Last November, I found myself sitting down to dinner with my wife Mel on a cruise ship. It was the first night of a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean for our 11-year anniversary, and each night we were scheduled to have dinner together — alone — in the dining room.
Looking back now, it was probably the nicest restaurant we’d ever been to. I was in a suit and tie, leather shoes; the works. Mel was in a nice off-white colored shirt and brown skirt, her short brown hair curled. She looked beautiful — more so than I’d seen her look in a long time.
This is not to say that she didn’t always look beautiful, because I always find her pretty breathtaking; but there was something different about that dinner, and I think it was the setting. Behind her were windows looking out on the ocean. The sun was setting in orange and red and yellow. Behind me was a large crystal chandelier that cast just the right light, and below, on the first floor, musicians played acoustic versions of contemporary songs.
Over the years, between college and kids and struggling to make ends meet, a fine meal for us had always looked something like all-you-can-eat breadsticks and a dinner special at The Olive Garden. And even though things had gotten better in the previous year (in that I’d gotten a new, better paying, job), we’d more or less stuck with going to the same kinds of places.
Or should I say, I’d stuck with the same places.
I’m not exactly the kind of person who gets dressed up often. In fact, I felt a little out of place when we first entered that restaurant on the ship. I like things simple, which could easily be translated to: I like things cheap.
This isn’t to say that I see myself as cheap. But I do worry a lot about money. After my father left when I was 9, I learned a lot about what it means to go without. My mother struggled, and I saw that. I can still remember her sitting at the dinner table surrounded by bills, her hands in her blond curls, trying to figure out how she was going to pay for it all. And I remember thinking that I’d never do that to my wife or my family. I’d never make them struggle like that. But the problem is (and I think a lot of men have this problem) I don’t really understand money. I don’t really understand how to get it, or how to use it, so I try to hang on to it because it seems slippery and mysterious. And I think that’s why I’d never really taken Mel out somewhere nice. I mean, somewhere really nice. A place like where we were eating on the cruise.
Because sadly, it felt like a waste of money.
This was the biggest vacation we’d ever been on (including our honeymoon, which was spent in a small cabin in central Utah). The cruise was a high point, and after we’d gotten our salads and ordered our meals, I leaned across the table, took Mel’s hand and said, “I’m sorry.”
Mel looked at me with a furrowed brow. We’d been talking about the ship, and the next day’s excursion to Haiti before we ordered. I had nothing to be sorry about.
“For what?” she said.
“For never taking you someplace like this before. I’ve never taken you out for a really nice meal in a nice place, and now that I can see how amazing you look in this setting, I realize what I’ve been missing … What we’ve been missing.”
Mel didn’t jump on the opportunity to say, “I told you so.” She didn’t say I was a crappy husband for never taking her out to a fancy meal, which was obviously long over due. Instead, she just shrugged and said simple, “I love you.”
There was simplicity in her eyes. A soft look of understanding that only comes from sticking it out with a marriage for a number of years. For standing by someone’s side as they went through school and jobs to finally find themselves someplace comfortable. The one thing I can say about our relationship is that we work together as a team. We discuss the numbers and the budget together. There are no secrets. She knows as well as I do where we stand financially, and I think I could see in her eyes that night that she understood why we’d never gone anywhere really fancy. Because we’d never really felt like we had the money.
And although I appreciated her compassion for our situation, what I realized by actually getting dressed up and going someplace nice, is that it wasn’t really a waste at all. In that moment, it felt more like an investment in her. In me. In us. I’d never looked at it like that before. Sure, I’d gotten somewhat similar advice in the past, but I’d never actually taken the time to do it. I just didn’t realize how a nice restaurant — with no kids in tow — could look so good on my wife. I didn’t realize that her voice could go so well with the music, or that her smile could match the sunset, or that her blue eyes could shine a little brighter next to a chandelier. I know this all sounds a bit mushy now, but in that moment, I felt nothing but warmth in my heart. I felt a simple resurgence of love for my wife and all it took was a change of setting. We laughed. We ate. Sometimes we just sat in silence, and enjoyed the feeling of each other’s company.
We finished and left. I don’t know if this changed Mel’s expectations of going out. I don’t know if she expected more from me after that night, or to experience this sort of treatment more often. But what I do know is that as we walked around the ship, looking out across the ocean, I couldn’t get the way she looked in the restaurant out of my mind.
And I don’t think I ever will.