Few words or phrases in the English language will strike terror in a man’s heart like that of “mother-in-law.” Given the choice between spending 5 minutes with a mother-in-law, or a month in solitary confinement with a radioactive Al Qaida suicide bomber, part werewolf, part vampire with a case of bubonic plague, an AK-47 in one hand and an Amway briefcase in the other, standing on a stack of Watchtower magazines… Well, you get the point. If brought together for a worldwide summit, mothers-in-law from every corner of the globe, regardless of creed, religion, culture, social class or political leaning, could find immediate and unanimous consensus on one issue. They would agree that their daughters are all in need of better husbands.
When I got home that Saturday afternoon, my mother-in-law was sitting out on the lanai (the Hawaiian word for balcony) with Svetlana. They were smoking. It seemed to be their only real mother-daughter activity of any note. Angelica, who was anything but angelic, had come to stay for three weeks and Sunday was to be her last day. She was a tall slender woman and looked to anyone other than me, possibly attractive. When I looked upon her, I could only see her monstrous traits. Her voice was damaged from years of smoking and she even sounded like a monster when she spoke. These days, her every utterance filled me with dread.
Angelica came to visit us for three weeks. I was certain that she had come with a design on breaking up our marriage, but the three weeks were almost at an end and I was still married. She had failed. Like any monster story, however, one knows that the beast will persist with its nefarious plans until it has either completed its evil task, or has been killed. Regardless of this truism, it is still considered a crime to kill a mother-in-law in almost every country on Earth, or at least in all the countries that I checked.
“To-mor -row, you’re out-out-out of here.” I sang to myself joyfully, quietly, as I filled up a large glass from a chilled box of chablis.
Five years earlier and only a few months into our marriage, Svetlana and I moved out of my humble downtown bachelor studio and into a luxury apartment next to Restaurant Row. At 20 stories in the air, we had a magnificent view of the ocean, the harbour, Aloha Tower, and with a little squinting, the Honolulu Airport in the far background. I suppose I took the view for granted, since I was almost always at my computer, shielded from the sun and its reflection, but Svetlana spent most evenings out on the lanai. It was impossible for me to perform any kind of work with my mother-in-law on the premises, so I strolled out onto the lanai, glass in hand, to see how my beloved and her mother were doing.
Their conversation immediately grew hushed and I could see that they were both laughing. I leaned down and kissed Svetlana gently on the top of the head and asked, “So? What’s the joke?”
Angelica burst out first, “When you sleep with other women, wear a condom!”
What the fuck was she talking about? “What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked, looking back and forth at them both for a clue.
“When you sleep with other women, wear a condom!” Angelica persisted. “I want my daughter to be protected.”
“Yeah, sure.” I said, and then looked toward Svetlana, who was still looking pleased with herself. “Are you planning something special, Sweetie?”
No answer. Much later I thought that Angelica was making a pointed reference to how I spent the morning with two different women. I’ll never know. They both just grinned like idiots and I retreated to my desk, sank deep into my chair and even deeper into my book. “It would all be over tomorrow.” I thought to myself and Ovid and his gods and monsters took me away.
As my eyes grew weary after a few hours and I slinked off to bed. Svetlana and her mother were still chattering away endlessly in their odd Macedonian tongue. I floated into a dreamland full of gods and goddesses imposing their edicts and transformations onto hapless mortals who had the misfortune to come into contact with them. I swear that an interruption shook the gods still for just a moment as I felt soft kisses on my cheeks and forehead. I don’t know if the kisses were dreamt or real, but for that moment I felt loved.
The next day, I woke early. Svetlana was asleep as usual. I would have the morning to myself if Angelica didn’t stir. I looked down my phone list and considered breakfast with a girlfriend. I didn’t usually petition the same person for two days in a row and decided against calling Jamie, though I might have liked to hear her perspective on Angelica’s condom statement in the context of her many ‘rules’. I’m sure she would not have been impressed. I decided that I needed an escape from everything.
Books can be an escape for me, but never a really fantastic escape, because of the way I read. I discovered, quite by accident one day when I was reading an illustrated book, that the sentence I was reading to myself did not match the illustration. I discovered that perhaps for years, I had been reading groups of words and forming my own sentences from them. This is a handy skill for reading and skimming technical manuals, however it is a similar to dyslexia for reading prose. I had developed techniques for combating this disability since, but this morning I decided that playing a game would be a more satisfying escape.
