WE WERE discussing the desperate struggle for freedom in Central America, when the coffee pot finally arrived.
"You simply can't imagine the level of repression in El Salvador," sang our hostess, as she poured the steaming decaf into our cups. "Why, the people down there are almost afraid to breathe!"
Nodding, we moaned sympathy.
"It's a classic example of a vicious police state!"
Groaning, we did our best to picture the horror of it.
"Down there, police informers watch every single citizen, night and . . . "
Then she gasped. Her mouth fell open. With a dreadful shock, I realized she was pointing directly at me.
Horrified, I followed her gaze down to my right hand.
"What's that?" cried our hostess, with raw terror swirling in her face. "What's that?"
I felt a convulsive shudder go through the diners as they saw what I held.
There was no way out. They had me. So I took a deep breath, and then I blurted the truth: "It's a cigarette!"
The table vibrated with shock. All at once I could feel the other dinner guests leaning away from me, straining every muscle in a last-ditch effort to escape the fatal contaminant before it reached their hearts.
"It's . . . it's just a Newport," I stammered now, in a pathetic attempt to minimize my crime. But it was no good: My doomed voice echoed in my own ears like a leper's bell. Despairingly, I waved the little tobacco tube at them: "Really, guys -- it's just a smoke."
L A chair clattered suddenly, as one of the diners bailed out.
Would no one assist me? Anguished, I looked to my hostess -- and confronted a stone-carved mask. "I'm very sorry, but I must tell you that this home is designated as smoke-free. You'll have to take that thing out on the front porch."
Somehow, I managed to climb out of my chair. Burning with shame, I crawled away from the indignant diners and limped toward the door. Meanwhile, I could hear them asking themselves: Is he a potential ax-murderer? A closet pederast? The Son of Manson, enslaved forever by R.J. Reynolds?
I closed the door behind me, and sagged against the frame.
It was chilly out there, and drizzling a little, but I didn't mind. With trembling fingers, I touched cigarette to flame. I took a deep drag. Then another. O blessed! The rain fell against my face, as I huffed furiously at my weed.
On the other side of the window, the conversation resumed. Belching smoke like the Magic Dragon, I caught bits and pieces of the talk -- the same talk I'd been hearing all night:
". . . until they finally realize that human beings will sacrifice anything in the struggle for freedom!"
". . . mere children, 10-year-old children, spying on their own parents!"
Oh, why had I come here? Why had I so foolishly agreed to attend a dinner party made up entirely of college English teachers? Shouldn't I have foreseen the kind of evening that lay ahead -- a nightmarishly "liberal-minded" evening that would begin with the hostess booming cheerfully: "How about a drink?"
"You bet!" I had thundered, three agonizing hours before. "What have you got?"
"I've got water!" she'd brayed triumphantly. "I've got four different kinds of water! Do you want soda water, mineral water, tonic water or tap?"
(I chose tap, of course: There is always a chance that urban guerrillas had poured huge amounts of mind-altering drugs into the reservoir.)
But no such luck; before I'd finished half of my tumbler of tap, she'd announced dinner -- a reckless feast of bean sprouts, steamed alfalfa, dandelion fuzz and double-boiled turnip tops.
Nibbling at the various stems and leaves, and with my belly growling, I'd listened to an endless series of horror stories about political repression and human suffering. Hour after hour, I'd sweated blood with the Mexican stoop-laborers and wept among the exploited children in the carpet factories of Egypt . . .
Nightmarish! And now, as I pulled on my Newport in the rain, I was suddenly remembering a writing class I'd taught the semester before.
Hoping to illustrate "comic timing," I'd told my students a harmless joke. "So this drunk stumbles out of a bar, see, and he staggers up to a parking meter, and he drops in a dime. And the needle jumps up to 120.
"So the drunk looks at the needle, see, and then he roars: 'God Awmighty -- I've lost 70 pounds!' "
I waited. But nobody laughed.
The just sat there, poker-faced -- until a frowning young woman in the third row finally raised her hand.
"That's just not funny," she told me. Then, with pious concern dripping from every word: "Alcoholism is a disease, sir."
I stared at them for a moment, and then I bellowed: "You're all turning into the Khmer Rouge!"
Brutal! How long would it be before jokes about drunks -- along with cigarettes -- became crimes against the state?
But I had lingered too long on the porch. Stubbing out the last of my demon-weed, I hid the butt in my shirt pocket and returned to the liberal heartbreak inside the smoke-free home.
Luckily, however, nobody noticed my arrival.
They were all busy deploring some recent animal experiments in Peru, and the living room was thick with their concern.
Tom Nugent teaches journalism at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.