“Can’t you at least try to be nice?”
She grabbed his sleeve to keep him standing, he turned to look at her, fighting to remove his reproachful glare from the child fingering his freshly polished car. She followed his glance and intensified her mental pressure on him by running her fingers along his upper arm.
“Just this once?” She said, in her sweetest voice.
He sighed. “Fine then.” With a faint smile, he pulled her close and kissed her briefly.
“Let’s go. Can’t be late.”
Beaming, she got in the car. It was a clear statement; no more delay and no excuses.
“If it must be done...” He muttered under his breath. They drove out of the city in their suburban cruiser in silence.
He watched civilization getting smaller in his rear-view mirror and drifting away, the high rectangles collapsing into a single line at the horizon and finally disappearing. Trees in lush spring green and wide open pastures with every tone of flower flashed by. The landscape sloped.
“Slow down, already, take in some of the scenery. It’s so beautiful outside.” She resorted to a complacent smile. “Now aren’t you glad you came along?”
They passed a meadow full of cows and acres enveloped in a manure scent so pungent it corrupted their last bottled up city air inside.
“Why? I think it stinks.” He sped up.
She sighed and fell back against the seat with folded arms. “You’re being impossible today.”
He raised his voice a little. “Well, duh. Why do you think that is?” He took a deep breath to calm himself and swallowed his upcoming agitation.
“Why did it have to be today?” He continued, his voice a little clenched.
“Why not? You had to meet them sometime.”
He looked at her, pleadingly. “Baby, I just thought we’d finally have some time to ourselves. Just the two of us,” he gently put his hand on her knee, “do stuff.” He made desperate gestures. “You know, go to the part, row on the pond in one of those neat little white boats, eat out.”
She raised an eyebrow in mockery. “Looks like you had the whole thing planned out.”
He knew in an instant there would be no chance she would back down. He looked out the window and mumbled. “Well, yes.”
She shot him a compassionate look, then made it very clear there was no way out of this.
“Well, big deal. There will be other days off to spend together. Next time, we’ll do whatever you like, but for now, you’re just going to have to get over it. You can’t always have your way.”
“I just had big plans for today, that’s all. It’s not like we have much of a chance for anything like that. It’s our anniversary, for god’s sakes, doesn’t that mean something? And now I’m going to be bloody spending it meeting your damn parents.”
“Well, I think it’s important to introduce you to my”, she shot him a look full of daggers set on fire, “damn parents, and they feel the same way. It’s a big tradition at home to get together for things like this. It keeps the family close. It’s my mum’s birthday, we can’t possibly stay away. If we are to get serious, you’re just going to have to learn to deal with coming here every single year. Her birthday is always going to coincide with a holiday. No excuses! We’re going over, like it or not!”
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and ran his hand through his hair, with a thoughtful look.
“Don’t mess it up!” She immediately undid the damage and smoothed his locks back into the slick, professional look she’d insisted he use.
“You have some...” She brushed something off his cheek and he noticed she was being a bit too thorough in her rubbing her knuckles over his skin.
He turned to her. “Are you checking whether I shaved well enough?” He bit his lip remembering how she actually made him shave off his prized sideboards and chin strap. Not to mention remove his piercings. The visible ones.
“I just want you to make a good impression. That’s all. My parents aren’t big on second chances. They usually make split second decisions about people. I know it isn’t fair, but it’s their way.”
“Thanks for the comforting speech, babe...” He pulled his collar, sweat beads dripping down his neck. How could he possibly think with this thing cutting off all oxygen to his brain?
“Sorry.” She smiled at him apologetically. “There’s nothing to worry about. I know what they like in people, trust me on this. They’re going to love you.”
“Yeah, as long as I play my part right.”
“Just for the time being. Once they get used to you, they’ll learn to accept you for who you are and embrace it. I’m their only child, they’re just very protective.”
“Right.” He felt like he was tied to the tracks and with every second a train was coming nearer. Except that the foot on the gas of that train was his own.
“Speaking of which, you might want to adjust you’re driving.”
“What’s wrong with my driving?”
“You mean apart from the fact that you’re speeding up like some race track lunatic and you don’t see the difference between straight bits and bents? You do want to make a good impression, don’t you?”
“Whatever.” He slowed to an old lady’s pace and made his turns excruciatingly careful.
“We’re here.” She pointed to a big country house, the kind he’d only seen in his worst nightmares, with neatly kept flower beads and tulips and hyacinths and rose bushes all over the place. And garden gnomes, of all things, that smiled... He shuddered.
“This is what I always imagined hell would look like...” He said dryly.She gave him a playful shove. “Shut up!”
It was as if the car turned unto the driveway all on its own, and used his body for an auto pilot. He turned off the engine and looked around, where a curtain moved very discretely in every neighbour’s house. See or be seen. Lovely.
She spoke to him gently, caressing his now smooth chin. “Just relax, honey.” She got out of the car and then changed her mind and leaned back in. “And be polite.” And again. “And mind your attitude. And keep your hands out of your pockets.”
Sighing, he got out of the car, head low and back bent as if the weight of the world pressed him down.
“Oh, and you may not want to mention we live together.” She whispered to him with a gentle pat on his chest. “They’re pretty old-fashioned.”
The sweat beads now also appeared on his forehead and swelled. Very much with aversion for it, he let her brush his shoulders and straighten the suit she’d picked out for him like he was a dressing doll. She redid his tie.
“You look smart.”
“I feel dumb.”
He leaned back against the car and she rose on the tips of her toes to wrap her hands around his neck and kiss him. As soon as the door opened on them his baby immediately leapt away to put the appropriate distance between them.
“Hi, mum. Come on, sweetie.”
He took a breath and steadied himself. He would rather have done this after – long after – his all planned out date. Reluctantly, he followed his girlfriend to the door, faking a rather unconvincing smile.
“I’ll go see what’s keeping your father. Isaac?”
As soon as her mother looked away, his girlfriend mouthed to him behind her back, “be nice!”
“Whatever.” He soundlessly responded. It looked like he’d have to go all out. Then he remembered he’d left the presents in the car. “Oh, I brought something for your parents.”
Her eyes softened into a smile. “Honey, how thoughtful.”
“I’ll go get it.” He ran back, careful not to smear or rip his clothes, and got everything out of the trunk. With a bunch of flowers, a carton box of pastry and a good bottle of wine – to be safe, he’d specifically asked the clerk at Wallmart for advice – he made it back to the door.
Mustering his complacent winning beam, he handed his offerings over to the elderly woman in the flower print dress by the door. He had this in the bag...
“Oh, dear, you shouldn’t have.” She said. He knew better.
“I wanted to.” He responded benevolently.
She opened the box and her smile froze. She immediately threw the top back and composed herself.
“Well, it’s rather chilly, isn’t it, why don’t you come inside.” And turned away. They exchanged a glance of confusion.
“What did you get?”
“Plum. You’re mother liked plum pie, didn’t she?”
“She’s so allergic to it one bite would kill her. Don’t you ever listen to me? Jeez.”
She disappeared into the house. He scrambled after her.
“Keep smiling, keep smiling.” He muttered to himself.
A deep voice bellowed from inside “are they here yet?” and her father came out to meet them, both stretching out their hand before their glances met. “You!” They cried out simultaneously.