Once, I ate someone else’s sandwich at work.
Well, I didn’t exactly eat it. I took a bite out of it and put it back—which, as I found out, is much, much worse.
I was a brown-bag newbie. After years of eating $11 New York salads, I’d decided to bring my own lunch to work. The combination of my years of dieting, fear of condiments and a palate better suited for an 80-year-old led to my first office sandwich of 99-percent-fat-free turkey breast between two slices of whole wheat bread. I stuffed my Ziplocked sandwich into our packed office refrigerator and hoped I was following proper kitchen code, careful to avoid our manager Henry’s ongoing list of office offenses.
Three hours later, I collected my lunch, bit into the sandwich and there it was— mustard! Its smell, texture and color—I don’t do yellow foods—puts it at the top of my "do not eat" list. I stared at the sandwich, so clearly not my own, scarred with my delicate teeth marks. Panicking, I shoved the remains back into the baggie, and quickly went over my options. I could replace the victim’s sandwich with my own, but I wasn’t sure how many people would appreciate its stark simplicity. And what if the victim thought I did it on purpose? I needed a plan B.
Grabbing a plastic knife, I pulled out the deformed sandwich, cut off the bite marks and put it back in the baggie. I tore out a piece of paper and started writing my first sandwich apology note.
"What are you doing now? We have to go, we’re late already," Shelly, my boss, said, standing in my doorway, waiting for me to accompany her to a meeting.
"Would you start this note with, ‘Dear Unknown Eater’ or a more casual ‘Hi there’?" I asked.
"You’re going to put a half-eaten sandwich back in the refrigerator with a note in it? Do you think that’s really a good idea?" she asked gently, implying it wasn’t.
"Yes, so they know that somebody didn’t just swipe their lunch. I’m including directions to collect 10 bucks for a new one," I said, convinced it was the best course of action.
"Dear (Former) Sandwich Owner:
I took a bite of your sandwich. I am so sorry! I had no idea it wasn’t mine until it was too late. You can eat my sandwich, except it doesn’t really have anything in it except turkey. I’m out of the office but Michelle in Shelly’s office has $10 for you to pick up for a new sandwich. Signed, Danielle Gelfand."
I popped it into the baggie and put it back in the fridge.
We barely made the meeting, which was in full swing when we arrived. But all I could think about was the sandwich, so I slipped out to call the office.
"Michelle, it’s me. Any word?" I whispered into the phone, politely nodding my head as people shuffled past me into the conference room.
"Nothing yet." "Really? But it’s way after lunchtime.
Shouldn’t someone have noticed by now? Can you go and see if the sandwich is there?" "Sure. What am I supposed to do after that?"
"Just call me back," I said, feeling frantic.
"What are you doing?" interrupted Banks, a major executive who works with my company. A former lawyer with the frame of a football player, Banks has an authoritative yet kind way about him, like a real-life Judge Joe Brown.
"I took a bite out of somebody else’s sandwich by mistake and I put it back in the refrigerator with an apology note and directions to get money from Michelle and it’s been 46 minutes but no one’s taken it yet."
I stared desperately at Banks, waiting for some sign of approval.
"Sometimes it’s better to walk away," Banks said firmly, doing just that.
"You’d walk away? But you went to Harvard!" I called after him. I was stunned that Banks, one of the most honest people I knew, would turn his back on a sandwich. It seemed so wrong. But if Banks wouldn’t leave a note, well, maybe I shouldn’t have either.
"I think you need to let go," Banks turned and said.
"Just give me one more hour. I need to see if anybody claims it."
Sixty-one excruciating minutes later, I called Michelle at the office. I could tell she was getting slightly annoyed. We didn’t exchange small talk.
"Still there," she said. The news deflated me. Like many other things in my life, there was no resolution. The owner’s identity didn’t matter, but the "not knowing" was making me anxious. Or was I feeling guilt? Did the sandwich represent something bigger in my life? I was tired of trying to figure it out.
Screw the sandwich. "Michelle, will you throw it out?" I asked, somberly, as I ducked out of the meeting and went to grab a salad.