by Abigail Pesta

Can there be a more enlightened way to start the new year than by going to a Buddhist brunch?

My friend Cecile invited me to one on New Year's Day, and I said yes right away. It sounded like the perfect chance to regain some dignity after a night of drinking, lunacy and self-reproach. Plus there would be finger food.

I didn't know what exactly to expect at Cecile's party. But one thing's for sure: A Buddhist brunch raises the stakes on the hostess gift. Lots of opportunities for bad karma.

So on the day of the party, instead of buying the usual bottle of wine, I decided to make the extra effort to find something nice at the museum shop at the Met. Cecile is a painter, so perhaps she would appreciate an arty present.

The problem with this, I discovered soon enough, is that everything at the Met costs a lot more than my favorite cheap wine. One hundred and seventy dollars for a bronze casting of Abraham Lincoln's clenched fist? No thank you. Then how about a $23 ornament shaped like a shoe. Is that something my Buddhist friend would like to hang on her Christmas tree?

Everything seemed inappropriate, or expensive, or both. There was no middle way.

Then I spotted my last chance -- the clearance table, half-hidden behind a rack of erudite museum-shop neckties. I made a beeline for it.

And there, at the top of the heap, was the perfect hostess gift: a packet of pop-art cocktail napkins printed with big slices of cake. Even better, the price was marked down. Way down. From an original $9.95 to, believe it or not, nineteen cents.

Could this be for real? I bent over and examined the price tag very, very carefully. Yes, it clearly said "$0.19."

I looked around the store nervously. If I bought this, would a secret-camera TV crew pop out and bust me for being a cheapskate? I know there's a show that does that to pedophiles.

The coast was clear, so I grabbed the napkins and headed to the checkout counter. Then, another surprise. As the cashier rang me up, she announced matter-of-factly: "These are half off."

Wow, a 50% discount on nineteen cents. What does that work out to -- a dime?

"That's a good price," I said to the cashier. Then I asked: "Do you mind if I charge it?"

She didn't even smile.

I paid in cash and got out of there, feeling sheepish for having bought a ten-cent hostess gift, but at the same time proud of scoring such a bargain.

Anyway, what were the chances that Cecile would ever know? I peeled off the layers of sale stickers and dropped the napkins back into the cute little museum bag that came with my purchase. No question, the Met lost money on this sale.

A half-hour later I arrived at Cecile's apartment and presented her with my gift. For a moment, she looked confused, before suddenly exclaiming, "I know this artist!" Her friends gathered round. "We studied at Parsons together," Cecile said. "She's famous for painting slices of cake."

Man, I thought. What bad luck. I imagined Cecile dropping by the Met to buy more of them -- and learning my secret. Only in New York.

I wondered if I should confess right away and get it over with. But before I could say anything, Cecile started introducing me to her friends. "Shall we get started?" she asked. "I think everyone's here now."

Soon we were all perched on little pillows scattered across the floor, and everyone began chanting a refrain in unison. Oh, great. Chanting before food.

Feeling self-conscious for not understanding what was really going on, I sat quietly on my pillow and tried to look contemplative. But I was really thinking about those cheap cocktail napkins.

After the chanting, we sat in a circle, and people took turns giving brief presentations about their lives. A woman from Hawaii said she had been a hula dancer as a young girl, and recounted a moonlit performance from decades ago she still vividly recalls. "That evening was perfection," she said. Another guest reflected on the death of her dog. "I feel embarrassed for being so sad about it," she said, her voice cracking.

But I could relate to her sorrow -- I myself had just lost my calico cat, Pudding.

As more stories of tragedies and triumphs were told, some of the guests began to quietly cry. I started tearing up, too. I couldn't believe it. I felt moved to spontaneously touch the dog lady on the arm.

Then Cecile said she had a special surprise: The hula dancer was going to give a dance lesson. Cecile popped a CD into the stereo and we all stood up. Ordinarily, hula dancing in a roomful of strangers would be my very definition of suffering. But as the hula lady began a slow, sultry dance, and everyone else joined in, I had to smile. Her arms waved seductively first left and then right, as if carried on a tropical breeze, while the rest of us followed her lead with robotic spasms.

After the dance, as we stood around drinking wine, I decided it was time to admit to Cecile that I'd been a tightwad. "Cecile," I said. "About those napkins …"

But before I could get my confession out, she interrupted me. "You know," she said, "I didn’t want to say this in front of everyone, but I can't stand that artist. She's totally obnoxious. It makes me so mad that she's such a big deal."

It was just the opening I needed. "Well," I snorted. "In that case, I have some good news for you. Those napkins came straight out of the bargain bin. They're such a flop, they only cost me a dime!"

Cecile, who had just lifted a glass to her lips, started laughing so hard, a small amount of wine unfortunately came out of her nose.

Thank goodness my hostess gift was at hand. Ripping open the packet, I said, "Cecile, let me offer you a napkin."