A few years ago my former employer sent me to an off-site computer training course. It had been a long time since I was a student, and I was excited about the chance to learn, but the class started significantly earlier than my normal work day so I was only half awake and carrying a to-go bucket of coffee that first morning when I walked into our classroom.
I was one of the first students there and the instructor grinned happily at me and shook my hand, but I pushed past him with the slightest of smiles. Nothing personal, I said with my eyes, I just had to hurry to grab the highly sought after but still open introvert seat: the one in the back corner, farthest from the instructor.
He was a big guy, tall and thick and red-faced but friendly and clearly — unlike me — at home up there in front of a crowd. He was wearing a suit and a tie but didn’t seem too psyched about that, pulling at the tie and at his pants in a way that reminded me uncannily (and quite fondly) of Chris Farley in those old down-by-the-river SNL skits.
I claimed my seat, setting my bag down and draping my coat over the chair. I was about to set my coffee-bucket down in the center of the work station when I saw it. Taped to the computer was a sign; or more specifically a sticky note upon which someone had scribbled “no food or drink please!” with the dot part of the exclamation point a little smiley face. I looked from my coffee-bucket to the sign, and back again, like a sleepy spectator at a morality tennis match. I was a rule follower. More accurately, I was a back corner lurker who didn’t want to attract attention to herself.
BUT I WAS SO TIRED, I rationalized, clinging to my coffee the way my children now cling to their blankies. And surely they weren’t targeting the likes of me, a reasonable minded coffee drinker, with this hastily scribbled sign? And further, could we really even call it a “sign”? Post it notes were not the medium people chose to deliver important rules. God did not have Moses scribble the commandments on a Post it note. For all I knew this was left here by the last person who sat in the introvert seat. Yes! Maybe she had been struggling to stick to her diet and needed a visual reminder, and this post it was more a sad forgotten remnant than a stern warning.
Maybe I should ask the instructor.
“Coffee? Oh yes of course. Drink up, sister!” I imagined the Chris Farley look-alike saying. And then we would clink our mugs together and nod knowingly at each other and be forever fast friends. Except no, because I was really far away from him back in the corner and he either didn’t hear me when I mumbled, “Is this cool?” into my scarf and pointed in the general direction of my coffee bucket or, more likely, he let his complete absence of reaction to me be his (affirmative) answer.
Then these three things happened, in this order and all within the next 30 seconds:
1. I smugly and defiantly sipped my coffee.
2. My new bestie started class.
3. I spilled my coffee.
Oh and it went everywhere, pooling on the desk in front of me and dripping into my lap and down my legs. I looked around the class, panicked, trying to gauge if anyone had seen, but no one was paying attention. I realized that really only my head was visible to them anyway, the rest of my body obstructed from view by the computer monitor I sat behind and the desk it sat on. If I continued to look very, very engaged in the instructor’s lecture, I decided, I could probably clean this up without anyone ever knowing. So I gritted my teeth against the burns on my legs, locked my eyes maniacally onto the instructor, and quick unwrapped my scarf from around my neck so I could use it to sop up the puddles.
When I was done — and without breaking my focus on the instructor, who had started to sweat and look a little uncomfortable like my eyes might bore holes into his forehead — I shoved the wet scarf and the now empty bucket into my bag and settled back into my chair, fully prepared to never acknowledge that this had even happened to anyone, ever.
And then I realized my keyboard wasn’t working right. In fact, it wasn’t working at all, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to get it to respond to my violent finger-stabbing. The instructor saw me struggling and came over, poised for action. “My keyboard seems to have stopped working,” I explained, throwing my hands up lamely.
It all happened so fast after that. I must have blinked, and when my eyes opened he had dropped onto the floor and crawled under the desk by my legs. For one very confusing moment I remembered how I used to have a boyfriend in middle school who sometimes would sit under the lunch table and hold my legs while I ate, and I wondered if the instructor had taken my unwavering eye contact as something more than it really had been.
“What are you doing there, buddy?” I bent and whispered to him. No sense embarrassing the sweet guy. After all, I had been the one staring.
“I’m checking your keyboard connections,” he answered, but it was muffled because he was under a desk and turned away from me, which also meant that when I had bent down to whisper to him I had basically put my face directly into the good six inches of butt crack that was now exposed and at my eye level. A little involuntary noise of alarm snorted out of me and my rolling chair shot backwards into the wall behind me, taking me with it. I straightened up just in time for the back of my head to make contact with the wall.
“Hey, are you wearing scented lotion?” He asked from under the desk. “I like it. It smells a little like coffee, right?”
Everyone was staring. I rubbed my head and contemplated bursting into tears, but then with some grunts and a lot of pants and tie adjusting, he emerged from under the desk, his face as red as a tomato and sweat now dripping from the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, everything looks good down there,” he said, shrugging. I considered taking this as a leg compliment, although clearly it was not. “I don’t know. I’m just gonna have to swap this keyboard out with a new one.” He swept my (now disconnected) keyboard up from the desk, and as he turned to walk back towards the front of the room it tilted just a little and coffee started to pour of it and onto the floor.
He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at the growing brown puddle on the floor.
The entire class, actually, stared at the brown puddle on the floor.
“Is that…?” he trailed off.
“Coffee, maybe?” I offered quickly, before someone could suggest something else brown but worse.
He rubbed the back of his head the same way I had a few seconds prior and looked back at me, the keyboard in his hand still dripping. “What in the hell?”
I knew this was the defining moment. I could have come clean and owned it. I could have shrugged and explained that it was my first training class and I didn’t know any better and if they really wanted people to follow rules, they probably shouldn’t punctuate them with smiley faces. I should have. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. From the moment he had plunged under my desk and my face had gone into his a** I had known we were too far into this for me ever, ever to admit the truth.
I was paralyzed.
“Humph,” I said, shrinking down in my seat so only my eyebrows were visible over the monitor, “that’s super weird,” which technically, if you think about it, is not exactly a lie because the whole thing really WAS super weird.
And I never made eye contact with him again, not even when he came back a few minutes later with a new keyboard for me, and to his credit, went on to teach a whole weeklong class without ever calling me on what the whole room already knew: that I had been too chicken-sh** to admit to my own rule-breaking truth.
At the close of the week, when he asked if anyone would like to fill out a short survey about his performance, I practically jumped him to grab one. “YES. ME. I would.” I gave him a glowing review. And in it, under the “additional suggestions” section, I wrote: “this man is the picture of dignity. Please consider giving him both a raise and a break on the dress code. I think he would be more comfortable without the tie. Also consider having disposable coffee cups available. With lids.”
It was, truly, the least I could do.
— Liz Petrone
Liz Petrone is a mama, yogi, writer, warrior, wanderer, dreamer, doubter and hot mess. She lives in a creaky old house in Central New York with her ever-patient husband, their four babies and an excitable dog named Boss, and shares her stories on her blog. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.