When we enter Le Petit Bistro d’Art I can tell by the Maître d’s scowl he disapproves of my appearance. Despite his opinion I doubt he has any technical grounds on which to expel me. The dress code requires jacket and tie. It is not my problem if he is offended by red plaid. And while I admit to fashioning a tie from the sash my younger sister wore when she competed in the Little Miss Bronx County Pageant, it is still a tie in the general sense of the word. Perhaps it is not the tie itself but the way I have it threaded around my neck that offends him; the words “Little Miss Bronx” are clearly visible on the front. Whatever the case, just as I am about to object to his rather contemptuous examination, he finally looks me squarely in the eyes and says, “This way, please.”
I allow my date to go first. Her name is Eileen and this is the third anniversary of our relationship. We are a perfect match, or at least that is my perception. While I am frugal, shy and socially awkward, she is the complete opposite. Our combination of conflicting traits produces a certain balance that couples who share similar qualities lack. Whether one chooses to believe it or not, this is how nature is designed to work.
The Maître d directs us toward a beautifully set table-for-two centrally located in the main dining area. As we weave our way past the adjoining tables I am struck by the sensation that a majority of diners seem to recognize me. Exactly how I do not know, since I am more the home-body type: my excursions into the public realm are based more on need, of which I have few, than actual desire, which might otherwise prove considerable providing my financial situation allowed it. Still, there is no denying that after a quick glance in my direction they begin to whisper among themselves as if a celebrity has entered the room. I stifle the urge to wave, or offer a faux tip of the hat, and follow Eileen toward the table.
Nearing our destination the Maître d pauses to allow a waiter to pass. While waiting he turns, gives a slight nod of the head, and gently smiles at Eileen. Noticing me his expression sours. When the path clears he proceeds to the table where he carefully distributes the menus. Afterward, he starts to the chair opposite the main aisle, I assume to assist Eileen in taking her seat, but stops short of it. In a tone he might use when admonishing a subordinate he looks stiffly at me and says, “One moment, please.” He then scurries off.
We are left standing next to an impeccably dressed elderly couple who are clearly agitated by our presence and make no attempt to conceal it.
The gentleman observes me with one eye half closed and the other full-on open. I imagine if someone smacked the back of his head hard enough his bulging eye would plop onto his plate, nearly indistinguishable from the few remaining escargots swimming in a pool of what looks like garlic-and-herb butter.
His wife acts as if her gaze has been drawn in our direction against her will. After giving us the once over she rights herself and leans across the table.
“Riff raff,” she says.
“Who let the dogs out?” her husband responds. “Riff raff ruff.” They laugh in unison like geese trying to disgorge the feeding tubes shoved down their throats.
I don’t care that they are laughing at me, but I do not for a second appreciate them including Eileen in their sick joke.
I am about to confront them when Eileen takes my sleeve.
“Where do you think the Maître d went?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “But I think the bathroom might be in that direction.”
“Let’s hope he’s quick,” Eileen says. “I’m not exactly comfortable being laughed at by Lady Macbeth and Spongebob.”
In a few minutes the Maître d returns. After we are seated he apologizes for the delay and says, “I thought you might prefer a more private table but unfortunately none are available. Enjoy your meal.”
As soon as he is out of range Lady MacBeth raises her champagne flute. “To the declining neighborhood,” she says. Her husband joins in her toast.
I note their hostility and welcome the opportunity to reciprocate.
I have chosen to pop the question between appetizer and entrée. It makes sense to act early, to have the rest of the meal serve as a celebration. Plus, it will give Eileen and me time to begin planning our new adventure. My intent is to first present her with a key to my apartment and ask her to move in with me. Before she has time to answer I will produce the engagement ring and propose marriage. It seems like a solid plan, since it will elevate the level of surprise exponentially.
“Did you win the lottery and not tell me? Or rob a bank?” Eileen says, obviously impressed with the dining establishment I have selected. “Your parents are dead so I know this isn’t due to a healthy inheritance.”
“No,” I say. “It’s nothing like that. We’ve eaten enough take-out lately that I thought it was time I splurge. Treat you to something really nice.”
“Come on, Dan. You can level with me,” Eileen says. “You sure it isn’t because some wayward asteroid is about to destroy Earth and this is your version of the Last Supper?”
“All I’m sure of is that I’d like to do this more often, and one day we will,” I say. “But tonight let’s ignore the expense and enjoy ourselves.”
“Okay,” Eileen says. “I can do that.”
The waiter arrives. He fills our water glasses, describes the daily specials, then listens intently as I place our order. We forego salad and decide to start with an appetizer of Plateau de Charcuterie. I also order a bottle of Wildhurst Vineyards 2010 Chardonnay Reserve, and our main courses for the evening: Saumon a L’aneth for Eileen, and for moi, Le Blanc de Poulet Farci.
