Samantha said. “It makes me feel grown-up. I like feeling grown-up.”
Julie, five-foot-ten and fit and blonde, had on a khaki Free People cargo coat and jeans and the form-fitting V-neck mother-daughter circle-of-love T-shirt Samantha had made a while back—half of a matching set, one for each of them. The shirt featured two slender figures and a heart floating in a womblike space. The figures weren’t holding hands, but almost.
Wearing the shirt on the same day was forbidden, though coincidences happened. Some mornings, Samantha and Julie met in the kitchen only to discover they were dressed in each other’s clothes or in nearly identical outfits, a variation on jeans, a white T-shirt, and a brown jacket, usually Urban Outfitters (Samantha) or Anthropologie (Julie), which Samantha calls the Urban Outfitters for adults. “Really, Mom?” Samantha says if they happen to twin up, though secretly she doesn’t mind. Her friends are all, “Your mom is so hot,” and her boyfriends look at Julie Bilinkas, who at 50 is a no-Botox knockout, and say, “MILF, right there.” Samantha’s like, “Great. My mom’s hotter than me.”
Samantha, 19, goes to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She’s an actor. She talks like she’s paid by the word. Ideas and impressions bubble out of her. Her Twitter feed is a transcript of young energy unfiltered, a hybrid of early-woman savvy (“Let’s start these 8 pages of bullshit, shall we?”), earnestness (“I just want to be really, really good at something.”), id (“I’d like to punch you.”), and vulnerability (“I feel icky, Mom.”). @sambilinkas puts it all out there. Sometimes @juliebilinkas responds:
@sambilinkas: I just wanna be Marilyn Monroe.
@juliebilinkas: Marilyn Monroe is dead honey. I like you better as Samantha.
At one point at Ruby Foo’s, it occurred to me that the hostess had made an honest calculation when settling on her genre of olive branch. The gift of pretty drinks assumed a friendship. The cocktails said, “Enjoy your girls’ night out!”
And from a distance anyone might’ve figured mother and daughter for pals. Samantha refrained from the typical teenage indicators of mother-induced misery. No mortified slumping, no glassy stare, no snapping, no sighing, no episodic glaring, no thumbing out one cell-phone SOS after another. And Julie? When Samantha spoke, Julie listened until her daughter had completed her thought. Which I assumed happened only in dreams and completely unrealistic movies.
Seriously, was there no discord? They assured me that there was. Sometimes they fought “all day long.”
Hmm. “Clean up your room?” “Don’t make me clean my room? I like my stuffed animals on the floor. I’m comfortable with my stuffed animals on the floor. Let me be me!”
I watched them closely. Humans are only so good at hiding jealousies and tensions, even for short periods of time. We all come with our little tells, and mothers and daughters are human control panels of buttons waiting to be pushed. There’s not a teenager alive who hasn’t considered her mom intolerable and embarrassing, or pretended not to know her in public, but based on what I was seeing, it was possible to achieve the opposite.
Watching Julie and Samantha felt a little like seeing a fantasy come to life. My mom hasn’t let me finish a sentence since 1975. We have never shared clothes. We do not text. She often e-mails me, hilariously, in all-caps, because it’s easier than finding the uncap key. Neither she nor I have ever uttered the word sex in the other’s presence. In fact, I’m positive my mom has never spoken the word at all. I now understand all of that; her parenting approach was a generational mandate. But sometimes, as a pre-Gilmore Girls teenager, I had this idea that mothers and daughters should walk arm-in-arm down leafy autumn roads wearing artfully knotted scarves, exchange gentle information on mean-girl management and boyfriends, and race home through the dappled sunlight to make cocoa. Once, in college, I tried to achieve this scenario with an aunt. It just felt weird.