Red with a Warm Center

I open my umbrella and one of the metal prongs punctures the pink fabric. Were it not for this desperate splash of color, I would be the exact same color as wet concrete. My husband, daughter, and I have just seen a middling movie, light rain is falling, and nobody is in the mood to debate where we’re going to have dinner.

It is Saturday night and I feel like meat.

“Who wants steak?”

My husband and daughter exchange a look, as if this simple question were loaded with dark implications. The rain is coming down harder now and people have begun dashing in and out of doorways.

“Don’t you mean you want steak?”

They practically say it in unison. We turn right instead of left at the corner and I briefly mourn the demise of Cedar Tavern. You could clamber up a narrow flight of stairs for bar food with history and a skylight. In the winter, if you didn’t mind eating with your coat on, the view from the drafty upstairs window was a perfect complement to steak at the right price, fries, and a Corona with a slice of lime wedged inside the top of the bottle. But Cedar Tavern is long gone and so are the simpler days it represents.

Our alternative is a French restaurant on Park Avenue. The food is very good and the price for a steak hovers just below $20. It’s packed tonight, but we’re in luck. Our host guides us to a table next to a large group ordering imaginative drinks. Menus are dispatched, but the light is too dim to read them. My daughter quickly hands me the candle flickering in the middle of the table.

“I didn’t think the movie was all that bad,” I offer, moving the candle slowly down one side of the menu. Their croque monsieur comes with a petite salade, and I flag this mentally.

“We’ll talk later, Mom,” my daughter says, as our waiter makes his way to our table. He carries himself like an actor, but I know better than to ask.

“Yeah,” says my husband crisply. He’s hungry and could really use a piece of bread. “First decide what you’re going to order,”

“Drinks?” our waiter asks, turning his head my way. His eyes are an ethereal blue and his dramatically backswept hair seems to be levitating. It looks even higher than it was when we were first seated.

“Tell me about your white wine,” I say, plunging right in.

“We have a very nice Pinot Grigio tonight.”

He describes several selections, none of which I’ve ever heard of, and I wonder what he would like me to order. The wines he’s pushing probably reflect his personal tastes and I worry about hurting his feelings. Derision is an additional concern. An entire evening was recently derailed when I asked for a glass of Cupcake, a rich, buttery wine that has apparently earned the scorn of certain restaurants in Manhattan while others serve it with impunity. This is a complicated moment, my husband is grinding his teeth, and I begin to panic. Nice and dry, the waiter repeats for the second time, describing something from Alsace.

“I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay.”

My daughter pales after he leaves and my husband looks at me squarely.

“Why did you put him through all that?” he asks. “You always want the same thing.”

“Let’s be honest,” I say, getting to the heart of the matter. “The movie stunk.”

The heat is now on for a really good compensatory steak. But the thing is, a really good steak would mean Rod’s and an enormous slab of aged meat cooked to whatever your version of perfection happens to be. Leftovers will feed you for days and so will the memories, but Rod’s, located in a restored railroad car loaded with wood and brass and bridal parties staying at the hotel next door, is not for the budget conscious. Besides, it’s in New Jersey.

I continue to move my candle over the menu. It’s begun to feel like a magic wand I can wave to have anything I want. Our waiter has returned. He does a spinning thing with each glass as he settles our drinks before us.

“Have you decided what you’d like to have, Madame?” he asks me.

“You know, I think I’ll order last. You guys go ahead.”

The cold, collective glare is not helpful and in the seconds it takes for my daughter and husband to order, I lose my footing, crashing through thin ice into the frigid black waters below. The purpose of the evening was steak, but now I’m wondering whether I wouldn’t be better off with what my husband is having. I never fix lamb chops at home and why not, since I really love them? I remember the frustration of not being able to gnaw on the bones in public just in time and ask my daughter to repeat her order. She covers my hand with hers and turns to the waiter.

“My mother will have the steak frites,” she says.

“Excellent choice. And how would you like that cooked?”

“Can you serve a petite salade with that?”

“You mean you’ll have an order of mesclun served at the same time?”

“A little something green, whatever you have. Not a whole salad, though. That would be too much.”

My daughter tightens her grip on my hand and I realize our waiter has somehow become my waiter. I want to go back to being part of an easy gang. I wish I could retract or push the erase button again, but it’s too late. I see that for $3.00 more I could have the peppercorn sauce with my meat.

“The strip loin is a shell steak, right?”

Our waiter nods and asks almost imperceptibly how I would like my steak cooked.

“Is your medium rare really red?”

“So you’d like that rare.”

“I’d like it red without being bloody,” I say, borrowing the phrase from one of my son’s friends. Suddenly my son is here, too, exasperated with me and jiggling his foot under the table. I wish we were all at Rod’s in New Jersey, whooping it up with the brides. One moment has elided into another and suddenly we are there, sawing away at meat that’s red with a warm center. Yes, yes, yes, that’s what I had there and it’s exactly what I need to tell our waiter, so I do, sliding my hand out from under my daughter’s and placing it on his forearm.

Why do we hurt the ones we love? My daughter flinches. I realize that in my pursuit of the perfect steak I have broken our cardinal rule and touched the waiter. My husband withdraws completely and pulls out his iPhone.

Bread comes and drinks. There is something sacramental at work here, but my dinner companions are too touchy to be reminded of that. I think of cavemen and women, the glow of the early fires on their faces when they realized they could roast meat over an open flame. How soon did it take them to figure out it could be prepared in different ways? I wonder who diverged from the group first and what she had to go through to get her meat cooked just so.