Recently, I was thinking about embarrassing stories. You know, like the ones you used to read in Seventeen and YM. “My tampons fell out of my purse and I got pit stains from explaining it to my crush who then told me I’d had spinach in my teeth the whole time.” Those kind of stories.
Little known fact, YM was my first publication. As a young teen, I used to go to Chapters every Friday and read it for free while my mom worked on lesson plans at Starbucks. At thirteen, I cared about three things: bangs, boys, and butterfly clips. YM reported on all of these.
The embarrassing stories were my favourite section. They were a testament to junior high survival. They taught me what it was like to cough into someone’s mouth while kissing. They taught me all the ways snot could show up like a trickster god to ruin your pubescent life. Reading these stories was the most exciting part of my week, which says nothing, because the second most exciting part was playing Microsoft pinball.
I wanted to submit my own embarrassing story. Problem: I had never coughed in someone’s mouth. I avoided public speaking, and I’d been lucky not to soil myself lately. Though my behaviour was rife with built-in embarrassments, I lacked the awareness to see them as such. I did not tell YM that my bangs were styled in such a perfect barrel wave that Point Break could have been filmed in them. I did not submit the list I’d made of things I wanted most in the world, which included “shimmery blue gloves” and “an Oscar.”
Instead, I drew inspiration from a fashion camp I’d attended the previous summer. I owned three happy-face t-shirts from Claire’s, so of course I wanted to be a fashion designer. At this week-long camp, I’d “designed” a 60s-inspired “outfit” that was basically just a puff of yellow fur attached to a pea-coloured sack. Woodstock. At the end of the camp, we all wore our outfits in a mock fashion show. The made-up story I submitted to YM (I had no moral qualms at that time about fabricating it) went something like this:
I went to a summer fashion camp where we designed our own outfits. At the end of camp, we all wore the outfits in a fashion show. All my friends were in the audience. Even my crush was there. My outfit was a halter-top with beaded straps. As I walked down the runway, the straps snapped, and I flashed the whole audience! I tried to run off stage, but I slipped on the beads and sailed into the crowd. I landed on my crush and threw up all over him.
They printed everything but the vomit.
Why don’t I hear stories like this anymore? Do adults lose their capacity for this particular breed of over-the-top embarrassment? Maybe we’re all desensitized by the constant, small-league embarrassments of workplace screw-ups and linty pants. I remember when people used to swap embarrassing stories at parties, feeling secretive and risqué. I went to a party recently and talked about life insurance. Is that the embarrassing story in and of itself? I miss sitting in giggly circles and hearing who farted in front of the hot Blockbuster cashier.
I was thinking about all this a couple weeks ago, and then I went to Winterstart with some friends. Winterstart is a 5-mile night run in Banff. I go every year with my husband and our pals, who are casually athletic in an “of course I own a foam roller“ kind of way. I never participate in the actual run, but I do cheer from the sidelines and leech onto the after-party, which is held in an underground parkade.
The parkade offers free beer for runners, but lately the organizers have been cracking down on free beer for leeches. And it’s not much fun to hang out in a parkade sober, so a couple friends and I decided to sneak beer in.
Walking into the venue, I felt self-conscious. I’d tried to raise my hood as we left the hotel, forgetting there was a can of Molson Canadian inside. My secret had whacked me on the neck. Now, I tried to move naturally, hyperaware of the cans in each pocket. I have an inborn fear of rule-breaking that was condensing in my armpits. I was Homer Simpson, hoarding candy in a custom-made coat. I was Ocean’s Eleven.
I made it across the parkade and slunk into the protection of my friends. The mood was celebratory. They’d all just run a run! There was a security guard sitting about 3 metres away, but I felt at ease among my sweaty comrades. I settled into a folding chair.
That’s when I heard the clunk.
Thinking little of it, I reached toward my pocket to retrieve my contraband beer.
The pocket was empty.
With horror, I turned around. The can was rolling across the parkade floor, as if in slow motion. It made a graceful turn, slowed to a crawl, gave me a can’s version of a saucy wink, and then landed right in front of the security guard.
The guard stood. He walked over to my contraband beer and picked it up. We made charged, knowing eye contact. Then he walked over slowly, very slowly, and handed me back the beer.
And then I vomited.
But I did blush so hard that my face lit up the night sky, like that scene in Hocus Pocus where they open the devil’s book. I blushed so hard that it generated a whole football team of teenage poltergeists who screamed “Touchdown! Touchdown!”
It was mortifying. It was electric. It was strangely delightful. I was filled with sensory nostalgia and unfiltered shame.
I had seen the proverbial unicorn, and I’d coughed right into its mouth.