A Romantic Dinner for Two

NOT every Valentine is clearly romantic. With some, you have to look between the lines. And maybe the search enhances the romance -

the way searching through popcorn for those Cracker Jack peanuts makes them seem tastier.

Ours was never a "romance" in the conventional sense. No flowers or candy. No moonlight walks. No lingering goodbyes on the front porch.

Ken and I met on a Wednesday and saw each other three times (never alone) before he left on Monday for Southeast Asia. Our "courtship," if you could call it that, took place by mail. I sent the first letter - mostly foolishness - since I hardly knew the guy. But I felt sorry for him, far from home in the service of his country. Writing to him seemed almost a patriotic duty.

My letter arrived as Ken prepared to leave for his first flight into combat in Vietnam. He told me later that is served as a morale boost, silliness and all. He replied in kind. So, naturally, I had to write him back. As we got better acquainted, our letter-writing pace increased - to as many as three a day. And I started driving home on my lunch break to collect the mail.

Then Ken came back on leave, and we surprised ourselves by getting married and going overseas together. Romantic? Not in a conventional sense, because he then left on a three-week mission, making our "honeymoon" a by-mail event, too.

We didn't set out to defy romantic customs; it just turned out that way. And stayed that way. We were married seven years before we remembered our anniversary - and then only because my mother phoned us to wish us a happy one. It took another 10 years for us to notice Valentine's Day. To celebrate our alertness that year, we decided to have a conventionally romantic evening: a quiet, just-the-two-of-us dinner at a nice restaurant.

Conventional romance is "conventional," we discovered, because a lot of people do it. When we arrived at the restaurant, we found about a hundred other couples who had the same romantic idea. After the hostess shouted over the din that there'd be at least a 40-minute wait for a table, we abandoned our plans for a quiet dinner at that restaurant.

It didn't take much to figure we'd find the same problem at any other establishment of similar quality on that evening of conventional romance. So, we got back into the car and drove toward another nice, but not so romantic restaurant. We could still have a quiet, just-the-two-of-us dinner.

About halfway to the Second Choice, Ken realized that, although the first restaurant would have honored our credit card, the second would not. And he had no cash. Did I have any money? I checked. Not enough for Second Choice.

This all took place as we waited for a traffic light, practically in the shadow of some golden arches. Seeing our plans slipping further away, I sighed and said, "I do have enough for McDonald's." Clearly, we were veering far off the conventional romantic course.

While Ken placed the order, I gathered napkins and straws and went to select a romantic spot in the non-smoking area. There I found a woman methodically upturning chairs onto tables. "This section's closed," she said in my direction.

"But it's the only non-smoking area," I protested. She pointed across the room. "You can sit over there."

Actually, we could have sat anywhere, since the only other diner in the whole place was leaving. And ordinarily I would have complied with this reasonable request. But the evening was losing its magic. So far, all of our romantic plans had fizzled, and I felt the need to do something as planned, even if no more than sitting where I chose to sit. So I pressed the point. "I want to sit in the non-smoking section," I insisted.

Again she pointed to the other area and told me I could sit over there.

"But that's the smoking section," I argued.

"I know," she said flatly. "But you don't have to smoke."

I started to say something else but stopped to choke back a laugh.

Maybe she thought I was going to cry, or perhaps my superior logic won out. In any case, my opponent capitulated. "This OK?" She pointed to a table. I nodded and thanked her as she removed the up-ended chairs from that table. She had gone, and I was giggling by the time Ken arrived. He'd had a similar discussion with a counterman, and we swapped stories as we unwrapped our burgers. They weren't what we had ordered, but we were past concern over such trifles.

Surrounded by a forest of upside-down chair legs, we had our Valentine dinner. It wasn't exactly quiet, what with grill workers yelling at each other on the kitchen side of the swinging door near our table. But it was just the two of us, if you didn't count the person with the mop who kept bumping our chairs.

At least it was an evening out. And we did have fun. In fact, by the time Ken finished the last of my fries we'd gotten downright silly. The comic elements of the evening had not escaped our notice, and our attempts to keep our laughter quiet made everything seem funnier. We made a noble effort, however, to be discreet.

We would have succeeded, too, but for one last incident. Just as we were bringing our romantic dinner to a close, that swinging door to the kitchen flew wide open. We turned to see a kitchen worker, talking with a colleague, toss a large, full trash bag through the doorway without ever looking in our direction. The bag came to rest just inches from our feet.

This final touch proved to be too much for us, and we burst into unbridled laughter.

Surveys indicate that one of the main qualities women look for in men is the ability to make them laugh. A sense of humor, say these women surveyed, is right up there on the romantic scale.

By such a measure, then, our Valentine dinner was a roaring success. Pity the poor women who only got flowers and candlelight.

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