June 20, 2002
Command Performance

miles to go: 1,278.97

"Now that JoAnne is back from vacation," says Scott the General Manager, "how about if you and I go out to lunch today? Just the two of us?" And he gives me a bright, happy, expectant look.

Oh god.

Aside from the fact that my lunch hour is the only writing time I have these days (and is therefore more sacred than a new People Magazine, Matt Lauer in a kilt and the final Tribal Council, put together) ... aside from the fact that I'm trying to be strong and virtuous and stick to my eating plan this week (see: last week's Chocolate Chip Mint Oreo *extravaganza*) ...

... aside from the fact that lunch in a public place will make it tough to visit the ladies room every 10.8 minutes (Has Mother Nature snapped out of her coma yet?) ...

... I just plain don't WANT to have lunch with Scott today.

It's nothing personal. Scott is a really, really nice guy. He's so nice, in fact, you just know he was probably voted Most Popular in his high school graduating class. (Or "Prettiest Smile," or "Friendliest Jock," or "Most Likely To Grow Up And Become A Really, Really Nice Guy.") Even so, I know what he's up to. He isn't fooling me a bit, with his dimples and his You deserve a break today demeanor. This isn't about "treating" me or "rewarding" me or "recognizing" what a faboo job I did while JoAnne was on vacation. The fact is that I sank to new lows of public malfunction and personal disgrace last week, thanks to Mother Nature, that sick, twisted bitch, plus a couple of unscheduled computer system meltdowns.

And Scott knows it.

No ... this lunch will more likely be about interrogation ("Did JoAnne actually SAY you shouldn't assign project numbers?") or bad news ("Guess what! We've decided to move your desk into the KITCHEN!") or abject personal humiliation ("We'd like you to be more sociable, Secra. Can we sign you up for the company dodge ball team?") I've endured enough of these command performance manager/employee lunches in my lifetime to know that they're almost never a good thing. It's sort of like being called to the assistant vice principal's office: one of you is going to walk out of that room in tears,  and it's probably NOT going to be the assistant vice principal. I am absolutely not going to lunch with Scott today, under any circumstances, and that's final.

"Great!" I reply, beaming cutely. "I'll look forward to it!"

I spend the rest of the morning fretting about our lunch date. What will we talk about? What will we not talk about? What if I dribble Maybelline down the front of my yellow linen blazer?  The good news is that at least I'm able to do my fretting in relative peace, now that JoAnne is back in the office. She's been barricaded in her office with the door closed for most of the morning ... emerging now and again to refill her water bottle or dump something into the overnight, but otherwise remaining behind closed doors. I've tried to leave her alone and allow her time to make the switch from *Vacation Mode* to *Oh-Shidt-My-Vacation-Is-OVER Mode* without a lot of fuss and interruption. Still, with JoAnne onsite, at least, I can relax a little bit. (Read this: if the server blows up again, it's HER migraine.)

Scott appears in front of my desk at 11:30, prompt as a second-choice Prom date. "Ready?" he chirps.

Oh god.

"Ready, willing and hungry!" I reply, beaming cutely.

There is a sort of "first date" awkwardness in the car as we're driving to the restaurant. I half-expect him to ask me who my favorite teacher is, or whether I think we'll win the state track meet next month. Traffic, weather, sports, local politics: we make stiff uncomfortable attempts at them all. Halfway to Jack London Square, I'm starting to sweat behind the ears a little. This is the thing I hate the most about these enforced social situations: mandatory happy-doodle chit-chat. It's so damn much work. I'm saved when we stumble onto a subject we're both critically interested in -- the pending office move to downtown Oakland, and why it's now being delayed until January 2003. (Basically, Armand has vetoed every possible new office space they've presented to him.) The momentum of our mutual interest in the topic carries us all the way to the restaurant and out of the parking garage and into the restaurant.

The next thing I know, I'm sitting at a window table overlooking San Francisco Bay, as a polite young waiter in a tuxedo pours me a goblet of ice water.

OK, I'm thinking. This doesn't completely suck.

Thanks to buckets of willpower -- and a seafood-intensive lunch menu -- I don't overeat. I skip the foccacia bread appetizer,  I stick to ice water instead of my usual Pepsi, I discreetly pull the bacon (and half of the brie) off my chicken club sandwich, I ignore my french fries altogether. It's still more food than I am accustomed to eating in the middle of the afternoon. I'm going to be face-down at the front desk by 3 p.m., drooling into my shirtsleeves ... I just know it. But at least I'm not going to have to subsist on Calistoga and grapes for the rest of the day, in order to make up for a big fancy-pants lunch.

And the lunchtime chit-chat isn't quite the ordeal I thought it would be. It's not "fun," exactly. I would still rather be holed up in the empty CAD cubicle, writing about bicycles and bruschetta on my trusty laptop. But if I had a choice between lunch with Scott and a sharp stick in the eye, I would choose lunch with Scott.

(Probably.)

As it turns out, I end up doing most of the talking. It feels a little bit like an interview, actually: he asks me questions,  and I answer them as articulately and evasively as possible. How did you and your husband meet? ("We belonged to the same social organization."  What sort of writing projects are you working on?  ("I do a lot of writing for the Internet.")  I talk about The Tots. I talk about TicTac. For a long time I talk about bike-riding -- a nice 'safe' topic that has the added bonus of making me look like a jockette in Scott's eyes. I have no idea how interesting any of this stuff is to him, frankly.  But at least I don't put him to sleep over his bowl of jambalaya. And a couple of times I actually make him laugh out loud.  Still, I never forget for a moment that this is a command performance. I'm aware that in spite of the groovy view and the great food and the mostly-non-threatening conversation, I am almost certainly being "evaluated" for signs of job dissatisfaction and/or impending nervous collapse ... and that everything I say is likely to be repeated, and disseminated, and eventually included in my permanent employee file. (So I hold off on mentioning my overdue period or bragging much about my new Diarist Award.)

The drive back to The Dirt Company, after lunch, is more subdued than the drive to the restaurant. It's almost as though we've exhausted every available *conversation molecule* -- plus we're both stuffed full of expensive food -- and now we're giving each other permission to be quiet and relax and gear up for the rest of the afternoon. (Either that, or else I've sent him into a wide-awake-coma with my Iron Horse Trail stories.)

When we get back to the office, I thank Scott for lunch. 

"We'll have to do it more often!" he says.

"Hey! I'll always take a free lunch!" I reply, beaming cutely.

I feel a massive sense of relief, not only because lunch wasn't the complete horror I expected it to be ... but also because, with any luck, I've now met my quota of command performance lunches for the next little while. I understand that lunch with management goes with the territory. It's another one of those obligatory things -- like the annual Christmas party, or annual performance reviews, or ugly company T-shirts -- that you've got to pretend to enjoy if you want to be considered a *team player.* (And if you do actually wind up kinda/sorta enjoying yourself, like I did today? Well ... that's just brie on your chicken sandwich.)

After Scott goes back to his office, I settle into my desk and check my voicemail. I have one message, and it's from Armand. Our CEO rarely leaves me voicemail, so I sit up and pay attention.

"Hello Sssssecra," he says, in his silky Continental accent. "I will be in the Oakland office to-morrow for a meeting. If the meeting iss over in time, perhaps you and I can ssstep out and get a bite. What do you sssay?"

Oh god.


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