My virtual addiction, as I called it, was the World of Warcraft. I had a 60th level mage in the game, which at that time was about as powerful a being as a player could be. Every time I stepped into the game’s virtual world, I was rewarded somehow. I would either acquire more gold, more high-end equipment, or more points for some long term objective. It was impossible to play the game without some small reward. Feeling beleaguered, I decided that I could use a reward, despite having promised Svetlana that I would avoid playing the game while her mother was here.
I got lost in the game, playing for about an hour or two, or maybe three. I was happily killing a bunch of whirlwind-like creatures when I noticed that my mother-in-law was no longer sleeping on the air bed. Dammit. I heard the shower going. She obviously saw me playing and it was too late to change that. I played on. When she emerged from the bathroom, before I could greet her with a chirpy ‘Good morning’ she said, “You would make a lot more money if you didn’t play games all the time.”
More money? If this had been a Flintstones cartoon and not real life, Fred would have jumped up in a rage, pointed at the door and shouted, “Out! Out!! Out!!!”
Anger isn’t an emotion that has played a large part in my life. When things go wrong, I generally tend toward, sadness, disappointment or guilt before I choose anger to deal with my situation. Not this time. I was angry. I was furious! I was keeping her daughter in no small degree of luxury in Honolulu and she was my guest… eating my food… drinking my wine… I had nowhere to direct my anger. The United States is one of the countries where it is illegal to kill a mother in law, though I did wonder if I’d get off having told the judge what she said. Too risky. The solace I’d acquired from 3 hours of gaming was gone. The best course of action was to leave without saying a word. That was best. When I return, I thought, she would be gone. Life could resume.
I left abruptly, hopped in my car and headed toward Waikiki, thinking about breakfast; thinking about my mother-in-law; thinking about Candy. The throaty thrum of the Porsche motor rumbled in my belly and vibrated away the angst. Thoughts of my morning anger were shaken to the pavement as I spiritedly dodged in and out of traffic. Noon had past and I wondered if Candy had remembered her pledge of daily contact. I still thought of it as a joke, but I’d be damned if I was the one to be the one to break the pledge first. I decided to play along; at least for a day or two. I called.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiii!” She yelped excitedly over the phone.
“Are you ready for lunch?” I asked. “I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
“Oh! Perfect!” She sang. “I just got home from church and it was so wonderful and you should have seen it. Maybe you can go with me next week. I’m starving! Can you pick me up?”
Every phrase she uttered was like recitative from some beautifully lyrical opera. Candy was impossibly easy to talk to. When she spoke, I mused. When I spoke, she didn’t listen so much as fixate on every word with the excitement and wonder of a small child. I began to wonder if my metaphorical references toward Candy were an understatement. I had been describing her as an angel, but she was in so many ways exactly what you would expect a true angel to be like. Her voice and countenance were angelic by any account. Her naïveté concerning the world around her seemed impossibly child-like for a woman her age. Her fascination with nearly everything suggested that she had never stepped foot on this earth.
Perhaps she was an angel. Perhaps she fell into my lap as some sort of divine retribution for refusing to believe in a god. I wondered at the possibility of a divine bureaucracy that would punish humans and angels alike by juxtaposing them in a situation where they might better themselves from the experience. The angel would of course grow more respectful of their position once learning of the labours and toils of humans while the human would learn of the heavenly realm they would have to aspire to. Decidedly a better teacher than a student, it would be up to me to make sure that Candy received a good education.
I picked Candy up at Kapiolani Park, just a little past the zoo. Considering that Honolulu is in the middle of nowhere, the zoo is of a reasonable quality with many exotic exhibits from the wildest reaches of Africa. Also, if you are on a budget, you can see the giraffes for free. Today we were not on a budget, however, and we raced off to one of my favourite haunts; Pappilon restaurant at the Ala Moana mall. This open air restaurant features a majestic view of the ocean, Ala Moana Park and we would be arriving at my favourite time of the day, 2pm.
When we got to Pappilon’s, the lunch rush was over and the shifts were changing and the service was a little confused, but the sun was starting its descent into the ocean. We had a little over 4 hours to enjoy the afternoon before the sun would plunge into the ocean and the island would plunge into darkness. I ordered a bottle of Taittinger and a cheese plate… with an extra helping of a mascarpone to go with the fruit. I love Taittinger’s champagne. It has such a neutral taste that you almost forget drinking it; even between sips. There would be food, there would be wine, but this combination of treats would aid conversation rather than hinder it.
