The splurge

ONLY once this year have I taken my wife, Annie, out to dinner, unless you count bagels on the run as dinner. It was one night last week at a swanky restaurant.

We could have gone to just a modest one. But I was in the mood to splurge. I wanted to make up to her all at once, with a flourish of proud means, for a long time of no treats.

For the first course we had what the menu called ''a little appetizer of shrimp.'' A greater understatement would be impossible to imagine. Two molecules of shrimp in ketchup.

''What kind of appetizer is this?'' I asked.

''It's interesting,'' Annie said.

For the second course we had soup. This consisted of a cold watery broth in which were floating a few chips of slightly burned toast.

''What is this?'' I asked.

''David, it's all right. Really.''

After the soup, we were brought the main course, chicken cooked in a tart orange sauce, and, on the side, some parsleyed new potatoes. Great gobs of blackened orange sauce clung to all parts of the chicken. And the potatoes were undercooked.

''What is happening,'' I asked, ''that the chicken should be burned, but the potatoes still raw?''

''Maybe one cook is in a hurry, and the other's a slowpoke.''

''Do they think they can atone for the overcooking of the chicken by the undercooking of the potatoes? What kind of morality is that?''

''David, we'll survive.''

''I'm going into the kitchen. Maybe the cooks have passed out, and a computer has taken over.''

Before I could get up, the next course, a salad, was brought, along with a small basket of croutons.

''After the main course they bring the salad?''

''This is a fancy place. That's how they do things. It's in the continental style.''

I looked at limp greens drowning in an oily sauce. ''It's a punishment on me, '' I said.

''Try mixing some of the croutons into it, David. That really helps.''

Finally the dessert was brought. A thin strip of cantaloupe sprinkled with what looked like birdseed.

''Well, at least we won't have to ask for a doggy bag, David, will we?'' Annie said. She smiled bravely.

In spite of myself, I smiled too. She was right. I was making too much of this.

It wasn't my fault that the dinner had turned out a disaster. How could I know that this was a restaurant where the cooks were in conflict with their own menu? What counted was the thought, the wanting to do something grand for her, to give a taste of honey once in a blue moon.

''Last night I had a dream,'' I said. ''We were in the Holy Land, standing on the shore of the Red Sea. I asked you what was the biggest present I could give you, absolutely the biggest in the whole world. You said it would be the waters of the Red Sea all turned into your favorite drink, orange juice. And you know what I said?''

''What?''

''I said, 'The Red Sea, phooey. I'll give you the whole Mediterranean.' And I would.''

The waiter laid the bill, $39, beside my plate. ''Did you and madame,'' he asked with a French accent, ''enjoy your dinner, monsieur?''

I looked at Annie. Somewhere it's written that a person who truly loves another can read his thoughts. That was why on her face was a look of entreaty not to utter mine, not to answer the waiter, ''Did Marie Antoinette enjoy decapitation? Did Napoleon enjoy exile?''

Afterward, as I drove us home, Annie asked me to stop at a park. We got out and walked over to a tree whose golden leaves were tearing off and falling in a raggedy wind.

''When I was a little girl,'' she said, ''we had a tree like this in our backyard. To me it seemed like the good king in one of my fairy tales who gave away all his fortune to the poor. It taught me that leaves aren't for losing, but for giving.''

Smiling, she picked up two leaves, stuck one in my buttonhole, and the other in hers. ''You don't have to give me the Mediterranean, David,'' she said. ''All I want is a leaf like this sometimes, all right?''

Who understands a woman's heart? Who is that wise, that blessed?

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