Once upon a time, I had a perfect romantic meal. It was ten years ago, but that doesn't much matter. The restaurant, by design, existed outside of time – mid-century French fanciness, untouched by fad or fashion. It seemed not outside the realm of possibility that the same tuxedoed waiters had been escorting the same fresh-faced and helium-bosomed young ladies (and their uncomfortably collared "uncles") to starched and sumptuous banquettes since the restaurant's opening in 1960, and that the maitre d' had air-kissed the same doyenne's surgically-taut cheek with the exact vim and deference he had since the year her Chanel suit was new.
It was Valentine's Day, and for a girl who frequently sported combat boots and a battle-scarred heart, this was as close to Hollywood l'amour as I'd ever gotten. In previous Februaries, I'd poured my heart into handmade cards, meticulously-chosen poetry volumes (and the occasional glass of single malt for myself), and had received, on various occasions a power drill, "I dunno - where do you wanna eat?", "Oh shoot...we're doing this?" and inevitably the bill for whatever entertainment ensued.
None of this quelled my nerves as I tottered under the front canopy and down the hall once trod by the likes of Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote and various members of the Kennedy clan. But then - those waiters. They of pristine jackets and seamless, boundless grace knew in a heartbeat that they had an haute dining virgin on their manicured hands, and were as gentle as could be.
To this day, I have never had that dinner's equal in elegance. No Champagne flute drained past the halfway point, the Dover sole (which I may have ordered specifically for fish knife deployment) was butter-drenched to the point of obscenity, and everyone - from "niece" to chic nonagenarian - sparkled expensively against the backdrop of pale, tasteful draperies and Parisian murals.
Eventually, the toque-sized soufflé arrived. The waiter drizzled a thin stream of Grand Marnier-augmented crème anglaise through a fissure in the top crust, discreetly ignoring my date's increasingly cheeky snaps of my garter belt straps. I was sold - both on the tufted jewel box room and the treasures within, as well as the kind of man who deemed me worthy of such grandeur.
When I nestled against my paramour's chest later that night, drunk on the splendid Champagne and headiness of the night, I exhaled. "I am worth it..." And this time I almost completely believed it.
As it turned out, to my shock and horror (and no doubt hers) when I found out some months later, it was his wife who'd actually deserved the petals and pomp that night. He'd kept her existence from me, and mine from hers, and for a very long time after, anything that hinted at "romance" took on a very bitter flavor, indeed.
The next Valentine's Day found me dining alone amongst nuzzling couples at the swankest restaurant in Reno (these things are relative) in a sort of self-punishment. "Can I get the Valentine's Day prix fixe, but cut in half? I can eat it alone in my room if you don't want to spare a two-top. Oh, you have a table for me at the center of the room? Uh...thank you."
The thinly-mustached waiter sidled over to see how I was enjoying my venison medallions, likely noting that I was just pushing them around the plate in a grim approximation of someone actually dining. He leaned in, "You are the loveliest woman in the room, yet you are the only one who is alone."
Thanks, I hadn't noticed. It seemed I could do fancy all by myself, but finding any joy in it was beyond my grasp.
The Valentine's Day after that was marginally better, with thoroughly forgettable food, and a kind enough heart across the table, beating for me warmly, if briefly.
And the year after that - I remember the menu exactly, because it's what I've eaten across the dining room table from my boyfriend, and now husband every year since. It's steak (heart-shaped the first year), pattypan squash and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with a bottle of ink-black madiran. The closest thing to a hovering waiter is our greyhound, hoping he'll get a scrap or two at the end of the meal.
Once upon a time, we shared a perfect romantic meal. He and I sat in our ancient, drafty Jeep in the parking lot of a North Carolina Harris Teeter supermarket. We were cold and tired after a long holiday slog through snow-packed highways and ice-skimmed streets and just needed something to eat before we went any farther.
We strode into the store for provisions, then went back to the car to take turns quietly dragging Captain's Wafers through a small communal tub of pimento cheese. No fish knives were required.
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