This morning, my father saw me packing my lunch.
“You don’t always have to bring lunch, Betty,” he said.
“I like bringing lunch.”
“Yes, it’s all very economical and all that, but you ought to be social. You should eat with your coworkers occasionally.”
I zipped up my baby pink lunch bag (my mother got it for free at a Chinese school conference) and pondered whether I should get going or stay and explain to my father that my coworkers weren’t exactly the type of people I’d eat lunch with.
I decided to play patience, a game I’m especially terrible at, especially with my father.
“Dad,” I said, “I don’t eat lunch with my coworkers because we don’t have that kind of relationship.”
This brought back memories of elementary through high school, when your closest friends (presumably) were those with whom you ate lunch. It’s not that the men and women here aren’t nice – they are: they smile and wave and managed not to confuse me too badly with the other Asian Betty, who referred me to the position. In return, I learned their names in a week (strangely, more than half of their names begin with J) and say “good morning” and “goodbye.” They are kind, but they are older. The women range from late thirties to early fifties, and the men too. They talk about kids, doctors, mattresses and garage door companies. They bring their lunch sometimes too, but in the form of salads, microwaveable diet boxes, leftovers that they made last night, rather than leftovers their mothers made. They are mothers now.
Before, I prided myself on being able to talk to anyone. And I still am, but my “office” is a converted conference room with a magnificent echo, the result of an entire ceiling of fluorescent lights. There is a long wooden table upon which heavy black monitors and computers have been set up, each bearing an intern’s email address (we’re quite official here, save for our status). But as I wait for the other two interns to graduate (this June), I come and work alone in this chilly back room. J1 walked in yesterday with that expression of his – as though he had been concentrating on squashing a bug or chasing a rabbit when his mother suddenly called him in for dinner, wiping his hands on his shirt as though they had mud on them. He stood in the doorway, looking up, down, then at me. “It’s like a sanitarium in here,” he said. I laughed, suddenly aware of how hollow the sound was. Then like a lost patient, he wandered back out.
I can hear the men and women talking in their cubicles at the building’s center – the corporate heart, if you will – though in the mornings, they too, are silent. After lunch their bellies and bodies are warmed up and they are sleepy. Anything to fight that mid-afternoon slump! That’s when the conversations begin. In my first week I was stationed outside in an empty cubicle. I kept my head down, not intentionally, but that is the nature of the cubicle. To see anyone, unless they hover over the wall, you must stand up. But I sat, pretending to read the same emails over and over again, my fingers scrolling up and down outdated messages and listened. I listened to their conversations and learned how relationships are built here. Slowly, with tidbits and dribbles. You ask me for a pen. I ask you for your weekend plans. You walk by and wave. I nod, say hello, smile, paving the road for future waves and hellos and nods and smiles. You compliment my skirt. I tell you where I shop. I stretch in my chair. I groan. You say, “Oh I have that same issue with my back.” Referrals for local chiropractors ensue.
They eat together because they have worked together for years, decades. And slowly, if you are observant (or if like me you have very little to do), you can begin to tie invisible strings around the people who get along and acknowledge those who don’t. Or more importantly identify the people that rub you the wrong way. (In the running: an intern in HR who didn’t know who Jane Austen was.) The women all seem to get along, though only two of them eat lunch together on a regular basis, sharing a large can of soup and a salad – the eternal office lady diet. The men are both new hires and have yet to hunker down and share a meal – they drive out to buy Subway, Carl’s, Jack, then bring it back to their cubicles. When you walk by, you can smell the food. When you look down, you can see their thinning hair. Paradoxical shoulders: meaty, but somehow weak and slumped. Too much sodium, I think.
The men and women I described are on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder. Apparently the rungs above them broke off long ago – especially for the women, who seem to have been “promoted” horizontally rather than vertically (as an intern, I am mildly concerned about where this leaves me) – but a few rungs ahead, near the top (the top rungs are in another country), there are some lonely engineers and elusive businessmen. They are too used to the loneliness and quiet of their own sanitariums to come out and eat lunch together. Too used to the business side of things to come in to the office at all and deal with the paperwork or the people work.
And then there is me. The new intern, slowly becoming an old intern, slowly becoming accustomed to eating along, working alone, being alone. But that’s just the attitude I adopt when I’m in the sanitarium. I get up often, use the bathroom. Stare at myself in the mirror. Ask myself, “What am I doing here?” Dry my hands. Open the door. Pour myself some warm water from the Sparkletts tower into a mug that changes pictures once it heats up. When it’s cold, you see a desk piled with messy papers and behind them, a harried, frenzied woman. Behind her, a menacing computer screen blinks “work! Work! Work!” But when filled with hot liquid (coffee, presumably), the woman’s frazzled look melts away and she is sitting straight up at a neat desk with fresh flowers, the computer screen blinking nothing but a smile. I feel neither like the woman on the hot mug nor the woman on the cold. I find little to identify with in my coworkers. But it’s not alienation I’m feeling. What is it?
Either way, or neither way, when the clock hits 12:30 (I stagger my lunch time with theirs), I clock out. I sit at the table outside with the strangely out of place vacation-themed Tommy Bahama umbrella and eat my lunch. They ground me to my work, that table and that umbrella. Thinking ahead, I know I’ll miss them.