The fault lies at the feet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum.

I’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. My entire life, I assumed, my breath was fairly benign. Thanks to face masks, I now know my breath resembles a hot cup of coffee dumped into garbage.

I was on my weekly Whole Foods run when it happened. I slipped on my mask, and before doing so, slipped in a piece of Juicy Fruit. Who still chews Juicy Fruit gum? you might be wondering. Apparently, my parents. The last time we visited, I rummaged through their fridge and cupboards like a teenager. I found one of those small 5 packs and put it in my purse while munching on the last slice of my mom’s deli ham.

I’m not sure you remember, because I think we all stopped chewing Juicy Fruit after the age of eight, but Juicy Fruit is so juicy, it’s ridiculous. It’s almost alarming how much saliva it generates.

And herein lies the problem.

I can’t tell you what I was doing when it happened, but I remember where I was – near the sad, out of season strawberries.

Smacking away like an idiot, my Juicy fruit juice did the unthinkable—it went down the wrong pipe.

I remember reading a tweet at the beginning of lockdown that said, “I used to cough to hide my farts, now I fart to hide my cough.” And I must admit, it nearly came down to this. Sadly, I was way too panicked to strategically fart. Honestly, I think farting on cue as if you’ve been holding it all day for such an occasion is a guy thing. As you all know by now, mine typically take me by surprise.

Juicy fruit juice going down the wrong pipe is serious business. It put me into a full body cough convulsion. These days, one cough in public will make a gentle librarian murder you with eye darts. So what happens to people who let out a cough that sounds like choking, drowning and vomiting all the same time? I wasn’t about to find out.

I sprinted. Like a wild-eyed contestant on Super Market Sweep, I held my precious cough while desperately searching for an empty aisle. Food or drink going down the wrong pipe in public before 2020 was humiliating enough. The scene one makes is truly astounding. The whole room stops while the person coughs and convulses and clears their throat and gasps for air. And it gets worse as the cougher tries to tamp it down. The more they resist, the more they burst. Crying and snotting and coughing making pukey sounds, waving people off, while losing all their eye makeup. It’s horrendous! It’s as if your life is in danger, except you’re totally fine. Your friend pounds your back. If you’re at a restaurant, the woman at the table next to you asks if she should call 911. The server comes running and looks like she might cry because no one trained her for this!!! Choking, yes! Wrong pipe? NO!

Finally, FINALLY, things start to calm down, and as you blow your nose and sip your water and assure everyone you’re fine, there’s an awkward silence because your friends forgot what they were talking about. Then you cough a little bit more for good measure.

“Seriously, I’m good,” you say, straining. “Just gotta, AHEM, get this out, AHEM AHEM GAG GAG COUGH AHEM. Anyway … what were you saying?”

But in 2020, shopping alone, at a grocery store? My wrong pipe fiasco was my worst case scenario. Juicy Fruit spittle might as well have been a huge piece of steak, the way my body was (over)reacting. A woman turned into my aisle, froze, then decided she really didn’t need tea that bad. Then someone else turned in who really did need tea and wouldn’t quit easily. She just stopped and stared at me with mild disgust. But there was nothing I could do! I coughed and yacked in my mask, with my head ducked into the neck of my shirt, like a turtle. More people turned in the aisle, then turned out. And I just kept hacking and hacking and hacking, so loud! So indiscreet! I needed a new aisle, mine was getting too congested and judgmental, so I went searching for others. Part of me wanted to just whip my arm out and clear off shelves as a distraction. Why can’t I fart on purpose LIKE A MAN!?

I eventually made my way into a bathroom where I really let loose. A woman sat in a stall, let’s face it, processing both concern for my well-being and judgement that I dared to be in public in the first place. She never left the stall, just waited me out, until I finally, FINALLY, stopped cough/heave/convulsing.

As I emerged from the bathroom both red faced and now make-up free, I noticed one of the Amazon shoppers eyeing me down.

“The wrong pipe,” I said, coarsely. “I swear, the Juicy Fruit juice went down the wrong pipe.”

“They still make that gum?” she asked.

“They do,” I said with a warning. “It’s delicious, but dangerous.”

She nodded. I cleared my throat. Then someone sneezed. We both froze and looked around.

A man was off to the side of us, perusing the fresh bread, letting off a couple sneezes into his mask. The Amazon shopper and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes.

Some people can be so rude.