I was in New York City on vacation and meeting a friend for dinner at a favorite Thai restaurant. It sits just below sidewalk level and we chose a window table in an alcove where we could watch the passing shoes go by. I hadn't been to dinner with this friend before, and it occurred to me that since she grew up in a city and I in a small town I had better watch my manners. It's not that I have bad manners, sometimes I even get compliments. I just wanted to make a good impression.
There was just one small problem: I had gum in my mouth.
I don't know why I hadn't spit it out earlier, but it was still there. I searched the white linen surface of the table for something to put it in - there was nothing. Mentally I started listing all the things that might have been there that could be used: a paper napkin, sugar packets, a comment card. There was nothing even remotely close. I briefly considered sticking it under the table or plopping it in the glass flower vase but decided that if I was caught doing either, I could pretty well guess my friend's thoughts on my manners. She sat across from me talking, unaware of the turmoil I was facing. I made sure to smile and nod and listen, all the while plotting how to get rid of the gum.
The waiter brought shrimp chips to the table. I love shrimp chips. My friend dug right in. How could I eat shrimp chips with gum in my mouth? I had to act as though I didn't want them.
Next the waiter brought our drinks. My heart leapt. Dangling on top of my straw was a tiny piece of a paper wrapper. I can use this, I thought. I removed the wrapper, put it beneath the table cloth, and waited for my chance. My friend glanced toward the window and I quickly reached into my mouth, removed the gum, and pushed it into the paper under the table. There was just one small problem: The paper wasn't big enough. As I twisted it around, it stuck to the fingers of one hand.
It was a mess. I'd never felt such sticky gum. Two fingers felt coated. It was like quicksand or a riptide where the more you struggle the deeper you get. And I was in deep, trying to act as though I was having a wonderful time, while furiously working, out of sight, trying to get the gum off my fingers and rolled back into a ball.
The waiter returned with soup. It was Tom Kha Gai, a sour-tasting soup with chicken and mushrooms and chilies in a rich coconut milk. The bowl sat on a saucer on a paper doily. Salvation, I thought. Again my friend glanced away and I put as much of the gum as I could on the saucer, behind the cup, outside her view. I was free! I began eating my soup, grabbing shrimp chips, and smiling and talking and laughing.
It was then I noticed something strange in the soup: a small pink shrimp. I didn't remember there being shrimp in this dish. I caught it with my spoon, put it in my mouth, and chewed. It had an unusual flavor, something sweet, spicy - what was it? Slowly it dawned on me: The peppermint gum was back in my mouth!
My mind raced. How did that happen? I then realized I had set my spoon down on the saucer while eating a shrimp chip and the gum had stuck to the back of the spoon. When I put the spoon in the bowl, the heat had knocked it off. In fact, it seemed slightly cooked from swimming in the broth, for in the bowl it definitely hadn't looked like gum.
With my friend looking my way I abandoned the hope of making a favorable impression. I took out the gum and placed it on the other edge of the saucer. I'd had enough and was ready to eat my meal in peace - manners or no manners. Before serving the entrée, the waiter removed my soup dish and the gum with it.
It was a year before I had dinner with my friend again. We were at another Thai restaurant with a group of friends. I had since stopped chewing gum or worrying about my manners, so the evening was relaxed and pleasant. I decided to tell her the whole story. To my surprise, she said she hadn't noticed a thing. I was amazed because I really had been suffering on the other side of that table. Maybe my manners aren't that bad after all.