That was not the speech I had expected to hear, and I was so flabbergasted, so shocked, that I had absolutely no idea how to react. Sure, this was a training site, an emotional boot camp, advertised to take spineless ninnies and teach them how to go through the world with vim and vigor, but I wasn't expecting the first day to feel like a drop into some drama-fueled soap opera. This was more overwrought than the mush on the Hallmark Channel, and part of me wanted to apologize to the person who was having to spout such drivel and part of me wanted to laugh and part of me wanted to turn around and leave.
Except apparently a lot of the trainees want to turn around and leave before the five day session is over, because before we loaded onto the minibus we had to fill out waivers and relinquish cell phones, and when we arrived, the doors to the outside were locked. Not that we could have gone anywhere, since we were stranded in a rural field, miles from any road, and I didn't even know where the nearest town might be: the organizers weren't taking any chances. Somehow I had gotten the impression from the brochure that this was going to be a rural retreat center, maybe with a few somewhat tedious Powerpoint sessions on effective negotiating and then break-out groups where we read from scripts -- simple, innocuous things, like asking for a raise, or getting a spouse to help with laundry, maybe working up to a parent-teacher conference at the end of the week.
This was not like that. This was like being dropped into a particularly angst filled telenovela in the middle of an episode about a divorce caused by unfaithful wanderings. I had no idea what I was expected to do or say, and they had neglected to hand out helpful scripts or even give us clues about our roles.
A crash just over my left shoulder caught my attention. I glanced down. There was a shattered vase. Of course there was a shattered vase. Every overwrought scene in every mediocre novel or play ever written has a scene with a shattered vase. I couldn't help it; I started laughing. I knew it was the wrong thing to do, but the entire thing was too ridiculous, too ludicrous, for me to keep a straight face, much less even attempt to respond in kind.
The woman who had thrown the vase, the woman who had so sternly lectured me, was now watching me, enraged. She had white curls that had obviously been set at a salon, and wore a floral dress in a particularly vivid shade of teal, and then I looked at the vase again, and realized it was almost the exact shade of teal as her dress, and I knew it was hopeless.
I crumpled on the floor, almost in hysterics over how absurdly the scene had been scripted.The liability waivers had warned us that our sessions would be recorded, so I knew there was probably at least one camera in the room, and I knew I would probably get a stern lecture, for real, from one of the instructors. I couldn't help it. Every time I thought I had control over the giggles, there would be a shard of the vase, or a glimpse of the teal floral dress, and I would be off again. Finally, I had control of my breathing, enough to say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. They didn't get us scripts or anything, so I don't know what you're accusing me of, or how I'm supposed to negotiate my way out of it."
Her expression didn't change. She was definitely doing a good job of staying in character, and I felt like the worst possible audience for her role, and then I realized how rude I must have seemed, laughing in her face like that. "I'm not laughing at you, it's just, you know, your dress matches the vase and it's too perfectly synchronized."
Apparently my attempt at brute honesty wasn't helping my cause. What more could I say? I scrambled, tried to think of how to engage her in conversation, when I realized she was looking around for something else to throw at me. There weren't that many other options, and I had thought that the vase had missed on purpose, but when she went for a lamp I wondered if she would throw this one more accurately. That possibility worried me.
"You know, don't forget to unplug the lamp before you toss it. Those cords can make the things act like boomerangs, and that happened to one of my friends. Thought she heard an invader in her house, threw the lamp from a side table, and landed right on her foot. She screeched like nobody's business, had to wear an air cast on her foot for a month. So you've gotta be careful."
Maybe if she was distracted, or something, we could have an actual conversation, try to figure out what role I was supposed to be playing. This was feeling less like one of those empowerment conferences and more like a taping of a reality tv show, or one of those murder mystery dinner plays where all of the guests have to figure out who amongst them is the murderer. Now I'll admit that maybe I've caught a few reruns of those reality house shows, and for a while there, it seemed almost every dinner party was a murder mystery dinner party, until I gave up and only accepted invitations if they would promise me that I could be the corpse, and quietly sneak out early.
But I had actually been looking forward to a week of honing my conversational tactics when negotiating, at home and at work. I wanted to learn how to put my foot down, and to do it while still earning the respect of my adversary. I did not quite see how negotiating with absurdly dressed mad women was actually going to help my cause. I definitely didn't see how I could write it off my taxes.
She had put the lamp back down, which I felt was an improvement, but she still hadn't said anything since the opening gambit that left me speechless, and I saw that she was clenching her hands so hard that the knuckles were white. It couldn't be good for her molars, or her heart, for that matter. Then I wondered if she had a heart attack, would I be responsible? Could a person really have a heart attack from anger, or was that all Hollywood? Or would the heart attack just be a part of the acting, as well? The entire thing was pretty confusing.
What I wanted, more than ever before in my life, was a styrofoam cup with bitter watery coffee and a stale cookie and an uncomfortable chair in an over-air conditioned conference room, with a badly designed bullet-pointed list flashing on a screen. I wanted to be able to let my mind wander and figure out what the hell was going on and to try to get some hold on the situation and what was expected of me. That obviously wasn't going to happen, and I had never seen a woman as angry as this woman appeared to be.
I hoped it wasn't whatever I had said about her dress, or that she would lose her job if I wasn't properly trained or something. That seemed unfair. It wasn't her fault I wasn't up to her level of drama, but instead of diffusing the situation, my detachment seemed to be making things much, much worse. Quickly, I scanned my memory, looking for every passionate argument that I'd read or heard, and trying to figure out how to reply with a convincingly straight face. I thought of actors and characters who were famous for losing their tempers, and I thought of the cameras in the corners recording us, and I thought of the doors locked behind me. I was running out of time before the woman decided to throttle me with her hands or bash my head in with an unplugged lamp, so then I thought of every fight I had ever had, with parents or siblings or exes or bosses, and every fight that I had wanted to have but had been forced to hold my tongue.
It wasn't going to work. There was no way I could fight with a white haired woman in a teal floral dress, and I had no idea at all what I could conceivably offer as an apology that might get her to start talking. At that point I didn't really even care if she stayed in character and told me exactly why I was such a lousy excuse for a human being or if she broke character and told me what the hell was going on, I just wanted something other than an angry, silently fuming woman in the room with me.
Then, glancing at the shards of the shattered vase, I saw that there was actually a sideboard against the wall. There were decanters. They might be filled with nothing more intoxicating than water, or they might be filled with something rancid and cheap, but whatever was in them might, just possibly, diffuse the situation. I backed up to the options, not wanting to have my back to a mad woman, then started lifting stoppers and sniffing. It was bourbon, which wasn't really one of my favorites, but it was real, and after my stomach absorbed the first shot, I poured two rather generous glasses, and slowly walked over to the woman.
I knew she might retaliate by throwing it all in my face, but there was just enough of a chance that she might not. I sat. I sipped. She sat. She sipped. She glared at me. I sipped again, gathered my courage. She shrugged, drank some more, settled back in her chair. I should have brought over the bottle. She seemed more relaxed, or at least less angry.
"What the hell is going on in here?" a voice boomed from the doorway. I shrugged, stayed seated. The woman continued to work on her bourbon as the man strode over, right through the shards of the vase. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
He seemed to be talking to both of us. "That is not what I meant. Perfectly straightforward, no translation needed, you heard me right, you knew exactly what I intended, exactly what I said. Things have been like this for a while, now, and it can't go on. I mean it. You knew this was your last chance, and blew it. That's it. End of line. Get out."
I looked at the woman. She looked at me. I shrugged, and finished my bourbon.