October Valentine

October 2009

One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry. — Oscar Wilde

I’ll never forget my first date with Bernadette. For her 23rd birthday, I treated her to lunch at the long-gone Court Cafe in Somerville. I can remember the dark green dress she wore, and how her reddish brown curls cascaded down her shoulders. I remember how her smile took my breath away. I remember I had attended high school with the waiter, whose patience must have been stretched as Bern and I talked and laughed for hours. I even remember how after lunch we debated over who sang a particular song (“Tell It To My Heart”) and hopped out of the car to run into a record store to settle the matter. But mostly, I remember how everything felt: exciting, intoxicating, intriguing, full of the promise that something special was happening.

I also vividly recall our second date, but only because during the middle of the meal at the long-gone Newsroom in Somerville, Bern excused herself to visit the ladies room. She rose from her chair, took one faltering step and executed a stunning face plant on the floor. Turns out we enjoyed each others’ company and conversation so much that neither of us had moved for a while. Unfortunately, her leg had fallen asleep in the process.

So, let’s be honest here: Twenty years and 14,600 lunches and dinners later, some things change. Conversations about life, books, music and dreams devolve into more pedestrian topics like who forgot to return the overdue library books or 1,001 reasons why we hate Comcast. And, now that Penelope has entered the picture, our dinners and conversation have changed significantly.

For starters, rather than a romantic dinner with candlelight and wine to celebrate our 18th anniversary, we wound up at Applebee’s at 6 p.m., hunkered down with a gaggle of senior citizens gumming their soup rapidly with the hope of getting home in time to catch the end of Lou Dobbs. Conversations are punctuated with verbal encouragements for Penelope to finish her dinner, stunned pronouncements over the array of foods she will eat (artichokes, mussels, bok choi, cabbage soup) or stern warnings that she cannot leave the table to chase the dogs.

Bern and I hadn’t shared a dinner alone since Beijing in mid-July. We enjoyed our meals there, but romantic conversation typically doesn’t include your spouse asking repeatedly, “You’re not gonna try to kiss me after eating that chicken foot now, are you?”

Recently, Bern’s mom and sister traveled here from Buffalo for a funeral, and when they volunteered to baby-sit one Friday evening, we jumped at the offer. Actually, they may not have finished uttering the word baby-sit before I grabbed the phone and dialed to reserve a table at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant (I will refrain from making any all-too-obvious Ethiopian restaurant jokes in this blog. Really, forget it, nothing about being skinnier walking out than when we walked in or anything else stupid like that.)

Driving home from work that Friday, I’m surprised at how excited I am. I’m debating what tie I’ll wear and trying to remember if I ironed a particular shirt. Naturally, the tie I eventually select has a mysterious dark stain on it and I neglected to iron the shirt, which compels me to choose another ensemble. Bern swirls her make-up brush around her face as I gamely attempt to tie a Windsor knot. We’re crammed in the bathroom elbowing each other like two hockey players racing for the puck.

We stampede downstairs. Bern verbally leaves a “Les Miserables” length list of instructions — I suspect all new moms do — even though her sister and mom have helped raise about a dozen children. Check the wallet, grab the car keys, a hug and a kiss for our little Pop Tart and out the door we go for an evening of adult conversation.

6:52 p.m.: I stick the key in the ignition and back the car up.

6:53 p.m.: Bern says, “I have to tell you what Penelope did at breakfast….”

6:58 p.m.: We drive past Hillbilly Hall. “Yea, thinking we’d take Penelope to the pig roast was a pretty stupid idea,” I say. “The big Confederate flag, Lynryd Skynrd cover band, drunken bikers . . . yea. I should have realized when that biker Rick told me about it the week before that it might not be a good place for a toddler.”

7 p.m.: Bern says,”You should have seen what Penelope and my mother were doing today . . .”

Bern stops talking (yes, it’s a rare occurrence, but it happens). In that silence, we both realize how quickly and firmly Penelope has enmeshed herself in every fiber of our relationship. Perhaps that’s part of the magic a child brings to a marriage. Nevertheless, we tacitly agree to discuss other topics as if to reaffirm our relationship will only become enhanced by Penelope, not consumed by it. And, for most of the night, we stick to that: We discuss places we’d like to visit, books we’d like to read, movies we’d like to see and Halloween costume possibilities (we eventually agree to dress as the lead roles in “Julie and Julia,” and yes, I was Julia Child, and yes, I was in character most of the night, and no, I won’t post photos here but I will share them with a few close friends.)

Bern hops out of the car in front of the restaurant, and since we’re in New Brunswick, I find a parking spot eight miles away, guaranteeing we’ll walk off the food on the return trip. At Makedas, we share a sampler platter for two which features chicken in awaze sauce, beef seasoned in an Ethiopian herb reduction sauce and . . . well, the enormous plate held about a dozen substantial portions. Rather than use forks, you soak up the meat and vegetables with a spongy Injera Ethiopian bread. Rather ironic, I thought, that we didn’t bring Penelope to a restaurant where you’re supposed to eat with your hands.

Midway through the meal an R&B band starts performing. Between the music, the exotic food, the intimate setting and the candlelight that splashes delicately across Bern’s cheeks, the evening feels perfect. I’m radiating with a warm glow because I’ve realized that after 20 years, the same smile still takes my breath away. A relationship can brim years later with romance and passion — if you keep your ears and heart open, and your mind disentangled from the daily drudgery that creeps into life. I think that wards off the chill emptiness that shrouds too many marriages.

Penelope may not have eaten dinner with us, and we may have stopped discussing her early in our date, but she never leaves us. Her entrance into our lives made this dinner special. We treasure our time with our daughter, but now we treasure even more the moments just the two of us share. Each one of our dinner dates is now a special occasion.

So, as far as I’m concerned, Oscar Wilde can go stick it.

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