You ate what? With whom?
It was just a meat loaf dinner, after all. And I was brought up in a family that served only roast beef to company. So of course I was puzzled by the uproar.
My husband had called from work a few weeks before, in a fit of hunger, to inquire about the dinner menu. Up until that moment, I hadn't given it even a passing thought, so I stuck a hand into the freezer, latched onto a pound of ground round, and ventured, ''How about meat loaf?''
''Meat loaf?'' Gary echoed. ''Great!'' He hung up and I spent the afternoon chopping away at a frozen lump of meat.
The promised supper, in good time, was produced, and as the baby stuffed string beans up his nose, Gary remarked that I had caused a small sensation at work. It seemed that two of his fellow employees had spent most of their adult lives without having eaten meat loaf. I was astounded, and while I groped for a reply, Gary went on.
''I told them to come over next time you make meat loaf,'' he said. ''They were euphoric.''
''Also, they're weird,'' I observed, and the baby, who had crumbled his portion of the entree into his sneaker, appeared to agree.
Meat loaf, in my reckoning at least, is not something you go out of your way for. No matter what you do to it, and I for one do very little, it's still just a pound of chopmeat stretched to go further than nature intended. There is no glamour in the cooking or the eating of it. However, it does taste pretty good, most notably when it's acccompanied by a hearty appetite.
And so it came to pass that three weeks later Doug and Chris arrived on our doorstep to end their years of meat loaflessness.
Theirs had not been a voluntary abstention. As far as I could gather, they didn't forsake meat loaf to be vegetarians, or classy, or holy. Their condition was thrust upon them. You might call it existential meat loaflessness: They didn't eat it because they had no one in particular to cook it for them. It had something to do, I guess, with our nomadic society, whose members cook in toaster ovens or opt for McDonald's.
Our pair of starvelings presented themselves at the table bearing gifts, imported and domestic and, apart from their offerings, it was a thoroughly unremarkable meal. It was accompanied by a chorus of three small children who whined their usual whine, ''Do we have to eat that stuff?'' We pointed out to them that, when they were grown up and on their own, they would salivate at the very thought of such ''stuff.''
Our guests, meanwhile, were surveying the scene, looking from one to another of us with a kind of awe. ''You know,'' one of them remarked reverently, ''you're a nuclear family.''
I felt something like a figment of Norman Rockwell's imagination; I could picture a ceramic plate in the china closet entitled ''Meat Loaf Supper With the Nuclear Family.'' It was an odd thing being considered a curiosity by a fellow adult.
To Chris and Doug, though, both of them single, we were unusual for the very reasons we think ourselves so prosaic. We have three children, who are rather picturesque when you don't live with them. We have a mortgaged house, in the midst, always, of renovation. We even have a station wagon. And once in a while, more than we really care to, we eat meat loaf for supper. Somehow, they didn't seem to know what to make of it all.
But it was a lovely evening, a success, you might say. The hostess, unused entirely to sophisticated conversation, exchanged witty repartee and solved global problems with her guests. And the guests, accustomed to a grander scale of talk, discussed Little League, teething, and a workbook called ''Phonics Is Fun.'' (They agreed with our resident first-grader that it was ''disgusting.'') And the little one, who hadn't left his mother's side in living memory, fell asleep contentedly in the arms of a young man who doesn't have a baby of his own.
Doug and Chris said their goodbyes and went home to apartments decorated (or so I imagine) by Carleton Varney, with chess sets on coffee tables left undisturbed since the last unfinished game. Of course, they may not always have somebody handy to finish that game with.
As for us, we settled down with a couple of small boys who are like angels after a good bath and give sweet good-night kisses. These are the very same angels who remove wallpaper from walls and who claim, at 3 a.m., that there are snakes under the bed.
There is no perfection in this life, and balance is only something you do to a scale.
My husband and I tucked the children in, scraped the remains of our supper into little Tupperware bowls, and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever the relative merits of meat loaf, or lack thereof, tomorrow, at least, we'd be back to normal. Probably, we'd send out for pizza.