Candy was clearly unused to these surroundings. She was unused to fancy restaurants. She was unused to champagne. She was unused to any Sunday conversation that was not church related. After a little small talk and a little more champagne, however, our conversation began to flow even faster than the Taittinger’s. I began to fill in the details from the day before. I told her how I met Svetlana and how it was love at first sight and how we drove to Stonehenge and took the Chunnel to Paris. I told her how we were married just a few months later and how our marriage had been perfect; well mostly perfect.
Then Candy started to fill in her life story too. She told me how her father had passed away and how her mother had raised her under strictly Christian guidelines. She told me how she had a personal relationship with Jesus and how she didn’t really understand how a person could live without Him in their life. She meant me. I was quite accustomed to this kind of question and we went into a short discussion regarding the benefits of atheism vs. Christianity and vice versa. Considering her upbringing, she took my atheism pretty well, though she vowed to pray for me to one day see the Christian “light”, prayers that have apparently gone unanswered.
We talked until the sun set and I decided that it was about time that it was safe for me to return home. I indicated that I should get going but Candy wasn’t finished with me. She had decided that it would be very important for me to meet her mother. “There’s a problem.” She said. “It is very important that you say that you are a Christian when you meet her.”
“I can pretend to be a Christian, I suppose.” I said with no small amount of surprise. “Do I need to be a particular kind of Christian?”
“Yes. You can’t say that you go to a church that my mom also goes to or she will know that you are not telling the truth. She knows everyone from many churches.”
“Well,” I thought. “I can say that I’m with the Church of England. I really don’t think that there is one of those on the island. If there is, I doubt that an American protestant would ever go to one. They are really very boring and don’t have sing-alongs, just fire-and-brimstone style sermons and old stodgy sounding hymns.”
“Perfect!” Candy chirped. “I’ll tell her that! Only where will I say that you go to church now that you are here?”
This was an interesting game and now that I was playing, I wanted to win. “There is a Russian Orthodox church on Queen Street that I visited once for Easter Mass. Tell her that I go there. They sing a lot, but not like at your churches, it is all in Russian. Are you sure I need to be Christian.”
“Oh, it is very important!” Candy exclaimed. “My mother has a way of praying people out of my life. I do not want to lose you in this way.”
“You can do that? You can prey people out of other people’s lives?” I said, astonished.
“Oh my mother can and she has. She is very close to the Lord.” Candy confided.
“Well I’ll be the best Russian Orthodox-going Church of Englander I can be; just for you. At least until we can convince your mother not to pray me away.”
Candy laughed. Then the thought hit me. I wished that I could stop my mother-in-law from trying to pray me away. I wished that Svetlana would have had a plan for me to follow to have kept me out of the way of her mother’s monstrous wrath. I knew that it was more likely that her mother was growing weary from Svetlana’s complaints. On the rare occasions where I had the temerity to say “No!” to Svetlana, whether it was for a new piece of camera equipment or another trip abroad, she would simply ask her mother next. Her mother would always pay… or rather her mother’s husband would always pay.
With Candy, I had a plan. We had a plan. I was going to be in her life for a while and no mothers were going to stand in our way. That moment, I thought of a scripture from the Book of Matthew, somewhere in the middle, “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
I changed the word ‘man’ in the passage to ‘mother’ and then to ‘mother-in-law’ when I repeated it to myself. It was strangely satisfying to think that it would be a sin against a Christian god for anyone to interfere with me and my wife. It would also be a sin to interfere with me and Candy since it was likely a god that sent her to me. I drove Candy home with a smug sense of satisfaction. We had a plan for a long and prosperous friendship. My mother in-law was likely a thousand miles over the Pacific right now and I could return home to pick up the pieces and mend my marriage with Svetlana.
When I arrived home, I was tired, but happy and relieved. I unlocked the door to see Svetlana in the kitchen cooking dinner. I walked into the kitchen to give her a hello kiss. “Zdravo, bebe.” I cooed to in her native tongue.
After receiving a kiss back, I wheeled out of the kitchen and into the living room. There was still an air bed. There was still a mother-in-law smell. There was still mother-in-law stuff. Jesus. There was still a mother-in-law. I felt instantly dizzy and nauseous. I debated whether to faint or throw up. I looked back at Svetlana for answers.
“Sweetie,” She whispered sheepishly. “My mother was sad because she was sick for most of this last week of her visit, and we decided she should stay a little longer.”
“How long?” I asked vigorously, failing to hide my distaste for the news.
“Three more weeks.” She consoled.
I had just survived three weeks of this harpy and I was at my wit’s end. I did not know if I could stand another day. Three weeks would drive me mad and I was sure of it. Still nauseous, I declined to take any dinner and went straight to bed. No marriage could survive this. The red-haired beast had won the day.