In the interim Eileen excuses herself to go to the bathroom. A second bottle of champagne is delivered to our malignant neighbors. Bottle number two this early in the meal implies they have chosen tonight to get recklessly drunk. Or perhaps this is their normal behavior. Either way, having them seated next to us has taken some of the luster off my plans for this evening.
A phone rings and Spongebob answers it. I can only hear his part of the conversation yet it is enough to further enrage me.
“Ah, the food,” he says, looking in my direction. “Perfect as usual. The clientele, not so much.”
While Spongebob is distracted with his phone call I lean back to have a word with his wife.
“Pardon me,” I say. “But I’m curious as to which psychiatric facility you and your partner escaped from.”
“How dare you!” Lady MacBeth says. “Sharing this room with you is deplorable enough! Please do not speak to me again!”
“As you wish,” I say, my point made.
Eileen returns just as the waiter appears with our appetizer. While in my opinion this place should be called Le Petit Bistro Prix Exorbitant, the array of meats and sausages are excellently prepared. But I am somewhat mystified over what role the miniature pickles play.
“This looks delish,” Eileen says, her fork hovering above the plate.
“Wait. We should take a picture for posterity.” I reach for my phone.
“Dan.” Eileen stops me. “This is not the place to photograph your food.”
Considering she did not object too much to the jacket and tie I wore, my own mini protest at restaurants with dress codes, I agree to Eileen’s request.
As we eat, I begin to feel a bit apprehensive as the moment approaches. I almost wish we had ordered salad as our second course so I could linger over each piece of arugula, employ my butter knife to create an abstract masterpiece using goat cheese on tiny rounds of toast, count and recount the walnuts and grape tomatoes. But soon we are done and the waiter returns and removes our empty plates.
“Monsieur, Madame,” he says, turning toward the kitchen.
There is a terrible silence when he leaves. I realize if I allow it to continue I might wimp out. I remove the napkin from my lap and pat my face. I look at Eileen, a woman more beautiful and charming than I deserve, and think, Well, here goes nothing.
Rising from my seat I try to maintain at least an illusion of confidence.
“Eileen,” I say. “I have something to ask you. A question that is very important to me and I hope to you as well.”
Eileen raises both hands. She covers her mouth and her eyes begin to fill with tears. I reach in my pocket, extract the jewelry box that holds the precious cargo I am about to present, and drop to one knee. Instead of the expected tile, I realize I have planted myself on either a discarded escargot shell, or an extremely dry and unyielding crouton. When I attempt to adjust my position it feels as if the articular cartilage at the center of my kneecap is being gouged from the joint. I try to ignore the pain as best I can and proceed with my mission. I remove the key and conceal it in my hand. I am not alone. Lady MacBeth and Spongebob have positioned themselves for a perfect view of my proposal. Other diners are watching as well.
“Eileen, I’m sure you are aware that we have been together three years today. We are perfect together. Soul mates, even. And it would honor me to no end if you would accept this proposal. Will you move in with me?”
I open my hand revealing the key and immediately I can tell that Eileen is confused. It’s like she is locked in a full-body cramp that has rendered her completely speechless, unable to utter even the slightest whisper. Behind me I hear a chair scrape across the tile. I turn to see Lady Macbeth standing over me, holding an empty champagne bottle, her face contorted in rage. I am not sure what is about to happen next but it does not look good.
“Wait,” I say, trying to liberate the ring from its black-velvet housing. It refuses to budge. I turn to Eileen but she is still catatonic. When I turn back to Lady Macbeth I find myself staring into the bottom of her champagne bottle.
“She was expecting a marriage proposal, you moron!” Lady MacBeth says. “And all you have to offer is a house key?”
“It isn’t what you think.” Realizing the box will not surrender its treasure I snap it shut and hoist it into view.
“Look,” I say. And that is the last thing I say.
In one swift motion Lady Macbeth swings the champagne bottle and hammers me atop the head. The room begins to spin. I catch a glimpse of Eileen, sitting like granite in her chair while I am about to become a puddle on the floor. The words “asteroid” and ‘Last Supper” echo in my ears. I see the box floating end-over-end in front of me. By some miracle the lid has popped open revealing momentary flashes of silver and diamonds. But it is too late to do any good. And when the box and I hit the floor at the exact same instant and the ring is jarred free, I can only watch as it skitters away. Plan interruptus, I think. And then, in that split second before everything goes black, I hear the faint sound of Eileen’s voice like she is trapped in a pipe.
“Oh my God!” she says. “He has a ring!”