Whenever people say that the next person they hope to be looking across the table from is their spouse, I understand. I once did, too.
People should dream of a long life of romantic dinners by candelight with their husband or wife. The kind where they become so charmed by the conversation that they can’t be bothered to look at the menu and end up getting something that they don’t even like, like tuna because it was the only recognizable fish, or chicken because it was the safe choice. Yet, the food is not what mattered, anyway. It was the company, the company of their one and only love, sitting across the table from them, regailing them with stories of Boy or Girl Scout camp. Stories that have already been told, but are stirred, rehashed and ladled up in generous helpings alongside tuna and chicken dinners.
I used to want this, too.
Then, I realized. I don’t really like eating with my husband. I never liked eating with my husband. I should have known I would never like eating with my husband on our first date.
Our first real date – the one where we got dressed up and decided on an appointed time to depart from the college campus where we met – was my 20th birthday. John picked me up at my dorm. We took pictures in the hallway and my hallmates looked on somewhat mystified. It was, after all, a Sunday evening, and we were, after all, vested in something other than the requisite jeans and T-shirts of the dorm uniform.
John had worn a suit, with a red tie. When we arrived at the restaurant on a clear September evening and we were taken to a booth overlooking sparkling Lake Erie, John became confused. Then annoyed. Then confused again. He looked at the booth and considered where he might hang his jacket. He looked at me and looked back at the booth. I saw in his eyes a look that I now understand to be the universal expression for “Booths are for burger joints where one doesn’t wear a suitcoat!” But at the time, I simply sat down at the jolly booth and smiled, happy to be away from campus with my new boyfriend on my 20th birthday. John continued to mumble about the incongruity in the set-up of the restaurant. Fancy restaurants should not have booths! People might have suitcoats to hang up!” When we received our menu, John said, “You can get whatever you want” as if I had just gotten an “A” in pre-algebra in the 7th grade and this was my big rewards dinner. The comment had been one of generosity, one that came from the recesses of John’s heart that always sought to comfort so as not to make someone feel self-conscious for, say, ordering the whole rack of lamb on his dime. Instead, I took it as patronizing and wondered if my new boyfriend was really a tightwad that made you feel even more self-conscious about ordering from a fancy restaurant’s menu than you already did with his whole booth/jacket dilemma, jerk. The conversation that night was mediocre. There was little frivolity, and none of the engrossing chatter that would keep an antsy-pants waiter at bay. I remember thinking that perhaps this was a red flag. I scribbled in my mental notepad: New boyfriend falls flat as good dinner date. May be tightwad and take me to the Ground Round so I can pay what I weigh. May also have tantrum if seated at another booth.
Despite my misgivings about John, I dined with him many times thereafter. In the dining halls, I did not hold him to such high standards. I rather understood that leisurely dining hall dinners were anamolies. John swam all through college and mealtimes were for him what final exam period was for me – cramming. John vacuumed up plates of french fries, eggs, salads, and otherwise unidentifiable meat products from his tray, and would help maintain my own membership in the Clean Plate Club. Mealtimes were not the occasions to catch up or check in. They were times to eat and occasionally, they were times in which John could take in the buffet of human interactions, i.e. the fashion choices of sorority girls, the table choices of frat boys. This was another thing that I should have gathered from my early dining experiences with John. Later in life, he would rue the day that he stopped swimming and could no longer eat so much. He would also become a psycho-therapist.
Over the course of our courtship, I learned that John became exceedingly cranky (read: child in a carseat on a long car trip cranky) when he was hungry. For this reason, I learned, too, that it is better to make a reservation than to, say, just put your name on the list and “sit at the bar while you’re waiting” which always means sitting on a clumsy bar stool behind some blowhard who keeps signaling for the bartender to turn the television to the Bruins game. Because that? Would make anyone cranky.
John and I dined at many good restaurants and not so good restaurants. John was always quick with his quasi-Zagat review of the service, cleanliness, and quality of food. For the most part I appreciated this, but often longed for him to exchange his bifocals for blinders. Couldn’t he just enjoy me and my company?
I was raised in a home where my grandmother was want to exclaim, “Doesn’t the food just taste better when you’re with the ones you love?” and “Aren’t we so lucky to be together?” These rhetorical questions were uttered so often that at times Orville Reddenbacher and the Energizer bunny came popping and beating their drums through the room because the whole scene smacked of product placement. So effective was Grandma’s branding campaign that I believe her adages to be true.
I still, in fact, believe that good company makes for a good meal. Even in a booth.
This is not to say that I am the best dinner date at all times. I am, in fact, a real mess at mealtimes. On our first date, for example, I had worn a pink dress that I had borrowed from a girl named Ashley Hall. Her name sounded like an all-girls boarding academy and Ashley Hall herself was the kindest personification of a girls boarding school. She was delightfully cheerful, and always impeccably dressed. She was the type of person that said, “I’m sorry, I just woke up and look like CRAP!” while her matching running suit that smelled of lavendar matched her hair which was well-coifed and shiny. So for my birthday date with my new boyfriend, to Ashley Hall I had headed to borrow a cute pink dress. I proceeded that night to splatter marinara sauce all over the front of Ashley Hall’s dress. Many dresses thereafter, borrowed and owned, have been splattered with the same unsightly Rorschach test of food. It is any wonder how he took me out on a second date.
The fact that I don’t much favor sitting across the dinner table with my husband is nothing of which I feel ashamed. I have even expressed to John that my favorite activity with him is not sharing a meal. He tried to vindicate himself for not being a livelier meal partner, “Well, I see you all the time. I figure, what is there to talk about? We’ll have to go, like, a long time without seeing each other before we got out to eat so we’ll have a lot to catch up on,” he said.
There are plenty of seating arrangements and directions I enjoy being in with John, though. Most notably by his side, or with my head on his lap looking up at his stubbly chin. As is the oft-quoted Antoine de St. Exupery has said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction,” I think that our eyes are set in the right direction. Even if there is not a piece of food between us, I think that we will never go hungry.