Possible Breakdown Destinations
Beth Schaefer wrote the words neatly at the top of a fresh yellow legal pad and underlined them with care. She sat back and looked at what she’d written, then drew a second, defiant underscore beneath the first.
Right. On to brainstorming.
Cabo San Lucas, she wrote. She’d never been to Cabo, but she’d heard it was nice, and it sounded relaxing. She left some space, then wrote Baja California beneath it.
Wait, though. Was Baja safe? Her pen hovered over the name, ready to cross it out.
No. You’re brainstorming. No editorializing. She left Baja sitting boldly on its line, then went on before she could stop herself and wrote
down the page.
Canada? Who went to Canada for their breakdown? She started to cross that off, too, then caught herself and left it. She stunk at brainstorming. And this was the most vanilla list of destinations imaginable. Where was Morocco? Thailand? Samoa? Where was Italy, for that matter?
She glanced at the clock on her computer. Seven-thirty. She needed to get to work. She’d gotten up at five as usual, had worked out in the condo’s gym, and had come into the office at her usual seven-fifteen. Now, the silver streaks against the single window in her tiny office told her that Portland was still Rain Central, the four neatly arrayed, overlapping folders on one corner of her desk told her that her day’s work was still waiting, and everything she’d learned since law school told her that arranging your breakdown wasn’t billable.
Too bad. In a burst of recklessness, she clicked on the countdown timer in the top corner of her computer screen and set it for fifteen minutes. A quarter-hour of breakdown planning. Go.
She wrote Pros on one side of her pad and Cons on the other, then began to fill them in.
Cabo. Pros: probably cheaper airfare. Presumably affordable accommodation. She went to Google and began to research—her specialty—and quickly realized she should be creating her planning document on the computer. That way, she could copy links into her file for later. On the other hand, how thoroughly did the IT department nose around in the associates’ systems? She’d never known. She’d never had to know. She’d never done anything they’d be interested in checking. She’d never done anything they’d be interested in, period.
First time for everything. She opened a document, named it PBD just to be on the safe side, and got to work. Cabo and Baja: beach. That was a pro. On the other hand: Spanish. She didn’t speak it.
France: expensive. Also: French. England: exchange rate good, English good. Or maybe not good, because learning a new language would be a more productive use of her time. But then: rain. She already had rain. Her breakdown destination was going to be sunny.
New Zealand. That was sunny. Beach, too. Also: English. Oh, wait. It was winter there. She deleted it.
Whoops. Brainstorming fail. What if her breakdown turned into a ski vacation and then a romance with a manly, capable, Kiwi-accented ski instructor who brought her back to life and actually enjoyed performing oral sex?
“Examine the possibilities,” she muttered aloud. She retyped the name, then defiantly deleted it again. She didn’t want winter, and New Zealand men probably weren’t any more convinced that “it was better to give than to receive” than any other guys on the planet. But should she . . .
The timer went off. She stared at her screen, then erased the whole thing, ripped the sheet of paper off the legal pad, and tore it into pieces before dropping it into the wastebasket.
She’d do it tonight, with a glass of wine. She was at work. You did your breakdowns on your own time.
Except she didn’t. Two hours later, she was still staring at her computer screen, totally blanking.
She got up, went to the break room, and got herself a tea. Not a coffee, because she was already so jittery that she was about to blow a fuse. She took it back to her office, tapped a file folder back into place, took a sip of tea, and poised her fingers over the keyboard.
This didn’t happen. Never. Not ever. How could she bill for this? She couldn’t. She was going to have a whole day of non-billable hours, and Simon was going to ask her about it, and she was going to burst into tears, and he was going to say . . .
She was hyperventilating. Stop. This was catastrophizing, and it was the definition of unproductive.
She could barely even feel herself doing it, but somehow, she was standing up and her feet were carrying her toward Simon’s corner office.
