I read the following essay, which appears in somewhat different form in the epilogue to The Accidental Terrorist, in the Essay Fiesta series at The Book Cellar in Chicago, on December 21, 2009.
There is no worse feeling than, five minutes after some unpleasant confrontation has left you tongue-tied, humiliated and confused, smacking yourself on the forehead and exclaiming, "Oh, my God! That's what I should have said!"
This is not that kind of a story. This is the story of how I once delivered the perfect rejoinder, in the moment, when it counted. I tell it not to demonstrate how smart, suave, or clever I am, but because it so rarely happens that way with me. In fact, this may be the only story of its kind I have.
This happened in December 2003, at a Christmas party my wife Laura and I threw at our apartment in Queens, New York. Our parties, if I do say so, were legendary, always with an interesting mix of people, and always with good booze, and plenty of it.
Among the many invitees were my old, old friend Katrina and her new husband Bernard. Katrina and I had gone to high school together in Utah, dated seriously for a while afterward, and stayed in touch over the intervening years. Bernard was Dutch, and nine years her junior. They met in graduate school at the University of Fairbanks, where Katrina finished a master's degree in microbiology. They had just moved to Connecticut and taken jobs with a big pharmaceutical company. Our Christmas party was my first time meeting Bernard. He struck me as a nice enough fellow when I took his coat and hat at the door, if a little reticent. I put it down to the nerves you get at a party where you don't know anyone.
But an hour of sampling our beverage offerings loosened Bernard's tongue considerably. Did I say "sampling" our offerings? A better word might have been "plundering."
I was talking with a small group of friends in a corner of the kitchen when the young Dutchmana newly minted doctor of chemical engineeringcame sauntering over and inserted himself in the conversation. In a slurred accent, he said, "You know what I just found out that I did not know before? I found out in the car on the way down here. This guy here"he indicated me with the wineglass in his hand"he used to be engaged to my wife."
I looked around the small group I'd been chatting with. It included my long-time friend Bob, and also my friend Elizabeth, who is blind.
"Well, this is awkward," I said.
"Yeah," Bernard went on, "he like got engaged to her at some airport."
This was true. It was the Salt Lake International Airport, seventeen years earlier. I was about to get on a plane and leave for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsthe Mormons. Katrina and I had only been dating for a few weeks at the time, but we had fallen desperately in loveas people often do when an attraction manifests and the time to act on it is short. I wanted her to wait for me while I was away saving souls in the wilds of . . . Canada, and she had been dropping big hints that a certain question might serve to seal that deal.
I didn't like the intent look on Bernard's face, nor his belligerent tone. I hadn't been in a fight since junior high (Jason Peterson), but I really didn't want Elizabeth caught in the middle if things were about to turn violent. I tried to play it casual.
"That was a really long time ago," I said. "We were kids. I was nineteen."
"Yeah," said Bernard, "and my wife was twenty."
"Time to change the subject, Bill," said Bob, who among other jobs had worked as a merchant seaman. "You're only digging a deeper hole."
"Can you believe this?" Bernard said to the group at large, spreading his arms and sloshing some of his wine on the floor. "I only just found out. That's a pretty big thing."
I suffer, I'm afraid, from the delusion that reason and calm words can actually make a difference in the world. "Not really, it's not," I said in an offhand tone. "It didn't mean anything. To Mormons, getting engaged is like a pastime. It's a sport, it's just what you do. It's not the same as for other people."
This, also, was true. Mormons so heavily stress finding a mate and getting married that women are considered old maids at 21. But by the same token, engagements made under that intense pressure can also be rather fragile. I myself was engaged no less than five more times before it finally took, which didn't even match my father's record of seven engagements, one marriage.
Of course, by the time I did get married, I had long abandoned the LDS faith, as you might have deduced from the copious alcohol at our Christmas party. Which had somehow gotten me into this tense and uncomfortable conversation.
Bernard was undaunted by my footnotes to his pronouncements. Unfazed, he addressed the group at large, unsteady on his feet. "You know what else I found out? There was something about a ring, this ringmade out of wrapping paper?"
I looked around the group again. "Foil," I said. "It was the foil wrapper from a stick of chewing gum."
I was nineteen, had never lived away from home, and was about to embark on a two-year experiment in poverty. No way I could afford a real ring. So when I got down on one knee in front of Katrina in that airport departure lounge, I pulled out a foil gum wrapper folded twice lengthwise, wrapped it around her ring finger to size it, tore off the excess length, and fastened the ends together with a piece of Scotch tape I had stuck to the ATM card in my wallet. Voila! Instant engagement ring.
Of course, it was worth about as much as I'd paid for the gum. I came home two years later only to have Katrina tell me that she'd met someone else while I was away. (That ended up being her first husband, whom I'll call . . . Jerkface.)
"Yeah, yeah, that was it," said Bernard, wagging a finger at me. "A gum wrapper. And you know what else?" He leaned in close enough for me to gag on his breath, but without lowering his voice any. "She still has it. She still has that ring."
I was stunned, completely stunned, but I tried not to let it show as I delivered my verbal judo flip, my coup de grâce.
"That's nothing, Bernard," I said, patting him on the shoulder. "I still have the gum."
For a second there, Bernard looked like he believed me. Then everyone laughed good-naturedly, and he did too. The situation was defused. Bernard wandered peacefully away in search of other entertainment.
"You really dodged a bullet there, pal," Bob told me.
As I watched poor Bernard drift around the party showing people his stomach tattoo, I realized that I probably had. Back in 1988, that is, when Katrina broke up with me.