Ringing in a Dark Birthday

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK



            There are certain questions guaranteed – absolutely guaranteed – to cause trouble: “What else could go wrong?” “What does this do?” “Why don’t we invade Russia?”

            I planned to cook my fiancĂ©e a birthday dinner. My question:

            “How hard could it be?”

            Emily didn’t try to stop me, so in my mind she’s at least partially responsible. The plan was simple: I would take one room in the house and clean it to within an inch of its life, and there we would have a romantic, candlelit dinner to celebrate her birthday, which happens to fall on December 21st. As that’s normally the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter, before I met her it was traditionally my day of mourning.

            This year the world is scheduled to end on that date, so you’d better believe I’m just going to take her out to an expensive restaurant. According to the Mayans, the VISA bill won’t arrive next January.

            This year the normal “what could go wrong?” festivities began three weeks earlier, when I got sick – as is also a tradition for me in December. Then she got sick. Then I got new medicine, which cleared up the original problem but made me sicker. Then she was put on an antibiotic that actually has the word “nitro” in the title, a warning sign if I ever heard one, and it made her sicker.

To make matter worse, she’d ordered something special for me that didn’t arrive in time for an earlier anniversary of our relationship, so when it arrived she began agonizing over when to give it to me.

It was under these circumstances that we entered the week of her birthday, so I threw caution to the wind and suggested we just go out to eat.

            She refused, citing money issues. See why I love her so? Ordinarily I could be nothing but thankful to have someone who doesn’t want to spend money, but I was seeing the big picture: I owed her a meal, and I cook about as well as I do car maintenance – usually with the same disastrous results.

            The next day, while still trying to talk her into it, I took my car to my son-in-law so he could change the oil (see above about car maintenance). As I sat inside, pretending to play with my grandsons while actually nursing a massive headache, he came in with the same look I get whenever someone says “snowstorm”: “You need to see something,” he intoned.

            The tread was coming off my tire. Just … peeling off. Like it was something I’d glued on. “How far can I drive on this?” I asked.

            “Across town. To the tire place.”

            So I gave up hopes of taking Emily out to dinner, or of sneaking take-out into the house, and settled on … cooking. Also, I needed to make a cake. And, because we’d both been so sick for so long (being sick together isn’t nearly as romantic as they make it sound in Hollywood), a room still had to be cleaned.

            And that’s when I said it: “I have a day, extra-strength ibuprofen, and antibiotics … how hard could it be?”

            I’d never made salmon before. Or deep fried anything. Or made a cake. And once I got into the nook and crannies of the kitchen, I got to thinking I’d never cleaned it before, either.

            No, it didn’t turn out to be the perfect birthday for her. I mean … it’s me. Although I managed the cake myself, she had to help me figure out the salmon (thank you, George Foreman) and the frying. In addition, she didn’t want to wait on that present for me – so I got a gift that day, too.

            Still, we did have our candlelight dinner – for some reason I have thousands of candles packed away in the basement – and the kitchen (we didn’t have the energy to move our table into the dining room) looked pretty good if you squinted in the candlelight. I also learned a few lessons along the way:

            Red velvet cake resembles something bloody at every step of the process. For awhile my kitchen looked like the lair of a serial killer.

            Fish can taste pretty good even without breading. Why was I never told?

            Other than food, no good can come from a pan of boiling grease.

            Overall, despite our high level of physical misery and the fact that the act of eating exhausted us to the point of collapse, we had a pretty good time. After recovering she left the room, and returned with something behind her back. I don’t recall her exact words, as I really wasn’t expecting this, but I’ll paraphrase.

            “I wanted to get you the Moon and the stars and the universe and everything … so I did.” Then she got down on one knee and held out a ring. “Will you marry me?”

            We’d been shopping for wedding rings, so she knew my size, and she knew we were both huge astronomy fans. She presented me with one carved – literally – from a meteorite. It was so much cooler than the engagement ring I gave her.

            Naturally, I said yes.

            What could go wrong? Lots. But that doesn’t mean things don’t go right.