It’s Easter, and a familiar group has gathered at Stenny’s for an early dinner: Joanna, Matt, their son Russ, Joanna’s father Lou, and Matt’s mother Dorothy. We had a nice long peek into their dynamic during their Christmas Eve dinner; if you need a reminder, here goes: Dorothy doesn’t like Joanna because she wanted Matt to marry the blond and WASP-y Liza; Lou doesn’t like Dorothy because of the way she treats Joanna; everyone likes Matt and Russ; Russ just wants everyone to get along.
This get-together has been long-planned; Joanna has been dreading it only slightly less than she would an organ removal.
“It will be fine, Jo,” Matt had said to her Thursday when she made her millionth comment about wishing it was over or, better yet, not taking place at all.
“What does that even mean, Matt? Fine. Fine. What a weasly word.”
“I know you’re not looking forward to it, but don’t take it out on me,” Matt said.
It’s hard for Joanna to admit fault, but she knew Matt was right, and said, “Sorry. It will be good to see Russ.”
“That’s the way to think,” Matt said, to which Joanna responded, “Oh, fuck you and your lectures.” They has similar conversations all the way up to the moment they found themselves in Stenny’s busy dining room at 2:55pm, awaiting the arrival of Russ, Lou, and Dorothy.
“They better not be late,” Joanna says.
“Stop it,” Matt says.
“Being the way you’re being. If nothing else, you know how it annoys Russ.”
Joanna literally says “Harrumph,” because, once again, she knows Matt is right and can’t think of anything else to say.
Russ arrives at 2:57. “Hey, Mom, hey Dad, what’s going on?” he says as he approaches the table. “Can we get some bread?”
“Hi Russ, sure, sit down first,” Matt says.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Russ asks Matt.
“I’m right here. Why don’t you ask me?” Joanna says.
Russ complies. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Oh, okay,” Russ says, clearly disbelieving. “You don’t want to see Gram?”
Joanna sighs. “It will be fine,” she says. “Here she is now. With Pop.”
The three of them watch Lou and Dorothy approach. Matt stands when they are a few feet away. “Lou, Mom,” he says. “Happy Easter.”
“Happy Easter to you, and to you, Russ,” Dorothy says as she sits down.
Joanna thinks And it begins.
“Good timing,” Matt says.
“What do you mean by good timing, Matlock?” Dorothy adds.
“You and Lou arriving at the same time. Did you meet up in the parking lot?”
Lou gives his daughter a kiss on the cheek. “Hello sweetie,” he says, settling into the chair next to her.
“Meet up in the parking lot? That’s a bit crass, Matlock.”
Matt laughs and says, “Don’t read into it, Mom. It’s nice to see you.”
“And you. It’s been a while.”
“You and I went out to lunch two weeks ago,” Matt responds.
“Yes, as I said, it’s been a while,” Dorothy says, and turns to her daughter-in-law. “Joanna, is that a new hairstyle?”
“Well, I had a trim,” Joanna says. “But not new.”
“Oh,” Dorothy says.
I guess it would literally kill her to say it looks nice, Joanna thinks.
“It looks great, hon,” Lou says.
“Thanks, Dad.” Joanna knows she could shave and tattoo her head and her father would say he likes it.
A couple of months ago, Joanna was worried about Lou—she had what she has now accepted to be an illogical feeling that his heightened cheerfulness was an omen of his imminent death. Not quite as far-fetched was her theory that he had a girlfriend, but she has seen no signs of it, and has let go of that too.
“Russell,” Dorothy says. “How is school?”
“Good. I’m going to make Dean’s List again.”
“That’s wonderful. You have inherited superior intelligence.”
Joanna thinks for a split second that the compliment may include her, but Dorothy shifts her eyes to Matt, and then to Lou.
Don’t look at my father without my permission, Joanna thinks, fully realizing the ridiculousness of the thought.
Perky server Sarah arrives. “Hi Joanna, hi Matt,” she says. “And it’s Russ, right?” she says with her sweet smile.
“Yeah, hey,” Russ says.
“I’m sorry, I forget. Whose parents?” Sarah asks.
“My mother, Joanna’s father,” Matt says.
“Oh, right. Can I get you something from the bar?”
“Vodka rocks,” Joanna says. It’s a stronger drink than she usually orders, but being in the company of her mother-in-law warrants it.
“Same for me,” Lou says.
“Water,” Russ says. “And can you bring some bread?”
“Sure thing, Russ,” Sarah says.
“Beefeater straight up, twist,” Matt says.
“Scotch and soda,” Dorothy says.
“Be right back with those,” Sarah says. “And the bread.”
“Well,” Lou says. “Isn’t this nice.”
Joanna looks at her father for signs of sarcasm. She doesn’t see any and a new worry enters her mind: He’s gone simple.
“Yes, very nice,” Matt says, and surreptitiously taps Joanna’s hip.
“Uh huh,” is the most Joanna can bring herself to say.
“Jo,” Lou says. “How’s work?”
“It’s good, busy.” This is what Joanna always says.
“Busy is good.” This is how Lou always responds.
“I, we, have something to tell you,” Lou says, addressing the whole table.
“We do?” Joanna asks.
“Not you and me,” Lou says gently. “Dorothy and I have something to tell you.”
Sarah arrives with the bread. “Here you are, Russ. I brought butter. Do you want olive oil instead?”
“Butter is good,” Russ says.
“Wait,” Joanna says. She sees Sarah’s confused look and says, “No, sorry, Sarah, not you. Butter is fine. Dad, you and Dorothy have something to tell us?” she says as she thinks Oh no Oh no Oh no Oh no.
“Yes, hon, we do,” Lou says, as he takes Dorothy’s hand. “Dorothy and I are getting married.”
Russ stops buttering his bread in mid-stroke. Matt says, “Oh, wow.” Joanna bursts into tears.
“I trust those are tears of happiness for your father and me, Joanna,” Dorothy says.
“Dorothy, give her at least a moment to adjust,” Lou says sternly, but does not let go of her hand.
“Mom? Are you Ok?” Russ says.
His question brings back a memory from 17 years ago, when Russ was 2. The three of them were in a department store in a mall, and Russ disappeared. One second he was there, holding Joanna’s hand, the next he was gone. Joanna and Matt alerted security, who reassured them all would be fine. Matt went off to look for Russ, security did their thing, and Joanna sat on the floor and cried. Five minutes later, Matt returned, holding Russ, whom he had found happily exploring a nearby toy store. “Mommy,” Russ had said, “What’s wrong with your face?”
“Yes,” Joanna manages to say now. “Just surprised, I guess.” She looks at Matt, who she can tell is equally surprised. He’s more mannerly than she, however, and says, “Congratulations, you two. We’re all very happy for you.”
Speak for your fucking self, Joanna thinks, but she has stopped crying and offers a weak echo of Matt’s sentiment. “Yes, best wishes.”
Mercifully, Sarah arrives with the drinks and as she serves them, Joanna says, “Bring me another, please.” All eyes are on her, and she says, “It’s my way of celebrating.”