She fixed me with a dark stare, a withering stare, a cruel and unusual stare. It was the kind of stare I associated with boxers who meet briefly in the center of the ring while the referee recites rules neither fighter intends to honor. I knew right then I should have waited to meet her. A few more days at least, allowing for the news that her only daughter had eloped with a stranger to settle and digest. But I didn’t. And now I knew something else. Something terrible. I knew—looking at her and she at me, before either of us had spoken a word—that I would have to kill her.
Larissa, my wife of four days, had assured me that all would be well, that her mother—although a little “old-fashioned”—would accept me. I could see now the futility of that prediction. To begin with, she didn’t look old-fashioned. She was on the business side of sixty with a rack of hair that had been salon-colored and pampered on a regulated weekly schedule. She was lean to the point of scrawny, but she clearly had the time, money and good sense to dress well—in a silky, long-sleeve purple dress that fell just below the knees. All in all, she looked formidable and serious, decorated with expensive jewelry attached to all the usual places.
It was her eyes, though, that told her story and, as far as I was concerned, sealed her doom. They were pinched and glassy and unforgiving, shaded over with a severe brow that suggested decades of inbreeding among very rich people engaged in perpetual blood feuds. They were the eyes of a subterranean animal. They were the eyes of marital ruin.
“So this is the son-in-law,” she said, as if describing a used car she had no intention of buying. Not my son-in-law, but the son-in-law, something unfortunate but also inescapable. Like the rent. Or the tumor. She strained to smile. “Nice,” she said through her teeth. “Very nice.”
“Vera,” I said. A mother-in-law’s name if there ever was one. We shook hands. I could feel the anger in her metacarpals, quivering like suspension cables on a bridge. She pulled my hand toward her slightly before releasing it. I imagined she was fantasizing about dropping me from a cliff.
Larissa sighed, no doubt thankful we had cleared this first hurdle without anyone losing an eye. “Why don’t we sit down and get acquainted?”
“What a wonderful idea,” Vera said. “Since we missed our chance before your little rendezvous in … where was it again? Las Vegas? Reno?”
“Mother,” Larissa said.
“What?” Vera said. “Honestly, dear, I’ve forgotten.”
“It was Reno,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right.” Vera leveled her eyes on me again. “So silly of me to forget.”
We sat. We were in Vera’s living room, the sound of city streets and a lazy Sunday afternoon smoldering through the windows. I made a show of looking around admiringly. The art and decorative mirrors on the walls in the upscale apartment were like everything else in Jersey City. Gothic by design, but unmistakably modern, seething with the influence of Russian émigrés who had flooded the enclave over the last two decades. Several pewter-framed photos of Larissa’s dead father lined the mantle above the faux fireplace. He was the patriarch of the family and had apparently made a fortune running a Ukrainian prosthetics export business. Who knew?
On the coffee table that formed the demarcation line between us stood a polished silver tea set that looked like a museum exhibit from the Romanov Dynasty. I didn’t even want to pick up a cup much less drink from it. I quickly understood this to be the whole point when Vera conspicuously slid the serving tray across the table and out of reach, all the while glaring at me with those reptilian eyes.
I didn’t want it to be this way. I wanted to like the woman and better still, I wanted to be liked. I wanted a mother-in-law like my cousin Marty’s. His mother-in-law insisted he call her ‘Mom.’ She packed his lunch for him. She cut his hair. He was the son she never had.
I couldn’t imagine Vera preparing a meal for me that wasn’t seasoned with hemlock. I couldn’t imagine her using a pair of scissors for anything but plunging it into my fifth lumbar. And she already had a son. Two of them. They were both surgeons.
“I understand you’re in manual labor,” Vera said.