It was the tiny Roma granny pulling on my cowboy boots that finally broke me.
Of course, that's not an excuse. Nor is youth, nor loneliness. But when I reveal to you my mortifying disclosure, I'd at least like you to know that those things, plus the bent-over Gypsy crone putting on my fancy black cowboy boots and then doing a gleeful little dance as I watched from the window of my ground floor apartment in Munich, influenced the embarrassing thing I did next.
I skipped out on a phone bill.
Specifically, I was days away from moving back to America after living abroad for the two years, working in my first post-college job. This was before the Internet, so my weekly phone calls home were my most vivid connection to the family I'd blithely left behind, intent on My Big Adventure. Moving to a country where I knew no one proved more challenging than I'd expected, so the phone chats - necessarily staccato, due to the cost of international calls - reminded me that I had a good foundation somewhere, even if I felt adrift some days living overseas.
Over time I settled in just fine, found a circle of friends, found many things to love about life abroad. But eventually I knew I wanted to move back to the states.
So I didn't pay much attention when a young American expat told me that was no way for the national phone authority, to which every consumer was beholden for phone service, to send you the last bill. "If you terminate your contract for the week after you leave, they don't know where to send it," he said, and went on to tell me about friends who had been on the phone for hours, days even, and never saw a bill.
I filed it away somewhere in the small part of my brain not given over to the miles-long checklist of things to do before leaving: sell everything in the apartment but my clothes, quit my job with an anger-prone boss, terminate my lease, decide whether or not to break up with my German boyfriend. When the classified ads I placed in the local paper turned up little interest in my household goods, desperation settled on a tree branch nearby; my landlady was a stout, angry Bavarian woman who scared the bejesus out of me and told me she'd keep my deposit if the place wasn't entirely empty when I left.
But I kept my head down as I packed up my two duffel bags, began offering German friends and later mere acquaintances my bike, my bookshelves, my refrigerator. All the while, the phone sat in the middle of the floor, beckoning me.
Finally, with only 24 hours left before I had to vacate the apartment, I took everything that was left, including a perfectly good pair of cowboy boots that didn't fit into my suitcase, and hurried it all out to the curb. In my pristine, quiet neighborhood, that was probably in violation of at least 37 regulations.
I am not a rule breaker by nature. But living in Germany, where abiding by and enforcing rules is a national pastime, I was frequently seized with a desire to do something really wrong. Once I dumped my stuff on the curb, what was left to stop me? I might just mix up my paper and aluminum recycling now, or cross the street against the light! I glanced out the window just as the large Roma family walked up and began weeding through my treasured belongings, all that remained of my Big Adventure abroad.
And I picked up the phone and called home. Then I moved away, leaving only echoes in the apartment.
Based on my calculations, the phone bill would have been about $25. If you were to put a price on the time I've spent over the past 20 years being mortified about not paying it, it adds up to about $250,000. Such a price for a willful mistake.
When I lecture my children about the importance of being honest, this is the story that plays in my head while I talk. "It's not worth living with the lie," I tell them, and I truly mean it.