The senior partner for Estate Planning didn’t raise his salt-and-pepper head at her knock. “Come in and don’t talk,” he said, his fingers continuing to fly over the keys, exactly the way hers should have been.
She almost turned around and left again, but she didn’t. She walked over and sat down in one of the two chairs across from his desk. And then concentrated on not throwing up.
“Right. Go.” Simon swiveled himself away from his monitor and stared at her over the glasses perched halfway down his aquiline nose. Rumor had it that he didn’t need the glasses, that they were for intimidation use only. But then, rumor also had it that he drank the blood of unsatisfactory associates, and that wasn’t true. Not literally.
“I need a leave,” she said, then put up a hand as if she could recall the words and stuff them back into her mouth.
He didn’t say anything for long seconds, just stared at her, his nearly black eyes boring into hers. Finally, he said, “No no no no no.” Simon never used one word when five would do. “You don’t need a leave. You also don’t need to cut your throat. You need to make partner next year. You’re my star. Go back out there and shine.”
“I can’t. Ever since I lost the case . . .”
“Who cares that you lost the case? I’ll tell you. Your client cares. Nobody else cares. Everybody else has forgotten already. You did your job. The firm got paid. You didn’t lose it on preparation. You didn’t lose it on presentation. You lost it on interpretation. Judges are crazy. What is this for you, Year One? Year Two?”
“No. Year Six.”
“Right. Year Six. My point. This isn’t your first rodeo. We don’t have a meltdown when we lose. We shake hands with our opponent, chalk it up, and move on toward that partnership. Now go away and get busy.”
“I can’t. I need a leave.”
“Ah. This would be when I’m supposed to counsel you to consult Human Resources if you’re experiencing stress. Or your family physician. Consider yourself counseled, and go back to work.”
She was nodding, telling herself to stand up, but what came out of her mouth was, “I can’t. I’m empty. I need a leave.”
Another black stare. “How many days of accrued vacation do you have?”
He didn’t ask her how she knew or if she was sure. He knew she knew.
“Oh, wait,” she said. “Oh. I should have said I need to take vacation. Urgently, because I, uh . . . for health reasons.” Why hadn’t she said that? Where was her judgment? It was like it had flown away over Puget Sound. Just . . . gone.
“No,” Simon said.
“I need to. I do.”
“No. You also don’t need to stick a sign on your back saying, ‘Tightly wound.’ Another sign.”
She flinched. The note had been there in her last performance review, along with “Exceptional diligence,” “Outstanding attention to detail,” and “Superior writing ability.” She said, “But I . . .”
Simon waved her down. “Who cares. You’re tightly wound, I’m tightly wound. We’re all tightly wound. If it wasn’t for coffee, I wouldn’t be functional. And your mother is very, very . . .” He made come-to-me motions with one lean hand.
“Uh . . . Interfering? Overinvolved?”
A shake of the head. “Work with me.” The hand again. “Very, very . . .”
“S-sick? My mother is very sick?”
He nodded like an owner whose dog had just performed the trick where she held the treat on her nose. “And you need to take . . .”
“ . . . some time off to be with her?”
“But the Family and Medical Leave Act isn’t necessary because . . .”
“Because I don’t have to care for her. I just need to spend some vacation time with her, because we don’t know how long she has.”
Simon nodded twice. The dog had held the treat on her nose a good long time now. “And we hope you won’t need to ask for any FMLA time, unless she’s . . .”
“. . . hospitalized.” What was she saying?
“Very good.” Simon actually pushed his glasses up, a rare sign of favor. The dog got to eat the cookie. “Now either go away and work or go away and send me an email telling me about your mother. I prefer the work option.”
“My poor mother, though. It’s like I’m dooming her.”
“I didn’t hear that,” Simon said. “I heard, ‘I’m taking some days off and coming back ready to bust my butt to make partner next year.’ And don’t think this actually means you do have to go visit your mother just because you said it. I know you. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s keeping an honesty score. Now go away.”