THE waiter said good night, but the headwaiter had been more explicit. He had said goodbye. And closed the door on us a bit prematurely ... Mimi's belt still in it. But, not to quibble, we had had a wonderful and relatively inexpensive time celebrating Barbara's birthday at one of the city's most elegant and costly restaurants. ``Should I just leave it there?'' Mimi asked, already putting distance between herself and the belt. ``I don't think they'll want it,'' Nina said. And indeed, from the management's point of view, it would be hard to quarrel with the fact that nothing became our visit so much as the leaving of it.
Mimi had been the first to arrive: ``Psst ... over here,'' she whispered at a decibel level that caused all heads to turn. Except the waiter's. It was hard to miss her - corner table, best in the house (thanks to an early reservation), and Mimi, framed against the statice and hyacinths, the hand that was frantically waving me down also fanning a nearby fern. ``Disaster,'' she hissed, ``we're in big trouble.''
I overshot half the chair, crashing into her. Our knees met, our heads clunked, but, losing no time, we moved in tight for a conference. The tablecloth bunched up between us, pulling the centerpiece along, some baby's breath and a rose in a slim vase, now part of our conspiratorial huddle. Mimi spoke low over the rose: We were in a price-fixed restaurant and the price was fixed well beyond us. What to do.
Gasp, quick recovery.
``We'll just have to leave,'' I said over the baby's breath. ``We can't,'' Mimi moaned into the petals. She made a fist, then uncurled her fingers as she counted the whys: She had (1) drunk the water; (2) seen the rolls arrive and didn't stop them; (3) eaten a pumpernickel one with honey butter. ``Our waiter's name is Andr'e.''
And lo! at the mention of his name, he appeared, a tuxedo-clad automaton, whose arm shot over our heads to whisk the centerpiece back to its rightful location. Then, snapping into perfect vertical alignment, a pad and pen mysteriously flicked from somewhere, he intoned, ``Mesdames?''
The mesdames hesitated, explaining that they were waiting for deux autres. We watched as his eyebrow went into high dudgeon. A telling silence told us that he knew that we knew that he knew: We were not ordering. At that moment, however, the deux autres arrived, birthday girl in tow, beyond Nina. Beaming she was, as she glided downstage toward us over the polished tile, impressed by the soft lights, candles, and flowers. The waterline had been passed, the point of no return was now upon us.
Birthday girl was thankfully oblivious. ``This is beautiful,'' she purred, looking in all directions. ``We're glad you like it,'' we sang back in various falsettos, but I wondered out loud whether she had seen the lovely diner across the street. NINA sniffed the air expertly, ``What's the matter?'' Mimi patted the baby's breath and looked away. I twiddled with what was left of the rose. Birthday girl looked at the ceiling. It was Mimi who decisively broke the silence. She turned to me with the answer: ``You explain.''
``Well...'' I began. No one was looking at me but Andr'e. ``It's like this. Bienvenu, Barbara; here we all are together at last for this wonderful dinner for you at ... Chez Tr`es Cher.'' Nina twirled her glass, Mimi massaged the last petal off the rose, Barbara, finally, looked confused. But Andr'e was more curious than arrogant. I felt emboldened. May madame speak with monsieur, privately? Monsieur agreed. We moved upstage, beyond the Boston fern, and I recited our tale of woe. The waiter stared at me in disbelief. ``Is there something that can be done?'' I plunged on, then waited out a long silence. ``Or should we just settle accounts and quietly slink away?''
Monsieur stared hard at me, then shifted his eyes to the maitre d'. His tone softened. ``Madame, I understand. Yes, something can be done. It is a birthday, no?''
I skipped back on the polished tile. Good news. We could stay. We could eat. Andr'e would guide us in the intricacies of avoiding bankruptcy, only get this: No one orders an appetizer, salad, or dessert. And when it's over, no one talks.
And so it went, with best wishes from Andr'e, who took our picture: four smiling mesdames, one piece of cake, one candle, four forks, one unsmiling maitre d'. One small check for man, one large step for humanity.