The thing about mortifying moments is that they make the best stories. Some of you have to wait to share because you don’t want to betray a trust…or embarrass your children or reveal how clueless/clumsy/ignorant you really are. But if you’re a writer…and it’s one of those comedy-equals-tragedy-plus-time tales, it niggles at you till you decide to write it anyway. Even if it takes twenty years.
In the late nineties I was invited to speak at Career Day by my oldest friend in the world, a gifted teacher in Queens. I’m gonna change her name to Susan just in case she’s not 100 percent comfortable with my account. My first book had just been published and I was both delighted to share what I knew about the writing process with an audience of sixth graders and flattered Susan saw me as worthy of the honor.
The night before the assembly Susan called to ask if I could bring her a joint. No problem. I could give it to her when we went out for lunch after the presentation. While it wasn’t a typical request, it didn’t really trouble either of us. I put one in a plastic sandwich bag on the kitchen table next to the folder of handouts I was bringing with me. And then, as luck would have it, completely forgot about it.
The next day I took my seat on the stage under the same sad American flag I remembered from elementary school. I was third to speak, after an architect and a doctor and before a policeman and an advertising executive. My talk about the importance of believing in yourself, of how much rewriting it took to look effortless, of the pleasures of finally getting published, went well. Susan and I exchanged pleased glances. Then it was the policeman’s turn to speak.
“I have a surprise for you, boys and girls,” he smiled. “I bought a special friend with me this morning.” Then he whistled. A huge German Shepherd bounded out from behind the curtain. “Let me introduce you to Sultan, the Wonder dog,” he explained. “Sultan can sniff out drugs on the third floor when he enters an apartment building. He is the most decorated dog in the department and is credited with busting dozens of drug dealers this past year alone.”
The audience applauded. All except for my friend Susan. I felt her terrified eyes staring at me before I found them. It took a second for me to realize she was sure I had marijuana in my bag…on the floor…inches away from Sultan’s spectacularly sensitive drug sniffing nose which would any second now do what he was trained to do and start snarling and ripping my bag apart. In front of 150 terrified twelve year olds. Her friend, the one she invited, would be led out in handcuffs by a disgusted police officer. Her pension would disappear. Her reputation ruined.
I kept eye contact with her, shaking my head no, as in no don’t worry, I left it at home…which of course could also be seen as oh God no, my life is over. It was a l-o-n-g minute till Sultan sat at my feet, uninterested in the contents of my bag. And another hour till my heart stopped racing, picturing what might have happened. And two decades till I could share the story with you.