Matt and Joanna’s college-sophomore son Russ agrees to sleep at home one night a year; that night—Christmas Eve—has arrived. They have a 6-year tradition of having an early dinner at Stenny’s; Joanna’s dad and Matt’s mom join them.
It’s an odd grouping. People who don’t know the situation naturally assume the unmatched parents are a married couple, and may chalk up their lack of interaction to the wear and tear of a long marriage; the fact is they simply dislike each other.
Joanna’s dad dislikes Matt’s mom because Matt’s mom dislikes Joanna. Matt’s mom dislikes Joanna’s dad because he reminds her of Joanna who, as we have established, she dislikes.
The dislike has been in place for 27 years, through 2 years of courtship and 25 years of marriage, and best Joanna can figure, it’s based solely on the fact that Joanna is not Liza, Matt’s long ago on-again-off-again girlfriend.
Matt’s mom adored Liza’s blond, athletic, horsey WASP-ness; it reminded her of her own. Matt and Liza were in an off period when Matt and Joanna met at a bar at the Jersey Shore, and Matt’s mom has never forgiven Joanna for swooping in and depriving her of a daughter-in-law she would have actually been fond of.
“You and Liza weren’t going ever going to get married, right?” Joanna asked Matt early in their marriage.
“Right,” Matt responded. “We really didn’t get along. And there wasn’t much sexual chemistry.”
“Can you please tell your mother that, for fuck’s sake?” Joanna had said.
“I have, Jo. It doesn’t matter. She just really liked her. They got along. You have to admit you’ve always been awkward around my mother.”
“I was 20 when we met! It was up to her to make me comfortable and she never even tried.”
They have been having this conversation, with slight variations, every few months for the last 25 years.
Matt’s mom likes Russ, even though he’s Joanna’s son, and Joanna’s dad likes Matt, so Joanna tries to keep a low profile on the occasions when they are all together, and let the others drive the conversation.
Tonight, Matt’s mom asks Russ about his living arrangements as they await the calamari, mozzarella sticks, and mussels they ordered from the cute and perky server Sarah.
“Do I understand correctly? You live off campus?”
“Yeah, me and a few friends rent a house. It’s only about a mile from school,” Russ answered.
“A few friends and I,” Joanna says, drawing glares from everyone at the table except her dad, who chuckles appreciatively.
“Do you like living with a large group of people?” Matt’s mom asks.
“There’s only five of us. It’s good. We all get along.”
“Ever since your grandfather died, I have lived alone. I don’t think I could live with anyone else now. I value my privacy too much.”
“I’ll never live alone,” Russ says. “I’m too afraid of ghosts.”
“Oh tish tosh,” Matt’s mother says. “There’s no such thing. Joanna, did you teach him to believe in ghosts? Because of your Italian ethnicity?” Joanna’s mother was half-Italian, which to Matt’s mom makes her Gina Lollobrigida.
Joanna briefly contemplates a few responses, all unpleasant, before saying, “Russ is 19. He has beliefs that have nothing to do with me. Or Matt.”
“Sounds a bit like parental abdication,” Matt’s mom says.
Simultaneously, Matt says “Stop, Mom, and Russ says, “Come on Gram.”
Server Sarah brings the appetizers and gives Russ a sweet smile. Joanna notices that he notices and feels a small tug in her chest. My baby boy, she thinks.
“Have you seen Liza recently, Matlock?” She most always calls Matt by his formal name, and asks this question as she delicately pulls a mussel from its shell.
“No, Mom, I’ve told you I haven’t seen her in years,” Matlock responds.
“She was a good friend. I hope Joanna isn’t keeping you from staying in touch.”
”Dorothy,” Joanna’s dad says. “I doubt that Joanna has any desire to dictate who Matt’s friends are.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Joanna says. “That’s true.”
“And give me some credit, Mom,” Matt says. “I wouldn’t let Joanna control me even if she tried.”
“Can everyone stop fighting?” Russ says. He grew up in a peaceful home and can’t stand even the faintest trace of raised voices.
“We’re not fighting,” Matt says. “Calm down.”
They spend a few minutes in strained silence as they finish their appetizers and first round of drinks.
“Lou,” Dorothy says. “Are the holidays difficult for you since your wife died?”
Joanna kicks her dad under the table as a way of saying I’m sorry, do you believe this bitch?
“I’m just happy to be with Jo and Russ tonight. And Matt of course.”
Joanna notices and appreciates her dad’s exclusion of Dorothy’s name and the subtlety with which he did it.
“I’m sure,” Dorothy says. “Just as it’s nice for me to see my son and grandson.”
Tit for tat, Joanna thinks. That’s fair.
Their salads arrive, and Dorothy says, “Joanna, is it an Italian custom to serve the salad before the main meal?”
“I don’t know, Dorothy. I live here in America, where restaurants always serve the salad before the entrée.”
“Stop fighting,” Russ says again, this time as Sarah serves them the main meal. “You’re all ruining Christmas Eve.”
“Russell, really,” Dorothy says. “Toughen up. I fear your mother did not prepare you adequately for the real world.”
“She’s done a fine job. I’m very happy with myself. Can I have one of your onion rings?” Dorothy had ordered a NY strip steak, and Russ has been eyeing the accompanying onion rings since the plate hit the table.
“Of course, Russell. Help yourself.” Dorothy smiles at him lovingly, and Joanna can’t help but smile too.